Installment 16 of 20, translated from the book Christ Is the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Writings on the Basics of Faith and Doctrine. (Ed. Ari-Pekka Palola, SRK, 2018)
In my article I will discuss the Bible’s teachings on eternity, human life, death and final events. Peter wrote about these topics as follows: “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:8,9).
I will reflect on people’s ability to perceive time and its passing as well as endless time, eternity. I will consider the ending of all that exists, death and life after death. Discussing eternity and final events piques interest but it can also cause fear and concern. The Bible in many passages addresses death, eternity and final events. The underlying theme throughout these is that humans and nature belong to the world God created. All creation has a limited lifespan. Above all this is nevertheless God’s care for creation, which spans from time to eternity.
A Christian has strong hope of life continuing after death (John 5:21–29). The Bible promises that a person created in the image of God will enter the land of endless peace, rest and joy. Many Bible passages describe the new earth and the new heaven. Many readers likely remember the story of Lazarus going to the bosom of Abraham or of Jesus’ words to the thief: “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 16:19–31; 23:40–43). These two stories summarize the hope found in Christian teachings regarding the last events.
Time and Timelessness
Humans have the ability to comprehend time and measure its passage. They are also able to plan their near future and their own use of time. Humans nevertheless live in this moment and cannot travel to another time. We cannot return to the past and correct our mistakes nor can we travel into the future to bypass a difficult period of time. Humans are bound to their own time.
The Creator sets for each person the boundaries of life, which the person cannot change or move. A person, just like all other creation, has his or her own time and lives from birth to death. The question of what happens after death has always preoccupied people.
The Bible’s descriptions of God’s time help us understand that humans do not comprehend time like God does (2 Pet. 3:4–13). How could we comprehend the relationship between God and time which the psalmist describes by saying that a thousand years in the Lord’s sight is like one day (Ps. 90:4)? God’s work always happens in this moment. To God time is always the present. He has a boundless past and an immeasurable future. He has always been. From Him has all originated, and to Him all returns (Col. 1:16,17). His decisions are eternal and absolutely wise.
People’s ability to perceive God’s time is lacking in many ways. A time-bound person cannot comprehend the essence of timelessness and eternity. It is a bit like trying to combine the past and future into the present moment or like trying to combine linear and cyclical experiences of time such that time passes but does not progress.
God is above all that exists, sustains all things and allows people to feel the might of their works, but nonetheless He only reveals a small part of Himself and His hidden, sacred power. We must humbly acknowledge our limitations. God does not consent to be a part of time as perceived by humans. He has no beginning and no end. He is above and beyond our ability to comprehend. Eternity is a characteristic of God, but He also calls humans there. He has promised humans eternal salvation through Jesus Christ.
The Bible describes how the human mind and undying soul look toward eternity and timelessness. We believe that by faith a person has eternal immortality with God. Likewise, we understand that the greatest misfortune occurs when a human soul’s connection to God is severed for eternity.
The Nicene Creed describes the Son’s eternity: He “ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.” The same creed also states the following about eternity: “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”
Humans are temporal and perishable, but a person can partake of eternity when the gospel – Christ’s grace – can bless him or her and free the person from the power of sin and evanescence. When one is thus freed, heaven touches earth. The Small Catechism explains: in the “Christian Church He [the Holy Spirit] daily and richly forgives me and all believers all our sins; and at the last day, will raise up me and all the dead, and will grant me and all believers in Christ everlasting life.” The Apology of the Augsburg Confession further defines this: “Because faith makes [us] sons of God, it also makes [us] coheirs with Christ…we do not by our works merit eternal life; for faith obtains this, because faith justifies us and has a reconciled God. Eternal life is due the justified.”
The End of the World – Threats and Prophecies
According to the Christian understanding of time, humankind’s time will once end. Connected to the ending of time is the promise of Jesus’ second coming (also called parousia) and the final judgment. The study of final events is called eschatology.
Many Bible passages, such as the books of Daniel and Ezekiel and the Book of Revelation, contain prophecies describing the end of the world. The Bible also mentions signs connected with end-time events. There have always been people who feel enticed to interpret these prophecies and place the end-time signs into the events of their own time. One should treat these doomsday predictors and interpreters of signs with caution. God does not give exact knowledge of His plans through these signs. He has not even let Jesus know the moment when time will end (Matt. 34:35,36). One must not infer from this, however, that the end of time is discussed in the Bible only as an allegoric event. People must live with the knowledge that in addition to the ending of their own lives, each person will also face that which awaits all of humanity: the moment when the books of heaven are opened.
In this day and age, humankind is concerned about the state of the climate and changes in nature. Studies show that global average temperatures are rising, glaciers are shrinking and living conditions are changing in many areas. There have been natural disasters in many parts of the world that could be interpreted as God’s signs of end of times. However, overly hasty interpretations should be avoided. It is good if knowledge of these changes lead to efforts to protect nature and the environment. Meanwhile it is important to remember that previous changes in nature, such as ice ages, have taken place allowed by God.
The Christian outlook on this goes back to the biblical creation narration where it says that humans should cultivate and protect creation (Gen. 2:15). This means that people are allowed to make reasonable use of that which nature provides, but at the same time they must take care of the environment. It is good for modern humans to remember that the Creator has allowed enormous climate changes in the past as well. Following these, creation has settled into a new form, always within the limits allowed by the Creator. He does not allow humans to destroy the world He created. The gifts of nature should be used with respect for all creation and with esteem for each neighbor created in the image of God.
Paul wrote, “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Rom. 8:19–22). Many may associate Paul’s words “groaneth and travaileth” with the current concern for the state of nature and the environment. However, this interpretation does not do justice to the context of this text. Paul used this everyday metaphor to express the longing a person feels as he or she awaits deliverance from sin.
Jesus’ Second Coming
Jesus Himself spoke of events of the end times (Matt. 24–25; Mark 13). This theme is also featured in the Book of Revelation. From the beginning, Christians have awaited the second coming of Christ. In the letters in the New Testament, it can be seen that during the early church, the thought of Jesus’ imminent return changed into awaiting His return (1 Thess. 4:17; 2 Cor. 6:2). Christian faith still lives while we wait.
Believers have been given hope of heaven (Rom. 5:19–21). It is like an anchor that gives strong courage so that one needn’t fear nor doubt what is to come. This hope encompasses trust in the resurrection of the body even though we as humans cannot fathom how it will happen (1 Cor. 15). Christ is the hope of glory.
The Gospel of Mark describes the chasm between the human world and God’s world. This chasm will close when the Son of Man arrives and the scattered believers are gathered into one people of God (Mark 13). A core theme is God’s promise to guide His own even through difficult happenings towards the good destination. Mark connected Jesus’ exhortation to the church to “Watch!” with following the signs of the times. The endeavor cannot be passive waiting, but rather it must be active watching.
The Gospel of Matthew tells of the coming judgment of the world (Matt. 24–25). On the last day, Christ will come in glory with all His angels and will sit on His throne. All people will be gathered in front of Him. They will be divided into two groups: one group will go to eternal life, the other to eternal punishment. This perdition is meant for Satan and his angels, but those who have not believed the gospel will also go there.
Luke has recorded in his Gospel three teachings about the end times or about Jesus’ second coming: the servant waiting for his master (12:35–59), the question of when the kingdom of God will come (17:20–37) and Jesus’ speech of the destruction of the temple and final events (21:5–36). Luke describes the coming of God’s kingdom in glory as an event in which Jesus gives His own royal power. For the disciples, God’s kingdom is already present (17:20,21; 22:28–30; 23:43). The main point is to be ready at all times because no one knows when the last moment will come.
The Gospel of John does not describe the return of the Son of Man, nor does it tell of the end of the world. In the eschatology of John, faith persists through death and death cannot deprive faith of its future. If a person does not believe, he or she proclaims his or her own judgment (John 3:18). In the Gospel of John, eternal life is such that Jesus’ own know Him, the one true God, whom the Father has sent (17:3). Jesus prayed that all His own would be one, just as He and His Father are one (17:21). The Redeemer is in His own and the Father is in His Son. Their unity carries a person as God’s own to the coming perfection. This is already present in the kingdom of God blessed by the Holy Spirit.
In instruction that describes the end of everything, one must exhibit special humility and responsibility. It is necessary to be careful that one’s own false certainty does not take root in biblical teaching. Human interpretation is not based on a lasting foundation. This, however, does not preclude a call to repentance or warning one of the danger of losing one’s immortal soul. Christian teaching on the final events emphasizes God’s mercy and grace. He can open the door of heaven and close the gates of hell.
Resurrection and Eternal Life in Heaven
Christian faith teaches the resurrection of the dead. Christ was the first to rise from the grave. With His resurrection, He opened heaven to believers. Christ’s own have before them the true resurrection of life. Although the body disintegrates in the grave after death, in the resurrection will occur a new union of body and soul. God will create a new, glorified resurrection body. The resurrection of the body is the type of work that God does not reveal to humans. Nonetheless, faith in the resurrection is such a central part of Christian faith that without it faith would be entirely in vain (1 Cor. 15:12–23).
People in New Testament times had access to a wide variety of Old Testament end-time imagery. Important concepts of symbols included the guidance of God experienced by the people of Israel, God’s kingdom, the Son of Man, heavenly elders and “powers,” the book of life, the tree of life, new Jerusalem, the holy city and the temple. In those times those words had both a historical meaning and an allegoric meaning that revealed sacred mysteries.
In everyday use, the word heaven [translator’s note: in Finnish, taivas means both sky and heaven] describes the atmosphere and a certain part of space. In Christian language, heaven means God’s invisible world. The Nicene Creed states, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” The invisible world, such as heaven and angels, are beyond human comprehension, but they are important to faith (Exod. 20:4; Ps. 113:5,6). Heaven is part of the realm of God from which Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit come. Heaven is the source of all salvation and blessing. However, even the heaven will one day disappear (Ps. 115:15,16; Matt. 24:35; Luke 21:33).
In Christian teaching, heaven is the eternal dwelling place of the blessed. God’s kingdom transcends the boundary between heaven and earth. The battling, traveling people of God are on earth, whereas the angels as God’s servants and rejoicing people of God who have made it to the destination are in heaven.
Eternal life and heaven are explicitly described in many songs. Familiar images include white robes, celebration feasts, harps and songs and golden cities. These metaphors convey and sustain hope which free a person from sorrow, hunger and lacking. A person longs to be free from trouble and sorrow. A believer can await in hope the last call, which is expressed in the Gospel of Matthew in the following way: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34).
God is the Lord of All
In my article I have discussed eternity and the last times. Although these topics are written about in many Bible passages, we must content ourselves with the fact that we look at their message as though through a mirror or from afar. It is easier for us to understand the promise contained in those passages of a time in which all sorrow and worries are gone forever.
On these themes my thoughts have gone in two directions. On the one hand I have thought how clearly Scripture describes God’s sovereignty. He is the Lord of time and timelessness, life and death. On the other hand, in many of these questions I have had to acknowledge my own limitations and inability. After reading the texts, I must admit how little I am able to understand the end of life and the events of eternity. And yet I trust. I live in this time and meanwhile I await in faith the fulfilment of those promises, which in many ways remains hidden from me.
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Teinonen Seppo ja Riitta
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