Friday, 14 February 2014

'E' is for the End Times (Eschatology)


A. INTRODUCTION

Eschatology – the branch of theology that deals with the last things

How should we understand the meaning of the words ‘end times’ and ‘apocalypse’? This question has critical implications when we consider the nature of Quakerism and it rootedness in the Christian tradition because, like the other Abrahamic faiths (Judaism and Islam) Christianity works with a linear view of history leading to an end time or apocalypse. In this posting I want to argue that, in religious thinking and in popular culture there is an urgent need to reinterpret the meaning of  the end times and the apocalypse. Within Christendom the dominant understanding of these terms has been one characterised by a vision of violent conflict and the destruction of the physical creation. However, there is an alternative interpretation rooted in a peace church perspective. In this interpretation the end times are understood to be the times in which God’s ends are fully revealed and realised in the whole creation. Ultimately God’s ends for the whole creation are reflected in the biblical vision of ‘shalom’ (meaning a state of dynamic harmony, interconnection, well-being, justice and peace). The word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘revelation’ and so, in the alternative understanding, the apocalypse entails the revelation and realisation of shalom as God’s ultimate ‘end’ or intention for the whole creation.

Some Dictionary Definitions

Two possible definitions of the meaning of the word ‘end’:

  1. Termination of existence, destruction, downfall; a person’s death.
  2. To reach an ultimate state or condition; to complete or finish.

Two possible definitions of the meaning of the word ‘apocalypse’:

  1. The destruction and end of the world.
  2. The revelation of divine mysteries.

These dictionary definitions present us quite starkly with the two fundamentally divergent ways of approaching this issue. The fact that when it comes to the word ‘apocalypse’ almost all mainstream dictionaries limit the scope of their definitions to that of violent physical conflict, destruction and the end of the world, demonstrates the dominance of this particular vision within our culture.     

B. The Biblical Vision

1. Hebrew Scriptures - The Vision of Shalom

The biblical vision of ‘shalom’ (in the Hebrew Scriptures) or ‘eirene’ (in the New Testament) is a model for the renewed creation, the hope to be brought to fruition in the end times. It is a vision which is described vividly by the Hebrew prophets (see the words of Isaiah below). Perry Yoder has argued that the vision of shalom represents the way things ought to be (Yoder 1987, p.22). The conditions of shalom set out in the Hebrew Scriptures are associated with God’s way and God’s rule and include reconciliation, material well-being for all (Yoder 1987, p.1), justice for all (Yoder 1987, p.13) and the truthfulness/integrity of all (Yoder 1987, p.16). In the New Testament we see eirene associated with the God of peace revealed in Jesus and including good accord, the absence of conflict and moral virtue (Yoder 1987, p.20).

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Isaiah 2:4 (NRVS)

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

Isaiah 11:6-7 (NRSV)

2. The New Testament – The Renewal of All Things

A belief that ‘the end’ will be characterized by cataclysmic violent conflict and destruction is most often predicated on a reading of the New Testament Book of Revelation. However, such a reading usually fails to recognise that the outcome of the conflict described in this book is not the destruction of the creation but rather the renewal of all things in which God’s realm (heaven) comes to earth in the form of the New Jerusalem, the nations are healed and God is fully present in the creation. We see this vision of the realisation of the new creation and the overlapping of heaven and earth in the two following passages:The New Heaven and the New Earth

 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

 And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

 

Revelation 21:1-6 (NRSV) The River of Life

 

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.

 

Revelation 22:1-5 (NRSV)

C. the early quaker vision - The Lamb’s War and the End Times

Early Friends understood that the narrative of the Book of Revelation pointed to a nonviolent process in which the spirit of evil was destroyed and God’s shalom established on earth. This understanding is expressed most clearly by James Nayler in his tract ‘The Lamb’s War Against the Man of Sin’ published in 1657:

And as they war not against men's persons, so their weapons are not carnal, nor hurtful to any of the creation; for the Lamb comes not to destroy men's lives, nor the work of God, and therefore at his appearance in his subjects, he puts spiritual weapons into their hearts and hands: their armor is the light, their sword the Spirit of the Father and the Son; their shield is faith and patience; their paths are prepared with the gospel of peace and good will towards all the creation of God.

The Lamb's quarrel is not against the creation, for then should his weapons be carnal, as the weapons of the worldly spirits are: "For we war not with flesh and blood," nor against the creation of God; that we love; but we fight against the spiritual powers of wickedness, which wars against God in the creation, and captivates the creation into the lust which wars against the soul, and that the creature may be delivered into its liberty prepared for the sons of God. And this is not against love, nor everlasting peace, but that without which can be no true love nor lasting peace.

James Nayler – The Lamb’s War 1657

1. What is the Lamb’s War?

During the 1650s, the young Quaker movement launched a nation-wide preaching campaign of great vigour and intensity that became known as the Lamb’s War, referring to the book of Revelation in which John of Patmos recorded his visions of Christ’s final defeat of evil on earth and the establishment of the New Jerusalem. Doug Gwyn has called the Lamb’s War a ‘cultural revolution’ because it involved a comprehensive attack on all those institutions and practices that sustained the existing order and a proclamation of the coming of a new divine order (Gwyn 1986, pp.36-38). The massive scope and rapid success of the Lamb’s War caused significant disquiet within the establishment. The apocalyptic imagery and language was disturbingly militaristic and many thought that the Quakers intended to overthrow the state by force. By the late 1650s, rumours circulated widely about Anabaptists and Quakers coming to cut people’s throats.

2. Early Quaker Eschatology

The early Quaker claim that ‘Christ is come to teach his people himself’ was, for them, an announcement that the great spiritual battle outlined in Revelation had begun. Early Quakers expected that the inward transformation of individuals would lead to the outward transformation of the world. The Lamb’s War was therefore a campaign that took place first of all within the individual and then within the world. In this sense, Quaker eschatology was both realised (within the individual) and to be realised (within the world). Friends were certain that the final outcome would be the triumph of justice over evil and the establishment of God’s kingdom. However, this transformation was dependent on a human response. It required a universal acceptance of the power of the Lamb to crucify evil and resurrect the new creation within the individual and then within the world. Every human won by the Lamb weakens the power of the ‘Beast’. The early Quaker movement experienced an inward liberation that they understood in terms of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Having rediscovered the pearl of inner and outer peace for all people, they were prepared to risk everything to establish the kingdom of God.

3. The Practice of the Lamb’s War

The methods used by early Friends in conducting the Lamb’s War reflected their understanding of the way in which God deals with evil. The Lamb’s War was very much a corporate endeavour. It did not involve a lapse into personal piety. Early Friends recognised that the process of realising God’s kingdom on earth was a job for a gathered people, not for isolated individuals. Despite the assertiveness and militaristic language of the Lamb’s War, it was a consistently non-violent campaign. Their religious experiences had taught Friends that spiritual transformation must involve a genuine change of heart and that this, by its nature, could not be achieved by force and coercion. Instead of using force, the Lamb’s War was a campaign in which Friends sought to persuade others by the example of their lives and by the suffering they were prepared to endure. Friends were willing to face severe persecution rather than transgress the law of God written in their hearts. The message of the Lamb’s War was addressed to everyone. For example, when Quakers spoke to those in authority, their principal aim was to prompt the moral reform of the powerful. No individual was regarded as entirely lost to the cause of the Lamb. This was a struggle for liberation that sought to free people from bondage to the ‘lusts’ that produce injustice and destructive aggression. The struggle was to be won by turning people away from the evil present in the world and inward towards the power of the Lamb working in their hearts.  

4. The New Creation and the Lamb’s War

Through the Lamb’s War, Friends committed themselves to God’s project of liberating each and every soul and every part of the creation. They sought the restoration of all things to God’s order and kingdom by re-establishing the hearing and obeying relationship that humans had originally experienced with God in the Garden of Eden. The process of spiritual transformation experienced by early Friends convinced them that there would be no peace while two wills competed for supremacy (self-will and God’s will). The events enacted by the Lamb in their hearts (revelation, judgment, purging and restoration) were regarded as a microcosm of the events to be enacted throughout the whole of creation. Friends believed that the Lamb’s War would bring people to gospel order, which is God’s new creation.

5. Gospel Order – Right relationship

Quakers have tended to deny that the cosmos is random and chaotic in nature, and have argued instead that God has given an order to creation: Gospel Order. Although humans have become a dysfunctional element within this order, it is possible, by the transformative power of the Spirit of Christ, for people to be brought back into harmony with Gospel Order. Lloyd Lee Wilson has characterised Gospel Order as follows:

Gospel order is the order established by God that exists in every part of creation, transcending the chaos that seems so often prevalent. It is the right relationship of every part of creation, however small, to every other part and to the creator. Gospel order is the harmony and order which God established at the moment of creation, and which enables the individual aspects of creation to achieve that quality of being which God intended from the start, about which God could say “it was very good.

Wilson, Lloyd Lee (1993) p.1

This vision makes a distinction between the surface appearance of the fallen world and the deeper reality of God’s order for the creation (Dandelion 2005, p.30). Our brokenness stems from our alienation from God and our inability to see beyond surface appearances to the deeper reality. Salvation is, therefore, seen in terms of a journey back to unity with God and into harmony with Gospel order. This implies the restoration of mental and spiritual health and wholeness (Abbott 2010, p.23) and right relationship with other humans and with the whole of creation (Wilson 1996, p.6).

D. COnTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN PERsPECTIVES

A growing number of contemporary Christian theologians and biblical scholars are challenging the vision of the end times and the apocalypse as a process of violent conflict and destruction and affirming the alternative vision of the coming of God’s shalom within a renewed creation. What follows is a summary of some of this thinking.

1. The Return of Christ in Spirit

It is argued that since at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon all flesh (Acts 2:17) the Second Coming can be understood as the return of the risen Christ in Spirit (Borg 2011, p.195). This must be an inclusive process because everyone, without exception, is summoned to be part of the renewed world that God is remaking (Kurht 2011, p.48). Tom Wright has argued that the Spirit is given so that the church can share in the life and continuing work of Jesus himself, making God’s future present in the present (Wright 2011, p.105). This understanding has been particularly important to Quakers and is reflected in the great proclamation of the early movement that ‘Christ is come to teach his people himself’. If Christ’s Spirit is a living presence, then all claims of human authority are open to question. This is ‘the end’ of the delusion of human omniscience. In such circumstances, priority has to be given to collective discernment of the Spirit’s guidance and leadings.

2. Jesus is Lord of this World

The return of Christ in Spirit (the apocalypse of the Word) is also ‘the end’ of the delusion of human power and control. If Jesus is proclaimed Lord of this world, then this undermines all forms of human lordship. The apostle Paul proclaimed that Jesus is Lord and that through him, God’s eschatological age was breaking into the world (Kuhrt 2011, p.48). This eschatological age is associated with Jesus’ proclamation of the coming of the kingdom, bringing the great exile of humanity to an end and establishing the new creation (Kuhrt 2011, p.40). The ages of slavery and exile were ending and the age of God’s shalom had arrived.

3. The World Renewed, Not Destroyed!

When understood within its Jewish context, the Christian tradition affirms the goodness of God’s creation and rejects a dualism that views physical matter as evil, corrupt and inferior to the ‘spiritual’ realm. As a result, it asserts that the end times are not about the end or destruction of the world, but rather the earth’s transformation and renewal by a fresh act of God. This is what is really meant by the ‘good news’ (Kuhrt 2011, p.36). Therefore, the principal goal of Christianity is not to escape from this world, but rather to love the world and work with God to change it for the better (Borg 2011, p.193). This victory of the Lamb can only be achieved using the ‘weapons’ of Christ, which are humility, mercy, justice and compassion (Abbott 2010, p.106). Tom Wright has suggested that the beauty we glimpse in the creation as it currently is gives an indication of what will be accomplished when God renews heaven and earth (Wright 2011, p.200).

4. Heaven and Earth Overlap

Tom Wright has developed a unique understanding of the end times. He argues that heaven is God’s dimension of reality, and that God’s ultimate intention is to restore his creation by re-joining a renewed heaven with a renewed earth (Kuhrt 2011, p.38). God intends, in the end, to put the whole creation to rights in a full overlapping of heaven and earth (Wright 2011, p.185). We see this presented in chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation, in which the New Jerusalem comes to earth and there is a new heaven and a new earth. Given this, it is ironic that the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation is so often interpreted in terms of violent conflict and the destruction of the world.

5. The Church – God’s Vehicle

With the pouring out of Spirit at Pentecost, everyone is invited to contribute to the work of reconciliation to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth. The church is called to be the ‘Body of Christ’ in an almost literal sense; and as such continues his work within the world. When we become participants in God’s plan, we experience the joy of helping God to accomplish the divine purpose by taking responsibility in a world transformed (Gulley 2012, p.127). Tom Wright suggests that the church is caught up in the labour pains of a new world waiting to be born (Wright 2011, p.138). The main point of Christianity is to follow Jesus into the new world, God’s new world, which has been revealed to us in Jesus (Wright 2011, p.202).

E. References

Abbot, Margery Post (2010) To Be Broken and Tender: a Quaker theology for today (Western Friend)

Borg, Marcus J. (2011) Speaking Christian: recovering the lost meaning of Christian words (SPCK)

Dandelion, Pink (2005) The Liturgies of Quakerism (Ashgate)

Gulley, Philip (2012) The Evolution of Faith: how God is creating a better Christianity (Harper One)

Gwyn, Douglas (1986) Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox, 1624-1691 (Friends United Press)

Kuhrt, Stephen (2011) Tom Wright for Everyone: putting the Theology of N. T. Wright into practice in the local church (SPCK)

Wilson, Lloyd Lee (1996) Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order (FGC)

Wright, N. T. (2008) Jesus is Coming – Plant a Tree - in – The Green Bible (Collins)

Wright, Tom (2011) Simply Christian (SPCK)

Yoder, Perry (1987) Shalom: the Bible’s word for salvation, justice and peace (Evangel Publishing House)

10 comments:

  1. A wonderfully comprehensive yet succinct post Stuart! Thanks for the wonderful resource that is your Quaker alphabet!

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  2. That's very kind Mark, thank you! I really appreciate your blog postings too.

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  3. Thank you so much for this - I have been saying this for some time but not as well! In my new blog, 'The Reversed Standard Version' http://reversedstandard.wordpress.com/ the next post will be looking at the promise that God's plan is to restore 'all things' and how most of Christianity has turned that into God's plan to restore 'some people'.

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  4. Thank you Veronica, I look forward to reading your blog. I think you are absolutely right. The Christendom obsession with individual salvation and the blessed afterlife is a great perversion of the gospel and significant diversion from and the biblical vision.

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  5. Thanks for this in-depth and stimulating piece. It is very striking how close early Friends' understanding and practice of the Lamb's War is to Gandhi's 'satyagraha'. He also used explicitly militarist imagery of course, talking of 'nonviolent warriors' etc; as does Ephesians 6 for that matter - 'put on the full armour of God' etc. I sometimes wonder if we are missing something with our modern squeamishness about the language of conflict...

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  6. I agree Craig. I know that CYP took some criticism when they called their Woodbrooke course for children 'Spiritual Warriors'. I suppose the fact that the apocalyptic language of Revelation and Daniel has so often been misinterpreted and abused makes all this quite tricky. However, we may want to consider reclaiming this aspect of our heritage. It may well have value and contemporary relevance. It is always important to remember that these apocalyptic works were written by oppressed and relatively powerless people in the face of foreign occupation, exile and persecution.

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  7. Very nice, Stuart. Glad you've made this perspective so accessible and relevant.

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  8. Many thanks Jon. I really appreciate your encouraging comment!

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  9. Although apart we are not perfect, together we are meant to be. peacebewithus.com

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    1. Thanks for your comment 'Baker', I agree. Shalom, Stuart.

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