Last week, we discussed the implications of Christian eschatology for discipleship. For the next couple of weeks, I would like for us to discuss the ways in which Christian eschatology can be useful for pastoral care. In today’s post, I describe four contributions that Christian eschatology can make to pastoral care. Next week, I will offer a couple of cautions for those of us who wish to use Christian eschatology to minister comfort and encouragement to those who are hurting.
Please share your own insights in the “Comments” section at the bottom of these blog entries, especially if you have expertise and/or experience in providing mental health or pastoral care services to those in crisis. Remember, alternative viewpoints are always welcome. After all, that is how we all learn and grow.
Contribution #1: Eschatology Clarifies Who God Really Is
Just like every other part of the Bible, those texts that teach us about the end also teach us about God. They teach us that God is deeply concerned about justice. They teach us that God affirms the value of corporeal existence. They teach us that God remains unshakably committed to His children and to His creation. These components of who God is (and many more) can have a significant impact on how people understand and endure the hardships that they experience. It is our responsibility as God’s children to learn all we can about God and to apply what we learn for the benefit of all who suffer.
Let’s illustrate this principle by exploring how Christian eschatology can be used to prevent and address instances of spiritual abuse. When we look at Revelation 21:1-5, we see a God who relates directly to His people and who cares deeply about their welfare. This portrait of God stands stark contrast to the portraits so often painted by cult leaders and other religious charlatans. Too often, these “wolves in sheep’s clothing” channel all access to God through themselves, and they exact a high price (literally and otherwise) from those who would seek to utilize that access.
It may not always be possible to undo the damage done by spiritual abuse, and the care of those who have experienced such abuse is best managed by those who are specifically trained for that task. Nevertheless, we can all play a role in the healing process by cultivating an atmosphere of healing in our churches and by ensuring that our own depiction of God and God’s purposes conforms to the standards of Scripture.
Contribution #2: Eschatology Provides a Reason to Live
The enduring message of Revelation is that there is a point to our present existence. Indeed, that message is what the various strands of biblical literature share in common. Sometimes, just that fact is enough to give someone the strength to go on. When we see that God’s goal is to remake and redeem, we come to see that this is our purpose, too. We begin to focus less on our own woes and to engage in whatever task God has given us—and all without minimizing the seriousness of what we have suffered.
Contribution #3: Eschatology Inspires Hope
Hope is deeply interwoven into the fabric of Christianity. Indeed, the great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann argues that, if hope is removed from the Christian message, the very nature of the God presented in that message is fundamentally altered (Theology of Hope, 31). The truth of this claim is most clearly seen in 1 Corinthians 13:8-13. In this section of Paul’s argument, he contends that many of the present manifestations of devotion to God (prophecy, etc.) will one day no longer be necessary or appropriate, but love, faith, and—perhaps most surprisingly—hope will always be central aspects of the Christian experience. Even though the witness of Scripture is clear that we will experience God in a way that we cannot now comprehend, it is equally clear that this experience will still inspire hope.
This is just as well, for humans need hope more than they need almost any other commodity. In his Systematic Theology (3:527), Wolfhart Pannenberg writes, “The eschatological salvation at which Christian hope is directed fulfills the deepest longing of humans and all creation even if there is not always a full awareness of the object of this longing.” Without hope, the human psyche becomes fragile, and the temptation to self-indulgent and short-sighted debauchery becomes strong.
Christian eschatology is the place where human need comes into contact with God’s nature. The story of what God has done—and will do—in Christ inspires genuine and enduring hope. And this hope is not a nebulous feeling that things will get better someday. As we have discussed over the last three weeks, it has specific content. It makes specific claims about what God has already done to address human suffering, and it makes specific claims about what God will do in the future.
Contribution #4: Eschatology Deals Honestly with the Real World
The challenges of living in a fallen world are real. Grief, war, injustice, crime—these are complex phenomena, and their consequences cannot be undone simply by the waving of a magic wand. Fortunately, that is not what God promises in Revelation 21:1-22:5. Rather, God will take an approach that is both comprehensive in its scope and intensely personal in its execution. The sufferings of humanity will not be left at “heaven’s gate” like garbage from a bad frat party. Instead, God will invite those who suffer to bring their burdens to His throne (just as we do today in prayer). There, God will give His people time and space to express their grief, and God himself will minister comfort to all who gather there.
Furthermore, God will take decisive action to eliminate all those things that cause grief and pain. Talk of the destruction of evil-doers can be a bit unsettling. We know that God does not want anyone to endure such a fate (2 Peter 3:9), and we live in a society that seems to value tolerance and inclusion above all else. Nevertheless, the witness of Scripture is clear. God takes evil very seriously, and He is determined to purge it from His creation once and for all. This is a good thing for those of us who throw our lot in with Jesus; although the purging process may be painful, we will come out the other side all the better for it. And we will no longer be tormented by those entities which are presently bent on destroying us—and on inflecting as much pain as possible in the process.