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Individual and Cosmic Eschatology

We have seen that the truth of justification by faith brings the eschaton into sharp focus. If the central article of justification is lost or becomes indistinct, the New Testament message of the second advent is blunted.

There is something else which has eroded the absolute importance which the New Testament gives to the return of Jesus. This is the development in the church of a concept of a private, or individual, eschatology. To simply state that at death the believer departs to be with Christ (Phil. 1:23) or that the spirit returns to God, there to be preserved (Eccl. 12:7), is one thing, but to build from these undetailed references to the intermediate state a whole scheme of individual eschatology is another thing altogether. It is often claimed that at death the believer enters his reward quite apart from the second coming of Jesus Christ. Since the believer is supposed to receive all that is decisively important before and quite apart from the coming of Christ and the resurrection, the events of the last day are relegated to an insignificant appendix.

Some, being aware of this problem, have tried to strike a balance between individual eschatology (at death) and cosmic eschatology (at the coming of Jesus). John Calvin made an admirable attempt to uphold individual eschatology and at the same time to preserve an important place for the resurrection. But as the history of the Reformed church has demonstrated, individual eschatology tends to eat up cosmic eschatology. The ordinary man in the pew thinks far more about his going than Christ's coming. Thanatology1 has taken the place of eschatology.

In the interests of upholding the focus of New Testament eschatology, we shall make the following observations on this problem.

1. The overwhelming focus of the New Testament is on Christ's coming. There are over three hundred distinct references to Christ's return, and this, this alone, is called the "blessed hope." Titus 2:13. The emphasis is overwhelmingly placed on Christ's coming rather than our going.2

2. The return of Christ at the eschaton is appealed to again and again as a great motive for ethical action among the redeemed community, e.g.:

When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry. . . Col 3:4, 5.

Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as He is pure. 1 John 3:2, 3.

But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God... 2 Peter3:10, 12.

Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ . . .1 Peter 1:13.

Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh. Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the Judge standeth before the door. James 5:8, 9.

And now, little children, abide in Him; that, when He shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before Him at His coming. 1 John 2:28.

These scriptures are only a sample of what is found all over the New Testament. In contrast, let the reader see how many scriptures he can call to mind which focus on the believer's day of death as a factor in ethical motivation. To be true to the New Testament, we should place the emphasis where the New Testament places it.

3. Although it has become popular (and alas, sentimentally popular) to speak of the day of the believer's death as the day of his reward, is it Scriptural? A. J. Gordon has well said:

    Let us not, through a false humility, reject the doctrine of rewards, which Scripture so strongly emphasizes. But when and where? are the all-important questions. Constantly do we hear it said of one deceased, "He has gone to his reward". But, from the testimony of the Word, tell us where the believer is directed to look for his recompense at death? He is taught to aspire to a crown. But we are not to infer, because it is said, "Be thou faithful unto death", — that is up to the point of suffering martyrdom for Me, — "and I will give thee a crown of life", that our dying day is our crowning day, and that St. Sepulchre has been especially commissioned to preside at our coronation. To those who share Christ's travail and sorrow in the present life, for the rescuing of souls, a coronet of joy is promised. And when? "For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming?" (1 Thess. 2:19) To those who have chosen the portion of suffering with Christ in this world, as a little flock, it is written: "And when the Chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away" (1 Peter 5:4). To the steadfast soldier, who has fought the good fight, and finished his course, and kept the faith, the assurance is: "Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord the righteous judge shall give me at that day; and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing" (2 Tim. 4:8). Of that other crown — the fourth — the time of the bestowal is not mentioned: "Blessed is the man that endureth temptation; for when he hath been approved he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord promised to them that love Him" (James 1:12, R.V.). But since it is the "corona vitae", it is evident that it will be given at Christ's advent, when forever "death is swallowed up in victory," and not at our decease, when for the time life is swallowed up in defeat . . .

    "Thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just", said our Lord, speaking concerning the good deeds done to the poor. But, in the light of other Scriptures, we may say that there is no promise that has so general an application. If death be the payment of the debt of nature, the first resurrection, at our Lord's appearing, will be the full repayment of the debt of grace. For this event will give us back all that we have lost: our friends in Christ, looking and speaking as they were wont; our inheritance in an earth renewed and glorified; and the temple of our body, no longer a house divided against itself through the conflict of sin, but raised up and re-dedicated with surpassing glory. Christ's redemption is not a compromise with Death, but a reimbursement for all of which he has robbed us, — a full refunding, exacted by the lawsuit of the atonement, of our defrauded inheritance. — A. J. Gordon, Ecce Venit (London: Hodder& Stoughton, 1890), pp.30-43.

4. If we are to think in Biblical categories, we must look at man wholistically. God created a whole man. It was the whole man that sinned, and it is the whole man who comes under the judgment of death. On this point Dr. Helmut Thielicke expresses the opinion of much modern scholarship which has returned to more Hebraic anthropology:

    It follows that I dare not regard my death, even under the aspect of biological mask, as something that no longer strikes the real me, since I am immortal, but moves on bypassing my soul. No, all of me goes down into death. Nothing gives me the right to reject the totality of man, which the Scriptures proclaim in connection with the disaster of death, and suddenly split him into body and soul, into a perishable and an imperishable I-segment. But as a Christian I go down into this death with the complete confidence that I cannot remain therein, since I am one whom God has called by name and therefore I shall be called anew on God's day. I am under the protection of the Resurrected One. I am not immortal, but I await my own resurrection . . .

    At this point the reformers' biblical understanding of justification reaches, as it were, its high point. Just as I stand with empty hands before God and remain standing, just as I can only beseech God nevertheless to accept me, in just this fashion do I move into my death with empty hands and without any death-proof substance in my soul, but only with my gaze focused on God's hand and with the petition on my lips, "Hand that will last, hold thou me fast!" — Helmut Thielicke, Death and Life (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), pp.198,199.

Christ died to redeem the whole man. Redemption is not consummated until "the resurrection of the dead." Says Lutheran scholar Dr. Paul Althaus:

The hope of the early church centered on the resurrection on the Last Day. It is this which first calls the dead into eternal life (1 Cor. 15; Phil. 3:20f.). This resurrection happens to the man and not only to the body. Paul speaks of the resurrection not of "the body" but of "the dead." This understanding of the resurrection implicitly understands death as also affecting the total man . . .

Thus the original biblical concepts have been replaced by ideas from Hellenistic gnostic dualism. The New Testament idea of the resurrection which affects the total man has had to give way to the immortality of the soul. The Last Day also loses its significance, for souls have received all that is decisively important long before this. Eschatological tension is no longer strongly directed to the day of Jesus' coming. The difference between this and the hope of the New Testament is very great.

. . . the decisive New Testament insights reappear in Luther and once again become the dominating elements in his thinking.—Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), pp.413,414.

Says respected Biblical scholar William Barclay:

The word for resurrection, anastasis, occurs about forty times in the New Testament. It is used eight times of the resurrection of Jesus. When it is used of men it appears simply as the resurrection fourteen times; eleven times it is accompanied by nekron or ton nekron, which means the resurrection of the dead; twice it appears as the resurrection ek nekron or ek ton nekron, which means the resurrection from the dead or from among the dead. On five occasions it has descriptive phrases attached to it: the resurrection of the just (Luke 14:14); the resurrection of life and the resurrection of judgment (John 5:29); the resurrection of the just and of the unjust (Acts 24:15); the first resurrection (Revelation 20:5, 6). Typical occurrences of the words are resurrection alone, Matthew 22:23, 28, 30; Mark 12:18, 23; Luke 20:27, 33; John 11:24, 25; Acts 17:18; 23:8; 2 Timothy 2:18; resurrection of the dead, Matthew 22:31; Acts 17:22; 23:6; 24:21; 26:23; 1 Corinthians 15:12,13, 21, 42; resurrection from the dead, Luke 20:35; Acts 4:2. Scripture does not speak either of the resurrection of the body or of the resurrection of the flesh. William Barclay, The Plain Man Looks at the Apostles' Creed (London & Glasgow: Collins Press, 1967), p.334.

As William Tyndale, English Reformer and father of the English Bible, pointed out, St. Paul did not comfort the bereaved with an ethereal doctrine of spirit existence, but he led them to fasten their hope on the coming of Christ and the resurrection (1 Thess. 4:15-17).

Finally, we cite A Theological Word Book of the Bible, edited by Alan Richardson, D.D. (art. F. J. Taylor, "Immortality"):

    The Bible writers, holding fast to the conviction that the created order owes its existence to the wisdom and love of God and is therefore essentially good, could not conceive of life after death as a disembodied existence ("we shall not be found naked", 2 Cor. 5:3), but as a renewal under new conditions of the intimate unity of body and soul which was human life as they knew it. Hence death (qv) was thought of as the death of the whole man, and such phrases as "freedom from death", "imperishability" or "immortality" could only properly be used to describe what is meant by the phrase the eternal or living God (v LIFE, LIVING), "who only hath immortality" (1 Tim. 6:16). Man does not possess in himself this quality of deathlessness but must, if he is to overcome the destructive power of death, receive it as the gift of God,"who raised Christ from the dead", and put death aside like a covering garment (1 Cor. 15:53-4). It is through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that this possibility for man (2 Tim. 1:10) has been brought to light and the hope confirmed that the corruption (Rom. 11:7) which is a universal feature of human life shall be effectively overcome. (V also HELL, RESURRECTION.) — pp.111,112.
5. There is one more reason why the New Testament focuses on a single cosmic day of redemption. The believer is only a part of the body of Christ, which along with all creation must be released from the bondage of suffering and decay. As long as one member of the body suffers, all must suffer. (Even the great Head of the church is afflicted in all the affliction of His people [Isa. 63:g].) When this great fact is grasped, it will exorcise the selfishness of hoping merely for our individual day of redemption. Redemption cannot be consummated for me until it is consummated for all my brethren. I cannot get to the desired inheritance before them, and my brethren cannot go over into the "promised land" unless they carry the bones of Joseph with them.

In Romans 8 Paul shows that the elect all groan together that all might come to that great final redemption together (Rom. 8:18-23). This spirit of corporate oneness and concern pervades the Old Testament as well. Daniel the prophet prayed for the restoration of Israel from captivity. What would an individual release have meant to him unless all his people were released? Jesus also taught us to pray, 'Thy kingdom come. St. Paul tells the Thessalonians that those who are alive at the time of Christ's coming will not have a head start over those who have died (". . . shall not prevent [precede] them which are asleep" — 1 Thess. 4:15). Neither shall those who die in the Lord and rest from their labors (Rev. 14:13) have a head start over those who live on. Says the writer to the Hebrews, ". . . only in company with us should they [who have died] reach their perfection." Heb. 11:40, N.E.B.

This brings us to the matter of "the intermediate state." Really, what does the Bible say beyond that those who have died in the Lord are "with Christ," that their spirit — their individual character, or identity— has returned to God to be preserved, that they "rest from their labours" and "sleep in Jesus"? Rev. 14:13; 1 Thess. 4:14. One thing is clear. They are not redeemed as an empirical reality until Jesus comes.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the views of Calvin and Luther at this point. Calvin defended the doctrine of the innate immortality of the soul, using without apology the classical arguments of Greek philosophy. Yet he approached the subject of the intermediate state with commendable caution. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion he said:
    Meanwhile, since Scripture everywhere bids us wait in expectation for Christ's coming, and defers until then the crown of glory, let us be content with the limits divinely set for us: namely, that the souls of the pious, having ended the toil of their warfare, enter into blessed rest, where in glad expectation they await the enjoyment of promised glory, and so all things are held in suspense until Christ the Redeemer appear. — (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), Bk. 3, chap. 25, sec. 6.
To Calvin the blessedness of this intermediate state was only of a precursory nature. There is still waiting in expectation for the crown to be attained. Many who have followed on from Calvin have not been willing to hold these departed souls in such "agonized" suspense, so they have proposed that they enter their reward immediately. This illustrates what we mean when we say that individual eschatology eats up cosmic eschatology.

Luther's viewpoint was quite different. He rejected the medieval church's concept of the soul being inherently immortal, calling these ideas "monstrous opinions" out of the "Roman dunghill of decretals." — Martin Luther, Assertion of All the Articles Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull,Nov. 2g, 1520. Like righteousness, Luther viewed immortality as something which stood outside of man. This did not mean that he concluded that a dead man ceases to exist. He whom God wishes to speak to, either in love or in anger, cannot cease to exist. The immortality does not reside in the nature of man but in Christ and in His word of promise.

As for the popular notion that the souls of the righteous have the full enjoyment of heaven prior to the resurrection, Luther whimsically remarked, "It would take a foolish soul to desire its body when it was already in heaven!" — D. Martin Luthers Werke, ed. Tischreden (Weimar, 1912-1921), p.5534, cited by Althaus, op. cit, p.417. He said further:
    Now, if one should say that Abraham's soul lives with God but his body is dead, this distinction is rubbish. I will attack it. One must say, The whole Abraham, the whole man, shall live. The other way you tear off a part of Abraham and say, "It lives." — Table Talk, cited by Althaus, op. cit., p.447.
As Althaus points out, "Luther generally understands the condition between death and the resurrection as a deep, dreamless sleep without consciousness and feeling." —Althaus, op. cit, p.414. Said Luther:
    For just as a man who falls asleep and sleeps soundly until morning does not know what has happened to him when he wakes up, so we shall suddenly rise on the Last Day; and we shall know neither what death has been like or how we have come through it. — Ibid.

    We are to sleep until he comes and knocks on the grave and says, "Dr. Martin, get up." Then I will arise in a moment and will be eternally happy with him. — Ibid., p.415.
Yet Luther could still speak of the departed being with the Lord as fully redeemed men. This is because he saw God as above and outside of our time. When a man dies, he passes out of time and arrives at the last day. In this sense there is no time between death and the resurrection. Yet all will reach the last day together.

With his rejection of man's innate immortality and his emphasis on justification by an outside righteousness and death and resurrection of the total man, Luther, more than any other Reformer, brought the eschaton into sharper and more urgent focus.

1 The "ology" of death — from the Greek word thanatos, meaning death

2 Christ's coming for us is therefore an act of grace (1 Peter 1:13) since it implies that we have no ability to go to Him.