Reflecting on Christmas: A Foretaste of Eternal Life

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year readers! Don’t worry, I am alive and well. It has just been a crazy Fall semester and I either haven’t had the time or haven’t been in the right frame of mind to write. I have so much to update you on, from the family vacation to Hilton Head (I survived!) to the start of a new job. But first, I wanted to share the final research paper I wrote for Part 2 of Systematic Theology, which as I think I mentioned, I wouldn’t have had to take as I already had enough credits for the certificate in Christian Studies with just the first class which I took last Spring. But the professor kept teasing topics that would be covered further in Part 2, so I knew I would regret not taking it. The new job was a somewhat unexpected development, and my grades for a couple weeks weren’t great as learning the new job in addition to all of the reading Systematic Theology requires was quite an adjustment. But I soon found my footing, and I am still glad I took this course when I did. As long-time readers might recall, I have felt compelled to write my own reflections on how Christmas is a foretaste of eternity, especially in light of the pandemic. It just so happened that for the final research paper, this subject, which is known in scholar speak as “eschatology” (a Greek term meaning “last things”), was a topic option. But unfortunately, this Christmas Day was humbling for me when, in light of selfish behavior on my part, God forced me to examine whether I truly believe what I preach. More specifics to come in a follow-up post. My professor hasn’t graded this paper yet, but I feel compelled to go ahead and share it anyway because it was written from the heart, and since I discovered I need the perspective preached in this paper as much as anyone, I think it might help others as well.

 

Introduction

At the time of this writing, Christmas is approaching. I believe the Christmas season is the perfect occasion to reflect on Oscar Cullmann’s inaugurated eschatology as we celebrate the fact that the Son of God who one day “shall reign forever and ever” humbled himself and became fully human to dwell among us, teach us how to live, and ultimately rescue us from sin and eternal death. Of course, the true significance of Christmas is all-too-often corrupted in our fallen state, even by professed Christians who do not view the Christmas season as a time of comfort and joy, but instead as a time of frenetic busyness, credit card debt, and family conflict as they define Christmas by secular standards, the deepest longings of their hearts tragically misplaced. But I believe it is no coincidence that this time of year, Christians and unbelievers alike sing longingly of “peace on earth, good will to men.” I believe the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Christmas season. Though many of our Christmas traditions have pagan origins, if we embrace them with proper perspective, God can use the fellowship and joy at the root of them to give us a foretaste of eternal life when peace, fellowship, comfort and joy will not be just a dream but our reality.

 

In this paper, I will first discuss the diversity of viewpoints related to eschatology from ancient Judaism and the early Christian church through to the present. Then, I will discuss biblical teaching related to eschatology from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Finally, I will show that Oscar Cullmann’s inaugurated eschatology, with its tension between the “already” and the “not yet” is the eschatological view best supported by Scripture, and the profound implications this view has for our present lives, and for eternity.

History of Eschatological Thought

Today, the eschatological debate among theologians is characterized by three different views. Premillennialists believe that the present world will grow increasingly wicked until Christ returns and establishes a literal thousand year reign of peace and righteousness on earth. This view is based on a literal interpretation of Revelation 20:4-6.1 Postmillennialists believe that the preaching of the gospel will be successful, and gradually but surely, the world will be converted and evil will be virtually eliminated.2 Once the gospel has reached the ends of the earth in the biblical sense of both knowledge and obedience, Christ will return, but the millennium Scripture speaks of is not a future period when Christ returns in bodily form to reign on earth, but a spiritual, invisible reign of Christ here and now. Postmillennialists cite Matthew 24:14 to support this view. Similar to postmillennialists, amillennialists reject the idea of a literal reign of Christ on earth, asserting instead that the millennium is symbolic of the period between the first and second advents of Christ, and the final judgment will occur immediately upon Christ’s return.3 But according to Michael Horton, these three views only came about during the late 19th century. For most of church history, the debate was simply between millenarianism (a literal thousand year reign of Christ) and amillennialism.4

 

Apocalyptic fervor can be traced back to Second Temple Jerusalem. The most commonly held view, and a view that would persist through Jesus’s earthly ministry and the destruction of the second temple in AD 70 was that the personal arrival of the Messiah, David’s heir, would usher in a golden age at the end of history, defined by the restoration of Mosaic theocracy which would be centered in Jerusalem, but would extend to the ends of the earth, and the banishment of Gentile oppressors from the land.5 This view was so entrenched that even Jesus’s disciples, who followed him during his earthly ministry, witnessed his death and touched him after his resurrection still did not fully comprehend that Christ’s mission was never intended to be the mere geopolitical or temporary restoration of Israel (Acts 1:6-8 TNIV).

 

In general, the early church took the amillennial view that Christ’s kingdom had been inaugurated with the first advent of Christ but awaited its full consummation.6 But as the church transitioned from a persecuted church to one that enjoyed favor from the emperor with the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in the fourth century, the amillennial view also transitioned from a view that recognized the precariousness of the church in the clash between the present age and the age to come, to a more optimistic outlook in which it became plausible to believe that Christ could be reigning on earth through his earthly representative, the emperor.7 Thus in a sense, the amillennialist view following the conversion of Constantine closely resembles the postmillennialism of today. In fact, this optimism was so central to early Christendom that the common assumption was that Christ’s kingdom was not only already present in the world, but fully realized in the Holy Roman empire.8 In the fifth century, Augustine would write City of God, in which he sought to revive the already-not yet tension of the early church, distinguishing between the “two cities” of this present age, “each with its own commission, purpose, destiny and means.”9 But after Augustine, the fusion of church and empire was so thorough that this nuanced view was all but forgotten.

 

The Reformers, especially John Calvin and Martin Luther, articulated the distinction between the two cities of the present age even more clearly than Augustine, and revived the precarious, already-not yet reality of the church in the present age.10 But unlike anabaptists, who advocated for radical criticism of the status quo, the Reformers believed that Christians must live as citizens of two worlds.11

 

The defining eschatological view at the dawn of the modern age was postmillennialism. Romantics, rationists, idealists and revolutionaries drew inspiration from the writings of Secilian monk Joachim of Fiore. Based on a literal interpretation of prophecy in the book of Revelation, he divided human history into three ages. The age of the Father, spanning from Adam to the time of Christ, was the era of law. The age of the Son, spanning from Christ to Joachim’s day, was the era of grace. The age of the Spirit, Joachim predicted would begin in 1260 and would be defined by the end of the church, and with it, the end of any need for preaching or sacraments because all would know God.12 Rationalists would secularize Joachim’s age of the Spirit, referring to it as the age of enlightenment.13

 

Postmillennialism was the predominant view from the 17th century through the 19th century, especially in the United States and Great Britain. This view explains John Winthrop’s declaration of puritan New England as a “shining city upon a hill” as well as in the enthusiasm for foreign missions, the establishment of church-sponsored voluntary societies and service agencies, and the implementation of moral reforms.14 But by the 20th century, the failure of World War I (the war to end all wars) to bring about lasting peace caused postmillennial optimism to largely fade, and premillennial pessimism to experience a revival. Over the course of D. L. Moody’s life, he became increasingly pessimistic about the capability of earthly empires to become the kingdom of God.15 While the consensus is not universal, premillennial pessimism seems to be the predominant view among orthodox evangelical theologians today.

Biblical Teaching on Eschatology

Although God chose not to fully reveal his redemptive plan to the Old Testament writers, the psalms and prophetic books are full of allusions to the return of Christ. Although Psalm 2:8-9 is addressed to David, New Testament writers have applied these verses to Christ, as they “attest to Christ’s enthronement and rulership over the nations.”16 Similarly, although at surface level Psalm 110 celebrates the coronation of the Davidic king, it ultimately finds fulfillment in Jesus, the “triumphant high priest.”17 While Psalm 72 is not directly quoted by New Testament writers, it is a prayer for the Davidic king that finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ and his kingdom.18

 

Though the prophetic books were written in the context of the fall of Jerusalem and Babylon, these prophecies often merged with visions that clearly speak of future worldwide wrath and judgment of the unrighteous, but also a time of redemption and peace for the righteous.19 Perhaps the most vivid descriptions of this future come from Isaiah. Isaiah 13:11 states, “I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins.” Isaiah 11:4-5 prophesies the judgment of the wicked, but for the righteous, Isaiah 11:6-9 offers beautiful imagery of future restoration, peace and safety. “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isa. 11:6). Furthermore, references to “the earth, “peoples” and nations” in this passage clearly implies that this kingdom is not merely heavenly or spiritual.20

 

The future judgment of the unrighteous and the kingdom of Heaven were central to Jesus’s teaching. The four gospels record many parables Jesus used to describe the kingdom of heaven. Particularly noteworthy are Matthew 13:24-30, the parable of the wheat and the weeds, and Matthew 13:47-48, the parable of the net that caught all kinds of fish. Regarding these parables, Anthony Thiselton remarks, “there can be no doubt that the central teaching of Jesus looks to a time of vindication and sovereign intervention of God in the future.”21

In addition according to D. A. Carson, the strongest affirmation of the already-not yet tension of inaugurated eschatology is summed up in John 5:24-29. In John 5:24, Jesus indicates that believers do not face the final judgment but “leave the court already acquitted.”22 Not only that, but the believer does not have to wait until the future resurrection to experience eternal life because the believer in this life has already crossed over from death into life, a teaching which Paul reiterates in Colossians 1:13. In the following verse (John 5:25), Jesus says “a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live” an indication that “the resurrection life of the physically dead in the end time is already being manifest as life for the spiritually dead.”23 Yet it is clear from 5:28-29 that John anticipates a final resurrection in the future.

 

Following Jesus’s ascension back to heaven, the earliest teaching on eschatology is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. While Anthony Thiselton agrees with the assessment of theologians including George Caird and Tom Wright that Paul’s language in these verses is metaphorical, Thiselton argues it does not change the ultimate message of these verses, which is that Christians will meet the Lord “clothed in their postresurrection bodies.”24 The apocalyptic language of these verses also would have called to mind the Old Testament, which was the extent of the Bible for the early church, especially Daniel 7:13-14.

 

The word Paul uses to refer to the coming of Christ is Parousia, a greek noun that means “the state of being present” and is related to the verb Pareimi, meaning “I am here.”25 In the Roman and Helenistic context in which Paul lived, parousia was sometimes used with reference to ordinary people, but was especially used to indicate the coming of the emperor or someone of high rank.”26 All of Paul’s letters reference inaugurated eschatology. In Philippians 3:12 for example, Paul simultaneously recognizes that he has already attained resurrection from the dead, and yet remarks, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold for me.” Some theologians, most notably R. H. Charles, have written off Paul’s language choice as mere survivals of Jewish apocalyptic thought which he eventually planned to eliminate or reinterpret.”27 But John Lowe refutes this, remarking that all of Paul’s letters originate from a time in his life when he had time for careful reflection, and the maturity of an older man. Furthermore, Galatians 1:4 (an early letter) and Colossians 1:13 (a late letter) both contain almost identical apocalyptic language regarding Christ’s rescue of believers from this evil age.28

 

The writer of Hebrews references inaugurated eschatology in 4:1-11, where he likens the future kingdom of God to God’s sabbath rest on the seventh day, and views the ministry of Jesus as the true fulfillment of God’s Promise Land. Jesus “won for us the Sabbath rest which Joshua (another Greek rendering of Jesus) could not provide for us when he led Israel into the Promise Land.”29

 

The entire book of Revelation centers on apocalyptic language, but the only passage that explicitly indicates a literal thousand year reign of Christ on earth is 20:1-10. Although Craig Keener acknowledges that this is the most debated passage in Revelation and there is far from universal consensus, he sites four factors in favor of a literal millennial reign of Christ following the tribulation. First, the binding of Satan during the thousand year reign seems far more plausible than the postmillennial or amillennial view given Satan’s “deceptive and murderous activity during the present age.”30 Second, this passage indicates that the saints have already been martyred, which suggests that the tribulation preceeds the millennial reign of Christ.31 Third, Revelation 20:4-6 indicates that the righteous, those who did not worship the beast, would be resurrected first and reign with Christ for a thousand years, but the unrighteous would not be resurrected until the thousand years were complete. According to Craig Keener, this suggests a bodily, rather than a merely spiritual resurrection.32 Finally, Revelation 20 presupposes all that has occurred in Chapter 12-19, meaning that the beasts and false prophets have already been thrown into the lake of fire, and Satan can no longer deceive.33

Implications Now and For Eternity

Anthony Thiselton remarks that in Paul’s letters, he “acknowledges the faith and love of the church, but also recognizes that inadequate confidence and certainty in the Parousia will lead to declining hope.”34 I believe that inadequate confidence and certainty in the Parousia is at the root of the depression, anxiety, and misplaced longing of so many hearts, even among professed Christians. But given the teaching from Scripture cited above, I believe we can have complete confidence and certainty in the Parousia and recover a sense of hope, peace and eternal joy every day of the year. This is because the already-not yet tension of Oscar Cullmann’s inaugurated eschatology has profound implications for life now and in the future. First and foremost, Christians should not waste precious time engaging in futile speculation about exactly when Christ will return because according to Anthony Hoekema, the “signs of the times” described throughout Scripture (most notably in Matthew 24), are events that must occur before Christ returns, but should not be thought of as events that occur exclusively in the end-time, but instead as events that occur throughout the era between Christ’s first and second advent.35 Furthermore, Jesus explicitly states that neither the angels nor the Son knows the hour when he will return, but only the Father (Mark 13:32). Therefore, we must be content with the “not yet” but keep watch as the parables teach. Second, the church must embrace the already-not yet tension by viewing one another as forgiven sinners, gently restoring those who fall into sin while being careful of their own temptation as Paul teaches in Galatians 6:1.

 

Third, this tension should provide incentive for living a virtuous life because as Paul writes in Galatians 6:8, if we “sow to please the flesh” in this life, we will reap destruction in the next life, but if we “sow to please the spirit” we will reap eternal life. Of course, we will struggle with sin in this life, but if we have accepted Christ, we can engage in this struggle “not with the expectation of defeat, but in the confidence of victory.”36 This tension should also be reflected in our self-image. Christians should think of ourselves as imperfect new people. According to Oscar Cullmann, for Christians today, the “already” outweighs the “not yet.”37

 

Finally, for Christians this tension should put suffering in proper perspective, and abolish the fear of our physical death. In this life, even believers will suffer because suffering is the “concrete manifestation of the not yet.”38 But the already of our new life in Christ allows us to embrace our suffering because suffering yields perseverance, perseverance yields character, and character yields hope (Romans 5:4). Another concrete manifestation of the “net yet” is the reality of our physical death. But even this death, Christians have no reason to fear because we will enter immediately into the presence of the Lord. Though our bodies will be buried by loved ones, our consciousness, our personality will continue in an intermediate state. According to Erwin Lutzer, theologians disagree on how to interpret 2 Corinthians 5:1. The disagreement centers on whether the “building from God” refers to a temporary body the departed receive immediately when they get to heaven, or if this building refers to our resurrection bodies. On the one hand, the fact that the rich man could experience physical torment and see Lazarus in heaven, and the fact that departed believers can sing the praises of God and communicate with one another suggests the possibility of a temporary body. On the other hand, the fact that Paul puts so much emphasis on our future resurrection suggests that departed souls are in an incomplete, unnatural disembodied state, but there is not universal consensus on this matter.39 But whether or not we have bodies in heaven, just being in the presence of the Lord will bring “fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11) and thus believers should not fear death. Of course, we will grieve when loved ones go through physical death. Even Jesus wept when Lazarus died because physical death is a consequence of sin and was never intended in God’s good creation. But because of the confident hope we can have knowing we will see our loved ones again, and be in the presence of the Lord ourselves one day, believers should not allow grief to turn to despair.

 

Yet as wonderful as even this intermediate state will be, it is only temporary. The best is yet to come, the moment when we receive our resurrection bodies. Erwin Lutzer reminds us that these resurrection bodies will be like Christ’s resurrected body, which has profound implications. In 1 Corinthians 15:44, Paul says that our earthly body is a natural body, but our resurrected body will be a spiritual body. But this does not mean we will be disembodied spirits. It means that while only God can be omnipresent, like Christ, we will be free from the limitations of terrestrial travel, able to travel effortlessly from place to place. We will eat, “not because we are hungry, but because we delight in the fellowship it affords.”40 Even in the intermediate state, but especially in our resurrected states, the highest moments of our life now in the already, will continue eternally, only perfected and glorified.41 Artists will still create art, musicians will still make music, scientists will continue to make discoveries about God’s creation. Only our desire to sin will be lost. Therefore, whatever suffering this life may throw our way, whether it is the physical suffering of illness or poverty, or the emotional anguish of navigating broken relationships, or even a demanding or unsatisfying job, we can embrace and persevere through this suffering with the perspective of a spiritual sense of joy, as we eagerly anticipate the “not yet” of knowing this life is not all there is.

References

1. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 1110.

2. Erickson, Christian Theology, 1107.

3. Erickson, Christian Theology 1112.

4. Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2011), 920.

5. Horton, The Christian Faith, 921.

6. Horton, The Christian Faith, 923.

7. Horton, The Christian Faith, 923.

8. Horton, The Christian Faith, 924.

9. Horton, The Christian Faith, 924.

10. Horton, The Christian Faith, 926.

11. Horton, The Christian Faith, 926.

12. Horton, The Christian Faith, 925.

13. Horton, The Christian Faith, 927.

14. Horton, The Christian Faith, 927.

15. Horton, The Christian Faith, 928.

16. Bruce Demarest and Gordon Lewis, Integrative Theology, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Academie Books, 1987), 386.

17. Demarest and Lewis, Integrative Theology, 386.

18. Demarest and Lewis, Integrative Theology, 386.

19. Demarest and Lewis, Integrative Theology, 387.

20. Demarest and Lewis, Integrative Theology, 388.

21. Anthony Thiselton, Life after Death: A New Approach to the Last Things, (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. 2012), 100.

22. D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John. (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991), 256.

23. Carson, The Gospel, 256.

24. Thiselton, Life After Death, 90.

25. Thiselton, Life After Death, 91.

26. Thiselton, Life After Death, 91.

27. Thiselton, Life After Death, 92.

28. Thiselton, Life After Death, 93.

29. Thiselton, Life After Death, 105.

30. Craig Keener, Revelation: From Biblical Text to Contemporary Life, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2000), 464.

31. Keener, Revelation, 464.

32. Keener, Revelation, 464.

33. Keener, Revelation, 465.

34. Thiselton, Life After Death, 91.

35. Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1952), 70.

36. Hoekema, The Bible, 71.

37. Hoekema, The Bible, 71.

38. Hoekema, The Bible, 72.

39. Erwin Lutzer, One Minute After You Die: A Preview of your Final Destination, (Chicago, Ill: Moody Press, 1997), 66.

40. Lutzer, One Minute, 70.

41. Lutzer, One Minute, 61.

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: