Don’t immanentize the eschaton” has been a conservative axiom since William F. Buckley popularized it in the 1960s and 1970s. The slogan cautions us: If you try to build a heavenly city on earth, you’re liable to turn totalitarian, forcing imperfect people to conform to your ideal of perfection. Utopians minimize or ignore the tenacity of evil, especially in themselves. Utopian dreams end in dystopian thuggery.
It’s a salutary warning. Over-realized eschatology is a genuine evil. Yet I believe Christians should hope for something like utopia, a world that resembles the coming kingdom of God. Where sin abounds, we should expect grace to superabound. Under-realized eschatology is also an evil.
Jesus fulfills Yahweh’s promises to Abraham (Matt. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:20; Gal. 3:1–10), which are altogether this-worldly—land and seed to plant in it. Abraham’s land is a real land, with boundaries, identifiable rivers and mountains, cities, wells, and vineyards. “Seed” means children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, beginning with Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s sons and continuing through a thousand generations, all of them living, breathing inhabitants of planet earth. The New Testament doesn’t spiritualize these promises so much as expand them. Abraham, Paul says, doesn’t claim a tiny corner of the globe, but is “heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13). Through Christ, Abraham is father of many nations (Gen. 17:4), with innumerable Gentiles, as well as multitudes of his blood descendants, among his “seed.” The gospel doesn’t turn the Abrahamic promises other-worldly, but whole-worldly.
Israel’s prophets already express the universality of God’s promises. Isaiah sees the mountain of the Lord’s house rising to become chief mountain. As the Yahweh’s law-word streams from Zion like rivers from Eden, nations learn his ways, bring their treasures as tribute, beat swords to ploughshares, and forget how to make war (Isa. 2:2–4). When does this happen? “In the last days,” Isaiah tells us. When is that? Not the millennium or the eschaton. In the Bible, “last days” describes the post-exilic era (Dan. 2:28, 44) and especially the apostolic age, the last days of the old covenant order (Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:2; cf. 2 Tim. 3:1; 2 Pet. 3:3). Zion begins its rise as chief mountain in the days of the apostles. Ever since, the life-giving word has been flowing and nations have been hammering spears into pruning hooks, and this will continue for millennia to come.
As we sing every Christmas, God inaugurated a new Davidic kingdom with the birth of the crown prince: “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” Jesus has since been raised to the throne of his father David and taken the burden of government on his shoulders. His “government and peace” will increase without end, guaranteed by the “zeal of Yahweh of hosts” (Isa. 9:6–7).
Isaiah foresees a peaceable kingdom where wolves commune with lambs, leopards with kids, lions with fatlings, and children play at cobra’s dens (Isa. 11:1–9). This isn’t only about animals, but about people (“Is God concerned with cattle?” Paul asks). Isaiah encourages us to hope for reconciliation between predators and prey, between Chinese and Uighur, Tutsi and Hutu, managers and workers, male and female, Jew and Gentile. This reconciliation begins when a Spirit-filled branch springs from the dead stump of Jesse’s family tree to win justice for the poor and afflicted. For two millennia, Jesus the branch has been striking the earth with the rod of his mouth and slaying the wicked with the breath of his lips.
God’s promises and prophecies about Jesus are also about his body, the church. Jesus is the seed of Abraham and has received the nations as his Abrahamic inheritance. In him, we’re the seed of Abraham, and both this world and the next are ours (1 Cor. 3:21–23). The church is the Lord’s house, his temple of the Spirit, the people gathered now on the heavenly Zion, and we are being raised to be chief among earth’s mountains. The word of the Lord flows from us, and we’re the light beckoning nations from the darkness. The branch of David rules by the Spirit, but he’s poured out the same Spirit on us, so we too can judge the poor in righteousness and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth. When the Ancient of Days gives all power, dominion, and glory to the Son of Man, the saints also “receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, for all ages to come” (Dan. 7:18, 22).
Death and sin will remain until the last judgment. Until Jesus returns, humans will live in perishable, fleshly bodies. But death and sin aren’t the most crucial realities of our world. Jesus and his Spirit are. Nothing is more eschatological, more last-days, than the resurrection of the dead. Yet Christians confess “Jesus has risen,” a preview of our future resurrection and God’s pledge that he’s already busy healing the damage of things. Over the centuries, we expect the risen Jesus to draw nations to acknowledge father Abraham. We expect him to raise Zion above all other mountains, pacify nations through his word, harmonize settled enemies. We expect him to do it by his Spirit through his church.
Buckley was right. We don’t immanentize the eschaton. We don’t have to. God does. He already has, two thousand years ago, at a tomb outside Jerusalem.
This essay is excerpted from God of Hope, forthcoming from Athanasius Press.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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