Oftentimes the word “eschatology” is thought of only in terms of the timeline of Jesus’ return. This is one aspect, but certainly not the full meaning of what eschatology is. “Eschatology” means the study of final or ultimate things. It comes from the word “eschaton,” which means “final event” or “culmination.”
The promise of the gospel is that because of what Jesus accomplished in his life, death and resurrection, ultimately, one day, God will wipe away every tear and sickness and death and all of the effects of the curse of sin will be eradicated forever (Revelation 21:1-4 , among others), and that there will be a new heavens and new Earth, a renewed and restored and redeemed creation in which all things are the way that God designed them to be apart from the curse of sin and death. That is the “eschatological (final/ultimate) hope” of the Bible for those who are “in Christ.”
In this sense, all of Christianity is eschatological, in that it hopes in and looks to a final culmination in which certain things will take place. Conversely, any form of “Christianity” that doesn’t have hold to this eschatological hope is arguably no longer true Christianity.
I have been reading Randy Alcorn’s book, Heaven recently. I picked it up expecting it to be a tedious read full of sentimentality, but I’ve been plesantly surprised. Instead, it presents a systematic theology of heaven, which reveals that this eschatological hope is much more material and physical than many Christians commonly think. If you haven’t read the book, I recommend you check it out.
Many of the problems with how people understand Christianity derive from misunderstandings about this eschaological hope and our place in relation to it today.
The picture the Bible uses to describe this place where we are at in history is: Dawn. Dawn is that in-between time after the first light of morning has broken the darkness of night – but before the sun has crested the horizon and driven out the darkness completely. During the dawn, light and dark are both present at the same time. But the promise of dawn is that the full day will come, it is only a matter of time.
Another picture the Bible uses to help us understand the world and our place in it, in relation to the eschaton, is Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, in which Jesus describes the world as a field in which God planted good seed, but an enemy came in and planted bad seed. The farmer then makes the surprising decision to allow the wheat and the weeds to grow together until the harvest, at which time they will be separated – the wheat brought into the storehouse and the weeds burned. This is a picture of the world we live in, where good and evil are both present, and God is fully committed to eradicating evil, but the day to do so has not yet come, thus these two “kingdoms” currently exist in the world at the same time, and yet the eschatological promise is that the kindgom of darkness and evil will be eradicated at the eschaton. (I recently taught a sermon on this parable. Click here to listen to it.)
An “over-realized eschatology” is when someone expects that the eschatological hope of Christianity is already here and now. They might say, Well, if Jesus has come and the Kingdom has come, then there should no longer be evil in the world, everyone should be healed of sickness, there should be no poverty or suffering, and everything should be the way that God designed it to be NOW, and if you believe well enough, or have enough faith, you will experience it.
This leads to what is sometimes called a “prosperity gospel,” which is best understood as an over-realized eschatology which expects something which will ultimately happen for those who are in Christ to happen right now. One of the problems with it is that it places an incredible burden on people by telling them, “If you’re not healthy and wealthy, it must be because you are doing it wrong.” It fails to take into account the nature of the world and our time and place in God’s plan of redemption, not to mention the sovereignty of God.
Converesely, there is such a thing as an under-realized eschatology. This is one which does not recognize that with the coming of Jesus into the world, the Kingdom of God has come to this world, even if not yet in fullness.
Both over- and under- realized eschatology fails to take hold of the “already, but not yet” nature of our unique place in time: after Jesus’ death and resurrection and before the eschaton – which is illustrated by the picture of dawn and the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.
Here is a good explanation of this principle from John Piper. The whole video is good, but the last part addresses this specifically: