Archives For Eschatology

Will Christians worship God in the future (e.g. the millennium) at a physical temple? This has been a debate for many years, especially since 1948 when Israel became a state again. Now, theological camps are divided on the question (shocker, I know). In general, Dispensationalists would say yes, there will be a temple during Christ’s thousand-year reign on earth. This temple will be fully equipped with priest, sacrifices, and all sorts of other old covenant forms of worship. Covenant theologians, however, say ezekiels_templeno there will not be a physical temple at any point in the future. We are the temple. The presence of God dwells in the church not in a physical building. Now, the one thing these two views agree on is that the main passage that speaks about a future temple is Ezekiel 40-48.

Ezekiel is a wild book. It’s filled with hair-raising visions, offensive language, and sexual images that make translators blush, which is why there is not a single literal English translation of, say, Ezekiel 16 and 23. Then, as if we didn’t have enough to wrestle with, this other-worldly book ends with a prophecy about a future temple (Ezek 40-48, esp. 40-43). In short, Ezekiel has a vision where he follows a “man…with a measuring cord in his hand” (40:2-3), who goes around measuring a temple (chs. 40-42). He then sees the glory of God return to the temple (43:1-5) and the priestly sacrificial system re-instituted (43:13-46:24).

Now, from an old covenant perspective, there’s nothing odd about this. God’s presence dwells in a temple and sin is atoned for by killing animals. But from a new covenant perspective, you should be a bit troubled by the idea of rebuilding the temple and sacrificing animals after Jesus has died as the ultimate sacrifice—a death that tore the curtain of the temple in two.

So how is Ezekiel’s prophecy fulfilled?

Some say that it was fulfilled in 515 B.C. That’s the year that Israel rebuilt the temple after they returned home from exile. The only problem is that the measurements taken in Ezekiel 40-42 don’t match the temple that was built in 515 B.C. Not even close. So Ezekiel is probably looking beyond the temple that existed after exile (this would include Herod’s extreme temple makeover in the first century).

Therefore, Dispensationalists would say that Ezekiel’s prophecy must be literally fulfilled at some future time. And since there’s no temple in the church age, and since there will be no temple in the final state (Rev. 21:22), Ezekiel’s temple must be rebuilt during the thousand year reign of Christ. Now, to be clear, the few verses that mention Christ’s thousand-year reign (Rev. 20:2-7) don’t talk about a temple. And again, when the thousand years are up, there will be no temple (Rev. 21:22). The fulfillment of Ezekiel 40-48, therefore, is more implied than explicitly stated, according to this view.

The strength of the Dispensational view lies in the specific measurements given in Ezekiel 40-42. If Ezekiel had given some general, off-handed prophecy about a future temple, then perhaps he wasn’t thinking of a literal building. But when the angel shows him a temple, he gives him very specific measurements of it. One would assume, therefore, that God intends to fulfill his prophecy (or vision) literally.

Despite the strength of this argument, and despite the fact that I was taught this view in school, and despite the fact that I have many friends and theologians much smarter than I who still hold to this view, I believe it’s incorrect. I believe that there’s much stronger biblical evidence that supports a non-structural fulfillment (I’ll explain later) of Ezekiel’s temple prophecy. But before I explain this, let’s look at one main problem with the Dispensational view.

Ezekiel 43-46 says there’ll be sacrifices that go along with the new temple.

“Yes,” says the Dispensationalist, “but the animal sacrifices at the millennial temple (i.e. Ezekiel’s temple) will not carry atoning value. They will simply be a memorial in which we will remember the sacrifice of Christ.”

Hmmmm…I guess this is a bit better, though I’m still not sure the author of Hebrews would be cool with this. In any case, there’s still a big problem—Ezekiel says that the animal sacrifices will be for atonement, not as a memorial.

“And one sheep from every flock…to make atonement for them” (45:15)

“He shall provide the sin offerings, grain offerings, burnt offerings, and peace offerings, to make atonement on behalf of the house of Israel” (45:17).

And many other passages agree. So, while I appreciate the desire to see the animal sacrifices as non-atoning, the Dispensational view smuggles a non-literal Nepal Animal Sacrifice reading of Ezekiel 40-48 in the back door. They don’t take a literal view of Ezekiel 45:15, 17 and many other passages that speak of atonement.

So I agree and disagree with this view. I agree that God will fulfill Ezekiel’s temple-oriented sacrificial system non-literally. But I disagree that the rest of Ezekiel 40-48 must be interpreted literally. Why would it be? If the New Testament demands a non-literal reading of the sacrificial system in Ezekiel 43-46, then why can’t we also take a non-literal reading of the future temple in Ezekiel 40-42?

We’ll explore this further in the next post.

Boston Tragedy HelpersYesterday we were horrified to learn about another tragedy, this time in Boston—explosions, fear, injuries, and deaths.

When things like this happen, we ask ourselves questions that we already know the answers to. Why? (Because the world is fallen.) When will we stop doing this to each other? (When the Lord returns to set the world to rights.) Why can’t we stop this? (Because evil is pervasive, and hearts must be transformed.)

Of course, knowing the answers doesn’t make dealing with the realities easy. There is still pain, doubt, and fear. This is life between Eden, when the world was unstained by sin, and the New Jerusalem, where God will right every wrong.

As I looked over my Facebook friends’ reactions to this tragedy, I came across a quote, claiming to be from Mr. Rogers (it seemed legitimate, it was written on a photo of him…):

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Whether this quote is authentically Rogersian or not, it reminds us of two important things—again, things we already know:

  1. This world is full of evil, and human beings often labor for evil rather than good.
  2. Human beings still bear God’s image (even after the fall, see James 3:9), and often labor for healing and restoration rather than destruction.

Whenever we see a tragedy, then, we are reminded of the wrestle taking place in every inch of creation:

“For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.” (Romans 8:20–24)

Though we cannot do anything to reverse such tragedies, we can continue to labor as those who bring healing, hope, and peace. We still sense God’s goodness and possess an impulse toward compassion. We can be the helpers in every area of life.

And while death shows up on every page of the Bible after the first two chapters, it was dealt a fatal blow at the cross, and death is expelled forever in the last two chapters of the Bible.

Last night, as I sang with my daughter the song she always requests we sing, I was struck by the appropriateness of the lyrics:

“This is my Father’s world,
O may I ne’er forget
That though the wrong
Seems oft so strong
God is the Ruler yet.”

JesusPaul warns us that Christ will return as a thief in the night:

“The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.” (1 Thessalonians 5:1–3)

That’s some scary stuff. Jesus’ return is the culmination of history: you want to be ready when it happens. If it takes you by surprise, you’re in trouble.

But not to worry. Paul explains that we don’t have to be surprised by the Lord’s Second Coming:

“But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief” (v. 4)

Here’s the question, though. What comes to your mind when you think about being ready for Jesus’ return? Is it identifying key events that will tell us the end is at hand? Paul tells us to be ready, but current events aren’t what he has in mind:

“For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” (vv. 5–8)

Be a child of the light, Paul says. A child of the day. Keep awake and sober. Put on faith, love, and the hope of salvation.

Sometimes we try to prep for the end times by scouring the news for the fulfillment of prophecy. We play eschatology bingo. Another earthquake? Check the box. Another candidate for the antichrist? Check the box. A red heifer? Check the box.

But Paul points us in a different direction in 1 Thessalonians. It’s not that the prophecies and events don’t matter. But for Paul in this letter, readiness is all about our Christian character. Don’t let the Day of the Lord surprise you like a thief. Be ready when it comes. Be sober. Live as a child of the light. Exude faith, love, and the hope of salvation.

You’re not going to be ready for a thief by watching the news. “Hey, look! Sales of knitted facemasks are on the rise. We’d better get ready for a burglar!” I don’t think so. You’re ready for a thief when you’re awake and alert.

So it is with Christ’s return. If you are waiting for world events to align before you prepare to meet the Lord, you’re not going to be ready. But if you’re living now in light of his return, then you’ll meet Jesus with joy and hope, rather than surprise.

Red CurtainSoren Kierkegaard was concerned that we neglect to love our neighbors because we focus on the dissimilarities between us. We are like actors in play:

“Here you see only what the individual represents and how he does it. It is just as in the play. But when the curtain falls on the stage, then the one who played the king and the one who played the beggar, etc. are all alike; all are one and the same—actors. When at death the curtain falls on the stage of actuality…then they, too, are all one, they are human beings. All of them are what they essentially were, what you did not see because of the dissimilarity that you saw—they are human beings.”

This excellent illustration cuts two ways. First, it affects the way we view other people. We see successful businessmen, gifted speakers, homemakers, professional athletes, homeless people, white or blue collared workers, etc. We notice skin color and gender, confidence and awkwardness.

But Kiekegaard would have us understand that these outward dissimilarities are nothing more than roles we are called upon to play. The differences are there, but the time is coming when the curtain will fall, and the man who played the king will sit down for drinks with the man who played the beggar. And they will sit together as equals, for they are not king and beggar in reality—these were roles they assumed on the stage—they are nothing more and nothing less than actors. They are equal.

We would do well, then, to look past the outward symbols of dissimilarity when we encounter another person. We should look deeply into her eyes and recognize the gaze of a fellow human being. This allows us to view the other person as a neighbor.

Isn’t this the way it works in our neighborhoods? There is no hierarchy on my street. When I stand on the sidewalk with my neighbors, we don’t relate to each other as realtor, professor, plumber, and contractor. We are simply neighbors. We spend much of  our lives on adjacent lots. The roles we play and the costumes we wear are irrelevant; we are able to love one another as equals.

The conversations I have on my street are a taste of humanity stripped of its dissimilarities. If only we could see everyone in that light. If only we could stop playing games and simply love.

But this will also require us to see the other direction that Kiekegaard’s illustration cuts. Kierkeggard would have us look to ourselves and remember that we, too, are only actors, regardless of how important a role we believe ourselves to be playing:

“We seem to have forgotten that the dissimilarity of earthly life is just like an actor’s costume…so that each one individually should be on the watch and take care to have the outer garment’s fastening cords loosely tied and, above all, free of tight knots so that in the moment of transformation the garment can be cast off easily.”

Do you have some level of power in this life? Don’t hold it too closely. Don’t take yourself too seriously. You have been called upon to play the role of an executive or a teacher or an overseer or a day laborer. But that role does not define you. Make no mistake that one day your costume will have to be removed. Better to wear the costume loosely so that you are prepared to step back into the role of human being as soon as the play ends.

It’s difficult to see other people as neighbors when we see ourselves as big shots. So play your role well. Give it everything it deserves. But don’t forget that the stage only extends so far. Don’t lose sight of the curtain—it is going to drop. And there you will stand—no longer the king, but an actor. A neighbor. A human.

It's a Small WorldI can’t believe how many times I’ve sat on a plastic gondola as it meandered past an impossible number of singing puppets. And the song those puppets sing! So simple and repetitive—a reality that most kids love and most parents hate.

It’s a Small World is my 3-year old daughter’s favorite ride at Disneyland, so we do it more than once when we’re at the park. I typically avoid listening carefully to the song, but on our last couple of visits I paid attention to what the ride was saying.

Have you ever thought about the message of It’s a Small World?

It’s pure eschatology, which means that it gives a vision for the end of the world. Think about it. You ride through room after room of singing dolls. Each group of dolls represents a distinct culture. The ride takes you on a trip around the world and gives you a taste of the best (or some might say the most kitschy) of each culture. Every doll is happy, every doll is singing the same song. It gives a picture of the world as it might be. A world where everyone gets along.

It's a Small World 2And then you float into the final room. In that room, every culture appears again. But this time they’re all dressed in white. They’re all together in one place, dressed alike, overjoyed, and singing the same song. Apparently, Walt Disney had a vision of the world set to rights, a world where every diverse culture on earth stops their fighting and decides to enjoy the world together.

It’s beautiful, really (maybe not aesthetically, but conceptually). And it mirrors a hope that lies deep within the Christian tradition. This is indeed where history is headed. John’s vision of the end of the world is in essence very Small-Worldy:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9–10)

Note the similarities: a multitude from every nation wearing white robes and singing together. Crazy, right?

But the difference is also important. In Revelation, the multitude is praising God for the salvation he worked through the Lamb (Jesus). But Small World’s doll-host sings a different song:

It’s a world of hopes, it’s a world of fears
It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears
There’s so much that we share, that it’s time we’re aware:
It’s a small world after all

It's a Small World 3These dolls have a solid assessment of the human experience: hopes, fears, laughter, tears—we all share these experiences in common, no matter what culture or age we inhabit.

But what is the “saving” factor that creates the eschatological scene in Small World? (I know, I’m being too technically critical of a children’s ride, but I still think it’s important to view all of life theologically.) Awareness. That’s how we get from the separated cultures to the united multitude dressed in white. “We have a lot in common, so if we would all recognize that then we can all be happy and get along.”

Ultimately, It’s a Small World offers us a cheap hope. It’s a beautiful picture of the world as it should be, but its answer for how we overcome our differences is shallow and naïve.

Don’t worry, I’ll still take my daughters on the ride. And I’ll still smile as I float through Walt Disney’s picture of the world as I know it will end. But I’m also looking forward to the day when my girls are old enough to have a conversation about the eschatology of It’s a Small World.