Thursday, January 7, 2016

[BTT011] The End of Time

 Previous: [BTT010] The Fall of Time and the Three Curses

As we saw in the last post, the law of entropy requires that one day, the universe will be incapable of sustaining life. If God had abandoned our universe, it would very literally wear out like a cloth, as matter and energy become increasingly scattered and unusable. This process may involve lengths of Time which are incomprehensible to us as human beings, but from the perspective of eternity, our universe is as good as dead.

 However, the Scriptures seem to indicate that our universe will end well before this becomes an issue. Jesus may have asked if He will “really find faith on the earth” when He returns, but the Bible seems relatively clear that He will have no trouble finding humans.

Beyond this, there is very little consensus on just how the world will end. There is a general agreement that Jesus will have some sort of Second Coming, but pretty much everything else is the subject of intense debate. Revelation and other end-times prophecies are perhaps the one area of Scripture more hotly contested than Genesis 1.

At least with the Creation narrative, we have a pretty good idea of which passages of Scripture we’re arguing about. With prophecy, we can get bogged down in endless debate about whether a given verse applies to the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon, the fall of Jerusalem to the Seleucids, the life of Jesus, the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman Empire, some future fall of the current Jerusalem, all of these events, some of these events, or none of these events. Is the Beast of the Sea Nero, Hitler, or some person yet to come?

Fortunately, I have no interest in creating a perfect timeline for all biblical prophecy to follow. I only want to look at how the Bible describes a single moment in future Time – the moment when the universe is physically destroyed and remade. Therefore, for the purposes of the present discussion, I am simply going to operate under the following three presuppositions:

1). There will be a literal, physical Second Coming at some point in the future.

2). The entire physical universe will be literally, physically destroyed at some point in the future.

3). The entire physical universe will be literally, physically remade into a world without sin or death, where God will once again live among humans.

These three propositions lean slightly more towards the “literal reading” camp than towards the “figurative reading” camp, but there is good evidence that this was the understanding of the early Christian church. There is, of course, a slight amount of wiggle room even with the orthodox understanding of these three points.

For example, the exact timing of the literal, physical Second Coming within the context of Revelation is a matter of debate. Some consider the Millennial Reign of Christ to be an image of the Church Age, which would mean the literal, physical Second Coming would occur sometime around the coming of the New Heavens and New Earth. Others claim Christ will return to Earth to literally and physical rule for 1,000 years at some point in the future, after which comes the New Heavens and New Earth. Since either reading would be within a tolerable margin of error with Scripture and orthodox Christianity, I’m going to ignore issues like this for the purposes of this book.

Naturally, I assume that something about my three presuppositions will cause somebody to declare me a heretic, but whatever. Let’s look at what the Bible has to say about the End of Time.

            “Of old You laid the foundation of the earth,
            And the heavens are the work of Your hands.

            They will perish, but You will endure;
             Yes, they will all grow old like a garment;
             Like a cloak You will change them,
             And they will be changed.
              But You are the same,
             And Your years will have no end

             -Psalm 102:25-27

This is one of the first verses in the Bible which deals with the end of the world, and right from the start, we see that there will be something after. The heavens and the earth are temporary, and subject to Time. Like a well-worn piece of clothing, the world will start to wear thin. So God will do what all of us do with a ratty cloth – throw it out and change into something new.

However, this Psalm does not fall victim to a grim end of the world panic. Verse 28 tells us:

            “The children of Your servants will continue,
            And their descendants will be established before You.

Even in this early passage, the Psalmist knows that the People of God will continue beyond the End of the World. While this passage does not have the fully expressed hope of the bodily resurrection of God’s servants, but we do see a continuation in their descendants.

This passage also starts another familiar thread – it is not simply this Earth that will grow old and be replaced, but the heavens as well. “They” will both perish, not only this ball of dirt.

Now, there is some debate if the “heavens” in passages like this refers to the physical sky (sun, moon, and stars) or to Heaven (the dwelling place of the angels and saints who have gone before us). However, since we are concerning ourselves mainly with the question of Time, I think it is safe to say that either interpretation would include the entirety of the physical universe, and thus Time as well. 

Even if it is “only” the universe outside of planet Earth that will wear out and be replaced, there will be no place for Time to exist. All created things that have been tainted by Sin, therefore all created things must be made new.

Isaiah 51:6 continues the theme of the worn out garment, but adds a second image:
            “Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
            And look on the earth beneath.

             For the heavens will vanish away like smoke,
             The earth will grow old like a garment,
             And those who dwell in it will die in like manner;
             But My salvation will be forever,
             And My righteousness will not be abolished.

 From this point onwards, we begin to see the image of smoke and fire in connection with the end of the world:

           “For behold, the Lord will come with fire
            And with His chariots, like a whirlwind,
            To render His anger with fury,
            And His rebuke with flames of fire.

             For by fire and by His sword
            The Lord will judge all flesh;
            And the slain of the Lord shall be many

             - Isaiah 66:15-16

The coming judgment on “all flesh” will be accomplished “by fire and by His sword.” God takes an active role in filling the world with fire, but also in cutting down individuals by the sword.

             “For behold, the day is coming,
            Burning like an oven,

             And all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble.
             And the day which is coming shall burn them up,”
             Says the Lord of hosts,
             “That will leave them neither root nor branch.

            - Malachi 4:1

Now, all throughout the Old Testament prophecies, most prophecies utilize what could be figurative language such as “the heavens will vanish away like smoke” and “Burning like an oven.” Even Isaiah 66 could be taken figuratively. After all, it seems unlikely that God will use a literal, physical sword to judge inhabitants of the world, just as we understand that terms like “the eyes of the Lord” or “the hand of the Lord” do not imply God has a physical body.

It is not until 2 Peter 3 that we get an unequivocal statement that the Day of Judgment will literally be accomplished by fire:

            “For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water. But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.

            -2 Peter 3:5-7

            “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

             -2 Peter 3:10-13

Peter clearly states that the world will be judged with fire in a sense that is at least equivalent to how the earth was destroyed by water in the days of Noah. So if Peter is using fire in a somewhat figurative sense (perhaps “fire” is being used as an image for “intense heat”), the exact details will be similar enough to fire as not to matter. More importantly, Peter also tips us off that the Day of Judgment will be a more complete destruction than the flood in the days of Noah. Let’s compare the two:

In the day of Noah:
            “The world that then existed perished, being flooded with water.

In the Day of Judgment:

            "[On] the day of the Lord …the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up…the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat.

Whereas in the day of Noah, the world was flooded and destroyed, on the Day of Judgment, its constituent elements will be melted and dissolved. Imagine the difference between the United States, the country, being destroyed by a flood and the physical ground that the United States is built on (and everything in it) being destroyed down to its very atoms. The world was destroyed by the flood, but its elements were spared. In the great fire, not a single atom will be left unraveled.

I suppose that it is fair to speculate that it will not be a literal fire, at least not in the sense that we are accustomed to thinking of fire. This is a fire that will burn up the oceans, continents, and stars. This is a fire that will melt the elements themselves – perhaps something closer to a nuclear fire than a forest fire. So when I speculate that it may not be a conventional fire, I do not mean that it will be something less than fire but rather something more overwhelmingly destructive.

In fact, there is only one thing that will survive this all-consuming Fire greater than fire:

            “For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire."

            -1 Corinthians 3:11-15

Now, obviously, Paul does not mean that man-made objects constructed with gold will survive and stacks of hay will not. He is saying that works (in this context, actions) built on the foundation of Christ will survive. In other words, only the actions we take that were motivated by the love of Christ will have any value in eternity. All else will be burned up and destroyed.

All this talk of “works” may be uncomfortable for the more Luther-esque among us, but note that even those who do not have good works will be saved “yet so as through fire.” These will have done nothing of true value in their entire time on Earth, but because salvation is accomplished through Faith they will not be cast into an eternal fire. All will pass through fire, but not all will be destroyed. Works do matter in that what is done in Christ is all we can take into eternity with us, but they have nothing to do with our salvation.

To turn back to the image of the old garment, Psalm 102 tells us that the existing universe will not simply be burned up, it will be replaced with a new one. Isaiah, repeats this same promise:

            “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth;
            And the former shall not be remembered or come to mind.
            But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create;
            For behold, I create Jerusalem as a rejoicing,
            And her people a joy.
            I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
            And joy in My people;
            The voice of weeping shall no longer be heard in her,
            Nor the voice of crying

            - Isaiah 65:17-19

Not only will there be a new heavens and a new earth, they will be so much better than the current one that this world “shall not be remembered or come to mind.” Works of sin, and indeed all works not founded on the love of Christ, will be burnt up and forgotten. Only joy will remain, the joy of union with God and joy in what He has created.

The terrifying prospect of the destruction of the physical universe is balanced by the hope of the creation of a better one. Our current world does not simply long for redemption but for re-creation. It is not a death wish, it is a resurrection wish.

Next: [BTT012] Time Destroyed

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