A Chapter Summary of Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith
Chapter Twenty-Five – Biblical Eschatology
All of the study of systematic theology finds its culmination in the “systematic study of eventualities”, as Buswell defines eschatology. The eventualities concerned include personal and cosmic considerations; human death, disposition of the soul and body, final judgement and individual eternal destiny on the one hand, and the return of Christ, liberation of Creation and the new heaven and new earth on the other. While we can, for the sake of study, categorize these in such a way it is important to note that these eventualities remain integrally related, with the former, in reality, being an aspect of the latter.
Over the past century-and-a-half there has been considerable controversy regarding the appropriate understanding of biblical eschatology. Out of this debate has arisen five predominant views; some more dominant than others. Classical liberal eschatology rejects the eschatology of the Gospels altogether opting for a view that Jesus was primarily providing moral instruction and not engaging in prophetic utterance. Consistent eschatology, notably championed by Albert Schweitzer, in a twist of irony ends up at essentially the same destination as the liberal view. Schweitzer holds that Christ, the “deluded” man and would-be ruler of mankind, did indeed prophesy of the eschaton and set out to bring it about. However, once he realized that this was not occurring as planned he attempted to force God’s hand by foisting himself upon the cross where he died and there he remains having no relevance beyond his own era. The Realized eschatology view is quite the opposite of the Consistent view in that it holds that the prophesy of Jesus was real and true but not prophetic in the temporal sense. Jesus was not predicting the “end” in terms of events to come but was rather describing it in terms of things of ultimate significance, the “present of the eternal” in history. Rudolf Bultmann advances the idea of an Existential Eschatology where any moment of personal, crucial decision is deemed “eschatological”. For Bultmann, Jesus was merely a Jewish prophet who was not teaching of the end of the world to come, or of a literal heaven and hell, but rather of the divine demand that individual men lay hold of the opportunity to decide for authentic existence. In the early part of the twentieth century, out of the midst of this potpourri of opinions, rose the view known as Dispensational Eschatology. Consistent with classic dispensationalism, this view holds that the current church age is the “grand empty parenthesis” between the Old Testament prophecies and inauguration of the Millennium. In other words, the prophesies do not speak of the church age whatever, but rather after the incarnation of Christ the very next event prophesied is the establishment of the Davidic kingdom. This very Jewish millennium will be preceded by a pretribulation rapture of the church at the second coming of Christ. It is after this 1000 year reign that Christ will destroy all remaining opposition and deliver the perfected kingdom to the Father.
Having briefly outlined the major views it is prudent now to consider the actual biblical teachings related to this topic. In regards to the Old Testament teachings, Jesus spoke to his contemporaries of “the kingdom of God” assuming they were familiar with this concept (Mark 1:15) as he does not define it for them. George Eldon Ladd describes what this phrase would have represented to Christ’s Jewish hearers under five heading: a dynamic hope – the rule of God, an eschatological hope – the coming direct “inbreaking” of God into history for the redemption of God’s people, an earthly hope – the redemption of creation, a historically oriented hope – the juxtaposition of near future and distant future events in prophesy without regard to strict chronology given a lack of temporal perspective, and an ethical hope – the idea that the promised future kingdom is limited to the faithful; those who turn from their sin and submit to God. A sixth hope, a messianic hope, should be appended to these. This speaks of the divine invasion into history of “the great and final King” through whom salvation of man and the restoration of created paradise is accomplished. Considered another way, Anthony Hoekema provides a succinct outline of eschatological events found in Old Testament prophesy: the expectation of the coming Redeemer (Gen. 3:15; 22:18; 2 Sam. 7:12-13; Dan. 7:13-14), the anticipation of the kingdom of God (Dan. 2:44-45), the making of a new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34), the restoration of Israel (Isa. 11:11; Jer. 23:3; Ezek. 36:24-28), the outpouring of the Spirit (Joel 2:28-32), the approach of the Day of the Lord (Obad. 15-16; Joel 1:15; 2:1-17; Isa. 13: amos 5:18-20; Zeph. 1:7, 14-16; Mal. 4:5), and the creation of a new heaven and new earth (Isa. 11:6-9; 32:15; 35:7; 65:17; 66:22). According to Peter, the efforts poured into these understandings of the Old Prophecies by the Old Testament saints was not for their own benefit but for the benefit of the future faithful (1 Pet. 1:10-12).
Turning to the New Testament we see at the outset with Gabriel’s announcements to Elizabeth and Mary that eschatological prophesy picked up here where it had left off in the Old Testament (see Mal. 3:1; 4:5-6). John was seen as the “Elijah” who was to precede the coming of the Lord (Matt. 11:14; 17:11-13). The birth of both was seen as God’s fulfilling of his covenant promise to Abraham (Luke 1:54:55; 1:68-75). As for John the Baptist’s own eschatological view, he warns that “the ax is already at the root of the trees” therefore there is no time to waste – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near” (Matt. 3:2), as has “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). John understood that in the incarnation God had visited his people and brought his kingdom into history for the purpose of their salvation and the overthrow of the unrepentant. In this sense, eschatology had been realized.
As for Christ himself, the church’s chief prophetic scholar, we are introduced to what is a recurring theme in the New Testament of “eschatological dualism”; the concept of the “already” and the “not yet” aspects of the invasion of the divine into history. Mark 1:15 gives one example as it illustrates the “already” as we are told that “The time has been fulfilled (peplerotai). The kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent and believe the gospel.” The “not yet” aspect is taught in various ways. One such example is in the Lord’s teaching the disciples to pray, “May your kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10). Again, in 7:21, he proclaims, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” This “future” view is also explicitly described in 19:28, 25:31-34 and 26:29. Jesus picks up and clarifies the Old Testament understanding of the coming of the kingdom of God – he teaches the “already” as the kingdom’s arrival in grace and the “not yet” that will come in judgement. Further affirmation of Christ’s intention to teach the dualistic motif is also seen in his kingdom of heaven parables in Matthew 13 and Mark 4:26-29. Specifically, in Matt. 13:11 he explains to the disciples that “many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it; and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (italics added). The distinction between the two aspects of the kingdom is further illumined by reference to the present kingdom, the “kingdom of grace” as “this age” (Luke 16:8; Rom. 12:2; Gal. 1:4; Eph. 2:2), “this time” (Luke 19:30), “the now age” (1 Tim. 6:17; 2 Tim 4:10; Tit. 2:12) and the disciples view that they were in the “last days” (Acts 2:7), the “last times” (1 Pet. 1:20), and the “last hour” (1 John 2:18). This contrasted with reference to a distinct kingdom to come marked by phrases such as “that age” (Luke 20:35), the “age to come” (Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; Matt. 12:32), and the disciples anticipation of the “last day” (John 6:39, 40, 44, 54; 11:24; 12:48, the “last trumpet” (1 Cor. 15:52), and the “last time” (1 Pet. 1:5). Paul notably points out that “the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11) and yet also speaks of “the ages to come” (Eph. 2:7). At this point dispensational adherents object. Their contention is that the phrases “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” differ in meaning. The former should be understood as the literal, earthly, Davidic, millennial kingdom while the latter is the general, universal reign of God. This interpretation cannot be supported by the scriptures. Indeed, Matthew uses the former, whereas Mark and Luke use the latter synonymously (see Matt. 13:11; Mark 4:11; Luke 8:10). Further diminishing the appropriateness of such an interpretation is the fact that the Jews by-and-large were anticipating an earthly kingdom that would overthrow Roman oppression. Their logic absolutely does not follow. Had Christ represented such it is inconceivable that he would have been rejected, scorned, beaten and killed as he would have been bringing to them precisely what they expected and hoped for. Rather, he brought a much unanticipated (by many) kingdom of grace that did not fit into the contemporary Jewish Daniel 2 paradigm they were hoping for and as such Jesus was easily dismissed by them as an imposter and missed the spiritual reign of God’s grace within and over their hearts.
In his “Olivet discourse “ (Matt. 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 21:3-36; 17:22-37) Jesus clarifies to his disciples the distinction between the “now age” and the “age to come” whose transition will be marked by his Second Coming (parousia). He described to them the destruction of the temple as part of God’s judgement against that generation of Jews for their rejection of God’s Messiah. In direct answer to their question regarding the time-frame of the destruction of Jerusalem, Jesus set about correcting the misunderstanding the disciples held that these events, the Second Coming and the end of the age, were to be simultaneous activities, teaching them rather that the razing of the temple would occur in the near future and the other two events in the distant future. To prepare them for the latter events he warns them of the appearance of false prophets as well as the futility of looking to signs – wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes etc. – in an attempt to predict these events, and that they would suffer persecution in the interim but to remain faithful to the end (Matt. 24:9-14), and that this “end” would not come until the gospel had been preached in the “whole world”. This reference to the “whole world” cannot mean literally the entire earth and therefore be speaking of the distant future for the following reasons: First, had Jesus intended this interpretation he would not have been answering the disciples specific question about the destruction of Jerusalem. In fact, later in this same context he confirms that “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (24:34). Second, according to New Testament testimony, the gospel had indeed been preached to the “whole [then known] world” before A.D. 70 (Acts 2:5, 11; Rom. 1:8; 10:17-18; Col 1:6, 23). Third, Jesus foretells of the abomination of desolation (Matt. 24:14), or the “abomination that causes desolation”, which Luke clarifies in his gospel: “When you see Jerusalem being surround by [Rome’s] armies, you will know that its desolation is near” (21:20). Finally, the setting of the discussion should be viewed as geographically restricted and not global. The context into which Jesus in speaking is confined to the area of Palestine. The words used, “Judea”, “on the roof of his house”, and “Sabbath”, provide the setting and the referent of this teaching.
Largely because of its apocalyptic language, the Matthew 24:29-31 pericope has presented some difficulty in interpretation and has been used to illustrate Christ’s intended focus on his Second Advent and the Eschaton. Verse 30, “And then shall appear in the heaven the sign of the Son of man”, in particular is often understood as a sign of the event when the risen Christ in glory will return to earth in power ushering in the temple made without hands. This verse however is “semeion tou huiou tou anthropou en ourano”, which, literally translated states, “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven”. The second half of this verse reads: “Then, all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming upon the clouds of heaven with great power and glory”. In light of passages that speak of the Gentile nations enjoying the blessings of the “Jubilee Year”, and that the gospel would be proclaimed and that his messengers “will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matt. 24:31), the previous verse has to be interpreted as referring to the twelve tribes of Israel spread throughout the then-known world, rather than the entirety of the world. These latter statements make no sense if interpreted as referring to the final Eschaton, for their would remain no opposition or necessity of gospel proclamation. It is to the Roman siege and the [then-known] worldwide proclamation of the gospel to which Jesus is referring in 24:33 when he says, “when you see all these things”. For despite the destruction of Jerusalem, the evangelical mission will continue. Interpreting the text dispensationally would place the “all things” after the Second Coming of Christ.
Further solidifying the proposed interpretation is the digression taken by the Lord beginning in 24:36 through 25:46. Where he had been referring to “those days” (plural) and seemed to have an intimate knowledge of the timing of the events of which he spoke, he now speaks of “that day” (singular) and admits ignorance to the specifics regarding the timing: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” It is clear that he is now concerned with teaching about his Second Coming from heaven – and not his exaltation in heaven (see Dan7:13-14) – and from here proceeds to, by the use of parables, admonish the believers to be diligent and watchful. For the first event, the destruction of Jerusalem, would be preceded by a preparatory sign in their lifetime, but the second and third will come suddenly at some unknown, unannounced time in the future.
There are those, particularly in the consistent eschatology camp, who argue that Christ miscalculated the time of his return, that is, Second Coming, based on Matt. 10:23, Mark 9:1 and 13:30. This position is non-sensical given that Christ did not calculate a time for his return. As just noted, he clearly stated that he did not know the time of his return. Further, Jesus made other statements that imply that while he did not know “the day or the hour” he did understand that it could be quite a long time. For instance, he told Simon the Leper that the woman who had anointed his head with oil would be remembered for her kindness to him “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the whole world” (Mark 14:9). With similar implications, “he went on to tell them a parable, because…the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once” (19:11). In the parable of the wicked servant he says, “My master is staying away a long time” (Matt. 24:45-51). Again, in the parable of the ten virgins, he states that “The bridegroom was a long time in coming” (Matt 25:5). See also the parable of the talents, the mustard seed. and that of the leaven where he similarly suggests a lengthy period of time. Our Lord’s statement in Matt. 10:23, when he says the disciples would not have finished going through the cities of Israel with the message of the kingdom before the Son of Man came, could allude to his appearance to the disciples after his resurrection, to the destruction of Israel in 70 A.D., or he could have viewed the disciples as representatives of the entire church and thus his emissaries. Similar objections are based on Mark 9:1 in his declaration that the kingdom of God would come with power before some standing before him would taste death. Interpreted by the analogy of Scripture, it is probable that Jesus here was referring to his transfiguration. To summarize Jesus’ eschatological dualism: he taught of two ages, the present evil age and the age to come between which there is no intermediate period or millennial age; he taught that the two ages are consecutive with no overlap or gap; and he taught that the current age ends and the next begins at the return of Christ in glory to usher in the Eschaton.
Now that we have considered Jesus’ eschatological teachings, we will turn to an understanding of that of the New Testament writers. James, providing no quarter to an intermediate period theory, affirms the “dualism” of Christ as evidenced in teachings of the first “age”, such as the Christian being born anew and already a redeemed child of God (Jam. 1:18), and that the growth of the church is the “rebuilding of the fallen house of David” (Acts 15:13-17). Referring to the latter age to come, he speaks of the Lord’s coming to judge the earth (Jam. 5:9) and the encouragement that Christians can take in the fact that it is this coming kingdom of which they are the promised heirs (2:5).
After his dramatic Damascus Road conversion, Paul too had much to say about the ages to come and like James (and Jesus) his eschatology is that of the dualistic, “already” and “not yet” position. He taught that Christ’s messianic reign was inaugurated at his resurrection and ascension (see Acts 13:30; 1 Cor. 15:23-25; Col. 1:13), the eschatological resurrection from the dead had already begun with the resurrection of Jesus as the “first fruits” (1 Cor. 15:21-23), the outpouring of the Spirit predicted by Joel in the “last days” (2:28-32) had begun (see Acts 2:17-21) as “down payment” of the final redemption (1 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:14; 4:30), and justification had already been purchased for those for whom Christ died and was resurrected (Rom. 5:1, 9; 4:25; Gal. 2:16). Paul clearly understood the “grace” motif of the “already” kingdom that was “making known” that which had until Christ’s first appearing been “hidden” in the shadows (see 1 Cor. 2:7-8; Rom. 16:25-26; Eph. 1:9-10; 3:3-5; Col. 1:25-26; 2 Tim. 1:9b-10, Titus 1:2-3). As a result the Christian resides between the kingdom that has already come (in grace), an experienced eschatology (Col. 1:13), and the kingdom that is still to come (in judgement), an anticipated eschatology (1 Cor. 15:50).
Paul describes the stages of his eschatology in three ways: the “present”, the “intermediate”, and the “future”. In the present we view the gospel as the “death of death” and the securing of redemption of the believer (see Col. 2:14ff) who is a “new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). “Better by far” (Phil. 1:21-23) is the intermediate state of believers between bodily death and resurrection when they are in their spirit (2 Cor. 5:1-3) and “at home with the Lord” where they will have personal communion with the Lord (5:8) in a state more glorious than the present (5:6), but pales in comparison to that of the “future” state. The future state then is that point after Christ’s Second Advent in which God’s people are finally redeemed and his sin cursed creation is restored (Eph. 1:10; Rom. 8:19-23). The believers who have died will be resurrected from the dead and the alive in Christ will be transformed to incorruption (Rom. 8:23; Phil. 3:21; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 1 Cor. 15:51-54; 2 Cor. 5:4-5). Unbelievers will also be resurrected to join those remaining alive in the final judgement unto eternal damnation (Acts 25:15; see also 2 Cor. 5:10). According to Paul, believers too will be judged according to their works and will receive rewards accordingly (Rom. 14:10, 12; 1 Cor. 3:12-15; 2 Cor. 5:10). This position has been used by some to argue against a salvation by faith alone without works. There are several reasons why there is no inconsistency between this teaching of Paul and the Reformed position. First, there should be noted a critical distinction between judgement according to works and salvation on account of works. It is very important to note that these are not synonymous concepts and the latter is absolutely contrary to Paul’s gospel. Second, it has often been stated that while believers are saved by faith alone they are never saved by a faith that is alone. [Aside: A saving faith necessarily produces the “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).] Third, the judgement of God must take into account the fruits born in believers as a result of their salvation. Fourth, while the believer is under the law to Christ (see 1 Cor. 9:21) he is not without law to God and it is the latter that is the standard for the judgement of works. Fifth, therefore it is the good works that result from salvation by grace through faith that is the criteria of judgement. To those who would accuse Paul of contradicting himself it should be noted that the judgement spoken of here is not with respect to the justification or salvation of the believer but rather the rewards to be bestowed on the already justified believer in glory. In sum, Paul describes the conclusion of his eschatological understanding in the event that will “trigger” the onset of the future state which is the bodily, visible, public return of Christ (1 Thess. 4:13-18; 2 Thess. 1:5-10; Phil. 3:20; 1 Cor. 15:23). Transformed and resurrected believers will then be “caught up” with him (1 Thess. 4:13-18) and immediately return to earth with him for the judgement of the transformed and resurrected unbelievers (1 Cor. 6:2; see also Matt. 25:1-14; Acts 28:15).
The classic dispensational view of being “caught up” is understood as the secret pretribulation rapture of the church. This is to occur seven years before the actual return of Christ; during which is the time of tribulation. This view does not square with Pauline (or any other New Testament) eschatology. First, in 1 Thessalonians Paul addresses the concern of the Thessalonian church regarding the dead in Christ. In 4:13-18, the supposed “rapture pericope”, Paul is answering this question and then in the very next pericope (5:1-11) he speaks of the “Day of the Lord”. Between these two pericopes, dispensational eschatology places a seven year span of time in which occurs the tribulation arguing that the first speaks of the pretribulation rapture and the latter, the Second Coming of Christ. While an interesting interpretation it lacks any textual support whatever. In this context Paul is providing encouragement to the believers and with no evidence of a shift in subject he describes this time as the Day of the Lord and then uses this truth as reason for the believers to “encourage one another and build each other up” (5:11). In truth, these are not two separate pericopes but rather one unified teaching. Also, in 2 Thess. 2:1 and Titus 2:13 Paul describes the “coming” of the Lord and the “gathering together” of Christians as a single event. Finally, Paul not only goes on to explain these as coincident events, he also describes it as anything but “secret” and “hidden” (2 Thess. 1:7; 2:8). Indeed, while he will come as a “thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2), this refers to the sudden, unexpected aspect of his coming. When the “coming” actual ensues it will be with the Lord’s “loud command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God” (4:16).
The debate related to Paul’s teaching regarding the timing of the ingathering of “all Israel” is not confined only to dispensational versus non-dispensational scholarship. It is clear that because of their unbelief and rejection of Christ, Israel has become as much a son of Hagar as Ishmael himself (Gal. 4:25) and is subject to the wrath of God (1 Thess. 2:15-16) who has made them blind and deaf to the truth (Rom. 11:8). However, in this latter pericope Paul goes on to proclaim that there will be an ingathering of ethnic Jews of so great a magnitude that he, hyperbolically, speaks of “all Israel” (11:26). By this, dispensationalists assert that Paul intends here to teach that at some point during the last half of the seven-year tribulation (after the “full number of the Gentiles” has been realized prior to the onset of the tribulation) God will save literally “all” ethnic Israel. Though considering Paul’s line of reasoning throughout Romans 11 it is clear that he is instead teaching that God’s design is to save “all” of the elect in Israel. He also presents an understanding that the “fullness” (11:12) of Israel (their ingathering) will bestow even greater salvific blessings upon the Gentiles. The obvious conundrum presented here by the dispensational (and some non-dispensationalists’) interpretation is exactly how Israel’s ingathering could possibly be a means of even greater blessing in the saving work of God among the Gentiles if said ingathering occurs during (even at the very end) of the tribulation when all of the Gentile elect have already been saved?! Even if one were to submit a logically sound answer to this conundrum, would it be more consistent with reason and stretch Scriptural interpretation less than the position that holds there to be a period prior to the Second Coming when the ingathering of the elect of Israel begins and proceeds confluently alongside the salvation of the Gentiles? Paul seems to be quite clear that this is the case and that the “fullness” of the elect, Jew and non-Jew alike, will be reached simultaneously, ushering in Christ’s return. This view is supported by Romans 11:17-24 which speaks of Jews being “grafted” back into the olive tree. Further, in the next verse he notes that the “partial hardening” of Israel will persist “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” Note then, in 11:26, he does not say that after this “fullness” of the Gentiles then all Israel will be saved at some later point. Rather, he says “in this way (houtos) all Israel will be saved”. It is during this time that the “disobedient” Jews will “now receive mercy” (11:30-32).
Romans 11:26 is further employed by the dispensational camp in support of the assertion that the phrase, “The Deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn the godlessness away from Jacob”, should be interpreted to indicate that Christ’s Second Coming from heaven (Zion) will be the triggering event for the Jewish ingathering. However, the “coming” of the “Deliverer” could just as easily, and perhaps more consistently, indicate Christ’s first “coming”, the incarnation, providing salvation to the Jews through the instrumentality of the church’s proclamation of the gospel, where in this instance “Zion” is the church (Heb. 12:22). It is then, as prophesied by Moses (Deut. 32:21), that the salvation of the Gentiles will kindle in idolatrous Israel a righteous envy which will bring about the salvation of Israel (Rom. 11:11). As such, the current posture of many Christians who cheer every modern-day Israeli advance is unwittingly lauding their unbiblical “Jewishness” by which they reject the only true hope of Israel.
As regards a supposed millennial reign, Paul’s teachings are silent. However, premillennialists point out 1 Cor. 15:24-25 in which Paul uses the terms “the kingdom” and “he must reign” as evidence of Paul’s support for such a doctrine, particularly in light of the preceding verse – “…order: Christ the firstfruits, then (epeita) at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then (eita) comes the end…” (15:23-24). It should be noted here that eita can properly be used to indicate an intervening interval of time, however such an interpretation is not necessitated. According to BAGD it is often used to place “things in juxtaposition without reference to chronological sequence.” Therefore, in this context eita cannot rightly be expected to bear the necessary weight of the “order” interpretation that would squeeze the millennium in between 11:23 and 11:24.. This is especially true when 15:51-55 is taken into consideration. Here Paul explains that death, Christ’s last enemy, will be destroyed through the resurrection at his coming. Therefore, the reign of 15:25 (“For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” [including death, his last enemy]) is a victorious spiritual reign that occurs before his coming. This amillennial view has been accused by the premillennialist of necessitating an inexorable slide into postmillennialism. They argue that if Christ is presently reigning and must continue to reign until he has put all of his enemies under his feet, then mankind must be conformed to a state of virtual moral perfection prior to his return by the effects of the gospel and his judgement upon his enemies. However, this very argument by the premillennialist serves ultimately to discredit premillennialism as it would eliminate the possibility of the apostasy (“Gog and Magog” [Rev. 20:8]) that they hold is to occur at the end of the millennial reign. If one is to suppose that opposition to Christ after the millennium is possible, which is essential to premillennial eschatology, then this particular objection not only contradicts his own position but serves nicely in support of amillennialism.
Finally, concerning Paul, we address three points of contention in his writings. First, did Paul, as some suppose, really expect to be among those still alive at Christ’s return based on 1 Thess. 4:13-18? Specifically in 4:15 Paul states, “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord…” To attribute this intent consistently through his writings would indicate his intent to the contrary in passages such as 1 Cor. 6:14 and 2 Cor. 4:14 where he says that God…will raise us.” By “we” Paul is simply categorizing pedagogically the groups in these states at Christ’s return rather than intending to imply who will be in a given state at that time. Further, in other passages he clearly teaches his own expectancy of death before the coming of Christ (Phil. 1:22ff; 2 Cor. 4:11; 5:1ff; 2 Tim. 4:6). [Aside: Certainly Paul was also aware of Christ’s teaching that no one but the Father knows the return of the Son. Taking as foundational that “all Scripture is God-breathed” it would be impossible that Paul could be inspired to teach a contradictory “truth” as this would be tantamount to a divine self-contradiction.] Related to this first objection, some have argued that Paul changed his mind between 1 Thess 4:15 (circa A.D. 50) where he states, “we who are still alive”, and his statement in 2 Cor. 4:14 (circa A.D. 56), “[He] will also raise us with Jesus.” [Aside: So much for the internal consistency of Scripture.] This view does not explain why he would have held an “imminent return” view from his conversion in about A.D. 33 to 50 and then change his mind. These verses are similarly explained as the first. Finally, there are those who argue that Paul’s expectation was mistaken in that even if he did not teach an imminent return he clearly intended to teach Christ’s return sooner than the two-thousand years he has yet tarried. This is the desperate groping for purchase of a position that is sliding off the precipice. Paul quite adeptly maintains the tension between our not knowing the time and the need to always be expectantly ready. For example, he teaches the necessity of the apostasy and the appearing of the man of lawlessness (1 Thess. 5:1-10), but this does not provide any implication as to the timing of this occurrence. Rather than providing a timetable for ease of strategic planning for the nominal Christian, Paul was rather simply giving a perspective on earth history.
Turning to the book of Hebrews, here also easily demonstrated is the idea of “eschatological dualism”. The author speaks of Christians who have already “tasted the powers of the age to come” (6:5), and have already been purified (9:14), sanctified (9:13; 10:10; 13:12) and perfected (7:11; 10:14), as well as “the world to come” (2;5) and of the “coming age” (6:5). There is no mention or allusion to an intermediate period. Chapters 8 and 9 discuss the typological relationship between the Old Testament sanctuary and its spiritual antitype in the New Testament. A rather Platonic construction has been placed on this relationship as if the Old Testament was allegorizing rather than recording actual historical occurrences. By this, we simply see a picture of “vertical”, spatial, spiritual eschatology rather than one with “horizontal”, temporal, and material import that has an actual effect on human history. Taken in context with the remainder of the teaching of Hebrews, as well as the remainder of the New Testament, it is more appropriately understood that the Old Testament type pointed to a future, earthly antitype where Christ “assumed his high priestly role as Mediator of the new covenant at the incarnation, and the Most Holy Place was his cross!”
Peter’s epistle is littered with references to an understanding of eschatological dualism. For example he proclaims the “already” stating that Christ’s “messianic reign has already begun” (1 Pet. 3:22), that Christians have already been “redeemed from the empty way of life” (1 Pet. 1:18), and that they have been “born again” (1 Pet. 1:23). In his Pentecost sermon, Peter affirms Christ’s reign and messiahship by reminding his audience of the miracles Christ performed, his fulfillment of David’s prophecies, and that it is he (Christ) who is the Spirit-Baptizer of men. Peter is shown to equally understand the “not yet” aspect of a biblical eschatology. In Acts 2:20-21 he speaks of God “sending the Christ…[who] must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything.”
John’s gospel largely treats the “vertical” – the contrast between the world above and the world below, aspect of eschatological dualism, however he does also provide understanding of the horizontal – the contrast between this age and the age to come (see John 3;13; 6:62; 8:23). Demonstrating the “already” of dualism, John indicates the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies in the life of Jesus (John 1:23; 2:17; 6:45 and others). He proclaims Christ as the one who brings in the new era anticipated in the Old Testament (John 1:17; 8:33-58). Consistent with the synoptics, of Christ he uses the terms “Messiah”, “King of Israel”, “Son of Man”, and “Son of God”. In passages such as 4:23; 5:25; 12:31; 16:5; 17:5, 13; 2:4; 8:20; 12:23 he demonstrates the centrality of Christ to salvation in the “now” and at this “hour”. In contrast however, he also understands the church’s future Gentile mission in this age (10:16; 11:52) and he teaches of the “eternal life” to come (3:36; 5:39; 12:25). Similarly, in his epistles he speaks of the “already” – the “true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8), Christians have already “passed out of death and into [eternal life] (1 John 3:14); and the “not yet” – proclaiming that this evil world and its desires “are passing away” (2:17), that Jesus will come again (2:28) and the “day of judgment” will come (4:17). As with all of the others thus far, in his gospel John makes no reference, either directly or by implication, to an intermediate state.
Often mistakenly, the book of Revelation – John’s Apocalypse, is myopically emphasized in eschatological studies to the exclusion of the remainder of the New Testament. While the analogy of Scripture would dictate that this should not be done, it is important to spend considerable time in its study as it does have the most to say on the topic. Before delving into this, some terms used to define the more common positions taken in its interpretation are defined. The preterist view, most consistent with the postmillennial position, holds that John was describing contemporary events (largely the Neronian persecution) and that only the last few chapters remain to be fulfilled. The historicist view interprets the book as a forecast of actual earthly events to occur between the apostolic age and Christ’s return. The symbolical or idealist view holds that it was not John’s intent to be prophetic, rather through symbolism he was providing instruction regarding spiritual principles that should govern the church. The extreme futurist view, most consistent with pretribulation, premillennial dispensationalist eschatology, holds that the future events prophesied in the Eschaton include everything after chapter three. The moderate futurist view place this line of demarcation after chapter six. Finally, the view held by the amillennialist is that of the progressive parallelism (or recapitulation) view. In this view the seven sections of the book each, repeatedly and from varying perspectives, cover the time period between Christ’s incarnation and his Second Advent.
There is little debate that John authored the Revelation and that he wrote it while in exile on the island of Patmos, however there has been, and continues to be, considerable division regarding the precise time period in which is was composed and little to no hope of being able to prove either position in this life. The “late-daters” place its writing at about A.D. 95 or 96. If this is indeed when it was written, near the end of the reign of Domitian, then the prophecies spoken cannot be explained by the events of the mid-late 60s under Nero. The “early-daters” insist the writing took place about A.D. 65 or 66, during Nero’s reign (54-68), prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and therefore the prophecies contained therein may indeed allude to the Roman persecution of Christians (64-67), the Roman-Jewish war (67-70), the death of Nero (68), the Roman civil wars (68-69) and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (A.D. 70).
Probably the most convincing evidence of a late date writing is from Iranaeus in Against Heresies (5.30.3) where he states, “For it was seen no very long time since, almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.” Others argue that the phrase translated “it was seen” is incorrect and that given the “For” (gar) to begin the sentence forces the referent of this sentence to be the main subject of the paragraph, John himself, not his vision and thus should be rendered “he was seen.” Indeed, John did live until A.D. 98, the time of Trajan. Following from this understanding is the argument that Iranaeus intended to indicate that had John’s expounded apocalyptic vision not been sufficiently clear to his contemporaries, having lived “almost in our day”, he could have further expounded on the mysteries he had previously written (in A.D. 65 or 66).
Further evidence proffered for a late date authorship is John’s allusion to emperor worship which had become much more common under Domitian than in Nero’s day. Thirdly, and related to a greater expectation of emperor worship, Christian persecution was much more vigorous under Domitian, accounting for John’s banishment to Patmos (1:9) and other recorded events (2:13; 6:9,10). Finally, it is quite subjectively argued that the descriptions of the seven churches of Asia Minor reflect a period of development not possible during the Neronic persecution.
Likely the most formidable piece of evidence for an early date is found in 17:9-10 – “…the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while” – coupled with 17:18 – “And the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.” There is little doubt that “the woman” is Rome herself and the “king” who “is” refers to the emperor enthroned at the time of John’s writing who was preceded by five emperors and to be followed by one, short-lived emperor. Following the chronology of the Roman emperors, there are five from Julius Caesar (49 – 44 B.C.) to Claudius Caesar (A.D. 41-54). The emperor after Nero, Galba, reigned only from June 68 to January 69. This places Nero as emperor at the time of John’s writing. In opposition to the interpretation of “seven kings” indicating the Roman emperors it has been proposed alternately that John was speaking of seven world empires, namely, Ancient Babylon, Assyria, New Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greco-Macedonia, Rome and the seventh being all other worldly governments in opposition to Christ from the fall of Rome to the return of Christ. While the former view also holds that the number of the beast – “666” – refers to the numerical value of the Greek letters spelling Nero (nron qsr, “Neron Caesar”), the latter insists that it refers rather to the number of man who was created on the sixth day and met with “failure upon failure upon failure,” never able to attain 7 (perfection).
The second piece of early date evidence is found in Revelation 11:1-2, which suggests that at the time of the writing Jerusalem and the temple remained and that the “holy city” will be “trample[d]…for 42 months”, referring to Vespasian’s siege of Jerusalem from the spring of A.D. 67 to its fall in September A.D. 70. This argument is easily disputed by countering that visions are not necessarily limited to that which remains in reality. A third argument in support of an early date are the time indicators that support fulfillment of the primary object of the prophecy in this paradigm, namely, the divine judgment of God upon Jerusalem in A.D. 70. John writes, “Behold, he is coming with the clouds [in judgement], and every eye shall see him, even those who pierced him [the Jewish leadership], and all the peoples of the earth [lit., the tribes of the land, hai phylaitesges] will mourn because of him.” (1:7). In 1:1, 1:3 and 1:19 we are told that these events “must soon take place”, “for the time is near”, and “are about to take place.” In the letters to the seven churches Christ declares that he will come soon in judgment (2:16; 3:10; 3:11; 22:6; 22:7; 22:10; 22:12; 22:20). Against this position it is argued that Christ’s coming in judgement could also mean against “the peoples of the earth” as opposed to the tribes of Israel. Finally, statements made by John seems to place the context of his writing in a decidedly Jewish milieu which did not exist after the A.D. 70 destruction of the temple. For example, he speaks of “those who say they are Jews and are not” (2:9; 3:9). Christians were presenting themselves as “true Jews” which some argue seems unlikely after A.D. 70 – as to this, even in our own day some Christians refer to themselves as being part of the real, spiritual Israel.
The purpose of John’s writing is for the preparation, strengthening, encouragement and assurance of God’s people. Before outlining the book Reymond takes a small excursus to explain the logic behind the progressive parallelism interpretation of the Apocalypse. He points out, countering the dispensationalist, that the depiction of the cataclysmic events of the final judgment do not occur but once in Rev. 20-21, but rather they are recorded seven times, once in each of the seven visions. Therefore, to interpret the book consistently, it must be read as a series of recurring parallel accounts of the coming judgment contained within each of the seven visions which span the entire gospel age.
Finally, there are some interesting points to note throughout the apocalyptic visions. With regard to the 144,000 mentioned in the second vision, which describes the book of the seven seals and the trial and persecution of the church (4:1-8:5), this number cannot refer to literal, ethnic Israel because of the irregular way in which he describes Israel in this context. Judah is mentioned first, Dan is entirely omitted and Joseph is mentioned instead of Ephraim. In another interesting point, noted in the third vision (8:6 – 11:19), the seven trumpets judgment, we see that John’s earlier proclamation, the One “who was, and who is and who is to come” is foreshortened to only the first two tenses indicating that the “coming” has occurred. Also a general effect of the terror of this time is symbolized in various ways – by blood flowing as high as the horses bridle (14:20, the fourth vision), one-hundred pound hailstones (16:21, the fifth vision), as well as others, and thus should not be taken literally. The next chapter will take up a discussion of a few disturbing trends in contemporary evangelical eschatology.