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Surprised by Hope

I spent three weeks in late June and early July studying in Chicago with the Association of Chicago Theological Schools (ACTS). It was a fantastic experience in every way. I sat under some brilliant professors, learned a great deal, explored new ideas, and—most of all—met some incredible people. These are people I will be studying with for the next three years. They have already contributed to my life and my understanding of the gospel.

I discovered again that there truly is great value in diversity. I studied and worshipped with women and men from a variety of denominational and ethnic backgrounds. We came from urban, suburban and rural churches in the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, New Zealand and—if you can believe it— Michigan! We spent time getting to know each other, but there didn’t seem to be any “sizing up” going on. It was an atmosphere in which trust came easy. At least it did for me.

I interact with a lot of preachers from my own tradition—men and women that I know from college and seminary and many others I have met along the way. There is diversity in my denomination, but not like I experienced in Chicago. Now, I have always tried to read a wide spectrum of Christian theology. I want to hear the perspectives of Christians who are very different from me. But flesh and blood is better than print. In personal conversations I caught the passion of Christ’s servants, heard of their joys and sorrows, and rejoiced at what the Holy Spirit is doing in and among them.

One of the things that was refreshing for me was something that I’m pretty certain I’m the only one who noticed. It involved something that was by no means at the center of our study. In fact, it was just barely mentioned in passing in some of my reading and in a lecture or two. It had to do with the use of a couple of terms—“eschatology” and “apocalypse.”

I was raised in a conservative evangelical church. Eschatology (which can broadly be defined as the study of end times), and the apocalypse (the revealing of Jesus Christ at His second coming) were spoken of often. My church has been heavily influenced by Dispensationalism and the kind of “Rapture Theology” that is still being taught today in many churches and by countless radio and television preachers. Because of my background, I have a pretty good understanding of this brand of eschatology. Guess what? It scares the heebie-jeebies out of me!

As hard as I tried, I could never reconcile the eager anticipation of the Lord’s return with mass slaughter or—as some predicted—nuclear holocaust. In all my years since seminary I could not reconcile our call to be peacemakers with the assurance of the Dispensationalists that peace would never be possible. What I’m saying is that even though my beliefs have changed considerably over time, the concept of the end times has never brought peace, comfort and hope to me. Until now.

It hasn’t been one thing, but a number of things. I’ve read several authors who have clarified for me the purposes and meanings of biblical apocalyptic literature. I’ve thought and meditated at length what these things mean for today and for tomorrow. I’ve discovered that the New Testament really is good news from beginning to end. I’ve discovered that my old mental scripts can be rewritten.

Back to Chicago. When my brothers and sisters from other traditions speak of a passage with apocalyptic overtones, they’re speaking of something that is positive—it even feels positive to them. When they say something has eschatological overtones, they’re saying it speaks of hope! Imagine that!

Do you know why it feels that way? Because they have repeatedly been taught that way. Do you know why the Second Coming is so scary to evangelicals? Because they have been taught that way!

N.T. Wright recently wrote a book called, Surprised by Hope. I would recommend it to all who have been raised in the “evangelism-by-fear-that-you’ll-be-left-behind” theology. He really doesn’t spend too much time on the Second Coming. But he does say—repeatedly and in a variety of ways—that the future is not about destruction, but about resurrection. He’s not preaching a new gospel. He claims to be preaching the gospel that has been handed down for 2000 years (and I believe him), but that was intercepted and changed around 170 years ago by those who replaced Christ’s second coming with the rapture and a series of speculative events. (If you read this book, be prepared to have some of your long-standing positions challenged—which is a good thing.)

I believe that Jesus is coming again. And I’m thrilled to tell you that when I think about it now, it brings feelings of joy, peace and hope. And to tell you the truth, sometimes I’m surprised by that hope.

Reader Comments (2)

This is something I've struggled with my whole life. It even held me away from the church for years. Thanks, Phil

August 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBud Michael

I've always been caught up in the Pre-Trib, Mid-Trib, or Post-Trib argument, but I always struggled with the basic teaching of all three versions: "That Christ will snatch us away to keep us from suffering." Then I read of Christians who suffer for being a Christian to the point of death and ask why am I so special that I dont have to suffer. I finished a book by Barbara Rossing called Rapture Exposed which challenged my understanding and has changed my thinking on the subject. I feel liberated and have hope that I can make a difference here for Christ now.
I have been considered a rebel for not being Pre-Trib believer in the past and I'm glad to be part of a church which allows some freedom in thought in allowing these beliefs to be challenged. I cannot help but grow here.

October 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJerry Schotthoefer

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