Over-realized eschatology is the assumption that all or most of what God has prepared for his people in the future can be experienced by God’s people in the present.
Let’s break down this expression word-by-word.
What is eschatology? Eschatology is the study of last things, that is, the end times.
What is realized eschatology? Realized eschatology focuses on the aspects of God’s future-oriented promises that Christians get to experience now.
- Example 1: Forgiveness of sins is an eschatological concept (Jeremiah 31:34), but believers in Jesus receive forgiveness of sins now (Acts 10:43; Colossians 1:14).
- Example 2: The outpouring of the Holy Spirit is an eschatological concept (Joel 2:28-29), but believers in Jesus have received the Spirit now (Acts 2:16-17; Romans 5:15).
Side note: There are other expressions you might encounter in a theology book that mean more-or-less the same thing as realized eschatology:
- Already–not yet
- Now–not yet
- Inaugurated eschatology
Realized eschatology is a very beneficial concept to understand if you want to get a grasp on the thought-world of the New Testament authors.
What, then, does the suffix “over” mean in the expression over-realized eschatology?
The word “over” acknowledges that some people take the concept of realized eschatology too far—some of them way too far.
Those who work within the framework of over-realized eschatological assumptions try to pull most or all our God-given future blessings into the present. We don’t have to wait for the future, they think; we get to live with all of God’s promises right now.
Note that over-realized eschatological assumptions are truly problematic. Even dangerous.
Someone holding to an over-realized eschatology might assume that:
- Since there will be no more sickness or pain in the future, we should not experience sickness or pain in the present.
- Since we will walk on streets of gold in the future, we should be financially successful now.
- Since we will “know even as we have been known” in the future, we should automatically be smarter or wiser than all those other people who haven’t learned how to activate those future blessings right now.
It seems to me that a bit of sarcasm is appropriate at this moment. Could it be that the person who penned the modern proverb: “Early to bed and early to rise is the way to be healthy, wealthy, and wise” had an over-realized eschatology?
One place where it is useful to know about over-realized eschatology is when we study Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. The Apostle Paul had to contend with some people in the Corinthian church who somehow had developed over-realized eschatological assumptions. And those assumptions were messing up the church.
For example, in 1 Corinthians alone, we learn that some people in the Corinthians church looked down on Paul because he experienced suffering on his missionary journeys (4:8-13). Some flaunted their supposed freedom in Christ by claiming that it was okay to frequent prostitutes (6:12-19). At the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, the church in Corinth was tolerating a professing believer who was sleeping with his father’s wife (5:1-13)! Some reasoned that it was okay to leave an unbelieving spouse (7:10-16). Some at Corinth would eat and even get drunk during the celebratory meal connected to the Lord’s Supper—while leaving out poorer members of the congregation (11:17-22). Quite a few in Corinth over-emphasized miracles (healings, prophecies, and especially tongues (chs. 12&14), while under-emphasizing love (ch. 13). Some went so far as to claim that there would be no future resurrection—because it had already happened (ch. 15)!
So, you see, the claim that an over-realized eschatology can lead to serious hazards is not an overstatement. If it could wreak as much havoc as it did in first-century Corinth, we must guard against over-realized eschatological assumptions in our day.
Over-realized eschatology is an underlying hermeneutical assumption of prosperity-doctrine (health-and-wealth) teachers. Over-realized eschatology permeates the eschatological expectations of NAR “apostles” at one end of the theological spectrum, and pervades some sectors of politically-obsessed fundamentalists on the other end.
But even in run-of-the-mill evangelical churches (whether Baptist, Presbyterian, non-denominational, or other), some influence of over-realized eschatology is often discernible. When we encounter hardship and start to question the goodness of God, sometimes the source of our mistrust is an over-realized eschatology. When we sport affluent lifestyles, whether it’s the get-the-biggest-house-you-can-possibly-afford variety, or the buy-a-cup-of-specialty-coffee-every-day type (at 200+ dollars a month!), we may have been influenced by over-realized eschatological assumptions without knowing it. Even when we view ourselves as wise, and thereby assume that we know what is the best thing to do in any given situation (even though we may have spent little to no time thinking deeply about the issue at hand), we might be breathing the air of an over-realized eschatology.
In summary: Over-realized eschatology is the belief that we should experience all or almost all of the blessings of future-heaven life now. Those who promote over-realized eschatological teachings fail to acknowledge that there are wonderful things in the New Heavens and the New Earth that we have to wait for—with patience and perseverance. Those who assume an over-realized eschatology are sure to find themselves disappointed, disillusioned, and distracted from the humble and grace-dependent life God has called us to live right now.