Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The abounding errors concerning the last things are by no means the only reason why eschatology must have a prominent place in the teaching of the church today. The truths of eschatology are a vitally important aspect of the content of Holy Scripture. It is a complete misunderstanding to suppose that the doctrine of the last things is merely a body of truth added at the end of a treatment of all the other doctrines of Scripture. Still worse was the omission of any separate treatment at all of the last things in older dogmatics, as though eschatology were unworthy of such attention. The truth is that the last things—centrally the coming of Christ—are the purpose and goal of all the revelation of God in Scripture. The gospel of Scripture is eschatological from beginning to end.
First and fundamentally, the promise of the gospel, which runs through the entire Bible as the very heart of biblical revelation, is eschatological. This is evident in the first proclamation of the gospel: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). By this promise Jehovah God taught His Old Testament people to hope for the Man, who is Jesus Christ, who would deliver all of the woman’s children by crushing the head of the serpent, who is Satan. The goal and ultimate fulfillment of this promise is the second coming of Jesus Christ, even though Christ did destroy the power of Satan by His cross. ForRomans 16:20, obviously referring to the promise of Genesis 3:15, directs the hope of the New Testament church to a future crushing of Satan’s head at the return of Christ. The very first announcement of the promise, by which all the Old Testament saints lived and which was the source of all subsequent promises of salvation, aimed at the second coming of Christ and the end of all things.
Other announcements of the promise in the Old Testament also clearly point to the second coming of Christ as their goal. For example, Isaiah’s prophecy of the sprouting of the branch from the stump of Jesse ends in the peaceable kingdom in which the knowledge of God fills the earth as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11).
The eschatological force of the promise in the New Testament is even stronger and clearer. The apostles cannot simply promise the repentant Jews the blotting out of their sins, but must add that the spiritual refreshment of forgiveness finds its fulfillment in the future “restitution of all things” at the coming of Jesus Christ (Acts 3:19-21).
The promise of God in Jesus Christ is eschatological. By the power of this eschatological promise, not only is the life of those who believe the promise a “wait[ing] for his Son from heaven” (I Thess. 1:10), but also history rushes on directly to the end, and creation strains and presses toward the goal. The apostle teaches this about the creation, and by implication about history, inRomans 8:19-22. With reference to the non-personal world of the heaven and the earth with its various creatures that God made in the beginning, the passage declares that the “whole creation” is eagerly waiting for the “manifestation of the sons of God” at the second coming of Christ. Such is its eagerness for the coming of Christ that creation waits with uplifted head and outstretched neck (KJV: “earnest expectation”). This is the equivalent in creation of the “Come, Lord Jesus” in the church.
The eschatological promise of Christ and His redemption of both the elect church and the creation presupposes the fall of man into sin and the curse upon the creation. But God did not ordain the coming of Christ as the end, or goal, of all things in response to the fall of Adam. The purpose, or goal, of God in creating, prior to the fall, was the gathering together of all things in Christ. It is the eternal purpose of God “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” (Eph. 1:9, 10).
Colossians 1:16-20 teaches that all things were created by God for the Son of God’s love in whom we have redemption through His blood, that is, for Jesus Christ. From eternity, it was the pleasure of the Father that “in him,” not in Adam, all the fullness should dwell and that the Father would reconcile all things to Himself by Jesus Christ. It never pleased God that all things would be related to Him by creation, or even by some development of the original creation. God willed that all things be related to Himself by reconciliation. The goal of creation was Christ. The purpose of God with man’s wicked fall into sin and his irresponsible plunging of the creation under God’s just curse was to lift elect humanity and the creation to a much higher, more glorious state than obtained, or was attainable, in the first paradise.
Only this conception of God’s one goal with all things in Christ from the beginning rescues the history of creation, the fall, and redemption in Christ from the dreary cyclical view of history that is found among the pagans. God makes a good world. The world is ruined. Christ brings the world back to its original state (except that many people perish in the process). Such a view of creation, the fall, and redemption is also demeaning to Christ. He is merely an afterthought on God’s part, an emergency-purpose when the main plan failed.
Contemporary theologian Hans Schwarz is rightly critical of this understanding of the redemptive work of Christ, as though He merely restores what the fall lost, and, by implication, of the notion that God’s purpose with the original creation was man and the world apart from Christ.
In its opening sentences the Gospel of John sees the coming of Christ from the perspective of the creation in the beginning. Also Paul points out a clear correspondence between the appearance of the first Adam and the appearance of Christ as the last Adam.
It would be erroneous to interpret this perspective of creation as if the resurrection were to open the opportunity for us to return to an ideal state of the past. Such an interpretation would force us into the cyclical view of history represented by most religions and mythologies: after the cataclysmic end dawns a new beginning, the wheel of world history moves on to a new revolution. But a different course of history is indicated by Paul when he writes: “For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers; all things have been created through him and for him.”
This means that everything is created toward Christ. When Paul calls him the firstborn of all creation
The wants to emphasize that Christ, being equal to God, does not stand only at the beginning of creation. Through his resurrection Christ is also the goal toward which creation moves. Clearly, such an understanding cannot condone a static view of creation that often sounds like the following: God created the world; through the fall this good and perfect creation was distorted; then came Christ and enabled its restoration; and in the final parousia the creation will be returned to its original beauty. Against this cyclical view we must assert that the “very good” which God pronounced over his creation in the beginning does not mean that it is unsurpassable. There lies the fallacy of understanding our world as the best possible one (Hans Schwarz, Eschatology, Eerdmans, 2000, p. 284).
A second way in which the truth of the last things is prominent in Scripture is the specific prophecies of important eschato—logical events and persons. The Old Testament contains these prophecies especially in Daniel and Ezekiel. Daniel 7-12forecasts antichrist, the abomination of desolation, the great tribulation of the people of God, and the resurrection of the dead (Dan. 7:7, 8, 19-28; Dan. 11:21-45; Dan. 12:1-3). Ezekiel 38, 39prophesies of Prince Gog of the land of Magog.
These Old Testament prophecies become the core and basis of New Testament eschatological doctrine in II Thessalonians 2, Revelation, and Jesus’ lively eschatologi—cal discourse in Matthew 24. For example, Jesus makes Daniel’s prophecy of the abomination of desolation part of His own instruction concerning the sign of His coming and of the end of the world: “When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet stand in the holy place … then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains” (Matt. 24:15, 16). That this eschatological event is not exhaustively fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, but finds its ultimate, real fulfillment at the time of the coming of antichrist immediately before the second coming of Christ is shown in II Thessalonians 2:4. With reference to the future “man of sin,” whom the Lord Jesus will destroy at His coming, the apostle says that he will sit in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. Thus, in fulfillment of the prophecies both of Daniel and Jesus, he will desolate the true worship of God.
The New Testament is pervasively and emphatically eschato—logical. Here I merely sketch the contours of the landscape. In Acts 2, the apostles announce that withthe coming of Jesus the Messiah, particularly His “shedding forth” the Holy Spirit, the last days have begun (vv. 14-18). They will end with the bodily return of Jesus Christ for judgment, “that great and notable day of the Lord,” which will be preceded by “wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke: The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood” (vv. 19, 20). The entire age, from Pentecost to the second coming, is the last days. The main purpose of God with these days is that men and women may call upon the name of the Lord Jesus and be saved (v. 21).
Concerning the events that must be expected throughout this age in connection with Christ’s return, the New Testament gives clear, detailed teaching. Fundamental is Jesus’ own instruction in Matthew 24, 25. The instruction promises and describes His coming and the end of the world by means of the historical type consisting of the destruction of Jerusalem. It mentions several signs of His coming. There is sharp admonition to His people to be ready for His coming. The instruction concludes with an account of the final judgment, which issues in everlasting life for some and everlasting punishment for others.
In dependence on Jesus’ own teaching in Matthew 24, 25, the apostles proclaim the victorious spread of the preaching of the gospel throughout the world in the present age effecting the repentance and salvation of all of the elect church to the last man or woman (Rev. 6:1, 2; II Pet. 3:9).
I Corinthians 15 is the locus classicus on the resurrection of the bodies of all those who die in Christ.
And then there is that most eschatological of all the books of the Bible, Revelation.
The church must preach the last things. She must emphasize eschatology. All of the sermons of her preachers must be eschatological. The reason is not only that false teachings about the end abound, although this is indeed the case. But Scripture, the source of all the church’s preaching and teaching, is eschatological through and through.