Sunday, March 01, 2015

S10: Christ will come again to save his people and judge the world.

This is the tenth post in a unit on salvation in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first section had to do with God and Creation, and I have also finished units on Christology and Atonement.
Christ will come again to save his people and judge the world.

1. The most literal sense of the world salvation is not past or present tense, but future tense. The basis for our salvation is Christ's death in the past. We put our faith in Jesus' lordship in the present; we are justified in the present. We thus ensure our salvation now. But the event from which we are saved is the wrath of God, and that is yet to come.

"Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God" (Rom. 5:9). The Day of Wrath is the Day of God's judgment, when "he shall judge the living and the dead." There is a Day of Wrath, "when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed" (Rom. 2:5).

2. Paul says in Romans 1:18: "The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth." Paul does not have in mind a judgment that happens at death. He never even uses the word hell anywhere in his writings. He does not have in mind a judgment that happens in this life, for "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Cor. 15:19).

Like the rest of the New Testament, Paul believed that there would be an event on earth of judgment. "The Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven" (1 Thess. 4:16). "Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory" (Matt. 24:30). [1]

Matthew 25:31-46 pictures a scene in which all the people of the earth are gathered before Christ for a judgment. Some receive eternal life and others eternal punishment. This is a classic text to indicate that trusting in Jesus as Lord involves more than passing a true/false text about believing in Jesus (see especially Jas. 2:14-26). True faith produces a change in our lives, and the Spirit within us produces a life that manifests itself in love.

These "fruits" are of interest to God in the judgment. "All of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil" (2 Cor. 5:10). "He will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury" (Rom. 2:6-8).

3. The Bible probably does not look to a distinct seven year period of persecution and distress prior to Jesus' return to earth. This idea, which first appeared in the 1800s in England, comes from an ingenious piecing together of various verses in Daniel and Revelation. But nowhere in the New Testament does it say that there will be seven years of rule by an anti-Christ figure prior to the judgment. If this is true, then it requires a special, secret knowledge of the biblical text--if God wanted believers to see this idea in the New Testament text, he has hidden it very well!

On the other hand, there are several texts that make it sound like there will be great distress in the period before Jesus' return (e.g., Mark 13; Matt. 24). A difficulty here is that teaching about Jesus' return in these passages is blurred with the events prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened in AD70. Similarly, it is difficult to know how much of 2 Thessalonians 2 had to do with events in Paul's day. After all, the temple to which 2:4 would most likely refer was destroyed in AD70.

The pictures of Revelation are fantastic and also seem to picture great distress on the earth for those who serve the Lord prior to his return (e.g., 7:14). [2] Even here, however, images of John's day are blurred with those of the final judgment. [3] Only hindsight, after these events take place, will make it entirely clear which portions relate only to John's day and which to the end of time.

4. You often hear talk of a "rapture" in which believers are snatched up from the earth to escape the ordeal of the end times. This idea is based on 1 Thessalonians 4:17 which speaks of believers being caught up on the clouds to meet the descending Jesus. Similarly, Mark 13:27 speaks of God gathering his elect from the four corners of the earth.

Some do not take this language literally or critique the notion that we meet Jesus in the air to go off to heaven. [4] They might suggest that the image is similar to going out to the edge of a city to welcome a king into a city, but once you meet the king, you accompany him back into the city. This idea fits the claim that Paul gives elsewhere that Christians will participate in the judgment of angels and the world (1 Cor. 6:2-3).

So there does seem to be a "seizing" (the meaning of rapture) in parts of the New Testament, but it is not to save the elect from "the Tribulation." It is not to go off to heaven forever. It seems rather both 1) salvation from the judgment that is to come and 2) assembling us for the final judgment of evil on the earth.

Jesus comes with the resurrected saints. The people of God rise to meet him in the air. The judgment of the earth and of angels commences.

5. It is difficult to know how to systematize much of the biblical teaching on these matters. Ultimately, we will know the details after they happen. For example, there are hints in various passages that non-believers may exist beyond the judgment at Christ's return (e.g., Luke 13:29; Rev. 20:7-8). [5] However, later Christian history has generally treated these as unclear passages.

What images of the judgment we have are apocalyptic in nature. "The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 13:49-50). "Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41). "and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire" (Rev. 20:15).

Throughout Christian history, the dominant sense of hell is as a place where the wicked suffer in torment forever. This sense of eternal damnation comes especially from the two books I have quoted above: Matthew and Revelation. We should be cautious about how literally we take this language for two reasons. The first is the fact that it is apocalyptic language, which by its very nature is highly symbolic. The second reason is the fact that the language does not appear very much outside these two books.

For example, it is not likely that any passage in the Old Testament thinks of Sheol as a place of punishment for the wicked. Sheol in Hebrew is the place of all the dead, both righteous and wicked. A judgment for the dead only appears once in all of Paul's writings (2 Tim. 4:1). Even among references to a fiery destiny for the wicked, little is said of its duration. Is it the fire that burns forever or the people in the fire (e.g., Mark 9:48)?

A philosophical problem is the question of infinite punishment for what at least appears to be finite sin. Even Hitler, as horrendous as his sins were, did not seem to sin infinitely. In that sense, an infinite punishment seems unfair. One suggestion is that even one sin against God is infinite in magnitude. [6] But this is hardly an argument the Bible itself makes.

So Christians believe that there will be an eternal punishment for those who are not in Christ. Most believe that this will be a never ending, conscious, eternal punishment. Some look for an annihilation of the wicked after the final judgment.

But those who are in Christ will be saved from God's judgment of the world. The dead in Christ will rise, and those in Christ who are alive and remain will be caught up to meet him in the air. Then they will come back down to the earth to participate in the judgment.

S11. God will restore the world and we will enjoy him forever.

[1] N. T. Wright's attempt to see this event in relation to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 and this sort of language as symbolic rather than literal is unconvincing. It seems almost certain that the earliest Christians took this language literally. We can debate whether we should take this language literally, but they almost certainly did.

[2] It is significant to note, for those who come from dispensationalist traditions, that the word the does not appear in the Greek of this verse. In other words, Revelation only says that they have come out of great tribulation, not the Great Tribulation. Revelation does not clearly have a distinct period of time in mind. Dispensationalists traditions see history divided up into distinct periods of time in which God deals differently with humanity. In such traditions, the Great Tribulation is a seven year period of time at the end of history leading up to Christ's reign on earth.

[3] Any first century person would have heard clear echoes of the Roman empire in the seven kings on seven hills in Revelation 17:9-10. And most Jews would have heard "Babylon" as a code word for Rome (e.g., Rev. 18).

[4] E.g., N. T. Wright. ***

[5] These hints must make us wonder the extent to which the original authors wanted us to take some of this imagery literally.

[6] E.g., This is John Piper's position. ***

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