The Doctrines of Creation to Eschatology
The doctrines of Creation, Providence, Miracles, Prayer, and Eschatology, all share a common element and are therefore best considered together. That is, they are all concerned with the manner in which God deals with the Creation in created time. The figure below illustrates the relationship between the doctrines. Note that God is eternal--above history--both with respect to the past and the future. History, on the other hand, has a distinct beginning (Creation) and a distinct end (the Eschaton). God is the lord of history, and interacts with the Creation as needed in order that his goals for the Creation are met. Those interactions are divided among these five doctrines.
The cosmos is completely dependent upon God and it is best to look at all these doctrines as a process rather than as a series of acts or events. Creation points toward the Eschaton and the Eschaton is the fulfillment of Creation. The reader is advised to keep each of the doctrines in context, therefore, rather than attempting to focus on each one in isolation.
- Creation. The beginning of history, the creation of the cosmos.
- Providence, Miracles, Prayer. God interacts with the creation in order that the goals of the creation will be achieved.
- Eschaton. The end of history, the realization of the goals of the creation, and the fulfillment of the promises of God.
An important foundation underlying these doctrines is the linear nature of history. It may seem obvious, as there is nothing in ordinary human experience, scientific discovery, nor the archaeological recovery of artifacts, that contradicts the simple fact that time flows in one direction. Yet the ancient Greek philosophers, eastern religions, and modern dabblers in the occult would have us accept such ideas as cycles of history and re-incarnation. Biblical Christianity has no room for such ideas. Yes, we tend to ignore the lessons of history and repeat past behavior, but history certainly does not actually "repeat" in the sense that Plato thought it did. And the writer of Hebrews gave no encouragement to re-incarnation when he wrote that humans die once and then face the judgment (Heb. 9:27).
Not shown in the figure are ultimate destinies, sometimes called "afterlife." But when one recognizes that God is outside of history and time, terms like "after" need to be used with caution. The arrangement God makes to fulfill the promises of salvation (eternal life) are not spelled out with clarity, and the believer who "knows God and Jesus Christ" (Jn. 17:3) and thus joins God in eternity has no scriptural basis for understanding that eternity in terms of ordinary time, which ceases to be defined outside of the span between creation and eschaton. The closer, in fact, that one approaches these two limits of history in one's studies of God's revelation, the more one has to deal in the language of symbols. It is both dangerous and unfair to the Bible to turn those symbols into concrete. We may, at times, get frustrated by the fact that details on the extremes of Creation and Eschaton are sparse, but the testimony of the Bible about itself is that the Scriptures are nevertheless sufficient for "teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness so that all who belong to God may be proficient and equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
A capsule of what the Scriptures reveal about these doctrines follows.
The testimony of the Bible is that God created the cosmos, that the creation is good, that the cosmos is not made of divine materials (no part of it, therefore, has a object suitable for worship), and that God has the lordship over the cosmos that is His right as the one who created it. It also suggests very strongly that the cosmos was created out of nothing (ex-nihilo), meaning that God was completely unconstrained in His creative work--that He could have created it differently if He had wanted to. The biblical witness is pre-scientific and needs to be understood as such.
The idea of "holiness" is rooted in the creation account; Holiness is a concept of separation, a motif that begins in Gen. 1:4, is repeated in Gen. 1:6, Gen. 1:9, Gen. 1:14, etc., and continues through the psalms and prophets. God is holy. That means that he is separate from the creation and is alone to be worshipped. He is also very different from his creation, both in complexity (Isa. 55: 8-9) and in his ability to love (God's love is completely unconditional and has no limits--Ps. 103:8-13). The doctrine of creation holds, however, that God made humanity in his "image," and it is best to understand that relationally. Men and women alone, unlike any other creature, are capable of having a relationship with God. That relationship is necessary because humanity is placed in the creation for a purpose, and that is to tend the creation as a gardener tends the landscape placed under his care. So the Christian must understand God's command to dominate the Creation (Gen. 1:28) in the same way that a gardener must have the authority and sensitivity to rule over the garden so that he might coax every bit of beauty from its plants and control the clutter of its weeds.
The doctrine of Providence is simply God's continued work in the world to ensure that, in the Eschaton, it will conform to the goals of Creation. We see Providence at work in the beautiful story of Ruth; we also see it throughout Esther, even though God's name is never mentioned in that book.
Since God's goals are good, one might expect that the work that God does under Providence will always be through his people--but such an assumption is hardly biblical. God has often used evil people to accomplish his own good ends (see the dialogue between the prophet and God in Hab. 1-2). God used the pagan king Cyrus to end the Babylonian exile. Christians have always found comfort during adversity in Rom. 8:28, which expresses this plainly. The trouble is that only about half of our English translations rightly identify the subject of the main verb. God works in all things for the benefit of those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose. If your translation says that all things work for God, the translator of that part of your Bible did not understand Providence. (Actually the Greek supports both readings, and good translations are not to be interpretive. Often alternative readings are given as footnotes in ambiguous passages such as these).
One can see providence especially clearly in the story of Joseph (Gen. 45-50), who suffered several adverse circumstances that, in the event, turned out to be essential parts of God's plan to bring Jacob's family through a difficult time and to thus fulfill his redemptive promise to Abraham. Joseph suffered attempted fratricide, slavery, and prison, but "God meant it for good" (Gen. 50:20). The ultimate example of Providence is, of course, the death and resurrection of Jesus. The death was intended to rid the world of an annoyance, yet God turned it into the redemption of the world. In the cross was judgment and grace, and the mature Christian will look for both of these even when formulating prayers. Praying for a job is a prayer that another will not get the job. The prayers offered in the upper room as Peter sat in prison were answered in Acts 12, but Peter's release and the disciples' joy would be at the cost of the lives of several innocent soldiers in Acts 12:19.
Accepting God's providential actions is a part of being a Christian. When providence brings a happy result, this is easy to do. But accepting God's providence is also trusting God at times in which an evil event seems so overwhelming that logic defies any attempt to find a silver lining. Evil is the flip side of God's gift of free will; it is the result of the fact that some choose evil. But, in the end, evil is something that needs to be overcome (Rom. 12:21), not explained.
Some people find every act of Providence to be a miracle, but many "miracles" might be better attributed to "time and chance" (Eccl. 9:11)--that is, "plain dumb luck." Some even describe coincidences as "miracles in which God has chosen to remain anonymous." There are others, of course, who refuse to accept the possibility that there might be any miracles at all. Much of this has to do with one's world view--how one visualizes the universe.
- Those who see the cosmos as totally constrained by natural laws (whether those laws have yet been discovered or not) can be said to have a closed view of the universe. This is the bias of Western public education. Those with this view can only understand miracles as the temporary suspension of natural laws.
- Those who understand the cosmos as totally dependant on God's constant intervention can be said to have a open view of the universe. Miracles are not at all difficult to understand for those holding this view.
The biblical authors had an open view, and it is difficult for many Westerners to make the adjustment. The fact that the universe is so beautifully regular makes the closed view quite easy to sustain, but it is not good logic to say that an open universe cannot also be regular and trustworthy.
Theologically, the significant aspect of miracles is not the "how" or even the awe and wonder, but rather the "why." This is because a close study of the New Testament shows Jesus frequently refusing to do miraculous works to merely impress skeptics (Mt. 4:5-7) or even to save his own skin (Mt. 27:42). The presence of believers seems to be a requisite for miracles--Jesus did few miracles in Nazareth "because of their unbelief" (Mt. 13:58). For this reason it is best to define miracles as tokens that point to the new age that would begin with his inauguration at Pentecost and which will never end (see Eschatology). The the feeding of the multitudes, the quieting of the storm, the healings--all of these point ahead to the Kingdom of God.
The supreme miracle is, of course, the incarnation--the virgin birth, the cross, and the empty tomb. Yet even this miracle was never intended to impress skeptics (Lk. 16:31). It is through the incarnation that God's promise to Abraham that all people would be blessed is ultimately realized. It is through Christ that God's goals in the Creation are accomplished.
Do miracles happen today? That question is best answered by invoking the definition of a miracle. Is an action of wonder one that points to the Kingdom of God? These will most likely be found where God is leading a new work, where the work of Christ is validated, or where faith is being severely threatened.
Prayer is better seen as a natural component of a life of contemplation than as a mere individual or corprorate act. The Bible has always recognized the wisdom of serious contemplation over the "folly" of entertainments and laughter (see Eccl. 7:1-6). Since one's witness to the world is such an important part of the Christian life, a life of contemplation also requires a sensitivity to the work that God is doing in others (Jn. 1:9). The story of Joseph, for example, would have fallen far short of its potential had Joseph not been sensitive to his fellow prison inmates (Gen. 40:6-7).
It would not be appropriate when dealing with the doctrine of Prayer to spend a great deal of time on the techniques of prayer. Techniques, in fact, are many. The fact that we each have different personalities suggests the possibility that a technique that is comfortable for one believer may be awkward or impossible for another. Believers are probably best advised to experiment with a number of techniques and settle on a few that work well. When one goes through inevitable valleys in one's prayer life, it might be time to attempt a new technique.
Theologically, prayer is a response to what God is already doing in one's life. Contrast this with the "gimme gimme" approach of asking and then receiving. Yes, one finds supplication (which means petition) as a biblical part of the Christian life, but one must ask "rightly" (Jas. 4:3). One might also consider any possible negative effects that a prayer might have on others (see Providence, above) and recognize that the answering of the prayers of many is a process that can have complex consequences. So prayer is very much a part of trusting God to give us what is right, which may or may not be what we actually ask (Mt. 7:11).
Viewing prayer as a response to God is part of the theological reflection that marks the contemplative life. One prays not only for needs, but in order to acknowledge things that God has done through Providence without even having been asked. Indeed, God knows our needs better than we do ourselves. Therefore, one needs to regard all things as suitable objects of prayer. When James says that we are to pray when we suffer and to pray when we are happy (Jas. 5:13), he intends to be understood as saying that we are also to pray for all things in between. There is nothing too trivial to bring to God in prayer.
Prayers can be individual and corporate. The corporate prayer within the local church has particular importance to the house church, as explained under the doctrine of Church The model prayer (Mt. 6:9-12) is an example of a corporate prayer. The Bible is also full of individual prayers, and Jesus spent a great deal of time in prayer. Christian prayers are to be made "in Christ's name," which should be understood as "in the nature of Christ." One prays to the Father, through the Spirit, and in the name of the Son.
The desired result of all prayer should be the fulfillment of God's goals, not ours. It is said, "Do you want to make God laugh? Just tell Him your plans!" Since it is our job to co-labor with God, prayer requests should be framed in a context of obedience, the petitioner rejoicing in what God is doing in the world and seeking ways to further His agenda for the Creation. Jesus came to suffer and die for that redemptive agenda, so God's plan for us will certainly include suffering and serving love.
There is a lot of talk about "end times" in Christian circles today, and therefore the term Eschatology can bring to mind any number of emotions that range from a kind of perverse curiosity, to television drama, to just plain dread. Mature Christians can dismiss the great majority of this kind of speculation and fear. The correct response of the church to the eschaton is that it is simply the fulfillment of God's objectives for the Creation and the great event of redemption in which God actualizes the promises that He has made. As such, it is a matter of constant anticipation and yearning for the Christian and it provides a sense of urgency to Christian mission. It is not a great, divine puzzle to be figured out by clever people, nor is it a doctrine that is intended to spark an obsessive comparison of prophecy with modern political, meteorological, astronomical, or seismic events.
Any study of the great confessions of faith that mark the history of house church theology can't help but to demonstrate that the house church movement has historically regarded Jesus Christ as already seated on his throne and already in charge of the Kingdom of God. They also regarded their local churches as outposts of that kingdom in which they are to serve at the pleasure of their king. The modern name for this understanding of the Kingdom is "inaugurate eschatology." Jesus, having ascended in Acts 1, became inaugurated at Pentecost (Acts 2). What does this have to do with end times? The answer to this question lies in the frequent appearance of the word "kingdom" in the New Testament witness:
- The Kingdom is present (e.g., Lk. 11:20)
- The Kingdom is future (e.g., Lk. 11:2)
So there is the Kingdom now and the consummate Kingdom of the future. In 1 Cor. 10:11, Paul tells the Corinthian church that "the ends of the ages" (read "eschaton") had come upon them. Inaugurated eschatology locates the Kingdom in the church that received its power at Pentecost. Just as the rightly constituted local church is obedient to God in the present, the whole world will be obedient to God in the future (Hab. 2:14). The church thus gives a foretaste of heaven. It is through the church that Christians enter the Kingdom of God upon their baptism, as it is through baptism that the believer becomes initiated into the church (see the Doctrine of Baptism).
Ever since the early church fathers, Christians have believed that the eschaton is the final tick on God's eschatological clock (notwithstanding some in the past century who have devised schemes such as that would add several other "ages," but one surely would not expect to find a treatment of these in any serious discussion of Christian theology).
There was Creation, the fall, the flood, and several other major "ticks" on God's agenda. Pentecost was the last tick, so we are in the "last days" (Acts 2:16-17), the eleventh hour. The next tick is the eschaton, and we are to eagerly await that event. There are no other shoes to drop. All the signs of Matthew 24 have long since been fulfilled, which was the reason that Paul preached to the churches that the end could happen at any minute and that the people needed to be ready.
The actual eschaton, the church always taught, would take place roughly as follows. The Lord comes (Mt. 24:30), the dead saints (believers) are resurrected (1 Thess. 4), they and the living saints are "caught up in the air," the earth is purified (2 Pet., Rom. 8:19) while the saints are given resurrection bodies (1 Cor. 15), and the Lord and his saints return to earth to spend an eternity. The exact details of this process are not revealed; even this description will not be accepted by many theologians. But what is sure is this: The eschaton will fulfill God's goals of the Creation, the whole earth will be obedient to God, and God's promises will be fulfilled.