Today’s universities derive from the monastic institutions and cathedral schools of Western Europe. The academic regalia, which look out of place today, recall those roots in the Middle Ages. At the time of the founding of such institutions of higher learning, universities primarily prepared students for work in the church. As such, the study of theology was the most important subject. Theology, in fact, was known as “The Queen of the Sciences,” since all other knowledge flowed to it and from proper theological foundation flowed the means to understand the other subjects rightly.
Today, we are far removed from theology as “the Queen of the sciences.” In fact, even in Christian circles, theology is sometimes disparaged as cold, divisive, and antithetic to a warm, loving relationship with Jesus. Of course, this is wrong. If I am to have a warm, loving relationship with Jesus, I must know Him as well as I can. That means theological study. Fortunately, I sense a movement of the recovery of theology in the church. Young and old alike, finding that a shallow faith does not serve one well in an increasingly anti-Christian environment, are discovering the delight of theological study. Theology further serves to provide the resources to tackle the profoundly perplexing ethical questions that modern technology is bringing. So, I embrace and wish to fan into flame this increased interest in theology.
However, there is one area of theology which has not grown in interest, one study of theology that is in fact on the decline. As my title suggests, I call this area of study, “the lost princess in the queen of sciences.” That lost princess is the study of eschatology, or the study of last things.
There are several reasons why eschatology is not of prominent interest these days.
1) There are more important concerns. Both the perception and the reality is that there are more important concerns than a fully mapped out eschatology. However, the key eschatological questions of heaven, hell, who goes which place, and the purpose of the ages cannot be minimized without extreme danger to our souls and a loss of our purpose before a great and glorious God.
2) The challenges of apocalyptic literature make the study hard. Apocalyptic literature, the books of Daniel and Revelation being prime examples, is a very challenging genre to interpret correctly. What things are literal; which are figurative; what connections is the author making with other writings or with history and geography? These are all very difficult questions, which makes the study hard.
3) The fact that people of good will disagree. There are many wonderful, solid Bible teachers, pastors, and theologians who have widely disparate views on the end times. The fact of that disagreement easily leads either to rancor or to a minimizing of importance of the issues. Either way, we end up with a feeling that we just don’t want to rehash areas of controversy. Today, there seems to be a lack of desire to renew fractious debate (that is good), but perhaps that has also led to an avoidance of eschatology altogether (that is not so good).
4) The fanciful ways that some popularize their eschatological viewpoint. While popular books on the end times have a way of drawing attention to the subject, not all of that attention is good. There is a tendency among these popular treatments to make much of very fine details, which are not easy to figure out. There also appears to be a focus on the USA and its role in prophecy. This leads to interpreting the prophetic texts of the Bible from an American geopolitical point of view. As an example, for years, many held that the Soviet Union was the “king of the north” in Daniel. I caught a bit of criticism for arguing against that position in 1985. Later events showed that my concerns were justified. The same kind of thing has occurred over the years in the identification of the Antichrist. This leads to an almost cartoon effect in which a few Christians are interested in arcane prophetic identifications, and most just tune out altogether.
5) There is a great difficulty in maintaining a consistent eschatology, given the complex array of biblical texts. It is important to note that no matter what one’s position on Bible prophecy, there are texts that will be challenging and troublesome. It does not serve the church well to pretend otherwise. I see the tendency from every eschatological viewpoint to set up all other views as obviously wrong without honestly interacting with the alternate viewpoints. We should be humble before the Lord and with one another in this study.
Even with all these reasons that push us away from the study of last things, eschatology is essential to study. Here are some reasons why:
1) Eschatology deals with core issues. Where do we go when we die? Is there a heaven? A hell? Where and when and under what conditions does one go to those places? What about near death experiences? Is punishment in hell forever? If so, why? The study of last things is promised to be a blessing to our hearts (see Revelation 1:3), if we take it to heart. Further, if we pay attention to our future hope, we will seek to live pure lives now (see 1 John 3:3).
2) There are less core issues like the burial versus cremation debate, the nature of the intermediate state, or the destiny of pets and animals. This last one is a profound theological question often asked by children, which could provide a great introduction for children to the study of theology in general and of eschatology in particular. But instead of saying to our children, “That is a great theological question. Let me introduce you to theology!” we simply say, “Of course, Fido is in heaven with Jesus,” and leave the child to wonder where that comforting “truth” came from. By the way, I am not taking up this question, at least not in this article. I am simply saying that the question about the destiny of pets is an eschatological question. And we would better serve our children by pointing them to the study of the Word of God in this category of theology than we would by any answer to that specific question that we give them.
3) Far too often, we “do” theology without really doing it. That is, we make theological conclusions based upon our feelings and what must seem right to us without the hard work of study of the scriptures that touch upon the subject. Then, when someone challenges our theological “feeling,” we can easily be offended and say that “theology” itself is bad, when, in fact, it is our way of doing theology that is flawed. This is particularly true when it comes to the eternal destiny of loved ones or how one can know that we are going to heaven. An emotional theology simply says, “How do I want the universe to work?” and develops a theology which confirms the desire. A biblical theology asks the question, “What does the Bible say?” and seeks to develop conclusions based on biblical evidence. This is not an easy task, but if we believe that God has revealed His ways on the pages of scripture, then this is an essential task. It is in this sense that we can call theology a “science.” This is hard enough when it comes to things like the doctrine of God or of the church or of angels. It gets really challenging when we are talking about future things, so hard in fact, that we often do not do it.
4) How one understands eschatology ends up affecting how one interprets the Bible. When we consider prophetic predictions, how literally are we to take them? Even making allowances for literary genres, there is a wide discrepancy among very committed Christians about this matter. My concern is that if the predictive parts of the Bible are some sort of allegory, why would not the historical parts be the same? While I deeply respect and admire many who hold more allegorical views of eschatology than I do, I am troubled by this concern and confess that I have never read or heard a sufficient explanation (which I admit might be more due to my obstinacy than to the sufficiency of the explanation). At any rate, this makes one’s eschatological views even more important than just about eschatology. It makes it about how one views all of the Bible.
5) The key interpretive concept which ties all of scripture together is God’s kingdom. Namely, God is at work to demonstrate that He alone is qualified to build His kingdom. All of the Bible, including its description of history, including its description of future events, is designed to point to this truth. The fulfillment of the ages is a King, named Jesus, Who alone meets all the claims of perfect kingship. The only way that we capture the nature of God’s kingdom is by a study of eschatology. If you are interested in a fuller development of this as the theme of the Bible, see the message series, “What the Bible is All About” available at: http://www.ewo.org/resources/sermons/series/what-the-bible-is-all-about/
6) It is far too easy to set up straw men of positions that we do not embrace. This is particularly true of eschatology. When I see how men I respect and honor as godly men treat my understanding of eschatology in a disparaging way, making light of the popularizers who are easy to dismiss, I wonder if they have ever encountered a person who really has thought through this eschatology. Similarly, I wonder if I am rightly understanding the eschatological views of those that I disagree with. Am I guilty of the same thing that I see in them? These are questions which call for greater theological engagement, not lesser. The way to personal spiritual growth in these matters is by greater engagement, not lesser.
In the final analysis, it is not who the Antichrist is, or what weapons will be deployed at the battle of Armageddon that makes the study of eschatology important. What makes it important is that it impacts our understanding of all other parts of theology, of history, and of destiny. We do not have to don the regalia of the scholastics of the Middle Ages. However, if God is to be glorified in us to the greatest degree possible, it is essential that we embrace the Queen of sciences, theology, and that we include in that embrace the lost Princess, eschatology.