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Preaching: Looking back to the future

18 March 2016

Eschatology is an incentive to make sure we are on the right road, says Sam Wells


Future perfect? The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, oil on panel, by Hieronymus Bosch (or follower), between 1500 and 1525 (Prado, Madrid)

Future perfect? The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, oil on panel, by Hieronymus Bosch (or follower), between 1500 and 1525 (Prado, Madrid)

THERE is a tendency in Anglican circles to assume that eschatology has been subcontracted to the Pentecostals, and to sense that an annual nod to the “already” and the “not yet” — accompanied by the customary distinction between D-Day (the resurrection, obviously) and VE Day (the Last Day, without the Lake of Fire) — is all that is required.

But such complacency betrays our social location. The difference between the rich and the poor is that the poor, on hearing of the Last Day, say “Bring it on!” — whereas the rich say, “Hold on a minute, can we stick with now for a bit longer, please?” Hope is the song of a weary throat. Its season is Advent. Death, judgement, heaven, and hell don’t go down too well at the Christingle, but they’re the things congregations worry about.

Preachers have to talk about heaven, otherwise congregations will exchange anodyne sympathies regarding “a thousand winds that blow” or passing “gently into the next room”. Such sentiments have no relation to scripture, no place for God, and no use for anything brought about by Jesus.

The danger of eschatology is that the more we look forward to the Jesus who is coming back, the less we look back to the Jesus who once came. Preaching is mostly about affirming the all-sufficiency of the latter, therefore too much of the former empties confidence that salvation has already come. None the less, the one thing the Church needs right now is the conviction of a future that is bigger than the past — a gift of God, not simply a construction of human progress.

For me, the recurring theme of eschatological preaching is this: It’s better to fail in a cause that will finally succeed, than to succeed in a cause that will finally fail. This is one of the most powerful lines in pastoral care. It’s also a pretty good definition of prophetic discipleship. A sermon that can illustrate both halves of this epigram, scripturally and anecdotally, has done most of what needs to be done to describe Christian hope. Stalin, Hitler, IS: there are many striking successes here, but all in a cause that would finally fail.

The martyrs, the bungled youth-weekend in Bideford, the peace process in Israel-Palestine: all are failures in a cause that will finally succeed.

I have written elsewhere about where the Church lies in God’s story. Adapting an idea from N. T. Wright, I see it as occupying Act Four of the great drama, preceded by Creation, Covenant, and Christ — and followed by Consummation (Samuel Wells, Improvisation, 2004).

The joy of this is that we can fail boldly, knowing that all that is unresolved by us at the end of Act Four will be transfigured and transformed by the Holy Spirit in Act Five. That’s the message given at Advent.

In the end, eschatology is shaping our identity by contemplating our end, or purpose. It says: “Don’t tell me where you’re coming from: tell me where you’re going.”


The Revd Dr Sam Wells is the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, and the author of many books, most recently A Nazareth Manifesto (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).

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