Thinking About the End of the World

I have to confess that I’ve never been terribly interested in eschatology (the study of “last things.”) I remember being anxious about the Second Coming when I was younger, but by the time I was attending Seminary, I found the extended discussion of “signs of the times” and detailed speculations about events described in the book of Revelation to be, quite frankly, boring. The first time you hear that the world is about to end it’s a bit thrilling, but for me at least, it didn’t take much repetition for the excitement to wear off. (The “imminent end of the world” thing also loses a bit of its punch when you realize for just how many years people have been making that claim.) And I found many of the doctrines related to the Second Coming to be so bizarre-sounding that it was difficult to see them as having any significance for my actual life.

Eschatology is still one of the areas of theology which I find less interesting (though I’d still probably put it ahead of ecclesiology, the study of the church, which can be really dry stuff.) However, in the course of my studies, I’ve encountered ways of thinking about the subject which make it seem a bit more relevant and engaging. Eschatology in these approaches isn’t primarily about writing an outline of future history, or of arguing about the details of the end of the world. Rather, eschatology matters because of what it tells us about the present.

Wolfhart Pannenberg is one theologian who puts an interesting spin on eschatology. He argues for retroactive causality–the idea that the future actually in some sense causes the present. This is because what is most real is not our present world, but the eternal kingdom of God. The best way to understand ourselves is therefore through an eschatological lens; if you want to know who you are, you have to look at who you will become. It’s a bit mind-bending, but it’s kind of fun to think about.

Karl Rahner reads eschatological statements as describing the possibilities of present human life. They don’t tell us about the future so much as about the existential situation in which we currently live. In other words, what is important is not some future judgment in which we will be consigned to heaven or hell–what is important is that right now, in this present moment, we are confronted with the choice to opt for or against God.

Sometimes it seems that we approach eschatology as a kind of horror movie, one meant to scare people into repentance. My experience has also been that eschatology has more potential for wild speculation than any other area of theology. (How long in human years is silence in heaven for half an hour? How is the mark of the beast connected to barcodes?) But eschatology becomes much more real and interesting to me when I see its connection to the present. We all live already under both judgment and grace. And perhaps the most terrifying aspect of eschatology is not any future world calamity, but the seriousness of human decision.


  1. I like this way of “thinking about the end of the world” (I, too, usually tune out during the annual “signs of the time” talks). Thanks for this.

  2. I do not think one can strictly distinguish soteriology and ecclesiology nor have any idea what eschatology is all about without an understanding of the relationship between the first two. Too much eschatological discourse is soteriologically superficial where the scriptures are quite explicit.

    For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.

    But unto you that fear my name shall the Son of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall. And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the LORD of hosts. Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments.

    Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

    (Mal 4)

    That is a typical chiasmus:

    Roots = fathers / mothers
    Branches = children / descendants

    What is the curse? Being left without root nor branch, i.e. without place in an eternal (or the eternal) family. The wicked perish because they are left alone, individuals, as ashes, while the righteous are as calves in the stall – receiving the life sustaining nutrients of the gospel according to the order God has established. The Son of righteousness shall arise with healing in his wings, in his right hand and his left, which wings He shall use to reclaim his lost and fallen people into the sheepfold, not only parishes and congregrations, but families and nations according to the heritage of the sons of Adam and the children of Israel:

    When the most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel. For the LORD’S portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.
    (Deut 32:8-9)

  3. Lynnette,
    Interesting post. I begin to roll my eyes when talk of the end begins. A while ago there was an interesting Dialogue article by Dan Erickson which approaches the changing ways this subject has been dealt with in LDS discourse.

    The sparcle of The Book of Revelation and Daniel especially loose their luster when viewed historically; these authors were not discribing our day. ‘John’ was speaking of Rome and ‘Daniel’ was most likely writing retroactively about Israel’s dealings with Antiochus IV, King of Syria.

  4. This is because what is most real is not our present world, but the eternal kingdom of God.

    I sometimes have trouble with ideas like this. I feel like too often Christian theology is overly focused on ascendancy and encourages feelings of detachment or separateness from the earth. Being convinced of the literal end of the earth has the effect in some cases of making people less likely to be concerned for and care for Gaia, for this beautiful planet earth we have in the here and now. If it’s all coming to an end anyway why should I worry about recycling, or decreasing pollution, or if more and more species are becoming extinct? Or in an even more twisted way, “I shouldn’t worry about the environment at all because the destruction of it is bringing the second coming more swiftly, and why would I want to delay the return of Christ?” (yes, I’ve actually heard this one). Are there eschatological theologians that encourage environmental and social responsibility?

    The idea that a study of eschatology can bring us into more focus on the present moment appeals to me. A realization that this earthly life has a time limit helps me to be more grateful for each moment that I have.

  5. Thanks, Seraphine.

    Mark Butler, I agree that eschatology can’t really be understood without soteriology. And I like your observation that the wicked perish because they are alone–it reminded me of another point made by Rahner and others: since the gospel is the good news of salvation, a focus on destruction, damnation, and hell is kind of missing the point of it all. God’s work is to save. Damnation comes from our choice to resist that, not from God’s Plan of Damnation. I find it helpful to keep that in mind in thinking about eschatology so that it doesn’t turn into “The Precise Details of How God is Going to Zap You.”

    Jared, thanks for the link; it’s interesting to see the changing role of millenialism in the church over time.

  6. AmyB, that’s a fabulous point. I completely agree that one of the dangers in focusing on eschatology is that it can lead to a lack of concern with the present–kind of a, why worry about the environment or social justice if God is going to show up and fix it all anyway? I think maintaining an eschatological perspective is important in tempering human utopianism, in countering the kind of Enlightenment notion that we can save ourselves (individually and socially) through the triumph of reason or scientific advancement or whatever else. But that doesn’t mean we should simply give up and retreat from the world; I think ideally an eschatological vision motivates us by giving us a glimpse of what could be, what we’re working toward. As Gustavo Gutierrez (the founder of liberation theology) puts it, it’s our hope for the kingdom of God that gives us the courage to resist present injustice.

    (And for what it’s worth, I’d have a hard time coming up with many recent mainstream theologians who don’t encourage environmental and social responsibility. Pannenberg’s notion that eternity is “more real” is primarily aimed at addressing questions of ontology, and I don’t think is meant at all to devalue the here and now–though I can see how my quite brief summary could raise that concern.)

  7. Jared E.,

    How do you know that John and Daniel and Isaiah were not using current events and context to explicate a future situtation in a concise and understandable way?

    Take this scripture for example:

    Now I am come to make thee understand what shall befall thy people in the latter days: for yet the vision is for many days.

    And when he had spoken such words unto me, I set my face toward the ground, and I became dumb. And, behold, one like the similitude of the sons of men touched my lips: then I opened my mouth, and spake, and said unto him that stood before me, O my lord, by the vision my sorrows are turned upon me, and I have retained no strength.

    For how can the servant of this my lord talk with this my lord? for as for me, straightway there remained no strength in me, neither is there breath left in me.

    Then there came again and touched me one like the appearance of a man, and he strengthened me, And said, O man greatly beloved, fear not: peace be unto thee, be strong, yea, be strong. And when he had spoken unto me, I was strengthened, and said, Let my lord speak; for thou hast strengthened me.
    (Dan 10:14-19)

    Now of course certain scholars are skeptical, because a large percentage of them do not believe in the gift of prophecy and revelation in any case. But it is certainly the doctrine of the Church that such things, especially in Isaiah, do actually refer to the latter days.

  8. Don’t the scriptures give us a way to look at the end of the world that is close to what AmyB describes? If we view the end of the world as the destruction of the wicked(wicked things, not wicked people), I think that fills the bill.

    When we overcome evil in our own lives, we are participating in the process of bringing Zion. That is also part of the end times, and I prefer to think of the “latter days” as a time when we can anticipate wonderful things.

  9. AmyB,

    Though in the scriptures it is “the end of the world”, it is really “the end of this world as we know it”. This earth will be a terrestrial world during the Millennium and will be celestialized after that. So proper care of nature may be seen to be proper care of what will become the celestial kingdom, at least for the heirs of celestial glory from this earth.

    What kind of man or woman cannot be outraged by the carelessness with with which many treat our natural environment? I understand all life to be a creation of God (other than the eternal soul), not a cosmic accident, and we should honor and respect it as such, the same way we honor our own body – a tabernacle or holy temple for the spirit. That is what the earth is for – to provide a sacred place of habitation for both man and beast. It is a temple.

  10. “And perhaps the most terrifying aspect of eschatology is not any future world calamity, but the seriousness of human decision.”

    I particularly like this concluding line, Lynnette. I think that’s an excellent, sobering way to consider our own lives. Salvation and damnation are always, in some sense, here and now.

  11. Mark,
    I am very much aware that it is “the doctrine of the Church that such things, especially in Isaiah, do actually refer to the latter days.” But it is pretty clear, at least in the case of Daniel and especially in the case of Revelation, that the respective authors thought their time was the “latter days”.

  12. This has been a terrific discussion. Thank you all for talking about the end times while using your heads. So many people are still plagued with the old “turn and burn” or fundamental, revival mentality that they fail to see what’s really going on with the Bible’s discussion of the end times. In my church, many of the older people are caught up in the dispensational approach where they watch international news with wide eyes waiting to hear something about Israel that they can use to prove that the end is near. This kind of garbage does more to detract people from Christ and the Gospel than it does actually helping people understand the world we live in. I like George Eldon Ladd’s eschatology. We are already living in the Kingdom of God, but not yet fully. This already-not-yet understanding of scriptures allows us to pay attention to the world we live in, make the most of it now, but also realize that we can experience the Kingdom of Heaven in part because Christ has died, risen, and sent the Holy Spirit. Until he returns, we will never fully enter Heaven. Until then also, we must be faithful as disciples, helping as many people as we can find a lasting relationship with God, taking care of each other and the world we live in in the meantime. On this subject, Barry Callen has written a nice little book called, “Faithful in the Meantime” which is a helpful book on eschatology.


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