Monday, August 24, 2009

Eschatology Defined

One thing that I plan to do with this blog is to write a series of posts defining significant philosophical or theological concepts. In addition to giving the definition, I hope to explain these ideas and try to relate them to everyday life. Today I would like to start that series by writing about eschatology.

Eschatology is a branch of theology concerned with the final events of human history and the ultimate destiny of the world. Christian eschatology is concerned with the second coming of Christ, the ressurection of the dead and the final judgement. Perhaps the best known example of Christian eschatology is, sadly, the version presented in the Left Behind books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. I'm not a fan of that view, but that will have to be a topic for a future post.

Though it might seem a bit esoteric, eschatology is actually an important area of study because what we believe will happen in the future affects how we live our lives now. Especially because, as Christians, we believe that we will live to see that future. So, while eschatology is primarily a theological term, I think one can see how the term might be applied to other belief systems. After all, many people have beliefs about the future of the world that affect the way they live their lives now. To illustrate this point I'd like to give a few examples.

The most obvious example that I can think of is the widely held belief that carbon dioxide causes global warming. The concern is that unless we quickly reduce our CO2 production we will face global climate change, which would lead to disastrous consequences. Industry leaders and policy makers are starting to make choices that don't make sense unless you believe this is a real possibility. This is just one example where beliefs about future events can impact the way we live now.

An historical example of a belief system with an eschatological component is Marxism. Karl Marx, the founder of modern communism, didn't just believe that communism was a good idea. He believed that the fall of capitalism was historically inevitable and he believed that it would eventually give way to a utopian, classless society. By providing this vision of the future, Karl Marx gave his followers something to strive for, which may help explain why his beliefs have had such an impact upon history.

For my final example I would like to talk about the technological singularity. The belief is that one day humans will be able to acheive greater-than-human intelligence through artificial means. Once this happens those intelligences will be able to develop even greater intelligences. This will cause all technology to advance in ways we cannot possibly predict. The interesting thing about this belief is that, while many assume that the singularity will be a good thing, others have pointed out that it could just as easily be a disaster. Since the core concept is that these changes will be unpredictable there isn't really any way to know for sure.

I hope I've given you an understanding of why it's important to analyze our beliefs about the future. For anyone, whatever their worldview may be, beliefs about the likely course of future events can have a big impact on the way they act now. Even if we believe that those events are far off they still color the decisions we make on a day to day basis. For that reason alone we should think carefully about what beliefs we hold about the future and where those beliefs come from.

What do you think? Are you thinking of an eschatological-type belief that I missed? Do you want to offer your thoughts on the ones I mentioned? If so, please leave a comment.


  1. When you say you believe that you will live to see the second coming do you mean that you believe this will happen in your lifetime? Or do you believe that you will rise again to see the end of days? Because those are two very different beliefs. The former would indicate that the final judgment will happen in the next 50 years. The latter indicates that there could be innumerable generations of human history yet to come.

    I ask this also because there are plenty of conspiracy theories based around the idea that secret societies are work to hasten global warming and war throughout the world to bring about the end of days. It's really scary that a belief about the future could lead one to increase human suffering. But people can do irrational things.

  2. I don't know when Jesus is coming back, and what's more I don't believe that it's possible for us to know when he will be coming back. I'm sure that I will be around to see it because of the promise of eternal life, not because I have the date already marked on my calendar.

    I'm tempted to get into this at length, but the topic really deserves its own post. For now I'll just say that the idea that we should make the situation worse (or let the situation get worse) so that Jesus will return sooner is a terrible idea on many different levels.