Friday, November 11, 2005

What Do We Mean By 'Eschatology'?

The term 'eschatology' has proved to be one of Humpty Dumpty's favourite words this century. N.T. Wright notes seven different options:

1. Eschatology as the end of the world, i.e. the end of the space-time universe;
2. Eschatology as the climax of Israel’s history, involving the end of the spacetime
3. Eschatology as the climax of Israel’s history, involving events for which endof-
the-world language is the only set of metaphors adequate to express the
significance of what will happen, but resulting in a new and quite different
phase within a space-time history;
4. Eschatology as major events, not specifically climatic within a particular
story, for which end-of-the-world language functions as metaphor;
5. Eschatology as ‘horizontal’ language (i.e. apparently denoting movement
forwards in time) whose actual referent is the possibility of moving
‘upwards’ spiritually into a new level of existence;
6. Eschatology as critique of the present world order, perhaps with proposals for

a new order;
7. Eschatology as a critique of the present socio-political scene, perhaps with
proposals for adjustments.[1]

Given this, I wish to offer yet another definition. I think the word ‘eschatological’ would be best used to indicate that Judea-Christian faith has a temporal structure, that is, it is not a timeless revelation of a religious system but is the following of a God whose actions within space and time are bringing ‘history’ towards its goal. Murray Rae writes, “History is affirmed by the biblical writers as the locus of God’s action… and the terrain upon which his purpose is worked out… It is the action of God, therefore, that is understood to give history its purpose and that directs it towards its goal. Only thus is the succession of events conceivable as ‘history’.”[2] Although religious systems such as Buddhism provide a story that makes sense of the world, they focus upon the present (correct me if I’m wrong). Judeo-Christian faith on the other hand focuses upon God’s actions and thus history. It looks back to his actions in the past and forward to his actions in the future.

Of course with this definition, the term becomes rather general, but it would include 3 and 4 above.

[1] Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 208
[2] Rae, ‘Creation and Promise: Towards a Theology of History’, 288, in Bartholomew, C. G., Evans, S. C., Healy, M., Rae, M., ‘Behind’ the Text: History and Biblical Interpretation (Cumbria: Paternoster, 2003), 267-299

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