Originally written as “Finding a Living Hope: The Relevance of Christian Eschatology” | Michael J. Breznau | July 2011
Two childhood memories will forever remain distinct in my mind. The first is the wonderful recollection of that spring morning when the Spirit drew me to the message of the Gospel and granted me the faith to believe in Jesus Christ as my personal Savior. Through God’s work of grace, I realized my innate sinfulness and my separation from the holy Creator of the universe. My 5-year-old eyes were opened to the purpose of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. And by the grace and mercy of the Father I came to faith in the Son of God, who gave Himself upon the Cross as the sacrifice for my sin – even the sins of the world. He paid the penalty that I deserved. He bore my shame and guilt, so that I could receive the very righteousness of God – I could be called a child of God (cf. 1 Cor 5:21). I will never forget the sense of this new life I had been given. Fear was replaced with hope. Guilt and shame were replaced with joy and peace. Separation was replaced with relationship.
However, a second memory would be formed just a few years later that would dramatically change my outlook on life. The change was subtle, but very real nonetheless. Unfortunately, the effects of this day would riddle my heart and mind for years to come.
(not so fond)
“The END is near!” proclaimed a man whose naturally reddish face now resembled the hue of a dark red sugar beet. In his hand were some newspaper clippings that heralded several “end times” announcements: the groundwork of a new temple in Jerusalem, the birth of a special red heifer, the collaboration of anti-Israeli military forces, and several other fear-filled articles. The sanctuary of our church grew deafeningly silent.
From my seat in the musical ensemble area, the loudest noise around me was the pounding beat of my heart. My hands began to sweat profusely as I tried to maintain a grip on my trumpet.
I was scared. Was this world going to come to end before I turned fourteen? Would I never experience the joy of having my own family? Even more importantly, would I be ready “when the Lord comes for His spotless and wrinkle-free Bride”??
Since I was taught that a little dose of uncertainty about your salvation was good for your spiritual health – I became worried about whether or not I was actually justified in the sight of God. I remembered one holiness preacher screaming out:
“The doctrine of eternal security – once-saved-always-saved – is a teaching straight from the pit of hell!” So, if I believed my salvation was eternally and forever secured by the power of God (as 1 Peter 1:3-9 explicitly teaches), then, in effect, I was buying into “Satan’s biggest deception of our time.”
After the “prophet” finished his newsreel proclamation several other members of the congregation chimed in with similar information – a feeling of fear settled over the service. Soon the well-meaning pastor came to the front and called for a time of heart-felt, thoroughgoing repentance. “It’s time to get right with the Lord… the days are short and evil,” he said, to the masses now gathered at the altar and to others on their knees across the room.
I am not sure if anyone thought about whether believers would be raptured before the Tribulation, in the mid-term, or afterwards. But one thing was for sure: the return of Jesus Christ was going to be a dreadful, terrifying day of Judgment – so we better be ready! For most of us, God’s future plan incited fear. For those who were unsure of their salvation that morning, the message of the Gospel was based in fear of judgment. In essence, we were all to make certain we had the right “fire insurance” for the impending disaster and wrath.
After the service came to a close I walked out with some friends who remarked how “revival” had swept through the church – and I wholeheartedly agreed. My conscious seemed clean and my heart (though still filled with fear) “felt right with the Lord.” …That was until I noticed an attractive girl walk by, who just happened to be around my age. I immediately battled with whether or not I had thought about her too long or not and quietly repented of my sinful thought pattern. Repentance from sin is a gift from God and part of His salvific work in our lives. However, my so-called repentance was motivated by fear and guilt, not grace. I was scared of God’s future plan and what it would mean for my eternal destiny.
Living in Fear of God’s Future Plan
Around this time I became too filled with fear to even simply read the apocalyptic portions of God’s Word. The book of the Revelation was too frightening – every context in which it was read at church was filled with fear. Certain passages in the book of Daniel and the letters to the Thessalonians received the same treatment. When people talked about Christ’s return, my heart would again start pounding and my hands would begin to sweat.
Throughout my teenage years I maintained this fear of Christ’s return. Sure, there were times when it mildly abated – but I assumed that was because of my carnality (!). Although I deeply loved Christ and never ceased to believe in Him, I was plagued with obsessive thoughts about the “unforgiveable sin” (cf. Matt 12:31-32). I was concerned that by some mental volition gone astray I would commit this travesty of travesties and be destined to the lake of fire forever.
I often found myself uttering quick prayers of repentance when I heard the sound of a distant horn or steam whistle – thinking it might just be the “last trump.” Would I be ready!? Was I ready!? I thought I’d better get in a final note of repentance to beat out the rapture or the judgment or whatever might come (nobody really seemed to know for sure). Undoubtedly, my eschatology and soteriology were skewed and mistaken. Yet little in my church and ministry experience up to this point had done anything to reverse this trend.
This confusion especially reared its ugly head when I shared with others what I thought to be the message of the Gospel. I believed if I could scare them enough, then they would “accept Jesus as their Savior.” To be sure, the effects of sin and the state of lost souls outside of Christ must be preached as part and parcel to the Gospel message (cf. Rom 3:23; 6:23).
However, I did not realize the beauty or power of God’s grace. Why? Because I was motivated by fear not grace! For me to share about the bodily resurrection of the righteous as a wonderful hope would have been incomprehensible, since my entire conception of the end was judgment, wrath, satanic deception, and the possible hope of escaping through it all to heaven.
In order to calm these constant fears I developed obsessive habits of “praying the sinner’s prayer” (just to make sure the deal was done) and dealt with recycled thought patterns of various daily sins and mental slip-ups. Sadly, I now see the majority of these habits were developed out of fear to save my own skin from the impending judgment that could be right around the corner.
Amidst all this spiritual confusion there were, by God’s grace, glimpses of hope and peace. Fond recollections of that day I came to faith in Christ and the joy of that moment would occasionally flood my soul. I knew my relationship with the Savior was real. I sensed the Father heard me when I spoke to Him in prayer. Yet the thunderclouds of a fearful apocalypse nearly always loomed overhead.
As I prepared to go into adulthood, I believed (and still so) that the Lord was calling me into full-time vocational ministry. My many fears about the eschaton were still somewhat present. However, I thoroughly enjoyed serving Christ. I loved to share and preach His Word – except the apocalyptic/prophetic passages, of course. My sister and I were highly involved in music ministry and other local outreach opportunities. Yet, my motivation for the Gospel was rooted in a system of fear or the delight of “spending eternity in heaven.” Silently, I hoped that I would be able to live a full life serving the Lord and then simply be ushered into His presence in heaven where I would escape all the end-time scenarios that had filled me with fear.
Finding Hope (Again)
Eschatology, one’s view of “last things,” tremendously impacts the life of every believer – for good or for ill. For many years I was crippled with anxiety over what should have been the source of my greatest hope – the return of our Savior Jesus Christ. The concept of our “Blessed Hope” was, for many years, void from my vocabulary. That early hope I had understood when I was just five years old had been all but squandered, squashed, and skewed by a practical theology grounded in fear, human effort, and Christianized karma. As a result, my life and ministry was tainted with this negative, foreboding sentiment.
Sure, from the outside, everybody thought of me as a joyful, godly young man. However, I knew the reality of a very tangible battle raging within. My joy was found more in what I could do for Christ in the present, rather than in the hope of being with the Savior, in His very presence.
By God’s shocking kindness, my later education in Bible college, inner-city ministry, mission work in India, and education at Dallas Theological Seminary, brought me to the realization of the true hope that should fill the heart of every believer: Jesus Christ! This is the hope that we need to express to the world. Sadly, what should define the evangelical church is often the missing ingredient, making our message unattractive to those who need to desperately hear it.
Pastor Bill Hybels has often said, “Jesus Christ is the hope of the church and the church is the hope of the world.” If the church has a skewed and fear-filled “hope” then what will that church offer the world? From my personal experience, a gospel of fear produces people of fear who live motivated by fear and express little grace to a world that needs hope!
Perhaps this is why the apostle Paul reminded the church at Ephesus of their prior state before Christ, “…remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:12-13; emphasis added).
Somehow in all the media buzz, end-times literature, and apocalyptic frenzy we have forgotten that the return of Christ was and is a message of hope to those in fearful and difficult earthly situations, not the reverse! To those under fiery persecution, Peter wrote:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…” (1 Pet 1:3; emphasis added).
Transformed by the Blessed Hope
Realizing the blessed hope of Christ’s return has impacted every facet of my life and ministry. As much as the message of fear previously permeated my entire outlook, so much more has the Gospel of hope and grace transformed the paradigms of my life.
First, the apocalyptic and prophetic literature of the Bible can now be read as an act of worship! That which I feared has now become my greatest hope. Recently, I read aloud the Revelation of Jesus Christ in its entirety. For the first time in my life, the text brought tears to my eyes as my heart filled with hope for God’s future plan. Maybe this was just an inkling of what it would have been like to receive this letter as a struggling first-century Christian, surrounded by volatile persecution.
I realized hope over fear.
Second, the Gospel has once again become to me a message of hope and grace. I have seen how this wonderful grace can motivate one from the heart, in contrast with the fear that seeks to control the mind. I have again realized the simple faith of my childhood that can cling to the arms of a loving heavenly Father, who has ordained “a living hope” for His children in His Son, Jesus Christ.
This is truly a matter of life and death. In March of 2011, my cousin David (who was the same age as me), committed suicide via a shotgun wound to the head. My family and I still grieve over the loss of his life. He had heard about Christ. Yet all too often, I venture to say it was a message of fear, not hope – not the hope he truly needed in his life. When I met with his grief-stricken father, his words to me were these, “I guess he just lost hope…” I had nothing to say. My heart, too, was filled with pangs of regret and sadness.
Yet I will never forget that moment when I realized the people around us are just hanging on by a thread. The hope of the resurrection and the new creation need to be articulated to a world that has lost sight of what they are really looking for.
Third, my earlier skewed views of God’s future plan have been corrected with a hope for the time when Christ will make all things new – when the earth will once again become the dwelling place of the Messiah. No longer do I have the sole expectation of escaping to heaven, per se. I long and yearn for the day when in glorified body I will be with the God of grace and hope – when my faith will be fully realized and divine love will rule for all eternity (cf. 1 Cor 13; Rev 21-22).
The escapist mentality is no longer desired when one realizes the future God has for the earth remade in the new creation:
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:3b-4).
Lastly, having a proper view of the future determines how you live in the present. Therefore, I am committed to delivering and living out a Christian eschatology of hope to people who think it is irrelevant. Several weeks ago, I mentioned my recent study of millennialism to someone at church and they jokingly responded, “Yeah? I was just thinking about that on the drive in this morning.”
Undoubtedly, his comment was all in good fun. Yet such an attitude is also very telling of the common regard for eschatology in our time. On the one hand, millions of believers are preoccupied with a fear-based eschatology that sucks them of life, grace, and joy. Yet on the other hand, many millions more remain ambivalent about understanding God’s future plan. As a result, our proclamation of the Gospel is skewed and the lost around us do not see any relevant reason to look at what we proclaim.
People of Hope
Because of a distorted and mistaken eschatology, I was crippled for years with anxiety over what should have been the source of my greatest hope – the return of our Savior Jesus Christ. Can we turn the page together? Let’s collaboratively display for the people of God what it means to be people of hope – those who look forward with great expectation for the coming of the Savior Jesus Christ. As we live in light of what is to come, we will be filled with courage in the face of temptation, strength of faith, and a message that rings true to a world in pain, suffering, and confusion.
The Blessed Hope is the grand expectation and longing of the Church and we dare not settle for anything less. Christ will come again, and with His magnificent power He will set up the consummation of His kingdom that will reign for all eternity. May our lives ring with the praises of His glorious grace in this present age and in the age to come. “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20)
 John Bevere, The Fear of the Lord Dvd Series (Colorado Springs, CO: Messenger International, 2005).