ACADEMIC theology during the 19th and early-20th centuries was marked by widespread rejection of eschatology. Scholars tended to assume that everything eschatological in the New Testament was the result of the misguided belief that Jesus would return within a generation, and that eschatology was one of the traditional add-ons that should be removed from reasonable and progressive Christian thought.
Such thought was largely aligned with social and political optimism: the world was getting better and better — why talk about the end of the world?
Two world wars later, that optimism had been shattered; and within a few decades a new discipline was arising within academia: political theology. German theologians began trying to understand how the Third Reich had arisen in their “Christian” nation. Latin American theologian-priests began considering Christian complicity in oppressive regimes and the structures of poverty.
In North America, women (at this stage, primarily white women) and people of African descent (at this stage, primarily men) were finding a voice in academic theology for the first time, and they grappled with the inherent sexism and racism of the Christianity around them — in the academy, in Church, and in society at large.
For most of these theologians, a reinvigorated eschatology was one of the outcomes of their struggles. Their eschatologies tended to be realised — bearing on the here and now — and born of the conviction that Jesus’s eschatological urgency was not so much a misguided chronology as it was the establishment of a concrete reality into which he invites his followers.
These theologies draw attention to the political potency of eschatology, and it has been evident throughout Christian history that eschatology is politically potent for both good and ill. Eschatological politics can be particularly disastrous, whether through the kinds of political extremism that often accompany convictions that the end of the world is immediately at hand, or through the political inertia and inattention to injustice which can accompany convictions that everything will be put right in a world yet to come.
But eschatological politics can also be particularly fruitful when they point us towards the ultimate realities that God intends for all creation. They invite us to participate in these, while reminding us that we cannot establish the Kingdom of our own will and work — God alone can redeem all creation.
I would argue that eschatological politics, at its best, resides in precisely this tension — this blend of courageous activism that flows from “the already” of Christian eschatology, and the modest patience that flows from “the not-yet”.
Some may worry that contemporary political concerns should not be imposed upon traditional doctrines; but this worry misunderstands the relationship between eschatology and politics. Eschatology has been political throughout Christian history, beginning in scripture itself. The Hebrew prophets looked towards a coming age in which God would act decisively to transform human society and all of creation. The judgement of nations, and the cessation of military conflict, were common to the descriptions of that coming age.
Jesus appealed to these prophecies when he proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was coming during his earthly ministry. Hebrew and Christian seers alike (in Daniel, Isaiah, and Revelation, in particular) wrote of their visions of human pretensions to ultimate political power crumbling before the true ultimacy of God in heaven, worshipped by multitudes.
CHRISTIAN eschatology in the West was shaped most profoundly by St Augustine, whose City of God became the touchstone for every subsequent theological conversation about eschatology and politics. He described the world as a time and place in which citizens of the heavenly city (made up of all those whose lives and worship are orientated towards God) are sojourning on earth alongside citizens of the earthly city (made up of all those whose lives and loves are orientated towards themselves).
The heavenly city was created in, and aims towards, divine love and peace, while the earthly city was created in, and is marked by, human striving and violence. The lives of the citizens of these two cities are intermingled in the saeculum, the existence we share together on earth in this time between the times.
Citizenship in the heavenly city points us back to our created intention, and forward to our ultimate destiny, which, for Augustine, had the dual effect of making earthly politics matter both more and less. They matter more because of the goodness of God’s created intention for human inter-relatedness and peace.
They matter less because the Empire, contrary to popular Christian sentiment at the time, was not the Kingdom come, and no earthly kingdom can fulfil its pretensions to ultimate power, justice or peace, which are found only in God.
In the end, a doctrine that centres on the Kingdom of God cannot help but be political. In fact, one way of defining Christian political theology is that it is the locus of Christian reflection on the relationship between the sovereignty of God, the kingship of Christ, and the structures of sovereignty and power on earth.
If God is the only true king, if the Church is in any sense the body on earth that represents the reign of Christ at the right hand of God the Father, and if human government is in any sense part of God’s plan for the ordering of human life, then the Christian Churches will always be faced with the question how to embody these claims in the already-but-not-yet time and place that is the world we share.
Dr Elizabeth Phillips is Tutor in Theology and Ethics at Westcott House, Cambridge. She is the author of Political Theology: A guide for the perplexed (T&T Clark, 2012).