I have been thinking about eschatology, a seminary word for the last things, lately. Don’t worry. I haven’t gone all “ivory tower” on you. There’s a Simpsons reference coming.
In his book Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters, theologian N. T. Wright contrasts two types of eschatology prevalent at the time of Jesus. He writes:
whereas the Romans had what we might call a retrospective eschatology, in which people looked back from a “golden age” that had already arrived and saw the whole story of how they arrived at that point, the Jews cherished and celebrated a prospective eschatology, looking forward from within a decidedly ungolden age and longing and praying fervently for the freedom, justice, and peace that, they were convinced were theirs by right. God would do it! It was going to happen at last! (Wright 32).
In other words, the Romans thought their story had already reached its climax and were looking back to their golden age.
I liken it to Homer Simpson’s evaluation of music: “Everyone knows rock n’ roll attained perfection in 1974; It’s a scientific fact.” Homer is a huge fan of Grand Funk Railroad. From that point forward, music has gone downhill to him. He longs to go back to 1974.
The Jewish people were instead looking forward to a climactic moment still to come. Their history was an indicator of God’s provision and ability to free people from bondage and slavery. From a place of oppression in Jesus’ day, they looked forward to a day to come when God would do that to the full.
Which leads to the question: Are we looking forward or back? I would guess many have a retrospective eschatology. That may explain our annual struggles over public nativity displays and the like. Those fights may say less about our desire to worship freely, and more about how we long to return to a simpler time.
I believe Christians are called to have a forward-looking faith. We ought to be praying for the coming of the Kingdom of God, and working as the Kingdom’s agents in the present. Not looking back to what used to be, but working for what is to come.