John E. Phelan Jr., Essential Eschatology: Our Present and Future Hope, Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, October, 2013. 203 pp. Paperback, $20.00.
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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!
Eschatology can be a divisive subject in some circles. I say “some” because in other circles, it’s not even a topic of conversation. It almost seems as if eschatology provokes only extreme reactions. Either you love it and have an end times chart on your wall that you consult often, or you avoid the topic whenever possible.
In reality, neither of these positions is correct. To simply ignore eschatology is to ignore a significant branch of Christian theology. It is also to ignore something that seems pretty important to guys who wrote big chunks of the New Testament. I am speaking of course about Paul and John, but you could see eschatological emphases throughout the New Testament. The Old Testament likewise is very eschatological, when you understand “eschatology” as “last and ultimate things,” not just “end-times scenarios.” On the other hand, to have an unhealthy fascination with end times scenarios and fret over the news reports from the Middle East isn’t a good approach either (they’ve been bad for thousands of years, it’s not new).
Into this discussion comes John E. Phelan Jr. with his book Essential Eschatology: Our Present and Future Hope. As he explains in the introduction,
This book is written to encourage individual Christians and churches to take Christian eschatology seriously. In it I argue that far from being an esoteric fringe doctrine, eschatology is a most practical and pastorally significant doctrine. Everything done in the church is, or should be, done in light of the presence of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ ministry, message, death and resurrection. The church’s message, ministry and communal life are all given shape by the promise of resurrection and judgment, and the coming of the new heavens and new earth. Christians are a people of hope. And our hope is not merely personal but corporate and universal. Christians are also people of mission, and that mission is motivated by God’s love and longing for the renewal and reconciliation of his creation to himself. The church lives in light of that coming renewal and in hope of the reconciliation of all things to God. By its worship and witness it anticipates that renewal and participates in that reconciliation (13).
With those bearings, Phelan then connects each chapter to the motif of “hope.” We start with an overview of hope and promise (chapter 1). Then, hope in cultural context (chapter 2), the hope of the resurrection (chapter 3), the hope for judgment (chapter 4), hope for the fullness of the kingdom of God (chapter 5), and hope for Christ’s return (chapter 6). Starting in chapter 7, Phelan gets into what most people think of when they think of eschatology. Here, he tackles the book of Revelation. In the final three chapters, he gets into detail about the millennium, the future of Israel, and the future of the church.
He does this from a postmillennial perspective, which honestly is probably the least mainstream in evangelical circles. There have been several recent books from an amillennial perspective, and the varieties of premillennialism get pretty good coverage. Postmillenialism on the other hand, not so much. If you are particularly interested in the different millennial views, this book is worth checking simply because it is a kind of minority report.
The real reason though is that Phelan does a good job of trying to focus on the essentials. The importance of this was reinforced for me while I was a student at Dallas Seminary. Interestingly, though Dallas is known for a certain eschatological perspective (dispensational premillennialism, in case you didn’t know), to graduate, you only have to affirm the literal bodily return of Christ. In other words, for orthodoxy, they only consider Christ’s second coming essential. Your view of the tribulation, millennium, rapture, etc., is not considered an essential of the faith (though they have particular perspectives on each that they think are correct). This helped me focus on being clear about essentials, and be open-handed about peripherals. I lean amillennial, but am open to a better postmillennial or premillennial argument. My hope though is not in an end times scenario, but in the promises of the coming kingdom that a King will bring here one way or another with all its fullness.
For the most part then, what Phelan offers should be essentials of escathology that people from different traditions and millennial vantage points can agree on. Probably not everyone will agree with what Phelan considers the essentials. But, he makes a step in the right direction by presenting the core issues first, and then exploring distinctive views on the millennium, Israel, and other sometimes divisive subjects. If you’re interested in a book on eschatology that focus on core issues, and offers postmillennial perspectives on the peripherals, then this book is for you.