Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
As the biblical doctrine of the last things, eschatology concerns an end of all things. It has to do with the end of all things—the end of time and history; the end of our present world; the end of the history of the church; the end of the time of salvation; and the end of each human personally.
The end with which escha-tology is concerned is not merely the cessation of time, history, and the world. It is true, of course, that time will eventually run out, history will be done, and the world will be no more. Time will have its final moment. History will have its last chapter. The present creation will pass away.
Scripture denies that the history of this world goes on forever. It is the scoffers who teach that “all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.” Their teaching of an endless continuance of the world and its history is a direct assault upon the truthfulness of Jesus Christ and upon the hope of the church. For the teaching is intended to cast doubt upon Jesus’ promise of His second coming: “Where is the promise of his coming?” Against this unbelieving assertion that the world goes on forever, the apostle opposes the truth that there is coming a day—”the day of the Lord”—”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.” The universe will be “dissolved” (II Pet. 3).
But the end of all things in the doctrine of Scripture is far more than their eventually petering out. Even evolution acknowledges this kind of an end of all things, at least of all things earthly. Evolutionists gravely predict that after millions of years the energy of the sun will burn out, so that the earth will grow cold and die. The end that Scripture teaches, however, is the goal of time, history, and this present world. The Greek word in the New Testament is telos, which means ‘purpose’ (I Cor. 15:24; I Pet. 4:7). From this Greek word comes the English word “teleology” (increasingly popular in scientific circles today), referring to the study of the evidences of design or purpose in nature and history.
The end of all things is certainly an event that puts a stop to all things. By it, the present form of creation, space, time, and history reach the limit that God has set for them. But it is also that which gives them meaning and significance. It is that for which, knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly, all things were aiming. It is that which accounts for the existence of all things, as well as for their movement in history. When the end occurs, all men will say, “Ah, now I understand both the history of the world and my own personal history, to the minutest detail. This is why everything had to be, and this is why everything happened as it did.” The reprobate unbeliever will confess this relation of all things to the end, gnashing his teeth; the elect believer, with a broadening smile of delight.
The idea of the end in Scripture is not that of one’s rusting old car sputtering and finally giving up its automotive ghost, so that the owner junks it and says, “That’s the end of it.” Rather, the idea is that of the graduate’s finally completing his long course of schooling, so that he can enter upon the work which was the goal of all his studies.
In this way, Christ spoke of the “end of the world” in Matthew 24:14. In answer to His disciples’ question in verse 3, “Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” Jesus said that the gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world “and then shall the end come.” By means of the preaching of the gospel, and when the preaching of the gospel shall have finished its course, the world will one day reach its goal.
So far is the end of all things from being the mere cessation, the petering out, of everything, that it is, in fact, a beginning—a new beginning. This is what the end will be for the individual elect believer: he will receive a new body and a new name (I Cor. 15:42-54; Rev. 2:17). This is what the end will be for the church: the consummation of her marriage to Jesus (Rev. 19:6-8). This is what the end will be for the creation: renewal unto a new heaven and a new earth (Rom. 8:19-22; Rev. 21:1).
With its conception of the end of all things as the attaining of the goal of all things, the Christian faith distinguishes itself from naturalism, philosophy, and pagan religions. Naturalism expects that the earth and its life, if not the entire universe, will eventually perish, whether by catastrophe or by gradual decay—T. S. Eliot’s “bang” and “whimper.” In neither case does the universe reach a goal.
The best that philosophy can do is to speculate of a vague immortality of the soul as the future, though not the goal, of the individual life.
Heathen religions do not even think in terms of linear time. Therefore, they know nothing of history as a progression from a beginning to an ending. Rather, they have a dreary cyclical view of the movement of human life and of the world: reincarnation and endless revolvings of epochs. Theirs is the application of the unredeemed vanity of Ecclesiastes to the world as a whole and to everything the world contains.
Because they are ignorant of the end of all things, as the goal of all things, naturalism, philosophy, and paganism are hopeless. Although he was giving expression to the utter hopelessness of his own naturalism, or materialism, Bertrand Russell eloquently voiced the despair of philosophy and paganism as well.
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving: that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noon-day brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet nearly so certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built…. Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race the slow sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little days … proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate for a moment his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power (“A Free Man’s Worship,” in the Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, George Allen and Unwin, 1961, p. 72).
Before the Ephesians were “made nigh by the blood of Christ” and came to know the purpose of God with all things, they had no hope (Eph. 2:12, 13; Eph. 1:9, 10). Because only the Christian gospel knows the end, only the Christian gospel proclaims hope.
The explanation of the end of all things is God’s appointment of the goal of the world, time, history, and the human race in His eternal counsel. In the free exercise of His sovereignty, God has decreed His purpose with all things. There is the end of all things in history’s last moment, because there is the beginning of all things in the eternal purpose of the decreeing God. God’s decree of the goal is the reason why He knows the day and hour of this end, or goal, of the world, as Christ teaches in Matthew 24:36. That God eternally purposed the goal of all things, and what this goal is, the apostle declares in Ephesians 1:9, 10: “Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: that in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth; even in him.”
When God created all things in the beginning of Genesis 1:1, He had this end in view. By the providence with which He upholds and governs all things ever after, He unerringly directs all things to this end. Eschatology depends squarely upon the sovereignty of God, who once created and now governs the universe according to His purposeful decree. All things move toward their one end. Nothing fails to move toward the end, whether the disobedience of Adam, or the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, or the departure of many professing Christians from the faith, or the falling of a sparrow from a housetop. The reason is not blind necessity, or fortuitous circumstance, or a mindless, evolutionary impulse immanent in the world seeking utopia. The reason is the infinite wisdom and almighty power of the God and Father of Jesus Christ, “who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will,” to achieve His purpose (Eph. 1:11).
The truth of the end of all things is fundamental to biblical eschatology. To ignore the end, or to mistake it, is to skew everything that the Bible teaches about the things that must shortly come topass. As a result, one cannot discern, or rightly interpret, the signs of the end, even though he sees them. One who mistakes the end very really runs the risk of seeking and working for a wrong end, both of his own life and of all things. He will be indifferent to, and may even resist, futilely, God’s end.