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Last Things First – Gayraud Wilmore

July 15, 2013

LTFDid Jesus believe in the end times or is this just a metaphor, realised eschatology? Or is the reign of God something we have to work for through political activity?

For those of us who are not well-versed in the various beliefs about the end times, mainly because we do not believe in them, the author sets out their various stalls: Dispensationalists are literalists—most of the time. All of the prophecies of the Bible either have been fulfilled as written or will be fulfilled in the future. The fact, however, that dispensationalists disagree about the num­ber of periods, the chronology of eschatological events, and which passages should be interpreted literally and which spiritually, raises some questions about the valid­ity of their method. The principle of dispensational interpretation is that even if the Bible contains symbols and figures of speech—such as in the apocalyptic texts above—one must always search for the literal meaning behind what is written…..Because, the fundamentalist ego needs to be at war with the world and is unsupported by the present culture, says Pattison, ego gratification is emotionally tied to the future. Thus the debate over the millennium becomes more a question of personal surviv­al than theological argumentation. It becomes a “fight for life.”

Postmillennialism originated after Christianity be­came the religion of the Roman Empire and includes the approach of most scholars of the mainline liberal denom­inations. The millennium does not necessarily mean a thousand years. …. it has already begun. Christ will return after its comple­tion. In the meantime the church must preach the gospel to all nations and help to extend the Kingdom of which it is a foretaste. Postmillennialism is optimistic about this mission and the gradual unfolding of God’s purposes in the world. All evidences to the contrary notwithstanding, the world is really getting better because Christ rules—even if his rule is hidden from the eyes of unbelievers. When all things are ready he will come again. Then what is symbolically presented to us in apocalyptic, say some postmillennialists, will somehow go into effect in ways that we cannot be absolutely sure about today.

Amillennialism is of more recent vintage. The amillen­ialists discount the necessity of one thousand years or many other time period before or after the Final Coming. What is important is that Christ will come again—with­out the necessary evangelization and betterment of the world by the activity of Christians…. Accordingly, the souls of the righteous have survived in Christ. They are already “resurrected.” And when Christ comes, resurrection, rule, and judgment will have al­ready taken place in a spiritual sense. Those who are in will live with him forever. Those who died without the faith will never live again.

Premillennialism dominated the eschatology of the y church, but it diminished as the Parousia, or Final coming, was delayed and the church became almost indistinguishable from the Roman Empire. It enjoyed a revival in the nineteenth century as a key doctrine of Protestant revivalism. Today it is most popular among the Holiness and Pentecostal churches. As world condi­tions worsen in an age of inflation, revolution, and the threat of atomic holocaust, more and more Christians in the mainline denominations expect a premillennial re­turn of Christ….All prophecies must be literally fulfilled and that can happen, with respect to the nation of Israel, only if Christ reigns as the early king of the Jews in Jerusalem before Satan is loosed for the last time. This eschatology, unlike that of postmillennialism, is starkly pessimistic. Anyone can see, it is argued, that the world continues in its downward moral spiral since the time of Adam. All the frantic social action of the churches to make it better is a waste of energy…. Actually “rapture” is not a biblical term and premillen­nialists differ about this stratospheric suspension of the saints…. It goes without saying that this scenario has terrified people for countless generations. While it has sometimes provoked Christians to revolt against the oppression of an alleged Antichrist, it has also been the source of no little mischief. Impostors have used the catastrophe eschatology of extreme millennial fundamentalism to exploit the naive and defraud the gullible. The leaders of cults and sects obsessed with the imminent destruction of the world and demanding absolute subordination—including the surrender of sex, money, and worldly possessions—have been involved in scandal since false prophets deceived the exiles “for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread” (Ezek. 13:19)…. Binoculars make what is distant appear to be decep­tively near at hand. It is possible to become so enrap­tured before “the rapture” that we assume that the part of the world in which we live—where the church is still in business and everything has a slight Judeo-Christian aroma—is almost heaven. This is a special temptation for American Christians. And if the world seems to slip a little from the pedestal we have erected for it, liberals prop it up with Christian social services and social action programs which deal with surface imperfections rather than the rot underneath.

Socialism holds the key but cannot deliver the fullness of Christian salvation: a problem for Christian laity who want to be politically active, but also want to avoid the simplistic strategies of the Moral Majority which impose religious solutions where secular solutions would be more appro­priate. It may be possible, however, to bring the politics of the world and the politics of the Kingdom together so that the resources of our faith can really make genuine secular decisions without falling into the trap of believ­ing that human action alone can somehow keep the world from reaping the consequences of the evil it continues, despite our best efforts, to sow.

Some accuse the black churches of escapism. The spirituals were the sigh of an oppressed people longing for heaven with this harsh world is over. However, this is not the whole truth. Many saw, in these songs, a longing for emancipation from slavery at a specific time, in this world: The authentic faith of the black folk community brought together this world and the next in a creative tension that produced such sentiments as these expressed in the spirituals:

I’m so busy serving my Jesus,
That I ain’t got time to die.
Marching up the heavenly road …
I’m bound to fight until I die.
Singin’ wid a sword in ma han’, Lord,
Singing’ wid a sword in ma han’,
In ma han’, Lord,
Singin’ wid a sword in my han’.
0 Freedom, 0 Freedom, 0 Freedom over me,
And before I’d be a slave,
I’d be buried in my grave,
And go home to my Lord and be free!

Though: Black Christianity in America has deficiencies. It has suffered from ethnic parochialism, anti-intellectualism, and unrepentant disunity since its inception, and it is not clear that the rising middle-class status of its members will cure these most serious maladies. Many of the classic problems of mainstream white denominations are now showing up in black denominations. – but – Black faith has so far been successful in avoiding some of the more troubling aspects of white Christianity in the United States….. Yet black Christianity, in its traditional form, shares with premillennialism the belief that the visible reign of Christ does not come by social action programs, but rather by catastrophe. It is of the nature of Afro-American spirituality to be suspicious of projects to “erect the Kingdom of God on earth,” even while it provides the motive power for Christian political action—one of its strongest suits. As one black theologian of the 1960s, Nathan Wright, Jr., has pointed out, the object of black religion is not doing good or making the world better, but the experience of the glory of God. Rationalistic, pro­grammatic social action seldom finds enthusiastic sup­port in the black denominations, not because the people and their leaders are politically reactionary or willing to wait for a supernatural transformation of the world, but because black faith is humble and unpretentious about human capabilities.

In any case, are the ‘last things’ really the end? The answer is in the title of the book and is explained thus: One final comment about this: we speak of our high school or college graduation as commencement. It is an odd word for a day when most people are so relieved that school is over and the pressure is off that it is difficult to think about something else “commencing.” But in a profound sense it is a suggestive word for a crucial time of life. The beginning and the end now come together. Commencement is when the mature substance of all we have achieved in the years of preparation is given a new embodiment in the fertile seed of all that we can expect to achieve in the future—fused together in one rite of passage. Something old is over so that something new can begin. What is over is an anticipation of what has not yet begun. That which is beginning is the fruition of that which has been planted and has now yielded its seed. Commencement is a kind of midpoint when the potential of the beginning merges with the possibilities of the end, so we can look back with thanksgiving and forward with hope. The resurrection of Christ was a kind of commence­ment between creation and the end of history.

As with most of the books in this series, there are some good discussion questions at the back but some of these are more about comprehension and for prompting group discussion.

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