Eckhard Schnabel | Interview by: Matt Smethurst
I corresponded with Schnabel about his handy new resource—one that is sure to generate more light than heat.
Which question was most difficult question for you to answer, and why?
In a sense the entire doctrine of eschatology is difficult due to the diversity of opinions and the strong feelings many have concerning particular interpretations. Since I aim at helping readers to read and understand biblical texts, and since we know how to approach the task of responsible exegesis, writing the answers to the 40 questions was a wonderfully enriching task. To my surprise, the most challenging question turned out to be the timing of the Day of Judgment (question 36). I had assumed, as most do, that the Day of Judgment in terms of the Last Judgment is portrayed as judgment of believers and unbelievers in the vision of Rev 20:11-15, which comes right before the vision of the new heaven and the new earth in Rev 21. Noticing, as many commentators do, that Rev 20:11-15 explicitly mentions only the judgment of the followers of Satan, the question arose how to relate (1) the judgment of believers in connection with Jesus’ death on the cross (see Col 2:13-15) and their judgment as evidently having taken place in connection with Jesus’ return (see Rev 19:14), to (2) the judgment of the unbelievers in connection with Jesus’ return (see Rev 19:11-21) and in connection with the Day of Judgment between the millennium and the new heavens and new earth (Rev 20:11-15).
You focus on examining the relevant passages afresh, not comparing eschatological systems. Why do you refrain from the latter?
Comparing eschatological systems forces people to identify, or abandon their identification with, a particular tradition of viewing eschatological questions. Such efforts have been undertaken, of course, and they are legitimate. But they are generally not very conducive to promoting a fresh reading of the biblical texts. As we evangelicals are committed to Scripture as norm for faith and practice, we should be committed to a constant search for an ever-better understanding of Scripture, including disputed passages and disputed doctrines, with a view to achieving greater unity among believers. Christians committed to Scripture should be committed to seeking a better understanding of Scripture: the quest for truth should supersede the inclination to defend a particular tradition of interpretation. If the sola scriptura principle stands, exegesis has priority over tradition and thus over traditional eschatological systems. Thus, reading texts that have been used, in one way or another, to describe the end times is more profitably done, I think and hope, with a focus on the biblical text rather than on tradition.
Why is it important to realize that the end times began with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus?
This is an important realization for three reasons: because this is what Jesus, Peter, Paul, and John teach; because this prompts us to understand the texts about the end times as texts that were relevant for the apostles’ audiences and for the readers of their writings in the first century; and because this forces us to understand that Christians of all periods have lived in the end times, as we do today, irrespective of the question how close Jesus’ return is (a question whose answer nobody can know, see Matt 24:36).
How important is the position we take on the millennium?
A believer’s commitment to waiting for Jesus’ return and for the new heavens and the new earth is clearly more important than his or her commitment to a particular view about the millennium. To take the position “we will see what happens when it happens” is not a flippant remark, since a particular view of the millennium does not change how believers live. We need to engage in missionary outreach to Jews today, whether or not they will play a role in the millennium; we should be committed to be good stewards of God’s creation whether or not the millennium takes place on this earth or is the first phase of the age to come. Good theologians and good exegetes have arrived at differing interpretations of Rev 20:1-6; it has not, and should not, change their devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ, their eagerness to evangelize Jews and Gentiles, their expectation of Jesus Christ’s return, and their anticipation of living in God’s presence in the new heavens and the new earth.
What are some of the most common errors in evangelicals' thinking about eschatology?
The most problematic error is, I think, the view that the end times are the last seven years of the world, because it has forced interpreters to speculate how close the beginning of this period is. Connected with this is the view that the Antichrist is only a reality that is more or less tied to the last seven years, which has forced end time writers who are convinced that the end is near to identify historical personalities with the Antichrist. Such speculations and identifications have been undertaken for hundreds of years, a fact that makes this kind of literature very depressing reading. As we write about the end times, the focus should be less on the details of future events than about the present. As John who wrote the “words of prophecy,” which is the Book of Revelation, we should be mostly concerned to help Christians not be cowards, faithless, polluted, fornicators, idolaters, or liars, but people who overcome the challenges and seductions of a secular world that denies the lordship of Jesus Christ and who joyfully await life everlasting in God’s presence (Rev 21:6-8).
Matt Smethurst is an assistant editor for The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.