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Participationist Eschatology

by Mark Horne

copyright © 2003

I once saw “eschatology” defined as the study of edible French snails. But it really means the doctrine of the last things in Christian theology. In American Evangelical culture it is usually reduced to science fiction stories. But for the Apostle Paul it was actually the key to the Christian life and faith.

As Saul the Pharisee, who was converted and eventually changed his name to Paul, was driven by Eschatology. The Israel of his day was under the domination of foreign powers. Rome ruled Judea, used the Edomite family of Herod to help (the Edomites were long-standing enemies of the Jews), and kept in place a corrupt and unbelieving priesthood at the Temple in Jerusalem. From all this, Saul longed for liberation (Acts 23.6).

This promised liberation would ultimately mean, thought Saul, resurrection from the dead (Daniel 12.1-3). At that time all the promises to the patriarchs would finally come true and the curse would be lifted. Either at that time or before, God would move to restore Israel to their land and defeat the pagan powers—a metaphorical resurrection (Ezekiel 37ff).

Saul may have speculated on what it was like for one’s disembodied soul after death. But his real hope in God was fixed on much more concrete matters. He was hoping for the fulfillment of all God’s promises, a new heavens and a new earth for the people of God. Since many saints had already died, he knew that God must be willing to raise them to new life so that they could experience those future blessings. In addition to Daniel’s prophecy of a resurrection of the righteous and the wicked, watching wicked men being gathered to their fathers quietly on their beds surrounded by grandchildren also told him that God must be willing to raise unbelievers to eternal judgment as well.

But in the meantime, what was he to do? He needed to live as someone who trusted God to keep his promises. Those who wait upon the Lord will be delivered, he knew. So he endeavored to be faithful in the things God had commanded. He valued the covenant God had made with his fathers. And when he heard of a new group of people who were claiming that the central features of God’s covenant with Israel were temporary and about to be removed (things like the Temple in Jerusalem or the Law of Moses) he was zealously opposed to them. These people followed a man named Jesus who misled the people and died in a way that proved he was cursed by God, hanging from a tree (Galatians 3.13).

Saul was so opposed to these people that he even traveled far away to persecute not only the leaders, but also men and women (Acts 9.2). But on the way there he met Jesus in the flesh–transfigured, glorified flesh that was so bright it blinded!

Suddenly, Saul had to face his future hope staring him in the face, a future hope that he was literally not ready to face. All the promises had come true. Israel had suffered under pagans and compromised and corrupt priesthood long enough. Israel had been taken prisoner to Gentiles with the help of the nation’s unfaithful members, and even put to death. Even in death Israel was a prisoner under the power of the nations (Matthew 27.66; c.f. Isaiah 26). God had rescued faithful Israel–and faithful Israel was one man, Jesus.

Now, even thought Caesar knew nothing about it, the Herodians still grabbed power, and the priesthood cooperated with them, Saul knew that the resurrection he had hoped for had happened, not at the end of history, but at the beginning of it. Jesus had been vindicated in being raised up to new life by God’s Spirit–“justified by the Spirit” (First Timothy 3.16).

The very first thing Jesus told him was that he was to be identified with the people whom Saul wished to kill: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Not: “Why are you persecuting the Church?” but “Why are you persecuting me?” Those who now followed Jesus were counted as his and he theirs so they were reckoned as having experienced what Jesus had already gone through.

This had many implications but one of the most immense was that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8.1). Those who trust in the God who raised up Jesus have no future judgment to fear. If we follow Jesus we are participants in his new life. That means that at the Last Day, when we will all be raised to new life, those who are found to be “in Christ” (Philippians 3.9), will be openly acknowledged as God’s family and acquitted of any accusation against them.

Think of Judgment Day as a long line outside the movie theatre where people hope they have enough cash to buy tickets (but in fact are far too in debt to do so). Those who follow Christ have their tickets given to them ahead of time. They get waved on through without having to stop at the cash register.

That’s what is meant by “participationist eschatology.”

copyright © 2003

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