es·cha·tol·o·gy: 1) any system of doctrines concerning last, or final, matters, as death, the Judgment, the future state, etc. 2) the branch of theology dealing with such matters.
Simply defined, eschatology is “the study of last things.” Having grown up in the heart of Dispensationalism most people associate eschatology with the rapture, or pre-, mid-, and post-tribulation arguments, or even Tim Lahaye’s Left Behind series (with an obsession over the book of Revelation). Broadly speaking, the hot topics in Reformed and Presbyterian circles are pre-, a-, and postmillennialism. With all the “isms’ eschatology can get confusing, and for some, all the theoretical speculation makes it an impractical area of study.
But must eschatology be impractical? No. On this we can learn a lot from our Puritan forefathers. Apocalyptic writings became immensely popular among the England and New England Puritans. In the midst of all the civil, social, and ecclesiastical unrest of their generation, they saw the providential hand of God working to bring human history to a close, and he was doing it, mediately, through them. They didn’t see themselves as observers in God’s eschatological plan that existed “out there,” but as key players in the unfolding cosmic drama. And of all the Christian virtues it seemed to be hope that dominated their eschatolgoical expectations (and no, this doesn’t mean that they were postmillennials as defined by 21st century terms, see Crawford Gribben, The Puritan Millennium, 239; c.f. 27-28).
This hope was expressed in the every-day life of the New England Puritans:
1. First, their eschatological hope impacted the ministry of the church and namely the preaching of the Word. In their mind the church not only bore witness to the future age, but the ordinary means of grace were instituted, in part, to bring the future age into full realization. They didn’t have little thoughts about the preached Word, they had BIG thoughts (how shaming to our own day of weak pulpits and lethargic views of the church’s ministry!).
2. Secondly, their eschatological hope impacted their missionary endeavors. The Puritans expected the day when “The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14), and believed God had a people from every tribe, language, and nation. Again, they saw their missionary endeavors to be ushering that reality in–some like William Gouge being passionate about the restoration of the Jews (a common theme in Puritan eschatology), and others, like Joseph Caryl, seeing the missions to the North American Indians as fulfilling biblical prophecy.
3. Thirdly, their eschatological hope impacted their view of the civil government and society. The religious upheavals of England left the Puritans with high expectations for their emigration–with many like William Perkins believing it to be the New Jerusalem. In his famous sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, John Winthrop preached concerning the New World: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all the people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and by-word through the world; we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God.”
4. Fourthly, their eschatological hope impacted their personal piety. Given the days they lived in (days marked by wars and persecutions in England, danger and personal loss as they navigated unknown lands and foreign territories) one might think they would often feel defeated. But as the kingdom of heaven suffered violence, so they violently took it by force (Matthew 11:12). They were motivated in all spheres of life (society, church, and personal) by the overwhelming conviction that King Jesus had conquered and would conquer. It fueled their passions, ignited their ministries, and whatever their portion was in this life, they lived with one eye towards that future glory.
It’s impossible to summarize a Puritan eschatology in a few paragraphs. While many of their predictions fell short (they loved date guessing), and while current trends in Reformed theology stray from their eschatological optimism, we can learn a lot from their hope. America’s ecclesiastical state is one of profound weakness and ignorance. There are more churches on more street corners than ever before, yet our nation is experiencing a religious famine. The Puritans stand to remind us that one of the chief principles of the Christian life is hope. We trust that God has worked, is working, and hope in the work he has yet to do. Maranatha!