The study of last things includes two distinct areas. The first deals with the global consequences of Christ’s return, for humanity as a whole. And the second deals with the individual, what eternity holds for them. But before spending time on those topics, it will be useful to look first at God’s purpose in creation. This topic of last things needs to fit within that framework.
Purpose for Creation
Why did God create the universe, this earth, and the humanity that inhabits it?
To Fully Express God’s Gory
Some would argue that creation was necessary in order to fully express God’s glory. Passages like Isaiah 43:7, “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made,” are used to support this contention. It cannot be denied that creation glorifies God. But I find it challenging to believe that God had a need to express his glory in this way. God was full and complete from eternity past. A need for creation to fully express his glory would indicate that he was not complete prior to creation. A thought that we should rightly reject.
A Cosmic Battleground
Others would advocate that this creation was a battleground, allowing God to challenge and ultimately defeat Satan. And there is some hint in Scripture of warfare between Satan and the forces of God. But if God is omnipotent, he should be able to simply destroy Satan if he chooses to. So this option also seems to come up short. In addition, since Satan is himself a part of the creation, creating the universe in order to defeat part of the universe seems circular.
An Outlet for God’s Love
And still others see that the purpose in creation was to provide an outlet for God’s love. He had so much love that he needed to have others who could be the recipients of that love. And God does indeed love those he has created. But God is complete within himself, not needing anyone else, even to show love to. The three persons of the Trinity can fully express the love of God amongst themselves. No others are needed.
For His Own Purpose
Exactly why God created the universe is beyond our knowing. But the Scripture does give us some indication as to the why of creation.
In Acts 17:24-25, Paul affirms that God made the world and everything in it, adding “[God] is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything.” God created the universe, but it was not out of any kind of need. He did not have to produce a creation in order to be who or what he is.
In Colossians 1:16, Paul again affirms “that all things have been created through him [Christ] and for him.” The universe, and all it contains, was created for Christ. While he did not need us, in some way, we were created for him. There was a purpose in creation.
In John 15:15, Jesus calls his disciples “friends”. Those early disciples were in a relationship with Jesus, and the Scripture indicates that he desires to be in a relationship with all who will come to him. And this is not a master/slave relationship, but a personal and intimate relationship.
With an Eye to the Future
In 2 Corinthians 4:16-17, Paul expressed that the challenges he was currently facing in life were not worth comparing with what lay ahead. And so he fixed his “eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” This creation is temporary, it will not last forever. But we will outlast the universe. This creation is only a step along in the process that God is using to make us finished products.
In 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, Paul talked about the foundation of Christ that we build on. And there are a variety of materials we can build with. Some are valuable and enduring, while others are of lesser value and temporary. At the end of this life, what I have built will be tested by fire. If I have built on the foundation of Christ, I will survive the testing. And if my building materials were enduring, they will come through the fire. But if I choose lesser quality materials, they will be consumed. The point seems to be that what I do with my life here on earth has eternal consequences. It is not just a matter of salvation; will I enter eternity or not. My life is being molded here for something in eternity. My life now matters for my eternity.
A Test for Future Employment
This is affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 25:21 where, as a part of the parable of the talents, the master says to two of his servants “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” Not only is our faithfulness here rewarded in eternity. But it would appear that there is a task for us to accomplish in eternity. Heaven is not just a matter of sitting on a cloud, strumming a harp and eating bonbons. We will have work to do; a purpose to fulfill.
To Be Like Christ
And, finally, in 1 John 3:2, John tells us that “when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” We really do not know what the future holds. But we can know that, in some way, we will be like Christ. I don’t believe that means we will be gods ourselves. But we will be much more Christ-like than we can ever be in this life.
So what can we know about God’s purpose in creation? First, God created for a purpose, and that purpose includes a redeemed humanity. The universe is temporary and will someday come to an end. But God’s people will outlast the end of the universe. We do not know what the future holds for us. But the life we live now is important for that eternity. And, finally, we are looking forward to becoming like Christ. Today is only a minuscule part of eternity. Make the most of it.
Eschatology is the study of last things, what will happen at the end of the world. But is there any practical reason to study the end of the world? 1 Thessalonians 4:13, 18 gives a couple of reasons. The first is so that we will not grieve over believers who have died. And the second is simply to encourage us in the faith, knowing that God has it all under control.
Types of Eschatology
The Bible contains many passages that seem to refer to Christ’s return and the end of history. But there are several different ways that these passages have been understood over the years, as well as today.
- Futuristic: In this view the ‘end time’ prophecies are mostly still in the future and are clustered around the second coming of Jesus.
- Preterist: In this view the events being spoken of were current events and are now historical. Preterists see much of Revelation as encouragement for believers. Believers who were currently going through trials at the hands of the Roman government or Jewish religious leaders.
- Historical: In this view the events prophesied were in the future when given, but much of them are history now. An example of this is the prophecies Jesus gives in Matthew 24. The historical view sees them has having been fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
- Symbolic: In this view most of the prophecies are not concerning actual events in the future. Instead they are expressing timeless truths. Revelation is not about specific conflicts and judgements. Rather it is symbolic of the ongoing conflict between God and his people with the world and the spiritual evil that influences it.
My Own View
For myself, I tend toward viewing the end-time prophecies as partial preterist with some elements of both a symbolic and future nature. But I believe valid arguments can also be made for the futuristic and historical views for at least some of what are considered as end-time passages.
The Second Coming
The central event in eschatology is the second coming of Jesus. It is his return that we look forward to. And his return that triggers all of the events of the last days. Jesus’ return is certain, will be unexpected, personal, visible, glorious, and singular.
It is certain
The Scripture affirms the certainty of Christ’s return. In John 14:3 Jesus promised his disciples that he was going to prepare a place for them. And if he did, he would return for them. In Matthew 24:30-31 Jesus told his disciples that he would return visibly and would gather his elect from throughout the world. And in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-16 Paul assured the Thessalonian church that the Lord would return from heaven to gather up those in Christ, both dead and alive. We can look forward with confidence to Christ’s return for his faithful followers.
The time is unknown
The time and date of Jesus’ return is unknown. When Jesus is asked about when he would return, he told his disciples in Acts 1:7 that it was not to be revealed to them. And in Matthew 24:36, he expressed that he did not even know when that return would be. In 1 Thessalonians 5:2, Paul expressed that Jesus would return like a thief in the night; coming when no one expected him to. Many over the years have attempted to predict when his coming would take place. But so far, they have all been wrong. While his return is certain, the timing is in God’s hands, and he has not revealed that to us.
His return is personal
Jesus will be returning personally. He is not just going to send out his angels to gather his elect. He will come himself. In John 14:3, he promised his disciples that he would come for them. And in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, Paul said that the Lord himself would come down to get us.
His return is visible
When Jesus comes it will be bodily and visible. While some claim that the second coming will be spiritual, the Scripture affirms that he will return physically. In Acts 1:11 the angels at Jesus ascension told the disciples that “this same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” He went as a physical person, he will return in the same way, as a physical person. In Matthew 24:30 Jesus proclaimed that “all the people of the earth . . . will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven.” There will be nothing secretive about his return.
His return is glorious
In Matthew 24:30 Jesus said his return would be with great glory. In Matthew 25:31 Jesus said that he would come in his glory and sit on his glorious throne. And in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 Paul said he would come with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God.
His return is singular
There are some who advocate a two-part second coming. Once in secret to gather his elect, and a second visible coming seven years later. But there is really no scriptural support for such a view that I know of. Matthew 24:30-31 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 both express a return for the elect that is visible and not secretive.
Accompanying Jesus’ second coming will be a resurrection of the dead. This resurrection will include all of the believers through the ages who have died. There will also be a resurrection of the remainder of the dead. Although it is unclear if it will occur immediately at Jesus’ return.
In John 5:28-29 Jesus said there is coming a time when “all who are in the grave will hear his voice and come out.” Some will rise to live, while others will be condemned. This passage does appear to indicate that a single resurrection will include all people who will then be divided according to what they have done. Acts 24:15 also talks about the resurrection of the righteous and wicked alike. This resurrection may or may not be simultaneous.
In 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 Paul, as he discussed the resurrection of believers, said that we would be raised imperishable at the last trumpet. And, at the same time, the believers who remain alive will be transformed. This passage says nothing about unbelievers. But it was written specifically about the fate of believers, so the failure to mention unbelievers would not be unexpected. 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and Romans 8:11 also speak to the resurrection of believers at Jesus return.
After the resurrection comes judgement. To some extent, this judgment is a mere formality. The outcome of the judgment is based primarily on the individual’s relationship with Christ. To those who have come to him in repentance and faith, the judgment is eternal life. To those who have refused the gracious offer of salvation, the judgment ends in eternal punishment.
In the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46, the sheep, who are commended by Jesus, enter into eternal life. The goats, on the other hand, are left to depart into eternal punishment. The results of this judgment are eternal. There is no thought of the punishment of the wicked being something that is temporary, potentially leading into life. Once a person dies there is no chance to change the judgment that is awaiting them.
The second coming of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, and the judging of the world’s peoples are all clearly spoken of in the Scripture. But there have been several frameworks developed over the years to attempt to organize all of the scriptural references to the end of the age. A key distinguishing feature of many of these frameworks is how they understand Revelation 20:1-10. In these verses Satan is bound for a thousand years and cast into the Abyss. Then a first resurrection occurs of martyred saints, who then reign with Christ for a thousand years. After the thousand years are up Satan is unchained, goes out into the world to deceive the nations, and raises up an army against the camp of God’s people.
In some views, those who reign with Christ for the thousand years are not Christian saints. Instead, they are Jews. And the kingdom is a fulfillment of the many promises in the Old Testament. Promises to restore to them an earthly kingdom with a descendant of David on the throne. In this view, Gentile Christians are not involved in the millennial kingdom.
The postmillennial view is that we are already in the thousand-year period and that it is synonymous with the church age. This is an optimistic view that sees the gospel advancing and winning the world to Christ. In this view, most people will eventually become believers, and then the end will come. The thousand years was initially taken as literal but is now mostly thought of as symbolic. This viewpoint is most popular when the gospel is reaching great numbers of people, but less popular at other times.
The premillennial view sees Jesus’ second coming as ushering in the millennial kingdom. A physical kingdom with Christ sitting on its throne. This view was popular in the early years of the church. And it has seen a revival in popularity in the past 200 years. In this view, Revelation 20:1-6 is taken literally, although there is some question as to who it is that reigns with Christ for the thousand years. Some see this being the church, others as tribulation martyrs, and still others as a revived Israel.
Premillennialism is basically a pessimistic view, expecting the world to grow worse and worse, leading up to the second coming. There are two distinct flavors of premillennialism, centered on a seven-year tribulation period.
The dispensational premillennialism view divides the return of Jesus into two parts. The first part is a secret coming for the church, often labeled as the rapture. And the second part of the second coming occurs seven years later, after the great tribulation and prior to the millennium.
Dispensational premillennialism is a part of dispensationalism, a relatively recent view that sees the nation of Israel and the Church as two distinct bodies that God is working with. In this view, most of the end-time prophecy, apart from the rapture of the church, concerns Israel. In dispensationalism, the elect in Matthew 24 does not refer to all believers. Instead, it is referring only to Israel. And the sheep and goat parable in Matthew 25 is referring only to Israel, the church having been removed long before.
In this view, at some point in the future, Christ returns for his church, and they are removed from everything that follows. The world will undergo a great tribulation for the next seven years, partly due to the work of the antichrist, and partly as a result of the outpouring of God’s wrath. At the end of the seven years, Christ returns to judge the world, set up his early kingdom at the head of the converted nation of Israel, and will reign for a thousand years.
The great hope that this view holds out for the church is that they will escape the great tribulation. The biggest challenge for this view is that there is no Scriptural basis for a two-part second coming. But it has been popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible, Hal Lindsey’s ‘Late Great Planet Earth’, and the Left Behind series of books.
The historical premillennialism view does not separate the second coming into two parts, and does see the church experiencing a great tribulation before Christ’s return and the establishment of the millennial kingdom, a kingdom they will participate in. This is the view of much of the earliest church.
This view believes that the elect throughout the New Testament refers to believers. They do not hold to a literal seven years of tribulation. And they distinguish between the tribulation orchestrated by Satan and the wrath of God poured out on unbelievers.
The great hope for this view is not that the church be delivered from the great tribulation, but that it be protected during it. Much like Israel was protected from many of the plagues that struck Egypt leading up to the Exodus.
The final millennial view is amillennialism, the view that there is no literal thousand year reign of Christ on the earth. Instead, Christ has been reigning over a spiritual kingdom since his resurrection and ascension. This view treats the 20th chapter of Revelation as mostly symbolic, much like the rest of Revelation. Unlike premillennialism, which looks for signs leading up to the Lord’s return, amillennialists see Christ’s return as occurring at any time; there are no special signs that forecast his return. Like all of the other views, amillennialists believe that Christ is returning, that he will ‘rapture’ his church and then judge the world. This view was held by some of the early church fathers, and appears to have been the default view of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation.
What Happens After This Life?
The second aspect of end times is much more personal. What happens to me after I die? It is quite likely that my personal end time will come before Christ’s return.
Physical death is inevitable for all of us, unless we are still alive at Christ’s return. But physical death is not the end of our story. Scripture is clear that there is life beyond the grave, although what that life is like is very dependent on how we live now.
But was death a part of the initial creation? If the fall had not occurred, would we live forever here on earth in physical bodies? This is somewhat of an academic question, because the fall did occur, and our bodies now grow old and die. But what if? Personally, I believe physical death was built into creation from the beginning. God told Adam he would die the day he ate from the Tree of Knowledge. But he did not die physically that day or for many years after. I think that promise to Adam concerned spiritual death rather than physical death. Lack of physical death prior to the fall is also incompatible with an old earth with life on it for millions of years prior to humanity.
What happens after I die? The Scripture is clear that there will be a resurrection of the dead at the end of time. But what happens to the dead between the time they die and their resurrection? There are several different views that people hold concerning this time.
In this view the soul of the person who has died is in an unconscious state, unaware of the passage of time or anything that is happening. Support for this view comes from passages like 1 Thessalonians 4:13 where Paul mentions those who sleep in death. That would seem to imply some kind of sleep-like state in death.
In Roman Catholic theology, purgatory is a place of temporary punishment for those who are in a state of grace but have not made sufficient payment for their venial sins while in this life. They will spend an appropriate period of time in purgatory until those sins are paid for. It is also possible to get some help with that from people who are still alive, by either monetary payments or prayer.
The primary support for purgatory comes from 2 Maccabees 12:39-46, a non-canonical book, at least for Protestants, from the inter-testament era. Passages from Matthew 12:32, Matthew 5:24-25, and I Corinthians 3:11-15 are also used by Roman Catholics to support purgatory. These passages are used to support that belief, but they really do not help in deriving a belief in purgatory.
Immediately in Paradise
A third view is that on death the believer immediately goes into the presence of God. This finds its most explicit support in Luke 23:43 in Jesus’ response to one of the criminals crucified with him: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” This view sees believers as unembodied souls from death until the resurrection when the soul is reunited with a resurrected and glorified body.
The final view is that on death the believer immediately goes into the presence of God, not as an unembodied soul, but in their final state with a glorified body. In 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 Paul expressed two states for us. Either we are at home in the physical body and away from the Lord. Or we are clothed in our heaven dwelling and at home with the Lord. Nothing in the passage suggests there is a third state, either of sleep, purgatory, or an unembodied soul.
This view would seem incompatible with resurrection at the end of time. But after death, am I still in time? Or in an eternal timeless existence. In this case there is no difference between receiving a glorified body at death versus the indeterminate time on earth that may transpire prior to the resurrection. Of all the views expressed here, this seems to me to be the best.
Death is not our final state. The New Testament authors looked forward to a resurrection where the souls of believers who have died are reunited with a glorified body. This is different than resuscitation, restoring life to a body that has died. Lazarus, and others in the Scripture, came back to life, but in their original bodies. And they eventually died again. In contrast, with the resurrection of believers, it is to have an eternal existence in the presence of God.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul seeks to comfort the church, apparently over the death of one or more of their members. And, in verse 16, he tells them that “the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” 1 Corinthians 15 is about the resurrection of believers, that it is the hope we have as believers. And there are many other passages addressing the resurrection of believers.
The New Testament also describes a resurrection for unbelievers, but this resurrection is to a final judgment and sentencing. In Acts 24:15, Paul says “that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.” Other passages, like Revelation 20:11-15, describe the unbelieving dead standing before God for judgment. A judgment that results in eternal punishment.
Along with resurrection comes judgment. In 2 Corinthians 5:10, Paul tells us that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” He is speaking to believers in this passage, but unbelievers can also expect judgment, although not at the judgment seat of Christ. Instead, they will stand before the throne of God for judgment (Rev. 20:11-15). In neither case does this judgment seem to determine the ultimate destiny of the one being judged. That was determined at their death. But this judgment seems to be to determine reward or punishment in the life to come.
Everyone who has ever lived will face one of two end states. Either they will spend eternity in the presence of God. Or they will be eternally separated from the presence of God. Those who have been faithful to God until the end of their physical life will spend eternity in heaven. Everyone else will spend eternity separated from God.
Heaven is not really a place as much as it is being in the presence of God. God fills all of creation, so in a sense, we are always in his presence. But in our physical existence, we are unable to really recognize that presence. But in the age to come, we will be able to fully recognize God in all his glory. While it is popular to visualize heaven as a place of reward or eternal pleasure, that is really not an adequate picture. While there may be reward, and it will be joyous in the presence of God, I believe that we will have work to do in heaven. God has made us for something other than sitting around all day, visiting with friends, eating bonbons, and playing 20 questions with God. I believe he has created us for something much more than that.
References for Heaven
- 1 Corinthians 13:12 – “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
- Revelation 21:4 – “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
- In Revelation 21:23 – “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.” Heaven will be a glorious place, which is to be expected if it is in the presence of God.
- 1 Corinthians 2:9 – “’What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’—the things God has prepared for those who love him.” We cannot even begin to imagine what God has prepared for us.
- Matthew 25:14-30 – “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” How we live here seems to impact what we will do for eternity.
- Matthew 22:30 – “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” The relationships we have with people in this life are only for this life. While I may know and recognize my wife when we are both in heaven, we will no longer be married.
Hell describes the final state of those who die in a state of disbelief. There is no indication in Scripture that there is any hope of a person passing out of hell and into heaven after they have died. And, in contrast, there is reason to believe that cannot happen. In Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man, in Luke 16:19-31, Abraham tells the rich man that “between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.” Hell is a permanent state. The only way to avoid it is to repent and accept God’s offer of salvation while in this life.
The punishment is eternal, without end. In the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus says of the goats, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” The punishment of unbelievers is not a temporary state of affairs. It lasts forever.
In Luke 12:47-48 we see that there may well be degrees of punishment for the unbelievers. The one who knows what they should have done will be punished more severely that the one who did not know. But are punished, for eternity, but one may suffer more than the other.
Nature of the Punishment
There are two primary views as to the nature of the punishment of unbelievers.
Eternal Conscious Torment
This has been the traditional view of the church throughout its history, although some of how it is pictured has been influenced by non-biblical sources such as Dante’s Inferno. Probably the most descriptive passage describing hell as eternal conscious torment comes from Mark 9:43-48 and the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke. Here Jesus refers to being “thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’”
In this passage, Jesus describes hell, or Gehenna, as a place of eternal fire and worms. The implication drawn by many is that the fire and worms will work on the one thrown there for eternity as well.
There are two other fairly explicit passages that are used to support this view, both from Revelation. In Revelation 14:10-11 it is said of those who worship the beast that “they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” The torment is eternal, and torment implies consciousness. Revelation 20:11-15 describes the lake of fire, the final resting place for unbelievers.
Annihilationism is the belief that, ultimately, unbelievers will cease to exist, potentially after a period of punishment. This has been a minority belief in the church throughout most of its history. But it is commonly held as heretical by the church at large.
In Galatians 6:8, Paul said that “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” The contrast here is between destruction and eternal life. Destruction is a common term in the New Testament to describe the fate of unbelievers.
2 Thessalonians 1:9 is another of these passages where Paul says of unbelievers that “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” Destruction is taken to mean, not just ruin, but annihilation. And that destruction is everlasting, there is no coming back from it; ever.
Annihilationism also sees the accounts of hell as a place of fire and worms as reflecting the capacity of hell to utterly consume everything thrown into it. The fire is not extinguished, and the worms continue to consume. But in Jesus description of Gehenna, he never expresses that the one thrown into the fire and worms would be there eternally. What is it that fire and worms do? Generally they will consume what they work on, and that is what happened in Gehenna, the Jerusalem garbage dump.
Ezekiel 20:47 expresses this idea of unquenchable fire consumption. “Say to the southern forest: “Hear the word of the Lord. This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to set fire to you, and it will consume all your trees, both green and dry. The blazing flame will not be quenched, and every face from south to north will be scorched by it.” In this passage, the fire is not quenched, but what is in the fire is consumed. The trees do not burn eternally.
Other arguments used to support Annihilationism include the belief that a loving God could not punish eternally and that eternal punishment is excessive for crimes committed in time. But these are really emotional arguments and not supported by the Scripture.
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- The Doctrine of Salvation (6/27/2018) - The doctrine of salvation encompasses our initial salvation experience, our ongoing walk with Christ, and our final deliverance.
- The Doctrine of the Church (7/29/2018) - What is the church? What is it's purpose? Questions about government, baptism and Lord's Supper. These are topics addressed by the doctrine of the church.
- The Doctrine of Last Things (9/15/2018) - The doctrine of last things includes the global events preceding Christ's return, as well as the more personal aspects; what happens to me in the end.