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2 Peter 3 – Cosmic Eschatology

21 Jan 2019

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2 Peter 3

Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking. I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles.

Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.’ But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar, the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen. (2 Peter 3, NIV)

2 Peter 3 is all about ‘The Day of the Lord’ (the NIV’s pericope for all of chapter 3). The false teachers of 2 Peter are saying that the hope of Jesus’ coming has failed (‘Where is this “coming” he promised?’, v. 4) and that ‘everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation’. They have forgotten God’s actions in the world, that he created it and that he has judged it once before in the flood. Peter reaffirms the fact that the predicted day of judgement will indeed come about, that ‘the present heavens and earth are … being kept for the day of judgment and the destruction of the ungodly’ (v. 7). Peter says that ‘the Lord is not slow in keeping his promise’ no, instead, God is being patient ‘not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance’ (vv. 9, 15).

I have not given a lot of thought to eschatology in the past – it seemed like a doctrine that had no bearing on the Christian life here and now, but Peter corrects this thinking. He tells us how knowing these things should affect our lives: we are to ‘live holy and godly lives as [we] look forward to the day of God’, to ‘make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him’ (vv. 11, 14).

This post is split into three sections:

  1. ‘The Last Days’ where I take a quick look at some things the Bible says about the end times
  2. ‘Eschatological Views’ where I go through the most prominent positions Christians hold on the end times and what I (currently) believe
  3. ‘Final Thoughts’ where I give a summary of what I think the application is

This is a large topic with a wide range of complex views and so I have relied heavily on the excellent book edited by Stanley Gundry and Marvin Pate, Four Views on the Book of Revelation (1998). I have tried to engage with and summarise the different views accurately, but I am ready to be corrected if I have misinterpreted or mischaracterised anything.

I. The Last Days

The doctrine of last things—‘eschatology’—is often viewed as a uniquely difficult or unclear set of doctrines. Sometimes it is even seen as an optional doctrine, one we ought to leave to the very end and get to only if we have enough time. But the doctrine of last things puts the capstone on everything one does in Christian doctrine, because nothing ever really makes sense until we see how it turns out. (Sanders 2018)

We Live in the Last Days

A lot of attention has been given in the past to the timing of the events of Revelation, but I think it is clear that we are currently living in the last days.

There is More to Come

But there is more to come. We are living in the last days, but we are still waiting for the final, decisive intervention of God.

What Will Happen?

What Will Eternity Be Like?

Renewal vs. Re-creation

The new heavens and the new earth are the eschatologically renewed state of the cosmos after the last judgment. The Bible states that the redeemed will dwell eternally in them. (Kilcrease 2018)

This redemption is not merely a restoration of an original pristine order but a renewal that transcends the cosmos’ original glory (1 Corinthians 15:44–49; Revelation 21:3). Hence, redemption means bringing about a new heaven and new earth. (ibid.)

I haven’t given a lot of thought to this. Certainly, subconsciously I had believed ‘new heaven and new earth’ meant a totally new one (perhaps one very significantly different from this one). But that neglect’s God’s heart toward his creation (which includes humanity – I forget that I am a creature) which is to restore and renew it.

So, how should we understand Peter’s words in verse 10 that ‘the heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare’? When God ‘destroyed’ (ἀπώλετο, v. 6) the world in the flood, he didn’t annihilate the earth and everything in it. The word for ‘destruction’ in verse 7 has the same root (ἀπωλείας). Peter is talking about ‘a complete transition from one condition of existence to another’1. Michael Horton puts it well in his systematic theology The Christian Faith:

To be sure, the renewal is so radical that it can be described only in apocalyptic terms (2 Peter 3:12–13), as passing away (Revelation 21:2–3). Nevertheless, we should think not in terms of the end of God’s creation itself but of the end of creation in its current condition. (Horton 2011: 988)

In Romans 8 we read that ‘the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration … in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.’ (Romans 8:19, 20b, NIV). In Acts 3, Peter said that ‘heaven must receive [Jesus] until the time comes for God to restore everything’ (Acts 3:21, NIV) – Peter seems to be saying that creation will be restored (though I haven’t looked into this particular verse in any depth and so cannot be sure).

Douglas Moo says that ‘the words “destroy” and “destruction” … must not be taken literally in the sense of annihilation’:

As we noted earlier (see the comments on 2:3), the words ‘destroy’ and ‘destruction,’ when applied in the New Testament to the judgment of human beings, must not be taken literally in the sense of annihilation. Indeed, some theologians have taken the language in this sense, but this does not fit the general New Testament teaching about ‘eternal’ punishment. However uncomfortable we may be with the idea, it seems clearly taught in Scripture (e.g., Matthew 25:41, 46; Mark 9:43, 48; Revelation 14:9–11; …). ‘Destruction’ refers to the cessation of existence in this world and to the final and terrible separation from God involved in condemnation. (Moo 1996: 172)

This analysis is far too brief to draw any strong conclusions, but it seems to me that God’s purpose is to restore this creation not to destroy it and start again.

II. Eschatological Views

There are apparently four main views on eschatology today (cf. Gundry: 17–18):

Preterist [Postmillennialism]

The origin of preterism can be traced to the theological system known as postmillennialism, which teaches that Christ will return after the Millennium, a period of bliss on earth brought about by the conversion of the nations because of the preaching of the gospel. (Gundry 1998: 20)

Postmillennialism does not seem to make sense of all the facts. I see that the world is not getting better (world wars I and II, for example). I also remember Jesus’ words that his kingdom is not of this earth. I view Christendom as a failure – it failed to produce justice and mercy, things that God loves. I do not believe it can be said with any certainty that there were more Christians under Christendom or that the society was more Christian in its heart. I don’t have time to go into any depth defending these statements – perhaps they are too affected by the time I was born, I might be missing a lot of information. They are conclusions I have drawn, but I am open to revisiting them.

His views on the millennium would probably have never been perpetuated if they had not been so well keyed to the thinking of the times. The rising tide of intellectual freedom, science, and philosophy, coupled with humanism, had enlarged the concept of human progress and painted a bright picture of the future. Whitby’s view of a coming golden age for the church was just what people wanted to hear. … It is not strange that theologians scrambling for readjustments in a changing world should find in Whitby just the key they needed. It was attractive to all kinds of theology. It provided for the conservative a seemingly more workable principle of interpreting Scripture. After all, the prophets of the Old Testament knew what they were talking about when they predicted an age of peace and righteousness. Man’s increasing knowledge of the world and scientific improvements which were coming could fit into this picture. On the other hand, the concept was pleasing to the liberal and skeptic. If they did not believe the prophets, at least they believed that man was now able to improve himself and his environment. They, too, believed a golden age was ahead. (Walvoord 1963 ap. Gundry 1998: 20)

The above quote gives voice to many of my concerns – it’s a humanist philosophy that we can (even through the church) bring about a ‘golden age’. And I believe this line of thinking has done some apologetic damage because we tell people to put their hope in the church instead of to God in Jesus and hoping in anything other than Jesus will ultimately disappoint. This type of postmillennialism has been called ‘liberal postmillennialism’ (Benware 1995: 120–122 ap. Gundry 1998: 21):

The former had its heyday in the nineteenth century in association with the ‘social gospel’, whose mission was the liberation of humanity from societal evil (poverty, racism, disease, war, and injustice). The presupposition of this school of thought was that humanity was basically good and that ultimately society would get better and better, resulting in a golden age on earth. Laudable as this attempt was, however, the social gospel suffered from two flaws: It abandoned the preaching of the gospel, and it naively based its view of history on the evolutionary process. Time dealt a mortal blow to liberal postmillennialism—the catastrophic events of the twentieth century rendered it an untenable position (e.g., two world wars, the Great Depression, the threat of nuclear destruction). (Gundry 1998: 21)

This is ‘liberal postmillennialism’, but there is also a ‘biblical postmillennialism’:

Their outlook differed fundamentally from both secular and liberal Christian utopianism. They were optimistic concerning the future to be sure. But their optimism was born out of a belief in the triumph of the gospel in the world and of the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing in the kingdom, not out of any misconception concerning the innate goodness of humankind or of the ability of the church to convert the world by its own power. (Grenz 1992: 66 ap. Gundry 1998: 21)

Postmillennialism is that view of the last things which holds that the Kingdom of God is now being extended in the world through the preaching of the Gospel and the saving work of the Holy Spirit, that the world eventually will be Christianized, and that the return of Christ will occur at the close of a long period of righteousness and peace commonly called the Millennium.

This view is, of course, to be distinguished from that optimistic but false view of human betterment and progress held by Modernists and Liberals which teaches that the Kingdom of God on earth will be achieved through a natural process by which mankind will be improved and social institutions will be reformed and brought to a higher level of culture and efficiency. This latter view presents a spurious or pseudo Postmillennialism, and regards the Kingdom of God as the product of natural laws in an evolutionary process, whereas orthodox Postmillennialism regards the Kingdom of God as the product of the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit in connection with the preaching of the Gospel. (Boettner 1957: 4)

While this avoids some errors of liberal postmillennialism, I find it’s something I still cannot agree with. It seems to be saying that two things: (1) there will be a Christian kingdom on earth (we tried that) and (2) there will be no discontinuity between today and the day of the Lord. It does, however, have the advantage of making some sense of the idea in 2 Peter 3 that we can hasten this day. Primarily, it seems to forget a significant part of the reality of the church on earth: we suffer with Christ. As Francis Chan put it, we are to be suffering sojourners:

We want to be people who are eagerly waiting for the return of Christ. We are willing and wanting to suffer because we believe in heavenly rewards. When you read the Scriptures it is undeniably clear that Christians are supposed to expect, lean into and embrace suffering with joy. And this calling to willingly walk into suffering for the sake of the gospel is a call for all believers and not just for leaders or those serving in missions in persecuted areas of the world (Matthew 16:24; Matthew 10:21; 2 Timothy 1:8, 3:12; Philippians 1:29) Far from seeking comfort, we thrive on any hardship we get to endure for His Name. Our focus is not on what we can see, but on the unseen world. We refuse to become citizens on this earth. We live as aliens and strangers on the earth, waiting for a better city. (http://wearechurch.com/values-1/)

What Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 does not leave the impression that the church should expect ‘a long period of righteousness and peace’:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (1 Corinthians 5:7–12, NIV)

With regard to the philosophy of history presumed by most preterists, as noted before, it is a positive one (contra Jay Adams and Cornelis Vanderwaal). The world will get better and better because of the triumph of the gospel. In that sense, postmillennialism aligns itself more with the role of the Old Testament prophet, whose message proclaimed the intervention of God in history, than with the apocalypticist’s doom and gloom forecasts of the future. (Gundry 1998: 23)

There are genuine Christians who hold this viewpoint and they avoid the most obvious errors of humanism by affirming the Biblical truth that it is not by human power that any good comes but by the Spirit. Nevertheless, I agree with Louis Berkhof that ‘there are some very serious objections to the Postmillennial theory’ (1938: 718). I have included the first part of his first objection to this view as it sums up my thinking well, but if you are interested in learning more about this topic, I encourage you to read the rest of what he says on the matter.

The fundamental idea of the doctrine, that the whole world will gradually be won for Christ, that the life of all nations will in course of time be transformed by the gospel, that righteousness and peace will reign supreme, and that the blessings of the Spirit will be poured out in richer abundance than before, so that the Church will experience a season of unexampled prosperity just before the coming of the Lord,—is not in harmony with the picture of the end of the ages found in Scripture. (Berkhof 1938: 718)

Futurist – Dispensationalism [Pretribulation Premillennialism]

Classical Dispensationalism

Dispensationalists divide salvation history into historical eras or epochs in order to distinguish the different administrations of God’s involvement in the world. C. I. Scofield, after whom the enormously popular Scofield Bible was named, defined a dispensation as ‘a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.’ During each dispensation, humankind fails to live in obedience to the divine test, consequently bringing that period under God’s judgment and thus creating the need for a new dispensation. Read this way, the Bible can be divided into the following eight dispensations (though the number of names vary in this school of thought): innocence, conscience, civil government, promise, Mosaic law, church and age of grace, tribulation, millennium. (Gundry 1998: 28–29)

The hallmark of dispensationalism has been its commitment to a literal interpretation of prophetic Scripture. This has resulted in three well-known tenets cherished by adherents of the movement.

  1. A distinction between the prophecies made about Israel in the Old Testament and the church in the New Testament must be maintained.
  2. Dispensationalists are premillennialists; that is, Christ will come again and establish a temporary, one-thousand-year reign on earth from Jerusalem.
  3. Dispensationalists believe in the pretribulation rapture; that is, Christ’s return will occur in two stages: the first one for his church, which will be spared the Great Tribulation; the second one in power and glory to conquer his enemies. (ibid.: 29)

Two major developments in dispensationalism have occurred since it was first popularised in the 1909 Scofield Reference Bible:

  1. The earliest stage was propounded by Darby and Scofield, a period that emphasized the dispensations themselves.
  2. A second stage emerged in the 1960s … (a) Faith was highlighted as the means of salvation in any of the dispensations. (b) The individual dispensations were no longer the focal point; rather, the emphasis now lay on the literal hermeneutic of dispensationalism.
  3. In the 1980s a third development arose, commonly called progressive dispensationalism. (ibid.: 29)

In reference to the first phase in the above list, quoting J. G. Vos:

The false system of Bible interpretation represented by the writings of J. N. Darby and the Scofield Reference Bible, which divides the history of mankind into seven distinct periods or ‘dispensations,’ and affirms that in each period God deals with the human race on the basis of some one specific principle. (Dispensationalism denies the spiritual identity of Israel and the Church, and tends to set ‘grace’ and ‘law’ against each other as mutually exclusive principles). (Boettner 1957: 5)

‘The middle phase [2 in the above list], often labeled traditional dispensationalism, continues to find strong support today.’ (Gundry 1998: 29)

In contrast to the optimism of postmillennialism, premillennialism displays a basic pessimism concerning history and the role we play in its culmination. Despite all our attempts to convert or reform the world, prior to the end antichrist will emerge and gain control of human affairs, premillennialism reluctantly predicts. Only the catastrophic action of the returning Lord will bring about the reign of God and the glorious age of blessedness and peace.

In keeping with this basic pessimism concerning world history, premillennial theologies emphasize the discontinuity, or even the contradiction between, the present order and the kingdom of God, and they elevate the divine future over the evil present. The kingdom is the radically new thing God will do. However it may be conceived, the ‘golden age’—the divine future—comes as God’s gracious gift and solely through God’s action. (Grenz 1992: 185 ap. Gundry 1998: 30–31)

Progressive Dispensationalism

Progressive dispensationalism differs from classical dispensationalism on four points:

  1. Progressives believe that Jesus began his heavenly, Davidic reign at the resurrection.
  2. The church is not a parenthesis in the plan of God; rather, like believing Jews in the Old Testament, it forms a part of the one people of God (e.g., Romans 2:26–28; 11; Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 2:1–22; 1 Peter 2:9–10).
  3. The new covenant is beginning to be fulfilled in the church (e.g., 2 Corinthians 3:1–4:6; cf. also the book of Hebrews).
  4. Old Testament promises about the Gentiles’ coming to worship the true God at the end of history is also experiencing partial realization in the church (e.g., Romans 15:7–13). [Gundry 1998: 33]
  • The already aspect surfaces in the book of terms of historical fulfillment in the first century A.D. vis-à-vis Caesar worship and Jewish persecution of Christians (not unlike, though not to be equated with, the preterist approach).
  • The not yet aspect of Revelation is to be found in those prophecies (the majority of the book) that await realization at the Parousia (the Great Tribulation, Antichrist, Parousia, Millennium). (ibid.)

Understanding the now-but-not-yet reality of the Christian life ‘tempers [the pessimistic view of the unfolding of history] with the optimistic belief that the kingdom of God has dawned spiritually, thereby giving great hope to the people of God’ (ibid.: 34), but it is still ‘premillennial in perspective’ and as such ‘views the unfolding of history pessimistically’ (ibid.). Therefore, while I find I agree with more in progressive dispensationalism than I do in classical dispensationalism, I still cannot hold it.

Idealism [Amillennialism]

Overview of Idealism

Summary

Calkins [an amillennialist] captures the chief message of Revelation in terms of five propositions:

  1. It is an irresistible summons to heroic living.
  2. It contains matchless appeals to endurance.
  3. It tells us that evil is marked for overthrow in the end.
  4. It gives us a new and wonderful picture of Christ.
  5. It reveals to us the fact that history is in the mind of God and in the hand of Christ as the author and reviewer of the moral destinies of men. (Calkins 1920: 3 ap. Gundry 1998: 23)

While all four of the schools of interpretation surveyed here resonate with these affirmations, the idealist view distinguishes itself by refusing to assign the preceding statements to any historical correspondence and thereby denies that the prophecies in Revelation are predictive except in the most general sense of the promise of the ultimate triumph of good at the return of Christ. (Gundry 1998: 24)

Allegoricalism

Though it may seem obvious, I was surprised when I read that ‘[Idealism] can be traced back to the allegorical or symbolic hermeneutic espoused by the Alexandrian church fathers, especially Clement and Origen’ (Gundry 1998: 24). I have heard about issues with allegoricalism2 but when I read more about it I found that it is the approach I take to the Bible, at least at times. Origen’s beliefs were summarised by D.K. Campbell as saying ‘All Scripture has a spiritual meaning … but not all has a literal meaning’:

In [De Principiis Origen] pointed out that since the Bible is full of enigmas, parables, dark sayings, and moral problems, the meaning must be found at a deeper level. These problems include the existence of days in Genesis 1 before the sun or moon were created, God’s walking in the Garden of Eden, other anthropomorphisms such as the face of God, and moral problems such as Lot’s incest, Noah’s drunkenness, Jacob’s polygamy, Tamar’s seduction of Judah, and others. … In reality he usually stressed only two meanings, the literal and the spiritual (the ‘letter’ and the ‘spirit’). All Scripture has a spiritual meaning, he contended, but not all has a literal meaning. (Campbell 1991: 36)]

I think most students of the Bible adopt allegoricalism to some degree. I have never heard anyone suggest that Jesus’ parables were about real historical events. One example of Origen’s allegorical approach to scripture comes from his conclusions about the early chapters of Genesis:

For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? and again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that any one doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally. (De Principiis, book 4, chapter 2, paragraph 16; Origen 1885: 365)

I’ll likely go into more detail on this when I write about Genesis 1, but at least at the moment, this is my general stance – that the days of creation are not to be taken literally but that there is a deeper spiritual meaning to the text.

Symbolism in Revelation

You approach apocalyptic literature differently than you would a letter or one of the Gospels. In Revelation words take the place of pigments and brushes to create a portrait designed to visualize great principles, not particular incidents. Resisting the temptation to dissect the portrait described in each vision, you let the vision as a whole impress you. And impress you it will. The Apocalypse of John, as part of the biblical canon, the inspired Word of God to his children, will illuminate in a fresh way relevant teachings found throughout Scripture. (Hamstra 1998: 97–98)

The idealist approach is not without its dangers: ‘Because the symbols are multivalent in meaning and without specific historical referent, the application of the book’s message is limitless. Each interpreter can therefore find significance for their respective situations.’ (Gundry 1998: 25) An example given by Gundry of this approach at work is Elisabeth Fiorenza’s commentary which asserts that ‘the meaning of Revelation is not to be sought in the first century nor in the remote events of the end time, but rather in the ongoing struggle between those disadvantaged sociopolitically and their oppressors’ (ibid.). I have not engaged with Fiorenza’s work, but from this simple description it doesn’t seem to capture the full picture of God’s glory and Christ’s victory that I see in revelation.

Premillennialism tends to make the Bible a textbook of ready reference, rather than a source book from which statements are to be collected, compared, placed in their logical relations, and so worked up into a Systematic Theology. It professes to ‘take God at His word,’ and to ‘accept the plain statement of truth as God has revealed it.’ Such reasoning has its place when directed against the Modernists who reject the doctrine of the full inspiration of the Scriptures. But it is out of place when directed against those who while accepting the doctrine of the full inspiration of Scripture nevertheless acknowledge that much truth is conveyed through figurative expressions. The fact of the matter is that God’s revelation as found in the Bible contains many deep mysteries and secrets which always have and probably always will challenge the intellects of even the wisest of men. Superficial statements about taking God at His word and about the plain harmony of God’s word are illusory and ought to be their own refutation. (Boettner 1957: 7)

Why I Take an Amillennialist, Idealist View

It Respects the Apocalyptic Genre of Revelation

Scholars describe this pictorial presentation of truth as apocalyptic, a style of communication and writing characterized by bold colors, vivid images, unique symbols, a simple story line, a hero, and a happy ending. Thus, in Revelation you meet angels, animals, and numbers. You see lightning and hear thunder. You witness earthquakes and battles. You see the sparkle of jewels and a woman clothed with the sun facing a terrifying dragon. You see a rider on a white horse and hear the lyrics of the Hallelujah Chorus. (Hamstra 1998: 97)

It Teaches Biblical Truth

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38–39, NIV)

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12, NIV)

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 16:33, NIV)

It Matches Reality

The section entitled Apocalypse Now by Sam Hamstra Jr. seems to describe our time so well. He starts by saying, ‘In times like these you need assurance. At this moment in your struggle, you need hope, for all is not as it is supposed to be; your life is afflicted in every way.’ (Hamstra 1998: 95) I encourage you to read the whole chapter (An Idealist View of Revelation) – it’s a good one. But he starts by describing a set of situations almost any current-day Christian would look at and go, ‘Yes, that’s right, that’s us’. He then throws in the twist and reveals that he has been describing the apostle John’s life at the time Revelation was written: ‘You live on an island called Patmos’.

You live on an island called Patmos. With David you cry, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ With Job you wonder why the heathen prosper and evil flourishes. With saints throughout the ages, you question the sovereignty of a God who has promised abundant life through Jesus Christ. (ibid.)

I think this is the view that lines up best with reality. When I look at history I hardly think things have gotten worse (so I’m not a premillennialist) and when I look at the news I hardly think things have gotten better (so I’m not a postmillennialist).

The result is a world view characterized by realism. Victory and defeat, success and failure, good and evil will coexist until the end, amillennialism asserts. The future is neither a heightened continuation of the present nor an abrupt contradiction to it. The kingdom of God does not come by human cooperation with the divine power currently at work in the world, but neither is it simply the divine gift for which we can only wait expectantly. (Grenz 1992: 187)

Consequently, both unbridled optimism and despairing pessimism are inappropriate, amillennialism declares. Rather, the amillennialist worldview calls the church to ‘realistic activity’ in the world. Under the guidance and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the church will be successful in its mandate; yet ultimate success will come only through God’s grace. The kingdom of God arrives as the divine action breaking into the world; yet human cooperation brings important, albeit penultimate, results. Therefore, God’s people must expect great things in the present; but knowing that the kingdom will never arrive in its fullness in history, they must always remain realistic in their expectations. (Gundry 1998: 27–28)

Amillennialism is that view of the last things which holds that the Bible does not predict a ‘Millennium’ or period of worldwide peace and righteousness on this earth before the end of the world. (Amillennialism teaches that there will be a parallel and contemporaneous development of good and evil—God’s kingdom and Satan’s kingdom—in this world, which will continue until the second coming of Christ. At the second coming of Christ the resurrection and judgment will take place, followed by the eternal order of things—the absolute, perfect Kingdom of God, in which there will be no sin, suffering nor death). (Boettner 1957: 4)

It Applies to Us Today

In times like these, you need a word from the Lord. You don’t need a history lesson of the militant church of either the first or last century. You don’t need a prophetic vision of a day you will never experience in this life. At this moment in your struggle with sin and evil, you need a hope-filled word from the Lord. You need the Apocalypse of John now. (Hamstra 1998: 98)

Let the troubles come, however, and Revelation becomes as precious as it was to John on the island of Patmos. The book of Revelation is for believers like you and the apostle John, who find that following the Lord is a way of contradiction that pierces your inmost thoughts, even as it heals them with peace. It is for believers like those in the first century, whose only conquest was their steadfast endurance with no tangible evidence of victory. It is for the believer who doubts the sovereignty of God, questions the influence of the church, and fears the power of evil. To these readers Revelation offers a message of assurance, hope, and victory. (ibid.)

The idealist viewpoint fits with the New Testament’s clear teaching that we are in the last days. The warnings and encouragements of Revelation apply to us today as do the warnings and encouragements in 2 Peter 3: Christ’s return is imminent, it can happen at any time and it will happen without notice and thus we are to live holy and godly lives. The immanence of Christ’s return is not usually taught as something we can determine through signs except to say that the signs have happened and are happening, i.e., there is ample evidence that we live in the last days (in addition to what the scriptures that tell us) and there seems to be no way of knowing if we are at the start, in the middle or near the end of these last days.

By doing so, they imply that Christ’s return can be imminent only if the signs—as they interpret them, of course—are in place. But this is not the New Testament perspective. It usually affirms the truth of imminence apart from signs. And where signs are mentioned, they are quite general. For instance, Jesus tells us that ‘when you see all these things, you know that it [or he] is near’ (Matthew 24:33). In this context ‘all these things’ include wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, false christs, and prophets (vv. 4–25)—things that are present throughout the church age.

We believe that Christ’s coming is ‘imminent’ because the New Testament affirms it. We are called constantly to live in the light of the end of history, even if we can see no obvious signs of its end in the world around us. God can certainly use the world around us to wake us up and help us see the truth. But when all is said and done, we walk ‘by faith, not by sight.’ (Moo 1996: 195)

III. Final Thoughts

As Christians we need to remember that the reason we are told certain details about the future is to help us live our Christian lives now. We also know that no amount of human effort will bring the change the world needs – it will be a drastic, final intervention by God that brings this change. We need to balance two things: we are concerned about and love the world around us, so we pursue social justice as Jesus did, but we know that nothing will be truly, permanently fixed until God intervenes to fix it.

Douglas Moo addresses the two truths that we must keep in balance:

And there is, of course, a sense in which Christians will always be pessimistic about this world, for Scripture makes clear that no real and permanent transformation can be expected until Christ returns. Some Christians, therefore, give up on this world, pursuing their own private path of holiness and letting the world literally ‘go to hell.’ But the ‘holy and godly life’ that Peter calls on us to lead in light of the world’s end certainly must include zealous evangelism and the kind of concern for social justice that Jesus said so much about. The scriptural model of the world to come, ‘the home of righteousness,’ should stimulate us to make that model as much a reality here and now as possible. (Moo 1996: 203)

Peter’s reminder that ‘with the Lord one day is like a thousand years’ is a rebuke to those who want to ‘snatch at’ the Parousia—the kind of people Paul seeks to calm down in 2 Thessalonians 2. As we noted above, we still find a few people like this around in our day: setting dates for the return of Christ and disappointed when their dates pass without incident. But surely far more of us fall into the second category: sleepy Christians who have settled down into the world and who would be positively irritated if Christ were to come along and take us out of it. As C. S. Lewis has said, ‘Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is “finding his place in it,” while really it is finding its place in him.’ (2001: 155)3 Prosperity, what so many people think to be an unadulterated good, can be a serious problem for the Christian. A realization that Christ can return at any time will help us to keep our prosperity in perspective. (ibid.: 205)

2 Peter 3 teaches us a lot about the day of the Lord, about the times in which we live and about the future that is coming. W.H. Rutgers’s warning ‘the positiveness and assurance with which many of these Bible students speak concerning the future of God’s program is but pride and arrogance’ (Rutgers 1930: 42 ap. Boattner 1957: 8) is poignant and so while I have written about the views I currently hold, I have not closed the book on the issue. There is much more to learn and I am sure I will refine my understanding over the years (unless Christ returns first, of course).

References

Benware, P.N., 1995. Understanding End-times Prophecy: A Comprehensive Approach, Chicago: Moody

Berkhof, L., 1938. Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Black, D.A. & Dockery, D.S., 2001. Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on Methods and Issues, Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

Boettner, L., 1957. The Millennium, Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.

Calkins R., 1920. The Social Message of Revelation, New York: Woman’s Press.

Campbell, D.K., 1991. Foreword. In C. Bubeck Sr., ed. Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook.

Grenz, S.J., 1992. The Millennial Maze: Sorting Out Evangelical Options, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity.

Gundry, S.N. & Pate, C.M. eds., 1998. Four Views on the Book of Revelation, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Hamstra Jr., S., 1998. An Idealist View of Revelation. In S. N. Gundry & C. M. Pate, eds. Four Views on the Book of Revelation. Zondervan Counterpoints Collection. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Horton, M., 2011. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Kilcrease, J., 2018. The New Heavens and Earth. In M. Ward et al., eds. Lexham Survey of Theology. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Lewis, C.S., 2001. The Screwtape Letters, HarperOne.

Moo, D.J., 1996. 2 Peter, Jude, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

Origen, 1885. De Principiis. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, eds. Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

Rutgers, W.H., 1930. Premillennialism in America, Oosterbaan & Le Cointre.

Sanders, F., 2018. The Doctrine of the Last Things. In M. Ward et al., eds. Lexham Survey of Theology. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Walvoord, J.F., 1963. The Millennial Kingdom, Findlay, Ohio: Dunham

  1. Furthermore, if what is eliminated is ‘much of the ground and the things on the ground,’ such destruction leaves little of creation left. If, however, such apocalyptic language in 2 Peter is to be interpreted like apocalyptic language elsewhere, there is no reason to interpret these verses as communicating anything more than a complete transition from one condition of existence to another. ‘This present age’ versus ‘the age to come,’ not this present world versus another world, reflects the consistent emphasis of New Testament eschatology. This whole creation will be wholly saved, and yet wholly new. (Horton 2011: 899)

  2. My research was not extensive and I struggled to find any examples I could dismiss out of hand. Perhaps these quotes will add some context:

    Origen created a threefold hermeneutical methodology that emphasized the spiritual sense. He thought Scripture had three different yet complementary meanings: (1) literal or physical sense, (2) a moral or psychical sense, and (3) an allegorical or intellectual sense. … The spiritual sense served an apologetic purpose against the Gnostic and other challenges, but primarily it served a pastoral purpose to mature the souls of the faithful. … Origen’s genius and allegorical hermeneutic occasionally led him down wrongheaded paths. Yet the allegorical method, at a critical moment in church history, made it possible to uphold the rationality of the Christian faith. (Black 2001: 24)

    In Origen’s allegorizing he taught that Noah’s ark pictured the church and that Noah represented Christ. Rebekah’s drawing water at the well for Abraham’s servant means we must daily come to the Scriptures to meet Christ. In Jesus’ triumphal entry the donkey represented the Old Testament, its colt depicted the New Testament, and the two apostles pictured the moral and mystic senses of Scripture. Origen so ignored the literal, normal meanings of Scripture that his allegorizing became unusually excessive. As one writer stated, it was ‘fantasy unlimited.’ (Campbell 1991: 36–37)

  3. Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is ‘finding his place in it’, while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of being really at home in earth, which is just what we want. You will notice that the young are generally less unwilling to die than the middle-aged and the old. (Lewis 2001: 155)

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