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Eschatology: The World’s Last, Best Hope

Hands trapped in a wave of water reaching out to a hand on land

The world is in crisis—more profound, desperate, and menacing than ever before. It is difficult for a Seventh-day Adventist to say this with credibility because we have been saying it practically non-stop for well over 160 years. Yet, possessed with a consciousness of the wider world that now extends more than 50 years into the past—to the late 1960s—I can say without hesitation that the world of 2023 seems more brutal, deranged, and volatile—in fact, closer to implosion—than ever before.

Many of the well-worn Adventist truisms such as “the world will only get worse until Jesus returns,” “these are signs that the end is nearer than ever,” and “this will bring about the national Sunday law even sooner than we expected,” have long seemed inadequate. Yet I’m now more convinced than ever that the question of how to understand, cope with, engage, and bless such a world turns on Adventism’s central preoccupation—eschatology. Narrowly defined, eschatology is the study of “the last things” but also, more broadly, it has to do with how one tells the story of humanity’s past, present, and future.

The question of how to engage with eschatology cannot be dismissed simply as fodder for esoteric theology or fuel for conspiracy theories. On November 2, 2023, Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s Morning Joe articulated an eschatology that has a powerful hold on American culture—though it may be rarely understood or expressed so explicitly. He described the United States of America as “the last, best hope for a dying world.”

Scarborough’s language is close to Abraham Lincoln’s classic expression of civil millennialism in his 1862 message to Congress. At a particularly bleak moment during the Civil War, Lincoln stated that, in the struggle to save the American Union, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” More than a paraphrase, Scarborough’s insertion of a single word, “dying,” adds an entirely new dimension. It is the language of evangelical witness.

As a Baptist who frequently quotes scripture on his broadcast, Scarborough seems to echo Christian soteriology, which prioritizes Jesus Christ as the only hope for a dying world. However, as many do, he melds nationalistic claims with gospel eschatology.

American evangelicals often believe two things. First, Christ is the only hope for humans to gain entry to an eternal heaven. Second, the final guarantors of democracy and sacred freedoms throughout the world are the political institutions and military might of the United States.

Twenty-first century Adventists often come close to this kind of eschatological dualism, despite abundant resources in our heritage and theology that counter it. Our confident explanation that the disciples wanted to overthrow the Romans and set up a political kingdom, but that Jesus instead taught a spiritual kingdom offering victory over sin and hope for eternal life, leads us in a dubious direction. In his 2011 book, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters, New Testament expositor N. T. Wright challenges evangelicals, and the rest of us, in writing:

The disciples wanted a kingdom without a cross. Many would-be “orthodox” or “conservative” Christians in our world have wanted a cross without a kingdom, an abstract “atonement” that would have nothing to do with this world except to provide the means of escaping it (173).

If we do acknowledge that the Kingdom of God is somehow in the here and now, it is often relegated to the realm of the individual heart and personal relationship with Jesus. It has nothing to do with “politics,” including such matters as racial and economic injustice, global warming, militarism, and the like.

Because of this, the doors are opened to viewing the United States as the political savior of the present world. In this role, the overriding question is how best to deploy the nation’s overwhelming military power to destroy its enemies or render them ineffectual. Other considerations—such as the devastation of lives and communities in the targeted foci of evil—are secondary. 

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, a devout evangelical and aspirant to the presidency, succinctly summarized this viewpoint during the Republican candidates’ debate on November 8. After advocating for immediate US air strikes on Iran, Scott declared, “As president of the United States, my foreign policy is simple—you cannot negotiate with evil, you have to destroy it.”

But what if it’s impossible for Jesus and the US to be co-saviors—joint guarantors of hope—for the world? What if it’s Jesus only or not at all? Wright may be pointing us in the right direction when he adds,

Acclaiming Jesus as Lord plants a flag that supersedes the flags of the nations, however “free” or “democratic” they may be. It challenges both the tyrants who think they are, in effect, divine and the “secular democracies” that have effectively become, if not divine, at least ecclesial, that is, communities that are trying to do and be what the church was supposed to do and be, but without recourse to the one who sustains the church’s life. Worship creates—or should create, if it is allowed to be truly itself—a community that marches to a different beat, that keeps in step with a different Lord (216-217).

If so, the call of Christ’s kingdom is to a movement and community that is no less tangible, visible, or public for renouncing domination and coercion in following the way of the king. This community’s primary responsibility to a world in crisis is evangelistic and eschatological: to show that another way of being human is possible—a way free of violence and vengeance—and to announce, on the authority of a resurrected and returning Lord, that the future belongs to the meek, the merciful, the justice-seekers, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers. The goal of this Jesus movement is to invite everyone who hears the message to join in.

Allegiance to this kingdom and movement cannot mean aloofness from the world. Indeed, it calls for endeavors to alleviate suffering and immersion in struggles—with allies who may not share our ultimate values and allegiance—for structural social change. Despite the present despairing outlook, the possibility of making a meaningful difference in the world remains.

In his October 12 article for Sojourners, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson says it better than I can:

Yes, Christians should plea for pragmatic measures to bring a cessation to hostilities, weaving resolute understandings of justice into proposals for lasting peace. But the witness of Christians should speak the most foundational and radically clear truths of our faith: the irrevocable image of God in every person, the prophetic calling to inclusion mirroring God’s love, and the way of uncompromised nonviolence demonstrated in the life of our Lord.

The terms of engagement between a nonviolent revolutionary movement and the powers of the present age will always be fraught with ambiguity and difficult choices. But our advocacy and activism must remain tethered to our single allegiance and primary calling to God’s mission.

 


Douglas Morgan currently assists with editing the Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. He wrote Adventism & the American Republic: The Public Involvement Of Major Apocalyptic Movement. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Title image by Sue Carroll on Unsplash.

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