I don't know if you guys were aware of it, but recently there was a big controversy surrounding eschatology in evangelical circles. The controversy arose because of a new book written by Rob Bell, a book entitle "Love Wins" in which Bell addresses the topic of hell. The book, at the time, had not been released and so I do not know exactly what Bell says on the issue, but he was at the least questioning traditional assumptions about eschatology and divine punishment. The response to these questions from many prominent evangelical figures was swift and unforgiving. Because of this recent controversy the topic of Eschatology has been on my mind, so I was very interested to see that the first sermon we read this week was concerned with eschatology.
The sermon itself is kind of unique for Wesley, as noted in the introduction. Wesley is preaching to an unusual context, and his sermon is shaped by his audience (a courtroom setting). More importantly, Wesley seldom indulged in the level of speculation that we see in this sermon. He seems to have preferred more practical matters for most of his sermons, as we have seen in our reading up to this point. I want to look at a few points of interest for me in the sermon "The Great Assize" and what they tell us about Wesley.
First, I think it is important to recognize that even when speaking on a relatively speculative topic, Wesley was extremely practical. He clearly states at the beginning of his sermon and in its conclusion that he believes our understanding of final judgment should provide motivation for holy living in the present. Even Eschatology has a practical connection to holiness for Wesley.
Another point of interest for me in this sermon is Wesley's method of reading Scripture. That the Scriptures are the primary source material for Wesley's reflections on Eschatology can hardly be doubted given the copious amounts of Biblical material cited in the sermon. What I found to be interesting about this, however, was the literalism with which Wesley approached Biblical passages on the Final Judgment. Wesley clearly believes that every person who every lived will be gathered into a single place together and then God will try each case, one-by-one, until every person has given an account of their actions. Wesley goes into some detail describing the logistics of such an event, describing the fast numbers of people involved as well as the long years he supposes will be necessary to complete this event. There is not even a hint of metaphorical understanding of judgment in this sermon. One gets the sense in this sermon that the book mentioned in Scripture is a literal book for Wesley, that people genuinely are divided up to God's left and God's right, and that we will be standing around for thousands of years waiting for our turn on the hot seat. If I'm honest, I find this reading a bit too simplistic, perhaps problematic. I think that a metaphorical reading of these passages may be the more natural way to read them, and I'm afraid Wesley's understanding of Scripture on this point suffers from a certain lack of imagination.
I also found it interesting that Wesley definitely believed in a literal hell of eternal punishment. This understanding of the fate of those who are not saved is understandable. I do not know for sure, but I suspect his understanding was typical for his time period. It also fits well with his literalistic method of reading Scripture on this topic. I think I would also argue that this understanding may best fit Wesley's agenda of encouraging righteous living in the present. Fear is a powerful motivator, even if we would often rather find an alternative. Rob Bell would find no support and little sympathy in John Wesley's sermons.
Two other related issues concerning the content of Wesley's Eschatology. Wesley seems to favor a future eschatology, as well as an eschatology of destruction. There is no sense of continuity between this earth and the new, recreated earth for Wesley. His understanding seems to be that the physical world as we know it will be utterly destroyed by God and a new one will be created in its place. My concerns here are well known in our own day. I worry that a eschatology in which heaven and earth are burned up encourages a certain flippancy and disdain for the creation in which we life. I worry that such a future-oriented eschatology denies something of the power of God in the present (this doesn't fit well with other areas of Wesley's theology, does it?). I suspect I am being slightly unfair, making modern day accusations of an 18th century thinker. Regardless, even with the areas of concern, I thoroughly enjoyed this sermon as an example of something different for Wesley.