Under the last things we understand those things which still lie in the future for mankind and the entire world: temporal death, the state of souls between death and resurrection, the return of Christ to judgment, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, the end of the world, eternal damnation and eternal life.
1. Temporal death. Temporal death is not the annihilation of man, neither according to the soul (Matt. 20:28: Christ gave “His life,” or, literally: His soul, “a ransom for many”), nor yet according to the body (John 5:28, 29: “All that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth”). Temporal death is a separation of soul and body (Luke 12:20: “This night thy soul shall be required of thee;” also see Eccles. 12:7). A good example of the meaning of temporal death is to be found in the words in which Holy Scripture describes the true death of Christ: He “yielded up the ghost” (spirit), “gave up the ghost” (Matt. 27:50; John 19:30).
The cause of death is not an originally defective constitution of human nature, but the sin of man. Gen. 2:17: “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Rom. 5:12: “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin.” All other causes of death (disease, accident, etc.) are causes of death only on account of sin.
The only liberator from death is Christ, since He paid man’s debt of sin. Rom. 5:10; 2 Tim. 1:10: “Our Savior Jesus Christ hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.”
With regard to the death of Christians Scripture says: first, that they still die, and thus must still go through the process of dissolution (Rom. 8:10: “the body is dead because of sin”); and second, that they do not die, John 5:24: He (the believer on Christ) “is passed from death into life.” In what sense is this so? The wrath of God no longer rests upon the believer in Christ, and hence the sting of death is removed and the gate of paradise is opened wide, Luke 23:43.
Hence the Scripture gives death many sweet and beautiful names: “to fall asleep,” Acts 7:60; “to depart and be with Christ,” Phil. 1:23; “to be with Christ in paradise,” Luke 23: 43. With these beautiful designations of death every Christian should make himself thoroughly familiar.
2. The intermediate state. Only few Scripture passages treat of the state of souls between death and resurrection. The Scripture directs the attention of men primarily to the last day and the following state of eternal blessedness and eternal damnation. But from a few clear passages of Scripture we know: a). The souls of the believers between death and resurrection are in a state of blessed enjoyment of God, with Jesus (Acts 7:59), with Christ (Phil. 1:23), in paradise (Luke 23:43); b). the souls of the unbelievers are in prison (1 Peter 3:19). A “soul-sleep” which excludes the enjoyment of God is to be rejected as contrary to Scripture teaching, for the Holy Spirit through St. Paul teaches that the state of the believing Christian after death is “far better” than in this life (Phil. 1:23), and the promise of being in paradise, which Jesus gives to the dying malefactor as one to be fulfilled “today,” certainly includes a blissful enjoyment of God. Therefore when Scripture and Christian devotional language speak of death as a “sleep,” “asleep in Jesus,” this indicates a sleep which includes the enjoyment of God and being with Christ. The teaching of a purgatory and all other teachings which go beyond these simple statements of Holy Scripture are empty human speculations and blasphemous presumption.
3. The return of Christ to judgment. The exact time (day, hour, year) of Christ’s return in glory is unascertainable by man: “Of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but My Father only” (Matt. 24:36; also Mark 13:32). The purpose of this indeterminability is to produce constant watchfulness on the part of men: “Watch ye therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come” (Matt. 24:42). But Christ has revealed many signs of His return in Holy Scripture, for which the brief summary in Matt. 24:3–14 should be consulted. We may bring these signs under the general concept of abnormal occurrences or world disorders. Such disorders we see with increasing frequency in our times, as follows: a), disorders in the life of nations: wars, famine, pestilences, hostility to Christianity; b). disorders in the realm of nature: earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, in general the revolution of the animate and inanimate creation against man; c). disorders in the church: the rise of false doctrine, and especially of the greatest false teacher under Christ’s name, the Antichrist.
But in addition to the true signs of Christ’s return, which He Himself has given us, men have invented certain fictitious signs, especially two, namely, a still future millenial kingdom of Christ here upon earth, and a still future general conversion of the Jews. Because of the importance of guarding our blessed hope against being diverted from its proper object, we shall devote a paragraph to each of these fictitious signs.
The imaginary millenial kingdom is regarded as a visible kingdom which Christ is to set up here in this world for the space of a thousand years before judgment day. The ideas which are harbored concerning this supposed kingdom vary from the crass notions of a kingdom of earthly blessings in which the Christians will also outwardly and visibly constitute the dominant power in this world, to a vague “hope of better times,” but in every case lack all foundation in Scripture, which represents the last days before Christ’s return to judgment, as times in which faith will scarcely be found upon earth and the cross which Christians must bear at all times will be intensified (Luke 18:8). These dreams are refuted by demonstrating that the Scripture passages to which millenialists appeal are, in Scripture itself, referred to the Church of the New Testament, for instance: a). The coming of men to Mount Zion (Is. 2:2–4, etc.) is fulfilled whenever and wherever in the world men believe the Gospel (Heb. 12:22ff); b). The coming of peace into the world (Is. 9:5; Is. 11:6–9; Zech. 9: 10) is fulfilled through the coming of Christ into the world and faith in Him (Is. 9:6; Luke 2:14; John 14:27). Scripture expressly warns against conceiving of the peace of the Church in this life as an external peace, Matt. 10:34; Acts 14:22. To interpret the prophecies just mentioned, and even the song of the angels over Bethlehem’s fields on Christmas Eve, as a promise of international peace is one of the cruelest hoaxes which false teachers have ever perpetrated against Christians. International strife is expressly prophesied by Christ Himself as one of the signs of His final return to judgment and the end of the world. There are not two future visible advents of Christ, one to establish a millenial kingdom, and another a thousand years later at the last day. Scripture expressly counts only two visible advents of Christ in all: a), the advent to take away the guilt of sin, which has taken place; b). the advent to lead the believers into eternal bliss. Heb. 9:28: “Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for Him shall He appear the second time without sin unto salvation.” Scripture also teaches only one still future general resurrection of the dead on the last day, whereas millenialists demand two bodily resurrections, one of the righteous only, at the beginning of the millenium, and the other of the rest of the dead, at the end of the thousand years, at judgment day. John 5:28, 29: “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.” A few verses before, in the same discourse of Jesus, He speaks of the “first resurrection” (Rev. 20:5, 6) in the Scriptural sense, as a spiritual resurrection, synonymous with conversion or regeneration: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live” (John 5:25). This call of Christ to arise spiritually, that is, to believe the Gospel, is resistible, because during the time of grace Christ works through means. But on Judgment Day (John 5:28) Christ’s call to the body to arise works irresistibly, because then “the Son of Man shall come in His glory,” in uncovered majesty, and therefore works with irresistible efficacy. This bodily resurrection, the only bodily resurrection which is to take place, is the general resurrection of all the dead (“all that are in the graves”) at the same “hour.” There is no room to insert a thousand years in the midst of the “hour” of John 5:28. But without a future double advent of Christ and a double bodily resurrection, both of which, as we have shown, are contrary to Scripture, the whole dream of millenialism collapses. The “thousand years” mentioned in Rev. 20:4 refers to a reign of souls with Christ in heaven, and has nothing to do with a thousand years reign of persons raised from the dead upon earth. The harmfulness of millenialism consists in the fact that it diverts the hopes of Christians, which should be directed toward heaven (1 Cor. 1:7; Phil. 3:20, 21; Matt. 5:12), to the earthly glory of an imaginary millenial kingdom.
The other fictitious sign of Christ’s return which constantly accompanies millenial hopes is the expectation of a future general conversion of all the Jews. This is generally supposed to be based upon Rom. 11:25, 26, but actually is based upon the changing of a word in verse 26. Scripture in this passage presents the time of the Gentiles and the time of the Jews as parallel, not successive. But the millenialists substitute for “so” in Rom. 11:26 a “then.” Neither do they take the “all Israel” seriously, for they think only of those physical descendants of Abraham who happen to be living in the world at the commencement of their “millenium,” and by no means of the entire spiritual Israel or all the elect among the Israelites, who are not only physical but spiritual children of Abraham, to whom the text unmistakably refers. The human opinion of a still future general conversion of the Jews is refuted when we, in the words of Rom. 11:26, allow the “and so” (designation of way and manner) to stand, and do not change it to “and then” (designation of time). “And so” refers back to verse 25, where Paul teaches that Israel is only partially obdurate during the time of the Gentiles, “and so (in this manner) all Israel shall be saved,” namely, the entire spiritual or elect Israel, corresponding to “the fulness of the Gentiles.” Individuals shall continue to be converted, one by one, both among the Gentiles and among the Jews, and so all the elect both of Jews and Gentiles shall be brought to faith and salvation before the last day.
In closing this discussion of the signs preceding the return of Christ to judgment, which we have found it necessary, on account of current false teachings, to treat in considerable detail, we may remark that if we confine ourselves to the signs which Christ Himself foretold, it may be confidently asserted that all of these preliminary signs have been already fulfilled, and that hence there is nothing which we need expect to intervene between the times in which we live and the glorious advent of our Savior at the end of the world. We may and should daily and eagerly look forward to His appearing; and yet we have, of course, no guarantee that He will come during our life-time. “That day and that hour” remains hidden from us and will so remain until He comes. True Christians, however, even among those who have been deluded into expecting a millenium, nevertheless, by a happy inconsistency, fix the true faith and hope of their hearts upon the return of their Savior to judge the world at the last day and the heavenly glory thereafter unto all eternity. And so, also on this much controverted subject, “we all believe in one true God” who will send His Son in the glory of the Father with all His holy angels, at a day and an hour which we know not, to deliver us from this present evil world, and graciously take us from this vale of tears to Himself in heaven.
4. The resurrection of the dead. The doctrine of the bodily resurrection of the dead is a primary fundamental article of our Christian religion, so that whoever denies it has abandoned the Christian faith and is not a member of the Christian Church. So it was with Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Tim. 2:17, 18), with Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:19, 20), and with the deniers of the bodily resurrection at Corinth (1 Cor. 15:34). All Christians agree in this article of faith. The resurrection of the dead is taught not only in the New Testament but also in the Old. The Scripture proof for this assertion could be adduced at considerable length, but we shall content ourselves at this place with a reference to the familiar passage, Job 19:25–27. All men, the godly and the ungodly, arise, John 5:28, 29. The resurrection of the body is just as universal as temporal death. Men arise in the same body which they had here upon earth, which is proved by the very word “resurrection,” for that which rises again must be identical with that which died, and by the expression “all that are in the graves,” John 5:28. The fashion of the bodies of risen believers is described in 1 Cor. 15:42–44 as “a spiritual body,” which includes “incorruption,” “glory,” and “power.” This also certainly includes the absence of all bodily defects. “They are as the angels of God in heaven” (Matt. 22:30) does not indicate sexlessness, but simply that they shall not marry nor be given in marriage, as Christ Himself says at that place. The fashion of the bodies of the unbelievers after the resurrection is indicated in the words of Daniel 12:2: they “shall awake … to shame and everlasting contempt.”
5. The Final Judgment. Christ, the incarnate Son of God, the Savior of all men, is at the end of the world also the Judge of all men, John 5:22; Acts 17:31. The apparent contradiction between Scripture passages such as Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10 (all men shall be judged) and John 3:18; John 5:24 (the believers shall not be judged) is solved through the distinction of Law and Gospel. We see also from Matt. 25:34–40 that Christ deals with the believers not according to the Law but according to the Gospel, for He makes mention only of their good works (as the fruits of faith), not of their evil works. The purpose of such Scripture passages as Rom. 14:10 and 2 Cor. 5:10 is the warning against carnal security.
6. The end of the world. The fact that the world will perish is abundantly taught in Scripture, for instance, in Luke 21:33: “Heaven and earth shall pass away,” in contrast to the Word of God which “shall not pass away.” Scripture, however, does not clearly settle the question as to whether this destruction is to be thought of as a total annihilation or only as a transformation. 1 Cor. 7:31: “the fashion of this world passeth away,” as well as what St. Paul has to say, Rom. 8:19–23, regarding the deliverance of the creation from the bondage of corruption, would seem to indicate the latter. But the conclusion one reaches on this somewhat obscure point cannot be made a test of orthodoxy.
7. Eternal damnation and eternal life. Both facts are placed side by side in Matt. 25:46: The godless “shall go away into everlasting punishment; but the righteous into life eternal.” One of these doctrines cannot be denied without denying the other. And neither can be denied, without denying the Christian religion. One who believes in Jesus as his Savior will certainly believe both in that which He has saved him from and that which He has saved him unto — the eternal blessedness which all believers in Christ shall inherit by His merit. Eternal damnation consists in eternal banishment from God’s presence: “Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire” (Matt. 25:41). Eternal blessedness consists in the eternal beholding of God: “Come, ye blessed of My Father” (Matt. 25:34); “We know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).