Eschatology is the study of the end times. It’s hard to read much of the New Testament, Book of Mormon or even Doctrine and Covenants without noticing how much is focused on the end of the world. As some have recently noted a common refrain in the Church since it’s early days is how the end times are always nigh. In the 19th century many Mormons thought the Jesus would come before the 20th century. When I was a kid, we were constantly told we were a generation prepared for the last days. Most people thought a conflict between the USSR and America was inevitable. While all the apocalyptic movies from the 80’s now seem quaint (despite a resurgent Mad Max last year) it really was a time when people fully expected the end of the world.
Is this pessimism though? I’m not sure it is.
First it’s almost impossible to read the Gospels without noticing that eschatology is central to Christ’s message. I remember when I first encountered Hugh Nibley when young, it was his writings on eschatology that really caught my eye. Of course from a Mormon perspective most of Jesus’ eschatological concerns were soon fulfilled. The rebellions of the more zealous pharisee movement led to a small civil war and brutal Roman reprisals. Many Christians, perhaps due to eschatological warnings, fled Jerusalem before the starvations and slayings started. The temple was, as foretold, destroyed. A few decades later with yet an other Jewish uprising the temple site was fully destroyed and Jerusalem razed and rebuilt to become the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina. Also from a Mormon perspective, while Roman persecutions persisted the greatest end was the “fleeing of the Church into the wilderness.” (Rev 12:6) This end was the removal of priesthood authority and many doctrines of the gospel. The apostasy began perhaps not long after the end of the Bar Kochba revolt and the re-scattering of Israel.
I bring up this century of turmoil after Jesus simply to note that in many ways the end times were fulfilled, even if not quite in the way Jews or Christians expected. Yet, when we look at the many examples of eschatological literature from before the exile (starting with Isaiah) through the return from the Babylon exile up through the Christian eta, one thing seems clear. It’s not just about future events.
Eschatology’s primary focus isn’t the future destructions but the change in mindset of the believer to their present world. That is eschatology isn’t just a warning of the future, nor a demand to stay on guard. It is a fundamental shift of our mindset.
Somewhat ironically my favorite example of eschatology comes not out of the Christian tradition but Buddhist tradition. A Zen koan goes as follows:
A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
That being in a state where the end is present in a way one can not escape changes how we see life.
Hugh Nibley used a different example to explain the eschatological mindset. In his “The Way of the Church” he imagines successful businessman who has everything going for him. In terms of the world, he is at its height. Then during a doctor’s visit he finds he has only a few weeks to live. Suddenly everything in the world appears different. All the material things that seemed to give him his value beomce worthless. As Nibley puts it,
With shame and alarm he discovers that he has been making a religion of his career. In a flash of insight he recognizes that seeming and being are two wholly different things, and on his knees discovers that only his Heavenly Father knows him as he is. Abruptly he ceases to care particularly whether anybody thinks he is a good, able, smart, likable fellow or not; after all, he is not trying to sell anyone anything any more.
The things that once seemed trivial now become important and he sees them as they are for the first time. And the things that were so important become valueless.
In Nibley’s story the man discovers that the diagnosis was mistaken, yet he maintains this attitude towards life made possible through this encounter with death. He is no longer the same man.
…his thinking has become eschatological. He lives in a timeless, spaceless world in which Jack Benny and the World Series simply do not exist. His values are all those of eternity, looking to the “latter end” not only of his own existence but of everything and everybody around him. As he hears the news or walks the streets, he sees, in the words of Joseph Smith, “destruction writ large on everything we behold.” He is no longer interested “in the things of the world.”
This is not a pessimistic view. Nor is, I think, the attempt by the Church to keep us in this mindset a move towards pessimism. Certainly there are things in the world around us that can discourage us. And certainly by most objective standards the world and especially the west, is getting better and better. Yet simultaneously it is fleeting. One thing living at the end of the cold war did impress upon our minds, was how swiftly it could all be taken away. Sometimes it can seem like even focusing on the transitory and precarious nature of our civilization is “the effect of a frenzied mind” (Alma 30:16) Laman and Lemuel clearly thought Lehi and Nephi were deranged for their thinking Jerusalem would be destroyed. Many of their murmurings were because the things of this world seemed permanent and stable.
While we are fortunately not asked to flee into the wilderness like Lehi, I think it significant that a certain mindset similar to Nephi and Lehi is constantly presented to us. Texts like Revelation or the prophecies in the Book of Mormon might seem quaint to us. Especially when the promised destructions seem endlessly deferred. And yet, I think if we can get into that mindset of the eschatological person it is valuable. Not in the sense of leading us to a pessimism. But to helping us see the world as it really is.
(Just to be clear, this isn’t in the least a condemnation of those who critique a too pessimistic approach by some in the Church. I’ve often thought people’s seeing things as far worse than they are as a problem. Just that I think there’s an other side to things as well.)