STUDIES IN ESCHATOLOGY No. 23
December 28, 2003
Tonight, with our 23rd installment in this series, we conclude our study of biblical eschatology, or the Bible’s teaching about the future. We began by noting that, though it is natural enough to think of eschatology as concerned with questions about the final consummation of all things and the conclusion of human history in this world – and though the term is often used as if it concerned only the end of time – as a matter of fact, eschatology in the Bible is concerned with every step and stage on the way to the final destination. From the very beginning the Bible shows a great concern for the future and taught God’s people to look forward to things to come. Much of that teaching about the future that we find in the Bible has already been fulfilled and what was once future for the people of God lies behind us today. But the future that remains and the future that once was but is now fulfilled is a unity, the unfolding and developing of a single divine plan for human history. Everything, from the very beginning, was understood in terms of a future unfolding according to God’s plan and purpose. In our very first installment in this series I cited a scholar making this point.
“From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving…. The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of the Christian faith as such, the key in which everything is set…. Hence eschatology cannot really be only a part of Christian doctrine. Rather, the eschatological outlook is characteristic of all Christian proclamation, and of every Christian existence and of the whole Church.” [J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 16]
If you think about this you will realize how true it is. Every Christian doctrine, every aspect of Christian living has always and still today taken its particular meaning because and only because of how we know the future will unfold. Take away our Christian understanding of the future as it has been revealed in God’s Word, and you take away the meaning and the importance of everything and you destroy Christian hope, faith, and joy. The Christian life only makes sense, indeed it can only be lived if the future is as the Bible promises it to be.
In that introductory study we emphasized that the future that is predicted and promised in the Bible is a unity and we demonstrated that point many times throughout our series of studies. What has already occurred and what will someday come to pass is, in the Bible, the unfolding of single plan. In fact, in the Bible, it is striking to see how often in the OT those things that now have come to pass and those things that are still future to us are forecast as if they represented a single development yet to come in human history. In many prophecies of the coming of the Messiah, for example, you have mixed together, as if they would take place together, events that belonged to Christ’s first coming and events that we now know belong to his second coming. We learned to refer to this characteristic compression of time and the absence of chronological divisions in predicting events that would unfold in the future as “the prophetic perspective” or “prophetic foreshortening.” It is a key insight in the interpretation of biblical prophecy. In the very first great prophecy of the Bible, the protoevangelium of Gen. 3:15, the entire history of the world is compressed in a single sentence, but how little, from that single statement, could we imagine the particular way in which that promise would unfold in a succession of great events separated from one another by long periods of time. In this way, the emphasis falls on the meaning, the end, the spiritual implications of the unfolding future and not on the chronological details. The failure to understand this has often bedeviled the Christian interpretation of the Bible’s eschatology. Christians have often sought from biblical prophecy the very thing it characteristically is uninterested in providing, viz. chronological specifics. Because the Bible casts its prophecies of the future in this characteristic idiom, we Christians today should see that we have been given the same kind of sight of the future that was given to God’s people in ancient times and we can tell a great deal about how to understand those prophecies of what is still to come from how ancient prophecies came to pass. That, in the nature of the case, makes it difficult to know how the future prophesied will come to pass, how events will unfold and over what length of time. There is a way to read the prophecies of the Bible that is true to the Bible’s own prophetic paradigm, its own way of putting things. And characteristic of the Bible’s prophetic perspective is its interest in the great sweeping vision of the future, how the future will turn out in summary. There are a few details of that future scattered here and there in the Bible but only a few; only enough to prove that God knows these too in advance and that the future is unfolding even in its details according to the divine will. The fact that from the very beginning Christians have supposed that the Bible gave them such information as to make it possible to predict when the Lord would return, and that they have been wrong in their predictions 100% of the time, is sufficient proof that the Bible’s way of teaching the future characteristically lays emphasis on other things than precisely when things will occur or in what steps and stages it will come to pass. The Bible’s concern is with what will occur and what that future means for us today.
Then we noticed in a number of separate studies how much of the Bible’s vision of the future is cast in terms of various motifs that occur and reoccur in the Bible’s teaching about the unfolding future and the consummation of God’s purposes in the world. We considered a number of those motifs in turn: the seed of the woman, the land, the Day of the Lord, the salvation of the nations, the last days, the servant of the Lord, the salvation of the Jews, the judgment of the wicked, and the renewal of the cosmos. There are others but we considered those as among the most important and also as representative of other motifs we might have considered.
Then we considered the three great texts in the NT that more than any others shape a person’s understanding of the consummation in particular – what we are to expect at the end of the world – and that more than any other texts determine his outlook on what is unquestionably the great issue of biblical interpretation in connection with the end of the world, viz. the question of the gospel’s golden age in human history. Those texts were, as you recall, Romans 11, Matthew 24, and Revelation 20. Still today there are three schools of thought on this question and they are identified most simply by the particular way in which they interpret those three texts. Then we considered “Dispensationalism,” a modern system of interpretation that has been very influential in American popular evangelicalism, but which we said ran afoul of not only many particular texts but of the Bible’s entire outlook.
Then we considered the question of the number of those who would be saved relative to those who would be lost when human history had reached its end. Every question of biblical eschatology takes on a different character depending upon the answer that one gives to the question: will there be more human beings saved or more lost at the end of history. That study was followed by a consideration of the last judgment, the great assize at the end of time, at which Christ will bring under review the life that every human being has lived, and assign to everyone the place that is due him in the world to come. Finally, we concluded our series with several weeks studying the Bible’s doctrine of hell, and several weeks considering heaven.
I want to conclude our studies of biblical eschatology this evening by reminding ourselves of the practical importance of the embrace of the Bible’s futurism, its forward looking perspective, the understanding of our present life as it is so profoundly shaped by our conviction that the future will unfold as God has promised.
Think of this famous verse on the solemn summons of the Christian life by the English poet, Charles Kingsley.
God! Fight we not within a curséd world,
Whose very air teams thick with leagued fiends –
Each word we speak has infinite effects –
Each soul we pass must go to heaven or hell –
And this our one chance through eternity
To drop and die, like dead leaves in the brake…
Be earnest, earnest, earnest; mad if thou wilt:
Do what thou dost as if the stake were heaven,
And that thy last deed ere the judgment day.
All of that sentiment is expressly biblical. But see how eschatological the entire argument is. “Infinite effects,” “each soul must go to heaven or hell,” “this our once chance through eternity,” “the stake were heaven,” and “the judgment day.” Take these realities away and what are you left with? Whatever it is it will not be a Christian life and it will not be Christian zeal or Christian consecration. It will be instead the life lived by most people in the world today, the life that is lived for the present with little thought to the future and certainly with little or no idea that the future alone determines the meaning of our present. It will be life without the solemnity, without the sense of the highest conceivable purpose, without the deep and abiding joy of life in Christ.
The Lord Jesus himself lived his life and did his great work “for the joy set before him.” It was for what would be true in the future that he obeyed, he suffered, he loved in the present. And it will be no different for us who follow him.
Christianity will never conquer human hearts or transform human lives if the case for it is merely the blessing it will bring in this life. I do not deny that there is a great blessing here and now in being a follower of Christ and, even, that such present blessing should be enough to make anyone wish to be a Christian. But the Bible bears its own witness to the fact that the visible difference between Christians and non-Christians in this world does not begin to reveal the true difference between believers and unbelievers. Believers suffer great sorrows and trials and sometimes more than unbelievers do. They have a set of problems that the world does not have to bear (the struggle for holiness of life, the searching demands of God’s law, the burden of the unbelief of others, and so on). Whole books of the Bible and many memorable passages are written to address this fact, for fact it is. Ecclesiastes reminds us that one cannot observe this world and tell that the righteous are obviously better off than the wicked. The real difference, the immensity of the difference between the children of God and the children of this world is not always, perhaps not usually so obvious, so unmistakable that anyone can see it and understand the reason for it. Listen, when Jesus Christ came into the world, many people not only did not think that he was the Son of God, they did not even think he was a good man! So it has often been with his followers. Far from thinking of us as the heirs of eternal life, the children of God; far from envying us as those upon whom God’s eternal favor rests, the world often views us as people more than faintly pathetic for our outmoded, unenlightened, unscientific, even Neanderthal views of life, our puritanical and judgmental attitudes, and our inability to enjoy a good time. Paul may say that we Christians have already been seated with Christ in the heavenly places, but the world doesn’t see it or believe it.
But, when, in time, those in heaven are compared with those in hell, at that moment when one goes to Christ’s right hand and another to his left, then the eternal difference between believers and unbelievers will be so plain, so obvious, so stupendous that he who runs may read. That difference already exists it is already real but it cannot yet be seen for what it is. But it can be known for what it is and what it means. It can be known by faith. For God has shown us the future and told us what is to come and he expects us to live out of and for and according to that future that will so soon be upon us. In our troubles we are to remember the rest we will soon enter; in our battles we are to remember the victory soon to be ours; in our struggles we are to remember the judgment day and the crown that Christ has laid up and holds ready for everyone who fights his battles; in our longings we are to remember the perfect satisfaction of life that awaits us in heaven; in the darkness of life we are to hold fast the prospect of opening our eyes on the glory of God. From this future, which God has promised and Christ has guaranteed we draw our courage and fortitude, our hope, our patience, our moral resolve, and the joy that is our strength. But all of that, of course, is another way of saying that we must live by faith. We must believe what has been revealed to us and we must put that revelation to work in our lives.
It can be done, of course. It has been done by vast multitudes of Christians through the ages. It matters not how long before Christ returns and this age is brought to its end. The promised future ought to and can shape our lives in the present. This was the point that Robert Candlish, Alexander Whyte’s predecessor at Free St. George’s in Edinburgh and an important 19th century Scottish theologian, made once in a sermon entitled Christ Coming Quickly. He is making the point that what faith believes, hope brings near; that faith annihilates distance and makes a present reality and power out of future prospect.
“To a believer, the mere possibility, or even absolute certainty, of ages being yet to elapse before the Lord come again, ought no more to diminish the influence of that event upon his mind, and heart, and conscience, than the fact of ages having elapsed since the Lord came at first lessens the moral weight of his constant vivid sight of Christ and him crucified…. I know no chronology and no chronological computation of long eras, in dealing with that Savior, who eighteen hundred years ago trod with his blessed feet the soil of Judah, and expired on the cross of Calvary. Then why should there be any real difficulty in applying this principle in the prospect, more than in the retrospect? Does faith mounting up in the ascending series of years to the opening up of the fountain, long centuries ago, lose all sense of distance and remoteness in the bright and vivid apprehension of the cross? And will not the same faith in its keen glance downwards and onwards along the stream of time, seize the one great and only object of its hope, and bring it near, even to the very door, ay, though ages may seem to come in between? … These are the two events, the death of shame, the coming in glory, which faith, when rightly exercised, grasps, which I, believing, grasp. I grasp them as equally real, equally nigh. Christ dying, near and present, Christ coming, near and present. What though ages have run since that death and ages more are perhaps to run before that coming! It is nothing to me. The world’s history, past and future; the church’s history, past and future; all is to me for the present as if it never had been and never were to be…. Wherever I am, what I am about, ought I not to be alive to my position between these two manifestations of Christ, and these alone? Behind me Christ dying; before me Christ coming. Is it not thus, and only thus, that I live by the faith of him who loved me and gave himself for me; that I live also by the power of the world to come; enduring as seeing him who is invisible?” [Cited in Murray, Puritan Hope, 216-217]
We have said a number of times during this series that if only we could see and if only for a moment, if we could for a moment look into heaven or into hell, if we could see Christ himself coming in the clouds, if we could see the vast multitude of mankind gathered before Christ’s great white throne, what a difference it would make! How differently we would think about our lives and our immediate circumstances! With what different intentions we would begin each day! With what hope and strength and love and joy we would carry ourselves! With what earnestness we would speak to others about the world to come! Well, we can see such things, if only by faith. The knowledge is not one whit less sure or certain. Christ has spoken. He has risen again! It is ours to believe in what he has told us of what is to come and then to live accordingly.
And, as we also said, many times, Christ has made it easier for us to believe, by filling this world and our lives in this world with intimations and anticipations of what is to come, both good and bad. The present world rings with the future! Klaas Schilder, the 20th century Dutch theologian and preacher, makes this insightful and important observation concerning the fact that the Lord Jesus made an image of heaven and an image of hell out of two places very familiar to people and very close to one another. You couldn’t look upon the symbol of heaven without seeing the symbol of hell and vice versa. The City of Jerusalem, Zion, the image of heaven, the valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem’s wall, the image of hell.
“Poor men. God has placed Sion, the high mountain, and Gehenna, the deep valley, close by one another in an eloquent symbol. But men, for the umpteenth time, divided what God has placed together. They hear not what ge-hinnom, what Gehenna says… Poor men!” [Wat is de Hel? 32]
Schilder is reminding us that God has placed much before us to help our faith in the unseen but promised future. But we too often make no use of what help he has given us, either in the Word of God or in the intimations of the future with which the world rings every moment of every day. Think, for example, of the transformations of people’s lives such as occur by the grace of God, their deliverance from sin and unbelief and darkness such as we are privileged to observe – deliverances that hold within them the promise of so much more. Or, contrarily, think of the bedraggled figure of a Mideastern tyrant or Northwestern serial murderer who must now pay for his sins. Anticipations of human fulfillment and of human judgment are everywhere we look, all the time. It is God’s future pressing into the present and giving us a glance at things to come.
It is the nature of human life that one cannot live on the past. We pity people who are in bondage to the past, people who either are always talking about what they accomplished once in years gone or who cannot stop talking about some past failure. Life lived in or on the past alone is a life without hope and human life was created to be fueled by hope. Without hope we cannot attain to what we were made for. When the Bible says that men live in bondage to the fear of death all their lives, it is as much as saying that much of what human life becomes, without faith in Christ, it becomes because people cannot face the future with hope and so must compensate; compensate in ways that are destructive to human welfare and happiness. Why do people drink so much? Why use drugs? Why pursue pleasures pell-mell in ways that are so destructive to the human soul? Why do they crave as they do money and what money buys when it is as plain as plain can be that more money does not make a person better or happier or more satisfied with life? Why are people so consumed by their present? Why are they so unwilling to live with their problems? It is because they have no future, at least no future they can see. And the unseen future terrifies them. They don’t see it in these terms, of course. They don’t admit that it is the fear of the future that shapes their daily lives. But God says that is precisely what it is.
To die, to sleep –
To sleep – perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
Who would [burdens] bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than to fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all…
Without hope we cannot become what Christ saved us to become. But with hope, with our future bright, clear and certain in our view, everything changes. In the Bible, hope is the certain future, certain because revealed by God and guaranteed by Christ, come into the present as a power in our lives. What faith believes, hope brings near! What hope brings near changes our lives every day and in every way for the better. So much for the better. Purer, nobler, happier, more devout, more grateful, more full of love for God and for man. Here is Christina Rossetti:
‘True,’ she admits, ‘all our life long we shall be bound to refrain our soul, and keep it low; but what then? For the books we now refrain to read we shall one day be endowed with wisdom and knowledge. For the music we will not listen to we shall join in the song of the redeemed. For the pictures from which we turn we shall gaze unabashed on the Beatific Vision. For the companionship we shun we shall be welcomed into angelic society and the communion of triumphant saints. For the amusements we avoid we shall keep the supreme jubilee. For all the pleasures we miss we shall abide, and for evermore abide, in the rapture of heaven.’ [Whyte, Bunyan Characters, iii, 36].
The summons of our series then is this: to practice our faith in the future God has revealed. To believe it will come to pass as he said – of course it will! – and then to live every day accordingly. Every day bring the future into the present! Christ has given us the power to do this and has summoned us to do it.
To step on shore,
And that shore, heaven!
To take hold of a hand,
And that, God’s hand!
To breathe a new air,
And feel it celestial air;
To feel invigorated,
And know it immortality!
To pass from the storm and the tempest
To one unbroken calm!
To wake up,
And find it – GLORY.