Needed: Christians Thinking Differently About the Future

We could see in the coming years the emergence of a new kind of eschatology -- fresh, different, wiser biblically, more mature theologically, and more responsible ethically.
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There are a lot of wise old sayings in the world of addiction recovery, including variations on this one: "If you always do and think what you've always done and thought, you'll always get what you've already got." And that's true when it comes to our societal addictions to oil, coal, consumption, and violence.

But just as addictions often result from deeper wounds or untreated needs, our self-destructive societal behaviors often spring from unlikely sources -- including theological ones.

My most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity, is built around ten questions that I believe are having a transformative impact on Christian theology and practice. The eighth question deals with eschatology, our theological theories of and assumptions about the future:

As a boy of about eight, having come home from school and found the doors locked and nobody home, I once spent nearly an hour sitting on my back porch, deeply dejected and with rising panic, sure that the Rapture had occurred and I was a child left behind. Who knew a third-grader could feel such terror and despair?

To the uninitiated, this all might sound pitiful or laughable, like wild conspiracy theories shared on strange Web sites or middle-of-the-night AM radio. But surprising numbers of mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics have also been thoroughly catechized in this eschatology through televangelist broadcasts and books in the Left Behind Series, which have broken sales records around the world. If they only focused on speculation about who the Antichrist is (I remember hearing it was Khrushchev, then Henry Kissinger, then Saddam Hussein, and now apparently odds are being placed on Barack Obama!), their eschatological hobby might be harmless enough -- like a crazy uncle obsessed with UFOs. But in recent decades, dispensationalism and its eschatological cousins have become significant factors in the foreign policy of the richest, most consumptive, and most well-armed nation in the history of history, and that's where things get even scarier than a B-grade movie.

If the world is about to end, why care for the environment? Why worry about global climate change or peak oil? Who gives a rip for endangered species or sustainable economies or global poverty if God is planning to incinerate the whole planet soon anyway? If the Bible predicts the rebuilding of the Jewish temple (or requires that rebuilding for its prophecies to work in a dispensationalist framework), why care about Muslim claims on the Temple Mount real estate? Why care about justice for non-Jews in Israel at all -- after all, isn't it their own fault for being on land God predicts will be returned in full to the Jews in the last days? If God has predetermined that the world will get worse and worse until it ends in a cosmic megaconflict between the forces of Light (epitomized most often in the United States) and the forces of Darkness (previously centered in communism, but now, that devil having been vanquished, in Islam), why waste energy on peacemaking, diplomacy, and interreligious dialogue?

... Maybe now you see why I believe that a new kind of Christianity demands a new kind of eschatology. (192-193)

With the West Virginia coal mine disaster, the Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe, and the Gaza blockade all fresh in our minds -- not to mention the most polarized and paralyzed political establishment in over one hundred years -- more and more of us agree that it's time to change what we do and how we think, including the ways we theologize about the future.

The current purveyors of eschatologies of abandonment, evacuation, and despair will no doubt keep broadcasting and publishing, and no doubt the dollars will keep coming in, reinforcing what we've already got -- in West Virginia, in the Gulf of Mexico, in Gaza, on cable news, and in Washington, D.C. But some of us must muster the courage to differ -- and to do so graciously yet persistently. First, we need to confront the purveyors of these eschatologies with the disastrous social consequences of their message, and challenge them -- if they are unwilling to change their views, to at least work to mitigate those disastrous consequences. And second, we need to articulate better alternatives ourselves.

If we do, we could see in the coming years the emergence of a new kind of eschatology -- fresh, different, wiser biblically, more mature theologically, and more responsible ethically. When you think and believe differently about the future, a funny thing happens: you get a different future. Just as your bad faith will sicken you, and your good faith will make you well.

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