Ideas have consequences. Theology matters. These are common phrases because theology has consequences. We can’t escape the system in systematic theology. Every belief exists within a web of beliefs. And shifting a piece should shift the web.

These quotes, one from dispensationalist Hal Lindsey and the other from Postmillennialist Kenneth Gentry, hint at the consequences of eschatology.

“When we meet Christ face to face, we’re going to look back on this life and see that things we thought were important here were like the discarded toys of our childhood. What a way to live! With optimism, with anticipation, with excitement. We should be living like persons who don’t expect to be around much longer.” – Hal Lindsey The Late Great Planet Earth

“Should we brace ourselves for the worst and, as Hal Lindsey urged us almost a half-century ago, “live like people who don’t expect to be around much longer”? Or may we look to the future as lying before a conquering Church, which has already endured the great tribulation and now seeks victory in the world over the long haul?” – Kenneth Gentry Navigating the Book of Revelation

Many reading this article don’t fall into the camp of dispensational premillennial or postmillennial eschatology. Others may not be familiar with any of the historic positions. These two positions were chosen, not because of popularity or correctness, but because they best highlight the consequences of eschatology for practical living and ministry.

Ardent pre-tribulation premillennials and postmillennials are often the loudest voices in eschatology. You may find out pretty quickly if you are talking to a pre or postmil Christian.

This is good.

Eschatology has Consequences

My goal isn’t to solve debates about the rapture, mark of the beast, dating of Revelation, millennium, or any other topic in eschatology. I simply want to say eschatology has consequences. We should not seek to break fellowship over such issues. But we should recognize that dispensational Hal Lindsey and postmillennial Kenneth Gentry prescribe very different ways for Christians, and the church, to live in the present.

American history reveals the divide. The optimistic eschatology, widely held by the Puritans, contributed to their building of Christian societies.

The pessimistic view of history before the return of Christ, of early dispensational theologians, has its own consequences.

Albert Mohler recently hosted an interview with Benjamin Friedman on the theological roots of capitalism. Theology has consequences. Mohler recalled that BIOLA and Moody Bible Institute had a doctrinal dispute about who believed in a more imminent return of Christ. BIOLA jabbed at Moody because Moody was building with stone—implying the buildings would be around for a while. Theology has consequences—even for how we should build.

If you believe in an imminent return of Christ and rapture, you should live like it. If you believe the church is going to Christianize society through the Great Commission, you should live like it. These two positions are on opposite sides of the spectrum, but they agree that eschatology has consequences.

The Study of Eschatology is the Study of Earth’s Telos

Pan-millennials don’t take a hard position but believe it will all pan out in the end. In a sense, we’re all pan-millennial because none of us know—with certainty—the exact date of Christ’s bodily return. This has led many Christians to conclude, based on the level of complexity and disagreement, that there is little practical value from studying eschatology.

The topic is difficult, but not impossible. And it’s extremely practical.

A telos (end or purpose) is an ultimate aim. Eschatology is talking about the ultimate aim of the earth culminating in the new heavens and earth. This is why some theologians, such as Michael Bird, include eschatology near the beginning of their systematic theologies.

How you live now is correlated with how you believe God is working towards eternity.

Where is history headed? How are Christians supposed to live on this side of heaven? We know history will be consummated with the return of Christ. But until then, do we prepare to leave or do we prepare to stay? Do we build institutions for the future as the conquering church? Or do we devote ourselves to proclaiming the immanence of Christ’s return? Can we do both and remain consistent?

As a family pastor, these issues are always practical. How do we train the next generation to live? The telos for the history of earth and the mission of Christians in society are topics every pastor needs to consider. It’s not enough to remain a pan-millennial. You don’t need to have a settled position with all loose ends tied. You may, and probably will, change over time.

Declaring the topic to have little consequence, and thus irrelevant for ministry, is not a biblical option.

How then Do We Teach?

There are a few issues to keep in mind when teaching eschatology.

• Eschatology is biblical. The Bible speaks about the end times frequently. To neglect teaching eschatology is to neglect teaching the Bible.

• Eschatology is humbling. Come to your conclusions with conviction. But hold them loosely. Scripture is quick to point out shortcomings in our systems. If our system misreads scripture, it’s our system which must be corrected.

• Before teaching why someone should not hold an eschatological position, it’s helpful to understand why someone should hold that theological view.

G. K. Chesterton provides a helpful illustration for navigating theological positions:

“There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

• Eschatology systems are made up of several presuppositions and moving parts. It’s better to learn the positions firsthand rather than learning the arguments as summarized by opponents. Mischaracterization is tempting, but a full-orbed understanding of the positions helps us to see the strengths, weaknesses, and consequences of our theology.

Debates will continue—and I hope they do. If Christians ever decide studying eschatology is not worth the trouble, there will be consequences for how we live. To neglect the study of God’s plan for the future is to neglect the study of God. So, until the return of Jesus, whether that’s before, after, or separate from the millennium—let’s continue the hard work of exegesis and theology so that we may better understand eschatology and its consequences.