Over the next few weeks, before we enter the Advent season, I am going to publish a lecture series I gave at the Saint John’s Anglican Church in Brownwood, Texas. The series has to do with eschatology, a study of last things. There are eight lectures.
Eschatology: Lesson 2
No one comes from a cultural vacuum. We all are socialized into a cultural system, a very complicated and often multi-fragment cultural/relational system that has a powerful influence on our beliefs and values.
Jesus was born into a culture steeped in its covenantal history and mythology. History teaches that those who challenge an established culture’s values and beliefs will be viewed as either heroes or villains.
Concerning the eschatology embedded in the culture and people of Jesus’s day, there was the conservative culture of the Pharisees, Essenes, and some Zealots. Each of these groups had its own ideas about eschatology. And, there was also a Greek-influenced culture (Hellenistic) that was embraced by the Sadducees that mixed the historical-clan-based culture of the Hebrew ancestry with Hellenistic ideas based on Greek philosophy whose views were completely different and at odds with the conservative group.
Hebrew eschatology’s main tenets (Primarily gleaned from the Prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) are the following:
End of the world (before everything as follows). (Hellenists – the ultimate war between good and evil; the conservative traditionalists- the dominance of the Abrahamic covenant- with legalism developed by the rabbinic schools and the Sanhedrin).
Shared in their theologies are these accept these stories; God redeems the Jewish people from the captivity that began during the Babylonian Exile, in a new Exodus. God returns the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. God restores the House of David, and the Temple in Jerusalem God creates a regent from the House of David (i.e. the Jewish Messiah) to lead the Jewish people and the world and usher in an age of justice and peace. All nations recognize that the God of Israel is the only true God
The Pharisees believed God resurrects the dead. God creates a new heaven and a new earth. It is also believed that history will complete itself and the ultimate destination will be reached when all mankind returns to the Garden of Eden.
In these theologies, everything focuses on the descendants of Abraham through Isaac.
The standard Jewish belief was that after one dies, one’s immortal soul joins God in the world to come while one’s body decomposes. At the end of days, God will recompose one’s body, place within it one’s immortal soul, and that person will stand before God in judgment. The idea of a messianic age has a prominent place in Jewish thought and is incorporated as part of the end of days motif. This was perceived as being a key element in the covenant God made with God’s people. This was an aspect of faith to hold and grab tightly. Exile was coming.
Much of this thinking developed during the Babylonian exile as means of overcoming the despair of the present with hope in the future-often a hope encased within the legalism of “an eye for an eye” against oppressors. Out of this thinking came the idea of the Messiah being more of a military redeemer for Judah than a suffering savior for the world. It is not hard to understand this when you take the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah. God has every reason to come as “might makes right,” but God does not.
Then comes Jesus, Jesus who does not dispute the future ending of this world but the goal of that ending. Jesus does not dispute the concept of judgment in a personal eschatology, but upon what is righteousness and upon what foundation will the judgment take place. Jesus shows that, even in last things, the love of God is paramount.
Over and over Jesus stressed a faith relationship righteousness and a servant leadership mindset. Jesus challenged the mindset of a clannish interpretation of the covenant with an open, faith relationship-based community of inclusion and acceptance.
Jesus rejected the Hellenistic idea of a cosmic war of good verse evil, for God could never be beaten and humanity was redeemed from its deception and defeat by the Incarnation, cross, and resurrection. This was the eschatology Jesus taught to the Apostles and disciples. This was the foundational eschatology of the early church.
However, the early followers of Jesus still had to deal with the impact of cultural socialization on their religious beliefs and views. (A primary example is Peter-who ate with Gentile’s forbidden foods but then backtracked and had to be corrected by Paul).
A new covenant had been established by Jesus. This included a new eschatology, that was more personal and process-oriented (moving toward perfection in love and relationship with God) than event-oriented (the end of the world).
The spiritual war that now rages is not good against evil, but humanity against spiritual forces desperate to overcome their defeat on the cross and resurrection. These forces are using tactics of deception, intimidation, and physical elimination to try and negate the process of salvation the divine Trinity had instituted. God has no competitors or challengers to God’s divine sovereignty over all that exists, visible or invisible.
As the Church began to develop into communities through the evangelist work of the Apostles and other disciples, there existed within the church a tension between the expectancy of Jesus’s immediate return and Jesus’s continual exhortation to be patient, watchful, and prepared. The prepared part had to do with the process of becoming a more devoted disciple.
As the church reached out beyond the Jewish community, general eschatology was not what reached the Gentiles, but a message of inclusion, forgiveness, and a personal eschatology amid a culture in which death was very common and open. I do want to put emphasis on the term, “personal eschatology.” I believe it is the most important part element of eschatology.
However, once the communities became established and the founders (the Apostles and first disciples) began to die off, challenges to the teachings handed down to the Apostles from the Lord began to rise as individuals began to try and mix speculative theology and esoteric philosophy in a manner that challenged the “orthdidache” (right teaching) and orthodoxy (right worship).
Most of this teaching (primarily in a group called the Gnostics) viewed eschatology from the viewpoint of a cosmic struggle between good and evil in which only the initiated would prevail. These heretical teachings would downplay the divinity of Jesus, overplay the philosophies and theodicies (expiation of why bad things happen) created for sources other than Scripture, or took Scripture out of context.
Whenever difficulties occur with human communities and cultures that put pressure on one group or another, those in the challenged group tend to look for events to blame. This creates a situation for groupthink. Most event-oriented apocalyptic mindsets are expressions of groupthink. This occurred in the church due to the rise of persecution by the Roman government.
Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a group forms a quick opinion that matches the group consensus, rather than critically evaluating the information. Mass hysteria can be seen as an extreme example of groupthink.
Groupthink seems to occur most often when a respected or persuasive leader is present, inspiring members to agree with his or her opinion (thus the influence of the Gnostics who offered esoteric wisdom). It often takes an even more compelling personality to overcome the groupthink situation.
The church leader most well-known for taking on the Gnostic eschatology that was being promoted was Irenaeus. (130 – c. 202 AD) A Greek bishop noted for his role in guiding and expanding Christian communities in what is now the south of France and, more widely, for the development of Christian theology by combatting heresy and defining orthodoxy.
During the persecution of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor from 161–180, Irenaeus was a priest of the Church of Lyon. The clergy of that city, many of whom were suffering imprisonment for the faith, sent Irenaeus in 177 to Rome with a letter to Pope Eleutherius concerning the heresy Montanism, and that occasion bore emphatic testimony to his merits. While Irenaeus was in Rome, a persecution took place in Lyon. Returning to Gaul, Irenaeus succeeded the martyr Saint Pothinus and became the second Bishop of Lyon
Quote: Irenaeus- stresses unities: the unity of God as creator and savior, in contrast to the Marcionite and Gnostic tendency to see in the world continuing conflict between warring supercosmic forces; the personal unity of Christ, as both the eternal Word, the agent of creation, and a full participant in our fleshly, human life; the unity of every person, as a single composite of spirit and flesh who is called, as such, to salvation through Christ: and the unity and continuity of all human history, which begins in its creation by a loving God, endures the temporary defeat of sin, and is now – thanks to the Incarnation of the Word – drawing near to the lasting union of the human race with God that was history’s goal from the start. P. 28 (The Hope of the Early Church)
Irenaeus returns the church to a primary view of personal eschatology that focuses on the process of spiritual growth leading to unity with the purpose of God.
In our age, with so many social pressures and the influence of postmodern thought that challenges all authority, and the idea/reality of our being in a cultural war with non-Christians have led to a distraction from a personal, process-oriented eschatology and pushed us again into a speculative event oriented general eschatology, one in which God may or may not be a player. I believe this makes us even more open to delusion.