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Course: A Guide to Christian Theology
Lecture: Eternal State
This is the 38th lecture in the online series of lectures on a Guide to Christian Theology by Dr Breshears. Recommended Reading includes: Biblical References from the Course and Study Guides 1 – 39.
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I. The Sheep and the Goats
Jesus made it very clear that there will be a final judgement and this is really not popular in today’s Christians climate. We see in Matthew 25:31 where it says, ‘when the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. He will gather all the nations and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.’ Those on the right will be blessed and those on the left with be cast out into eternal punishment. So this is a separation where some will go to heaven and others will go to hell. They will be tested on how they lived in their lives with the things that they did in regards to caring and living a Godly life. Those who are separated into heaven will live with him forever. For those who have not followed Jesus but instead have chosen to follow the evil world and the way of the devil, they will be cast into hell. This picture of two groups, one going to heaven and one going to hell comes up a lot in the New Testament. It is not a happy picture and a lot of people try to argue against what it is saying.
II. The Book of the Righteous
Daniel 12:1 provides us with an Old Testament picture of this. ‘At that time Michael shall arise, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble; such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.’ Those who are asleep in the dust, it says, will awake to everlasting life and others to everlasting death. We also see this in the Book of Revelation 20 talks about the final destruction of the serpent. This goes back to Genesis 3. In Revelation 20:2 it says, ‘and he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent that is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer. For those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands, they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. We will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. Verse 11, and I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. We see the Book of life which was referred to in Daniel. We see that the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.
Those whose names weren’t found written in the book of life were thrown into the lake of fire. These pictures are not pretty; they are in fact very sad if we think of our love ones who don’t know Jesus. A lot of pictures we have about hell are not necessarily biblical. There will be no reigning in hell, no freedom to do what you want to do for hell is a final place of destruction of Satan. These tests of whether you are included in heaven or not will go back to the Abrahamic Covenant and loyalty to Jesus as mentioned in Genesis chapter 12 and 15. Are you living out righteousness and justice in your life as mentioned in Genesis 18 and are you looking at the Messiah in Genesis 22. These people will be with God forever. Those who choose another god which is another way of life will be separated from God forever. This picture is shown throughout the Bible over and over again.
A. A Place of Exclusion
In regards to hell, the Matthew 25 passage tells us that hell is a place prepared for the devil and his angels. It is a place of destruction. There are a lot of different definitions of the description of hell. It is a place of fire, a place of darkness, a place of punishment and an exclusion from God’s presence. In Matthew 7, God says depart from me, away from me. It is a place of restlessness; it is the second death, a place of gnashing of teeth. I think these pictures are metaphors but the reality is horrible; it is real and terrible. There is no possibility of amnesty or coming back from it. It is going to be there and when you are there, you are there. Luke 16 and Revelation 20; it is really clear that this is a place of exclusion from God’s presence; a place of punishment. 2nd Thessalonians 1 talks again about this Judgement at Christ’s coming; verse 8 vengeance will be inflicted on those who do not know God and those who do not obey the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints. For those who don’t want to follow Jesus, they get what they want in eternity of hell. This is really a heavy and sad subject. We see for those who choose the way of selfishness and what is in it for me; there is a consequence for that.
B. Forever or Not
What about after a period of punishment, are people burned up? Or do people have an eternal personal existence? Do they continue to exist yet apart from God? One is call annihilation, the idea that people are punished for a while and then cease to exist. The other view is that all people are raised to eternal existence and are apart from God in a place of punishment. The argument for annihilation comes from John Stott who wrote an essay on this and took the position that after a period of punishment that people would cease to exist. Ed Fudge and many others think this is an evangelical position because there is punishment for sin. They are punished and shut out from the joy and blessings of God; but they cease to exist because fire destroys; it burns things up. There is the principle of justice; why would someone be punished for eternity as their sin only lasted for a few years? Others would say that there is an eternal existence under punishment and looking in Revelation 14:10 it talks about those who receive the mark of the beast on their forehead; they too will drink the wine of God’s fury and be tormented with burning sulfur and that smoke will continue for ever and ever. It appears that Satan’s torment will be forever and forever. This includes those who worship the beast and his image. There will be no rest day or night. This is Revelation which is apocalyptic language and it appears that this is an ongoing state. The word, ‘destruction’ or ‘destroyed’ comes from Luke 15 with the word ‘lost’. The picture of destruction means that it is lost and the parable of the wine skins, the picture shows that it is destroyed; it ceases to exist as it has lost if function. We have Matthew 10:28 saying, ‘do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’ So the argument is the destruction of the soul and body in hell. Destroy in this passage means, ‘cease to exist.’ So there are two positions: one is that punishment is forever and the other is that punishment in hell eventually destroys the body and soul. Like the rich man, this is going to be something where the separation is ongoing. But consider first that in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man doesn’t stop sinning even in hell. They continue to live in sin and worship other gods.
C. Levels of Punishment
Are there levels of punishment in hell? I think there are levels of punishment in hell. Let’s look at Matthew 11:22 where it says that it will be more bearable on the day of judgement for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day, but I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgement for the land of Sodom than for you. I think what Jesus is saying here that Capernaum’s punishment will be worse than Sodom in hell because they saw Jesus but Sodom didn’t. So there is a separation for those who reject Jesus now will be rejected by Jesus. There is a judgement and a consequence and no restoration after death. There is a punishment for sin and also an eternal punishment for sin. This is certainly a depressing topic. This helps us understand Jesus as he wept over Jerusalem. Yet, we need to be careful about all the mistaken pictures and ideas that media and others have portrayed about hell, especially that which comes over from the likes of Dante and Milton.
IV. The New Heaven and New Earth
At our death, we go to be with the Lord. The key point to heaven is an eternal state for believers of being with Jesus. Many times our picture of heaven is doing the things that we like to do when we get there, like playing golf or something like that. This is not correct. If a person doesn’t live for Jesus now, then going to heaven for that person would be like going to hell. This is what I think. We will not spend eternity in heaven; yes we go to heaven when we die but we don’t stay there. Let’s look at Revelation 21 where John says, ‘I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bridge adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, behold, the dwelling place of God is with man, He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.’ So the first heaven and earth will have passed away. This is the Genesis 1 heaven and earth is where birds fly and animals live. There will no longer be the sea; this sea is a metaphorical chaos and disorder. The New Jerusalem will come out of heaven from God and it is coming to the New Earth. So we will be in eternity on the New Earth. We also see in 1st Corinthians 15 information on the resurrection of the body. We will not spend eternity as disembodied souls or as angels in a spiritual body. What we will do, we will spent eternity as an embodied person. The resurrected body is central to the work of Scripture. We will be resurrected as whole people and will live our lives on the New Earth with Jesus doing some kind of work (we don’t know what exactly). And I think we will spend our eternity with Jesus in a space-time presence, somewhat like Eden and will do some sort of work with Jesus, but it will be marvelous. And of course there are a lot of questions about this, like: will we recognize loved ones? I think we do because Moses and Elisha are recognized, like Jesus. Our central relationship will be with Jesus and apparently form a working community. So we will be a whole person, completely restored and connected to Jesus. But what is even more amazing, this starts right now!