In the long-held traditions of the Church, the month of November is a time when Christians think about eschatology—the study of Last Things. Granted, many congregations in the contemporary world create their budgets for the coming year in November and, as a result, they use November to talk about stewardship and tithing. But the older tradition is to consider Last Things. From All Saints’ Day on the first of November to the Sunday of the Fulfillment near the end of the month, readings and hymns and sermons and prayers tend to focus the congregation’s attention on eschatology.
More than many topics, eschatology tends to produce a blurring of the Bible’s clear and literal teachings and its imagery about Last Things. Some Christians tend to consult the book of Revelation first about Last Things and to use its splendid imagery to interpret the more straight-forward passages in the Bible about Last Things. The result can be highly imaginative and creative, but at the same time it is rather inaccurate. Not that this is a catastrophe; any Christian who trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation will be saved. Some Christians are in store for a few surprises when the Last Day comes, but afterwards they will be able to laugh with Jesus and the other saints about any misunderstandings.
Eschatology divides easily into personal and cosmic Last Things. I will discuss cosmic eschatology in a later post and deal today with personal eschatology, based on what the Bible says.
Some of the clearest teaching about personal eschatology—and passages I have used in hospice situations—comes from the words of Christ on the cross, written in Luke 23. First Jesus prays for sinners: “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.” The prayer could apply narrowly to the soldiers who nailed him to the cross. However it broadly applies to all sinners, all of whom made the crucifixion necessary for salvation. God the Father answers the prayer of his Son: all those who trust in Christ are forgiven. Next, when a thief beside Jesus confesses his sin and prays, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus responds, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” As his own death approaches, Jesus prays, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
From this we learn that, at the moment of bodily death, the spirit departs to be in the hands of the Father, with Jesus in Paradise. Paradise is a spiritual waiting for the resurrection on the Last Day. It is not the final fulfillment of the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Paul writes about Paradise when he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” than life in this sinful world (Philippians 1:23). He also writes, “We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord… we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5:6-8). But Paradise is not the final goal of the Christian. “Not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (II Corinthians 5:4). Paul also stresses the vital importance of the resurrection of the body in I Corinthians 15.
Christians proclaim faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Death is described as sleep from which we shall awaken. Some conclude that the soul will sleep in Paradise and will not experience the passage of time between the death of the body and the resurrection. It appears, though, that in death the body sleeps and not the soul. Revelation pictures saints in Paradise praying for the Church on earth (Rev. 6:9-11). Paul’s notion of “better” and “at home with the Lord” seems to indicate some awareness of being with the Lord, as do the words of Jesus: “You will be with me in Paradise.”
The Bible also hints of a spiritual waiting place for those without faith, those who will not have a home in the new creation. The Old Testament’s word “Sheol” appears, at least in some instances, to describe that waiting for judgment. Jesus borrows the Greek term “Hades” to describe the rich man waiting for the final judgment while the beggar Lazarus is at Abraham’s side (Luke 16:19-31).
But all are waiting to stand before the throne of Jesus and receive his Judgment. The announcement of Judgment will be a verdict, not a trial with evidence produced and weighed. The spirit’s presence in Paradise or in Hades already indicates the verdict for each spirit.
The saints who have departed this earth are not yet walking the streets of gold. They have not yet entered the pearly gates. Those belong to the new creation, not to Paradise. But the saints are with Jesus, in the hands of the Father, and that is a better place than this sin-polluted world.
And next comes the cosmic eschatology. J.