R: I believe it was Churchill who once observed that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others; I think the same applies to the presbyterian form. Not much of an accolade? Perhaps. But it’s still a human structure after all, and still human beings running it, and so nothing you can do is going to make it perfect. Really, to form a perfect government you need to find a perfect person and give them all the authority. The further you get from that, the higher the minimal degree of imperfection in the system—and the less damage any one person’s sin can do, and the more chances there are to fix whatever problems may arise.
You see, there’s this split view of the church, in a way. You look at it from one angle and it’s a group of recovering sinners who sometimes do things beautifully and sometimes make big mistakes; and it’s terribly easy, down in the trenches of the day-to-day, to lose sight of the big picture and forget that we’re all headed somewhere. But then sometimes it’s possible to step back and look at the bigger picture, to get a sense of the church mystical, “spread out through space and time and terrible as an army with banners,” as I think Lewis has the demon Screwtape say. We need that change of perspective; if nothing else, we need it for the reminder that we are a pilgrim people, a church on the way, that we are headed for the kingdom of God.
A: This is the second time you’ve said that. Are you ready to explain yourself now?
R: Yes. The kingdom of God refers to the time when he will reign unchallenged over everything (it doesn’t mean “kingdom” in the sense that we usually use it, as a defined land with borders). It’s a future reality, as clearly we don’t see God as the unchallenged ruler in this world, but at the same time much of what Jesus taught indicates that the kingdom of God had come into the world through his presence and work—so, for instance, he says, “The kingdom of God is among you.” It’s both already here and not yet here.
The best analogy is the one used by Oscar Cullman, a Swiss NT scholar, who compared the coming of the kingdom to the Allied victory in WW II and the difference between D-Day and V-E Day: with the success of the Normandy invasion, the war was really over; Hitler would have been wisest to sue for peace at that point. But he refused to give up even though all was inevitably lost, and so the war continued. The war was won on June 6, 1944, but that victory was not consummated until May 8, 1945—almost a year later. In the same way, the kingdom of God arrived in the person of Christ and the decisive battle was won in his death and resurrection, but the victory has yet to be consummated; that is still in the future, because though the enemy is beaten, he will fight for as long as he possibly can.
The church is a sign of the kingdom of God, a sign that the future kingdom has broken into the present, because the church is a body of people who have stepped outside this world order and are taking our marching orders from the future.
A: Would you call the church a “new world order,” then?
R: Let’s not go there. As I was saying, the proclamation of the message that Jesus is Lord produces a response, which is the work of the Holy Spirit, and that creates the covenant community of the church; the church then draws its purpose from the activity of God in the world, in the ways I talked about earlier. It is the company of those who bow in the present to the kingdom of God, and so looks fundamentally to the future when that kingdom will come in full. This is important, for a couple of reasons. One, it’s the reason why we are called to live holy lives.
A: Give things up now, get the reward later?
R: In part, but not just that. The reward, after all, is the life of the kingdom, and that’s what we’re called to live now. It’s harder, of course, because living that life now is countercultural, it’s in conflict with the system of this world, which is under the Devil’s thumb; but part of the reward is coming to know the joys of the life of the kingdom in this world. That’s one reason why it’s important to keep our eye on the goal. The other is that the kingdom is our promise and our hope in times of suffering and injustice. We have the promise that all will be made right, that God sees our suffering and that it will all be worth it in the end.
A third point is that the hope of the kingdom sets us free from the fear of death, because we know that death is not the end; rather, death is the point at which we pass from this world into eternity.
A: If I understood you correctly, you don’t believe that the soul is immortal and separate from the body. If that’s so, and if death is the point of transition into eternal existence, why aren’t people resurrected as soon as they die? I’ve been to a few funerals, and there’s been a body at every one of them.
R: We aren’t resurrected individually; rather, all those who die in Christ will be resurrected together at the Second Coming.
A: So if you pass into eternity at death but aren’t resurrected until later, what are you in between?
R: Outside of time. From the perspective of God’s eternity, there is no wait in between.
A: So you die at one point in time, are resurrected at another point, but those are the same point.
R: I’m not sure I’d put it exactly that way (though maybe I would); I’m just saying that it seems to me that from a perspective outside our time stream, there isn’t a problem. Luther taught the doctrine of “soul sleep,” that the soul sleeps in between death and resurrection, but I really don’t think that’s necessary. I should note, by the way, that the resurrection body is a new, improved body—it isn’t that God will reconstitute the atoms that made up our body, but rather that our bodies will be made new, just as our lives have been made new and as all creation will be made new.
A: If I may change the subject, what about those horrible popular novels—the “Left Behind” series and others of that sort?
R: Ever read any of them?
A: The “Left Behind” books? I picked one up in a bookstore, out of curiosity, and read a bit. They make Grisham look like Dostoevsky.
R: That’s too harsh, I think, but I’ll grant they’re far from great literature. That’s not really my concern with them, though. I think those books, and others that offer a similar view of the last days, are based on rather poor exegesis—an overly concrete reading of Revelation and other texts that really doesn’t try too hard to understand these texts in their proper context—and as such, I think they offer a rather distorted view of the end times. That’s not necessarily a criticism of the broader theological position they hold, which is a form of premillennialism, but of the way they present it.
A: What’s “premillennialism”?
R: There are three basic positions dealing with the chronology of the end times, and they are distinguished by their understanding of the millennium, which is referenced in Revelation 20:4-6: “I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.”
One position is postmillennialism, which is sort of the theological equivalent of a belief in progress: the church is going to succeed in converting the world to Christ; peace will prevail, evil will be banished, and the reign of Christ in the hearts of humanity will be universal. After a while—the thousand years may be literal or symbolic—Satan will launch a revolt, and Jesus will return, squash him forever, judge humanity, and reign unchallenged from then on. Besides being unduly optimistic, this view doesn’t fit Jesus’ own statements about the last days, which indicate that events on earth will not be going well at the time of his return.
Another position is amillennialism, which understands the millennium symbolically; there will not be a literal reign of Christ on earth. This is certainly reasonable, as Revelation is loaded with symbolic language, but there does not seem to be any consensus as to what that thousand-year reign might symbolize—and to me, none of the answers offered seems very convincing. More problematically, the amillennial interpretation runs into trouble when this passage references “the first resurrection,” since that is understood to happen before the millennium. Since every amillennial view understands the millennium as relating in some way to the period between Christ’s first coming and his second, “the first resurrection” can’t refer to the physical resurrection believers will experience when Christ comes again, and thus must be a spiritual resurrection. This interpretation seems to require straining the text beyond the normal bounds of interpretation to make it fit a pre-determined theory, and that is a problematic thing to do.
The most natural interpretation of Revelation 20 seems to be the premillennial one. Premillennialism understands the millennium as a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, but unlike the postmillennial view it holds that the church will not succeed in converting the world. Rather, the world will grow worse, and ultimately there will be a period of great tribulation, after which Christ will come, those who have been faithful to him will be raised from the dead, and he will reign on earth for a period—whether a literal thousand years or not, I don’t know. At some point, however, Satan will mount one last attack and be defeated forever. At that point will come the second resurrection, of those who have not yet been raised from the dead, and the final judgment.
The “Left Behind” books are premillennial in their understanding. They also posit the theory that Jesus will return again twice: once at the beginning of the period of great tribulation to take his people out of the world (this is called the rapture), and once at its end to wrap things up. In support of their doctrine of the rapture, those who take this position cite 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” I think, though, that this is wishful thinking by Christians who don’t want to suffer. Nowhere in Scripture does it suggest that Jesus will return twice, for one thing; for another, this passage just says that we will meet Christ in the air—it does not say that we will leave with him. It could mean that we’ll meet him in the air as a welcoming party for his arrival on earth.
Rather, I believe that the church will go through the great tribulation, because it makes no sense to me that God would remove his people from the earth when they would be needed most, and that Christ will return again, once, at the end of that period. He will preserve his people in the midst of that period, just as he preserved Noah’s family through the great flood, but he will not remove the church. When Jesus returns, we will meet him in the air, yes—but as a welcoming party, and we will return to earth in his train.
A: I think I don’t know enough to make sense of the alternatives—though as you described postmillennialism, it sounded rather implausible to me. It seems that the central thrust of your position is that life will get very bad, but the church will win through.
R: Yes, and I think that’s the most important point. The details draw enough argument that it’s necessary to articulate a position on end-times chronology, and some of them really do make a difference—between postmillennialism and premillennialism, for instance, you have the difference between optimism and a more pessimistic view; and yet you also have the belief in a rapture, which allows some premillennialists to consign the rest of the world to the tribulation and not worry about it for themselves. That makes a difference, too. But the most basic point is just what you’ve said: the promise that if we are faithful to Christ, he is faithful to us and will bring us through all right by the power of his Spirit.
And then at the end comes the Last Judgment. I said earlier that I believe in Hell, so I’m not really saying anything new here. All that we have ever done and said and thought will be open for all to see, and we will be called to account for all of it; and then the choice we made in this life, for or against God, will be fixed into eternity. Those who have been faithful to God will be with him in the new creation, while those who have rejected him will be sent to Hell.
As C. S. Lewis put it in his book The Great Divorce, there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who say to God, “Your will be done,” and those to whom God finally says, “Yourwill be done.” Hell will be a place of God’s wrath, but at its core it will be the place of exclusion from fellowship with God. It will not be, however, a place where Satan reigns and God is not present; God will be just as present there as anywhere else in creation—but there will be no fellowship with him. Those in Hell will be in a state of complete estrangement and alienation from him, themselves and each other, and so the presence and love of God will be not a joy but a stabbing agony. God does not desire this for anyone, but it is his final act of respect for human freedom to allow those who reject him to have for eternity what they chose in this life.
A: But God is in control of that choice.
R: Yes, because he chose whom he would save. But those who reject him still do so of their own free will. God is sovereign in everything, but human beings are still free to choose as we will.
A: If God is sovereign in everything, why doesn’t everyone choose to serve him?
R: Do you want to change your mind and make that choice?
R: Then how can you ask the question?
A: I’ll have to think about that.
R: While you’re thinking, one last point. I said earlier that I don’t exactly believe we go to Heaven. That’s because biblically we don’t leave this world for a different and better place; rather, the biblical picture is that this world becomes the different and better place. Once all this is accomplished, God will create the heavens and earth anew, as they should have been, with Jerusalem, the city of his temple, made new at their center. We will live eternally in the new creation, and nothing of the goodness of this world will be lost—not even that which is now lost.