The Doctrine of the Last Things (part 6)

November 09, 2009     Time: 00:31:26

We have been talking about the Doctrine of the Last Things, particularly the second coming of Christ. Today we want to draw this section to a close. We’ve looked at the biblical data. We’ve talked about the nature of the second coming, the purpose of the second coming. Now last time we talked about the time of the second coming in which I argued that even Jesus himself did not know the time of his second coming and that we don’t have good grounds for thinking that he believed that it was going to happen within the generation of his contemporaries.

Before we move on to the last point of application, let me just say a couple more words by way of caution about the date of the second coming.

1. We’ve seen over and over again that the time of Christ’s second coming will be unexpected. It will catch people by surprise.

Matthew 24:44 indicates this, “Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” This is spoken to believers, not just to unbelievers.

Also, Acts 1:7, Jesus said to the disciples – and this is an interesting question. Look at verse 6. The disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Is it now, Lord? Is it going to happen now? And what does Jesus say? “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.” So he squelches this idea that this is something that is going to occur immediately and says it is going to be unexpected.

So we have to realize that this is an event that will catch people by surprise. Therefore, we should always be ready because we do not know when it will occur. We should not use the unfulfilled signs, for example, that evangelism of the world hasn’t taken place yet or that the man of lawlessness hasn’t appeared yet. We shouldn’t take these unfulfilled signs as an excuse for not being ready because it could catch us by surprise – it will catch us by surprise – and therefore we must not excuse ourselves because we think some of the signs are unfulfilled.

Look at Matthew 24:45-51 which we read last time:

“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with the drunken, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will punish him, and put him with the hypocrites; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.

So the second coming will be unexpected and this is an incentive for us to always be prepared. He may return within our lifetime.

2. God’s time scale is different than ours. Look at 2 Peter 3:8-10,

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.

For a being who is everlasting, time becomes insignificant.[1] It is only for beings that are transitory in their existence (like us) that time is a significant factor. But for a being which is eternal or everlasting, temporal duration just becomes utterly trivial compared to his existence. So for God a delay of a few thousand years is nothing for him though it may seem significant to us.

3. Understand that Christians have always believed that theirs is the last generation. People have always thought that they are living in the end-times. And of course up until now at least they’ve always been wrong. So we need to be cautious about making assertions like “these are the end-times” in the sense that Christ is going to return within our generation. Most recent example of this is a well known one – Edgar Whisenant in 1988 published a book 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. And this book caused a great stir among Christians at the time. When it didn’t, well he re-figured and calculated that it would come just a little bit later and of course that didn’t happen either. So I think we need to be circumspect about making these kinds of predictions. Remember what Jesus said that it will come at a time and hour that we do not expect and do not know.

I want to say one last thing with respect to this question of the time of the second coming. And that is it is difficult, I think, for us living in the world which seems to be going on so well – thank you – to think that Christ could suddenly return next August, say. Or maybe even next Tuesday. That the world is going to come to an end and Christ is going to return and the whole cosmos will be dissolved as 2 Peter describes. That might make it difficult for some of you perhaps to believe in the second coming of Christ. Its incredible “otherness” and precipitousness make it difficult to believe in such a thing. In fact, this is an attitude that you find reflected in the New Testament as well. In 2 Peter 3:4 it talks about scoffers who would come saying “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.” These scoffers said, “Look, the universe from the moment it has been created has continued on fine and there is no reason to think that Christ is going to be coming again as you claimed.”

What these scoffers did not realize, and of course could not have realized, is that modern physical cosmology shows that even on a purely secular view of the universe the universe may well face an impending worldwide destruction. If the universe is suspended, as some cosmologists think may be possible, in a state called a false vacuum – [Dr. Craig draws a diagram on the whiteboard] let’s imagine this ball here represents the universe and this trough here represents a false vacuum state in which the vacuum that underlies the whole universe is not a low energy – zero energy – but is a false vacuum in which the universe is temporarily hung up then quantum physics predicts that inevitably the universe will eventually slide down this slope to the true vacuum state. And when it does so it will bring about a complete metamorphosis of nature. Because this is an indeterminate quantum transition it is completely unpredictable. It could happen at virtually any time. It could happen tomorrow! Seriously. What would happen in such a transition is that bubbles of true vacuum would begin to form at places in the universe rather like ice as it begins to form on the surface of a pond at different places.[2] Then these bubbles would propel themselves across the universe at fantastic speeds, bringing worldwide destruction with them. In their book The Five Ages of the Universe on page 154 the cosmologists Fred Adams and Gregory Laughlin describe this impending catastrophe. This is their words,

Silently, and without warning of any kind, it came. Every cosmic structure it swept over was left disembodied and disfigured in its wake. The description was frightening in both its awful swiftness and its devastating completeness.

The shock wave began at a particular but rather undistinguished point of space-time and then traveled outward at blinding speed, rapidly approaching the speed of light. The expanding bubble then enveloped an ever larger portion of the universe. Because of its phenomenal velocity, the shock wave impinged upon regions of space with no advance warning. No light signals, radio waves, or causal communication of any kind could outrun the advancing front and forewarn of the impending doom. Preparation was as impossible as it was futile.

Inside the bubble, the laws of physics and hence the very character of the universe were completely changed. The values of the physical constants, the strengths of the fundamental forces, and the masses of the elementary particles were all different. New physical laws ruled in this Alice-in-Wonderland setting. The old universe, with its old version of the laws of physics, simply ceased to exist.

One could view this death and destruction of the old universe as a cause for concern. Alternatively . . . as a reason for celebration. Inside the bubble, with its new physical laws and the accompanying new possibilities for complexity and structure, the universe has achieved a new beginning.

As it were, a new heavens and a new earth. The parallels between this scenario and the apocalyptic scenario described in 2 Peter about the heavens being dissolved and the earth and everything being destroyed are just unmistakeable and striking. A complete metamorphosis of nature, sudden without warning, like a thief in the night, unavoidable, and issuing in a new heavens and a new earth. A renovated universe. So the fact of the matter is that whether you are a Christian or you are a non-Christian, the idea of an unexpected universe-wide apocalyptic destruction is something you have to face. It is not something that is peculiar to Christian eschatology (or doctrine of the last things) – it is also a part of physical eschatology today.

What application does this have for our lives?

1. Prepare ourselves by living lives of holiness and godliness. Here there is a noted difference between what our two cosmologists tell us and what 2 Peter tells us. The cosmologists, you remember, said that preparation is as futile as it was impossible. But what does 2 Peter 3 say? Well, in verses 11 to 13, the author goes on to say,

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that what is described in 2 Peter is a symbolic or metaphorical description of a worldwide quantum transition. Rather, I am simply making the more modest claim that if physical eschatology involves the prospect of an impending worldwide destruction of the universe that could come upon us at any moment, then the Christian doctrine of the return of Christ shouldn’t be rejected because of its mind boggling otherness and precipitousness. Rather, what we ought to do in light of this is to prepare ourselves for it by living lives of holiness and godliness (as 2 Peter says) so that when Christ returns we will not be ashamed before him.

1 John 3:2-3, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” As we look forward to the coming of Christ we want to purify ourselves and live lives that will be honorable before him so that we will not be ashamed at the time of his coming.[3]

So our first response should be one of holy living and righteous living.

2. We need to be about the work of the Great Commission. The Great Commission is given in Matthew 28:19-20. Jesus said,

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.

Until the close of the age Christ is with us and we are to be about the work of the worldwide evangelization of the population of this globe. We are to be proclaiming the Gospel until every person gets to hear.

John 9:4, Jesus again speaking, “We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work.” So while it is still day, let’s be involved and invested in the work of the Lord.

3. The second coming of Christ is our basis for hope. It is the blessed hope to which the church presses as we look to the future. Several verses here speak of this hope. Titus 2:12-13 speaks of living “. . . sober, upright, and godly lives in this world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” That is our blessed hope – his coming again.

Also Romans 8:22-25,

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Here the hope that we wait for is the resurrection, not only of our bodies but in a sense the resurrection of the entire created order. The whole creation, he says, groans in labor until its deliverance. There will be a new heavens and new earth and this creation will be freed from its bondage to sin and decay.

Colossians 1:27, again speaking of the hope, “To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” That is our hope; the hope of glory with Christ.

1 Corinthians 16:22. This is an interesting verse. “If any one has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come!” The Greek there is maranatha which is a transliteration of Aramaic. It means “Our Lord, come.” What is significant here is this is the language of the early church at prayer. Here we see the very language in Aramaic of what the early church prayed, even prior to its translation into Greek. Their prayer was “Our Lord, come.” This is the hope that they looked forward to. So the cry maranatha that many of us have heard is an Aramaic prayer meaning “Our Lord, come.”[4]

Finally, Revelation 22:20, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

That concludes what I wanted to share with respect to the second coming of Christ.

DISCUSSION

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I am open to that idea. I think that that could well be true. It could be that the second coming is in a sense indeterminate or conditional upon our faithfulness in discharging the Great Commission because it can’t occur until the Great Commission has been fulfilled. So it may well be the case that through the efforts of persons to evangelize the world that this would hasten the second coming of Christ. So I am open to that idea. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t know when it’s going to happen but it would mean that it is conditional on our obedience.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Well, I think Paul defines the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 when he says,

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

The atoning death and resurrection of Christ seem to me to be the heart of the Gospel.

Followup: [inaudible]

Answer: Well, those statements that I just read from 1 Corinthians 15 are doctrines. Those are doctrines. If someone, for example a Muslim, were to deny that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, I would say that he rejects Christianity – he rejects the Gospel. So it is at the heart of the Gospel that Christ died for our sins. Even if a Muslim claimed to be a follower of Jesus and maybe even claim to be a Christian (I don’t know) but deny that and I would think you would have to say this is counterfeit Christianity, it is not real Christianity. So I do think that doctrine is at the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel isn’t just a relationship with God. It is certain truths.

Now, having said that, I don’t think that there is a whole lot that is essential to the Gospel that you have to believe in order to be saved. I think that probably all of us will go into heaven having wrong doctrine. Some of us will have wrong views about the rapture, about baptism, about the nature of God, and so forth. We try our best but there is a lot more below the cutoff line, as I put it, than there is above the cutoff line. There is not a whole lot that is absolutely essential to salvation. But those things that are essential we can’t compromise on.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Well, the basis is the understanding of the quantum vacuum that underlies all of physical reality. According to contemporary physical theory, the whole universe is underlain by this sort of quantum mechanical vacuum which is a sea of roiling energy and particles and so forth that is governed by physical laws. These are unpredictable and they are indeterminate. So the idea here is that if the universe isn’t in a true vacuum state it is a state that cannot exist for eternity. Eventually, if there is any probability that it will slide down to a true vacuum state, given enough time it will happen.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: This is a really good question. I am very impressed that you remember all the way back to the section of divine eternity when we talked about God’s relationship to time! I would say this. There is a passage in Revelation that I don’t have the exact reference for where it says something like “Time will be no more.” But the Greek word for “time” there in that passage is not chronos such as we get our word chronological from. Rather, it is kairos which means time more in the sense of a significant time, a propitious time, a significant event.[5] It seems to me that when we think of the new heavens and the new earth that we will inhabit with resurrection bodies like Jesus’ then it is very clear that there will be time because these resurrection bodies are not going to be like frozen mannequins in a store window or ice statues. These are going to be dynamic bodies acting and interacting with one another just as Jesus after his resurrection was a dynamic physical person who could interact with those around him. So I don’t see any grounds for thinking that we are going to enter into a timeless state in which everything would be frozen. Rather, I think of the new heavens and the new earth as a physical reality that we will inhabit with physical supernatural bodies endowed with all sorts of superhuman abilities. We will be active and doing things, moving about, and therefore there will definitely be time.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I think we have to be very, very careful about how we interpret the book of Revelation. When it says here that there is an angel flying with an eternal Gospel to proclaim to all of those on the earth, that could well be a kind of symbolic or metaphorical way of talking about how the Great Commission will be fulfilled. I don’t think that we should think that this means that human beings will not fulfill the Great Commission but there will be this sort of angel flying around proclaiming it from the sky for people to hear. I think that is just far too literalistic in a book that is just filled with apocalyptic imagery and symbolism and metaphor. I do think it sounds like this verse is talking about the fulfillment of the Great Commission but I think it would press it much too literally and woodenly to say that this means that the Great Commission will not be fulfilled through our proclaiming it but through some sort of supernatural agency.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I wish I could! You will notice that in this study, I’ve tended to stay somewhat clear of the book of Revelation. I think that is largely because I don’t understand it. I find it very difficult to interpret, and therefore I don’t want to base any doctrine exclusively on it. I want to look at the clearer teachings of Paul and Jesus and then interpret Revelation in that light. So I have to say that my mind is very open on how to understand Revelation. I don’t have any sorts of firm views of this subject. That is one reason, for example, some of you have probably noticed, we didn’t talk about the millennium in this section. There are different views of the millennium: pre-millennial return of Christ with a literal thousand year reign on the earth, amillennial view where this is thought to be a symbolic but non-literal reign, or post-millennial view where the church age will accomplish the establishment of the Kingdom and then Christ will return. I am aware of these views; I am aware of the different arguments pro and con but I don’t have any settled opinions on them so I’ve just stayed away from it.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I would just encourage you to look at a variety of perspectives. For example, if you look at that perspective which is the kind of dispensational view, take a look at Hank Hanegraaff’s new book on the return of Christ, The Apocalypse Code, where he presents a quite different view. So I think that you have got to be careful not just to read one book from a certain point of view but take either a book that surveys different views or take different books from different people and then compare them with each other. These are difficult interpretive questions and not to be lightly resolved.[6]

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Yeah, you’ve got all the charts and it is all graphed out. Yeah, well, we all have areas of theology where we are more interested and more expert and other areas where we are less. And this is one where I am not.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Well, I say amen to that.

What we will do now in the next session is we will move from the study of the second coming of Christ to the state of the soul after death. What happens to you when you die? How does this relate to heaven and hell, the final resurrection, and the end state? That will be the subject that we will pick up next week.[7]



[1] 5:14

[2] 10:05

[3] 15:23

[4] 20:00

[5] 25:19

[6] 29:58

[7] Total Running Time: 31:26 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)