Tag Archives: Eschatology

Eternity Changes Everything

How Eternity Changes Everything in Our Restlessness

Whatever else you’re doing today, you’re waiting—waiting for your future with God in glory. But how are you waiting? Paul says Christians “wait eagerly” for the new creation (Romans 8:23). We “groan inwardly” because we’re not there yet. That means being excited but groaning, positive yet dissatisfied, optimistic while restless.

Eternity Changes EverythingBut hold on. Dissatisfied? Restless? Doesn’t the Bible tell us to be content? After all, Paul said: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11).

How does restlessness fit with contentment? Do they fit at all? They must—because one of the great Bible passages on restlessness comes just before Paul’s testimony that he has learned contentment in all circumstances. Paul himself saw no contradiction between feeling restless for the future and content in the present . . . at the same time. Here’s how he spoke of his future resurrection life:

I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me . . . one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)

What is going on here? How do these things fit together?

What Restlessness Is (and Isn’t)

Restlessness is a passion for our future in the new creation. Restlessness is aligning our identities, thoughts, actions, and goals with that future. Restlessness is the attitude of not settling for now.

Forgetting what lies behind, Paul is “straining toward” what lies ahead. That phrase is drawn from the Greek athletic games. If you’ve ever watched a 100-meter sprint, you know the all-out effort and intense forward-focus Paul describes. When a great sprinter comes racing down the track, leaning to dip for the line, he’s not thinking about how well he came out of the blocks, or what a great first ten meters he ran. Every fiber is focused forward. This is the way Paul lived.

The end of his race is the return of Jesus, final salvation, the resurrection of his body. That’s what Paul strained forward to reach. He sometimes thought of his past (see 1 Corinthians 15:9), but he refused to rest on past accomplishments or wallow in past defeats. His future in the new creation defined and oriented his life. That’s what he meant by saying he does “one thing.” Of course he doesn’t stop working, eating, reading, praying, preaching, laughing, and so on. “One thing” means the North Star orienting his present is his future. Paul undertook daily tasks with a view to accomplishing his aim of reaching the finish line.

In other words, Paul didn’t settle for now. Paul lived in the present, but he didn’t live for the present. He worked hard in the present, but he lived for the future.

This was the secret of Paul’s contentment. Biblical restlessness does not undermine contentment: it undergirds contentment. Because Paul didn’t settle for the present, because his eggs weren’t in that basket, the present could not control him or determine his inner attitude or well-being. His circumstances neither destroyed nor propped up his contentment.

Living for Today or Tomorrow?

This way of life isn’t just for Paul: “All of us . . . who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you” (Philippians 3:15). So what do we live for? Past, present, or future? What might God make clear to you—even as you read these words?

Most of us find it all too easy to live focused on the past. Perhaps we linger on past defeats (mistakes made, wrongs suffered, opportunities missed) and become bitter. Or perhaps we lean on past victories (degrees earned, relationships enjoyed, accomplishments achieved) and become boring.

Or we live for the present. If things are going well at work or home, we feel good about ourselves and happy with the world. If things are going poorly—the sink clogs again, the child throws a tantrum in public again, we fail to meet the sales quota again—we feel bad about ourselves and angry with the world. Either way, we’re settling for now, letting it define us, for good or for bad.

This problem prompts us to ask ourselves some challenging questions.

Here’s the first: “Have I settled for now at my job?” Are all my eggs (self-worth, happiness, feelings of success) in the “now” basket? When we forget the future, we may begin to compete in an unhealthy way with co-workers, forgetting that our worth isn’t at stake in how well we succeed on the job. If work goes poorly, or if work goes away altogether due to a job loss, forgetters of the future will complain and eventually despair. Christian restlessness as we move through our workday changes the way we work. We’re content even when work is frustrating, our boss unfair, and our co-workers annoying.

Here is the second challenging question: “Have I settled for now in parenting?” Do we despair that God hasn’t given us the perfect kids we’d imagined parenting? Do we despair that God hasn’t given us any children at all? If I’m honest, I have to admit that my parenting of my three young children is too often focused exclusively on the present, as I respond in the moment to my children’s behavior (whether good or bad). If you plotted my happiness/contentment levels and my children’s behavior on the same graph, they’d often correspond closely! It’s difficult to keep the bigger picture of their eternal future (not just their present behavior) in view. But as a vision of biblical restlessness has gripped me, I’ve begun to pray differently for my children. In addition to praying for their daily needs and struggles, I now ask God to prepare them to live forever in the new creation. Everything else I do as a parent is to be oriented around that goal.

You will know what other challenging questions you must ask yourself. We are all different, with different characters and enjoying or enduring different circumstances. So the temptation to locate our contentment in an aspect of our life right now will look different for all of us; but it will be there. There may well be a question you need to ask yourself, where you complete this sentence: “Have I settled for now in . . . ?” The way you and I finish that sentence shows us the part of our life where we need to let our future begin to affect our present; where our place in the new creation should transform our view of our life right now.

We Don’t Have to Read the Book or See the Movie to Know Heaven Is Real

“Have you read Heaven Is for Real?” I’ve been asked this question more times than I can count. So let me just tell you—no, I haven’t. I was actually asked by the publisher to read the manuscript to offer an endorsement before the book came out, but I declined. And clearly the lack of an endorsement from me has not hindered sales.

HeavenisforrealtheaterposterI’ve been hoping that the hoopla surrounding this book and so many of the other “died and went to heaven and came back” books would end. And then I went to the theater over the holidays and saw previews for the upcoming movie based on Heaven Is for Real. So before you ask if I am going to see the movie, let me just tell you—no, I’m not.

Do These Books Encourage Genuine Faith?

People sometimes say these stories encouraged their faith or the faith of someone they know. But I think they actually diminish biblical faith by elevating claims of a supernatural experience over the substance of the Scriptures. Most of these claims of seeing into heaven focus on earthbound concerns and stunted human desires that lack what the Bible describes as the heart of heaven—the glory of God, the Lamb who was slain, on the throne of the universe. In embracing these stories we’re saying the Bible is simply not enough, that someone’s mystical experience is needed to verify or “make real” what God has said. But saving faith is putting all our hopes in who God is and what God has said as revealed in the Bible. It is being confident of what we can’t see (John 20:29; Hebrews 11:1), not being convinced by something someone else supposedly saw.

Interestingly, Jesus himself spoke of the uselessness of such testimony for generating genuine faith. Jesus told a story about a rich man in the place of the dead who calls out to “Father Abraham” to go and warn his brothers so they will not end up in the place of torment (Luke 16:19-31). The rich man wants someone who has died and gone to heaven to come back to life and tell about his experience so that his family members will believe what the Scriptures teach about the consequences of failing to become united to Christ by faith.

In Jesus’ story Father Abraham says, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, (meaning, if they won’t believe what the Bible says) they won’t listen even if someone rises from the dead.” Jesus is saying that everything we need to put our faith in the promises of God, everything we need to find comfort and hope regarding the life beyond this life, can be found in the Scriptures.

Testimonies You Can Trust

There are only five testimonies of seeing into the realities of heaven that we are obligated to believe. These testimonies clearly develop rather than diminish biblical faith. There is Isaiah, who saw the Lord high and lifted up, seated on a throne (Isaiah 6); Ezekiel, who was given a vision of the future new heavens and new earth that he describes as garden-like city in the shape of a temple called The Lord Is There (Ezekiel 40-48); Stephen, who, before he was stoned by the people of Jerusalem “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God and said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God'” (Acts 7:55-56); John, who saw the risen and glorified Jesus seated on the throne of the universe being worshiped by all the people of the earth, all the creatures of the earth, and all the angels of heaven (Revelation 1, 4); and the apostle Paul, who was caught up into the third heaven and “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Cor. 12:1-7). Isn’t it interesting that Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament, did not include details about what he saw in his personal guided tour of heaven and said, in fact, that it should not be talked about?

None of these witnesses claims to have died and come back to life. None of these testimonies focuses on meetings with other people who have died. These witnesses are clearly captivated by God alone. We read that they fell on their faces as their eyes beheld the glory of God radiating from his being.

Of course, the Bible does tell us about some people who died and came back to life. Yet it doesn’t see fit to record their testimony about the experience. Evidently it just isn’t worthy of being presented to us as a foundation for faith. If it were, wouldn’t there be a book of Lazarus in which he gives us a run-down on those four days in the grave before Jesus called him back to life (John 11)? Matthew tells us that when Jesus died, “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Matt. 27:52). Amazingly that’s all we’re told. If the testimonies of those who have died and gone to heaven and come back to life provided something of value to help us to put our faith in the promises of God, wouldn’t the Gospels contain their testimonies?

How We Really Know Heaven Is Real

The question really isn’t about whether or not a 4-year-old’s description of heaven lines up with what the Scriptures teach. The question is whether or not we really believe that God in his Word “has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence (2 Peter 1:3). Admittedly the Bible does not provide as much detail about what awaits us beyond this life as some of us might like. It does tell us four significant things:

1. We will be with Christ (Luke 23:42-43Phil 1:21-23).

2. It will be far better than life on this earth (Phil 1:21-23).

3. We will be away from the body (2 Corinthians 5:6-8).

4. Our spirits will be made perfect—completely cleansed of sin (Hebrews 12:22-23).

Since we know that to be at home with the Lord is to be away from the body, when one of these books describes physical bodies in heaven that are healed and whole, we know instantly that it is not a genuine account of the current realities of heaven. One day the physical bodies of those who are united to Christ will be healed and whole like the body of the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15:22-23; 1 John 3:2). But that will not be until the day Christ returns and makes all things new. Right now “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body (Philippians 3:20-21).

Until then, we do not need the testimony of an impressionable 4-year-old boy, a neurosurgeon, spine surgeon, sports writer, or even a pastor to know that heaven is real. We have everything we need in the Bible. Its testimony is enough to generate genuine faith in Christ, as well as a greater longing for unending life in his presence.

Remember the Future

I remember when Christian discussions used to revolve around heaven. There was an expectation of finally seeing our Lord, a longing for the fulfillment and consummation of all things, and a hope of assurance that would well up inside when thinking about our coming glorification. It was almost impossible to fathom that one day we’d receive an everlasting and inexhaustible joy. As a young believer, heaven didn’t create a barrage of speculation so much as greater affection for Jesus, whom I’d one day get to see face to face.

And then, like a thief in the night, it seemed to vanish.

Stricken with rapturemania in the 1970s and 1980s, the evangelical landscape seemed to be ruled by end-of-the-world worship songs, apocalyptic sermons, and shoddily produced movies warning believers of the coming judgment. Many churchgoers I knew seemed to be operating with low-level anxiety at best, while others were digging out bunkers in their basements and distributing hastily written underground conspiracy fanzines. Even the slightest mention of “heaven” was swiftly trampled by discussions about world leaders, war in the Middle East, numbers on foreheads, and guillotines that possibly had my name written on them—depending on whether I was “pre-,” “mid-,” or “post-,” of course.

Long Time Ago

Though it feels like a long time ago now, this time still shapes how many of us view eternity with Jesus. I’ve recently realized just how much my heart longs to remember the future we’ve been promised through him. A hope that doesn’t need to disintegrate under any number of idle end-time debates that put more emphasis on man’s speculation than Christ’s salvation.

Once again, the gospel brings perspective and balance by pointing us back to where our hope and our home truly lie:

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Phil. 3:20-21)

Notice that Paul doesn’t focus so much on our future location as the One responsible for our present salvation and the future transformation of our mortal, earthly bodies. The power isn’t in heaven, but in him, who is in heaven.

Have No Fear

Christians, we need not live under the fear of an unwritten future. The One who established our origins is the One who will establish the end of all things. And through it all, he continues to equip his children to endure to the end.

When will the end be? I have no suggestions, but I do know the greatest hope is built on what’s unseen, not on what’s visible (Rom. 8:24-25; Heb. 11:1, 6). It’s a hope grounded in what Jesus has done in the past, what he is doing in the present, and what he will accomplish in the future.

We often forget, don’t we? We forget that at one time our hearts were filled with the bright hope of Christ returning in glory to his good and faithful servants. Indeed, the sheer wonder of this reunion will cause all fears to subside, all pain to vanish, and all tears to dry as our King’s face becomes visible to all who have longed for his appearing. In the meantime, may we encourage one another daily to remember that future—and to let it galvanize and propel us in the present.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Why I Changed My Mind About the Millennium

Editor’s Note: What doctrine or issue have you changed your mind about? TGC posed that question to several pastors, theologians, and other thinkers in order to gain a better understanding of what leads to shifts along the theological spectrum. Sam Storms launches this new series with an explanation of how he changed his views on the millennium.

Although I grew up in a Southern Baptist church and was regularly exposed to Scripture, I can’t recall ever hearing anything about a “millennial” kingdom, much less the variety of theories regarding its meaning and relationship to the second coming of Christ. Like many of my generation, my initial exposure to biblical eschatology was in reading Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth during the summer of 1970.

Not long thereafter I purchased a Scofield Reference Bible and began to devour its notes and underline them more passionately than I did the biblical text on which they commented. No one, as I recall, ever suggested to me there was a view other than that of the dispensational, pretribulational, premillennialism of Scofield. Anyone who dared call it into question was suspected of not believing in biblical inerrancy.

Questioning Premillennialism

Upon graduating from The University of Oklahoma in 1973, I began my studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. My professors were a Who’s Who of dispensational premillennialism: John Walvoord (then president of DTS), Charles Ryrie (author of Dispensationalism Today and The Ryrie Study Bible), and J. Dwight Pentecost (author of perhaps the most influential text on the subject at that time, Things to Come), just to mention the more well-known. Anything other than the dispensational premillennial perspective as found in Lewis Sperry Chafer’s Systematic Theology and taught in the many DTS classrooms was considered less than evangelical. The only thing I recall hearing about amillennialism, for example, was how dangerous it was given the fact that it was popular among theological liberals who didn’t take the Bible very seriously.

Robert Gundry’s book The Church and the Tribulation was released in 1973, the same year I began my studies at Dallas, and it fell like a theological atom bomb on the campus. Everyone was reading it, and more than a few were being drawn to its post-tribulational perspective on the timing of the rapture. Debates in the classroom, cafeteria, and elsewhere were abundant and quite heated. Someone obtained a copy of Daniel Fuller’s PhD dissertation in which he critiqued the hermeneutics of dispensationalism, and more gasoline was thrown on the fire.

Upon my graduation from Dallas Seminary in 1977 I immediately immersed myself in a study of all aspects and schools of eschatological thought. Over the next few years, the two most influential and persuasive volumes I read were The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism by George Eldon Ladd (himself a historic premillennialist), and Anthony Hoekema’s book The Bible and the Future (Hoekema was an amillennialist). It is worth noting here that the distinction between Israel and the church, on which dispensationalism is largely based, could not withstand either Ladd or Hoekema’s relentless assault.

My Unpardonable Sin

It wasn’t long before Ladd, Hoekema, and Gundry, together with a few others, had persuaded me that there is no basis in Scripture for a pre-tribulational rapture of the church. That was, in the eyes of many, bad enough. Indeed, I distinctly recall the horror (trust me, “horror” is by no means an exaggerated term to describe the reaction I received) in my church when I made it known that I could no longer embrace a pre-tribulation rapture. More than a few were convinced that I was well on my way into theological liberalism! But when in the early 1980s I abandoned premillennialism in all its forms, public reaction was such that you would have sworn I had committed the unpardonable sin. I’m not suggesting that all or even the majority of dispensational premillennialists feel this way today (I hope and pray that few do), but the atmosphere in the 1970s and 1980s was something less than amicable for those who departed from the accepted eschatological faith.

My departure from premillennialism and embrace of amillennialism was gradual and came as a result of two discoveries as I studied Scripture. First, I devoted myself to a thorough examination of what the New Testament said would occur at the time of Christ’s second coming (or parousia). What I found was a consistent witness concerning what would either end or begin as a result of our Lord’s return to the earth. Sin in the lives of God’s people, corruption of the natural creation, and the experience of physical death would terminate upon the appearance of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the resurrection of the body, the final judgment, and the inauguration of the New Heavens and New Earth would ensue. But why is this a problem for premillennialism? Good question.

Scriptural Challenges for Premillenialists

If you are a premillennialist, whether dispensational or not, there are several things with which you must reckon:

• You must necessarily believe that physical death will continue to exist beyond the time of Christ’s second coming.

• You must necessarily believe that the natural creation will continue, beyond the time of Christ’s second coming, to be subjected to the curse imposed by the Fall of man.

• You must necessarily believe that the New Heavens and New Earth will not be introduced until 1,000 years subsequent to the return of Christ.

• You must necessarily believe that unbelieving men and women will still have the opportunity to come to saving faith in Christ for at least 1,000 years subsequent to his return.

• You must necessarily believe that unbelievers will not be finally resurrected until at least 1,000 years subsequent to the return of Christ.

• You must necessarily believe that unbelievers will not be finally judged and cast into eternal punishment until at least 1,000 years subsequent to the return of Christ.

So what’s wrong with believing these things, asks the premillennialist? What’s wrong is that these many things that premillennialists must believe (because of the way they interpret Scripture), the NT explicitly denies. In other words, in my study of the second coming of Christ I discovered that, contrary to what premillennialism requires us to believe, death is defeated and swallowed up in victory at the parousia, the natural creation is set free from its bondage to corruption at the parousia, the New Heavens and the New Earth are introduced immediately following the parousia, all opportunity to receive Christ as savior terminates at the parousia, and both the final resurrection and eternal judgment of unbelievers will occur at the time of the parousia. Simply put, the NT portrayals of the second coming of Christ forced me to conclude that a millennial age, subsequent to Christ’s return, of the sort proposed by premillennialism was impossible.

The second factor that turned me from premillennialism to amillennialism was a study of Revelation 20, the text cited by all premillennialists in support of their theory. Contrary to what I had been taught and long believed, I came to see Revelation 20 as a strong and immovable support for the amillennial perspective.

My eschatological journey and biblical defense of amillennialism may now be examined in greater detail with the release in May 2013 of my book, Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative (Christian Focus Publications).

Do Good in This World By Loving the Next

Can passion for the world to come actually bear good fruit in this present world? Doesn’t such a future orientation make us subject to the old charge that Christians are so heavenly minded we’re no earthly good? Doesn’t it lead to a withdrawal from this present world?

Certainly many people have thought so. Henry David Thoreau laid the blame squarely at the feet of the founder of Christianity. “[Jesus] taught mankind but imperfectly how to live; his thoughts were all directed toward another world.” Thoreau believed people too interested in obtaining eternal life in the world to come were in fact useless in this world; they “have a singular desire to be good without being good for anything.” In fact, some Christians have actually argued that because God intends to destroy this present world, it doesn’t matter what we do with it. Is this a necessary implication of the biblical encouragement to focus on the world to come?

Within the creative tension of restlessness and patience, as the Christian leans forward toward God’s eternal future, the actual result is productive engagement in the world and spiritual transformation within. C. S. Lewis’s words on this matter are justly famous: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. . . . It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”

There are several reasons why. For one thing, a Christian living as a citizen of a future, perfect world becomes properly dissatisfied with the sinful imperfections of this world: he now has a standard of comparison. Godly dissatisfaction with this world is a necessary first step in getting motivated to change it. You must be very impatient with economic injustice or illiteracy if you want to be motivated to campaign for economic justice or tutor a child. Moreover, a citizen of the future, heavenly kingdom has a goal for work in this world. As G. K. Chesterton said, “we must be fond of another world . . . in order to have something to change [this world] to.” Because heaven is a world of perfect love, we desire to spread the love of God into the unlovely places of this world. Of course, Christians who wait patiently for Jesus are realistic in their expectations; they know they can never usher in a golden age through their own efforts. Only Jesus can bring complete justice and set the world to rights. That’s why we’re waiting for him.

In addition to yielding productive engagement with the world, a life fixed on the new creation also leads to personal, spiritual transformation. For instance, leaning forward toward the new creation helps Christians avoid being paralyzed with regret over past mistakes and missed opportunities. Speaking of the many Christians who live in just this way, Dallas Willard writes,

Much of [their] distress comes from a failure to realize that their life lies before them. That they are coming to the end of their present life, life “in the flesh,” is of little significance. What is of significance is the kind of person they have become. Circumstances and other people are not in control of an individual’s character or of the life that lies endlessly before us in the kingdom of God.

Leaning forward undermines the paralysis of regret. It reminds us that when we leave this one small point of our present existence and plunge into the ocean of eternity, true life is just beginning. Infinite future opportunities and adventures beckon the follower of Jesus.

Reminder of Sovereignty

Why did God design history this way? Why didn’t he bring his kingdom all at once? Why in two stages? God reveals his sovereignty through our inability and ignorance. That we must wait for God to bring about the end of history is a constant reminder of the absolute sovereignty of God. He is the one who created all things and the one who will bring history to its consummation. We don’t even know when God will bring this about (Mark 13.32). Our inability and ignorance remind us that God is God and we are not.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter from prison on November 21, 1943, “A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes, does various unessential things, and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.” Bonhoeffer’s point was that the first coming of Jesus and the provision of salvation was an act of God, not of man. We’re in the same situation as we wait for Jesus’ second coming; if we’re to be delivered from all our suffering, if God is to lead us to everlasting joy in his presence, then the door of this world must be opened “from the outside.” We can’t do it ourselves. That fact brings great glory to God, who likes being able to do things no one else can (Isaiah 64:4).

Moreover, God manifests his mercy through our waiting. In 2 Peter 3, the apostle Peter reveals one of the key reasons God has not yet brought history to a conclusion. It is because he “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). We must, “Count the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter 3:15). It turns out we are waiting for God because he is waiting for us. Scripture tells us God is very good at waiting. He is rich in kindness, patience, and forbearance (Romans 2:4; cf. Romans 9:22; 1 Peter 3:20). Paul says he received mercy in order that Jesus Christ “might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16). Surely one of the most precious attributes of God is his patience. Our eternal future depends upon it.

Example of Edwards

The church in ages past has embraced the practical importance of eschatology. Perhaps more than any other individual, Jonathan Edwards modeled this superbly. George Marsden writes, “If the central principal of Edwards’ thought was the sovereignty of God, the central practical motive in his life and work was his conviction that nothing was more momentous personally than one’s eternal relationship to God. . . . He built his life around disciplines designed constantly to renew that eternal perspective.”

Marsden offers advice to those who want to better understand Edwards’s writings: “If there is an emphasis that appears difficult, or harsh, or overstated in Edwards, often the reader can better appreciate his perspective by asking the question: ‘How would this issue look if it really were the case that bliss or punishment for a literal eternity was at stake?'”

I wonder if others think this way about me: that they can understand my thoughts and actions by considering the life to come. For Edwards, the life to come had intensely practical concern—it affected his everyday life. It should be the same way for us. Eschatology is a largely untapped resource for Christian life and ministry within the evangelical church today. I pray the “when” of our living will increasingly shape the “how.”


Previously from Stephen Whitmer on Practical Eschatology:

The Sure Source of Christian Contentment

Eschatology helps us understand why we struggle and gives us a certain hope as we wait for Jesus and the new creation. In the first article of this series, I introduced two biblical and practical categories: restlessness and patience. These postures of heart are not optional add-ons for the Christian; they’re essential if we are to persevere as Christian believers in this world as we wait for the world to come.

In a sobering plea, Paul tells Timothy to come quickly, “for Demas, because he loved this present age, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica” (my translation of 2 Timothy 4:10). Because Demas loved this present age rather than the age to come, he didn’t last in gospel life and gospel ministry. Demas stands in stark contrast to Paul himself, because Paul lasted. He says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). It was focusing on his eternal future that sustained Paul: “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8). Paul was anticipating the crown of righteousness he would receive at the return of Jesus.

Those restless for the last day persevere to the end. Church history has proved this over and over again: the greatest Christians have been those most in love with the future new creation. Richard Baxter testified that as he grew older, he meditated more frequently upon the “heavenly blessedness,” and that he preferred to “read, hear, or meditate on God and heaven” more than any other subject. Restless Christians are the ones who persevere.

At the same time, Christians wait patiently for the new creation. If we’re not patient, recognizing that this world is not our home and that difficulties are inevitable this side of eternity, we won’t last when troubles come. Living with a false assurance that health and wealth are our right in this world, we’ll grow disillusioned when we experience sickness and poverty instead. J.C. Ryle understood this clearly. He said,

We are all too much disposed to think a time may come when we shall have a season of repose and not be harassed with these vexations and disappointments. Almost every one supposes he is tried more than his neighbors; but let us not be deceived—this earth is not our rest; it is a place for working, not for sleeping. Here is the reason that so many run well for a time, and seem to have the love of Christ in their hearts, and yet, when persecution or affliction ariseth for the word’s sake, they are offended. They had not counted the cost; they had reckoned on the reward without the labor.

As Christians, we live in the “meantime” between the first and second comings of Jesus, content with dissatisfaction. A proper blend of restlessness and patience keeps us persevering in our pilgrimage through this life to a better world. But sustaining a biblical restlessness and patience is no easy task. Given the challenges we face, what resources help us live leaning forward toward the new creation?

Two Grounds of Christian Restlessness and Patience

Our hearts simultaneously move in two directions as we contemplate the desirability of our eternal future with God and come to an assured conviction that what we’re waiting for is really, really good—in fact, way better than anything we’re currently experiencing. We become very restless. And we become very patient. A passion for the new creation produces both feelings simultaneously.

I proposed to my future wife, Emma, on October 21, 2005. By that time, I was certain that if she agreed to marry me, our wedding would be the entrance into a great marriage, and that life with her would be much better than life without her. What effect did this conviction have upon me? It made me willing to wait patiently for our wedding on April 13, 2006. I didn’t tire of the wait and cancel the engagement. If necessary I would have waited far longer than I actually did.

I must say, however, that my belief that marriage to Emma was going to be wonderful simultaneously created a dissatisfaction with my single life. I was restless for my married future. Some things that formerly satisfied me as a single guy (e.g. eating large quantities of ready-made meals while watching movies by myself) began to lose their appeal. When we’re fully convinced of the surpassing greatness of the new creation, we become patient and restless for it at the same time.

There’s a second ground for generating the restlessness and patience to which the Bible calls us: strong confidence that we’re actually going to receive what we’re waiting for. In the months after Emma accepted my marriage proposal, seeing her wearing the engagement ring afforded me strong confidence that on our wedding day she would say “I do” rather than “I don’t.” That confidence had two simultaneous effects on me. First, it increased my restlessness with the single life. My habits began to reflect less the life of a bachelor and more the life of a married man. I was leaning toward marriage because I was confident the wedding would occur.

Second, because I was certain I was going to be married, I was able to wait patiently for my wedding day. If I hadn’t been sure, I would have been phoning Emma every few hours and asking, “Are we still on?” Perhaps I would have tried to move the wedding to an earlier date before she changed her mind. But in reality I didn’t feel that way at all. My confident expectation that Emma would marry me created a sense of security that produced patience. It also undergirded my resolve to be sexually pure before marriage. I didn’t feel the need to rush things, because I knew God was preparing to give me a wonderful gift in his perfect time.

Source of Confidence

So where do Christians gain solid confidence that God will bring them to the new heavens and new earth? This is where inaugurated eschatology is so intensely practical and hope-giving. Inaugurated eschatology is a term that describes the New Testament’s proclamation that Jesus Christ has already brought the kingdom of God and won the victory through his cross and resurrection. His victory is accomplished and requires only full implementation in the future. This truth is the ground of Christian confidence in God’s good future; therefore, it sustains both a restless and patient “leaning forward.”

Suppose you’re in a world championship tic-tac-toe tournament. You’re up against last year’s world champion, and you know he’s very good. Are you confident you’ll win? Not at all. You have honed your competitive skills with long hours of practice. Your favorite Number 2 pencil is sharpened and ready for action. But you have no assurance you’ll win.

The match begins. You place an X in the upper right hand corner of the board. And then, bizarrely, your opponent places his O right under your X. Pouncing on his unexpected blunder, you place an X in the upper left hand corner of the board. Now you sit back in your chair, waiting for your opponent to take his turn and surveying the board.

Are you confident now? You’d be crazy not to be! You’ve won the game! It’s over!

Let me qualify: You have not yet won the game, because it still has to be played out for your victory to be implemented. But so long as you play out your last moves correctly, there is no possible way for your former-world-champion opponent to win this game. Your victory has been achieved, though not yet fully implemented. At this moment you are already the new world champion . . . but not yet fully so. It would be a mistake to get so caught up in celebrating your victory that you dance away from the game and fail to complete it. But it would also be a mistake to fail to recognize that a crucial turning point has occurred. You now have a sure ground of confidence.

Christian confidence is grounded in the remarkable, pivotal fact that Jesus Christ has already brought the kingdom of God we’re waiting for and already won the victory over God’s enemies we’re longing for. Christians can be confident in this life as we wait for the life to come, because Jesus’ victory has been secured.

Why the Last Things Matter for All of Life

Lucy (not her real name) came to me for counsel about a year ago. She felt guilty about feelings of dissatisfaction in a deeply flawed marriage.

For Lucy, eschatology mattered—even though she didn’t know it. Eschatology is concerned with “the fulfillment of God’s plan for human history.” That fulfillment began at Jesus’ first coming through the cross and resurrection and will be completed when Jesus returns. All Christians live between these two comings. Therefore the matrix of every Christian life is eschatological. This is why eschatology is potent, highly practical stuff. It provides massively helpful categories for understanding and living the Christian life.

Let’s consider Lucy’s situation to see how eschatology makes sense of normal life. There is a good kind of dissatisfaction in marriage and a bad kind. The bad kind involves questioning God, blaming the marriage problems exclusively on your spouse, emotionally checking out of the marriage, or committing adultery. This dissatisfaction is impatient, unproductive, and destructive. To the extent that Lucy has cultivated such dissatisfaction, she should confess it as sin and receive forgiveness from God. But there’s also a good kind of dissatisfaction in marriage. This is the humble, honest, and hopeful posture of knowing that nothing apart from God in this imperfect world can fully satisfy.

So my counsel to Lucy was two-fold. First, be patient: don’t expect or require a perfect marriage in this present, sinful age. Perfect relationships won’t exist until Christ returns, so don’t grow disheartened or bitter when things are tough. Second, be restless. Don’t feel guilty about being dissatisfied with marriage. Humbly work to improve it. And allow its deficiencies to increase your desire for the perfect intimacy Christ will provide forever.

Eschatology matters deeply for Lucy—indeed, for all Christians. Unfortunately, we don’t often teach a biblical and practical view of eschatology in our churches. Many churches devote a lot of time to end-time speculations, but eschatology simply doesn’t form our categories in approaching everyday life.

In this series of three articles, my aim is three-fold: (1) to introduce two simple and productive eschatological categories for the Christian life; (2) to suggest two ways of cultivating those categories as an experienced reality in our own lives; (3) to point to two differences a “practical eschatology” will make in our lives and in our churches.

Restlessness and Patience

The Bible describes the Christian life as a time of waiting. Here’s how the apostle Paul described the conversion experience of the Thessalonian Christians: “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

Paul told the Corinthian Christians that they were not lacking any spiritual gift, “as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:7). To the Galatian Christians, Paul wrote, “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5). He told the Philippians that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3.20). Jude urged his readers to “keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (Jude 1:21). We learn in the Book of Hebrews that the people Jesus will save when he returns are those who are eagerly waiting for him (Hebrews 9:27-28). Christians are spiritually reborn is future-oriented hope: “For in this hope we were saved” (Romans 8:24).

The question for all Christians is not, “Will we wait?” By virtue of becoming a Christian, we will. The question is rather, “How should we wait?” The New Testament tells us: restlessly and patiently. We don’t naturally think of these two attitudes as compatible, but they correspond in the Bible and should also go together in the Christian life. Think of the biblical imagery of a runner straining toward the finish line (Philippians 3:13-14) or a farmer waiting patiently for his crops to come out of the ground (James 5:7). Restlessness and patience are urged together in one short phrase in the book of Romans. Paul says, “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait eagerly for it with patience” (Romans 8:25, author’s translation).

The creative tension of the Christian life is trusting fully in God’s timing even as we ache and yearn for the fulfillment of his promises. This tension is so keen that Christian writers struggling to express it sound almost nonsensical. Here’s a delightful sentence from John Chapman: “We must learn to be content with the dissatisfaction of not yet being what we one day will be.” All Christians are called to live with “great impatience and patient endurance.” According to Walter Grundmann, we are to be characterized by “burning expectation in conformity with the divine plans.”

Challenge of Restless Patience

Living out this biblical tension of restlessness and patience is a challenge for every Christian. In the West, where life is comfortable and entertainment abundant, we become so enamored of our present that we cease to lean forward restlessly toward our much greater future. We wouldn’t admit it, but perhaps we feel like the teenage girl in the 2009 documentary film Waiting for Armageddon who believes Jesus will return very soon. Reflecting on the fact that her grandparents lived full and rich lives but she won’t because of Jesus’ imminent return, she complains, “It doesn’t seem fair.” Sounds crazy, right? But when was the last time you actually yearned for the new creation? We’re more comfortable than restless.

Or perhaps we fail not to wait restlessly but rather to wait patiently. Americans don’t like to wait for anything. The massive appeal of the modern prosperity gospel can be attributed in part to our desire to have right now the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.

Many of us who recognize the health-and-wealth gospel as terrible theology nevertheless create our own mini-versions of it every day. Of course we don’t intentionally formulate a bad system of theology. Instead, we do it mainly through our false expectations of what this present world can and should offer us. As we enter a new day, we expect things to go right, not wrong. We have a baseline expectation that there will be ample and good food for breakfast, the car will start, the job will go smoothly, and the children will go to sleep immediately at bedtime. These false expectations are exposed when things don’t go according to our plan and we respond sinfully, as though God has failed to give us something he had promised.

God calls us to wait restlessly for Jesus with a patient assurance founded upon his promises: “But according to his promises we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). Eschatology gives us resources for understanding and addressing the brokenness we experience in this imperfect world as we wait for Jesus. It also reminds us of the great victory Christ has already achieved and the final victory he promises. Eschatology matters for all of life.

“An Evening of Eschatology”

On September 27, 2009 John Piper, Sam Storms, Jim Hamilton, and Doug Wilson spent a couple hours sitting at a table, in front of a crowd of 800 people, talking end times. Here’s a portion of the background paper Piper wrote explaining the event:

As moderator, I tried to see that each view was fairly represented and defended. My own view is the one represented by Jim Hamilton—historic premillennialism. I think amillenialism is the next most plausible view. Postmillennialism has a long and respected history. In fact, the most influential dead theologian in my life, Jonathan Edwards, was a postmillennialist. Indeed, most of the early missionaries of the modern missionary movement, like William Carey, shared this view as well—the strong conviction that the gospel would triumph in all the world and subdue all other religions, with gospel power, not military power.

There are biblically attractive things about each of these views, and none of them, in their best representation, bears such marks as to suggest the advocates are undermining the precious gospel of Christ. On the contrary, each of them has strengths that specifically honor parts of the Bible that the others seem to honor less.

Postmillennialism seems to honor the power of the gospel and the promises for the Old Testament for the triumph of God’s people over all the nations. Amillennialism seems to honor the warnings of bleak end times as well as the seamlessness between Christ’s coming and the immediate destruction of death, the removal of the enemies of the cross, and the beginning of the new heavens and new earth. Premillennialism seems to honor the plainest meaning of Revelation 20 and the seemingly literal meaning of many Old Testament promises.

All of these views are upheld by teachers who warmly embrace the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of the Bible. This is especially true of the roundtable participants. We were glad to host this event with a view to showing that across these differences of interpretation (which were vigorously defended in the discussion) there is a profound brotherhood in the gospel.

You can listen to the conversation here or watch it below. And if you get no further than John Piper’s opening prayer, you will still be greatly edified.

[HT: Justin Taylor]