by Young Oon Kim
Apocalyptic And Modern Theology
Since Jesus preached good news of the kingdom which is at hand, what significance does his message have today? Let us examine briefly five contrasting views of Jesus' apocalypticism.
1. The eschatological message of Jesus is not an essential part of his teachings, some say. Even if the apocalyptic world-view was proved false, it in no way affects the core of the Christian faith. For example, Harnack believed that the obsolete eschatological hope of the early Christians could be discarded without knowing the essence of Christianity. What does the apocalyptic error have to do with the fatherhood of God, the infinite value of every human soul and the brotherhood of man which was Jesus' real message? 13
2. Fundamentalists have always insisted that one must believe as Jesus did in God's coming Day of Judgment. But they insist that Jesus was talking about some future second advent of the Son of Man on the clouds. Repeatedly in church history men have revived this kind of apocalyptic message. The Parousia was predicted for the year 1000, for 1600, for 1844 and 1914, for instance. Thus, what the neo-evangelicals do is accept New Testament prophecies of the Last Days while changing the timetable. Consequently in recent years there have been numerous groups which warn of the approaching supernatural return of Christ. 14 However, this revival of apocalypticism has been largely limited to fringe groups on the extreme edge of mainline Christianity.
3. Nevertheless, within the established churches since World War I several important theologians have insisted upon the relevance of the eschatological. dimension of the Biblical faith. Karl Barth, for instance, early in his career declared that if Christianity is not seen as altogether through eschatology, our preaching has no relationship whatever with Christ. 15
However, Barth's definition of eschatology should not be confused with the Fundamentalist view. What does eschatology refer to? It points to the absolute transcendence of God. For the early Barthians, God is the Wholly Other: God is in heaven and man is on earth. There is an abyss between man and God. He is completely transcendent because there exists a chasm separating the Creator from creation and man the sinner from the holy God. Barth therefore interpreted eschatology as a reminder of the infinitely qualitative distinction between the temporal and eternity. 16
Barth used this definition of eschatology to attack Protestant liberalism. He stressed divine transcendence against the liberal emphasis upon God's immanence. Since God is Wholly Other, He is not to be identified with man's religious experiences or his programs for social reform. More importantly, since God is transcendent we cannot reach Him by using reason but must depend upon revelation. By insisting upon the eschatological nature of Christianity, Barth felt that he could restore the authority of the Bible, correct human pride and reaffirm the absolute sovereignty of God. 17
4. Bultmarm also has recognized the central importance of New Testament eschatology, but has treated its meaning very differently. He maintains that Jesus' apocalyptic teachings must be demythologized by translating them into the language of existentialism. What does the New Testament say to us as individuals? Eschatology points to everyone's "self-understanding."
Our world is transitory, so we inevitably feel insecure in the face of the future. We are all threatened by the end of our world. There is no way to hang on to our possessions or even our lives. Besides being transitory, our world is also empty because men have turned it into a place where sin rules. We feel guilty because of our faulty past actions. What did Jesus mean by the kingdom which is at hand? We are human which implies that we are responsible creatures. We are burdened with guilt and anxiety because we are free to make or mar our lives. By warning us of the coming kingdom, Jesus stressed the crucial importance of the future. He calls us to act responsibly, to perform God's will.
Why is the future so important? It will be God's judgment on our present life. Nevertheless, God also holds out the possibility of a better tomorrow. The future offers us freedom to be ourselves in a more authentic way. So we should look ahead with yearning and seeking. Let us therefore, says Bultmann, be ready for the unknown. Let us be open to God's future.
God calls us out of our vain and man-made security. We cannot preserve the past. Thus, we should respond to the challenge of goodness, truth and love. Our only real security comes from trust in God. God speaks to us in the concrete possibilities of the here and now. We will be free when we accept our personal responsibility. The believer then always asks what God's word is for him in his concrete present. Each "now" is a moment for decision, because in each "now," God's kingdom is for us at hand. 18
5. Recent theologians of hope have criticized Bultmann for being too individualistic. Christianity is more than privatized decision making, they maintain. Hence, the German Catholic theologian Johannes Baptist Metz highlights the social or public implications of the eschatological hope. 19
In Metz' view, when Jesus proclaimed the nearness of God's kingdom, he urged men to concentrate on the future. God is a God of promise, say the Old Testament scholars. Consequently to be faithful to the Biblical tradition is to orient ourselves toward the future God promises.
Apocalyptic is future-directed. It also stresses that the realization of God's plan will result in vast historical changes. God's purpose for the future will fully realize our human potentialities on the historical plane. Therefore Christian faith must be centered on hope or creative expectancy. God is not simply "above us" but "ahead of us."
An eschatological theology must be both creative and militant. It welcomes the new and does not try to preserve the past. Apocalyptic faith always criticizes the social status quo. It is therefore also a militant faith. Scholars are mistaken to think that Hebrew or Christian apocalyptic literature recommends passive waiting for God to give us the kingdom ready-made. We are workers called to build the future. Christians are challenged to transform the world into God's kingdom.
Finally, Metz teaches that apocalyptic should not be limited to the notion of personal salvation. Because God's future is the kingdom, apocalyptic has apolitical theology. As a liberating and prophetic force in society, Christians must become engaged in this-worldly efforts toward universal justice and international peace.
13 A. Hamack, History of Dogma, vol. 1, p. 101 speaks of apocalyptic as "an evil inheritance" Christianity got from Jews.
14 See, for example, papers read at the Seventh Congress on Prophecy in C. L. Feinberg, ed., Jesus the King is Coming (1973).
16 K. Barth, Epistle to the Romans (1922), p. 314. "See his explanation in Church Dogmatics 11, vol. 1 (1958), pp. 631-638.
17 Cf. K. Barth, The Word of God and Word of Man (1928).
18 R. Bultmann, The Presence of Eternity (1962); also his Theology of the New Testament (1955), vol. 1, chaps. iv and v.
19 J. B. Metz, Theology of the World (1973 ed.).
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