Every so often, some big-time pastor or evangelist get into the news for making some “end times” statement or “prophecy”. Of course, there are many ministries and organizations that focus on this stuff all the time. That’s their thing, 24×7. It’s all over Christian media and there are tons of books on it — some scholarly, many not so much. Some people are really into it! And they can be very… opinionated. But, even if eschatology (i.e., study of the “last things”) was never emphasized in your family or church community, you’ve probably seen or heard of it. Have you ever wondered what to make of it all?
I used to be somewhat into the subject but was never “hard core”. Apocalyptic prophecies never pre-occupied my thoughts (that I can remember). I didn’t look at every war or world event as a “sign of the times” or try to identify the Antichrist. (Well, maybe just for “fun”. At the moment, Obama, Soros, & Putin would be at the top of my list of possibilities.) And I was always extremely skeptical of modern-day predictions for the date of Christ’s Second Coming and/or “the Rapture”. (Jesus said no one would know, after all.) But, I did do some reading up on the different views and found it all fascinating. Before going too far, though, I decided to stop pursuing it. I only had so much time & money to devote to such studies, and I decided to focus more on the “origins” issues instead.
Sadly, eschatology can be as divisive within the Church as debates on evolution, the age of the Earth, or the historicity and extent of Noah’s Flood. Maybe more so, for some. It can also be rather distracting and the cause of unhealthy obsession. As Kenneth Samples has put it,
“Being ‘watchful’ for the Lord’s coming (Matthew 24:42; 25:13) does not mean becoming consumed with the speculative prophetic details of apocryphal texts. Rather it means believers must guard themselves against being swept away by the powerful affairs and concerns of this life.”
So, I am glad I never got caught up in “end times mania”; and, while I may eventually renew my studies on the general subject, I pray that the Lord helps me stay grounded and focused on more important matters. In fact, that is a major point made in Samples’ latest book, Christian Endgame: Careful Thinking about the End Times (available from RTB at http://reasons.org). Part of what Samples talks about is the fact that, despite the various views about how everything will play (or is playing) out in the end times, there are five core, foundational points that are held as orthodoxy in all historic Christian theological traditions.
- Second Coming of Jesus Christ: We all look forward to the literal, visible, physical return of Jesus Christ to this realm (Matt 25:31ff.; Mark 8:38; Acts 1:10-11; Col 3:4; I Thess 4:15-17; II Tim 4:8; Titus 2:13; Heb 9:28; Rev 1:7). Over 300 verses in the New Testament reference this event, but no one knows or can predict exactly when it will happen (Matt 23:36). “That the Lord Jesus Christ is going to return is much more important than the when and the how.”
- Resurrection of the Dead: We may disagree on the order of events, but we agree that when Christ returns, the soul/spirit of every human that ever died will be reunited with his/her physical, resurrected — and, in some cases, reintegrated — body (Dan 12:2; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; Rom 8:23; I Cor 15:51-52). Each believer will be recognizable as the same person they were, but his/her resurrected, “glorified” body will have new, amazing properties. As with Christ’s resurrected body, it will reflect both continuity and discontinuity with the original.
- Final Judgement of Humankind: Timing aside, all eschatological schools agree that Christ will then judge all human beings — still alive and resurrected, believer and non-believer (Psalm 62:12; 96:13; Eccl 12:14; Matt 25:32-33; John 12:47-48; Acts 17:31; Rom 2:6-8; Heb 9:27; Rev 22:12). Nonbelievers will be judged for their rebellion against God. Followers of Jesus, having already surrendered to Him and accepted His gift of salvation, will be judged and rewarded for their works of obedience to Him.
- Eternal State: Following the judgement, non-believers and believers alike will enter their respective “states”. The former will be sentenced to an eternity of conscious, tormented existence in separation from God’s presence (Matt 5:29; 25:41,46; Mark 9:43; II Thess 1:8-9; Rev 14:11). The latter, “saved” from God’s wrath and made righteous by the blood of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial atonement (Rom 5:10; 8:1; I Peter 2:24), are assured of spending a blessed eternity with God (John 14:2-3; Rom 8:30).
- New Creation: Some hold that God will purify the cosmos with fire before rebuilding it; others think that God will totally destroy the cosmos, then replace it (Rom 8:19-22; II Peter 3:7,10,12; Rev 21:1). Either way, He will then create a “New Heaven” and a “New Earth” (Rev 21:1) with a “New Jerusalem” (Rev 21:2,10-27) where the “saints” will reside. There will be similarities to the old creation, but it will also be radically different. There will be no more sin, pain, sorrow, or death (Rev 21:4-8,27). Believers, in their resurrected bodies, will live forever on the New Earth (not in “Heaven”), where God will come “down” from the New Heaven to dwell with His people (Rev 21:3).
“God’s redeemed people will love, worship, and serve Him in a righteous and just kingdom that will never end.”
Borrowing from C.S. Lewis, this is what Samples refers to as “Mere Christian Eschatology”. This is our common ground. As long as we agree on the reality of these five things, that is sufficient. We can study the relevant biblical passages further, investigate the different theories, even extrapolate and speculate a bit (but not too much). But, if we are strongly convinced of a particular position, we must not become dogmatic about it, and there is no need to treat our Christian brothers & sisters who disagree badly for it. This is not a salvific issue, so a certain latitude must be granted, and grace, humility, and diplomacy are always called for.
Furthermore, Samples reminds us (and I agree) that we should not become obsessed with eschatological minutiae and fretting over every “sign”. A certain amount of concern and awareness is commanded in Scripture, but it should not be at the expense of sharing the rest of the Gospel message, working for the Kingdom, living and dying well as servants of Christ. The hints at things to come that God provides in the Bible should be seen as encouragement that what we do on this Earth is not in vain.
“The promise of Christ’s return should not result in excessive speculation about the future. Rather, its watchful anticipation should encourage believers to live lives of faithful gratitude to God.”
The bottom line is that, as Greg Koukl has said, “A lot of bad stuff is going to happen, but Jesus wins in the end.” By extension, genuine followers of Christ “win”, too. Amen?