We’re currently studying Revelation in church. We started after the church letters because this was an unexplored frontier. How many churches similarly, study the letters and then jump to the new Heavens and Earth where Kleenex will no longer be required?
The intervening narrative is strange and obscure. But with the help of commentaries and some OT prophets, it is possible to wade through, at least, the shallows of the text.
Studying Revelation has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience, at least for the preacher; if enjoyable is an appropriate term for an apocalypse. But it has also raised some questions about contemporary Christianity in Scotland.
Reflecting on the text and the current state of Scottish Christianity has led to the question, how well equipped are we for the kind of trials that Revelation’s Christians faced and that many face today across the globe?
Some contemporary teaching packages Christian faith as a life enhancing bolt on. There are, of course, many significant life enhancing aspects to our faith. But without certain qualifications, ‘life-enhancement’ sounds a lot like false advertising.
Revelation depicts a persecuted church, making huge sacrifices but secure in the promise of the returning King and the new world to come. This eschatological perspective is often missing in contemporary presentations of Christianity. The, now historical, Christian Aid slogan, ‘We believe in life before death’ is apt. With the current stress on the Kingdom of God as the basis of the Christian life, I wonder if the eschaton has dimmed in the Church’s teaching?
The reminder of the Kingdom lived now was necessary. For many Christians it was important to discover that the Earth is not simply Heaven’s waiting room. Here, conversion is not the end but the beginning of Christlike living defined, not simply by what must now be omitted but, by what must now be done in Christ’s name.
But has there been an overcorrection? Are we still teaching the necessity of contemporary cross carrying in order to participate in eschatological rest? On the contrary, it seems to me that we are often teaching an over-realised eschatology where suffering with Christ has little place. Not only does this breed immature, self-indulgent, Christians, but it does them an injustice. Christians today may not be prepared to deal with reality? What happens when the first bump on the heavenly road is hit?
The Christian life is marked by suffering, self-discipline and self-denial. Is it all bad? No, it’s glorious! In the midst of trials we see heaven opened and angelic armies worshipping the Most High. The problem with the ‘life enhancement’ theology is that it expects no suffering. It offers Heaven today while circumnavigating the way of the cross.
Sadly, there are other theologies present in the church today which struggle with over-realised eschatology. Of course there is full blown prosperity preaching. But there is also a more subtle blend of pietism with a dilute prosperity gospel which considers God to owe us because we have been devoted to him.
It’s not wrong to expect blessings from God. But it’s mistaken to presume upon them. Because the only thing guaranteed in the Christian life, prior to death, is that we will suffer with Christ. All guaranteed blessing is eschatological and therefore tied to the life to come.
We should, of course, avoid a morbid, pessimistic, theology that only expects bad things from our Heavenly Father. Early in life I developed a theology that seldom moved beyond the cross. I thought little of the resurrection or ascension apart from being proofs for Christ’s divinity and my forgiveness. It was liberating to realise that King Jesus rules today and we meet each day as his willing subjects and servants, with grateful work to do.
But ‘life enhancement’ or ‘God owes me’ theology is prone to forget altogether our crosses and may not prepare us as servants and heralds of the Kingdom. Instead are we becoming suburbanites; viewing the Kingdom of God as a gated retirement community that dishes out heaven’s blessing like a gratuitous pension?