Thursday, September 20, 2012

What Eschatology Does and Does Not Tell Us

Today I continue with my look at 1 Thessalonians by posting some thoughts on Paul’s eschatological language in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.

1 Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

The eschatological language in 5:1-11 and in the previous section of 4:13-18 can be very strange and “other worldly” to us today. On the one hand it can encourage us to dig deeper to discover what Paul was trying to say. On the other hand, if it is not handled carefully, it can lead to some unintended results. This is not the place to enter into a discussion of methodology for interpreting apocalyptic and eschatological language and symbolism in the New Testament. But we can outline some things that eschatology does not tell us and what it does tell us.

Of first importance, eschatology is not intended to help us create a timeline to the end of the world as we know it. Recent history is full of examples of people who tried to set a date for the return of Jesus or the rapture. William Miller predicted that Jesus would return on March 21, 1844. The day came and went and his followers were left standing in a field in upstate New York. Edgar Whisenant proclaimed 88 reasons why the rapture would happen September 11 to 13, 1988.  When the prediction proved incorrect he focused on 1989 as the year. In 1992 a group of Korean Christians looked for the rapture to happen in October of that year. As they waited they ran up their credit cards and quit their jobs only to discover that it didn’t happen. Just a little over a year ago another prominent Christian leader proclaimed that the rapture would happen on May 21st, and we are still here. The problem with this sort of date setting is that it not only can make Christianity look foolish, it leads to behavior that is in some cases unchristian. Furthermore, it encourages an escapist mentality that often has believers showing little regard for those around them who are potentially about to be “left behind.” If we read the context of what Paul has to say in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5 that is the exact opposite attitude he encourages.

Another thing that we need to keep in mind is that eschatology is not intended as a threat.  Preachers and teachers will sometimes be tempted to adopt, adjust and expand upon apocalyptic language to undergird a warning of what will happen if the people do not repent. Warnings of being “left behind” are used to urge right behavior and to frighten them into compliance. But such an approach is the farthest thing from what Paul intended here. Paul doesn’t want what he says to be used as a club to beat people into submission, but to encourage one another. Paul ends both 4:13-18 and 5:1-11 with the same statement “therefore encourage one another.” Paul encourages the Thessalonians to live in a certain way because they are followers of Jesus, not so that they will become followers. Believers in Jesus are different because of Jesus and the language of eschatology is a reminder, not a threat, to be different and reassured about the future.

In many ways the purpose of eschatological language is to serve as a reminder to the believer. As we read 5:1-11 Paul’s language reminds the Thessalonians and us that things are not always as they seem. There is a world that we see all around us which at times seems very broken and even perhaps abandon by God. But Paul’s eschatological language reminds us that there is more to the world than what we see and sense. It is a gentle if not firm reminder that no matter what we might observe, God is still in control. This is especially helpful as we begin to feel the despair of the world around us and wonder if God really does care or if the deists have it right; God wound the world up, set it spinning and is no longer involved. But Paul is pulling back the curtain, even if just a little bit, to reassure the Thessalonians and us that God is still in control even when we can’t always perceive it.

Related to the reminder that God is still in control is the reminder that God doesn’t work on our time. God has a watch with no hands. Once we realize this we can recognize the irony of the Thessalonians (or anyone else) asking for or attempting to set the “time and date” of Jesus’ return. Paul never answers the Thessalonians and he doesn’t even say “only God knows.” Rather than set dates and make predictions, Paul instead reminds them of who they are and why, therefore, the future day of the Lord should not concern them. God works in his own time. In the mean time, we are to do the things we have been called to do.

That leads to a third thing that eschatology reminds us of: we are different. Most of Paul’s attention in 5:1-11 is not on the situation of the unbelievers at the day of the Lord, but on the current situation of believers as they wait for the day of the Lord. Paul has twice as much to say about why the Thessalonians are different and should act differently than “the others” (5:6). And the reason for that difference is because the focus of our hope is not on people or governments but on the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ. Underling all of this is the death and resurrection of Jesus with the promise that he will come again and we will live together with him (4:17; 5:10).


  1. Great point. NT eschatological info is to bring more hope and more joy to the saints, not more fear and doubts.

  2. Perhaps the article overlooks a key aspect of Paul's eschatology: the imminence of the End.

    You write: 'Of first importance, eschatology is not intended to help us create a timeline to the end of the world as we know it.' This is not quite accurate.

    The apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians speaks of Christians as people who ‘wait for [God's] son from heaven…who rescues us from the coming wrath’ (1 Thess 1.10). Later, Paul adds that ‘we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep’ (1 Thess 4.15). He does not say, ‘those who are alive (which could refer to some far future and as yet unknown group), but ‘we who are alive’, thus showing his expectation that the Lord will come before Paul’s death. Furthermore, Paul boldly claims that this is ‘the Lord’s own word’ (1 Thess 4.15).

    The plain fact is that the end of the world simply did not come before Paul’s hearers had all died. Paul was writing in the 50′s AD and today’s date is 2009. So one can demonstrate empirically that Paul was mistaken. But why does this matter?

    Paul said that his teaching was the ‘Lord’s own word’. But if this is the case then the Lord (presumably Jesus) made a mistake and mislead Paul about Jesus’ second coming. Paul therefore thought he had a true word from the Lord but the passing of historical time absolutely disproves this.

    A more plausible explanation is that Paul, who had several visions of Jesus, was not in fact receiving truth from Jesus/God but was the victim of his own religious imagination. If this is the case (and the empirical evidence leads to this conclusion) then it puts in serious doubt the authenticity and veracity of Paul’s other visions of Jesus, above all the Damascus Road vision in Acts.

    So this little problem passage has momentous consequences for Christian belief which rely heavily on the integrity and truthfulness of Paul’s testimony. If Paul was mistaken about the end of the world occurring in the first century then we cannot automatically trust his other claims to have received divine revelation in the rest of his letters.

    Here are the verses in their immediate context:

    13Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage each other with these words.

    From my article, 'Thus saith the Lord?'