One of the most fascinating features of the Bible is that it tens what is ahead. Both Old and New Testaments contend that history is moving to a climax and that the sovereign God is in control. Helmut Thielecke, in his book, The Waiting Father, sums up this truth in a magnificent way: “When the drama of history is over, Jesus Christ will stand alone upon the stage. An the great figures of history – Pharaoh, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Churchill, Stalin, Johnson, Mao Tze Tung – will realize they have been bit actors in a drama produced by Another.”52
Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets looked forward to “the Day of the Lord,” the time when God would exercise final judgment on Israel and other nations for their wickedness. An judgments – whether by means of invasion, plague, or natural disaster – will come to fun flower at the return of Christ.
The Old Testament contains two lines of messianic prophecy. One pictures the Messiah (Christ) as the Suffering Servant (e.g., Isa. 53). The other regards Him as a reigning King (e.g., Isa. 9:6). The first coming of Christ, as the Suffering Servant, answered the hope for God’s coming to redeem His people. The second coming of Christ will bring consummation of that hope when He returns as reigning King.
In the meantime, though, Satan has been conquered by Christ – at the Cross and in the Resurrection – so that “through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). But Satan is, temporarily, still “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4), and he is actively opposing Christ and His Church.
Satan’s opposition will culminate in the appearance of a being called Antichrist. The “spirit of Antichrist” is to be abroad before this person appears. In fact, his presence was noted already in apostolic times: “Little children, it is the last time; and as ye have heard that Antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know it is the last time” (1 John 2:18). Of this coming being it is asked, “Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is Antichrist that denieth the Father and the Son” (v. 22).
Though there is considerable difference of opinion among Bible scholars, some feel, because of the similarity of description given in Daniel 11:37 and 2 Thessalonians 2:4, that these passages refer to the same person. If these also refer to the same person as “the beast” (Rev. 13:3, 13, 16, 17), several striking characteristics emerge. Satan, with a view to deceiving and persuading men, will inspire Antichrist and give him power to act supernaturally. As an ecclesiastical leader, he will manipulate religion for his own ends, so as to claim the worship due God. He will also demand political allegiance and will exercise economic pressure to force compliance (Rev. 13:16, 17). Those who try to oppose him will face tribulation so great that unless God shortened the days no one would survive(Matt. 24: 22, 23 ).
The coming of Christ will bring the rule of Antichrist to an end. It is the great event to which all Scripture looks forward. The Old Testament prophets spoke of it, though the first and second comings often merged in their thinking. Jesus Himself frequently referred to it: “I will come again and receive you unto Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3); and, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days…shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven….And they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:29, 30). As the disciples watched Jesus’ ascension: “Two men stood by them in white apparel, which also said, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus…shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven’ “ (Acts 1:10, 11). The epistles also emphasize it: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first” (1 Thes. 4:16).
The second coming of Christ is the great anticipation of the Church. As Christians we should, with Paul, love to look for that “blessed hope and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2;13). His coming is an incentive for holy living: “And now, little children, abide in Him; that when He shall appear we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before Him at His coming”; and, “Every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself even as He is pure” (1 John 2:28; 3:3).
Views of the Rapture
Bible scholars are not completely agreed as to whether the Second Coming is a single event or has two phases. Many evangelicals distinguish between Christ’s coming for His saints in the “Rapture” and His coming with His saints in the revelation of His power.
Among premillennialists ( who believe Christ will return before He reigns with His resurrected saints for a thousand years) , there are three views, commonly known as the pre-, mid-, and posttribulation views of the Rapture.
Those who hold the pretribulation view believe that Christ will return for His Church before the Great Tribulation, which, therefore, believers will not have to endure. After this period of turmoil and affliction on earth, Christ will return again with His Church. He will rule as King during the Millennium. The Tribulation, it is believed, coincides with the 70th “week” mentioned in Daniel’s prophecy: “And he [the prince that is to come, or Antichrist] shall confirm the covenant with many [i.e., with Israel] for one week; and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation [in the temple at Jerusalem] to cease, and for the overspreading of abomination he shall make it desolate even until the consummation shall be poured upon the desolate” (Dan. 9:27; cf. v. 26).
By comparing the whole prophecy (Dan. 9) with parallel passages, it appears these “weeks” are “sevens” of years, not days. According to pretribulation interpretation, therefore, the Tribulation will be a literal seven-year period, ruled by Antichrist, just before his final defeat by Christ. Emphasis is laid, in the pre-tribulation Rapture view, on the fact that though the Church, through the centuries, has known much persecution, the final Great Tribulation will not involve believers and will be unique in its awfulness (Matt. 24:21) .
The mid tribulation view holds that the Rapture will take place in the middle of the 70th “week,” 3-½ years after its beginning. The posttribulation view is held by premillenarians who believe that Christ’s rapture (coming for His saints) and His revelation (coming with His saints) are one and the same event, occurring just after the Tribulation and just before the Millennium.
Is anything yet to happen before Christ can return for His own? Those holding the pretribulalion view feel there is nothing to prevent the Rapture from happening at “any moment.” This “perhaps today” awareness encourages many Christians as they try to live each day in the light of their Lord’s imminent return. Most of those having mid- or posttribulation convictions believe, of course, that certain events (primarily the Tribulation, or the first half of it) must take place before Christ comes again.
Another related and important question has to do with whether or not the Millennium is literal. Premillenarians believe that Christ will have a literal thousand-year reign: “And I saw thrones, and [the saints] sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them; and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the Word of God, and which had not worshiped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (Rev. 20:4) .This reign will follow the binding and imprisoning of Satan (20:1-3) so that he may no longer deceive the nations.
Some view the Millennium as an extension and visible expression of Christ’s reign in the hearts of His people on earth and in heaven. Others see it as a fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, involving the restoration of the Jews to their homeland as a nation and the reestablishment of a literal throne, king, temple, and sacrificial system.
Many Bible scholars feel that the idea of a literal Millennium cannot be harmonized with biblical eschatology (teaching about the last days). They view the Millennium as a symbol of the ideal Church. Since these people do not believe in an actual millennium, they are called “amillennialists.”
Still another amillenarian view says that the symbolic language of The Revelation represents God’s working in history, and that the kingdom of God is to be realized through the preaching of the Gospel. The missionary task of the Church, they claim, includes the ultimate Christianizing of society.53
Jesus Is Coming!
Whatever points of view expositors take on the Tribulation, the Rapture, and the Millennium, it is thrilling to realize that all agree on the great, glorious, and incontestable fact that Jesus is coming again. The details of His next appearance are interesting and important to study, but differences in interpreting these details should never obscure the central fact of His coming.
It is significant that neither our Lord nor the prophets and apostles mention the return of Christ for speculative purposes, but always as a motive for practical daily holiness. We could summarize the doctrine: “Since all these things will be destroyed…what kind of people should you be? Your lives should be holy and dedicated to God” (2 Peter 3:11, TEV).
Some momentous events will take place at the coming of Christ. The resurrection of the believing dead will then occur, and we who are still alive will be glorified (1 Cor. 15:52) and caught up to meet Him in the air (1 Thes. 4:17). The resurrection of the dead is emphasized in the New Testament, but it is taught throughout Scripture. Even Job said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last He will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has thus been destroyed, then out of my flesh I shall see God; whom I myself shall see, whom my own eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27, BERK).
David anticipated this resurrection (Ps. 16:9) and Daniel mentioned it (Dan. 12:1-3). Jesus taught it repeatedly and emphasized that it will include all men: “The hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth, they that have done good unto the resurrection of life, and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of damnation – ( John 5:28, 29).
That the resurrection is a physical rather than a merely spiritual event is proved by the resurrection of Lazarus (John 11:44) and by that of our Lord Himself (Luke 24:39).
The resurrection of the body is part of our total redemption (Rom. 8:23). A Christian should not long to be delivered from the body, with all of its weaknesses and problems, but for the body’s redemption. “We sigh deeply while in this tent, not because we want to be stripped of it, but rather to be invested with the other covering, so that the mortal may be absorbed by the real life” (2 Cor. 5:4, BERK). Our resurrection bodies will not be identical with the ones we have now, but will be closely related to them.
Believers will be resurrected at the coming of Christ (1 Thes. 4:16). This will be the first resurrection (cf. John 5: 28, 29), of which Paul wanted to be part (Phil. 3:11). It is, literally, the resurrection “out of the dead.” That is, the righteous will be raised from among the wicked.
There is clearly a time lapse between the resurrection of believers to glory and the resurrection of unbelievers to judgment. Though we cannot be dogmatic as to the exact length of this interval, there will be a lapse of at least a thousand years between the two resurrections: “I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the Word of God, mid which had not worshiped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished….Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection; on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ and shall reign with Him a thousand years” (Rev. 20:4-6).
What about the condition of the dead before they are resurrected? The Scriptures affirm the conscious existence of both the wicked and the righteous after death and before their resurrections, but give few details. It seems clear that the soul is without a body and that believers are in a condition of conscious joy. Unbelievers, however, await the resurrection in a state of suffering (Luke 16:23). Paul was willing “to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). He said, referring to death, that he preferred “to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Phil. 1:23). Dead believers are at rest: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth…that they may rest from their labors” (Rev. 14:13).
Death is frequently described in the Bible as sleep. In the Old Testament the term “sleep” is applied to all the dead, but in the New Testament it applies mostly to the righteous dead. Paul used the word only of believers. This term does not apply to the soul or spirit; it does not imply total unconsciousness until the resurrection. It rather implies unconsciousness with reference to earthly life, for which consciousness the body is necessary . The dead are “asleep” so far as this world is concerned, but this in no way implies that they are asleep or unconscious to the other world or that their spirits are totally unconscious.
Scripture clearly nowhere teaches “soul sleep.” Passages quoted to prove this doctrine refer primarily to bodily, or physical, relations. All that we have said about the state of the righteous dead bears this out.
The consciousness of the unrighteous dead is also clearly taught. They are in prison (1 Peter 3:19), which would be unnecessary if they were unconscious. The story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), whatever else it mayor may not teach, shows that the unrighteous dead experience conscious suffering and punishment.
The passages cited clearly refute the doctrine of purgatory .A person dies either as one who has been redeemed or as one who is under judgment. After death there is no passing over from one condition to the other. Final judgment or redemption simply settles what has already begun at the time of death.
More is said about the condition of the dead than about their location. In the Old Testament the souls of all the dead are spoken of as going to sheol, which is translated “grave,” “hell,” or “pit.” “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell [sheol], neither wilt thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption” (Ps. 16:10). Sheol is a place of sorrow. “The sorrows of hell [sheol] compassed me about” (2 Sam. 22:6), said David. Hades, translated “hell” and “grave,” is the New Testament equivalent of sheol. Other New Testament terms for the intermediate state include “paradise” (Luke 12:43) and “Abraham’s bosom” (16:22).
But the intermediate state will be succeeded at last by the final judgment, toward which all history is heading. God is the Ruler of all men, the Lawgiver, and the final Judge. Sometimes the Bible mentions God (the Father) as judge: “God the Judge of all” (Heb. 12:23); and sometimes it mentions Christ: “The Lord Jesus Christ…shall judge the quick and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:1). The relationship of the Father and the Son in judgment is made clear: “He [God the Father] hath appointed a day in the which He will judge the world in righteousness by that Man [Christ] whom He hath ordained, whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He hath raised Him from the dead” ( Acts 17:31).
God is judging men and nations continually, but there will be a final judgment which all previous judgments foreshadow. It will be an extension of past and present judgment. An unbeliever “has been judged already because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18, NAS). A believer, on the other hand, “has [present tense] eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24, NAS).
The purpose of final judgment will not be to ascertain the quality of an individual’s character, but to disclose his character and to assign him to the eternal place corresponding to what he is because of his trust or lack of trust in God.
Several future judgments are mentioned in Scripture. The judgment of the living nations (Matt. 25:31-46), according to premillennialists, will take place at the return of Christ with His saints. It will lead to the setting up of the millennial kingdom.
Believers will be judged, but not with nonbelievers: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that every man may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). It is clear that this judgment does not decide a believer’s salvation, but appraises his works. A Christian, in this judgment, can suffer loss of reward. “This is a judgment, not for destiny, but for adjustment, for reward or loss, according to our works, for position in the Kingdom: every man according as his work shall be.”54
The final judgment of the unsaved will be at the great white throne of God. John describes it: “I saw a great white throne and Him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and hell [hades] delivered up the dead which were in them; and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:11-15).
The final judgment of Satan will occur just before that of the Great White Throne: “The devil that deceived [men] was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone” (Rev. 20:10). Presumably Satan’s angels will be judged at the same time, for Jesus spoke of “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41).
The final destiny of the wicked is hell. This awesome place is described in various ways. It is a place or state of unquenchable (Mark 9:43) and everlasting (Matt. 25:41) fire. It is spoken of as a lake of fire and brimstone (Rev. 20:10). That figurative language is used in these descriptions may be indicated by the fact that death and hell will be cast into it.
Hell is conceived of as outer darkness (Matt. 8:12). It is described as a place of eternal torment and punishment (Rev. 14:10, 11). If figurative language is involved, it is obviously symbolic of something so awful no one in his right mind could be indifferent to avoiding it. Hell “is the loss of all good, whether physical or spiritual, and the misery of an evil conscience banished from God and the society of the holy and dwelling under God’s positive curse forever.”55
Nowhere in Scripture is there any trace of the idea that hell is a kind of “Jolly Boys’ Club,” absence from which would cause us to miss our friends. This flippant notion is Satan’s lie. Hell is “the blackness of darkness forever” (Jude 13) – utter aloneness. C. S. Lewis once spoke of hell as “nothing but yourself for all eternity”! This is not the whole truth about hell, but it describes one of its most hideous aspects.
The future punishment of the wicked is not annihilation. “In support of the doctrine of conditional immortality [ that the lost ultimately cease to exist] it has been urged that other terms descriptive of the fate of the condemned, such as ‘perdition,’ ‘corruption,’ ‘destruction,’ and ‘death’ point to a cessation of being. This, however, rests on an unscriptural interpretation of these terms, which everywhere in the Old and New Testaments designate a state of existence with an undesirable content – never the pure negation of existence — just as ‘life,’ in Scripture, describes a positive mode of being, never mere existence as such. Perdition, corruption, destruction, and death [refer to] the welfare of the ethical, spiritual character of man, without implying the annihilation of his physical existence.”56
There is no biblical evidence for believing in the final restoration of the lost or in the universal salvation of all men. Perhaps the clearest disproof of these notions, as well as of final annihilation, is the fact that the same word is used to describe both punishment and life: “These will go away into eternal punishment; but the righteous into eternal life.” However we may try to qualify the word so that it means “age-long” rather than everlasting, we must apply the same qualification to the destinies of the righteous and the wicked. We cannot, consistently, deny eternal punishment without also denying eternal life. And “eternal life” is everlasting life. “Eternal” certainly means “everlasting” when it is applied to God. Why should it mean anything else when it modifies “punishment”?
There are, however, degrees of punishment in hell and of reward in heaven. Some, at the judgment seat of Christ in heaven, will suffer loss of reward because their works of “wood, hay, and stubble” will not stand the test of fire (1 Cor. 3:15). Their capacity for enjoyment, though unlimited in duration, will be less than that of others. Similarly, the wicked will be judged, “every man according to his works” (Rev. 20:13). “That servant who knew his Lord’s will and prepared not himself, neither did according to His will, shall be beaten with many stripes; but he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes” (Luke 12:47,48).
God, in His love, has done everything necessary to deliver men from eternal punishment. His justice requires that He punish sin, but His love provides salvation freely for all who will accept it. Those in hell are there because they refused or ignored God’s love; they are solely responsible for their condition. The realization of this truth will surely be one of the most painful experiences of perdition.
The final destiny of the righteous is heaven. Heaven is most simply defined as where God is. It is a place of rest (Heb. 4:9), of glory (2 Cor. 4:17), of holiness (Rev. 21:27), of worship (Rev. 19:1), of fellowship with others (Heb. 12:23), and of being with God (Rev. 21:3). He “shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
Believers may receive one or more crowns – the crown of life (James 1:12), the crown of glory (1 Peter 5:4), and the crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8). Those who have been won for Christ through our witness become our crown of rejoicing (1 Thes. 2:19).
Everything in heaven will be new: “The earth also, and the works that are therein, shall be burned up….Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Peter 3:10, 13). John reports that he “saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away, and there was no more sea. And I…saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven….And they shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 21:1,2; 22:5).
God’s kingdom will be established when all things are put under His feet. Then, “at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10, 11). The kingdoms of this world shall be the kingdoms of our Lord, and He shall reign forever and ever. His will will be done on earth as it is done in heaven.
Heaven will not be the boring experience of strumming a harp on a cloud, as some facetiously characterize it, It will be the most dynamic, expanding, exhilarating experience conceivable. Our problem now is that, with our finite minds, we cannot imagine it,
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the Sun,
We’ve no less days to sing His praise,
Than when we first begun.
For Further Reading
Hamilton, Floyd. The Basis of Millennial Faith. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1942.
Ladd, George E. Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come. Findlay, Ohio: Dunham Pub. Co., 1958.
Reese, Alexander. The Approaching Advent of Christ. London: Marshall, Morgan, & Scott, (n.d.)
Vos, Geerhardus. The Pauline Eschatology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952.