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Manual of ideas about how it ends

by
25 September 2015

Martyn Percy admires clarity of judgement

T & T Clark Handbook of Christian Eschatology
Markus Mühling (translated by Jennifer Adams-Maßmann and David Andrew Gilland)
Bloomsbury T & T Clark £24.99
(978-0-567-63282-1)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT475)

 

ECOLOGICAL catastrophe? Nuclear war? Incurable disease, or a devastating viral pandemic? Global warming, followed by biblical floods? Apocalypse? There is no end to the theories on how the world might end.

Markus Mühling’s excellent textbook offers a systematic introduction to eschatology. The first part introduces historical approaches to eschatology. The second part explores eschatology in light of doctrines of God and Christ. The third part is devoted to different concepts of the relationship between eternity and time, space and infinitude, as well as the question what is good, true, and beautiful.

So, just how does it all end? Will the trumpet sound, with Christ physically returning to the earth, before ushering in the millennium — a golden age of peace (as premillennialists believe)? Or, do you subscribe to postmillennialism — an interpretation of Revelation 20, which sees Christ’s second coming as occurring after the millennium?

Or perhaps you believe that there is no need to subscribe to Jesus’s having a literal, thousand-year-long, physical reign on the earth? In that case, you would be an amillennialist, who believes that the millennium has already begun and is concurrent with our ecclesial era. But, even at the end of this, our church age, Christ will return, and there will be a final judgement, followed by the establishment of a new heaven and a new earth.

Then again, perhaps you prefer the version of the end favoured by premillennial dispensationalists? Here, the second coming of Christ is preceded by a seven-year "tribulation". This doctrinal avenue is often favoured by more tribally orientated fundamentalists. Those who teach it believe that before the tribulation, there will be a Rapture — the sudden taking away of those on earth who are truly faithful, with the word "rapture" meaning, literally, "to seize" or "snatch away".

Those who follow this teaching believe Christ’s coming will be a sudden and secret affair. The faithful — living and departed — will all rise in the air to meet with the Lord. This is a literal reading of scriptures such as Matthew 24 and Luke 17: "there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one will be left; two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one will be left. . . therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming." Hence the bumper stickers sometimes seen in the United States: "Caution — Keep Your Distance: In the Event of the Rapture, this Car will be Unmanned".

And, if you are raptured, you will have a heavenly ringside seat for the remaining action on earth. The nation of Israel will be saved and restored, while the rest of us toil away sorting out the wheat from chaff and the sheep from goats. God will eventually come and get the also-rans.

Most people who believe in premillennial dispensationalism will not be expecting your average Church Times reader to make the first cut (i.e. raptured). It is a moot point whether it is better to have seven years in the exclusive company of a small group of fundamentalists who did actually interpret the scriptures correctly this time, or several hundred years with a lot of Anglicans who will be even more confused than usual. But I’ll leave it to you to decide on that.

So, as you can see, eschatology is not exactly straightforward. And this excellent guide, the English translation of a book first published in German in 2007, takes the reader through the scriptural, doctrinal, and historical interpretations of the Parousia. Mühling has executed his subject with brevity and brilliance. For anyone teaching this subject, or simply trying to prepare for some Advent sermons, the book offers a masterclass in clarity, cutting through the complexity of the "end times", and enabling the reader to grasp the essentials.

So, a story to end on. Recently, a Midlands Charismatic congregation rang their local Anglican church, asking whether they could borrow as many chairs as possible from the parish hall. The reason? The congregation was holding a watchnight of prayer at the weekend, after which they were expecting Christ to return. "But don’t worry," said the caller. "We only want to borrow the chairs — we’ll return them on Monday."

The reasoning is not as daft as it sounds. These folk are just peaceful premillennialists — not amillennialists, postmillennialists, or dispensationalists. For premillennialists, Christ will indeed be back, and probably sometime soon. But, in the mean time, there are still many, many years of stacking chairs in parish halls to get to grips with.

 

The Very Revd Dr Martyn Percy is the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. He is the Professor of Theological Education at King’s College, London.

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