I live in the war-torn eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I teach theology at a small university. Last summer, I was directing an independent study in eschatology during a particularly unstable and violent season. Our task was to think through the coming of Christ in the context of Israel’s future hope. What had God promised his chosen people? What were God’s people expecting from him?
We were reading the prophet Micah when the thunder of distant artillery fire began to shake the room. I’ll never forget the moment.
The text we were reading, Micah 4:3, speaks of the “latter days,” when all the nations will gather at Mount Zion to hear the word of the Lord:
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall decide disputes for strong nations far away;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.
“What if all of those AK-47s and RPGs were to be gathered up, melted down, and refastened into . . . ” I struggled to complete my metaphor, “basketball goals!” I’m sure I could have come up with something more meaningful, but I think they got the point.
Modern Congo and Ancient Israel
Gunfire has echoed through hills of eastern Congo for more than two decades. I’ve heard my students, most of whom have lived their entire lives in this war’s shadow, voice their confidence: “This why we have come here to study! God has called us to serve this hurting nation and lead it into a brighter future!” Still, the political and economic realities of our context frustrate every step toward peace or progress. Could anything be farther from the scene of Micah’s vision? How should the war-weary Congolese Christian read such a text?
Israel also knew the horrors of war in Micah’s day. God’s people lived under the swords and spears of imperial oppression. Peace was a political impossibility. The Lord spoke into this hopelessness. Instruments of destruction transformed into instruments of production and prosperity? This does sound a lot like Yahweh, the God who speaks into chaos and creates a cosmos (Gen. 1:2), who sets an entire nation of captives free (Ex. 14:30), who breathes life into corpses (Ezek. 37:10), the God who redeems. This cosmic promise that God makes through Micah, fulfilled in Christ, is indeed the hope of eastern Congo: in Christ, our God makes all things new.
Already but Not Yet
Even if we believe God will keep these promises, there remains a pressing question: Has the glorious future of Micah’s prophesy arrived? New Testament scholars have wrestled with this question for centuries. To what extent does the New Testament present a realized eschatology? Did the New Testament authors believe God’s promises had been fulfilled already in Christ, or were they awaiting their fulfillment at Christ’s return and the redemption of all things?
On the one hand, we believe Christ has come to embody and announce the inauguration of God’s kingdom. Jesus told his followers the kingdom of God was “at hand,” “in your midst,” and even “within you.” The New Testament uses the language of “fulfillment” and “completion,” and often cites the prophets to announce that in Christ the “Day of the Lord” has arrived.
But who are we kidding? You don’t have to live in a war zone to know our present reality is radically different from the scene in Micah’s vision. If the “Day of the Lord” has come, it’s rather disappointing. Suffering saints plead for God to save them, churches struggle and divide, and world powers appear increasingly resistant to Christianity. It seems little has changed. Can my Congolese friends and colleagues stand amid violence and uncertainty and announce, “The kingdom of God is at hand”?
But we live in this tension, between the times of the already and not yet.
Today in eastern Congo, the Lord is raising a new generation of God-fearing leaders who are seeing lives changed through their ministry, but we await the day when all violence and death will cease, and the peace of God’s everlasting kingdom will reign.
Why Eschatology Matters
I like to tell my students that when the Spirit-filled people of God follow Jesus in love and sacrifice, they become a sort of sneak preview of the new heavens and new earth. We offer a glimpse of how creation, unspoiled by sin and death, should (and will) look one day. What an honor that our lives could tell the story of a God who steps into the depths of his fallen creation and restores it to its intended glory.
Why does eschatology matter? Because it motivates, directs, and makes sense of our mission as Christ’s ambassadors.
What troubles you most about our fallen world? What breaks your heart? Where do you find the greatest distance between Micah’s vision and the world around us? Imagine what it might look like for God’s kingdom to come in full. What would it look like for swords and spears to become plowshares and pruning hooks?
That frustration and dissatisfaction with the darkness around us shows neither a lack of faith nor a lack of trust in the God who has called us—it shows the opposite. It shows that you believe in God’s promise to remake the cosmos, that you hate sin as he does, that you’re not at home in a world so devastated by death. That hunger for God’s promised future should propel us into faithful service to his coming kingdom. Pray that through God’s transformed people, the Spirit would bring that perfect future into our broken present. This is Christian eschatology: trusting in the promises of God and getting in step with the Spirit as those promises come to fulfillment.
No More Weariness, No More Conflict
When the fighting in our region intensified in late 2017, and our community began to strain under the weight of war, a dear friend wrote to me these anticipatory words:
On this day, you look out over a region at rest—long-overdue rest from generations of weariness and conflict. You enjoy the scenery of a place now restored, weight and oppression lifted and now alive with hope and joy. The air now still and quiet as bombs and gunfire are replaced with the sounds of serene life and a functioning creation restored. On this day you observe villages and towns scattered across the landscape and know the people in those places are safe and secure, going about their lives and attending to family needs but not in fear or despair. The violence and corruption that once loomed over and plagued the simplicity of life is no longer present on this day.
This scene, promised in God’s Word, is both our future hope and our present motivation. My students can imagine their beloved country through the lens of Scripture’s promises, and they can work toward that future, knowing they serve a God who turns swords into plowshares.