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.

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.

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.

 

Happily Ever AfterA stereotypical fairytale ends with the words, “And they lived happily ever after.” Discerning readers/viewers throw up in their mouths a little bit when they hear that phrase.

Get real, we think. Happy ever after is the naïve stuff of children’s fantasies. People don’t simply live happily ever after. We may experience resolution to some of our conflicts, but it’s only a matter of time until things fall apart again. Cinderella may have lived happily ever after with Prince Charming, but in the real world, they’d be divorced within a year.

Our cynical culture is skeptical of romantic glosses at the ends of compelling stories. The 2007 Disney film Enchanted hints at our cynical view of fairytales. It intentionally calls attention to the fact that fairytales aren’t set in the real world. Good people don’t live happily ever after. In an ironic twist, however, the characters do indeed end up living happily ever after. Disney also calls attention to this with their National Treasure movies. At the end of the first film, the main characters are all set for a happy eternity together. When the second film opens, however, we see that everything has gone wrong in the meantime. And then—Disney being what it is—they find themselves headed toward a happily ever after again at the close of the second film.

In any case, I’m convinced that our cynicism about the happily ever comes from our nearsightedness. If you want to say that Disney is unrealistic because people don’t suddenly overcome an obstacle and then live perfect lives, then you’d be right.

But you’d also be wrong. Yes, in the short-term we are going to continue to run into problems. That is reality in a fallen world. This is the only reality that we have ever experienced. But in the long-term, happily ever after is undoubtedly where we are headed. This is the hope of the Bible. The Bible ends with far greater optimism than a Disney movie ever will. Not only do the main characters live happily ever after, in the biblical ending, evil itself has been eradicated and pain and sorrow have been put away forever. Not only do things end perfectly, but there is no door left open for the eventual resurgence of evil.

So go ahead and cry at the happily ever afters our culture sets before us. These are but a glimmer of what we will ultimately experience. They are signposts pointing us to the real ending. The stories our culture tells are bound to have an inadequate and superficial understanding of the depth of the problem, and they will inevitably be naïve in their estimation of how great a hero we are actually going to need. Therefore their happily ever afters will always be cheaply won.

But this is no reason to scoff. They are right to long for a happy ending. The desire to see the world put to rights is deeply engrained in the human heart. This naïve optimism has been with us from the beginning, and it will stay with us till the end.

Let every happily ever after push your heart toward the confidence the Bible gives us in the true happily ever after—purchased with the very blood of Christ and awaiting its final and triumphant consummation at the end of all things.

 

The Olympics are indisputably amazing. Some of you have blocked off huge amounts of time so as to miss as little as possible. Others, like myself, hadn’t planned on watching much, but couldn’t stop watching. (We tried to turn off the TV when men’s gymnastics came on, but couldn’t bring ourselves to do it—so amazing!)

It’s not hard to justify the Olympics’ awesomeness. Unbelievable feats of strength, spectacular shows of grace, combinations of strength and grace that simultaneously horrify and inspire me. We see the drive of competition and the beauty of teamwork. We see tears of joy as years of sacrifice pay off and tears of disbelief as dreams slip down the drain in a thousandth of a second.

As I have been watching the Olympics, I find myself invariable rooting for the Americans. That’s natural, I suppose, but I don’t give any thought to the abilities of any of the contestants, their stories, or their beliefs. If this sprinter is American, she’s my girl.

But then I had a moment of clarity. How cool is it that 200 nations all got on board for a single event? How amazing that people from such diverse backgrounds, with so little in common, with so many reasons why they shouldn’t be interacting with one another, all gather in the same city with a common purpose?

The Olympics are so colorful (though seldom in the humorous sense). Think of all the shades of skin tone in London right now. Think of all the colors in the uniforms and flags. Think of all the cultures and languages struggling to interact and communicate.

We can look at the Olympics as athletes deadlocked in heated competition. Or we can look at them as God’s children gathering together to play. They bring some of the best of God’s physical gifts, carefully honed through years of training, and gather with the rest of God’s children to demonstrate just how amazing God made people to be.

Of course, the Olympics also reveal a lot of idolatry as athletes who have neglected everything for the sake of their own glory stand atop pedestals and are all but worshiped. But not every Olympian is like this (I think of the daughter of my Greek professor, Allyson Felix, who genuinely gave glory to God after taking gold in the 200m). And as Christians we can see God glorified in the Olympics because we know that every ability these athletes have was hand-picked and delivered to them from God himself.

We can also see the Olympics as a signpost of things to come. Look at so much of the world joined together in celebration, and understand that this pales in comparison to where history is headed. Ultimately, every knee on earth will bow before the King. At the end of all things we will be joined together as representatives from every nation, every skin color, every language, and every culture join together to praise not humanity, but the Maker of humanity. There, in what will be a sort of Closing Ceremonies and Opening Ceremonies all wrapped into one, humanity will join together to give glory to the only One who truly deserves it.