Discussions of eschatology (the study of end things) often get wrapped up in debates about interpretive themes for the book of Revelation, attempts to equate different symbols with different contemporary events, and predictions of the date of Christ’s return (several of which I’ve seen come and go in my lifetime!). What I loved about this book by John Phelan is that he focused on how the future hope we embrace can practically shape our lives as individuals and church communities in the present.
Hope is a theme that runs through the book, and even through the chapter titles. Phelan begins by exploring the hope of Israel and the promises to Israel fulfilled in the breaking in of the kingdom of God in the person of Jesus. That fulfillment is both present and future and in fact the church in mission brings the future into the present through its hopeful life. At the same time this is not a hope that should be diverted into accommodations with political powers. Phelan traces the sad history of this from Constantine to the present and our call to be a counter-cultural people of hope in the Lord who will make all things new. Because of this hope of creation renewed and the resurrection of Jesus, we believe that this renewal will extend to the resurrection of our bodies. Our hope is not to be disembodied souls floating around heaven but saints with new creation bodies in the new creation on earth.
Phelan then turns to the strange hope of judgment that actually is good news, that God will set things right. While he argues that descriptions of heaven and hell are metaphorical, he does believe in a reality behind these metaphors and the possibility that God will honor the choices of those who refuse heaven while arguing that we may depend upon “the judge of the world will do right.” While arguing against purgatory as an intermediate state or process, he allows for the possibility of healing and growth to fully realize God’s image in us.
He goes on to explore in more depth the idea of the coming of the kingdom, which was not “the end of the world as we know it” but the coming of God’s rule into the world. He argues that the community of those who are under the rule of Jesus are a reflection but not the coming of this kingdom in its fullness. It is a community whose life should anticipate mending the rifts in the world as a people of peace and reconciliation. The church at the same time is not to consider either personal renewal or societal renewal to replace the ultimate personal return of Jesus. This expectation also provides hope in the midst of empire, whether that be the power of Rome or western capitalism. Against both amillenialism and premillenialism, he argues for the personal reign of Jesus on earth, leaning toward a type of post-millenialism. With regard to Israel, he argues against supercessionism (i.e. that the church has superceded Israel) to propose the salvation of the Jews alongside Gentiles. He argues that perhaps the most powerful witness to the Jews is to manifest Christ’s transforming power in living lives of shalom in the world, bringing peace rather than conflict. He recounts a conversation where a Jewish rabbi, in response to sharing along these lines says, “Well, we Jews have not seen it.”
And so he concludes with what it means for the church to bring its hope for the future into the present. It is the living of shalom, this mending of the world lived out in service, in mission, in play, and celebration. It is to do so without corrupting alliances with political powers or structures of ecclesial power. It is proclaiming the God who both respects human freedom while entering into the suffering caused by the misshapen exercise of that freedom.
Some may take exception to the author’s ideas about the millenium and about judgment. What is incontestable is the challenge to live into the new creation hope of the risen Lord which means living toward the peaceable kingdom to come. This challenges our false hopes in technology and political structures while calling us to lives of great joy, humble service and abiding hope. What Phelan has given us is a book about the future enabling us to live with hope in the present.