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.