The question of eschatology is, by definition, the study of things future; it is speculation…biblical speculation, but speculation nonetheless. The Bible speaks of a number of significant events that will happen in the future: death, tribulation, rapture, a reign of Christ on earth, resurrection, judgment, creation of a new heaven and a new earth, eternity. That each will take place is certain; when each will take place is known only to the Father (Matt. 24:36). It is my firm conviction that an understanding of these events will be an encouragement to right living (2 Pet. 3:14) and a motivation for mission (Matt. 24:14), but that undue emphasis on plotting a timeline for them will lead (indeed, has led) to sinful divisiveness and a distraction from mission…and thus ought to be avoided.
The curse of sin is death (Gen. 2:17, Rom. 5:12), an event that will overtake each person (Heb. 9:27). Death marks the separation of body and soul (Luke 12:4-5); while the body may be buried or cremated and so return to the ground from which God formed Adam (Gen. 2:7, 3:19), the soul will enter an intermediate state based on the individual’s relationship to Christ: The soul of the believer goes immediately into God’s presence (Luke 23:42-43) and the soul of the unbeliever enters a place of ongoing punishment (Luke 16:19-31).
But the curse of sin is not merely the event of death; it is the state of being eternally separated from God, just as eternal life is to know Him (John 17:3). When Jesus comes in glory, there will be great mourning (Matt. 24:30) and great rejoicing; mourning from the nations who will finally realize that they missed the Anointed One, and rejoicing from the lips of all who believe and are being eternally joined with their Savior (1 Thess. 4:16ff). Paul seems to suggest that the rapture, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment will all be initiated by this glorious return of Christ.
I believe that the rapture will follow a period of great difficulty for and intense persecution of the church (Matt. 24:29, Mark 13:19). I hold very loosely the belief that this period of tribulation will last seven literal years (Dan. 12). Yet I firmly believe that there is a correlation between the tribulation and at least one of the uses of the phrase “the Day of the Lord” (cf. Joel 2:28-32, quoted by Jesus in Matt. 24 and Mark 13; cf. 1 Thess. 5:2). Thus, I believe that there is both ongoing tribulation as well as a particular eschatological period that will be characterized by great tribulation.
I believe, with Paul, that “all Israel will be saved” on the basis of God’s irrevocable gifts and call (Rom. 11:25ff).
At the final judgment, those who did not believe in Christ will be condemned to eternal suffering and punishment, separated from God (Matt. 13:39-42, 25:41ff). The experience of this judgment will be greater for those whose sins were greater (Matt. 11:21-24, Luke 12:47-48). Satan and his angels will ultimately be cast with those whom he deceived (Matt. 25:41) into everlasting torment in the “lake of burning sulfur” (Rev. 20:10), to experience at an infinitely greater depth the punishment for their deception.
Those who believe in Christ will be given a renewed body through which to enjoy the presence of God for eternity, living with Him in the new heaven and new earth (2 Pet. 3:13, Rev. 21:1-3). Our reward in heaven will be proportional to our deeds on earth (Matt. 6:5-6, Jas. 3:1), but we will all thoroughly enjoy the presence of God.
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