Eschatological Confusion Part 6: Review and Conclusion

Eschatology

Well, now that we’ve looked at several end-time issues, it’s time to wrap up our study of eschatology. Let’s take a second to remember all we’ve discussed and then tie it all together.

In Part 1 we introduced the series with an overview of the issues.

In Part 2 we focused on the rapture. The three options for the timing of the rapture are pretribulation, midtribulation, and posttribulation. After examining the biblical evidence, we determined the rapture will most likely occur after the tribulation.

In Part 3 we discussed the millennial reign of Christ. The three positions for this event are premillennial, postmillennial, or amillennial. As we saw, choosing between these options is tough.

Hell and eternal punishment were dealt with in Part 4. The Scriptures, and especially Jesus, seem to describe hell as a place of literal and eternal punishment, opposed to those who see it as metaphorical or believe in annihilationism.

Finally, in Part 5 we turned our attention to the Book of Revelation. It’s prophecies can be interpreted according to one of three views: (1) Preterist; (2) Futurist; or (3) Idealist. Because Revelation is apocalyptic literature, the best way to interpret it is according to the futurist and idealist approaches.

Having identified and studied the main issues surrounding the end of times and eternity, the question is, “Now what?” What do we do about it? What do we take from it?

No matter where you stand on any of the issues, the main point of it all is this: Jesus Christ will return. And, as the apostle Peter said in 1 Peter 4:7a, “The end of all things is near.” Not only is He coming, but He’s coming soon. Peter followed up that statement with a “therefore,” meaning, “Here is what you do since the end is near…”

“Now the end of all things is near; therefore, be serious and disciplined for prayer. Above all, maintain an intense love for each other, since love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Based on the gift each one has received, use it to serve others, as good managers of the varied grace of God. If anyone speaks, it should be as one who speaks God’s words; if anyone serves, it should be from the strength God provides, so that God may be glorified through Jesus Christ in everything. To Him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 4:7-11; HCSB)

In light of Christ’s imminent return, Peter gives his readers four exhortations:

1. Be serious/clear-headed and disciplined for prayer.
Peter calls believers to be sober and alert and to devote themselves to prayer. This is in line with what Jesus said concerning His return in Luke 21:36, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place and to stand before the Son of Man.”

2. Maintain an intense love for each other.
A previous HCSB translation reads “keep your love for one another at full strength.” Believers need to be constantly stretching their love far and wide. Why? Because love covers a multitude of sins. If we love one another, we will overlook one another’s faults.

3. Be hospitable…without complaining.
Believers have always been called to take care of and meet the needs of others. But this is especially true in light of the end. And whatever we do for others, we better do it with a smile on our faces.

4. Use your spiritual gift(s) to serve others.
As believers, we receive gifts by the grace of God. The key here is to USE your gift(s). Think about it: if you give someone a birthday or Christmas gift, you don’t want them to sit it on their shelf and forget about it, you want them to use it. The same is true with God. He wants to see us using the gifts He has graciously given us. So having these gifts is not a privilege, it is a responsibility.

You might have noticed that each of these four things has to do with our relationship with God and with others. We need to pray to God and we need to use the gifts He has given us to love, serve, and be hospitable to others. And remember, all of this is prefaced by the fact that “The end of all things is near.”

So as believers, what do we do with all we know about eschatology? We don’t need to worry about it. We don’t need to argue about it. Instead, we need to be focused on praying and on serving others.

In conclusion, my prayer is that through this series your thoughts surrounding the end of time have been enlightened and enhanced. And as always, even if you disagree with my eschatological stance, my hope is that you have been challenged and changed by it all!

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Eschatological Confusion Part 4: Hell and Eternal Punishment

Heaven_Hell sign

Welcome to Part 4 of this blog series entitled “Eschatological Confusion.” So far we have had an introductory post (Part 1) and have dealt with the topics of the rapture (Part 2) and the millennium (Part 3). Today we will turn our attention to hell and eternal punishment.

Who knew there was more than one view concerning hell? Haven’t you seen the imaginative pictures? Haven’t you read Dante’s Inferno? Isn’t hell that fiery place where Satan is and where all the non-believers will go after the judgment? How could anyone believe anything different?

No scholar denies that the Scriptures speak of hell. Finding hell in the Old Testament can be confusing, because the meaning of the word sheol, variously translated as “grave,” “pit,” or “hell,” is hard to ascertain. It possibly refers to a place of punishment for the unfaithful, but could simply be the place of the dead. Whatever the case may be, the concept is undeniably present. When we come to the New Testament, however, there is no such confusion. New Testament authors use three different words to describe the afterlife of the unsaved: hades (11x), gehenna (12x), and tartaros (1x). Here is an example of each:

In Matt. 11:23 Jesus used the word hades when He said, “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until today.”

In Matt. 5:29 Jesus used the word gehenna (translated “hell”) when He said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for the whole body to be thrown into hell.”

The word tartaros is only used once in the NT, in 2 Peter 2:4, which reads, “For if God didn’t spare the angels who sinned, but threw them down into Tartaros…”

Even though the scriptural mentions of hell are clear and are not debated, their meanings are. Let’s take a second to sort through the issues…

Literal vs. Metaphorical
This first point of debate centers around what we might call the “furnishings” of hell. When using the terms “literal” and “metaphorical,” I am not referring to the reality of the place (for that is not in question), but rather what that place looks like and will be like. The overarching question goes like this: Should the New Testament descriptions of a fiery hell be understood literally or figuratively?

Let’s see how the New Testament describes hell. The very first mention of hell in the New Testament is found on the lips of Jesus in Matthew 5:22, “…But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire.” Another way to translate that final phrase is “the fire of hell.” In this instance, there is no reason to take Jesus’ statement as anything but literal. In His famous Sermon on the Mount, of which this is a part, He did use several metaphors, but this does not seem to be one of them. Here Jesus speaks of hell as a place of fire.

Jesus again refers to a fiery hell in Matthew 18:9, when He said, “And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, rather than to have two eyes and be thrown into hellfire.” And in the previous verse, though hell is not mentioned, Jesus speaks of one being thrown into the “eternal fire.”

Within the gospels, hell and fire are also mentioned together in Mark 9:43, 45, and 47. Outside the gospels, James mentions that the tongue is “set on fire by hell” (3:6). The combination is found one final time on Revelation 20:14, where “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.”

There are also places where, even though hell is not specifically mentioned, the concepts of fire and punishment are present. Take, for instance, Matthew 7:19, “Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Also, in the parable of the wheat and weeds, Jesus declares (through the mouth of the landowner), “Gather the weeds first and tie them in bundles to burn them” (Matthew 13:30).

In each of these instances, as well as a few others, hell is described as a place of fiery judgment. This begs the question, Why would anyone believe it to be anything less?

The answer, in short, has to do with the interpretation of the word gehenna. The term is derived from the Valley of Hinnom, a valley located south of Jerusalem where criminals were buried and trash was burned. Since most of the New Testament references to hell and fire occur when the word gehenna is used, some argue that the word was only used as a metaphorical way to describe the place of eternal punishment. If this is the case, then we shouldn’t understand hell to be a place of literal fire.

So what do you think? Is hell literally a fiery place of punishment? Or are the references to fire only metaphorical?

Eternality vs. Annihilationism
The second point of debate asks this question: How long will unbelievers suffer in hell? Will it be an eternal punishment or will it come to an end at some point?

First of all, it should the pointed out that both the Old and New Testaments speak of an eternity. Psalm 10:16 states that “The LORD is King forever and ever.” One of the prophesied names given to Jesus in Isaiah 9:6 is “Eternal Father.” In Romans 9:5 God is the one who is “blessed forever.” Yet all of these mentions of eternity speak of God’s eternal nature. What about the eternal life of mankind?

John 3:14-16 reads, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life. For God loved the world in this way: He gave His only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.”

Romans 6:22-23 states, “But now, since you have been liberated from sin and become enslaved to God, you have your fruit, which results in sanctification—and the end is eternal life! For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

These verses, as well as a myriad of others, speak of believers spending eternity with Christ. But does this concept of eternality carry over to hell?

Some, who believe in annihilationism, argue that it does not. They argue that in John 3:16 Jesus does not contrast eternal life with eternal punishment, but rather with perishing. Also, in Romans 6:23 the wages of sin is not eternal punishment, but death. Understanding hell this way suggests that the fiery flames will not eternally torment unbelievers, but instead consume them to the point of death and basically extinction (Clark Pinnock’s view in Four Views on Hell, Zondervan, 1996).

But what about the words of Jesus? Three consecutive times in Mark 9:43-48 He described hell (gehenna) as “the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”

In Luke 3:17 (cf. Matt. 3:12) John the Baptist said concerning Jesus, “His winnowing shovel is in His hand to clear His threshing floor and gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn up with a fire that never goes out.”

Though these words make it pretty clear that the punishment of hell will be eternal, Revelation 20:10-15 makes the best case. 20:10 states that, “The Devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet are, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Then, in vv14-15, Death, Hades, and “anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” If the Devil will be tormented “forever and ever” in this lake, then why wouldn’t all the others thrown into the very same lake?

A final argument I will present against annihilationism is this: If believers will spend eternity with God, then why wouldn’t non-believers spend eternity separated from God? It only makes sense.

Purgatory
One final point of discussion is that of purgatory. The concept of purgatory is not necessarily a view of heaven and hell, but rather an explanation of what happens to a person between their death and the final judgment. This understanding of purgatory, held solely by the Catholic church, states that at death most believers are not yet ready for heaven, yet neither do they deserve hell, so they go to a place known as purgatory, where living relatives and friends can pray (and pay) them out of purgatory and into heaven (for further explanation, see Zachary Hayes’ view in Four Views on Hell).

Now have you ever read that in the New Testament??? No you haven’t, because it’s not there.

So where do the Catholics find this doctrine in Scripture. It needs to be understood that the Catholic church has adopted extra books into their canon (on top of the 66 books in the protestant canon). One of these books, 2 Maccabees, is where they find the doctrine of purgatory.

Yet contra Catholic teaching, the New Testament indicates that to be absent from the body is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). There is nothing that keeps a believer from entering the presence of Christ immediately after their passing, meaning there is no reason to believe in a place called purgatory.

Where Do I Stand?
As you can probably tell, I can quickly and easily toss purgatory out the window. I cannot find any mention of it in Scripture and therefore it does not fit into my theology. I also have to do away with the thought of annihilationism. Though the New Testament does, in a few places, contrast a heavenly eternity with death and perishing, it also describes hell as a place of eternal punishment. In my mind, this only makes sense. If the reward for believers is eternal, then the punishment for non-believers should be as well. But how could a loving God punish people for all eternity, you ask? Because that same God is also holy and just, and cannot let sin go unpunished. So for those who never placed their faith in the cross of Christ for the forgiveness of their sin, their punishment will be eternal.

So now the only question I am faced with is the literalness of hell. I grew up, as most children do, understanding hell to be a place of literal fire. Even though I can see and understand the metaphorical view, I remain unconvinced. There are too many statements in the New Testament, specifically from the lips of Jesus, for me to believe that hell is anything other than a place of fiery and eternal torment.

So what does all this mean for you and I? It means that one day we will face eternity. And our eternity will be spent in one of two places: heaven or hell. We will either be with Christ for all eternity, or separated from Him for all eternity.

And what determines that? Faith does. Ephesians 2:8 tells us that “By grace you are saved through faith…” And what exactly are we saved from? From hell. From eternal punishment. From being separated from Christ for all eternity.

If you have never placed your faith in the death and resurrection of Christ, I encourage you to do that right now. It is as simple as confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in your heart that God raised Him from the dead (Romans 10:9-10). Why is it so important to believe? Because your eternity is on the line!

May these thoughts challenge you and may they change you.

Eschatological Confusion Part 1: Introduction and Overview

Eschatology

In the Greek language, the word eschatos means “last.” Hence the theological field known as “eschatology” refers to the study of last things, or the study of the end of time. Now there are many theological issues that create debate, but there is no bigger debate than when it comes to eschatology.

As a Christian, a pastor, and a recent Bible college and seminary graduate, I am obviously interested in eschatology and am always trying to develop my own scriptural understanding of how things will play out at the end of time. Common questions I often ask myself include the following:

-When will the rapture take place? Before, during, or after the tribulation?

-How long will the tribulation last? Will it be a literal seven years, or will it be longer? Could we possibly already be in the tribulation?

-What about the millennium (1,000 years)? Will it be a literal 1,000 years? Have those years began yet, or are they still in the future?

-What exactly does the book of Revelation convey to us about these end-time events?

Growing up in a Southern Baptist church (the son of a pastor), I knew all the “Sunday School” answers. The general Southern Baptist belief is that the tribulation will last 7 years, and then after that, Jesus will return. But, before the tribulation begins, Jesus will rapture all believers so they will not have to endure it. Pretty simple, right? What could be so confusing about that? Why is there even any debate? Let me share with you some of my journey concerning eschatology…

One of the elective courses I signed up for at Criswell College as a part of my Master’s degree was called “Theology Intensive: Eschatology.” The four textbooks for the course were the following: “Three Views on the Rapture” (Blaising, Hultberg, and Moo; Zondervan 2010), “The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views” (Boettner, Hoekema, Hoyt, and Ladd; IVP 1977), “Four Views on Hell” (Crockett, Hayes, Pinnock, and Walvoord; Zondervan 1996), and “Four Views on the Book of Revelation” (Gentry, Hamstra, Pate, and Thomas; Zondervan 1998). You see, there isn’t just one view on any of these eschatological topics. Brilliant scholars, individuals who have devoted their lives to studying the Scriptures, cannot agree when it comes to these things. So why should we, pastors and church members, believe that we have it all figured out?

Now I am aware that most, if not all of you who are reading this probably believe the way I described above, the way most traditional Southern Baptists believe, the way I once believed. Before we precede any further, let me say this: I am not saying that I am right and you and wrong. What I am saying is this: When it comes to eschatology, we need to approach the Scriptures with an open mind. This is not so that we can make the Bible say whatever we want it to say (as postmodernists do), but so that we can understand the truth it is trying to convey. We have a bad habit of imposing our thoughts on the text instead of letting the text inform our thoughts. We need to break this habit!

In Part 1 of this blog series called “Eschatological Confusion” I want to lay out for you four major issues, the issues discussed in each of the four textbooks named above. Then, in the following weeks, we will delve further into each of the issues.

The Rapture
Interestingly enough, the word “rapture” is never used in the New Testament. Nevertheless, the word has been used for many years to describe the event Paul discusses in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, “Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air…”

The major issue when it come to the rapture is not if it will occur, but rather when it will occur. Will believers be raptured before the tribulation, halfway through the tribulation, or not until after the tribulation?

The Millennium
The “Millennium” is the name given to the 1,000 year span of time mentioned in Revelation 20:4-6. John the Revelator twice mentions that some will reign with the Messiah “for 1,000 years.”

The major issue concerning the millennium is two-fold: (1) Will this be a literal 1,000 year period, and (2) If so, when will it begin?

Hell
What’s so confusing about hell? Isn’t it a fiery place where people will be separated from God for eternity? That’s what the Bible seems to say, but of course, not everyone can agree on that.

There are many debated issues when it comes to hell, including:

-A literal vs. a figurative place

-An eternal vs. a temporary place (annihilation)

-A place of separation/punishment vs. a place of the dead (purgatory)

The Book of Revelation
Jesus, Paul, and others all discussed eschatological issues in their teachings and letters, but when it comes to this topic, Revelation gets the most attention. Because of the nature and subject of the book, there should be no surprise that interpretations vary.

-Have all of the events prophesied in Revelation already been fulfilled? Have some been fulfilled? Have none been fulfilled?

-What do all of the symbols and numbers mean? Do they stand for specific figures in history?

-Will all of the events eventually come to pass? If so, when will this be?

Conclusion
As you can tell, the issues are many, and the answers aren’t simple. Please join me on this journey into eschatology and see what we can learn. As always, my prayer is that we will be challenged and changed by it all!