As I write this review the season of Advent is coming to a close. I have spent part of this season reflecting on Christ’s return. Eschatology is the study of end times. Itsignals our final hope: Christ’s return, a new heaven and new earth, and the restoration of all things. Thus the lectionary rehearses Old Testament prophecies that point to Jesus’ coming and hint at future hope: when lion lays down with lamb and we study war no more. Part of my reflections on eschatology in this season, have been guided by a new book from one of my favorite practical theologians, John Phelan, Jr.
I have been a fan of Phelan since taking a Evangelical Covenant Orientaiton class (the denomination I am seeking a pastoral position in) where I read one of his previous books. As a former dean and president of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago (the denomination’s seminary), Phelan is an important ECC voice. Essential Eschatology: Our Present and Future Hope, urges us to take eschatology seriously. Despite how much this season of Advent calls us to hope and long for Christ’s coming, many of us Evangelicals have an uneasy history with eschatology. There are influential fringe groups that fanatically obsess over end times, naming days and hours of Christ’s return. Others, like me at times, have claimed ambivalence. calling ourselves ‘pan-millenialists,’ because it will all pan out in the end. Phalen challenges us to see the importance of eschatology because of its practical and personal significance (13).
This is a short book (less than 200 pages), but Phelan covers a lot of ground in ten chapters. Chapter one gives an overview of Christian hope through the lens of Isaiah, the Gospels and Revelation. Chapter two describes the urgency of reclaiming Christian eschatology. Phelan argues that the alternative to Christian hope is accommodation to the wider culture. he describes the alternative and prophetic hope of early Christians and the later accommodation to culture by the church at large, beginning with Constantine. Thus Phelan warns against our contemporary capitulation to our contemporary culture, especially in the areas of individualism, technology and the destruction of creation (45-8) Rather than ‘buying in’ to these false and bankrupt hopes, Phelan encourages us to cling to the hope we have in Christ.
The chapters that follow make Christian hope vivid. Chapter three discusses the hope for resurrection. For Christians, our eternal hope is bound to Christ’s resurrection and our life and eternal destiny is bound up in him. We too shall rise!. Chapter four describes the hope of future judgement. In an-anything-goes, relativistic world, judgment may not seem ‘hopeful’ at first glance; however, Phelan makes the case that we live in a ‘morally serious universe’ and that the decisions we make matter (84). He discusses the reality of hell as the natural consequences of isolating ourselves from God and sinking into misery, fear, and loss (84).
Chapter five describes the hope of the Kingdom of God–Christ’s reign on the earth. When Jesus came he proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was here. As the church awaits the fullness of the Kingdom coming, it also inhabits the Kingdom come. The church is the sacrament of the Kingdom of God (in Moltmann’s happy phrase)!. Phelan exhorts us to live out ‘the Kingdom life’ proclaimed by Jesus even as we await its consummation (98).
In chapter six, Phelan discusses our hope for Christ’s return. He argues (along with N.T. Wright) that Jesus’ coming was the grand fulfillment of Israel’s story (107). Yet he differs from Wright in seeing eschatological implications for the Olivet discourse(Mark 13 and parallels) beyond the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. Specifically, Phelan takes seriously Christ’s statement that no one knows the day or the hour except the Father and applies this statement to Jesus’ second coming. However, Phelan is no Hal Lindsey. He doesn’t give specifics about Christ’s return but says that it will likely be as surprising as the first (118).
Chapter seven takes a closer look at the book of Revelation, to reveal our hope in the midst of empire. John of Patmos wrote while imprisoned by the emperor to a church struggling against opposition and threat. Phelan urges us to read Revelation with an eye for how to navigate a hostile world (and not to see prophetic references to helicopters and nuclear war).
Chapters eight and nine discuss our our hope for the millennium and the hope of Israel, respectively, There are different views on the millennium–Christ’s thousand year reign. Phelan argues for a millenarian view (àla Moltmann) which posits that Jesus will rule the whole earth. This points to the redemption of our world, and also challenges the historic Christian tendency of supersessionism in regard to the Jews. A restored world, means a restored Israel and the promises to Israel are not negated by the existence of the church.
The capstone of Phelan’s reflections is chapter ten, the ‘hope for the church.’ Phelan acknowledges the past failures of the church (i.e. antisemitism, the crusades, etc). But he also has faith and hope because the church is Jesus’ vessel to help usher in the kingdom. The restoration of all things is Christ’s work but we in the church have our part to play, as ambassadors of reconciliation (187).
I loved this book. Phelan draws on the insights of N.T. Wright, Rodney Stark, Jurgen Moltmann and others in describing out hope as Christians. I found this book both accessible and compelling (a rare combination). I appreciated that Phelan did not get bogged down in end time predictions but explored the implications of our hope within a biblical-theological framework. I recommend this book for students, for use with church small groups and for individual readers who are interested in exploring Christian eschatology. While this is published by IVP’s academic press, ordinary readers will also be able to engage with the material that Phelan presents. He avoids theological jargon and explains his terminology. This is a book appropriate for any thinking Christian.
Christianity is by necessity eschatological. I am grateful for Phelan’s work in cataloging and describing how Jesus is our hope. I give this book 5 stars. ★★★★★
Thank you to InterVarsity Academic for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.