Category Archives: Eschatology

Got End Times Questions?

mark 13v33

One of the things I do with my catechism students is regular Q & A sessions.  Rather than having me ask all the questions with them (hopefully) giving the answers, we turn the tables around every now and then.  They’re welcome to come to class with whatever questions and I do my best to answer them.  Of course, the questions are limited to things pertaining to the Bible, theology, ethics, church life — you know, areas where I might be reasonably expected to know a thing or two.  I always enjoy these opportunities to engage the youth of the church and find out what’s on their minds.

Over the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve noticed a pattern.  Many of the questions have to do with either the beginning or the end.  Young people seem to think a lot about what we could call the bookends of Christian theology:  protology (the doctrine of creation) and eschatology (the doctrine of the last things).  I suspect that young people are not alone in this regard.  Just yesterday, in fact, an 80 year old sister in the church approached me after the service with a question about the new heavens and new earth.

Today I want to share some of the material I’ve prepared on the topic of eschatology, particularly some of the sermons I’ve preached on it.

For my pre-confession students I’ve prepared this eschatology outline.  It’s basically a summary of Louis Berkhof’s eschatology chapter in Manual of Christian Doctrine.

I’ve preached at least four sermons on the doctrine of the last things:

Mark 13 includes Mark’s version of the so-called Olivet Discourse.  Is Jesus talking about the destruction of Jerusalem or the end of the world?

Who is the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians 2?  How can Scripture speak about his appearing first and yet describe Christ’s coming as sudden and unexpected?

What about the 1000 years mentioned in Revelation 20?  Is this a literal 1000 year reign of Christ?  Does it take place before or after his return?

Some day I hope to preach a series of sermons on the entire book of Revelation…but since I just started on John, I think that will be quite some time in the future.


예수 그리스도의 재림과 요한 계시록 20장의 천년

New resource in Korean:

예수 그리스도의 재림과 요한 계시록 20장의 천년: 우리는 이것을 어떻게 이해해야 할까요?

N.B.:  this resource is also available in English here:

The return of Christ and the 1000 years of Revelation 20

 

 


We Distinguish…(Part 2) — Intermediate/Final States

1cor-15_42

In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

We’ll begin at the end. Our first theological distinction comes from the area of eschatology, the doctrine of the last things. This is an area where believers are easily confused. This is partly because the Bible does not give comprehensive details about the age to come. As a result, extra-biblical speculation is not in short supply. To be sure, it’s okay to speculate in some circumstances, but you should always identify such speculation and make it clear that it’s simply your opinion.

However, there are points on which we definitely need not speculate, because the Bible is abundantly clear. When we distinguish between intermediate state and the final state, we are in the realm of clear biblical teaching. Let me first define the terms and then I’ll briefly show how Scripture leads us to this distinction.

Defining the Terms

We are looking at the state of believers after this life. There is an intermediate state. “Intermediate” means that it’s the in-between state. It’s between this life on earth and our life in the new creation. The intermediate state is our existence in heaven after death. Immediately after we die, our souls go to be with God in heaven. We go to heaven in sinless moral perfection, but as incomplete human beings because we lack our bodies. In the intermediate state, we dwell in God’s presence as disembodied souls. This is not how we are to spend eternity. Because we are united to Christ, a true human being with a body and soul, our intermediate state is temporary. It is how we exist until the time of the resurrection.

When Christ returns, the bodies of almost all human beings who have ever lived will rise from the dead – the only exceptions are Christ himself, Enoch, and Elijah. Human souls will be reunited with human bodies and we will be complete again, the way we were created and designed to exist. In this state, the wicked will go to their eternal destruction, but the righteous (those in Christ) will go to their eternal blessedness. The final state for believers is our existence in the new creation after the resurrection, living in God’s presence forever as perfect, complete, and glorified human beings, body and soul.

Biblical Basis

But is it biblical to distinguish between the intermediate and final state? Concerning the intermediate state, we could think of Christ’s words to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The thief died. His body remained on earth, but he went to be with Christ in Paradise/heaven. His soul went to be with the Lord when he died. What is true of that man is true of all believers. But we learn from elsewhere in Scripture that this disembodied existence is not the final state for glorified believers. In 1 Corinthians 15, we learn how important the resurrection of the dead is for the gospel. Paul writes that our perishable bodies will put on the imperishable and mortal bodies will put on immortality (1 Cor. 15:53). The book of Revelation too describes an existence for believers before the resurrection (Rev. 6:9) and after the resurrection (Rev. 20:11-15), an intermediate state and a final state. Because it is so clearly taught in Scripture, there has been little theological debate about the distinction itself. Debates have raged about the details of both states, but concerning the distinction between the two, no one really demurs.

Since it’s biblical, it’s also found in the summary of biblical teaching in our Belgic Confession. Article 37 states, “Those who will have died before that time [the Day of the Lord] will arise out of the earth, as their spirits are once again united with their own bodies in which they lived.” Obviously, human spirits have been existing in a disembodied state between their death and the resurrection – an intermediate state. At the resurrection, there is a reunion of bodies and spirits – they enter into a final state, which for believers is “glory such as the heart of man could never conceive.”

Why It Matters

Yet even though it is so biblical, sometimes this distinction gets forgotten amongst Christians. There are consequences to confusing these things. When you mistakenly think that the intermediate state is the final state, you’re in danger of denying the future resurrection. When you think that existence as a disembodied soul is your eternal destiny as a believer, what do you do with those passages of Scripture that speak about a universal resurrection? You’re really back at the problem being addressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. He argues that if you think that existence as a disembodied soul is all there is and ever will be after death, with no future resurrection in the picture, then you’ll potentially run into trouble with Christ’s resurrection. After all, Christ rose from the dead as the first fruits of the resurrection of believers. It all hangs together – deny one part and you deny the other.

Mucking up the intermediate/final distinction also has the unfortunate consequence of leading one to a mistaken understanding of the physical and spiritual. Many Christians seem to have this idea that the spiritual is truly good, and the physical is evil. We need to cast off our evil physical existence so that we can attain a pure and good spiritual existence. This is not biblical thinking. The intermediate/final distinction tells us that our ultimate future is a physical existence as complete human beings, body and soul, in a real, physical new creation. Physical matter is not evil in itself. Yes, the created order around us has been stained with sin and creation is groaning for redemption. But when God created it as physical matter, he created it all good! It was good at the beginning and it will all be good again at the end.

When believers die, they go to heaven. They are there rejoicing in the presence of God, but the manner in which they are there is only temporary. When Christ returns, believers will continue to be in blessed presence of God, but the manner in which they are will change. It will be far better, reflecting the glory of Christ as complete human beings. In other words, in the intermediate state, we are holy, but not yet whole. In the final state, we will be both whole and holy, forever. Sound theology makes us long for the day!


Are the Saints in Heaven Aware of Our Miseries and Trials?

JosiahsReformation

When you’ve taught catechism to the youth of the church for a few years, you start to know where questions will pop up.  When you deal with Lord’s Day 18 and the subtle argument found there relating Christ’s ascension with his presence here on earth and the polemics with the Lutherans, you can reasonably expect that your catechism students won’t be asking any questions.  But when it comes to Lord’s Day 22 and the doctrine of the last things (eschatology), you might want to slot in an extra class just to deal with their questions.  It’s not just young church members who have questions — I’ve noticed that older church members do too.  We all wonder what “perfect blessedness” in the hereafter really involves.  One question that I’ve been asked and have often pondered is whether believers in glory are aware of goings-on here on earth, including the suffering and grief we might experience.  I’ve always been inclined to say “no.”  After all, how can “perfect blessedness” include concern and anxiety over what is happening with your loved ones who are not (yet) in glory?

In his book, Josiah’s Reformation, Richard Sibbes indirectly addresses this question.  In the last chapter, this Puritan author exposits 2 Chronicles 34:28.  Here God is addressing King Josiah through the prophetess Huldah:   “Behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place and its inhabitants.”  Sibbes notes that one of the things to take away from this verse is a clear indication that the Roman Catholics are wrong in praying to Mary and other saints.  After all, God promised this saint (Josiah) that he would be taken out of this world with the consequence that he would be unaware of the disaster that would come on the people of God after his lifetime.  This consequence is not peculiar to Josiah, but is true of all human beings brought to glory.  It was and is a blessing for saints to be relieved of their concerns for their loved ones.  Sibbes goes a step further and notes the absurdity of the Roman Catholic view.  He says, for the sake of argument let’s grant that saints in heaven are aware of what goes on down on earth and can hear the prayers of unglorified believers and extend help.  But they are still finite creatures, aren’t they?  Writes Sibbes, “How can one saint give a distinct answer and help to perhaps a thousand prayers, as the virgin Mary hath many thousand prayers offered her?  How can she distinctly know and give a distinct answer to every prayer?”  It’s only possible if she is no longer human.

For our purposes, however, we can note that Josiah was taken out of this world with the promise that he would be unaware of the miseries and trials to follow his death.  Is there any indication in Scripture that this is not true of all believers?  Does the Bible anywhere teach that Christians are taken to heaven but still weighed down with concerns over what takes place on earth?

What about Ecclesiastes 9:5-6?

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.

These verses played a part in a controversy in the Netherlands over the doctrine of soul sleep.  Some (e.g. Telder) taught that “the dead know nothing” means that when you die you have no conscious awareness of anything on earth or in heaven.  Your soul essentially falls asleep.  Two comments:  1) It is dangerous to hang a doctrine on a passage from a difficult book like Ecclesiastes.  This type of wisdom writing can easily be misused.  2)  The context here demonstrates that the Preacher’s perspective is related to “all that is done under the sun.”  If anything, you can only restrict what is said here to life on the earth.

In Luke 16, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  The parable shows the rich man looking down on earth after death and having concern for his five brothers left behind.  However:  1) The rich man is not in glory, but in hell.  If this is indicative of something of the after-life, it’s only telling us that the damned continue to be aware of the miseries and trials of this earth.  2)  But, this is a parable and again care needs to be taken in interpreting this as definite doctrine about the hereafter.  Our Saviour often worked within the understanding of his listeners about these things.  If what’s said here can be confirmed from other passages in Scripture, we can be more dogmatic about accepting it as divine revelation concerning the hereafter.

If there’s one passage that comes close to leading us to believe that saints in heaven are aware of the trials of saints on earth, it would have to be Revelation 6:10-11.  When the sixth seal was opened, John saw the souls of the martyrs under the altar.  We then read in Rev. 6:10-11,

10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

Doesn’t this seem to suggest that at least some saints (the martyrs) in heaven are aware of the travails of some of the saints on earth?  These verses need to be read carefully.  The glorified martyrs’ cry of “how long?” is related to the avenging of their blood shed while they were on earth.  In response to that, they are told to wait until the number of the martyrs is complete.  This suggests at most a general knowledge that the final judgment has not yet come, but not necessarily an awareness of the particulars of everything going on in the world left behind.  Moreover, the genre here also has to be taken into consideration.  This is apocalyptic literature and vivid imagery is used that’s not always intended to be understood literally.  The classic example is Satan’s chain in Revelation 20:1.  Satan is an angel, a spiritual being, so he obviously cannot be bound with a literal physical chain.  Similarly here, in Revelation 6, the language may simply be trying to convey the eagerness that heaven and its inhabitants have for final justice at the last day.  But that doesn’t mean that Oma looks down from heaven and sadly sees me getting grumpy and irritable with my family here (for example!).

When all the biblical evidence is considered, we have to conclude that “perfect blessedness” in heaven involves being unaware of the particular trials and struggles that saints on earth continue to experience.  We can expect that when we are graciously brought to glory, we will not have our eyes directed back from whence we came, but to Christ, to our God and Saviour.  We will be perfectly living in communion with him — and he will take care of looking out for our loved ones left behind, he will continue to be aware of their sufferings, temptations, and trials.  And as all-powerful God, he is the one who can actually do something about all of it.  In heaven, we will be content to leave it all to him — that’s perfect blessedness.