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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Baptist Faith & Message Ch. 10 "Last Things"

"God, in His own time and in His own way, will bring the world to its appropriate end. According to His promise, Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth; the dead will be raised; and Christ will judge all men in righteousness. The unrighteous will be consigned to Hell, the place of everlasting punishment. The righteous in their resurrected and glorified bodies will receive their reward and will dwell forever in Heaven with their Lord."

I believe this brief statement of the BF&M regarding the doctrine of last things says almost exactly the right amount concerning biblical eschatology as is appropriate to a basic statement of faith--at least at this stage in Church history. Perhaps one day, there will be more catholic unity regarding even specific end-times questions regarding the timing and nature of the millennium, and detailed points of exegesis in John's Apocalypse, etc.

The BF&M rightly summarizes a number of fundamental beliefs Christians have always held regarding the end of the world:

1) The world is heading somewhere definite, and history as we know it has an omega-point.

2) Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly in glory.

3) The dead will be raised.

4) Jesus Christ will carry out a final judgment, separating righteous (those saved by grace) and unrighteous (those who remain in their sins).

5) The final destiny of every human being is either everlasting punishment or everlasting bliss with the Lord.

#1 contrasts the Christian faith with many Eastern worldviews that see history as cyclical rather than linear and teleological.

#2 contrasts with some heretical sects of pseudo-Christianity who have taken arguably proper insights from certain passages of Scripture regarding 1st-century events of redemptive-historical significance involving the destruction of Jerusalem, and have inappropriately over-applied such a grid so that they believe all references to a future "coming" of Christ, or of resurrection, had to do with that event. The fact remains, however, that the Christian church as a whole has always confessed a literal Second Coming of Christ to earth, bodily.

#3 likewise contrasts with some heretical sects, but it also contrasts with any dualistic worldviews or religions that view the body as fundamentally evil or useless, and as something to be escaped. God created our bodies, and created us as bodily creatures. After the resurrection, such will we always be. Jesus Christ's resurrection is the paradigm of ours in the New Testament, and there is no way to argue that His was not a literal, physical, bodily resurrection.

#4 is clear throughout the New Testament in many different passages, even if some of the traditional passages used to prove it, from a certain theological perspective don't actually refer to it. Acts and 1st Corinthians give some of the clearest references. #4 contrasts with anyone who supposes there will not be a final reckoning, in which all wrongs will be righted, and sins recompensed which were not atoned for in Christ's blood as a gift to be received by the faith of the elect.

#5 contrasts with both universalists and, interpreted according to the original intent of the drafters of the BF&M, every form of conditionalism/annihilationism. Universalism is easily refuted from the Scriptures when they are taken as a whole, and when "universal"-sounding texts are interpreted in a canonical context. "All" those in Christ will be made alive, according to Romans 5, for example. As for conditionalism, I confess I have at times been tempted by the view, but have never been able to fully make the jump, because of Scripture's teaching.

There are many passages which speak in terms that could be understood as "annihilationistic." However, there are also just too many passages that speak of ongoing torment, suffering, and restlessness, to dismiss the traditional understanding of "Hell" (by which the BF&M here is referring to "Gehenna," the final place of the wicked, whatever precisely the intermediate state is like). I believe that the "annihilation" verses can be convincingly interpreted as relative and perspectival (from the perspective of the redeemed) within a traditional system, whereas the "torment" verses cannot be interpreted consistently or convincingly from within a conditionalist framework. In other words, from "Heaven," the wicked are in one sense simply "no more." But in fact they remain in post-resurrection bodies fit for eternal ruin--a horrid thought, indeed, but a biblical thought and one of which sin against a perfect, infinite God is worthy. Is the cross less horrible? It, too, demonstrates God's righteousness.

To wrap up, my only minor qualm with this section of the BF&M is that it leaves bare the language of "Heaven" as the final destiny of the redeemed (the "righteous"), whereas Scripture is emphatic that the eternal state will involve a transformed "New Earth" where God will dwell with His people. Heaven and earth will be fully united, as it were. As symbol-laden as the last couple of chapters of Revelation may be, Romans 8 and similar passages refer to the whole of creation being freed of its bondage to decay when the saints will be glorified with Christ in their resurrection bodies. Thankfully, the BF&M mentions resurrection twice and also speaks of "glorified bodies." But those bodies will inhabit a renewed earth, the inheritance of the meek and those of the faith of Abraham (Matt. 5:5; Rom. 4:13), not just "heaven."

But of course the best thing about the eternal state will be fellowship with Christ utterly unhindered by sin, and even unhindered by physical distance like that which exists between our humanities now (connected as they may mystically be for now, by the Spirit, in a sense). More important than the location is that the final destiny of the righteous is "with the Lord."

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