The study of “last things” (eschatology) seems to have fallen out of favor in many corners of the modern church. With a dismissive reference to no one knowing the day or hour of Christ’s return, many Christians assume that studying eschatology is not something most churches, or even individual Christians, really need to take seriously. I repeatedly hear students in my classes claim that Scripture is too unclear on the details or timing of the Rapture, or whether Christians will go through the Tribulation, or the nature of the Millennial Kingdom, to make studying these things worth their time. Is studying eschatology largely irrelevant to our walk with God?
I’ve also had many conversations with pastors and elders who argue that preaching in detail on eschatology is way too divisive for the pulpit. Usually one of the reasons given for avoiding preaching on eschatology is that people hold too tightly to their opinions on the topic and won’t listen or change. Of course, the answer to that concern is to teach us how to disagree and still love one another. But the other prominent reason many churches avoid eschatology is because studying prophecy can make Christians appear a little nuts to unbelievers—it’s too divisive in that it can make us unpalatable to unbelievers who visit our services, and they’ll reject us and the gospel. I mean, I understand not wanting our ministries to be lumped in with the crazy excesses of preachers who’ve abused the doctrine of eschatology, but is that really what makes us unpalatable to unbelievers? We appear crazy to the world first and foremost because of the gospel of Jesus (John 15:18–21). Believing that there are prophecies still to be fulfilled is not really the central divisive issue, and it should in no way motivate choices in relation to our preaching calendars. Is it really true that modern churches can’t grow spiritually or numerically if they take the teaching of eschatology seriously?
Scripture’s answer to these questions is a resounding “no!” The study of eschatology and what God has revealed about future events leading up to Christ’s return (and beyond) was not a tertiary issue to Paul, any of the Old Testament prophets, or Jesus. In fact, I would argue that we need the regular, serious study of eschatology in our lives and churches even more than ever. As the world hurtles toward increasingly uncertain days, Christians can be convinced that God is not silent on our concern about the future or how it impacts our walk with Him today.
Here are the top three reasons I believe we need the study of eschatology more today than ever.
1. Eschatology helps us know God better
When the texts of the Bible were written, over a quarter of them were prophetic according to some scholars.1 Stop and consider that for a second. More than one fourth of what God wanted to communicate to humans was a message about their future. More than that, God held prophecy and prophets in extremely high regard, with rules for recognizing who really speaks for Him and how to treat prophecy in general. This is true in both the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament.
More than one fourth of what God wanted to communicate to humans was a message about their future.
Pick up a Bible and you’re holding repeated messages from God to you about the future. True, there is more than just prophecy in the Bible, but the whole storyline of Scripture is the unfolding of God’s plans for how He’s going to use His redemption of the whole universe, humans included, to one day bring Himself the glory He deserves. God talks about His future plans a lot!
What are we to make of this? Why does God speak of the future so much? I would argue that the study of His prophetic messages helps us to glimpse hints of the true magnitude of our God. He is doing more and better things than we often imagine. His plan is more multifaceted than we are capable of understanding, and knowing that He’s working to redeem much more than just us self-centered humans is truly instructive. All the threads of history, past, present, and future (including you and me!), are just one small corner of the magnificent tapestry of the self-revelation which God is weaving. And it should drive us to worship Him better. God doesn’t only talk about the future because of how badly we need to know the future. He also talks about it because of how badly we need to know Him!
2. Eschatology motivates spiritual growth
To every generation that God has revealed something about their future, prophecy has been given alongside warnings, exhortation, and encouragement for spiritual growth. Frequently in the OT, prophecies about the future would include a call for reformation, or a return to God. Throughout the NT we see authors point to future events as motivation for holy living today.
Knowing what is to come should motivate our walk with God now!
First Thessalonians 5 is an excellent example of this when Paul tells the Christians in Thessalonica that they don’t really need a lot more instruction about the future coming “Day of the Lord.” Rather, he says their knowledge of the future should motivate them to live as “sons of light,” sober and alert, marked by their growing faith, expanding love, and steadfast hope of avoiding God’s judgment. Knowing what is to come should motivate our walk with God now!
Those who seriously study eschatology can testify to this. For example, many students in my classes which study the pretribulational Rapture and the Tribulation period are struck by the knowledge that they don’t need to live in fear of experiencing the horrific events of Revelation 6—19. It’s liberating to know that the grace which covers our sin also ensures that we will not be “collateral damage” when God rises up in judgment on the nations in the Tribulation period! But on the flip side, recognizing that the window of opportunity to testify to the grace of Jesus and accomplish anything for Him will one day close, leads to a sober, focused Christian life as we work “while it is still day.” Every study of God’s revelation of the future should inspire us to reflect on how we can, with the work of the Spirit, better live in light of what we now know. The modern church would do well to heed the Bible’s call to holy living today because of what’s to come tomorrow.
3. Eschatology reinforces our hope
I love watching college football (specifically the University of Michigan, but don’t let that stop you from reading on… GO BLUE!). However, being a dad makes it pretty rare that I can sit down and watch a whole game for four hours without needing to stop the game and parent instead. Often I’ll just DVR a game and watch it after the kids are in bed. During the time when my team plays and I haven’t seen it yet, I’m very careful to NOT find out what’s happened in the game or the final score. I don’t want to know! Well, really, I don’t want to know if we lose. If I accidentally find out that my team lost, it feels like a waste of time to watch the game I missed. But if I know we’ll win, that’s different! Then every bad break in the game feels more like dramatic tension. Every agonizing decision feels more like character development. Every time the odds are stacked against my team I know that the ending is going to be that much more awesome… because I know my guys will pull out the victory!
The same is true of history. When we study eschatology we get into the nitty gritty of how God is going to bring light out of the darkness we see and experience. The twists and turns of our lives, the evil and brokenness of the world around us (and as it increases in the future), the injustices that surround us daily are all part of what is going to make God’s future redemption of all things that much more incredible. And our experiences of that brokenness here and now are tinted by that future hope!
Knowing more about our ultimate hope, the glorious return of Messiah Jesus, the day He will be marveled at by all who believe, reshapes our perspective of our difficult lives now.
I love how 1 Peter 1 describes the day when Jesus comes back. Peter tells us that our living hope, Jesus, will one day be revealed, justifying all our trust in Him for the whole world. Peter says that we can rejoice knowing that this day, this justification of our hope, is really coming. Even though our days are dark now, and we’re grieved by “various trials,” in comparison to what is coming, our experience of the pain in this life is short, a “little while.” In other words, knowing more about our ultimate hope, the glorious return of Messiah Jesus, the day He will be marveled at by all who believe (2 Thessalonians 1:10), reshapes our perspective of our difficult lives now. It gives hope! Not just hope that we will spend eternity with Him, but hope that He really is going to return and reorder all elements of the cosmic order to align with His good and perfect purposes. He will one day satisfy the groanings of all creation awaiting the day of God’s redemption (Romans 8). King Jesus really will set right all injustice, pain, and darkness. And the brokenness that the universe has experienced will only give us more reason to marvel at Him.
Only the study of what God has told us about that coming day, and the events around and contributing to it, can reinforce our hope in such a powerful way. We need to study what He’s told us is to come. It’s heartbreaking to think that God gave us these beautiful depictions of our hope revealed and we might simply ignore them, for fear that they might make us unpopular, or because they seem too divisive. Eschatology has the potential to infuse a powerful dose of hope and strength into your walk with God here and now. So dig into the prophets with me. And rejoice in the culmination of the gospel message. It can only help you, Christian. Let’s not miss out on the benefits of what He’s revealed to us.
1 Payne, J. B., The Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy, Baker Pub. Group, 1980, p. 675