“If you believe that you’re going to leave and evacuate to somewhere else, then why do anything about this world?”
This question is not a new one. It is a very common indictment against interpreting the Bible in a literal way. After all, if we take the Bible literally, we discover a future in which people grow increasingly selfish, greedy, and brutal (2 Tim 3:1-5), wars will increase and the environment will become more and more unstable (Mt 24:7). As these things reach a crescendo, a third of all the vegetation is burned up (Rev 8:7), a third of all life in the sea is destroyed (Rev 8:9), a third of the world’s fresh waters become polluted (Rev 8:10-11), a third of humanity is killed by war (Rev 9:15), and if that isn’t enough, a third of the sun, moon, and stars fail to give their light (Rev 8:12). Adding insult to injury, heaven and earth passes away (Rev 21:1) with a roar and intense heat (2 Pet 3:10). Of course before most of this horror even begins to takes place, believers in Jesus are safely whisked away to their peaceful, heavenly home (1 Thes 4:13-17). Surely, this is a recipe for apathy, self-interest, irresponsibility, and even fatalism, right? Let’s take a second look.
Some have attempted to resolve the apparent pessimism of these prophecies by interpreting Biblical prophecy in a non-literal way. By characterizing much of the prophetic literature as apocalyptic in genre, interpreters can easily dispense with the pesky implications of literalism in favor of a much more pliable spiritualized or allegorized meaning. George Eldon Ladd describes apocalyptic literature as having two definitive characteristics: “The apocalypses use highly symbolic language to describe a series of events in history; and the main concern of apocalyptic is the end of the age and the establishment of God’s kingdom.” Presumably because of the assumption of those two characteristics in Daniel and Revelation, he concludes that Daniel and Revelation both belong to the apocalyptic genre.
While Ladd, in this context, relies on genre presuppositions to help alleviate difficulties, others have not concerned themselves with genre, but instead have simply adopted hermeneutic principles that allowed for greater freedom in understanding the text. Origen of Alexandria, for example, preferred the allegorical interpretation to the literal. Duncan Ferguson describes this preference as “the most important presupposition of Origen’s position,” and observes its advantage: “By this hermeneutical approach he is able to reconcile the inspiration of Scripture…with all its textual discrepancies and embarrassing passages…for Origen, the Bible says one thing and means another.” Allegorical or genre reinterpretation methods applied to various prophetic passages allows for several eschatological models. These models are somewhat distinctive, but all share interesting traits in common.
Postmillennialism is “that view of the last things which holds that the kingdom of God is now being extended in the world through the preaching of the gospel and the saving work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of individuals, that the world eventually is to be Christianized and that the return of Christ is to occur at the close of a long period of righteousness and peace commonly called the millennium.”
Historic premillennialism (the term preferred by George Eldon Ladd) suggests, “The New Testament does not make the reign of Christ one that is limited to Israel in the millennium. It is a spiritual reign in heaven which has already been inaugurated, and its primary purpose is to destroy Christ’s spiritual enemies, the last of which is death.” Ladd’s historic premillennialism is also similar to progressive dispensationalism, which recognizes an already not yet component of the kingdom.
Amillennialism teaches that there is no literal millennium reign of Christ on earth. “The millennium of Revelation 20 is not exclusively future but is now in process of realization.”
Preterism is an interpretation of (especially) Daniel and Revelation as having been either entirely (as in full preterism) or mostly (as in partial preterism) fulfilled in 70 A.D. In both varieties, there is understood to be a present form of God’s kingdom on earth.
C.H. Dodd popularized the concept of realized (or presently being fulfilled) eschatology in the early twentieth century. He understood Jesus’ kingship not as a future literal reign on earth, but rather a present spiritual one in a non-wordly sense. Dodd suggests, “The kingship of the Messiah is the sovereignty of the Truth which He reveals and embodies. In virtue of this He demands obedience from all men.”
While each of the above eschatological paradigms is distinctive, they share a common reliance on allegorism and/or genre reinterpretation in order to conclude that the kingdom of God is presently in effect on earth, to one degree or another. Even significant contingents of dispensational premillennialists, who generally try to avoid allegorism, acknowledge some form of the kingdom during the present church age. John Walvoord, for example, observes that Matthew 13 “deals with the kingdom of heaven in its mystery form, that is, the kingdom of heaven as it will be fulfilled in the present age before the Second Coming.” If there is a here and now manifestation of the kingdom, then Dodd’s point is compelling, when he declares that Jesus demands obedience of all men. For when Jesus reigns, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil 2:10). If He is presently reigning, then universal submission is in view.
Realized eschatology, in its various forms, has profound political and societal implications. The following are a few pertinent statements from the websites of some organizations grounded in realized eschatology:
” …This future America will be again a “city on a hill” drawing all nations to the Lord Jesus Christ and teaching them to subdue the earth for the advancement of His kingdom.”
” …COR’s (Coalition on Revival) mission is to ‘help the church rebuild civilization on the principles of the Bible so God’s will may be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
“The ICE (Institute for Christian Economics) exists in order to serve Christians and other people who are vitally interested in finding moral solutions to the economic crisis of our day.”
“It is not only our duty as individuals, families and churches to be Christian, but it is also the duty of the state, the school, the arts and sciences, law, economics, and every other sphere to be under Christ the King. Nothing is exempt from His dominion…Chalcedon’s activities include foundation and leadership roles in Christian reconstruction. Our emphasis on the Cultural or Dominion Mandate (Genesis 1:28) and the necessity of a return to Biblical Law has been a crucial factor in the challenge to Humanism by Christians in this country and elsewhere.”
My intention in reproducing the above comments is not to besmirch these organizations or the people that represent them – I expect that many of the people involved in these organizations truly love the Lord and seek to be good citizens. I simply wish to underscore the prevalence of the idea among those willing to utilize a non-literal hermeneutic, that political and economic efforts can advance the kingdom of God. It is not that these organizations are necessarily wrong in their political and economic efforts (of course we should be politically and economically engaged and responsible), but they are grounded in an eschatological idea that a here and now form of the kingdom demands obedience not just from believers, but also from all society. In short, we are in a theocracy; we just aren’t being consistent in administering it.
In contrast to realized eschatology paradigms, Stanley Toussaint (correctly, I believe) understands Jesus’ instructions regarding the mysteries of the kingdom as not pertaining to a here and now form of the kingdom. “This new age would not be the promised kingdom, nor would it be, strictly speaking, a kingdom in the so-called ‘mystery form…’ However there is one sense in which the kingdom can be said to exist in this period in that a portion of the people who shall inherit the kingdom live during this age.” For clarity he adds, “The kingdom exists in this intercalation only in the sense that the sons of the kingdom are present. But strictly speaking the kingdom of the heavens in Matthew 13 refers to the prophesied and coming kingdom on the earth.”
In a literal interpretation of the Biblical teachings on the kingdom of Christ (or the kingdom of the heavens, as Matthew puts it), God, as Creator and Sovereign, has an eternal spiritual (i.e., non-earthly) kingdom. While initially at creation it appeared that kingdom would have an earthly manifestation through Adam and Eve, the first couple lost their qualification for dominion (cf. Gen 1:26-28 and Gen 9:7). Not until God’s covenant with David (2 Sam 7) are we introduced to God’s future method for bringing that kingdom to earth. Jesus came announcing that kingdom (He being the King), but He and the kingdom were rejected, and consequently the kingdom for which the disciples were to pray (“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” Mt 6:10), was postponed until the return of Christ and His subsequent inauguration as King (Rev 19-20). During the interim period, those who believe in Christ are rescued from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of His beloved Son (Col 1:13).
Paul clarifies that this transfer is a positional shift for the believer. The believer has a citizenship with Christ in heaven, and that citizenship is presently not manifest, or revealed, on earth – but someday will be (Col 2:20-3:4). In the meantime, Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, awaiting the beginning of that kingdom (Ps 110:1-2, Acts 2:34-36, 5:30-32, Rom 8:34, Eph 1:20, Heb 1:3,13, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2, and 1 Pet 3:22). If we understand these passages literally, then the kingdom is not here and it is not now – in any form. Consequently, the literalist cannot appeal to the advancement of the kingdom on earth for social-political motivation. The kingdom is inaugurated by Christ, and not by His people. While people will participate with Him in its administration (Rev 20:4), the coming kingdom on earth is the fulfillment of covenant promises, accomplished by God.
Having observed the marked contrast between realized and unrealized eschatological perspectives, we can easily understand how realized eschatology grounds socio-political activity. In that view, the theocracy is here (at least to some degree and in some form), and believers are responsible to advance it. However, in the unrealized eschatology model (represented by a segment of dispensational premillennial thinkers, including me), the kingdom is entirely absent, having not yet been inaugurated. In this model, believers are to demonstrate the moral qualities of the kingdom (being positionally citizens of it), yet they are offered no mandates for the advancement of the kingdom. Consequently, the believer who concludes in favor of unrealized eschatology must ground socio-political activity and social and civic responsibility on some other foundation than a here and now kingdom manifestation that should be augmented by the actions of the believer.
It would seem easy to conclude that believers who advocate for unrealized eschatology would possess no compelling motivation to be of earthly good right here and right now. But just as those believers interpret eschatological passages literally, so also must they interpret literally the prescriptions attached to them. After Peter discusses the coming destruction of the earth, he adds, “Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness…be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Pet 3:10-12).
After Paul warns Timothy of the continuing downward slope of humanity, he charges, “You, however, continue in the things you have learned…the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:14-17).
After Paul instructs believers about the hope of resurrection,” he exhorts believers to “comfort one another with these words” (1 Thes 4:18), and charges, “…you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober” (1 Thes 5:4-5).
Finally, after revealing (for the benefit of the churches, Rev 22:16) the incredible conclusion to God’s earthly story, Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming quickly. Blessed is he who heeds the words of the prophecy of this book…Behold, I am coming quickly and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done” (Rev 22:7, 12). It is important to note that Jesus speaks to a generation that He knew would not be on the planet at the time of his return (in a literal interpretation of passages like Jn 14:1-4; 1 Cor 15:50-53 and 1 Thes 4:13-18, the church is taken to heaven before the events of Rev 4-22 take place). Nonetheless, just as does Peter and Paul, Jesus presents the eschatological program as a motivator for godliness here and now.
Jesus’ kingdom isn’t here, and it isn’t now – but many of its citizens are. The Bible offers clear instruction to those citizens that there is urgency in doing what is right – “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith (Gal 6:10). There is no room in the life of the believer for apathy, self-interest, irresponsibility, or fatalism. Eschatology matters, and the absence of the kingdom should make the heart grow fonder to know and to please Him.
This article is an excerpt from Christopher Cone, The Bible in Government and Society, Tyndale Seminary Press, 2011.
 Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2011), 46.
 George Eldon Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, Robert G. Clouse, Ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1977), 32.
 Duncan S. Ferguson, Biblical Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1986), 144.
 Millennialism refers to the time of Jesus’ return in relation to the millennium, or kingdom. Postmillennialism – Christ returns after the millennium. Premillennialism – Christ returns before the millennium. Amillennialism – there is no literal millennium.
 Loraine Boettner, “Postmillennialism” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, Robert G. Clouse, Ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1977), 117.
 George Eldon Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism,” 29.
 Ladd’s view included an earthly reign of Christ after His second coming, but understood that Christ was presently reigning as king. Ladd justified Christ’s present reign on the premise that “Lordship and kingship are interchangeable terms” (Ladd, 30), and consequently understood that Peter “under inspiration, has transferred the throne of David from Jerusalem – Zion (Ps 110:2) – to heaven” (Ladd, 31).
 Anthony A. Hoekema, “Amillennialism” in in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, Robert G. Clouse, Ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1977), 155.
 Preterism is from the Latin, praeter, meaning beyond or past.
 C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge, UK: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1953), 229.
 John Walvoord, Prophecy Knowledge Handbook (Dallas, TX: Dallas Seminary Press, 1984), 369.
 American Vision, “About:Vision,” at http://americanvision.org/about/#.T-krbitYta8. Viewed 6/25/2012.
 Gary North, “ What is the ICE” at http://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/whatsice.htm. Viewed 6/25/2012.
 The Chalcedon Foundation, “Our Ministry” at http://chalcedon.edu/about/. Viewed 6/25/2012.
 Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1980), 171-172.
 Ibid., 172.