Doctrine of the Last Things (Part 5)

August 06, 2014     Time: 00:28:30

The last several lessons we’ve been asking the question: will there be one return of Christ or will there be multiple returns of Christ? We’ve looked at two views that both imply that there will actually be multiple returns of Christ: the Rapture view and the Preterist view. I’ve offered criticisms of both of those views.


Question: I was wondering whether we have taken that in too much of a literal sense, almost like when Jesus told Nicodemus about how you must be born again and he couldn’t comprehend it because, in a literal sense, being born again and going back into your mother’s womb is hard to comprehend. The first coming of Jesus is sowing of the seed of Emmanuel – God with us. That is a reality that he is going to bring to each one of us. The Second Coming of Christ, I suspect, is the maturity or the harvest of this thought, God with us. What do you think?

Answer: I will say more about the nature of the Second Coming today. I think this forms a nice segue. But I think what your question raises is the issue: is this going to be a literal event, a literal coming of Christ bodily and physically back to Earth, or could this be itself a sort of symbol of something else? I remember when I was doing my doctoral studies in Munich under Pannenberg, one day in the class lecture he affirmed something about the Second Coming of Christ and said, quoting Matthew, “It will be as the lightning shines from the east to the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”[1] I was stunned by this because I couldn’t imagine that a German theologian would actually affirm a literal Second Coming of Christ. It just astonished me. So I asked him about it after class and sure enough he said, “Well, who knows what that means. Maybe it just means the triumph of the Christian church in history. The Second Coming will be that the Gospel will go worldwide and the Kingdom of God will be established on Earth or something like that.” It was clear that he wasn’t necessarily taking it literally. I am going to say some things in a few moments that suggest that this is, in fact, a literal event; that it does involve a return of Christ to the Earth to bring about the end of human history.

I think in particular with regard to the resurrection, Paul’s doctrine in 2 Corinthians 5 about the intermediate state of the soul after death prior to the resurrection at the end of history shows that the resurrection is not just a sort of spiritual reality that occurs to each person when he dies but that there is this period of time – this interim period – during which the dead in Christ exist as disembodied souls. Paul says “to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord.”[2] Although this is regarded by Paul as less than a full human existence, nevertheless he says we have to pass through that state of nakedness, as he puts it. As the body is stripped away, the soul lives without the body with Christ until the day of the resurrection. Then you will remember what happens at the resurrection – the dead in Christ rise first. Christ will return bringing with him the souls of the deceased (the righteous dead) and then their bodies will be raised and reunited with their souls, and then those who are alive who have not gone through that state of nakedness who are still embodied at the time of Christ’s return will be similarly transformed into the kind of resurrection body that Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 15.

So I think that the reality of this intermediate state in particular prevents us from spiritualizing the resurrection and seeing it as less than an event that will take place at the end of human history.[3] It will involve a physical restoration and transformation of the body to become an immortal, incorruptible, powerful, and glorious resurrection body such as Christ had. That will then make us suitable for eternal life in the new heavens and the new Earth.

Question: Do you think there is a difference between Hyper-Preterism and Historic Preterism. Hyper-Preterism says that the resurrection has already occurred; there is no remaining prophecy to be fulfilled. Historic Preterism says that the Second Coming is still to come, just like the other orthodox view.

Answer: Clearly, there is a difference in the way he has defined those. It is obvious he has defined them differently. The one would see that the resurrection of the dead is still an event in the future that lies at the end of history. That would be N. T. Wright’s view. When asked, “Do you think all of this has actually happened?” he would say, “Of course not. Of course the resurrection still remains.” That is why I said Preterism actually implies a multiple return of Christ. There is the return in AD 70 but then there will be the eschatological return of the resurrection of the dead. The ad hoc-ness of that – the artificiality of that – is, I think, one of the weaknesses of Preterism.

If I might tell a personal anecdote. One of my debate colleagues in college at Wheaton was one of the most ardent Christians I’ve ever known. She loved to pray. She was a wonderful, zealous Christian. There is no doubt at all about her fellowship and walk with Christ. She became troubled with this problem of the delay of the parousia where Jesus says, “There are people standing here who will see the Son of Man. . . . All these things will take place within this generation.”[4] In order to interpret that verse as literally true, she began to embrace Preterism. But then what she realized was that implies that the resurrection must have occurred already. Therefore, she had to re-interpret 1 Corinthians 15 to be not a physical resurrection from the dead but just some sort of spiritual resurrection of the dead – that is what Paul meant by the spiritual body. And you can see the slippery slope that she began to slide down on until today she is an atheist and has completely abandoned Christian faith. I asked her sister – did it start with Preterism? And she said yes; that was the sort of crack in the dike that put her down this slippery slope.

So while there is this difference, I think the very artificiality and ad hoc-ness of Preterism differentiating between the return in AD 70 and then the final return of Christ shows that this isn’t a stable position.

Question: The answer I would give to her is – first of all, the word I believe is (in the Greek) genea, generation, which can mean race. So some people might say God’s people – the Israelites – will not pass away until this happens. That is one thing that would get her over the hump. But here is the second one: what generation was he talking about? Was he talking about the generation of people, the Hebrew men, that were listening to him or, as I believe, was he talking about the generation of people in the future who would see these things happen? This has spawned a whole lot of numerology like: because Israel was established in 1948 so add a generation to that. Of course they didn’t obtain control of Jerusalem until 1967 so add a generation to that. For that matter, what is a generation? So I fail to see how that would destroy her faith.

Answer: Obviously she didn’t find those solutions to be plausible. We are going to take this up later. This is the elephant in the room that has to be confronted. So we will get to that question, and we will talk about those proposed solutions to the problem later on.[5]

Question: Like he said, “There are some standing here who will not taste of death until they see the Kingdom of heaven come with power.” My position is that there are some people who have overcome and rule with Christ and they have been since he rose in that generation. That didn’t mean everybody and doesn’t preclude the physical resurrection later. It just means it is possible.

Answer: OK, I don’t want to launch off on this now ahead of time. We will get to this topic. So hang on to those comments and questions. We will come back to it. We certainly won’t overlook it.

Nature of the Second Coming

Let’s move ahead now to our next point which is the nature of the Second Coming. Here I want to make four points.

1. The Second Coming of Christ will be a personal coming. The discussion that we’ve had of the Rapture view and Preterism leaves us, I think, with the classical Christian view that the return of Christ will be a visible, decisive, singular event that will bring about the end of human history, the resurrection of the dead, and the judgment of mankind. That, I think, is the classical traditional view that best represents biblical teaching. So, with respect to the nature of the Second Coming, it will be personal. That is entailed by the classical view.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-15. Many of these verses we’ve read already.

But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.

This alludes to what I mentioned a few moments ago in response to the first question. Those who have died in Christ are now in this intermediate state of disembodied existence away from the body but at home with the Lord. When Christ comes again he will bring with him the souls of the departed righteous dead, and then their bodies will be raised from the dead in a transformed, powerful, immortal resurrection body. Then those who are alive at the time of Christ will similarly be transformed. So I think that this implies that this is a personal literal coming of Christ again with the deceased saints who are currently with Christ.

Also, look at Acts 1:11b. There the angels say to the disciples, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Christ ascended personally into heaven; he will come again personally from heaven. It is analogous.

2. The return of Christ will be glorious. In contrast to the humble state at which the first coming occurred, the Second Coming will be in his glory. Matthew 24:30 says,

then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.

Here we have this visible public event of power and glory which is the return of Christ.

Compare Mark 14:61-62. This is the trial scene where Jesus is interrogated by the high priest.

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

This leads immediately to Jesus’ condemnation for blasphemy.[6] Here Jesus is going to be seen on the clouds of heaven, seated at the right hand of God himself, coming in power.

Finally, Revelation 1:7, a passage which recalls the passage we read in Matthew, “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.”

So this will be a glorious, powerful return of Christ.

3. It will be a decisive event. By that I mean that this is the termination of human history. The return of Christ closes human history. 1 Corinthians 15:22-24,

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.

So the coming of Christ is not something that occurs so to speak midway through human history. This is the end of the world in the sense that it is the time at which the dead are raised, Christ destroys every enemy, and he hands the Kingdom over to God the Father.

So it is a decisive event.

4. Finally, it will be a sudden and unexpected event. Matthew 24:37-44:

As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man. Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left. Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

Here this indicates the abruptness and the unexpectedness of the return of Christ. The nature of the return of Christ therefore requires readiness on the part of his believers precisely because they do not know the time of his return.

Also look at 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6, Paul’s advice concerning this very subject. He says,

But as to the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape. But you are not in darkness, brethren, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all sons of light and sons of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.

We may not know when Christ will return, but this is a call to vigilance, to readiness, so that when he does return we won’t be caught off guard like the person whose house is burgled because he didn’t know that the thief was coming.[7]

So the nature of the Second Coming of Christ is going to be a personal, glorious, decisive, sudden, and unexpected event terminating human history.


Question: In Matthew – I think you actually quoted Mark but Matthew does the same thing – “He will send forth his angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together his elect from the four winds from one end of the sky to the other.” Do you see that as the same event? Here the angels are blowing the trumpet and they are going to get the elect from the four winds. Do you see that as the same thing mentioned in Thessalonians and Corinthians? The change in the twinkling of an eye?

Answer: Yes. I do. And in 1 Corinthians 15, particularly the trumpet call is so characteristic of all of these. You’ll notice – she is reading from Matthew 24:29ff – in verse 29 he says, “Immediately after the tribulation” this is going to happen. And then will be this visible return of the Son of Man and he sends out his angels to gather the elect. I take it that that is what Paul is talking about.

Followup: What is the mystery then in 1 Corinthians 15 that he is telling?

Answer: Let’s look at that again, before I speak off the top of my head. 1 Corinthians 15:51. It seems to me that it would be what follows that expression. “Lo! I tell you a mystery.” He is saying, I am telling you what the mystery is. i.e. “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.”

Followup: Didn’t Martha even understand that? When she talked about the regeneration? Was that a mystery that they would inhabit a Kingdom with Messiah? Do you think they didn’t know that there would be a resurrection?

Answer: Certainly Jews did believe in a resurrection. There is precedent in intertestamental literature about this involving a transformation of the body. In the intertestamental book of 2 Baruch – if you look at that – it talks about how they will be made like the stars of heaven and glorious and so forth.

Followup: Yes, from Daniel 12:1.

Answer: Yes, or Daniel; that is right. But I take it that from what Paul says he regards this as a mystery not in the sense that this is incomprehensible.

Followup: Well, that’s not what a mystery is.

Answer: Right.

Followup: A mystery is something revealed that has not been revealed before.

Answer: Yeah. So it seems to me that he gives the content of the mystery that we shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed. Whether living or dead, we will all be transformed to be suited for inhabiting an eternal Kingdom. The people to whom this was written – these Corinthians – found that to be just inconceivable. Look at verse 35. These Greek thinkers despised the material and the physical as the prison house of the body that dragged down the soul. So in verse 35 his opponents in Corinth say, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” They are mocking this idea of the resurrection of the body. Then I take it what Paul is saying in verse 51 is it is not going to be the resurrection of the old body that we presently have. This is going to be this marvelous transformation into this powerful, glorious, spiritual, immortal resurrection body. So they should not stumble at it. So I take it that that is what he is revealing to the Corinthians as the content of the mystery. That is why they should not be offended.

Followup: I would just say that those of us who believe in a rapture – which, by the way, you kept saying it was invisible. I don’t ever remember studying that or hearing that the rapture is invisible.

Answer: Invisible to the world – right? – even if Christians see it.

Followup: I don’t know. I never read that, so I don’t know. I don’t think God minds showing us all what he is doing.[8] But anyway, I would just say that for those of us who believe in a rapture, whether it is pre-, mid-, or whatever, that the mystery here is the rapture. That is what he is talking about. When you look at Matthew 24, which I believe is written to the Jews during Daniel’s 70th week (if you just circle all the ‘you’s and look at who he is talking to, he is talking to the Jews) that is then when he comes and all the tribes will mourn. I believe the tribes that it refers to is the Jews. I believe they will be saying the words of Isaiah 53. They are the only people on Earth who would say the words of Isaiah 53. That is what I wanted to ask you. Corinthians seems to be instantaneous in the twinkling of an eye where Mark and Matthew say he will send the angels and he will gather his elect. I believe that does happen but I believe it is going to take place over a period of time (the Matthew and the Mark events).

Answer: I did not take it that way. You are right. This is sudden. It is in the twinkling of an eye.

Followup: Instantaneous. There is like no time passes.

Answer: Or like “Boom!” It is like that. This would describe, I think, not only the resurrection of the dead but the gathering of those who are still alive at the time of Christ.

Followup: It would be all the believers at that point. They are going to be taken up.

Answer: Right. The dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.

Question: It seems to me that talking about the mystery we keep focusing on that second part – the “we will all be changed” part. But it seems to me the mystery is really the first part – “we will not all sleep.” The Jews believed in a resurrection of the dead, and I am sure the Corinthians had heard about that. But the point, it seems to me, he is making is we are not all going to be dead when that resurrection occurs. This is not completely the end of the world where everything is over. The resurrection occurs while some of us are still alive and we will all be caught up and changed.

Answer: Yeah, I thought you were going to say something different, but another view would be that verse 51 is not the beginning of the new paragraph, but it is the conclusion of the paragraph before it. “I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” That is the content of the mystery. But it would seem to me that the most natural way to think about this is “I tell you a mystery:” then what follows is what he is revealing to them. That would fit in with the problem that the Corinthians had about being offended about the resurrection of the body and why this mystery solves the problem. It involves a transformation.

What we will do then next time is begin to look at the purpose of the Second Coming. Why do we have this doctrine at all? Why does Christ come again? What is the purpose of this event? That will be next time.[9]


[1] cf. Matthew 24:27

[2] cf. 2 Corinthians 5:8

[3] 5:09

[4] cf. Matthew 16:28, 24:34

[5] 10:03

[6] 15:17

[7] 20:22

[8] 25:01

[9] Total Running Time: 28:30 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)