I have been interested in eschatology since I was a child, although I didn’t call it “eschatology” then. One of my earliest faith memories is of lying in bed as a seven- or eight-year-old, crying to my parents, “I don’t want to go to heaven because I won’t recognize anyone without their skin on!” I was terrified of going to heaven; disembodied souls did not sit well with me, and since the only people I knew had skin on, my vision of heaven created a sharp discontinuity with my lived reality.
I recently came across a strikingly similar fear of heaven, and not from a child. This time it came from a senior member in the congregation I was serving. He said, “Will I recognize my sons in heaven? Because if I won’t be able to recognize them, then something about that doesn’t seem right.” It clearly weighed on his mind–his voice cracked and his mouth tightened as he spoke. I later learned he was remembering a sermon in which the pastor claimed we’d be so caught up in worshiping God in heaven that it will not bother us that we don’t recognize our family or friends. It was a painful message for this man to hear because he has deep and meaningful relationships. The preacher’s vision of heaven created a sharp discontinuity with the man’s lived reality.
Why Eschatology Matters for Preachers
I share these stories for two reasons. First, to show how eschatology has the power to shape not only hope but also fear. In the stories above, eschatology creates fear and anxiety. Indeed, eschatology has often been weaponized in even more harmful ways than these examples. This is deeply ironic, since eschatology has traditionally been a doctrine of Christian hope. Somewhere along the way, fire and fear edged out new creation and hope as the basic principles of Christians’ understanding of the end-times.
The second reason I share these stories is to reinforce what Thomas Long lamented in 2009: that the pulpit has grown silent on eschatological matters and that preachers no longer speak boldly about the Christian hope for all people and creation. Long’s lament itself requires further attention and nuance, but for now I will add that the stories above illustrate that not all types of eschatological zeal or boldness in the pulpit satisfactorily reflect Christian hope. The question that has driven my research and writing is this: how can Christian preachers reclaim eschatology in the pulpit in a such a way that reflects the hopeful trajectory of the Christian message?
In 1 Corinthians 15, we see the Apostle Paul’s fullest articulation of eschatology through the lens of resurrection. For Paul, eschatology is not just an optional add-on to the end of the Jesus story; in fact, without it the whole story falls apart. His basic argument is this: the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus are the crux of the gospel (“of first importance” v. 3a), and the point of Jesus’ bodily resurrection was to ensure our own and even the cosmic defeat of death. Crucially, without the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the consequent hope for our own bodily resurrection, the Christian faith is pointless, and Christians should be pitied more than anyone else. “But,” Paul asserts, “Christ has been raised!” The resurrection of the dead, or—more cosmically stated—the defeat of death, was the telos of the gospel Paul preached. And just as eschatology was not an optional add-on for Paul, neither should it be for us.
What is Eschatological Preaching?
There are at least two ways of approaching the matter of eschatology and preaching: 1) we can aim to preach more often about eschatology as a topic or doctrine (e.g., what does the Bible say about the antichrist, new creation, the millennium, the last judgment, etc.?), or 2) we can aim to incorporate eschatology as a deep theological structure that orients all—or at least much—of our preaching. Most of the homiletic literature on the topic relates to the first approach: preaching about eschatology. It’s certainly worth exploring if eschatological texts are not a regular part of your preaching “diet.” I am interested, however, in helping to broaden the conversation on preaching and eschatology by primarily addressing the second approach: eschatology as a deep theological structure for gospel proclamation.
At the core of my convictions around this topic is the belief that the form of sermons is itself formative. The “diet” analogy is helpful here: in the same way that you usually cannot recall exactly what you had for dinner last Tuesday night, you probably are not able to recall what was preached two Sundays ago . . . or even last Sunday, for that matter. And yet, in the same way that the food you eat nourishes your body despite your (lack of) memory of it, so too, can sermons. Expanding the analogy one step further, over time, the basic form that your meals take day-after-day, week-after-week, start to shape your food preferences, your cravings, and even your long-term health for better or worse. Like any analogy, this one eventually breaks down, yet the basic principle stands: over time, the form a sermon takes impacts our faith, our view of God, and our understanding of Scripture. Hearing three-point sermons for years on end shape an understanding of Scripture as neatly deducible theological or moral points (we might not all agree whether this is good or bad). Hearing sermons that regularly end with a missional call to action or how-to-live-differently-on-Monday also shapes our understanding of the purpose of the gospel, potentially in helpful ways but also potentially in legalistic ways. My desire is that sermons shaped around the basic characteristics of hopeful eschatology will nurture a hopeful faith. To help us understand more fully what that hopeful faith might look like, let me share what I believe are some formal characteristics of eschatology that can be reflected in a sermon’s form.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, formal characteristic of our present experience of eschatology is tension. It’s the tension between the “already” and the “not-yet,” or between participation and anticipation. In 1 Corinthians 15, it’s the tension between a reality defined by death and one defined by resurrection. It’s the tension between what is sown and what is raised—between the perishable and imperishable, dishonor and glory, weakness and power, and between a body that is animated by a soul and a body that is animated by the Spirit of God (v. 42-44).
Hopeful sermons will imitate and so help people to participate in that eschatological tension. Exactly how that tension is articulated depends on the text at hand. Broadly speaking, some examples include tension between the present reality and God’s future promises, or between our sin and God’s grace. Students of preaching may hear echoes of Eugene Lowry’s upsetting the equilibrium and experiencing the gospel, of Frederick Buechner’s tragedy and comedy of the gospel, of Paul Scott Wilson’s grammar of trouble and grace, or of Richard Lischer’s offering of the law and gospel dialectic for preaching. There is no shortage of preaching methods that recognize the value of tension in the sermon.
Here’s another way of thinking about tension: though it may be counter-intuitive, hopeful preaching should not be confused with optimistic or positive-thinking preaching. Optimistic or positive-thinking preaching can fail to recognize and name suffering, injustice, and all the powers of death at work in history, the world, and in us. This means that hopeful preaching includes a regular dose of lament and confession. Eschatological preaching laments our own experiences of the powers of death and sin, but also confesses the ways in which we act as agents or beneficiaries of death and sin. This lament is met by the God who is not only with us in our suffering, but also for us in working salvation and liberation. Confession, on the other hand, is met by the God who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love (Ps. 103:8). When preachers fail to develop tension in the form of the sermon, listeners are unlikely to be stirred toward hope. Hope exists in tension.
Perhaps most importantly, the promissory/resurrection side of the tension is focused on God’s action. Christian hope is occasioned by God’s promises and sustained by God’s work—in and through us, yes, but also sometimes in spite of us, thanks be to God. Resurrection is something God does.
Tension alone does not produce hope. Hope is also marked by movement. There is a movement, order, even a kind of plot inherent in the gospel message. It is the movement from death towards resurrection and the final defeat of the powers of death. This is what Paul writes about when he says, “Then comes the end, when [Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:24-26). Our present experience of God’s eschatological promises is marked by tension, but also by movement—movement toward resurrection and the consummate reign of God over the cosmos.
When I say eschatological hope is marked by movement, I am not talking about a kind of evolutionary progress in which the world is getting better and better and that we’re so much more enlightened now. The Reformed take on history is that history is a mixed bag. It is neither all getting worse, nor is it all getting better. It’s always a mix between those things that conform to the eschatological horizon of God’s coming reign and those things that contradict this horizon. We can think of movement more in terms of sequence: dying then rising. The thing that makes the gospel hopeful news is that rising always follows dying.
I am also not talking about resolution. I am not suggesting that all the tension in the sermon needs to be neatly resolved by the end with a reference to the victory of God or an exhortation to cheer up because God is going to fix everything. Richard Lischer describes this kind of easy resolution as “transparently palliative” to those whose experience resists resolution. So an eschatological form maintains a sense of tension in the sermon but also leans in the direction of God’s gracious action. In Jesus, God’s promises are at hand, but they are not yet fully in hand.
The resources for preaching forms that reflect both tension and movement are plentiful. I am biased toward The Four Pages method where the sermon is structured around four basic movements or “pages”: trouble in the text, trouble in the world, grace in the text, and grace in the world. In my own preaching this has proven to be a structure that keeps me faithful to the basic formal elements of the hopeful gospel. It is a form that can stir up hope. The warning for this approach is to not reduce the Four Pages to a “problem-solution” formula. Movement does not undo the tension.
Hope in Action
The final mark of eschatology that I want to highlight is not so much a formal mark as it is the result: hope in action. Paul’s final point in 1 Corinthians 15 is that based on this future hope for resurrection, followers of Jesus ought to “give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). Hope is not cause for quietism. Hope works hard, not to bring about the reign of God through our effort, but in faith that the coming reign of God gives our work purpose beyond its present transience and impermanence.
Sermons that have both tension and movement open possibilities for hope in action in such a way that people are motivated and encouraged to live in accordance with God’s promised future. Gospel preachers proclaim God’s new creation to a world full of suffering and brokenness so that people can act in hope instead of being immobilized by despair.
In Preaching the New and the Now, David Buttrick is interested in helping the church change, and this, he argues, can only be done with a vision of the future. Buttrick claims that the church in America is desperately trying to hold on to the past. We have come to believe that God’s actions only take place in the Bible. According to Buttrick, we dare not speak of God’s realm in the present or future tense because of the spectacular failure of early 20th century liberal optimism, and as a result, “Without a sense of the coming realm of God, genuine hope for the future seems to have disappeared.” Since we cannot make sense out of the past without some vision for the future, there is a present sense of meaninglessness and even despair. So, what do we do now? Buttrick answers: “We preach the future of God so people can change. We get up in our pulpits and announce the coming of God’s new order, for only some image of a new world, bright and right and reconciled, can give us courage to change.” Hope for the future is the thing that gives people courage to change. Hope is not merely an emotion; it is a catalyst for repentance and renewal. Hope puts us to work.
How Do You Know It’s “Working”?
The goal of preaching eschatologically is twofold: faithfulness to the fullness of the gospel, and transformation. So, what kind of transformation might result from this kind of preaching? The section above starts to answer that question, but I wonder if there is also a slightly less obvious answer. It’s perhaps more modest on the surface, but potentially more troubling for folks who live mostly comfortable lives. I wonder if the impact of this kind of preaching would, for many people, be a way of acquainting ourselves more fully with lament, confession, and hard truth-telling. When the church I serve put together a service of lament after one year of living with COVID, it was met with some resistance. The resistance came from well-meaning folks who want worship to focus on the good news, not the bad news. I wonder if, over time, the hopeful preaching I am describing will lessen that resistance to lament and will allow those of us living in relative comfort to take a closer, truer look at the world without being concerned that this truth-telling will consign us to despair. Much the opposite: lament, confession, and hard truth-telling are essential for the development of robust and productive gospel hope.
So let the preacher tell the truth that reflects the hopeful trajectory of the Christian message, “this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true.”
 Thomas G. Long, Preaching from Memory to Hope (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 113.
 Here I find Richard Horsley’s thesis regarding Sophia-devotion in Corinth to be persuasive. To sum it up: the problem was their denial of a bodily resurrection in favor of an understanding of resurrection as something more spiritual – a kind of disembodied, enlightened state of wisdom. For Paul, the only alternative to Christ’s bodily resurrection is that he is still dead. There is no third “spiritualized” option for Paul. The result of their understanding of resurrection was a form of over-realized eschatology. See Richard A. Horsley, “‘How Can Some of You Say That There Is No Resurrection of the Dead?’ Spiritual Elitism in Corinth,” Novum Testamentum 20 (1978): 203–31; Richard A. Horsley, 1 Corinthians, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 35–36.
 See Cornish R. Rogers and Joseph R. Jeter, eds., Preaching Through the Apocalypse (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 1992); Thomas G. Long, “The Preacher and the Beast,” in Intersections: Post-Critical Studies in Preaching, ed. Richard L. Eslinger (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 1–22; Susan Bond, “Apocalyptic Vocation and Liberation: The Foolish Church in the World,” in Preaching as a Theological Task: Word, Gospel, Scripture, ed. Thomas G. Long and Edward Farley (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 150–64; David Buttrick, Preaching the New and the Now, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998); Larry Paul Jones and Jerry L. Sumney, Preaching Apocalyptic Texts (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 1999); Thomas G. Long, Preaching from Memory to Hope (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
 For a full explanation of the problematic translation of “spiritual” in verse 44 see N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 251.
 Richard Lischer, “The Limits of Story,” Interpretation 38, no. 1 (January 1984): 26–38.
 For tension and movement see Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980); Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977); Paul Scott Wilson, The Four Pages of the Sermon, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2018); Richard Lischer, A Theology of Preaching: The Dynamics of the Gospel, Rev. ed. (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2001); Luke A. Powery, Spirit Speech: Lament and Celebration in Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009); Brian K. Blount, Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection, 1st ed. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014); Joni S. Sancken, Stumbling Over the Cross: Preaching the Cross and Resurrection Today, Lloyd John Ogilvie Institute of Preaching Series (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2016). For movement see Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018).
 Wilson, The Four Pages.
 Buttrick, Preaching the New and the Now, 17.
 Buttrick, 17.
 Buttrick, 18.
 Buechner, Telling the Truth, 98.