Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
If eschatology has been somewhat neglected by the church in the past, this is not, and may not be, the case today. Eschatology is forced upon the church’s attention by erroneous teachings about the last things. Some of these teachings are enormously popular among Protestants. Certain of them make inroads into Reformed and Presbyterian churches.
The Optimism of Liberalism
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, theological liberalism optimistically proclaimed the gradual perfection of the human race and its world by means of natural human goodness and the improvement of social conditions. Liberalism heralded this utopia as the coming of the kingdom of God in the biblical millennium. Cried Walter Rauschenbusch in his influential A Theology for the Social Gospel (Macmillan, 1917), “We need a restoration of the millennial hope.”
In the twentieth century, liberals in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches have grafted this hope of the natural perfecting of man, social relations, and nature itself deeply into evolutionary theory. Man and the universe are steadily evolving, onwards and upwards, to perfection. Inherent in this theory is the notion that God and the world are essentially one (pantheism). God and the world are developing unto perfection together.
The teaching of universal salvation becomes increasingly prominent in liberal and neo-orthodox theologians and their disciples. Karl Barth taught the eventual salvation of all men, even though he was curiously hesitant to admit it. The final “restoration of all” for Barth is grounded in his doctrine of God’s election of all without exception and in his doctrine that the cross was Jesus Christ’s becoming the reprobate in the place of every human. In Barth’s theology is continued the stubborn strain of universalism that has afflicted the church through the ages, appearing first in Origen.
Barth’s disciples push universalism even more aggressively. The German Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann envisions the salvation, not only of all humans without exception but also of Satan and the devils:
In the divine Judgment all sinners, the wicked and the violent, the murderers and the children of Satan, the Devil and the fallen angels will be liberated and saved from their deadly perdition through transformation into their true, created being, because God remains true to himself, and does not give up what he has once created and affirmed, or allow it to be lost (Jurgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, Fortress, 1996, p. 255).
Universalism now appears also in more conservative, Reformed quarters. Arguing from his conviction that the Bible teaches a desire, or purpose, of God to save all men without exception, especially in I Timothy 2:4, the Dutch Reformed theologian Jan Bonda has written advocating the eventual salvation of all men without exception (The One Purpose of God: An Answer to the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment, Eerdmans, 1998). The foreword to this book is an enthusiastic approval and recommendation of Bonda’s universalism by Christian Reformed theologian Sierd Woudstra.
Harry R. Boer proposed the possibility, not only of the salvation of those who live and die without ever having heard the gospel but also of the salvation of every human without exception on the basis of the image of God in man. According to Boer all men retain the image of God in part, regardless of the fall. Since God will not allow any part of His image to perish, it may be hoped that He will save all without exception, if not in this life then after their death (Harry R. Boer, An Ember Still Glowing: Humankind as the Image of God (Eerdmans, 1990).
Denial of Hell
Closely related to universalism is the rejection of the everlasting punishment of reprobate ungodly men and women, which also surfaces today in evangelical circles. John R. W. Stott and Philip E. Hughes are prominent evangelicals who deny hell by teaching that any obstinate unbeliever will be annihilated. In this rejection of everlasting punishment, these men express agreement with the cults, which also deny the eternal punishment of those who die in unbelief.
Another grievous eschatologi-cal error that is found among those who claim to be conservative Christians is dispensational premillennialism. Originating with the nineteenth century British preachers Edward Irving and John Nelson Darby, this heresy holds that Christ can come at any moment to take the church into the clouds for seven years—the “rapture.” His purpose with the rapturing of the church is that He may again deal savingly with the Jews. According to this teaching, the Jews remain Christ’s kingdom people. During the seven years of the church’s rapture, Christ will convert the majority of the Jews. He will then return bodily and visibly to restore the Old Testament nation of Israel as the Messianic kingdom of God for one thousand years. He Himself will reign over this carnal kingdom from Jerusalem. Only after the thousand years of this glorious, earthly, Jewish kingdom will the end come.
The popularity of this view of the last things is evident from the vast numbers of fundamentalist and evangelical churches that espouse it. This view becomes more popular still at the present time, and spreads even in secular circles, by means of the wildly successful series of fiction by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins known as “Left Behind” (the first volume in the series, published by Tyndale House in 1995, was titled Left Behind). Some twenty-five years before the publication of the first volume in the “Left Behind” series, the theology of dispensational premillen-nialism, which undergirds the novels in the series “Left Behind,” was popularized by the equally fictitious work by Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Zondervan, 1970).
Postmillennialism is also a threat. It is more of a threat to Reformed churches than is dispensational premillennialism simply because postmillennialism claims to be in harmony with the Reformed faith, as dispensationalism obviously is not. Postmillennialism teaches that in the future, before the bodily coming of Christ and the end of all things, the Spirit of Christ will convert and save the majority of mankind. Some go so far as to prophesy that all humans then living will be saved. The result will be the “Christianizing” of the entire world and a “golden age” of earthly peace, prosperity, and power for the church. This thousand-year, earthly triumph of the gospel will be the kingdom of Christ in a special way.
The sixteenth and seventeenth century Puritans were inclined toward postmillennialism. This Puritan thinking about the last days found expression in the Savoy Declaration of 1658, an emendation of the earlier Westminster Confession of Faith, which had refused to adopt the postmillennial escha-tology.
According to his [God’s] promise, we expect that in the latter days, Antichrist being destroyed, the Jews called, and the adversaries of the kingdom of his dear Son broken, the churches of Christ being enlarged and edified through a free and plentiful communication of light and grace, shall enjoy in this world a more quiet, peaceable, and glorious condition than they have enjoyed (26.5, in Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3, Harper & Brothers, 1877, p. 723).
This brand of postmillen-nialism is vigorously promoted today by the Banner of Truth, headquartered in Edinburgh, Scotland. This organization has powerful, worldwide influence by its publication and distribution of Reformed books and other literature. It emphasizes the inauguration of the millennial “golden age” through revivals, by which is meant sudden, extraordinary workings of the Spirit upon multitudes over large areas. These outbursts of the Spirit are supposed to produce large numbers of conversions, an increase of godliness and spirituality, and a corresponding improvement—”Christianizing”—of society. Iain H. Murray of the Banner of Truth has both described the Puritan doctrine of the last days and defended it as the hope of the church in his The Puritan Hope, significantly sub-titled, Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy (The Banner of Truth, 1971).
Much more radical and aggressive is the postmillennialism of the movement in Reformed and Presbyterian churches that calls itself Christian Reconstruction. The founder was the Presbyterian theologian Rousas J. Rushdoony. His disciples, able, literate, and prolific of books and articles, include Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, Gary DeMar, and Kenneth Gentry (see Rushdoony, Thy Kingdom Come: Studies in Daniel and Revelation, Ross House, repr. 2001; North, Unconditional Surrender: God’s Program for Victory, Institute for Christian Economics, 1988; Bahnsen, “The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism,” in The Journal of Christian Reconstruction: Symposium on the Millennium, 3, no. 2, Winter 1976-77; DeMar, Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church, American Vision, 1994; Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology, Institute for Christian Economics, 1992).
Encouraged by their expectation of the coming “golden age,” these men call on the church to preach the earthly dominion of the saints in the world. They urge all Christians to strive for this dominion over culture and nations. They castigate those Christians and churches that fail to do so as losers and, worse, as blasphemers.
So much is this coming dominion of Christians the fullest and best form of the kingdom of Christ for Christian Reconstruction that it teaches that the “Christianized” nation, or nations, of the world will then be governed by the civil law that bound Old Testament Israel. The future, earthly, political world-power of the saints will be the fulfillment of the Old Testament nation of Israel—the real Messianic kingdom in the fullness of its power, prosperity, peace, and glory.
Development of the Truth
The effect of all these errors in eschatology upon Reformed churches must be that the churches search Scripture more diligently than ever before regarding Scripture’s teaching on the last things. The result will be, not only that the churches will maintain the fundamental truths of eschatology against the abounding and popular errors but also that the churches will develop eschatology. Indeed, this has always been the purpose of the sovereign God with false doctrine. He has used the heretics and their heresies for the development of the truth in His church. The church has come to clearer and fuller understanding of the truth of Scripture as she has been compelled to struggle with error. Often she expressed her better understanding of the truth in a creed.
By way of the struggle against Arius’ denial of the deity of Jesus, the church developed the truth of the divine and human natures of Jesus in one divine person. She confessed this truth about Jesus in the Nicene Creed. The Arminian heresy of universal grace conditioned on the free will of the sinner occasioned the Reformed churches’ confession of particular, sovereign grace in the Canons of Dordt.
Similarly, the welter of eschatological errors at the present time, with the fulfillment in history of the events that signal the nearness of the end, requires the church to come to a clearer and fuller understanding of the Bible’s teaching on the last things than she has had before. It is conceivable that she will express her development of eschatology in a confession, or in a declaration that clarifies and expands her existing confessions. This confession, or authoritative declaration, would have a negative as well as a positive section, a rejection of eschatological errors as well as a pointed affirmation of the truth of eschatology.
There is reason to think that, of all the main topics revealed in Holy Scripture, the truth of the end is least developed in the church. No creed is devoted to eschatology. With the possible exception of the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566, the Reformation creeds are comparatively brief and general in their treatment of eschatology. They limit themselves to a positive statement of the fundamental articles of the Christian faith regarding eschatology. Nor is this surprising. Most of the errors in eschatology that now trouble the church arose after the Reformation and its confessional documents.
As Reformed theologians apply themselves to the study, defense, and development of eschatology, they must remember that they have sure guidelines in the creeds, particularly the Reformation creeds, and to some extent in the tradition of the church, especially the tradition of the Reformed church. In their study, they must be fully aware of the erroneous views. And their study must consist of work with the biblical teaching. Exegesis is demanded.
Herman Hoeksema has done significant, ground-breaking work in eschatology in his commentary on Revelation, Behold, He Cometh! An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1969; 2nd ed., 2000).