It might strike us as flippant to refer to eternal life as an eternal holiday. But if we consider that the word holiday is a combination of holy and day, and that Sunday is the Lord’s ordained holy day, then to refer to the eternal Sabbath as an eternal holiday is, in fact, quite fitting. So to spend a weekend meditating on eschatology, the doctrine of the end times, amounts to meeting together as a family and getting excited about a coming vacation.
That was our privilege at the annual conference of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary. The theme this year was, “As You See the Day Approaching: Reformed Perspectives on Eschatology.” The speakers addressed questions such as, Will we be like pre-Fall Adam on the new earth? Will there actually be a physical new earth? Why is hell important, if at all? What happens to us when we die? Far from being speculation about what will happen in the future, the speeches were proof that a biblically grounded eschatology impacts our hearts and lives today.
The conference opened Thursday night with the first public speech. It featured the keynote speaker, Dr. Lane Tipton, Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. His topic, as he put it in his introduction, concerned the “intersection of pneumatology with eschatology.” He recognized that this sounded less than thrilling to the mainly non-academic audience, so he assured us that his goal was indeed to present these truths in a way meaningful to the average believer.
Pneumatology is the study of the Holy Spirit, and Dr. Tipton wanted to show how the work of the Spirit was related to the end times. He gave us a speech that blended technical exegesis with pastoral warmth, mixing phrases like “eschatological plenitude” with concrete pictures of Moses’ glowing face. He spoke with a contagious joy that was clearly born of the material he was presenting, a joy that made his speech come alive. The focus of his talk was two passages, one from each of Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians. Space won’t allow me to cover everything Dr. Tipton said, so I will focus on the one point that was the buzz later over coffee and dessert.
Dr. Tipton was emphasizing the glory of the life that comes from the Spirit, and how full that glory will be when we experience the resurrection. He worked through Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15 regarding the natural and spiritual bodies (verses 42 and following), and demonstrated to us how striking Paul’s contrast between the two really is. The dead body of a believer, Paul writes, is in the category of “natural body.” But so is the body of Adam, pre-Fall. What this means, Dr. Tipton explained, is that the body that Adam had in Eden is closer in kind to a corpse than it is to the spiritual body we will be given at the resurrection. Compared to our resurrection bodies, Adam’s body was death-like. To make the point with even more impact, Dr. Tipton said, “The one place I would not want to go to, other than hell, is Eden.” This would take us backwards, away from our current and future Spirit-wrought life with Christ. It is a shocking statement, but it shocks us into recognizing the sheer volume of glory to which the Spirit is bringing us!
On Friday the conference showcased current and former CRTS faculty. Dr. Smith spoke first thing in the morning on eschatology in the book of Psalms. The book provides unique challenges to the careful reader, especially with regards to eschatology. The psalmist speaks often about the grave, the pit, and Sheol, but there is a distinct lack of joy. Also, while there is a clear sense that the LORD will judge all of mankind, the fuller understanding of the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead as revealed in the New Testament is not at all explicit. So we cannot simply read our doctrine of eschatology straight back into the Psalms. Rather, the key is reading the book through Christ and the fullness of revelation that he brings. We can read Sheol, then, as something conquered, and be assured of our vindication when God does bring his judgment. It is through Christ that believers can apply the Psalms to their hearts for comfort in the face of death, and hope for the Day of the Lord.
In the second morning speech Dr. Van Dam spoke about political action in light of the end times. A central principle in this discussion is that we live with the tension of the already/not yet. That is, we are living in a world that is already ruled by Christ, but the fullness of that rule has not yet been realized. So on the one hand, the theonomists are wrong, Dr. Van Dam argued, who believe that the laws of Scripture, especially the Old Testament laws, should be our national laws as well. Christ doesn’t rule that way. But on the other hand, the radical two kingdoms people don’t have it right either, who say that Scripture has no place in political discussions. Rather, we must keep something of a balance, recognizing that while there is a place in politics for Scripture to speak, no true change can come about apart from the conversion of hearts. So we ought to seek the good of our neighbour and our country, a “good” that is informed by Scripture. And we ought not to be overly discouraged by political setbacks, recognizing that we are not here to establish a scripturally revealed nation-state, but to work instead in the kingdom of God, which knows no boundaries.
During the afternoon session we heard from Drs. Van Raalte, Van Vliet, and Visscher. Dr. Van Raalte spoke about the “intermediate state,” that is, what happens to “us” when we die. He argued against some Christian philosophers who claim that humans have no souls, that when we die we simply wink out of existence until the resurrection of the dead. In this thinking there is no “us” to speak of after death, and we do not join Christ in heaven. In response Dr. Van Raalte demonstrated from Scripture that this cannot be maintained. For example, Christ spoke of the poor man Lazarus as still existing after death (Luke 16:19-31), and Paul said that it was better than life to die and be with Christ. To argue that human beings are nothing more than their physical parts is to assume a view of the person that is inconsistent with Scripture. We really can look forward to meeting our Saviour in heaven at the moment of our death.
Dr. Van Vliet chose the more sobering topic of hell, and whether or not we should still speak about it today. It’s an important question in contemporary Christianity, as big authors like Rob Bell have argued that the doctrine of hell is obsolete. Further, even if Christians do still believe in hell, it isn’t preached as often as it once was. In the face of this, Dr. Van Vliet reasserted the importance of preaching this doctrine to God’s people. When we are confronted with the terrible prospect of hell, we are confronted with the awesome holiness of our Triune God. But we are confronted at the same time with the enormity of what Christ accomplished on the cross, and we are moved by so great a love. Thus, although it is anything but pleasant, hell ought to feature in our preaching, that God’s holiness and his love may stand out in their fullness.
The final speech of the afternoon was that of our principal, Dr. Visscher. He explored the question of whether we’d live on a physical new earth or in some kind of eternal heaven. For example, what did Peter mean when he wrote that our current universe is “reserved for fire” (2 Pt. 3:7)? Dr. Visscher pointed out that this passage also speaks of the earth having been “destroyed” in the flood. Of course, that was not a total destruction, but a cleansing, or a purifying destruction. This, then, is what Peter has in mind. Our physical universe will be the one in which we live with God, yet it will have gone through the purifying fires to be improved just as gold is. An interesting but separate point Dr. Visscher also made was that when the kings of the earth “bring their splendor” into the New Jerusalem (Rv. 21:24), this will include the physical cultural products we make on this side of glory. There were jokes later over whether or not this would include Apple products.
The conference closed Friday evening with the second of the two public lectures. Here Dr. de Visser explained how eschatology influences, or should influence, our liturgy and worship. He argued that eschatology should be a regular part of our sermons, or more specifically, that it should hone our preaching to an urgent edge. We live in a time in which people live for the present, not the future. Thus it is important that God’s people, who are no doubt influenced by this, be regularly confronted with the coming judgment, both for hope and for repentance.
To this end, Dr. de Visser referred to the many instances in our liturgical forms where eschatology is mentioned. For example, the purpose of the Lord’s Supper is “to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” and it provides us with a “foretaste of the marriage feast of the Lamb.” The form for baptism reminds us that we belong to an “eternal covenant” with the Father, that we are “united in Christ’s death and resurrection,” and that through the work of the Holy Spirit “we shall finally be presented without blemish among the assembly of God’s elect in life eternal.” It’s all there, and gives all the more reason, Dr. de Visser argued, for eschatology to feature more prominently in our liturgical life. Indeed, he exhorted ministers and elders to pray regularly for the return of our Lord. This should be done at least once a month, he said, and if the minister’s heart is tuned eschatologically then this will show itself in his prayers. Ascension Day should also be celebrated with more enthusiasm than it normally is, as it provides an obvious reference in the church calendar to the triumph and eventual return of Jesus Christ.
Friday was a long day, and by the end this reviewer was good and tired. But it’s a joyful thing to be tired out by visions of future glory. And it’s a joyful thing to experience the holy desire to die, as Paul did, in order to be with Christ. I hope our ministers will indeed be encouraged by Dr. de Visser’s words, and work at regularly placing before our eyes those visions of glory that excite our hearts. This anticipation has the power to transform the most mundane parts of our lives by lifting them into their proper everlasting context. After all, we walk now, already, in eternal life, with physical death being merely a step along the way. So with our eyes to that yonder horizon, may part of what marks us as God’s people be a long eternal gaze, that the future light may already be glinting off our hearts.
As we sang at the end, in hope of the end, “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus!”
This article will be featured in an upcoming Clarion issue.
You can watch videos of the speeches here:
2015 Conference Speeches