Have you ever tried building a house of cards? God must not have blessed me with the necessary patience. Now that I think about it, I don’t have enough patience to walk between my front door and my car, let alone to sit and spend an hour leaning playing cards against each other.
I did, however, build a few back in the day, when I was a child and had unlimited time and little imagination. The proper way to build a house of cards is to take two new playing cards and carefully lean them together in the shape of a “V.” After creating several “V’s,” you place more playing cards flat on top of them. The problem comes when you get about two or three levels high. If you’re like most people, your house of cards soon becomes structurally unsound and then topples to the ground, causing an amazing amount of frustration and the desire to banish card-house building from all human civilization.
Well, I look at eschatology in a very similar way that I see houses of cards. They are elaborate structures based on logical conclusions drawn from leaning one interpretation against another. As we pile up conclusion upon conclusion, our systems become more and more complex, until they are straining under the weight of human logic and not biblical principle. I think we all mean well, but that doesn’t stop us from looking down our noses at people who buy into a different house of cards than we do.
For a long time, I have thought about becoming an eschatological agnostic. I don’t mean that I don’t care about the end times or even that I don’t have an eschatology of my own. What I mean by this phrase is that I recognize the complexity of this issue and believe that humility and honest searching not combativeness should be the norm.
When I first started out as a pastor, I found myself intentionally avoiding the subject of eschatology. Why? Why would I ignore such a large part of the counsel of God? The answer is easy and can be summed up in one word, fear. I didn’t want to come to a conclusion other than the party line. I cared more about having a job than following my conscience. And, I am not alone. In my interactions over the years I have found many pastors and professors who feel the same way. They feel restrained from dealing honestly with the Bible out of fear of their eschatology being used as a litmus test against them in the future. Is that what you want from your pastors and professors? Or would you rather your pastor feel free to deal as honestly as he can with the Scripture before him? My mentor modeled this honesty for me, and I have found that it characterizes my own ministry, for good or for ill.
There are two types of churches that are the norm when it comes to eschatology. First, there are the “my way or the highway” churches. These churches are passionate in their point of view and either outright claim or imply that those who disagree with them are heretics. I absolutely love the church I grew up in, but when I was a teenager it was this type of church. I remember as a budding youth in a very dispensational church that we had an A-mill youth leader. To this day I don’t know what he was doing at our church. He had to be frustrated out of his mind.
At one point he began to teach a Sunday school about the different end-times views. He explained to us briefly the difference between various takes on the millennium. I remember being very interested as a kid, because I didn’t even know that other views existed! Even the names of these views sounded glamorous to me. However, all hopes of hearing more about them were dashed. The very next Sunday that particular youth leader wasn’t up front anymore; instead our pastor was up front, towing the partyline. To this day I have no real idea what happened, but I know what I assume.
The other kind of church is the “O we don’t talk about that” church. These churches avoid any difficult issue because it has the potential to be divisive. They don’t want to say anything to offend people or rock the boat, so they ignore complex issues all together. Have you ever asked yourself, “Why can’t there be a third kind of church?” A kind of church where main doctrines such as the deity of Christ, salvation by faith, the trinity, and the inspiration of the Bible are embraced with gusto, while secondary complex doctrine are held with open hands. Held loosely, but still not ignored. A kind of church where people are free to hold a different opinion and state it plainly without the fear of being labeled divisive or a heretic. I am sure churches like this are out there, but I fear they are the exception and not the rule.
I know that by labeling myself an eschatological agnostic I am endangering myself, especially from the community of faith that I grew up in and cherish. My point isn’t to say they are wrong; it is to ask for a degree of humility and teachability. Maybe the systems are so big and the Scripture it is based on so complicated to interpret with precision that we should be careful what we label orthodox and what we label heresy. Maybe our assumptions and logic have crept in, set up shop, and skewed how we look at major passages of Scripture. In this blog I want to look at the concept of eschatology on a variety of different levels: hermeneutics, exegesis, logic, and theology. My aim is not to create a new system, but to open an honest dialogue, and to push us toward the understanding that this issue is not as easy as some would have us believe.