Theology 101: Eschatology ~ Heaven, Hell, and Tough Questions

On Sunday we discussed two controversial topics: heaven and hell. I think around these two topics there has been so much fuzzy thinking, so much conjecture, so much just  silliness sometimes that many people just avoid thinking about them.

Well that’s what we tried to clear up.

1195401_84100834We took a look first at heaven, looking at the picture of life painted without sin prior to the fall in Genesis and revealed in Revelation. What we see so clearly is that we will continue to have deep relationships with others, with creation, with tasks and purposes, and most of all, with God. Heaven is not a place where we float around in the clouds, singing songs on harps to Jesus. Heaven is here on earth – where we move, live, and create with God, others, and creation. Heaven is a beautiful continuance of all that is good and worthy in our lives. And it’s a beautiful thing.

N.T. Wright describes it this way:

The redeemed people of God in the new world will be the agents of his love going out in new ways, to accomplish new creative tasks, to celebrate and extend the glory of his love.

And that sounds anything but boring.

With that we turned to discussing the doctrine of hell. Now this is a confusing, and unclear doctrine for most people at the best of times. Much of their thinking has been more influence by popular culture, Dante, and poor theology than the actual Biblical account. And something we want to at least acknowledge up front is that there isn’t a lot of Biblical material that deals with this directly. And that much of it is metaphorical. That doesn’t mean hell’s not real, but perhaps not every image is meant to be taken literally (i.e. hell is discussed as a place of darkness and fire – which seem to be mutually exclusive).

So with those provisos we dived into the topic by addressing first and foremost: why do we even need this doctrine?

Many people struggle with the idea of hell, and so I discussed why I still believe we need to retain the doctrine. First, is that I do believe that the theme of hell, and judgment are in scripture. Secondly, that God honors free will. And thirdly, that justice requires putting things right.

So I want to expand on the idea that God honors free will. I don’t believe in what’s called “universalism” (that everyone gets to heaven), because I believe in free will. I believe that God, out of love, created us with free will. Which means we are free to reject God, and even reject heaven if we choose. And I don’t believe that God will override that free choice. Robert Farrar Capon writes,

Both heaven and hell are populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. Hell is just a courtesy for those who insist they want no part of forgiveness.

Also I believe in justice, so I also believe in the necessity of hell. I don’t believe that justice can just pretend that evil doesn’t have consequences. I believe in hell because I believe that ultimately true and deep evil needs to be confronted and made right. Part of that making right is there being justice for the victims and oppressed in the world. And in this then we need to be clear – God does not torture. As Michael Bird shares, “Hell is about justice, not torture”. And I think that Dale Allison gets to the heart of why my view of justice entails some doctrine of hell by writing this:

I do not know what befell Mother Theresa of Calcutta when she died, nor what has become of Joseph Stalin. But the same thing cannot have come upon both. If there is any moral rhyme or reason in the universe, all human beings cannot be equally well off as soon as they breathe their last and wake again.

Or as N. T. Wright comments:

I find it quite impossible, reading the New Testament on the one hand and the newspaper on the other, to suppose that there will be no ultimate condemnation, no final loss, no human beings to whom, as C.S. Lewis put it, God will eventually say, “Thy will be done.” I wish it were otherwise, but one cannot forever whistle, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” in the darkness of Hiroshima, of Auschwitz, the murder of children and careless greed that enslaves millions with debts not their own.

And I’ll close my thoughts on hell with this quote from Daniel Migilore:

Hell is not an arbitrary divine punishment at the end of history. It is not the final retaliation of a vindictive deity. Hell is self-destructive resistance to the eternal love of God.

And I think that’s true. You don’t miss heaven by a bit, but by a constant and consistent refusal of the love and person of God.

So that’s what we looked at. It was a tough sermon, but I think one that will for sure spur more thinking and discussing. And certainly there are lots of other views out there. What I think is really important though is to be sure on what you personally believe. I think the hard doctrines and big ideas deserve thought and aren’t to be swept under the rug.

We ended with a reminder that the main point was that in the end all will be made right. That’s the purpose we are heading towards – a world put to right. A world that is finally fixed from evil, sin, and destruction. A world we live on in full communion with God, others, and creation.

We gave three simple little practical points with this to close. To focus on loving and not judging. Focus on sharing Jesus, not figuring out the details. We should be encouraged, it will end right. These are some practical ways that this should actually affect us. We should focus on loving and not judging who is in or out. We should be focused on sharing Jesus, not just debating details to death. And we should be encouraged that no matter what we see in the end God will make it right.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts: it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is the Lord’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No sermon says that all should be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. That is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water the seeds already planted knowing they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that affects far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very, very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and dot the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the Master builder and the work. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are the prophets of a future that is not our own. Archbishop Oscar Romero

 

 

Sermon Notes:

Big Idea: That in the end all will be made right

Teaching Points:

  • Heaven isn’t just a heavenly location but the place where God’s reign is full and comprehensive.
  • Heaven is a place where we have this clear, immediate, and personal connection with God.
  • The redeemed people of God in the new world will be the agents of his love going out in new ways, to accomplish new creative tasks, to celebrate and extend the glory of his love. N.T. Wright
  • “There is more to heaven than clouds, angels, and elevator music”. Michael Bird
  • The necessity of hell: free will and justice.
    “Hell is about justice, not torture”. Michael Bird
  • Hell is not an arbitrary divine punishment at the end of history. It is not the final retaliation of a vindictive deity. Hell is self-destructive resistance to the eternal love of God. Daniel Migilore
  • We need to focus on loving not judging.
  • Focus on sharing Jesus, not figuring out the details.
  • We should be encouraged it will end right.

Adult Discussion Questions:

What stuck out to you from the sermon? What was challenging to you? How did God speak to you through it? What was new? What lingering questions do you have about heaven or hell? Who can help you to wrestle through them? What you most looking forward to with heaven?

Discussion Questions for Young Families

Today talk to your kids about heaven and what it’s like. Talk about how we’ll have friendships, relationships, and tasks in heaven. Talk about how best of all we’ll have a relationship with God that is deeper and fuller than anything else.

Challenge for the Week: Keep being faithful to God.

Theology 101: Eschatology, Nicholas Cage, and The End Times

751034_82287592On Sunday we really opened up a pretty deep and difficult topic: eschatology. This is the study of last things, and what will happen at the end. This includes heaven, hell, the second coming of Jesus, who will be saved, and lots more. So we actually have given it two weeks to discuss, and this week I covered why eschatology matters and what’s called corporate eschatology.

But first why does eschatology matter?

Well the simple reason is that it’s practical and crucial for our everyday lives.

At first this seems like…well…a lie. I mean for many of us we don’t think that what happens at the end of the world does affect our lives all that much. But my contention is that it should, and it should shape our lives. And here is why: our view of the future, shapes our present. How the world ends, is how we should be living now.

So practically this really matters. We believe that Jesus is coming again, and when he does he will put the world to rights. He will fix all that is broken with the world. We will live in harmony with one another, with God, and with the earth. So what this means is if this is our destination – we need to start to live it now.

This means the church should be talking about racism. Why? Because in the end all the peoples of the earth will worship together as one. So we need to be challenging racism, sexism, and all that divides us now. We need to practice inclusion.

This means the church should be taking seriously creation care. Why? Because the Bible tells us that the earth will be renewed, not burnt, and we are to steward the earth. So we should be caring for the earth now. Eschatology shapes our present.

Michael Bird puts it this way:

“Eschatology is not just pie in the sky. There is a deeply practical side here, for how we act in the present is deeply impacted by what we think of the future. What we think about evangelism, justice, ecological responsibility, pastoral care, budgets, the church, and ethics is based on what God has done and will yet do for his people through Jesus Christ. If our actions echo into eternity, if we contribute something to God’s coming kingdom, we will be constrained to operate with a kingdom perspective.”

And he is right. So eschatology matters and is practical.

So we gave that big overview, and that what we believe in a nutshell is this: Jesus is coming again to set the world right. That Jesus coming isn’t something to be feared, but longed for. That when Jesus comes it will be a good thing, and he will fix all that is broken. He will come again bodily, imminently, and personally.

This is what orthodox Christians believe. But where orthodox Christians disagree are some of the details and sequence of events of Jesus’ second coming. So we moved from discussing the big picture, to some of the details, specifically found in Revelation 20:1-8. We discussed the three major camps people fall into when thinking about how Jesus will come again: postmillennialism, premillennialism, and amillennialism.

Postmillennialism believes that Jesus will come after a 1000 year reign. This view was popular before WW1 and WW2 but the world wars really killed some of the optimism that we could move into a golden age (millennium) without a dramatic intervention of Jesus Christ.

This leads us to the second camp – premillennialism. This is where people believe Jesus will come before (pre) the millennium. This view is very popular in culture currently, and is probably the default position of most of the evangelical world.

Lastly, there is amillennialism which believes that we are currently living in the millennium rule of Jesus and he will arrive again.

We outlined some of the pros and cons to each view, and which one I personally lean towards. But we ended with discussing the main point: that Jesus is coming again and we need to be ready.

We closed with some wise words from Augustine: Unity in essentials (i.e. Jesus is coming again), liberty in non-essentials (i.e. how that all works out), and love in all things (no matter what we believe). And I think that’s a pretty wise stance.

We challenged ourselves at the end to discuss with a friend what we think the end looks like, and then to reflect about how we need to live now. Because eschatology isn’t just about where we go when we die, but how we live now.

 

 

Sermon Notes:

Big Idea: Eschatology sets our focus and direction

Teaching Points:

  • Theology is a pilgrimage. It never stops thinking, questing or questioning. Following Jesus means that every morning begins a new part of the journey. Michael Hardin
  • Eschatology is the study of last things.
  • The end sets our direction and our focus.
  • From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. Jurgen Moltmann
  • Eschatology is about hope.
  • Jesus is coming again and we should be ready.
  • Three Views: postmillennialism, premillennialism, and amillennialism.
  • Eschatology sets our focus and direction

Adult Discussion Questions:

What stuck out to you from the sermon? What was challenging to you? How did God speak to you through it? What was new? What do you think happens at the end? Had you given it much thought before today? What was most interesting to you from the sermon? What did you think of Andrew’s talks on the three different camps? What personally do you need to change now in light of what happens in the end?

Discussion Questions for Young Families

Talk to your kids about how Jesus is coming again. Tell them that when he comes back he will fix the world and put it back right again. Ask them if there is anything that they think Jesus will fix when he gets back. Ask them how they might start to fix that now, and pick one way to do that and do that together.

Challenge for the Week: Have a discussion about what the end is like, and live in light of the end.

The End Times – What Will Happen?

1327662_78432201On Sunday we are going to be learning about eschatology. What’s that you might ask? Well it’s the study of last things. It’s the study of what might happen at the end of the world. And we all have ideas about that. Hollywood certainly does and it mostly involves zombies I think. But I’m not interested in what Hollywood says will happen at the end, I’m interested in what the Bible says.

So that’s what we are looking at on Sunday. We are going to be exploring some difficult passages and asking the question: what will happen at the end?

And here is why this matters and isn’t just idle speculation: because our vision of the end directs our actions now. And this is just true. If we believe in the end the whole world will burn, why bother caring for it? But if we believe the world will be renewed, then we had better steward it.

The point is that our view on what happens in the end will affect how we live now. So that’s what we are looking at on Sunday. And before we get there why not think through a little bit on your own. What do you think will happen at the end? What do you think and why? And on Sunday I’ll tell you what I think, and what I think the Bible teaches.