Course: A Guide to Christian Beliefs
Lecture: The Last Things
One of the most used pieces of jargon in modern theology is the word "eschatology." Strictly understood, it means "the doctrine of the last things", and it is in this sense that we understand it here. Eschatology is concerned with God's final intervention in history to bring the present evil world to an end and to inaugurate the new world. But this act of God is not confined to the future, for God began his new creation in the coming of Jesus and the establishment of the church. Prophecies relating to the last days were understood to be in course of fulfillment in the early days of the church (Acts 2:17). In order, therefore, to understand what is going to happen in the future, we need to recapitulate some of the biblical story so as to put the future into perspective.
The Final Manifestation of God's Kingly Rule (Luke 1:69–79)
The prophets of Israel were men who were profoundly affected by the evil and injustice which they saw rampant everywhere in the world. They saw that even the people of Israel were sinners in the sight of God, and they interpreted the various disasters which overtook them as evidence of God's judgment upon his people. They were perplexed by the problem of the suffering of the innocent and the prosperity of the wicked. They longed for peace and security to be established in the world. In these problems and questionings they were sustained by their faith in Yahweh as the God of history, and they believed that one day he himself would intervene in history to set up his kingly rule among mankind and to establish truth, justice and love among mankind. They looked to a day when Jerusalem would be the centre of a peaceful world, in which the offspring of David would rule the nations and bring salvation to all of us. In short, they believed that God would personally intervene in the last days to establish his rule (Isaiah 9:1–7; 11:1–9; Micah 4:1–7).
In due time God sent his Son, Jesus the Messiah, to inaugurate his kingly rule among mankind. Jesus proclaimed that the kingly rule of God was beginning in a new way, and indeed there was plenty of evidence for those with the eyes to see it that in Jesus God was intervening in the life of the world. The coming of Jesus was attended by signs and wonders which caused people to say, "God has visited his people" (Luke 7:16), and after his death and resurrection the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church (cf. Joel 2:28–32), thus continuing the action of God. Jesus called all people to enter the kingdom of God, and his disciples proclaimed the same good news of salvation by faith in him.
The new era promised in the Old Testament had in fact arrived. It did not, however, mean that the old era came to an end. The gospel message was not universally received, and sin and death continued to hold sway. The present era, since the coming of Jesus, is a period of transition or overlap. The old age has been judged and is doomed to end, and the new era has already arrived for those who acknowledge its presence and power by faith. Christians thus live as members of the new era in the midst of the old era. God has mercifully provided this "interval" before he makes a final end of the old era, so that all people may have the opportunity of hearing the gospel and becoming citizens of the new era (Mark 13:10; 2 Peter 3:9).
From all this it emerges that the "last things" have already begun. God's promises concerning the End began to come to fulfilment in Jesus, and the powers of the future are already at work. The coming of Jesus is the proof that God will one day bring the old era to a full end, and it is on the basis of what God has already done that Christians look forward with confidence to the completion of his purpose.
God has begun his reign! That is the meaning of the first coming of Jesus. But we do not yet see all things in subjection to him (cf. Hebrews 2:8). The Christian hope is that God who has begun to rule in Jesus Christ will one day rule openly over all mankind. The present interim period will come to an end. The era of evil will cease, and God will establish a new heaven and a new earth characterized by righteousness. He will judge all mankind and those who submit to his rule will become citizens of the new Jerusalem, the city of God, and reign with him for ever. All this will be accomplished through a second coming of Jesus as the Saviour and Judge of all mankind.
Such is the prospect, seen against the background of biblical prophecy and the preliminary fulfilment in Christ. Now we must fill in the details.
The Second Coming of Jesus (Luke 17:20–37)
The Christian hope is centred on the return of Jesus. What he began at his first coming can be completed only by his second coming. As Christian salvation finds its center and source in him, so the Christian hope looks forward to him as the fulfilment of all its expectations. The one who came in humility must come again in glory and be openly vindicated before all the world. In one sense there is nothing more to be revealed. The first coming of Jesus brought the full and complete revelation of God and the once-for-all act of atonement for the sin of the world. Nothing more can be added to this final revelation of God. Hence the second coming of Jesus in one sense brings nothing new. It merely consummates what has already been begun. The Jesus who is to come is the one whom we already know as our Judge and Savior.
Although the fact of Jesus' return is clearly and abundantly taught in the New Testament, the details of what is going to happen are far from clear, and nobody should attempt to be dogmatic about them. So stupendous an event as the winding up of human history can be described only in symbolical and metaphorical language, just as we can speak of creation or of the nature of God or of the incarnation only in symbolical language. The symbols are not meant to be taken literally: the description of a Figure with a sharp sword coming out of his mouth, for example, is clearly absurd if taken literally, but if taken to signify the powerful character of his utterances it makes good sense (Revelation 1:16). Taken for what they really are, namely symbols, they tell us the important principles that are involved in the future events. Unfortunately, Christians find it hard to resist the temptation to press the details into tidy schemes, and as a result there has been much unwarranted speculation about the second coming, and Christians have often come into sharp conflict when defending their rival interpretations of ambiguous evidence. It is better to admit our ignorance of the details and to concentrate our attention on the unambiguous centralities and their spiritual implications.
Jesus himself spoke clearly of his second coming as the Son of man to be the arbiter of human destiny (Matthew 25:31ff.; Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62). He indicated that his coming would be preceded by various events — the rise of false saviours, the persecution of his people and the increase of human wickedness (Mark 13:1–25; cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12; 2 Timothy 3:12f.), but he said quite plainly that nobody can calculate the date of his coming (Luke 17:20f.; Acts 1:7) and that only the Father knows when it will be (Mark 13:32). In fact there has scarcely been any period when there have not been false saviours, persecution of the church and the growth of wickedness, and one might be tempted to say that the coming of Jesus could happen at anytime. The early church certainly believed this, and urged its members to be ready for an event which might take them quite unawares.
Consequently, teaching about the second coming is generally accompanied by exhortations to believers to live a holy life in preparation for that day (Acts 3:19–21; Philippians 3:20f.; 4:5; Colossians 3:4f.; 1 Thessalonians 1:9f.; 2 Timothy 4:1f.; Hebrews 9:28; 1 Peter 1:7; 1 John 2:28; Revelation 1:7). We must not sit and idly wait for the day, but live in a manner befitting servants awaiting the arrival of their master (cf. Luke 12:35-48). This of course does not mean that Christians are serving an absent Lord and that their motive for doing good should be fear of his coming and catching them unawares. The picture in the parables of servants awaiting the return of their master must not be pressed too far. For we live continually in the presence of the Master and enjoy his fellowship daily. If Jesus is absent from our sight, he is nevertheless spiritually present with us, and we do nothing that would interrupt that fellowship.
Although the coming of Jesus cannot be calculated in advance, there is nevertheless fairly clear teaching that it will be preceded by the final effort of evil to overcome God. Paul speaks of a figure who tries to usurp the place of God (2 Thessalonians 2:3-12), an antichrist (although Paul does not use that word). John states that there are many antichrists already at work in the world (1 John 2:18), but this does not exclude the coming of a final upsurge of evil against God. If we are to take seriously the descriptions in Revelation of a final conflict (Revelation 19:11-21; 20:7-10), these point in the same direction, although some scholars think that here John is simply portraying in particularly graphic and concrete terms the conflict which is always taking place between good and evil, God and Satan. It is wisest to admit that we do not know precisely what will happen. What we do know is that no matter how great the power of evil, it cannot finally overcome the power of God. Evil will certainly be defeated.
One passage in the New Testament describes a reign of Christ and his people for a thousand years (i.e. a millennium) (Revelation 20:1-6). Its meaning has given rise to considerable debate, and three main views have been put forward, known as pre-, post- and a-millennialism. Pre-millennialism is the view that the second coming of Jesus precedes his reign with his people (including dead Christians who have been resurrected) on the earth for a period of a thousand years, after which will follow the general resurrection of the dead, the day of judgment and the life of heaven. This view is often associated with the belief that some of the Old Testament prophecies about the people of Israel will find fulfilment during this period. Post-millennialism is the view that the second coming follows the ultimate triumph of the gospel in the world, this period of triumph being the millennium. A-millennialism is the view that the description in Revelation 20 is symbolical and that it refers to the entire period of Christ's rule beginning with his ascension and exaltation.
Each of these views is stoutly defended by its adherents. The first is held by dispensationalists, the second was held by some of the Puritans and is maintained by their contemporary followers, and the third is held by some of the Reformed tradition in theology. Where equally scholarly interpreters of Scripture differ from one another, it is best not to be dogmatic. For what it is worth, the present writer thinks that the millennium is simply one of the many pictures used in Scripture to describe the life of heaven, and that it is wrong to press Revelation 20:1-6 too literally to refer to a distinct period between the second coming and the judgment. Some scholars think that it makes a lot of difference to our present Christian conduct and hope whether we accept one view or another. But to say this is surely to ignore the fact that on all views the central expectation is of the coming of Jesus, and, provided that he is at the centre of our Christian hope, the details are relatively unimportant.
The important thing, accordingly, is to recognize that the second coming is the coming of Jesus as Judge and Saviour. The New Testament speaks sometimes of God and sometimes of Christ as Judge (Romans 14:10ff.; Philippians 2:10f.). This is because God acts in judgment through Christ to whom he has committed the authority to judge (John 5:22; Acts 17:30f.). At his coming Christ will judge everybody according to his works and words (Matthew 12:36f.; Romans 2:5-11; 2 Corinthians 5:10). The fact that judgment is said to be on the basis of what we have done is not, of course, a denial of the principle of justification by faith, since the evidence of faith is the good works that it produces (Galatians 5:6), and only those who have put their faith in Christ can perform works acceptable to God (cf. Hebrews 9:14). The judgment involves everybody, Christians and non-Christians alike. In the case of believers there will be reward or loss according to the way in which they have used the talents and opportunities entrusted to them (Matthew 25:14-30; 1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
Christ's coming as Judge is also and supremely his coming as Saviour. His people will be set free from sin and corruption to become like him. They will no longer be harassed by temptation and they will be made perfectly holy (Philippians 3:21; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 1 John 3:2). They will take their seats at his table and reign with him forever (Matthew 8:11; Lk. 22:30; Revelation 22:5).
The Resurrection of the Dead (1 Corinthians 15)
The second coming of Jesus is accompanied by the resurrection of dead believers to join him (1 Thessalonians 4:14-16). The state of the dead before the resurrection is presented in various ways in the Bible. In the Old Testament it appears to be the common fate of all the dead to be in Sheol or the grave. While there are some inklings of hope of resurrection (Daniel 12:2) or of transfer to the presence of God (Psalm 73:24), in general the Old Testament writers lacked the fuller revelation brought by Christ. If the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is to be taken literally (which is not certain), we may be entitled to deduce from it that a separation already exists between believers and unbelievers, the former being at peace and the latter in torment. But we must be careful about pressing the details of this or any parable. We should not, for example, want to apply the picture of the ruler gloating over the execution of his enemies before his very eyes to God (Luke 19:27). We get a clearer picture from Paul who knows that after death he will be with Christ (Philippians 1:23) and speaks of those who sleep by Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:14). The penitent thief was promised that he would go to paradise with Jesus (Luke 23:43), and the martyr Stephen saw Jesus standing in heaven to receive him (Acts 7:55-59). All this suggests that death ushers a Christian into the presence of Christ. Nevertheless, there are indications that this is not a final or complete state. The fate of the unrighteous is not described at all. We have to be content to leave the whole matter in the hands of God.
At the second coming of Christ two events take place. On the one hand, those who died as believers in Christ are raised from the dead and join his triumphal entourage (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17; 1 Corinthians 15:23, 51-57). On the other hand, those believers who are still alive at his coming are brought into his presence to meet him as he comes (1 Thessalonians 4:17). All who participate in this event, both the resurrected dead and the living, are transformed by the power of God and receive a new body. Since physical flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God and immortality, Christians receive a new "spiritual" body (1 Corinthians 15:44). Just as a seed "dies" and gives place to a plant which is organically related to it but very different in appearance, so our present physical bodies will give place to new and perfect spiritual bodies fit for the life of heaven (Philippians 3:20f.). What this means is beyond our comprehension, since the concept of heaven itself is unimaginable, but we may perhaps draw an analogy from the transfigured and resurrected glorious body of Jesus (Mark 9:2f.; Luke 24:39). The significance of the point is that Christians do not look forward merely to the survival of an immaterial soul — with the consequence that the present physical body and its life are ultimately of no significance. There is a real continuity between our present physical bodily life and our future spiritual bodily life. Salvation is concerned with the whole person and not merely with a part of it. The life of heaven is to be a continuation on a more grand and glorious scale of life in Christ on earth.
Those who are not members of Christ's people naturally do not share in the glorification which characterizes the resurrection of Christians. There is, however, a resurrection of the unrighteous so that they may appear before God and Christ on the day of judgment (Matthew 25:41ff.; John 5:28f.; Acts 24:15; Revelation 20:11-15). The judgment which has already been passed on them in this life is ratified (John 3:18f.).
Those who are judged in this way are those who have refused the gospel of Jesus Christ and remained in their sins. They are not fit to enter into the heavenly presence of God and of Christ, and therefore they are excluded from the presence of God (2 Thessalonians 1:9). This fate is described as eternal punishment (2 Thessalonians 1:9) or as a lake of fire where there is eternal punishment (Revelation 20:10, 15). Opinions differ as to whether this means eternal conscious torment or annihilation. The question is again one of how far the biblical imagery used to describe the after-life is to be taken literally. Those who adopt the latter alternative stress that it in no way minimizes the severity of divine judgment on the wicked, annihilation being a fate sufficiently dreadful in itself. Nor does its view deny that the wicked do have to appear before God and bear his judgment. There is no suggestion that annihilation takes place at the same point as physical death.
A particular problem is raised by the fate of those who have never heard the gospel and had the opportunity of freely responding to it. The New Testament does not speculate much on this matter. It is much more concerned to place before the church its solemn responsibility to preach the gospel to all people, so that all may have the opportunity of enjoying the blessings of salvation in this life and in the hereafter. Nevertheless, there are hints that the heathen will be judged according to how they have responded to the light which they have had. There are some grounds for holding that those whose way of life was such that they would have accepted Christ if they had had the opportunity to do so will be saved at the last day, because the sacrifice of Christ avails for them also (Matthew 25:31ff.; Romans 2:12-16). We can safely entrust them to the great mercy and utter justice of God who desires that all people should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4).
To affirm this is not the same thing as saying that all people will eventually be saved. Some people think that although the Bible contains numerous warnings about the possibility of the wicked being cast into hell, nobody will in fact finally be sent there: the mercy of God is such that he would not consign any person to hell, and the power of his love is such that all people must eventually respond to it, even if that response comes only after some kind of purgatorial suffering. The fact that Christ is said to have preached to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19f.; cf. 4:6) is sometimes adduced in support of this view, although this is not what the passage implies: it speaks rather of the proclamation of Christ's victory over all forces arrayed against him.
Two things must be said about this view. First, there is no suggestion in the New Testament of any kind of purgatorial suffering after the completion of which a person may reach heaven: such a suggestion would imply that salvation depends upon human acceptability to God rather than upon the finished work of Christ. A person's fate in the next life depends upon his response to Christ in this life (Luke 12:8f.; 2 Corinthians 6:1f.). Second, we must distinguish between the universal offer of God's mercy and universal acceptance of that offer. The universal availability of divine grace is clearly taught in the New Testament (John 3:16). But universal acceptance of grace is not taught. Jesus clearly stated that not all will be able to enter the kingdom of God (Luke 13:23f.). Nobody, therefore, can presume on the mercy of God to save them despite a life of sin and impenitence, and the church cannot evade its evangelistic responsibility by claiming that God will save everybody in the end anyhow. The doctrine of universalism inevitably weakens the moral and spiritual responsibility of Christians and blunts the evangelistic and missionary fervour of the church. It has no support in Scripture and a false soft-heartedness should not blind us to what is taught there: the awful responsibility of accepting the gospel in this life.
The Life of Heaven (Revelation 21:1-22:5)
With the day of judgment comes the end of the present world system, corrupted as it is by sin and evil (Romans 8:19-23). The old era comes to a final end, and it is replaced by a new era. A new heaven and a new earth come into being, and since they are righteous they are eternal (2 Peter 3:13). The new home of redeemed men and women is spoken of as a new Jerusalem, for it is the holy city to which the earthly, sinful Jerusalem points. Sin and sorrow pass away, and eternal bliss is the lot of God's people. The old is finished and all things become new.
It is possible to concentrate attention on the various pictures used to describe the future life of believers — the great banquet, the heavenly city, the river of life with its fruit-bearing trees — and to miss the reality to which they all point: the life of heaven is heavenly life because it is life with God and Jesus. The fellowship between us and our Creator, which was broken by sin, is now fully restored. God's presence among his people is no longer confined to his temple, as in the imagery of the Old Testament (but see also Isaiah 57:15), or to his unseen presence among believers (Matthew 18:20); he is visibly in the midst of them, and they can see his face. Both the Father and the Son are the light of the new Jerusalem, and the Spirit of God summons us to enter the city (Revelation 22:17). Thus, finally, redeemed men and women enter into that fellowship of love which binds Father, Son and Holy Spirit together, and the holy love of God becomes final and full and victorious reality (1 Corinthians 13:13). God is at last all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).
Questions for Study and Discussion
- "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:19): discuss.
- If Christians are merely "strangers and pilgrims" in this world, how far should they participate in its life? Should they simply concentrate on preparing themselves and other people for the after-life? If not, why not?
- Discuss whether the different forms of millennialism make any difference to the present Christian lives of those who hold them.
- "In a universe of love there can be no heaven which tolerates a chamber of horrors, no hell for any which does not at the same time make it a hell for God" (J.A.T. Robinson): how would you answer this criticism of the New Testament doctrine of the final destiny of the wicked?
- If heaven is not rightly pictured in terms of figures dressed in nightgowns, sitting on clouds and playing harps, what sort of pictures can we use to express its true character?