In the last post in this series, I insisted that helping our youth think about their eschatology can help them in several ways. That is because, if someone actually believes in an eschatology, it is foundational to their worldview. We’ll talk about it more next week, but Christianity is essentially eschatological, so this is a big deal! The difference in a couple details your youth probably assume has a big impact on their interest in mission, their wrestling with doubt, their understanding of vocation, and a half dozen other things.
Check out this first chart. It shows human history the way many of our youth assume Christianity talks about it.
This chart shows a timeline of human history. God created the world to be good, as we see in Genesis 1. Then sin entered the world, and corruption came with it. Pain and suffering show up. Most of the human history that your youth are familiar with takes place in this situation (the long line on bottom). The eschatology comes at the end: the entire Earth is destroyed, and most humans die and go to hell. A few, saved by Jesus, get to leave like Kal-El escaping Krypton, and go live in Heaven. Now, you might disagree with a point or two here, but this is basically what many Americans assume Christianity teaches. Chances are high your youth believe this, more or less.
Our youth learn two things that this chart teaches.
First, their current lives do not matter. Look at the chart again and ask what happens to everything that human beings do except help people connect to escape-pod Jesus. It is destroyed! Like K.P. Yohannan pointed out in last week’s post, not much matters other than helping people avoid hell.
Second, they learn that God doesn’t care very much about the Earth around them. That’s both because the Earth around them will be destroyed and because the ones who are saved become disembodied spirit-people who live in a non-physical place called Heaven.
Imagine what those ideas do to your attempts to discuss service and mission in your church (unless your mission projects aim solely at proselytization). You’re undermined before you even begin! Further, if not addressed and challenged, your youth who are predisposed to care about service, mission, or social justice will face a fundamental tension between their understanding of Christianity and their love of neighbor. Based on what we know about tendencies in Millennials to care deeply about justice issues, this is a huge problem.
If this is what the Bible actually teaches, then fine. We would have to wrestle with that. The problem is, almost no theologians believe this! Almost no one believes this is what Jesus, or Paul, or Peter believed. The church has not taught this historically. Though it gets less press, even dispensationalist theologians believe that things end with new heavens and a new earth. Heaven is not our home, regardless of what Building 429 thinks. The new Earth is. God’s plan for fixing the fall is not to abandon Earth altogether (taking us to a non-physical existence), but to heal Earth. Now, how exactly the new heavens and new Earth work, and their relationship to the current earth, these things are all debated amongst various theologians. Our churches disagree on these sorts of details. But let’s look at the basics of what we all agree on, and see that we get a radically different chart:
As you can see, this story is much different from the first chart! In this story, the fall happens, and God sends Jesus to fix it. God’s ultimate plan is not to destroy the earth, but to fix it (or create a new one, depending on how you understand the new creation). As the prophets hoped, one day “the lion will lay down with the lamb,” and justice will be restored. Human society endures, as we see at the end of Revelation, even though it is radically transformed. “The heavenly city came down, and God said, “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them (Rev. 21:3, NIV).” restoring the relationships from Genesis 1.
The work you do matters. The service projects, the mission trips, all the good works your church does matter. They matter because God cares about them, and isn’t planning to destroy them. The lives your youth live are important, and not only because God is waiting to see if they will convert or not (though that may also be very important). In my experience, discussing this with youth doesn’t pay off immediately. It takes a lot of work to undermine the first chart. But, particularly if you combine these sorts of conversations with trip prep for a mission trip, year after year, these ideas pay off.
But why does the line from the Cross to the New Creation slant in Chart 2? Tune in next week, when we talk about the centrality of eschatology in 20th-century theology, the Already but Not Yet Kingdom, and why it matters to your youth.
Questions for Discussions
It can be difficult to use questions this big as discussion starters! I’ve typically incorporated these ideas into the way I talk about my Christian hope more than into questions for youth. If I have actual discussions about eschatology, I try to start it off at retreats, or situations where youth will be more deeply engaged for longer times. Eventually, 15 minutes in youth group pays off, but not initially.
- What happens at the end of time?
- What things around you are messed up? Things you might wish God would fix? (Because God will ultimately fix them!)
- What things around you seem good, and worth saving? (Because God is saving those things! This statement might need refinement based on your working out of the details here. However, this way of thinking generally feeds eschatological hope, which is incredibly fruitful.)
- Does God care about the earth around us? Do you?
- What is the point of Christianity?
- What is Jesus doing in the world, or if you prefer, What is God doing in the world through Jesus?
For Further Reading
I made a generalization or two about Dispensational Premillennialism in this post for the sake of readability. If you’re interested in Dispensationalism or Premillennialism more generally, check out Theopedia’s article on Premillennialism, or the Wikipedia article of the same name. Both are good, though they have different strengths. Both also make debatable claims but remain good introductions.
NT Wright, one of the most important New Testament Scholars today, writes on this topic extensively. Because he is also a bishop, Wright is very good at also writing for regular people, in addition to his academic work. I recommend a book of his below, but you can see much of his thought in this sermon, given at the dedication of a church. Zondervan generously shared the first session of the DVD discussion guide to the book on YouTube, and Wright has a discussion about his views on YouTube here.
Hope Against Hope: Christian Eschatology at the Turn of the Millennium, Trevor Hart and Richard Bauckham. It’s not the easiest read, but this review summarizes many of the core points of this book.
Surprised by Hope, by NT Wright. Wright’s excellent book examines understandings of the resurrection in Judaism around the time of Jesus, which winds up clarifying what the New Testament is talking about (Hint: it’s not just dying and going to heaven). It also emphasizes the parts of eschatology that are more helpful in forming Christian identity in youth. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Zondervan generously shared the first session of the DVD discussion guide to the book on YouTube, and it’s a good introduction.
Check out passages that talk about what the Kingdom of God/The New Creation will be like. To be fair, different understandings of eschatology sometimes put these passages at different points in (future) history, but most of us understand these passages to be indicative of what to expect in the New Creation. Isaiah 11, Isaiah 65:17-25, Revelation 21, 2 Peter 3:11-13.
Stephen Hale is Director of Youth Ministries at First United Methodist Church Redondo Beach. He is also Director of International Programs for INALIENABLE, a non-profit working for the dignity of migrants. He received a BA in Social Sciences from BIOLA, an MA in Theology from Fuller, and is finishing an M.Div from Claremont School of Theology in May (he hopes). You can keep up with him at STEPHENPHALE.WORDPRESS.COM.