Eschatology Outlines: No. 8 Final Thoughts

Posted by R. Fowler White

As we close out this fairly lengthy series, it might be useful to conclude with several overarching observations.

Recurring patterns. Looking back over these Eschatology Outlines, it may have struck the reader that the biblical writers teach us and therefore expect us to see recurring patterns as God works in history, not least as the future is presented as the past reconceived and finalized. Remarkably, this “patterning” discloses to us both the organic unity in God’s revelation and the consistency in God’s governance of history. In it we see the signature of the Bible’s Divine Author, transcending the particular contributions of the individual human authors. All of this moves and induces us to a high and reverent esteem of Holy Scripture that takes all the more seriously the Bible’s own claim to be inspired by the Spirit of God.

Trajectory, boundaries, and consensus. As it relates to eschatology, a full review of early church history (as found in, e.g., C. E. Hill, Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity (second ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001) would show us where the trajectory and boundaries of orthodox eschatology were set, but we can only summarize those points here. Before the Council of Nicea in AD 325, the church expressed a broad consensus confessing Christ’s second coming, the general resurrection and judgment, the programmatic oneness of God’s people, and the eternal state. There was no consensus on the belief in a 1,000-year earthly kingdom after Christ’s return and before the eternal state. Interestingly, affirming or denying that millennial era was tied to one’s doctrine of the intermediate state of the righteous dead. The question being asked was this: where do the souls of the righteous dead go when they die? There were, in general, two answers. On the one hand, those who believed that the righteous dead occupied an intermediate state underground (“in the lower parts of the earth”) also affirmed the doctrine of the 1,000-year kingdom. On the other hand, those who believed that the righteous dead occupied an intermediate state in heaven denied the doctrine of the 1,000-year kingdom. As the church came consistently to confess the doctrine of the heavenly intermediate state, the doctrine of a millennial kingdom after Christ’s return faded from view. After the Reformation, however, divergent opinions on the 1,000-year kingdom reemerged. Then, in the 1830s, three closely related views—premillennialism, pretribulationism, and dispensationalism, with their programmatic distinction between Israel and the Church—congealed into an eschatological framework. Over the next century that framework grew to dominate in Bible-believing circles, as the spread of dispensational-pretribulational premillennialism tracked with developments in the fundamentalist-liberal controversy. Over the last 50 years or more, differences among sincere, well-meaning Christians on all sides seem to have moderated. Yet in church pews, popular discussion, and media, dispensationalism and its entailments are widely presumed. Thankfully, the Bible-believing church maintains its adherence to cardinal doctrines at the heart of its historic confession, focusing on Christ’s return, final resurrection and judgment, and life everlasting in the world to come. Granted our continuing differences, however, we can only help ourselves by thinking about how to manage them. What follows are some suggestions.

Burden of proof. While acknowledging that certain cardinal doctrines distinguish the church’s confession, new (novel) beliefs, which the church through its shepherds and teachers has never confessed, do occasionally emerge. To be taken seriously, these novelties must bear the burden of proof and demonstrate that the weight of the relevant biblical, historical-theological, and systematic-theological evidence is not only with them but is, in fact, weightier than usual. This is the case because it is unlikely, though it has occurred and is certainly still possible, that the church’s devout and learned shepherds and teachers, along with the great majority of serious Bible students, would for centuries have missed the Spirit’s teaching in Scripture.

Common duties. Meanwhile, our continuing duties to others in the church include obligations to take seriously the historic consensus of the church and to seek further unity beyond that consensus where possible. Such obligations require us to love those with whom we differ, trying to understand not just what they believe but how they reach their conclusions. Gaining answers to both the “what” and the “how” questions, we just may discover where our facts or conclusions are wrong or incomplete and uncover reasons for greater agreement. Overall, sticking to these duties, we’ll likely find that our emphasis will fall on doctrines held in common and expressed in the church’s confessions across the centuries.

God has given His people hope. Ever since our first parents were banished from Eden, God’s people have looked to the future in hope for a new city in a new garden on a new mountain where God will dwell forever with man. We long for that city’s security and purity, for a new creation ruled, filled, and at rest. We ache for the Last Adam—our Bridegroom, God’s Dragon-Slayer and Temple-Builder—to complete the rescue of His bride. The Bible’s eschatology sustains and nurtures those expectations in us, as it declares the vindication of good over evil, of light over darkness, of life over death, of blessing over curse. Because our God is the one true God, singularly sover­eign and wise, we know that final destinies of blessing or curse are traced to His one beneficent purpose (Lam 3:37-38; cf. Gen 50:20). With that purpose, God obliged Himself to resolve our liability as sinners to judgment that resulted from His decree to permit man’s fall into sin. His resolution of that liability was to make the death of a Substitute the way to life for His chosen people. Thereby He has assured us that the Bride chosen for the Last Adam, though presently corruptible, will ultimately put on incorruption. Through the Lord Christ, she will witness the death of death and the issue of all things into the glory of the one true God. In the end, then, the Bible’s eschatology—God’s eschatology—is a true moral optimism in which our God will be no frustrated Deity, nor will our Bridegroom be defeated in His mission to rescue His Bride.

1 Comment

  1. December 23, 2021 at 9:57 am

    […] Eschatology Outlines: No. 8 Final Thoughts […]


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