I recently watched American Experience’s documentary about Peoples Temple, the personal empire of Jim Jones. I was struck by the slow shift from vibrant Christian movement to sinister cult, with mass murder as its result. Peoples Temple began in the fever of the utopic visions of its founder, Jim Jones. They began with promise, taking a stand on social justice issues. At some point though, it became more about isolation and Jones’s personal power. Some of Jones’s later statements about the evil of the world and escaping (not to mention his belief in his own deity) got me thinking about the dangers inherent in some eschatological systems.
I grew up in a more escapist tradition. Pentecostalism has historically appealed to the suffering hosts, the hardworking poor, not to those enjoying the lap of luxury. The movement’s promise of “a better home awaiting, in the sky, Lord, in the sky” made the hardship of everyday life more bearable. Likewise, the promise of heaven on the other side of death’s door made early departure (all too common for the poor) a bit less frightening.
That’s not to say that heaven doesn’t await us, that we can’t take great comfort from that reality. As Paul said, absence from the body equals presence with God. Our future resurrection, guaranteed both by Jesus’ resurrection and the Holy Spirit, is a Christian’s great hope. It’s true that eternity will be far longer than our momentary affliction on earth, our vaporous existence. What C.S. Lewis writes at the close of The Last Battle, that earthly life is a title page to Heaven: A Novel. But dismissing the present existence in favor of our future–calling it the opening heat in a long-distance race, for instance–flirts with one of Christianity’s arch-nemeses, Gnosticism.
Too many dismiss eschatology as a worthless pursuit, or as a guessing game that has no bearing on what we do now. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we believe about the end of our own lives, the end of all things, and what comes after profoundly affects our view of life in the here and now.
I want to live a Godward life, a life infused with eternity. But I don’t want to mistake the narrow path for a narrow life. I want to be consumed by eternal life now, so, when the Great Transition comes, it will be less like leaving the theater for the world outside and more like finding a door in my home that I hadn’t noticed before. After passing through, I imagine I will think, as N.T. Wright has said, “Of course. This is exactly what it had to be.” For me, that’s more comforting in the face of death than the classic abduction theory because it acknowledges that the world is not a stage, it’s the world God made and is remaking.
The folks in Peoples Temple ended up in Guyana, where they built their own “utopia.” Their leader’s paranoia and mental illness (and probably, demonic influence) led him to kill them all in an absurd ritual. It was partially the fruit of Jones’s antagonistic view of the world around him. Had they dismissed his ravings when they first began, and instead continued with their early efforts to be agents of renewal, I think their end would have been quite different.