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Life, Death, Judgement & Eternity
Do you have questions about the end times? One of the main themes addressed in 1 Thessalonians is what will happen when Jesus returns, so I asked Sam Walker to write a summary of biblical teaching on end times to help us see the bigger picture. Enjoy!
Written by Sam Walker
In the end, we all die.
There’s no escaping it, no avoiding it, no cheating it. The world is terrorised by it. The very real imminence of death has been made all the more clear and all the more stark in recent months as Covid-19 and the Coronavirus has taken so many lives in the UK and around the world. Christians are not immune to any of this.
C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed -
“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
Lewis is exactly right about the Christian’s grief process; it is what we had bargained for but it still hurts. To us all, secular or religious, death feels out of place despite it being an ever present, inescapable, reality. This is because death from the beginning has been ‘unnatural’. There is something deep within us as image bearers (Gen. 1:27), that tells us all this is not right, this is not the last word, this futility and finality is not what we were made for.
So, what happens beyond the veil of this life? What hope does the Bible bring and what light does it shine on the subjects of death, judgement, and eternity, and how does this impact our life now?
“After all, to the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
- Albus Dumbledore - Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
A common view that a lot of people profess to hold, but don’t truly believe in, is that death is the end. Death is not the end. Certainly for the Christian - with a well-organised heart - death is the next great adventure. Death starts with an eternal rebirth.
In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul talks about this rebirth; how Christ is our forerunner, how he is the “first fruits”, how his death and resurrection counteracted the curse of Adam’s fall, and how this new life (opposed to death) is coming to all (v20-22). Paul goes on to explain how Christ has utterly removed death through his rope-a-dope victory on the Cross before finishing on another misconception.
Throughout history people have depicted heaven as an airy-fairy nonsense of angelic-beings sitting on clouds, Paul clarifies that although the new body is a ‘spiritual body’ (v44) it is most definitely a physical body. This body is sown perishable but is raised imperishable (v42) in the same way a seed dies in the ground before becoming a new life (v36-37), these are all physical depictions.
So, death is coming to all but eternal life, in a physical, imperishable, glorious body is also coming to all. Paul’s focus here is on the believer but the same is true for the non-believer.
The Bible is also very clear that at the second coming of Jesus all will be judged; Christian or non-Christian (1 Pt. 4:17), living or dead (2 Tim. 4:1). As Christians, we will be judged by our works (Jam. 2:14-26, Rev. 20:11-12) and upon our saving-faith (Jn 3:16) in Christ’s finished works credited to our account (Rom.4:22-25)¹.
This is simultaneously totally anathema and exactly what everyone craves. We want the judgement and justice of God to fall on those who’ve hurt us but we want none of it when the finger is pointed at ourselves.
The only solace that we, as wretched sinners, have is to throw ourselves onto the mercy offered through Christ, who’s perfect works atone for our sins (propitiation - Rom. 3:25, 1 Jn. 2:2) and whose lamb-like sacrifice provide us with a scapegoat (expiation - Jn 1:29). There is no other strong tower (Prov. 18:10).
The Bible makes repeated reference to the next life never ending, going on for eternity (Jn. 10:28). This is true for both those in heaven and those in hell (Is. 66:22-24)².
It is worth noting this purely for the reason that the concept of eternity, especially an eternity in hell, is hard to grasp. Most theologians agree that a heavenly eternity is guaranteed for the saints. However, theology of an eternal place of judgement has been undermined in recent years, even from well respected theologians. Who knows what the next decades of theological research will reveal about the nature of hell, what we do know is that ‘for you we hope for better things’ (Heb. 6:9) which involves a physical, bodily eternity.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (ESV)
‘But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.’
So what does this all mean for how we should live? Well for those in Christ it means that this life is as bad as it gets. Although we may grieve for lost loved ones we have a hope that is unique, with which we can truly say “they’ve gone to a better place”. Words to encourage one another.
Jesus vanquished the grave and as such there will be no moment where the believer is separated from God. This concept is associated with complex theological discussion around “the millennium” and what has been termed ‘the rapture’³, neither of which we have time to discuss now. Suffice to say this life will have trials but God has a very special plan for the Christian, he will not depart from you or forsake you (Heb. 13:5).
I do not have time now to speak of the gem-encrusted garden-city that will be the new earth and we don’t have time to talk about our renewed nature and vocation, free from the curse of sin, but I hope this is a good encouragement in the now.
To live is Christ to die is gain (Phil. 1:21). Remember that in these uncertain days of Coronavirus, there is a glorious future ahead of us. There is a hope that goes beyond the grave but while we live, we are to be beacons and signposts to the ‘ticket’ (Jesus’ life, death, & resurrection) that ushers us into all of this.
1, For more see HERE
2, For more on eternal punishment of hell see HERE
3, For more on the rapture, the millennium and dispensationalism (and much else) I would recommend Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.