The church in which I grew up talked a lot about the imminence of the Second Coming and the Day of Judgment. We focused on being personally prepared—confessing our sins and our faith in Jesus, and cultivating our particular forms of piety. Our drive was to convert souls for heaven.
In preparing so assiduously for the last days, we missed something important: our responsibility to address the real needs of desperate people. If the world and its ills will soon pass away, these needs will feel less urgent. I have come to believe, however, that the Bible's vision of eschatology discourages such forgetfulness. Living in the last days means relieving the needs of particular people, and confronting the ills of all humanity.
The Bible frames help for the needy as a sign that God's kingdom has invaded this present age. In this light, acts of justice and compassion are a form of gospel proclamation. What follows are six big ideas that connect biblical eschatology, biblical justice, and gospel proclamation.
1. Biblical eschatology is about justice.
It is impossible to believe that a good God would ignore injustices committed against the people and the planet he loves. The psalmist frets over the fact that the wicked prosper. "[A]lways free of care, they go on amassing wealth," laments Psalm 73. "Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure …."
It is all so unfair! The evil amass wealth by grinding the face of the poor, but I have kept myself pure—and look what my life is like! Yet the psalmist finds comfort in a passionate belief that somehow God will set things right: "Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin."
Only later in biblical history, in the shadow of Babylonian captivity, would such intuitions ripen into detailed pictures of justice. The prophet Micah, for instance, anticipated the eventual restoration of his homeland after assaults by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. In his description of the "last days" (his term), nations experience the rule of law—God's law—rather than the rule of tyrants. People turn swords, a symbol of war and bloodshed, into plowshares, a symbol of peaceful cultivation of the land.
Micah offers a wonderful picture of tranquility and prosperity: "Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid" (4:4). This is not a picture of God's people sipping lemonade in the shade; vines and fig trees are the foundation of economic prosperity, enabling everyone to provide for themselves and their families.
In the next chapter, Micah predicts the birth of the Messiah, intimating a nexus between the last days, the reign of peace and prosperity, and the Savior's coming. So too, in Isaiah's eschatological vision, do the promises of peace, justice, and messianic deliverance intersect. Isaiah describes God's servant, whom we understand to be the Messiah, as bringing justice to all the nations, Gentiles included. Through his ministrations, "[t]hey will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isa. 11:9).
Daniel gives us the earliest portrait of the Last Judgment and the resurrection of the dead, "some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt" (Dan. 12:2). He presents a graphic vision of God's people oppressed by evil powers, and then pictures God, One like a Son of Man, and the archangel Michael making everything right on a global scale. But here's the genuinely new element: Justice does not extend just spatially to the whole world, as in Micah and Isaiah. It also extends back through time, rewarding the righteous dead with everlasting life and punishing the wicked with everlasting contempt.
As in Daniel, so in Revelation: God will defeat the evil powers. In Revelation, he uses plagues like those deployed to liberate the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. But Revelation takes the Exodus story beyond Egypt and makes it cosmic. Now the war is fought, and won, in heaven, with Michael and his angels defeating the Devil and his angels. And the outcome greatly resembles what the Old Testament prophets had predicted: the establishment of God's city and the healing of the nations.
Biblical eschatology is about justice. It was developed out of a concern for justice. And as God revealed these visions of justice in the last days, they gradually became universal, cosmic, in scope.
2. Biblical justice is about eschatology.
Actually, the whole of the Christian faith is about eschatology. Consider this passage from German theologian Jürgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope:
From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day.
When Jesus comes preaching the kingdom, healing, and casting out demons, his actions are understood by the religious leaders, and even the demons, as a sign: He is the Messiah, sent to inaugurate God's reign. Recall when John the Baptist sends word from prison, asking if Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah. "Go back and report to John what you hear and see," Jesus tells John's messengers. "The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor" (Matt. 11:4-5).
This answer combines two promised outcomes of the Messiah's coming: physical healing (even resurrection) and relief of economic privation. B. T. Roberts, founder of the Free Methodist Church, said that if a church isn't preaching good news to the poor, it is not a Christian church.
But there is still more going on here: Jesus was using Jubilee language, echoing God's promises in Isaiah 61. The Lord has anointed him to preach good news to the poor. In the coming kingdom, there would be no indentured servants, no slaves, no sharecroppers, no economic bondage whatsoever. Instead, each would have his own means of production. That's a vision of justice, and Jesus connected his own messiahship to that vision.
3. Biblical eschatology is not about the end of time, but the world's divine destiny.
In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), eschaton often means "outcome"—not a terminal point in time but the new world that God is bringing about.
In the ancient pagan view of history, we are trapped in cycles—the seasons of year, the rhythms of fertility, the circle of life. Transcending this sense of futility is the Hebrew and Christian notion of history, in which the world is moving toward ultimate reconciliation, restoration, and harmony with God. When Paul calls Jesus the eschatos Adam, the "last Adam," he is not placing Christ chronologically, but proclaiming him to be the culmination of the new humanity.
When the Hebrew prophets write about "the end of days," they reorient Israel from God's saving acts in their past to God's saving acts in the future. The liberation from Egypt and God's care in the desert foreshadow the future restoration of his people with Jerusalem as his throne. It is an upbeat message.
By contrast, the community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls emphasized not salvation, but disaster, judgment, and vengeance, a time when the godless will be annihilated. Supposing itself a "last days" community, it sought isolation from a wicked society for the sake of vindication on the imminent Day of Judgment.
Jesus and his followers had a different emphasis. Rather than isolation, they chose involvement. They heralded the fruits of his ministry as harbingers of God's rule. Of course they talked about God's judgment, but it was John the Baptist, not Jesus, who warned of "the wrath to come." Jesus talked a lot about judgment. But his stress was definitely on the coming salvation. We can share in that positive message by doing deeds of justice.
4. Our work for justice announces the kingdom's arrival.
Our usual translations of Romans 14:17 say that the kingdom of God is about "righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." But the Greek word dikaiosune can as easily mean justice as righteousness. Unfortunately, the translation righteousness has overtones of personal piety, like the dietary and calendrical holiness Paul discusses in this chapter. We need a stronger contrast between these works of piety and what constitutes the essence of the kingdom of God. Take William Barclay's translation: "For the kingdom of God does not consist in eating or not eating, and drinking or not drinking. It consists in justice and peace and joy—and all in the atmosphere of the Holy Spirit." For a more traditional version, look at the Douay-Rheims Bible: "For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but justice, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost." Justice is the essence of the kingdom. Thus, when Jesus brings justice, it is a sign of the kingdom. And when his followers pursue justice, they witness to the kingdom.
When Jesus acted miraculously to bring healing or justice, people saw his kingdom foreshadowed. Take the miracle of Zacchaeus's conversion, for example. When Jesus came to his house, Zacchaeus announced that he would correct the abuses he had committed as a Roman tax collector. He promised to reimburse many times over those he had ripped off. Jesus responded by announcing that "this day" salvation had come to Zacchaeus's house.
What did Jesus mean? Certainly not that Zacchaeus had earned salvation by good works. Instead, Jesus was affirming that Zacchaeus's actions demonstrated that the kingdom and its values had entered this particular place and household.
The restoration of economic justice became an ongoing sign of the kingdom's presence. In Acts, when the apostles and early followers of Jesus had all things in common, it was a sign of the kingdom. When a division arose over the treatment of the Hellenistic widows, and the apostles made sure they were properly taken care of, that too was a sign of the kingdom.
5. Acting sacrificially for justice is a faith-filled wager that God will make good our sacrifices.
Biblical justice, like salvation, comes at a cost. Walking the road of discipleship, of justice, demands more than cheap grace. The Bible's basic metaphor for what God is doing in our world is redemption, buying the freedom of someone enslaved. Since we don't live in a slave society, we tend to miss that meaning.
Redemption is a costly transaction. Just as Jesus lost his life in paying the price for our freedom, people who work for justice often lose their lives and fortunes. Think of the sacrifices made by Mother Teresa, who worked with the poor and dying of Calcutta, and Albert Schweitzer, who famously left behind fame and success as a theologian, physician, and musicologist to run a leper hospital in Africa. Think of earlier reformers like William Wilberforce, who lost social standing and health in his work to end the slave trade.
Will God compensate their losses and richly reward their efforts? Yes, he will. Jesus told the rich young ruler to sacrifice all his possessions and give them to the poor. This worried Peter; "What shall we have?" he asked. Jesus reassured him with these words: "Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life."
If the universe is to regain its harmony, if all is to be reconciled, there must be a final, comprehensive justice. God must restore and reward in the age to come those who sacrifice for justice in the present age. Just as Jesus' resurrection vindicated his sacrifice, the final judgment and restoration will vindicate his followers who have sacrificed for the good of others.
6. Jesus' parables of judgment are often about justice.
Several of Jesus' parables link the themes of judgment and justice. Look, for instance, at the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18. We often spiritualize this story, counseling people to forgive because they have been forgiven. But we cannot ignore the specific subject matter: debt relief. To prevent permanent pockets of poverty, God had instructed the people of Israel to forgive debts every 50 years and return land (the means of production) to its original families. But this servant, forgiven his massive debts to the king, refuses to forgive the comparatively trifling sum owed him by a fellow servant. He refuses to spread the justice and comes under the king's judgment.
Look next at the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, perhaps the most famous judgment parable. Both the sheep and the goats are puzzled by what the Lord says. They did not see Jesus in the needy persons they encountered. But the relevant question is whom they served. Did they serve themselves? Or did they serve the imprisoned, the hungry, the sick, and those trapped in poverty?
Then consider the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In Luke 16, Jesus tells a story of economic disparity, about the suffering and death of a poor man. Then comes the judgment. We find Lazarus resting in Abraham's bosom while the rich man roasts in hell. We don't know why Lazarus is so poor, or the rich man so rich. But we know they are neighbors, and that the rich man fails to obey God's command to love one's neighbor as oneself. Once again, we dare not ignore the interplay of economic justice and judgment: Failing to help the poor, beyond causing suffering and death, can leave one liable to hellfire.
In Jesus' parables, those who refuse the Good News are not rejecting an intellectual proposition. They are rejecting the person who embodies God's coming kingdom. Jesus didn't attack those who misunderstood him, but rather those who did understand and refused to live out the implications of the Good News. As Eugene Peterson observed in a recent interview, "The only people Jesus threatens are the Pharisees. But everybody else gets pretty generous treatment."
Joining the Welcoming Committee
Ever since the moment Christ ascended to heaven, Christians have agonized over his promised return. Almost unceasingly, they have pondered when it will come and what it will signify. But whatever the eschatological future holds, we hold the eschatological present firmly in our hands. As a Presbyterian friend of mine says, "I've resigned from the planning committee and joined the welcoming committee."
If my six theses are correct, then being on the welcoming committee involves acting for justice, in both personal and structural ways. The justice that Jesus announced and the justice he pursued were clearly understood as heralding the coming kingdom. Only God can bring this kingdom to its fullness. But we are called, like those bridesmaids in another parable, to go out and welcome it, shining light on the Bridegroom's path with lamps of justice.
David Neff is CT editor in chief. This article is adapted from an address given at Houghton College in March 2011.
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David Neff also writes a regular column.
Additional Christianity Today articles on social justice and the end times include:
A Second-Coming Christian | The 'blessed hope' was the linchpin of my father's faith. (July 18, 2011)
Who Gets Left Behind? | How end times theories shape the ways we view our earthly abode. (May 23, 2011)
'Hunger Can Be Conquered" | And, says former Wall Street Journal reporter Roger Thurow, churches have a crucial role to play. (February 24, 2010)
Second Coming Ecology | We care for the environment precisely because God will create a new earth. (July 18, 2008)
Inside CT: Obsessed with the End Times | End times conversations demonstrate confidence in Christ's return. (October 5, 1998)
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