Eschatology or How it’s Always the End of Days


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.)

11 comments for “Eschatology or How it’s Always the End of Days

  1. I believe that there is a danger if we adopt a doom and gloom perspective (with the rabid survivalist/preparedness folks dominating the discussion) and fail to fully grasp the eschatological worldview.

    There is a enormous difference between anxiously waiting for a disaster that may inflict pain and suffering on our fellow human beings (which I interpret as a fundamentalist position) and changing one’s worldview while waiting for the Bridegroom, who we will meet in this life or the next. Physical preparation is only a gift for family and friends.

  2. Yup, exactly. The doom and gloom (or worse the excitement of waiting for destruction) is still caught up in that old worldly view. The change hasn’t really happened. Those with those attitudes in a sense are still in denial of death as a real death. It’s that moment when it’s real for you that the change happens.

  3. On a similar note, some have accused Marx of advocating a secular eschatology in preaching the immanent end of capitalism. Seems very related.

  4. I like the notion that each person is living in their own personal end time. It gives me something to think about as I ponder my own life.

    However, I think the two stories you quote may have slightly different morals. Why is enjoying a strawberry just before one dies any more noble that enjoying a baseball game or TV show? If I were facing death, I would want to be enjoying every minute, hopefully with my family or whoever the most important people in my life might be. I agree with Nibley that wealth and worldly fame would have little importance to me at that time. I also would prioritize my activities. Baseball would be pretty low importance for me, but I might want to watch a basketball game or a Studio C sketch with my daughter. The notion that I would want to give up the enjoyment of my hobbies and leisure activities is wrong, though. Looking forward to the next life does not mean that we stop living this one.

  5. DD, I like that koan because I think it makes one think of being in a hopeless condition before death. But within the Buddhist tradition there’s a sense in which one can be enlightened in any activity. There’s a saying that before enlightenment a mountain was just a mountain. When seeking enlightenment a mountain no longer seemed like a mountain. When enlightened a mountain was just a mountain. This is why you see things in the eastern tradition of finding this in activities like the tea ceremony or calligraphy.

    While you’re right that being born again in an LDS tradition isn’t exactly the same, there’s a certain similarity. So I’d say how we approach baseball or other such things changes somewhat and yet it’s the same activity.

    I should note a certain criticism I’d make of Nibley here and elsewhere in that I think he takes too platonic a conception of all this. If you’re familiar with platonism his phrase, “seeming and being are two wholly different things,” raises flags. In some ways Nibley’s eschatology has a few too many echoes of Plato’s The Cave. However I think he gets enough right I wouldn’t push that criticism too far. But I think Nibley’s tendency to discount activities like baseball or football is due to that platonism. Whereas I’d say that while it’s quite easy to get out of hand with them that eschatology lets us enjoy them as a family and friends in a non-superficial way.

    Jeff, yes I think secularism has brought up eschatology in many different ways. Marx not only with the idea of the uprising but the utopia at the end of the uprising. I suspect that Marx gets this in part from Hegel though. There’s a certain eschatological component to Hegel’s thought as well. Marx is largely copying Hegel’s the end of history. (And you get that Hegelian element in more contemporary works like Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Nietzsche arguably is playing with the same idea with his notion of the Superman as well as in the Myth of the Eternal Recurrence. The whole point to the superman being someone who when told their history will endlessly repeat is joyful is the idea of this eschatology even if it’s interesting in that there is no end. There lots of little ironic moves he makes.

    These secular copies of eschatology end up being different even when they, such as in Nietzsche, keep a certain individual ethical stance. You’re probably more familiar with Kierkegaard’s more religious move where faith itself is a certain eschatological trust. (This is in Fear and Trembling) Then in Heidegger you find a kind of fusion of Hegel, Kierkegaard and a bit of Nietzsche in the analysis of being towards death. It is by embracing the reality and actuality of our death that we’re able to be free. Heidegger then invokes a kind of Pauline component to this with his authentic and inauthentic modes of being captured in such analysis. (Roughly akin to the spirit of the law and the letter of the law in Paul)

    So it’s kind of funny how in more secular works the eschatological remains so pertinent even when most of those writing in the tradition ultimately reject the kind of spiritual eschatology pre-supposed by Christ. After all the eschatology for Christians was seeing what is valuable in this life in terms of a death that is wrapped up in the atonement.

  6. Thank you for posting this – I appreciate the chain of thoughts that battled in my own mind after reading this post + comments.

    Not to hijack the thread…but has anyone found an original source for the supposed quote from Joseph Smith “destruction writ large on everything we behold,”? Thanks in advance.

  7. Thor, I was curious when I posted it. It looks like Nibley mangled the quote somewhat.

    The plain fact is this, the power of God begins to fall upon the nations, and the light of the latter-day glory begins to break forth through the dark atmosphere of sectarian wickedness, and their iniquity rolls up into view, and the nations of the Gentiles are like the waves of the sea, casting up mire and dirt, or all in commotion, and they are hastily preparing to act the part allotted them, when the Lord rebukes the nations, when He shall rule them with a rod of iron, and break them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. The Lord declared to His servants, some eighteen months since, that He was then withdrawing His Spirit from the earth; and we can see that such is the fact, for not only the churches are dwindling away, but there are no conversions, or but very few: and this is not all, the governments of the earth are thrown into confusion and division; and Destruction, to the eye of the spiritual beholder, seems to be written by the finger of an invisible hand, in large capitals, upon almost every thing we behold. (TPJS 15)

  8. Yeah, I like to think of eschatology as viewing this life in a larger cosmological context. Thus, its fleeting nature becomes, at once, more pronounced and less desirable.

  9. An excellent book chronicling the many end-times scenarios throughout history is Paul Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More. A fascinating read.

  10. If you’re interested in more formal Mormon eschatology rather than what I discussed above then Sam Brown’s In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death is well worth reading. For a more idiosyncratic take Nibley’s Mormonism and Early Christianity is always worth a read. If only to see how Nibley takes early Christian eschatology as a lens for his more general theological ideas. The quote above came from that.

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