We noted last time that the world we have is the one that God intended us to have. By that we meant that there is no other world, which God has ordained to be the means and object of His covenantal life. This is the world that He has made in accordance with His self-determinative will; this is the world that He has brought about in and through His Word and has called, “good.” This is the world that God has called forth as the theater of His lordship.
This is a critical observation as we now turn to the doctrine of last things. The work of the Holy Spirit in bringing the world under the lordship of God in Christ Jesus is the redemption of the heavens and the earth. It is the work of God a third time in differentiated repetition of His work of creation and reconciliation. It is His bringing life out of death just as He brought being out of nonbeing and light out of darkness.
It is not the evacuation or defilement of the heavens and the earth. It is not the moment at which God finally surrenders to a world run amok, giving in to its demand for self-rule and allowing it to burn itself to the ground. Christian eschatology is not after-the-fact “prophecy” of worldwide nuclear holocaust or the like. Nor does “end time” refer to the moment at which God decides at last to act independently of Christ Jesus, when His grace runs out, His wrath takes over, and He rains down fireballs from the sky or creates a vortex to absorb the universe. God’s grace does not run out, for He is eternally God in Christ, existing in the gratuitous life-act from which creation comes, by which it is reconciled to Him, to which it will return. If the end of creation was so inconsistent with the beginning, its outcome and goal so out of step with its origin and purpose, then it would defeat God and reign as lord over Him.
To that end, Christian eschatology is confident declaration of hope rooted, as again we noted last lecture, in the unassailable promise of God. It is proclamation one more time that the Lord reigns over nonbeing, darkness, and death given in and stemming from the power of that reign, to be exact, given by the Spirit of the Word. It is the last testimony of the Holy Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that God is our Father and we are in fact His children (Rom. 8:16). It is one more trumpet blast of “good news, Christ is victor over every shadow of nothingness!” not a shrill squeak of “bad news, Christ is abandoning the battlefield.” It is the church’s teaching that the first fruits of new life, which it has tasted, will now give way to a full harvest, that the full measure of God’s people will be made known in and by their living before Him in perfect obedience.
In this regard, the eschaton is already begun. Though the reign of God in Christ is not yet fully realized, it has broken through. Our eyes glimpse a new horizon, and we are impelled and enabled by the Holy Spirit to move toward it. Although our time is not yet here in one sense, it has come in another, and we live in that new time after the cadences of God’s final deliverance from all mourning and weeping even as we suffer and cry in the light of life even as we die.
“Now, brothers [and sisters], I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:1.
At the end of this magisterial composition, the apostle lays out in direct and simple terms what he understands to be the essence of the Christian faith, which he has taught and for which he has struggled. Christ died for humanity’s sins; he was buried and raised again from the dead, after which He appeared to the disciples (vv. 3-7). That’s it. Christianity’s core can be summed up in the declaration of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the vindication of His sacrifice in His resurrection from the dead.
The latter part is critical. It appears that already in Paul’s day, as is the case in so many churches in our own, the gospel message was being reduced to the teaching of Christ’s death. Resurrection was not seen as important, and indeed, some were denying it altogether. Thus Paul spends the bulk of 1 Corinthians 15 explaining why resurrection is every bit as integral to the good news as the cross.
“If Christ has not been raised,” he states emphatically, “our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (v. 14). The reason that Paul is so emphatic is that he cannot understand how Christ’s work would amount to victory over the curse of sin unless He was raised from the dead and unless we are raised in Him. “For since death came through a man,” he continues, “the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (vv. 21-22). The death that represents God’s judgment against Adam’s disobedience and instinctual self-priority, in which we all take part, is unmade by the resurrection of our Lord. Our salvation is not complete unless and until this sign of our condemnation is removed. God’s nullification of sin is not finished unless and until He reigns also over death.
God is not Lord over all things in Christ unless and until the final enemy of sin and its consequence are conquered. “For he must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet,” Paul writes in verses 25-26. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” There is no good news, in the end, if the last word of our proclamation is not hope for new life. Ours is, in fact, a tragically misguided form of being if the horizon to which it answers and calls others is the existential conflict with mortality that always stands before us and seeks to master us. If we make nothing more of life than to follow Christ to the grave, to throw our shoulders too against the wheel of misery and corruption in the world only to be crushed by it like He was (as, for instance, Albert Schweitzer had it), then we are not be emulated but deplored. “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men,” Paul writes unambiguously (v. 19). The aim of human life is not to die but to rise.
Just as important as the fact of our resurrection, for Paul, is its form.
“The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (vv. 42b-44).
Two matters immediately stand out as significant in these claims. First, as indicated in our lecture on anthropology, the human exists in this life and the next in bodily form. Paul does not teach that the human exists on earth as a body but will be raised as a soul, or that the perishable body of our natural selves will break apart and release our souls, or that our material existence in the here and now will give way to an immaterial one. He teaches, rather, that our existence will be transformed. The trumpet will sound and we will be “changed,” he says in verse 52. He does not say that it will sound and we will be no more, [that] in our stead will rise some other entity long trapped within us, like a phoenix from the ashes.
Paul teaches the redemption of our bodies, not their evacuation or destruction. Paul recognizes that the God of resurrection is the God of creation and reconciliation. The selfsame one who breathed life into the dust of the earth and fashioned our bodily form will again breath His Spirit into us and raise our bodies. The body of death in which we now live, sown in nonbeing and returning to it weak, dishonorable, and perishable, will be made new. We will be raised in glory and power as a “spiritual body.”
Paul does not teach that God will give up on His creation and start over, that He will discard the body that He made and extract His spirit from it. It is just the opposite! He will again give His Spirit to us, now in an unending, undying way. No more will we have to sigh, “Take not thy Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11), for we will be His without remainder. We will live and move in the Spirit as the sole and exclusive condition of our being, as indeed we ought.
He will make us to be what He has intended us to be from the beginning: recipients of His breath of life and actual, concursive, covenant partners with Him. He will do for us what we did not do for ourselves in the garden and now cannot do for ourselves: He will make the obedience of faith by which we may genuinely exercise our faculties and live before Him to be our permanent condition. He will, in short, redeem us exactly in our internal and external operations—our perception, cognition, volition, and sensate activity, that is, our fully embodied reality.
Secondly, then, Paul indicates that contradiction of our being brought about by Adam’s disobedience will be reversed. God, who always has been the basis and means of life, will now be this eternally. We recall that in the garden there was not one but two trees of especial importance. We have discussed the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, that standing symbol of human presumptuousness to think and speak as God does. But there was also the Tree of Life. Adam was barred from this tree specifically so that he could not eat of its fruit “and live forever” (Gen. 3:22).
In our created condition, humanity was contingently immortal. One more time, we were not immortal souls placed in mortal bodies. We were fully embodied creatures who had to receive immortality from God in a living relationship. We were not imperishable, spiritual emanations from His Spirit, but corporeal creations who, by disobedient rejection of God, became cut off from the source of life. We thus live in the contradiction that we have no basis for living; we live as dead and bound for dust.
Importantly, it is God who bars us from the Tree of Life. It is not that we lack immortality by a failure of will or effort. Human history witnesses no shortage of desire and attempts to prolong our lives and make them permanent. We lack immortality because we lack God, and we lack God because He hides Himself from us. He does this on the one hand in judgment of sin, as we have discussed. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). But God’s absence is, on the other hand, a merciful act on His part, for it makes Him to be the sole means of our restoration and life. It makes Him again to be God and us to be His creatures.
If God were to make Himself susceptible to us, like fruit always available for us to pluck at our discretion, then that would make us god precisely in our disobedience and sin. It would grant us self-rule and self-sustenance in perpetuity, but enacted out of the impulse to power, dominance, and relational brokenness. That situation extended across the full span of history, so far as I can tell, is the ultimate victory of darkness over God. That is the triumph of hell.
The triumph of heaven is God’s refusal of our self-willed immortality so that He might be all in all. Paul observes that the redemptive work of God is the reversal of our contradiction by God making Himself to be our unending, undying condition of being. “The wages of sin is death,” yes, “but the gift of God is eternal life.” Our life is in both God’s rejection of our sin and the giving of His Spirit.
This coordinated act remains, as it has always been, an act on God’s part, the giving of His Spirit, a giving by God and not a possessing by humankind. Our life is not in a natural capacity that we own and control as fundamentally immortal beings. In fact, the very assumption that we naturally possess immortality is itself sin! It is just another form of accrediting God’s characteristics to us. In Adam, Paul is clear: We are perishable and weak. It is only in Christ that we are imperishable and strong.
Our living is from first to last in Christ Jesus. It is not in asserting ourselves as rightfully preexistent that our lives are redeemed and we enjoy eternal union with God but in dying to ourselves and being raised in Jesus.
As indicated, this dying to Christ and being raised in Him begins in the here and now. “Eschatology” is the doctrine of the “eschatos,” which is a Greek word meaning “farthest or outermost reaches.” It refers to the limits of human being and doing, the far side of history, or as it usually translated, the last things. Being about the last things, eschatology has been dominated by discussion of what awaits human being “after time,” as if time itself is a finite commodity, which will run its course. When that transpires, what next? Perhaps the millennial reign of Christ—how is it to be understood, and what shape will it take? Perhaps the unconverted will be annihilated, or maybe they will endure but be purged of their guilt in an intermediary state of being, as at least a portion of the dead are right now. Perhaps hell will appear like a black fortress, its wicked agents will be seen in all their horrific disfigurement, and a great number of humans will be dragged away to unceasing torture at their hands. Such discussions are fine and well in themselves, but we are going to defer them, because for all of the ink that has been spilled over them and heat that has been generated by them, they are less basic and important to the doctrine of last things than God’s active, ongoing redemption.
The first thing that must be said about the outermost reaches of human existence is that it is the realm of God who has His being in coming to time as its Lord. It is the beginning at which He addresses himself to the chaotic abyss. It is the duration and extension of His light shining in the darkness. It is the end to which He will bring sin and its death—the lake of fire that will swallow all forces of darkness and nonbeing—and the city in which He will rule without rival.
Christian eschatology is first and foremost about the Christian God, His life as it has always been: bringing life out of death, shining light in the dark, summoning being out of nonbeing, and refusing one last time any power that would unmake what he has made. It is the final accomplishment of His eternal will that He should stand before us as our loving Lord and we respond as His grateful people.
The first thing that must be said eschatologically from the corresponding standpoint of human being, then, is that already we look toward and live expectantly of God’s work among us. Everything that we are as embodied, temporal agents, every biorhythm, impulse, heartbeat, every motion in space and word spoken in our world is bent toward the life-giving work of God, sacrificed in service to His redemptive operations here and now. In short, eschatology is above all about concrete human hope.
To say, as Paul does, that the aim of life is resurrection and not death is to enjoy life oriented around a new point of reference, to be turned toward a new magnetic north from which we take our bearings. It is to practice stewardship of the creation against which we are inclined to stand in our fallenness, to tend the ground from which we came as having a share in its abundance, as we were made and commanded to by God. It is to cultivate the habits of charity, generosity, forbearance, peace, kindness, and self-control rather than self-aggrandizement, meanness, discord, impatience, greed, and jealousy. In this, we may strive against the relational brokenness that shadows our sinful condition. It is to wage war against the thoughts and emotions by which we shape the world after ourselves, to perceive existence in general and ours in particular not as opportunities for exploitation, as realities that we make and destroy, but as the field and form of God’s love. In acknowledging the factual priority of God, we may move away from the falseness of our being into the true relationship in which we were created to exist. In all of these ways, the eschatologically informed Christian proclaims and promotes life in the midst of death, participating as well or as poorly as she can in God’s present-tense redemptive work.
In all of these ways, the eschaton is upon us; the end is breaking into time and summoning us to life.
“Stand up and lift up your heads, for your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28)
With regards to the hope of resurrection, human redemption is already. However, the second thing that must be said eschatologically is that redemption is not yet. The hope of our resurrection is Christ’s own, which has taken place and as a past-tense reality turns our eyes to a new point of reference. But the realization of that hope, our own resurrection, remains future.
This second point is no less significant than the first. A hurried eschatology, which transfers the consummation of God’s redemption entirely to the here and now, is a cheap and artificial dogma. It reduces the event of resurrection to the desire for resurrection, translating the eternal life promised to us before God into the eternalizing of ideals by which we might promote life today. It reifies stewardship, generosity, self-control, and so forth, fixing them as characteristics of a kind of manmade utopia and calling it the city of God. But the city of man, however reflective in its own way of God’s will, is not the city of God. God’s city is the realm of His factual rule, the place and tempo of His unrivaled authority and therefore the very real end of sin and death.
That city is yet to come, and we cannot be so zealous for it that we rush to equate the occasional foretaste of it with full realization. To share in Christ’s resurrection, we must first share in His death. An adequate doctrine of last things does not shy away from this fact or seek to circumvent it. It confesses the decided victory of Christ over death next to the future consummation of that victory.
That said, the eschatological city of God should not be thought of as beyond the foundations of our world, so future that it is outside of space-time. The city of God is the place and tempo of His unrivaled rule, that is, the spatial/temporal medium in which He reigns and over which He reigns.
It is this world, again, which is the means and object of God’s life-act, the location and outcome of His creative, reconciling, and redemptive work. These are the bodies, once more, to which God is giving new birth, in which He will again breathe His Spirit and make imperishable. Therefore, when Revelation 21 speaks of a “new heaven and new earth” or as a merism, a new cosmos and a “new Jerusalem,” or city of God in that cosmos, it is speaking of the redemption of this world, its being made new, and the restoration of the location of God’s presence in this world. It is speaking of His face-to-face presence with His restored creature. It is not speaking of the evacuation or destruction of this world or the elimination of our faces and embodied existence.
One of the most moving descriptions of the new city in the new cosmos contains a reference to the garden of Eden. We noted in our discussion of Genesis 2–3 several lectures ago that humanity stood at the headwaters of life, that in the garden they lived intimately near to the source of all substance and goodness. But they were driven from this existence in sin, made to scrounge about for substance far downstream. In this light, listen to what Revelation 22:1-3 says of the coming city of God:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.
Once again humanity stands at the headwaters. In this new place, God will be God, ruling from His throne as Lord over all, and He will live among His people. They will see Him as they were created to see Him. And the tree of life, from which they are presently barred, will not only be available, but more, it will blossom continuously. Time will not run it dry and humanity will not exhaust its produce, but month after month it will give life.
With this picture in mind, I think it best to conclude these lectures with two more citations from the Bible—the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah 11:6-9 and John’s appeal and benediction in Revelation 22:20b-21. The central theme of our course is that God exists in the life-act of His Word and will be Lord in Him. He will bring all things into conformity with His will revealed, embodied, and decreed in Christ Jesus. What better way to end than with prophetic vision of the fullness of Christ’s kingdom:
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.”