Basic Christian Theology, Part 7: The Last Things

Focal Passage: 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12

 

As we have discussed in the previous posts of this series, which begins here, our outlook is shaped by what we know, believe or understand. If we believe the bible is the word of God then it will have bearing and authority on our lives. If we believe God is a personal God we will relate to Him as such. If we believe that we are indeed fallen beings then we will conduct ourselves as such and seek to move in the direction of God. If we believe in what was done for us through Christ’s sacrifice then we will seek to live in that way. If we seem to live in that way then we will attach ourselves to those who believe similarly to ourselves. The last things are just as important as the first; they move us in a constructive direction in life and help us to make sense of what is to come. We don’t like to talk about the last things because they, in fact, scare us because they are open to a broad interpretation. But just like everything else that we have discussed, they shape the believer’s entire life and make him/her either fruitful or fearful.

Fortunately, we do not believe the same about the last things and have chosen, as Christians, do not generally make them a test and issue in orthodoxy and fellowship. But even as we hold these individual viewpoints on future events all of us, as believers, believe that God is at work in history, that our Lord Jesus will return, and all who have placed their trust in Him will share in His glory. Revelation 11:15 reads like this, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever. As we consider the last things, let us also consider several truths of great importance.

Most of us may not see the second coming of our Savior with our physical eyes because they will have been closed by physical death. It is not something we like to consider in life, but death surrounds us. Look to your left, and look to your right; I can say with almost 100% certainty that person will die. Death, as a doctrine, is something all believers should consider. Like birth, it takes away the comfort of what is known and thrusts its participant into the unknown. But as believers, we can have knowledge as to where we are going; also those who do not believe can have knowledge of where they are going. Our destinations, while different, serve as a reminder of both the mercy of God and the results of our choices.

How can I say that death is merciful? Let us look back into Genesis 3:22-24. Here in the moments after God has passed sentence on man, woman and the serpent, we find a discussion going on within the Godhead. His merciful nature looked on us and said, “Physically, man is unable to bear the full consequence of his choice if he were to eat from the Tree of Life as well as the Tree of Knowledge.” So God acted by removing us from the Garden. What happens in life, sickness and disease, is the result of sin. Not personal sin, although some instances can be traced back to that, but of the collective, fallen nature around us. The reality of the thorns and thistles, which plague the ground we work, is felt in the everyday aches and pains of life. Death then becomes a mercy because we are no longer in the cares of this world but the next, which is an added concern to this world. Man wasn’t meant to die, but to live with God. The aching separation man has from God is the constant reminder of what we once had and lost: full, face-to-face time with our Creator. The death that we die to sin through faith in Christ reestablishes the connection and gives us even more than what we could have had if man had not fallen into sin in the first place. Does that mean that the instant we accept Christ we should commit suicide? No, because then we begin to experience some of the life we would have had, and share that with others. If I died to sin in Christ then I have truly been raised to walk in newness of life. When I deny what has been offered to me through Christ and his sacrifice, what I am then left with is the full and final result of my sin, death apart from God. And that death is no longer merciful; that death will be dealt the full and final judgment that our God has declared must be paid for sin. But as to the believer, that new life, which the pangs of death and the insult of sin have wrought in our bodies, will be fully revealed in the glory that is heaven.

But, there are some misconceptions about heaven that must be cleared up. First, heaven is a place. Whenever heaven is spoken of in scripture it is always refered to as topos, a literal, physical place and not as a thought or idea or concept (John 14:2). Second, two persons we have been longing to see will be there: Jesus (John 14:3) and God (Rev. 21:22-23). Also in heaven, there is no sin or suffering, only purity and life will be present (Rev. 21:4, 27; 22:1-3). There are different levels of reward, each assigned based on faithfulness (Matt. 25:14-30). Also there, we will have full knowledge and understanding (1 Cor. 13:8-12). Finally, neither last nor least, we will praise God constantly with great joy (Rev. 5:11-13; 15:2-4). Now, these realities are only available to believers both presently and in the future; and for nonbelievers their location is just as real.

Hell is something that we in these “enlightened” times, only like to use as a curse word. We try to distance ourselves from speaking of it with any authority. We try to soften its blow by only briefly mentioning it, or not talking about it at all. Instead of wanting to scare people with its defined reality, we prefer to hold up heaven; and a sad result is that the Gospel has lost its effectiveness. I want people to be scared of hell. I want people to want to stay away from its lingering, never-ending death, but if all I’m doing is holding up heaven and not speaking of its requirements then all that I am doing is lining people up to burn in the fury of God’s wrath like stove wood. So, with that in mind, let me tell you what one must do to go to Hell: nothing. You don’t have to make a decision, you don’t have to do anything wrong,  you don’t even have to decide “God’s nice, but he’s not fun”.

You see, logically, we have to make certain distinctions: good must be rewarded; and evil must be punished. But, there is a catch, how can we truly know what is good? Some people look at that and see a loophole, but the truth is, good isn’t what you do, it is who you know. And in knowing Christ, we have full knowledge of what is good: God’s wonderful, matchless grace. The reason to linger on these points, to consider them at length is because at that one point, death, the choice made here will eventually reap it’s eternal consequence.

But what is death really, because death is spoken of in so many different tones in scripture. As I said earlier, it is birth pangs; this body readying itself for eternity, no one really has said one way or the other what it is like, but for certain, it is a change of state, when the temporal and eternal meet and exchange places (personal view). It is the point where we as these temporal, flesh-bound beings shrug off this mortal coil and put on eternity. But there is a problem, or at least what seems to be a problem because, as believers, we believe in a bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 15). What happens in the in-between time, when we are not like Christ in his resurrected form, yet?

Two nonbiblical theories are heard. The first is often called soul-sleeping, which refers to an unconscious state that exists between the time of death and resurrection. Proponents of this view often use a twisted view of 1 Thess. 4:13, which refers to departed believers as “those who have fallen asleep”. Hershel H. Hobbs clarified the biblical idea of sleep as “a synonym for death as a cessation of labor, sorrow, and trouble.” The New Testament does not support belief in “soul-sleeping”. The second view is one of purgatory. The simple definition is a place or condition in which those who have died enter a state of grace in which they are purified for heaven. This state is for those who have been redeemed but aren’t free from imperfection, so they must make expiation for unforgiven sin. This view (if anything is heretical) is supported nowhere in scripture. (If anything, scripture does everything it can to deny this view. Romans 3:21-26, describes the propitiation, in noun form, of Christ. Expiation is further explained in 4:5-8, as well.)

Ray Summers, in his book, The Life Beyond, took time to examine the issue and come to some sort of a near biblical view of the matter of the intermediate state; he refers to it as a disembodied state. The obvious matter is that when we die, our bodies are shoved aside and “returned to the earth”, hence disembodied. He goes further on to say about this state that it is “the conscious existence of both the righteous and the wicked after death and prior to the resurrection. This state of disembodiedment, for the believer, is spent in God’s presence and is apparently affirmed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:6, 8 Therefore we are always confident and know as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. When a believer dies in Christ, this body has been laid to one side, and the new resurrected body is promised; but in the mean time, what does it matter, we will be with the Lord.

But just in case you are in a hurry for that new body, let’s look over at John 5:25-29. Here the Lord is clearly teaching bodily resurrection. Those who have died are either in the joys of heaven or the torment of hell. The disembodied state will not last. Bodily resurrection is an essential element of the Christian faith. But as believers, if we want an idea of how our resurrected body will be, all we have to do is look over at a few passages and look at the risen Jesus. We will be recognizable (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-20, 24-29). We will not be subject to earthly, physical laws (Luke 24:31), able to pass through things (John 20:19), yet solid (John 20:27) and able to eat (John 21:10-14). And why is that important? Why is the issue of us eating as resurrected beings even important?

In Revelation 19:9, scripture says that believers are invited to a marriage supper, but not just any marriage supper, because of our belief in Christ and what his church is, we are not only guests, we are the betrothed, the bride of Christ. But it is not only this invitation which is important, it is what follows after it that has stumped and strained many a believer over the centuries, Christ’s Second Coming, and his millennial reign. And in this issue is often divided into three camps: premellennial, postmillennial, and amellennial.

Millennial as a word, simply means one thing: it is taken from the Latin word and means a thousand, specifically in biblical circles it refers to the thousand-year reign of Christ. Premillennialists take the stand that it refers not to a literal reign of one thousand years, but refers to the period of time between his ascension and his physical return to the earth, seen more figuratively than an actual measure of time; a belief which was held from the founding of the church until the time of Augustine. Postmillennialists, which are rare and were more prominent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, holds that through aggressive evangelism the world will be won to Christ so that a thousand year reign will be ushered in. Amillennialists see Revelation as simply a prophetic passage meant to be seen symbolically, not believing in a literal return of Christ, thus allowing for the coming of Christ at any time; this was a view held by the church from the time of Augustine until the Reformation. Of each of these, there are sub-sets that go beyond the scope of what is being discussed here, however, there are will undoubtedly raise the question of which one is right?

Here’s the answer, and it will shock you: it doesn’t really matter. Look at Revelation 21:1-5: this is John the Revelator writing, Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away. Then He who sat on the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And He said to me, Write, for these words are true and faithful.’” We can’t say for sure what is going to happen that day and what it all entails, but what I can say for sure is that when we look into these pages, we get a glimpse of glory.

As a Christian, the only thing I can truly say, and ask of any pastor of mine, any teacher of mine, any brother or sister of mine, “Tell me the story of Jesus; write on my heart, every word.” Believe that word; believe in that name, for scripture is true when it tell us in Acts 4:12, “[There] is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

 

 

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