So, in a weak moment, I agreed to teach a summer series at church on heaven, hell, and the afterlife. And I’ve covered heaven and hell several times here — so I thought preparation would be a cinch. Then I realized that someone might expect me to know something about the Revelation.
And I’ve never seriously studied the book — not in full. I’ve studied parts of it. But I’ve never actually worked my way through it. And, of course, people will have questions. And opinions. Lots of opinions. And so I figure I should work my way through the Apocalypse.
Now, I do know a few things about it. For example, it’s “Revelation” not “Revelations.” Singular. Every time.
And “apocalypse” doesn’t mean “the disaster that ends the world.” It means “revelation.” That is, it refers to something previously unknown being revealed.
The Jews had a type of literature that we call “apocalyptic,” meaning something like “like the Revelation.” Daniel is particularly noteworthy for its vivid images, and clearly much of the Revelation is based on Daniel’s visions. So when we find a prophecy with vivid images of beasts that represent nations, we want to call it “apocalyptic,” even though all prophecy is revelatory.
And it’s become popular among theologians to describe a particular perspective on Paul, for example, as “apocalyptic,” even though the term often provides more confusion that revelation. I think the theologian is usually saying that Paul is writing from an eschatological perspective (although this is often less than clear).
Actually, I don’t much care for the term “eschatology,” meaning the theology of end times. It sounds too much like “scatology,” which means something else. And it’s one of those words preachers like to drop to show off their education. I try to avoid it, mainly because most people don’t use it or know what it means. But our topic for a little while is all eschatology. But I’ll usually just say “the end times.” Same thing.
So lately N. T. Wright and many other theologians have been teaching us that the NT is very often speaking from an end-times perspective, meaning we are to understand the present through the lens of the future. The future revealed in the Revelation (and many other places in the Bible) informs how we are to live now.
In fact, there’s a fancy term — “inaugurated eschatology” — which is a view of the Bible that is very helpful (although it’s, again, an unnecessarily obscure term). The idea is that the end times have already begun — just not in full. The fullness comes later. Until then, we have the first fruits. A down payment. But it’s all for the purpose of pointing us toward the Consummation — so we can point others the same way.
And this was actually a big deal in my own spiritual journey. For the longest time — even for the first few years of this blog — I didn’t see the point of studying the End Times. People argued, fussed, and split over the Rapture, the Millennium, and such, and who cares about how we get to heaven so long as we get to heaven? But now I know better. The End Times inform how we are to live today.
Oh, and also, I was in law school — maybe later — before I even knew what the “Rapture” is. We never discussed in the church I grew up in. Most of my friends while growing up were either Church of Christ or Baptist. And they didn’t talk about the Rapture. I well remember a law school class where many Christian students challenged the views of our Marxist professor. And they pushed hard for their Rapture theology like it was just as obvious and orthodox as the crucifixion. And so I thought I should look this stuff up. But I didn’t really get it until I reviewed Barbara Rossings’ The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. I caught some serious flack for that one in the comments, and the more people argued against her, the more I found her to make a whole lot of sense.
Studying the End Times tells us not just that bad boys go to hell and good boys go to heaven. Rather, it’s what the End Times tell us about why we’re here. You see, God is pushing history in a particular direction, and us along with it. We can either get on board and serve God or ignore it all. But if we are to be a part of God’s mission, it would really help know what that mission is. And how it all ends pretty much answers that question.
I mean, the behavior of the Allied forced in Europe makes no sense if you don’t know that they were intending to conquer Germany — and to gain control of Berlin especially. Know that, and then you know why the generals fought the Battle of the Bulge despite the casualties they suffered. It was on the road to Berlin. Otherwise, it would have been pretty pointless. The end of the war explains why the war was fought as it was fought.
In other words, without a clear understanding of the End Times, we will often fight the wrong battles in the wrong places for the wrong reasons.
And we do far too much of that.