The Way of the Church

Part 3:

 The Apocalyptic Background, I

 by Hugh Nibley, Ph.D.

Improvement Era 58 (Nov. 1955), 817, 829-31

The Eschatological Dilemma

In any bibliography of present-day studies on the Christian religion, historical or doctrinal, the word eschatology looms large. For the Christian, we are told, "any real understanding of history is only possible in connection with eschatology."[1]  And what is eschatology? According to Gressmann, one of the fathers of modern eschatological studies, it was originally whatever had to do with the end of things, whether of the world, the society, the age in which we live or merely of the individual—his death and resurrection.[2]  But in the 1880's the German scholars began using the word in a special sense, applying it specifically to doctrines—Jewish, Christian, or heathen—dealing with the end and renewal of the earth.[3]  Immediately and inevitably the discussion of such teachings became involved in the terms and problems of Messianic, apocalyptic, mythical, mystical, historical, and prophetic nature. Whereas formerly messianism and eschatology had had nothing to do with each other, the new speculations brought them ever closer together, until Mowinckel was able to announce that they were one and the same.[4]  Eschatology and apocalyptic were identified in every conceivable degree of relationship: one of the latest studies insists that they be sharply separated, since eschatology "according to my terminology [Lindblom speaking] is the prophesying of a new and totally different age to come."[5]

According to an equally recent and authoritative study, eschatology is just the opposite of that: "Eschatological thought I take [S. B. Frost speaking] to be a form of expectation . . . characterized by finality. The eschaton is the goal of the time-process, that after which nothing further can occur: it is the climax of teleological history. . . . It cannot even in thought be superseded by a subsequent event. . . . The eschaton is that beyond which the faithful never peers."[6]  So much for the new age—and this sort of thing has been going on for seventy-five years! While one school holds that eschatology is necessarily a late development in Jewish thought, a product of the captivity and quite unknown to the prophets (Lagrange), another maintains that prophecy itself "rests from the very beginning on a . . . fully developed eschatology."[7]

Again, while some (e.g., R. H. Charles) have held that the eschatological ideas of heathen nations were first borrowed by Jews, and hence Christians, as an anchor to faith when their own darling prophecies, especially those concerning the Messiah, failed to go into fulfilment, others regard the Jews themselves as the true originators of those ideas. Today some are claiming that apocalyptic writing is simply a combination of eschatology with myth, and Mr. Frost issues the resounding statement: "Whether apocalyptic is to be dismissed as merely myth eschatologized, or whether it is to be taken seriously as eschatology in a mythological dress is perhaps the most urgent problem confronting the Christian Church today."[8]  Personally, I am glad it does not confront my church, since Frost is saying in effect: "The most urgent problem confronting the court is whether the accused forged his name to the check or merely changed the amount on it."

Forty-five years ago Father Lagrange distinguished five different eschatologies, and, in view of the completely baffling nature of the evidence, wisely refused to attempt arranging them in any of those evolutionary or developmental patterns which the scientific scholarship of the age found so irresistible. He listed: (1) a temporal cosmic eschatology without a Messiah; (2) a transcendent cosmic eschatology without Messiah; (3) a historic Messianic eschatology; (4) a transcendent Messianic eschatology; and (5) a transcendent cosmic eschatology embracing a less transcendent but historic Messiah.[9]

In such a way the eschatological discussion from the first fused and intermingled a wealth of related and conflicting terms, periods, and peoples, and the game of deciding just how and to what degree, if any, each element or combination of elements was related to the others offered inexhaustible opportunities for learned debate: the endless variety of changes, the nice shades and dainty nuances of meaning, the license of bathing forever in the tepid waters of pure terminology or spinning spider-like, from the substance of one's own esoteric secretions, lovely fragile webs of definition without end—it was all the schoolmen asked of life, and the eschatological discussion might have gone on like the Trinitarian debate for untold generations had not a series of great and unforeseen events given a wholly new orientation to things within the last two decades.

But behind this great outpouring of words, and what keeps it going, is the inescapable conviction that eschatology, that is, what people really believed about their place in the universe, holds the key to the genuine original Christian view of life—that it represents the unique, the peculiar, the essentially different element that sets Christian thinking apart from all other thinking. Those very scholars, such as Harnack and Albert Schweitzer, who insist most emphatically on the hopeless inadequacy of the evidence, are the most reluctant to leave eschatology alone. There is something big and portentous hiding here if we could only grasp what it is. The vague and twittering host of broken fragments and wraith-like traditions for all its mazy confusion is definitely trying to tell us something, and the voices are growing louder and clearer every day. The whole eschatological issue can best be explained, we believe, by a brief diversion into one of those little parables for which we have always had a weakness.

Imagine, then, a successful businessman who, responding to some slight but persistent physical discomfort and the urging of an importunate wife, pays a visit to a friend of his—a doctor. Since the man has always considered himself a fairly healthy specimen, it is with an unquiet mind that he descends the steps of the clinic with the assurance, gained after long hours of searching examination, that he has about three weeks to live. In the days that follow, this man's thinking undergoes a change, not a slow and subtle change—there is no time for that—but a quick and brutal reorientation. By the time he has reached home on that fateful afternoon, the first shock of the news has worn off, and he is already beginning to see things with strange eyes. As he locks the garage door, his long-held ambition to own a Cadillac suddenly seems unspeakably puerile to him, utterly unworthy of a rational, let alone an immortal being. This leads him to the shocking realization, in the hours that follow, that one can be rich and successful in this world with a perfectly barren mind. With shame and alarm he discovers that he has been making a religion of his career. In a flash of insight he recognizes that seeming and being are two wholly different things, and on his knees discovers that only his Heavenly Father knows him as he is. Abruptly he ceases to care particularly whether anybody thinks he is a good, able, smart, likable fellow or not; after all, he is not trying to sell anyone anything any more.

Things that once filled him with awe seem strangely trivial, and things which a few days before did not even exist for him now fill his consciousness. For the first time he discovers the almost celestial beauty of the world of nature, not viewed through the glass of cameras and car windows, but as the very element in which he lives; shapes and colors spring before his senses with a vividness and drama of which he never dreamed.

The perfection of children comes to him like a sudden revelation, and he is appalled by the monstrous perversion that would debauch their minds, overstimulate their appetites, and destroy their sensibilities in unscrupulous plans of sales promotion. Everywhere he looks he gets the feeling that all is passing away—not just relatively because he is saying goodbye to a world he has never seen before, but really and truly: he sees all life and stuff about him involved in a huge ceaseless combustion, a literal and apparent process of oxidation which is turning some things slowly, some rapidly, but all things surely to ashes. He wishes he had studied more and pays a farewell visit to some friends at the university where he is quick to discover, with his new powers of discernment, that their professional posturing and intellectual busy-work is no road to discovery but only an alley of escape from responsibility and criticism.

As days pass, days during which that slight but ceaseless physical discomfort allows our moribund hero no momentary lapse into his old ways, he is visited ever more frequently by memories, memories of astonishing clarity and vividness—mostly from his childhood, and he finds himself at the same time slipping ever more easily into speculations, equally vivid, on the world to come and the future of this world. The limits of time begin to melt and fuse until everything seems present but the present. In a word, his thinking has become eschatological.

"What has happened to our solid citizen?" his friends ask perplexed. He has chosen to keep his disease a secret; it would be even more morbid, he decides, to parade his condition. But he cannot conceal his change of heart. As far as his old associates can see, the poor man has lift the world of reality. Parties and golf no longer amuse him; TV and movies disgust him. He takes to reading books, of all things—even the Bible! When they engage him in conversation, he makes very disturbing remarks, sometimes sounding quite cynical, as if he didn't really care, for example, whether peppermint was selling better than wintergreen or whether the big sales campaign went over the top by October. He even becomes careless of his appearance, as if he didn't know that the key to success is to make a good impression on people. As time passes, these alarming symptoms become ever more pronounced; his sales record drops off sharply; those who know what is good for their future begin to avoid being seen with him—like Lehi of old, he is hurting business, and dark hints of subversion are not far in the offing. What is wrong with the man?

As we said, his thinking has become eschatological. He lives in a timeless, spaceless world in which Jack Benny and the World Series simply do not exist. His values are all those of eternity, looking to the "latter end" not only of his own existence but of everything and everybody around him. As he hears the news or walks the streets, he sees, in the words of Joseph Smith, "destruction writ large on everything we behold." He is no longer interested "in the things of the world." The ready-smiling, easily adjustable, anxious-to-get-ahead, eager-to-be-accepted, hard-working conformist, who for so many years was such a tangible asset to Nulb, Incorporated, has ceased to exist.

Now the question arises, has this man been jerked out of reality or into it? Has he cut himself off from the real world or has cruel necessity forced him to look in the face what he was running away from before? Is he in a dream now or has he just awakened from one? Has he become an irresponsible child or has he suddenly grown up? Is he the victim of vain imaginings or has he taken the measure of "Vanity Fair?" Some will answer one way, some another. But if you want to arouse him to wrathful sermons, just try telling the man that it makes no difference which of these worlds one lives in—that they are equally real to the people who live in them. "I have seen both," he will cry. "Don't try to tell me that the silly escapist world of busy-work, mercenary back-slaps, phoney slogans, and maniacal 'careers' has anything real about it—I know it's a fake, and so do you!"

It will be noted that this eschatological state of mind does not bear the mark of just one school of thought: once it gets in the blood, all the aspects and concepts of eschatalogical thinking enter with it. Our businessman, for example, begins to wonder about certain possibilities: What about the hereafter? Will he ever really see the face of the Lord? Is there going to be a judgment? He almost panics at the thought which has never bothered him before because he has been successful. He becomes preoccupied with history and prophecy, aware for the first time that his whole life is linked not only with D Division of Nulb, Incorporated, but, for better or for worse, with all that happens in the universe; he belongs to history and it to him—"the solemn temples, the great globe itself" are as much his concern as any man's. These ideas that come to him are all essential parts of the same picture in which one can descry inextricably joined and intermingled apocalyptic, prophecy, millennialism, messianism, history, and theology—all belong to the same eschatology.

But where is myth, the thing that the scholars tell us is "the very essence of eschatology"?[10]  That is there, too, but you will find it only in the minds of his friends and associates: they, wide-awake and practical people, know perfectly well that the man is suffering from delusions; they know that the things which have become so real to him are all just imagination. To anyone who does not experience it, the eschatological view of things is pure myth—an invention of an overwrought mind desperately determined to support its own premises. Only what they fail to consider is that those who have had both views of the world interpret things just the other way around: it is after all eschatology that looks hard reality in the face; lazy and timid people take refuge in the busy-work of everyday; only strong and disciplined minds are willing to see things as they are, and even they must be forced to it! No wonder the scholars have agreed that whatever else eschatology is, it is not real!

To conclude our parable, what happens to our man of affairs? A second series of tests at the hospital shows that his case was not quite what they thought it was—he may live for many years. Yet he takes the news strangely, for instead of celebrating at a night club or a prize fight as any normal healthy person should, this creature will continue his difficult ways. "This," he says, "is no pardon. It is but a stay of execution. Soon enough it is going to happen. The situation is not really changed at all." So he becomes religious, a hopeless case, an eschatological zealot, a Puritan, a monk, a John Bunyan, a primitive Christian, an Essene, a Latter-day Saint. In every age such people with their annoying eschatological beliefs have disturbed the placid ("perfectly-adjusted") waters of the slough of custom and paid dearly for their folly.

And that leads us to the eschatological dilemma which confronts the Christian world today.

However deplorable the maladjusted state of mind called "eschatological" may be, there can be no denying that it was the prevailing attitude of the early Christians. Accordingly, the Christian world finds itself forced to choose between accepting the extreme view, which does violence to the common sense of respectable people, or rejecting it—and with it the right to be called Christian. In theory this hard dilemma has never ceased to disturb the peace of conventional Christianity, and in times of crisis it has a way of taking on very solid forms. It was the grim reality of World War II that forced certain German ministers—become chaplains—to ask old questions with a new frankness, and at their head Rudolf Bultmann, with inexorable logic, bids the Christian world, since it is not willing to accept the old eschatology, to throw it away entirely. Thereby he has turned a discrete compromise into a cruel dilemma for the clergy.[11]

[1] Paul Althaus, "Heilsgeschichte und Eschatologie," Zeitschrift fur systematische Theologie 2 (1924): 605.

[2] Hugo Gressmann, Der Ursprung der israelitisch-judischen Eschatologie (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1905), 1.

[3] Ibid., and R. Arconada, "La Eschatologia Mesianica en los Salmos ante dos objeciones recientes," Biblica 17 (1936): 204-29.

[4] Arconada, "La Eschatologia Mesianica," 210-14.

[5] J. Lindblom, "Gibt es eine Eschatologie bei den alttestamentlichen Propheten?" Studia Theologica 6 (1952): 113.

[6] S. B. Frost, "Eschatology and Myth," Vetus Testamentum 2 (1952): 70.

[7] Gressmann, Der Ursprung der israelitisch-judischen Eschatologie, 152.

[8] Frost, "Eschatology and Myth," 80.

[9] Marie-Joseph Lagrange, Le Messianisme chez les Juifs (Paris: Gabalda, 1909), 58-59.

[10] Gressmann, Der Ursprung der israelistisch-judischen Eschatologie, 152, "Das Mythische . . . ist das Wesentliche an der Eschatologie [Myth is the essential feature of eschatology]."

[11] For the best general treatment of Bultmann and his work, see Ian Henderson, Myth in the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1952). We have avoided using the word existentialism in this discussion to keep from becoming too involved in definitions and distinctions.