Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Any Reformed treatment of the doctrine of the last things must take the Reformed confessions into consideration. It must take these confessions into consideration from the outset. The reason is not only that these confessions, containing the wisdom of the church in the past, will be helpful, but also that the confessions are binding upon Reformed theologians. Although the confessions do not develop the truth of eschatology, they do draw the main biblical lines within which development must take place.
The Reformed confession which is more detailed than any other on the doctrine of the last things is the Second Helvetic [Swiss] Confession. It also speaks more directly to contemporary eschatological issues troubling some Reformed churches, particularly those regarding the millennium, than do the other creeds. This is the creed composed by the Zurich Reformer Heinrich Bullin-ger in 1561 and published in 1566. Although it is not the official confession of most Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America and Western Europe, in its day it was the most widely received of all the Reformed confessions. Philip Schaff says of it that it is “the most widely adopted, and hence the most authoritative of all the Continental Reformed symbols with the exception of the Heidelberg Catechism” (Creeds of Christendom, vol. 1, Harper & Brothers, 1877, p. 394). What the Second Helvetic Confession teaches about the last things was the consensus of all the Reformed churches in the sixteenth century.
There are two important sections on eschatology in the Second Helvetic Confession. Because of the importance of these doctrinal statements and because the confession is largely unknown by Reformed people, I quote these two sections in their entirety. The first statement concerning the last things occurs in connection with the Confession’s teaching about the ascension of Christ into heaven. Having gone up into heaven, Jesus Christ will return.
And from heaven the same Christ will return in judgment, when wickedness will then be at its greatest in the world and when the Antichrist, having corrupted true religion, will fill up all things with superstition and impiety and will cruelly lay waste the Church with bloodshed and flames (Dan., ch. 11). But Christ will come again to claim his own, and by his coming to destroy the Antichrist, and to judge the living and the dead.
For the dead will rise again
and those who on that day (which is unknown to all creatures [Mark 13:32]) will be alive will be changed “in the twinkling of an eye,” and all the faithful will be caught up to meet Christ in the air, so that then they may enter with him into the blessed dwelling-places to live forever.
But the unbelievers and ungodly will descend with the devils into hell to burn forever and never to be redeemed from torments.
The Sects. We therefore condemn all who deny a real resurrection of the flesh
II Tim. 2:18,
or who with John of Jerusalem, against whom Jerome wrote, do not have a correct view of the glorification of bodies. We also condemn those who thought that the devil and all the ungodly would at some time be saved, and that there would be an end to punishments. For the Lord has plainly declared: “Their fire is not quenched, and their worm does not die.”
). We further condemn Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth. For evangelical truth in Matt., chs. 24 and 25, and Luke ch. 18, and apostolic teaching in II Thess., ch. 2, and II Tim., chs. 3 and 4, present something quite different (Chapter 11, in Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century, ed. Arthur C. Cochrane, Westminster Press, 1966, pp. 245, 246; a translation of the Second Helvetic Confession is included as an appendix in volume three of Baker Book House’s 1983 reprint of Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom.
In this section, the Confession affirms the fundamental truths of eschatology: the return of Christ in the body; the bodily resurrection of all the dead; the final judgment; and the everlasting life of the faithful, as well as the everlasting torment of unbelievers and ungodly. The creed is at pains to deny universal salvation extending even to the devil. It also reminds Reformed Christians that no creature knows, can know, or should try to know the exact time of the Day of Christ, something that is repeatedly ignored by foolish teachers and their equally foolish disciples.
Of special significance in view of millennial notions now making inroads into Reformed and Presbyterian churches is the Confession’s description of the condition of the church and the state of the world when Christ returns. It will be the time of the greatest development of wickedness, the reign of Antichrist, and the great tribulation of the Church. When He comes, Christ will destroy the personal Antichrist in a dramatic confrontation. This consensus of Reformed thinking on the end expressly condemns every notion of a “golden age on earth” for the saints before the final judgment. Such a notion is nothing but “Jewish dreams,” the carnal conception of the kingdom of Christ that the Jews nourished in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry and because of which they stumbled at God’s Messiah. The Second Helvetic Confession condemns millennialism in every form, whether that which has a Jewish kingdom ruling the world from Jerusalem or that which has the church “Christianizing” and exercising dominion over the world, before the final judgment.
The use that the Confession makes of the outstanding eschatological texts of Scripture must be noticed. The Reformed faith does not understand Daniel 11, Matthew 24and 25, II Thessalonians 2, and II Timothy 3 and 4 as prophecies that were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Nor does it apply these passages to hard times for the Jews in the future after the church is raptured out of the world. Rather, these passages describe the present age, culminating in the great tribulation of the church shortly before the return of Christ in the body. “Evangelical truth … and apostolic teaching … present something quite different” from the false teachings that in one way or another delude the people of God with promises of earthly victory and escape from persecution under the Antichrist. For evangelical truth and apostolic teaching direct the hope of the church to the coming of Christ and to the glory that will be theirs at His coming.
In this rejection of a “golden age” for the church in an earthly kingdom of Christ, both branches of the Reformation, Reformed and Lutheran, were one. Article 17 of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530) reads in part:
Rejected, too, are certain Jewish opinions which are even now making an appearance and which teach that, before the resurrection of the dead, saints and godly men will possess a worldly kingdom and annihilate all the godless (Augsburg Confession, in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, tr. and ed. Theodore G. Tappert, Fortress Press, 1959, pp. 38, 39).
The second eschatological section of the Second Helvetic Confession is chapter 26. The heading is: “Of the Burial of the Faithful, and of the Care to be Shown for the Dead; of Purgatory, and the Appearing of Spirits.” After an exhortation, that the bodies of believers who have died “be honorably and without superstition committed to the earth,” accompanied by a condemnation of those who are “overly and absurdly attentive to the deceased,” the Confession declares the Reformed understanding of “The State of the Soul departed from the Body” (the “intermediate state”).
For we believe that the faithful, after bodily death, go directly to Christ, and, therefore, do not need the eulogies and prayers of the living for the dead and their services. Likewise we believe that unbelievers are immediately cast into hell from which no exit is opened for the wicked by any services of the living.
This leads immediately to a consideration of the Roman Catholic dogma of purgatory.
But what some teach concerning the fire of purgatory is opposed to the Christian faith, namely, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins, and the life everlasting,” and to the perfect purgation through Christ, and to these words of Christ our Lord: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
Again: “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over, and you are clean.”
(Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century, p. 295).
The Reformed faith holds the conscious existence of both believer and unbeliever after death in their soul. At death, the believer goes at once to Christ in heaven; the unbeliever is immediately cast into hell. This is the repudiation of soul-sleep. Purgatory is assailed, not because it is destructive of the comfort of the believer (although it certainly is), but because it opposes the “Christian faith” at its very heart: the believer has both the complete forgiveness of his sins and the perfect cleansing of them through Jesus Christ alone. Rome’s doctrine of purgatory is a denial of Jesus Christ, the only deliverer and savior.