(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)


The word “eschatology” would normally mean something like “the study of last things”. Traditionally it has been treated as a heading either for the classification of such ultimate realities as death, judgment, heaven and hell or for debates over competing millennialist timelines. I find both these approaches unhelpful. Within the frame of my preferred narrative-historical hermeneutic, I would use the word “eschatological” primarily with reference to prophecies of decisive, theologically significant historical events in a foreseeable future. From the perspective of the New Testament this means essentially the two horizons of the Jewish War and the victory of the persecuted church over Roman pagan imperialism.

The point here is that material that has usually been understood to describe end-of-the-world events actually refers to more immediate and more urgent realities. Our problem is that we are trying to make sense of the New Testament while looking down the wrong end of the telescope of history, and we naturally fail to appreciate the intense pressures of historical contingency that shaped the New Testament’s outlook on the future.

This does not exclude, however, a final eschatology, if the tautology may be allowed. I think that there is a third horizon to take account of, though it is only occasionally glimpsed in the New Testament. The final renewal of heaven and earth is the climax to the constant striving throughout the narrative of the people of God to embody and represent in the world the possibility of creation made new. It is preceded by a final judgment and the destruction of everything that corrupted the old world. It ensures that the Creator God and not sin and evil has the final word.