40 Questions about the End Times

Eckhard J. Schnabel, 40 Questions about the End Times. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2012. 352 pp. $17.99.

Before Jesus’ death, his disciples asked him, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Matt. 24:3) After his resurrection, they asked again: “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) Wondering about the end times is no contemporary fad. Jesus’ closest followers inquired earnestly about the signs of the end, the turning of the ages, and the restoration of the kingdom. 
 
Such questions often degenerate into disproportionate debates and unwarranted speculation. On the other side, healthy interest in eschatology can turn to frustration as believers abandon their curiosity in the face of impenetrable terms and sophisticated systems. Finding the middle ground between speculation and cynicism has always been challenging.
 
Eckhard Schnabel strikes the right balance with 40 Questions about the End Times, the most recent installment in Kregel’s quickly expanding “40 Questions” series. Schnabel, who joins the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary this summer, brings his careful thinking and judicious tone to the theologically and culturally loaded topic of eschatology.
 
Overview and Evaluation
 
Schnabel organizes our end-times questions into four categories: (1) the future of the world, the church, and Israel; (2) the return of Jesus Christ, including its preceding events; (3) the nature and timing of the millennium and the last judgment; and (4) how Christians should respond to prophecy writers and why Christians should care about eschatology. Simple summaries crystallize the content of each chapter (see the full table of contents here).
 
Five key “principles and convictions” guide Schnabel’s approach (11–12): (1) the New Testament interprets the Old Testament; (2) the date and time of Jesus’ return is unknown; (3) the end times began with the death and resurrection of Jesus; (4) early Christians viewed Jesus’ return as imminent; and (5) standard principles of interpretation apply to end-times passages.
 
The foundational first chapter (“When Do the End Times Begin?”) sets the trajectory for the book. Schnabel examines nine New Testament passages that show convincingly that the “end times” are the period between the first and second comings of Jesus (Acts 2:16–21; Rom. 13:11–12; Heb. 1:1–2; 9:26; Jas. 5:7–9; 1 Pet. 1:20; 2 Pet. 3:3; Jude 18; 1 John 2:18). Therefore, we are living in the end times. “The earliest Christians dated the beginning of the end times to the coming of Jesus, particularly his death and resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit, a complex of events that constitutes the fulfillment of God’s promises of Israel’s restoration and humanity’s salvation” (19–25). This proper starting point does justice to the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament, honors the climactic centrality of Jesus’ arrival in the story of salvation, and correctly colors the present age with the imminence of Jesus’ return.
 
Despite the inherent subjectivity of the 40 Questions approach, Schnabel adequately covers the burning, time-honored topics. Welcome additions would include more concentrated or easier-to-find sections on (1) Ezekiel’s temple vision (Ezekiel 40–48), (2) Old Testament prophecies that dispensationalists claim represent an improved but imperfect restoration, (3) land promises and their fulfillment (see 121–27), and (4) a comparison of the major eschatological views (Schnabel states that such a comparison is not the purpose of the book as a whole, but a single chapter would be useful for most readers).
 
However, there’s no way to scratch every last itch, and readers will find virtually all their questions addressed with clear exegesis and careful argumentation. One may not agree with Schnabel’s answers to each question, but there is abundant scriptural support and clear argumentation to engage those who are more interested in examining the relevant texts than in stockpiling support for a particular system.
 
Refreshing Textual Approach
 
Schnabel defines the relevant terms and categories with simple but not simplistic descriptions (9-10; 273-74). He does not allow the standard categories to define the discussion. Rather, he avoids the typical approach of comparing eschatological systems because “labels are often used as ‘party terms’ that tend to commit people to an entire system of belief” (10). Refreshingly, Schnabel wants to pursue a fresh reading of relevant texts (11). 
 
Most chapters walk through scriptural passages as Schnabel explains various interpretations, gives exegetical pros and cons (in plain language), and suggests a particular view. Among many other benefits, such an approach allows him to choose freely between literal and symbolic interpretations depending on the context of a given passage, instead of permanently committing himself to the priority of one category over the other. Additionally, the text-centered approach combined with the scriptural index in the back makes the book a searchable commentary on end-times passages (a topical index would be a useful addition for the occasions when topics arise in multiple chapters, such as land, millennium, or antichrist).
 
Schnabel’s approach is refreshing because theological debates often hover high above the actual words, sentences, and paragraphs of the biblical text, swimming in the air of motifs, themes, patterns, and emphases. Such generalities can pack a rhetorical punch but sometimes fail to provide exegetical proof. The less experienced Christian can be intimidated by the excessive jargon and foreign categories, while the theologically aware Christian often learns the categories and themes better than he learns the Bible. Schnabel’s approach helps cure both ills.
 
Many will still wonder what eschatological position Schnabel holds. His interpretations identify him with historical premillennialism, but he never flies this banner. Rather, he focuses throughout on the texts that generate the topics.
 
Theological Passion with Proportioned Convictions
 
The undervalued quality of proportionality is missing from many end-times discussions. Every stance becomes equally important, and every interpretation is held with unbridled conviction. Schnabel’s multi-angled treatment and reasonable tone helps right the ship and puts good ballast in the boat. He qualifies tenuous views or interpretations with phrases like “less persuasive” or “most plausible” and graciously pushes back against the overreaching passion of some who lampoon legitimate opposing views. “Here I stand, I can do no other” is meant for history-altering wars over justification, not intra-church tussles over the tribulation or the rapture.
 
Still, Schnabel is not watery in his convictions, only wise in his proportions. He does not capitulate to the theological lethargy that says, “We’ll never know for sure, so why bother?” Rather, his commitment to exegetical detail and theological nuance reminds us that these are important topics worth caring about, talking about, and believing in. We should study hard and hold views—but views that are proportional to the evidence.
 
Typically Schnabel raises objections to specific interpretations, but he occasionally fails to highlight and respond to arguments against his own view (for example, “these things” in Matt. 24:33–34; the 144,000 in Rev. 7:4). But because these oversights are the exception rather than the rule, the reader is left with an overall model of candor and fairness, a much-needed antidote to the common practice of ignoring objections to our own view while spotlighting and caricaturing the problems of others’.
 
Critiques, Suggestions, and Conclusion
 
Three final critiques and suggestions are worth mentioning. First, an expanded discussion on how the Old Testament should be “integrated into the framework” of the New Testament would be helpful due to the frequent (opposing) claim that Old Testament prophecy should control New Testament interpretation. This crucial topic could benefit greatly from Schnabel’s careful thinking and clear explanation. Second, Schnabel interprets the 1,000 years of the millennium as symbolic (268) but continues to refer to the “thousand years” or the “one-thousand-year period” (270–278). Avoiding the cardinal number (“one thousand”) in subsequent discussions would clarify his view. Third, Schnabel uses the phrase “end times ‘specialists’” throughout the book to spotlight the overly speculative and predictive views of contemporary prophecy writers who misinform and mislead many (12, 25, 42, 61, 73, 94, 132, 133, 134, 144, 149, 182, 202, 208 fn. 7, 311). Occasionally, however, he applies the label to traditional dispensational views (25, 42), creating a caricaturing effect. Thankfully, the consistently irenic tone coloring the book makes such oversights palatable.
 
Eschatology is a notoriously difficult subject to study, understand, and discuss. 40 Questions about the End Times is not a compare-the-views book (several exist already). But Eckhard Schnabel should be commended for injecting a comprehensive text-centered treatment into the end times dialogue. Different readers will naturally look for different qualities:
  • Will this book be clear instead of laden with jargon?
  • Will this book address my questions or overlook them?
  • Will this book interact fairly with each view instead of being dismissive, imbalanced, or negligent?
  • Will this book truly help me understand eschatology and encourage me to study further, or will it confuse the issues and discourage me from trying again?

In each case, 40 Questions about the End Times does the former. Most importantly, this new book about the end of the world fosters a biblically informed anticipation of Jesus’ return. After all, eschatology is meant not mainly to fuel the fires of theological debate but to feed the candle of Christian hope.

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