Fulfillment of nature, human community, and individuality, in the rule of God

Fulfillment of nature, human community, and individuality, in the rule of God. 1

Modern Reflections on Biblical Apocalyptic. 16


Most Christians pray regularly, “Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Christian hope directs itself to the future that God determines. It fulfills the deepest longing of human beings, even if we have an unclear grasp of the object of that longing. All that we need to have this hope fulfilled is the coming of God. This is the theme of the wholeness promised by God: God comes, salvation comes, and that a movement from ahead of humanity and moving toward us is in progress. The theme is the coming of that which we lack, and which alone can give life its full meaning, its wholeness, and its salvation. Through this coming, God becomes present and dwells among us; God is here with the people of God.

Debates concerning the millennium are dizzying and unsatisfying. They concern things that transcend human experience. Pre-millennialism, post-millennialism and realized or a-millennial approaches to the book of Revelation find worthy presentations among a variety of ancient and contemporary scholars. Chiliasm is a view that focuses upon the earthly and sensual pleasures of the 1000-year reign of Christ. Such debates are of interest primarily within the evangelical, fundamental, and charismatic segments of the church. The discussions by Donald G. Bloesch and Thomas C. Oden are sufficient for anyone interested.

I find myself among the realized millennialism, primarily because it frees us from endless interpretations of mythical imagery that too many want to turn into literal events in our history at some point in the future (pre-millennial) and does not succumb to unrealistic optimism (post-millennial). The millennium is already present or an emerging reality and thus the 1000 years of Revelation 20 receives a symbolic interpretation. It will conclude with the return of Christ and judgment. It lessens an emphasis upon the return of Christ. It does have the danger of focusing too much upon otherworldly concerns and it can succumb to a triumphal view of the church. See Augustine in City of God XX.7-14. God restrains evil during this period. The church proclaims the gospel in the hope that Christ will reign. See also Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Dionysius, Tyconius, Thomas Aquinas. Post-millennial thought finds support in Joachim of Fiora, Daniel Whitby, Cocceius, Witsius, and Rauschenbusch, as well as Hodge and Strong. With pre-millennial thought we find Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, the Pastor of Hermas, the Letter of Barnabas, Tertullian, J. A. Bengel, Irving, van Oosterzee, Ellicott, Darby, Adventists, Christadelphians, Plymouth Brethren, and a host of others.

            Of course, the reality that the world has continued to exist for such a long time would surprise the author of the book of Revelation.  However, it would have surprised Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the first century Christians.  The community out of which came the Gospel of John may not have shared that surprise, since they focused on resurrection life available today.  Revelation differs in that it does believe the fall of Jerusalem should set in motion the end of the world, as we know it.  This is similar to the adjustments in the Book of Daniel, as there were several revisions, as the expected did not occur when expected. 

            Jesus seems to have believed that his own coming was enough to proclaim the end of the world, as we know it.  That is consistent with Paul as well.  The world events which apocalyptic literature generally looked to, and which the Book of Revelation participates in, were believed to have happened in the conduct, message, and fate of one man, Jesus of Nazareth. The sufferings anticipated at the end of history occurred in the suffering and death of Jesus. The resurrection anticipated at the end occurred in Jesus.

Apocalyptic expectations have not stopped.  Many have writers and groups have speculated that the end might happen soon, just as the author of Revelation has done.  All have been wrong.  I can understand and sympathize with those who suggest that the basic apocalyptic hope, that God will put an end to suffering and evil through direct intervention, will not occur.

There is, however, a great loss in giving up apocalyptic.  One could easily conclude that we have about two billion years, so what is the hurry!  We could also conclude that if a random act of the universe could bring about our end, there is little reason to care.  Everything becomes a matter of chance. Some random act could end what humanity spent years to achieve. The earth will fall into sun. The universe will simply wind down and stop. In other words, the eternal and infinite from which religion arises could be nothing more than hungering for something that does not exist, but does help to keep alive and moving. At least apocalyptic has the hope for a new world, the strength in the midst of suffering and persecution, and especially the sense of urgency to act in a way that makes one ready for that end.  The solution may be a rather simple one.  An increased awareness of our own finitude could help at this point.  God gives us such a brief time on this planet.  We need to use that time to make a positive contribution to the lives of others, to our communities, and to our world.

What we call "God" is at least that which calls us to a future that is better than anything we can imagine now.  God is the reminder we need that we have not yet achieved perfection, that our reach must always exceed our grasp.  In that sense, we do look forward to a new world of peace, freedom, justice, a world increasingly free of suffering and pain, a world filled with new life.

Since the lordship of God forms the central content of the future salvation, it determines the perspective of Christian theology as a whole. That future is creatively present to all things that precede it. The ever-present end of history elevates the positive content of history into eternity at the same time that it excludes the negative from participation in it. Nothing that God has created in history is lost, but God liberates it from the negative element with which it is entangled within existence. The future of God is the origin of all things that exist and the final horizon of the definitive meaning and of the nature of all things and all events. Everything within history exists in anticipation of what they will be in the light of their final future, the coming of God. Eternal life includes the positive content of history, liberated from its negative distortions and fulfilled in its potentialities. Life moves toward an end and God elevates it into eternal life, its ultimate and every-present end. Life contributes in every moment of time to the rule of God. What happens in time and space is significant for eternal life. Every finite happening is significant for God.

            The truth of the revelation of God in Jesus depends on the actual fulfillment of the future of the kingdom of God. The church can preach today on the premise of that coming of the future of God. The rule of God was the center of the teaching of Jesus. Without the arrival of this future, it loses its basis.  True, that rule is already present in the Christian community and has its basis in the resurrection of Jesus. However, whether Christians accurately describe these matters depends on the reign of God coming in all its power and glory. All Christian doctrine depends on this defined future.

It becomes all the more important for us to gain clarity about the nature of that future toward which history moves. The church has existed for long periods with many of its leaders, theologians, and the rest of Christian community not living in specific anticipation of this future. The 20th century witnessed an increase in the understanding of the rule of God as given by God at some definable future, with no assistance from human work. The reasons for previous neglect instruct us about what is the heart of the Christian faith. Living in anticipation of this specific and definable future may not be as central as some people claim. Present fellowship with Jesus, combined with the hope of eternity with him, may be a viable option for Christian life, theology, and community. Preaching in the church quite properly focuses upon nurturing our relationship with God through personal connection with Christ, with Christian community and with service in the world.

If we look honestly at our lives, they are not of themselves of such a nature that one would like to go on forever here. Our lives strive toward a conclusion to our present form of existence. Time becomes madness if it cannot reach fulfillment. To go on forever would be the hell of empty meaninglessness. No moment would have any importance because one could postpone everything until an empty later that will always be there. Nothing could ever elude anyone.

Death marks an end for the whole person. However, anyone who thinks that with death everything is over is thinking within empirical temporality. Eternity comes to be in time as its own mature fruit. Eternity subsumes time by being released from the time that came to be temporarily, and came to be so that the final and definitive could be done in freedom. Our understanding of eternity requires us to understand spirit and freedom. Eternity actualizes itself toward the fulfillment of temporal life. If we do not come to a reflective appreciation of this experience of eternity, we run the risk of evading moral decisions.

            The fellowship of believers with Jesus is the basis of the Christian hope of life beyond death. Heaven becomes a place where God brings to fulfillment the love for God that believers have. The feeble love believers have for God now finds fulfillment beyond death. It requires no rational justification in the philosophical doctrine of the immortality of the soul. The form of this future life becomes a subordinate issue, in that any attempt to picture it inevitably draws upon life experience on earth. Christ as the foundation of Christian hope is where all reflection on Christian hope begins. The danger of this foundation is a tendency toward a purely individual eschatology. However, note the following reflection on the biblical foundation for this hope.

Any hope of future life because of fellowship with Jesus Christ presupposes the power of God to overcome death. That hope relates to our understanding of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, as well as the future resurrection of humanity. If such hopes are not plausible, then fellowship with Jesus now cannot be the basis of a life after death. We thereby restore to theological thinking the importance of the future through the biblical concept of promise. The fellowship of believers with Jesus Christ is decisive in establishing the specifically Christian hope of a new life after death. This experience of fellowship with Jesus allows both a pietistic and sacramental focus upon here and now. Death is no longer the conclusion of life but the point of transition to eternal life. Death is no more the dark door that shuts forever behind us, but the opened door through which we enter into true life. Life is not a matter of endless decision-making. A time comes when the freedom and the burden of making decisions will end. I do not believe in the future life because of some dream of the hereafter. I believe in it because I am already the companion of him who has begun a history with me and will never let me fall away from his faithfulness. With him, I go confidently into the darkness, inconceivability, and total otherness of the future world. For he will never be alien or other to me. I shall always recognize him whose voice has always been as familiar to me as the shepherd’s voice is to the sheep.

This view can release Christian theology from Jewish apocalyptic concerns. However, we must still show how anticipation and promise remain valid within this framework.

The apocalyptic context of the future of the lordship of God for the message of Jesus has a sense of strangeness and remoteness from the modern mind. The end of the first Christian generation made apocalyptic outdated. The modern scientific mind cannot accept a catastrophic end to the world and a kingdom of God that comes by way of judgment. Science does not have the philosophical categories by which to view reality with terms like heaven, hell, and an end of the world that will come soon and suddenly from a force other than nature. The ideas of apocalyptic derive from a mythological world that is foreign to the modern social world; a world that we cannot share with them. We cannot take them as they stand.

Biblical symbols point to that which transcend our empirical experience. We can use such symbols and pointers as toward the eternal. Though we take them seriously, they lose their power if we take them literally. Such observations challenge a way of thinking that places decisive importance upon the words of the bible rather than upon fellowship with Christ. The only way we can connect such an apocalyptic message with the scientific context of the modern world is to re-direct attention toward the relation of the reality of God to us and to the world, bringing us to the boundary situation of the meaning of life and death. This connection to the mood of first century Christianity helps the scientific world connect with apocalyptic expectations. The focus becomes the current confrontation between our world and the eternity of God. Even within early Christianity, the disappointment of the soon coming of the kingdom caused no profound disturbance. Believers continued their fellowship with Christ and with each other, while continuing to have hope for their own future and for the fulfillment of the purposes of God. Downplaying temporal future consummation assists in making the biblical message relevant. It directs attention away from metaphors and myth to what is lasting about the Christian message.

Promise as the ground of our anticipation of the end is valid since any hope of the future rests on God. What is at issue in hope of the rule of God is the presence of God to judge and to save. Yet, the proleptic nature of the coming of Jesus means that salvation is still promise. The orientation of the world, but especially humanity, toward that future that God has determined is the condition of understanding traditional promises as the promises of God. Our conception of the end must stand in a positive relation to the deepest yearnings of human beings and the world to which they refer. Otherwise, we cannot see why we should understand what Christianity says about the future as a promise and not as a threat. That positive relation to our needs and wishes is the criterion by which we distinguish between a promise and threat.

The contents of the end as we describe must be consistent with the nature and destiny of humanity; it must be consistent with the lives of the recipients of the promise. God is not alien in redeeming humanity, contrary to Marcion and Manichees. We must find an anthropological basis for what we say about the end. Although God brings about that end, in order for us to perceive it as promise and not threat, we must hear it as promise. Anthropology is the soil on which we can argue for the universality of the Christian hope, even though I can offer no final proof of the contents of that hope. Human nature is the basis of all that we can say is culturally universal. The same is true for theology.

The future is hidden; we have our relation to that future in history. We can understand fragmentary reality only in the light of our knowledge of its ultimate wholeness. The contents of the end are not just something additional to or self-understanding. They are an intrinsic element in this human self-understanding, even given the hidden quality of that future. The presence of the saving nature of that future we find in Jesus Christ. Believers can then look ahead from the new situation defined by Christ to the final consummation.

The primary concern of Jesus was the coming of God and the claim of the first commandment. We participate as believers in this irruption of the future into the present, a participation that reaches fulfillment only in the future and of which believers can have assurance in the present. The promise tells us how the future of God comes to meet our need of healing, wholeness, and meaning. The concept of promise links our present, which needs healing, to the future of God, while at the same time keeping them apart. This results in the tension between Already and Not Yet that is typical of the situation of the Christian community. Jesus Christ is the basis of the hope of his people as it looks ahead to the consummation that has yet to come. We cannot separate the presence of the salvation of God in Christ and its actualizing in us because the sending of Jesus was for both the Jewish people of God and the human race as a whole. The promise comes to completion only as the human race finds reconciliation to God, just as conversely we can understand the resurrection from the dead as the breaking in of universal salvation.

Another element of our discussion of the end is the tension between individual continued existence after death on the one hand and the universal experience of the human race on the other. Our reflections must embrace both subjects as they deal with bringing the wholeness of the individual to fulfillment and the consummation of humanity and the universe in the kingdom of God.

            A problem arises: if individuals finally partake of their salvation only in the resurrection at the end of history, what is their state in the period between their individual death and the end of human history? Conversely, if individual believers are already united with Jesus Christ at death, what more are they to expect from a remote end of human history?

(Phil 1:23 NRSV)  I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better… (Luke 23:43 NRSV)  He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

The 1334 decision of Benedict XII in favor of an immediate entry into the blessedness of the vision of God for the deceased righteous made the problem more severe. Either we expect full and real personal salvation at death, even though this minimizes what takes place at the end, or we expect the real decision and salvation to come only at the last day. Schleiermacher concluded that we could say only that in some form believers continue their relationship to Christ after death. We can at least agree that Christian teaching concerning the future involves the idea that believers continue their relationship to Christ after death in some form.

The early teaching of the Hebrew Scripture and Jewish thinking placed priority of the destiny of the people of God ahead of that of the individual. The hope of individual fulfillment after death arose in the Jewish people because of the dissatisfaction with the earlier hope of collective fulfillment and in clear tension with it. Yet, the resurrection of the dead will take place communally at the end of and not individually as each person dies.

The development of Jewish eschatological ideas dealt with a theme of general human relevance. The general human significance of the Jewish vision of the destiny of individuality and the human race has much more relevance than does the Greek vision of individual immortality. This destiny of the human race demands that all individuals should have a chance to participate because the race exists only in individuals. What is at issue is the unity of our individual and social destiny. These statements concerning human destiny have the character of promise derived from the experience of God in Israel. They relate to a future divine action that exceeds all human ideas but that still relates to our present existence with its incompleteness and in opposition to all the corruption and perversion of our human destiny.

            The Christian hope arose out of the Jewish belief in promise. However, it rests on a foundation in which non-Jews become heirs of the hope of Israel. The presence of the future rule of God in the ministry of Jesus opened up this possibility. With the presence of Jesus, God met the longing for fulfillment that God had planted in humanity and that found expression in the symbolism of Jewish eschatology. Fellowship with Jesus Christ as the basis of Christian hope is not promise, for it rests on fulfillment, even if not yet complete. It also refers to a future completion that is constitutive also for the salvation that has come already in Jesus Christ and for its definitiveness.

The Holy Spirit, through bearing witness to and glorifying the Son, will complete the work of the Son and thus the work of salvation. The Spirit is at work in both individuals and in society. The work of the Spirit involves reconciling of individuals and society based on reconciliation with God by confession of Jesus Christ. The Spirit also links the future to the present, making the promised future of God present in the hearts of believers. That which comes to us from the end and that which comes from the Spirit meet in the fact that in both ways we transcend the world. It is a transition from the finite to the eternal. The person of Christ makes the rule of God present and future at the same time. In the early church the confessions of faith ascribed the work of creation to the Father, that of reconciliation to the Son, but that of the appropriating of salvation, and of consummation, to the Spirit. This Spirit as the origin of life, as also of prophetic inspiration, stands related already to the work of creation, and at times, we find this relation stated in the early stages of Christian theology.

Individual destiny begins by seeking a theological understanding of death, seeking an anthropological significance of death.

One of the distinctive features of human existence is that we have an awareness of our own death. Like others around us, we will die. We have a general sense of having future different from the present. Early human cultures viewed themselves as so integrated with the community that death did not represent a crisis regarding the meaning of life. Burial rites of the Early Stone Age suggest such a view of the afterlife and religion. However, around 500’s BC, apparently in many cultures, people began viewing themselves as individuals as separate from society. Ideas of an individual existence beyond death coincided with this development.

In modern secular culture, death corresponds to our biological life; it is a natural end of life. The orientation of our organic constitution, like all multi-celled living beings, is toward death. Organisms do not just age and wear out. They also must make way for the future generations. Life cannot go on without the death of individuals. This is true in human history as well. Individual death is a condition of the continually self-renewing multiplicity of the phenomena of life. Death is not imposed from outside, but arises from our biological structure.

The main argument for the idea that death is part of our human nature is the finitude of human life. Yet, must we always link finitude to mortality and death? Christian hope expects a life without death. This life in fellowship with God expects renewal and definitive establishment of our individuality. We will not set aside the finitude that is part of our lives by participation in the divine life. Hence, death cannot be part of finitude. One can be finite without attaching mortality to the concept. We know finitude and mortality together because the only life we know is life that we seek to live independently of God. However, we can say that existence in finitude and temporality makes death a definite future. If we know our finitude only as we know that death is ahead of us, this is because we live our lives independently of God in the way that characterizes human sin.

                The philosophical attempt to interpret death as the consummation of individual existence achieved its highest form in Heidegger. We can find existence as its totality only as we have a preceding awareness of our own death. Human fulfillment does point beyond death, but to death itself. The end can constitute the totality of existent being, in spite of the fact that a meaningful totality of existence in its historicity can come into view only at the end of individual life and that we can grasp it only for the moment. So long as there is existence, it has not yet attained totality. When it does attain it, the gain involves a loss of all being the world. We can no longer think of it as life. Sartre criticized Heidegger at this point. Death breaks off life and robs it of any meaning. In freedom for self each of us exists as transcending the given, as a being that reaches beyond mere existing. However, grounding the separation of finitude and death in our freedom does take seriously the situation into which we are thrust.

Modern Protestant theology tends to view death as something natural. Karl Barth, in Church Dogmatics III/2, 625, argued in this way.

Existence finds completion in death either in self-exclusion from God or in openness to God. Our self-transcendence may find an answer in a future beyond death. As in the Hebrew Scripture, death means separation from God as the source of life and all its meaning. The traditional Christian view is that death is a consequence of sin and carries the concept of punishment. Sin as separation from God already implies death as its consequence. Death is the result of the break with God, who is the source of life. Death is among other consequences of sin. Sin also places us in opposition to God, to each other, and to the rest of creation. The conflict of sinners with creation, with other people, and with themselves, arises from the nature of sin as breaking of the relationship to God. This view contains an inner logic. We can make a distinction between finitude and death as we view our finitude as part of the situation into which we are thrust. We define our finitude as an ending. We achieve awareness of our own finitude as an awareness that death lies ahead of us. We may detect knowledge of the limit of our span of life already in our feeling for life as we pursue the course to its end. Many situations enfeeble life. Sin and death go together because our sin already separates us from God, the source of life. Our refusal to accept our finitude, and thus to be like God, is part of what delivers us to sin and death.

The relation between finitude and time helps us to understand the link between finitude, sin, and death. The finite life of individuals is a life in time. It did not have to be lived in the brokenness of our experience of time for which all life is torn apart by the separateness of past, present, and future. The finitude of the perfected will no longer have form of a sequence of separated moments of time, but will represent the totality of our earthly existence. We have our self, our identity, only in anticipation of the totality of our life. In this anticipation of the totality, the totality is present in what is always a more or less broken form. After all, we live our life and experience the reality of the world from the perspective of each moment of time and in relation to the center of the ego. The ego stands related to each individual moment. The self comes to itself in that which is other than itself, even though in the other it is always with itself. We actualize this relation through self-seeking. This fact defines our experience of time as well. This self-seeking of the ego cuts the present moment from the moments that follow. The future meets us as alien and tears us part from ourselves. The present sinks into the past. Yet, the ego lives in a present that overarches time. Its now goes with it through the changes of time. Our awareness of identity holds the past and future of our lives in some sense in the present as recollection and expectation. Our sense of time participates in eternity. Yet, this takes place under the influence of self-seeking; the future overwhelms us and the past fades out of the present of the ego. Since our end meets us as the death of the ego, it feels chained to our finitude. Our finitude becomes death for us. At each moment, we live out only our ego instead of manifesting at each moment of the ego the self, the totality of our life. If we could live as the self, we would integrate the end as a moment into the identity of our existence. However, our ego always has its end outside itself. This is so because the ego lives in an illusion of its own infinity and God-likeness.

Christian hope expects existence without death. That expectation involves participation in the wholeness that flows from the eternity of God. As the life of individuals in the totality of its temporal span stands open to God, so the redeemed will also themselves stand before God in the totality of their existence and glorify God as creator. This hope is for what is logically impossible: that eternity will embody what is finite, rather than annul it.

The wholeness of existence is not attainable by us who are subject to the process of time. Our present state differs from the future and the past. Knowing that, we rise above the narrowness and transitory nature of the present. By this knowledge we are also more deeply than other beings differentiated from what is not yet or no longer. The difference between our present and the future prevents us from definitively achieving the totality of our finite existence. We can anticipate this totality through our duration and identity of existence in the process of time. Our becoming in time is a finite existence that can stand independently before God. In passing through time, we have an end that is outside ourselves. The end of existence is death. Death is not external to our existence. The end that has yet to come casts a shadow in advance and defines the whole path of life as a being for death in the sense that our end we have not integrated into our existence but threatens each moment of our living self-affirmation with nothingness. Our finite lives are under the shadow of death.

Death is the last enemy of all things. Fear of death pierces deep into life. It motivates us to unrestricted self-affirmation. It also robs us of the power to accept life. We see a close link between sin and death. The fact that we do not accept our finitude makes the inescapable end of finite existence a manifestation of the power of death that threatens us with nothingness. The fear of death pushes us more deeply into sin. Our becoming in time means that our wholeness is still ahead of us. The unrestricted self-affirmation means apostasy from God and is the context of sin; it implies death as the end of our existence. We must link the ability to achieve wholeness to God, who can bring to its totality the existence of individuals. Achieving salvation means overcoming death. The wholeness that we seek cannot be our own act, for death is not our own act. We have to suffer it. Death comes upon us.

God has constantly limited the results of sin and evil to make our lives possible under the limiting conditions we face. This is the result of the patience of God with sinners. It also shows the continued creative activity of God in the world, which continually brings good out of evil. An important part of this is the creative activity of the Spirit of God. God constantly rescues us from the entanglement of self-centeredness that comes because of our anxieties and desires. We may again know the original joy in life, joy in the richness, breadth, and beauty of creation and in each new day, joy in the illuminations of the life of the spirit, power for action within the order of community life, and a turning to others and participation in their joys and sorrows. We share in the activity of the divine in the world that limits sin and its consequences through acceptance of our responsibility for the rational shaping of individual life and of the social order and its justice. We are in constant danger that sin will break out in destructiveness wickedness. Its effects can accumulate and at times bring whole peoples within its orbit. Yet, reason and law can restrain them. In our human story, we have achieved astonishing things and known periods of high cultural blossoming.

Christian theology has given an overly negative portrayal of human life under the conditions of the coming of sin and its consequences. Human abilities remaining after the fall have naturally come into question. However, the primary issue ought not to be that of human abilities but the continued creative of the creator and of the providence of God. Even in the best of times, dark forces have been at work in life that by means of anxiety and desire have finally brought death and destruction.

            Ideas of a life after death, and the motives out of which they spring, are ambivalent. Ludwig Feuerbach said that the basis of hope for the hereafter is egoism without limit. Answers other than resurrection include ancestor worship, reincarnation, and the immortality of the soul. To expand upon the biblical material, Israel fought the battle with ancestor worship and the related cult of the dead.


(Lev 19:31 NRSV)  Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.

(Lev 20:6 NRSV)  If any turn to mediums and wizards, prostituting themselves to them, I will set my face against them, and will cut them off from the people.

(Isa 8:19 NRSV)  Now if people say to you, "Consult the ghosts and the familiar spirits that chirp and mutter; should not a people consult their gods, the dead on behalf of the living…


Ancestor worship was competition for faith in God as the only power over our future. According to Von Rad, OT Theology, I, 276-77, it fought a difficult defensive battle in which faith in the Lord was intolerant of other options. For this reason, existence in Sheol was a shadowy one. Death separates the ancestors from divine life. Yet, the presence of God extends even to Sheol, as in Psalm 139:8. Yet, such notions express a vague sense of the divine destiny that marks the human race from its beginnings. I hope that the preceding and following exposition shows that resurrection satisfies the human question in a far more satisfactory way than other approaches. In particular, the hope of resurrection arose out of expectation of a better life and especially of fellowship with God.


(Isa 26:19 NRSV)  Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead.

(Psa 73:26 NRSV)  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

(Exo 3:6 NRSV)  He said further, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.


Resurrection to a new life in fellowship with God is already salvation when one has confidence that even death cannot destroy that fellowship. The hope of resurrection to eternal life is prominent in Jewish apocalyptic literature. The focus of the teaching of Paul continues this emphasis upon resurrection as a means to participating in the salvation of eternal life.

            Christian theology has rarely acknowledged the conflict between the hope of resurrection to salvation and eternal life, which the analogy with the resurrection of Jesus and confidence in continuing fellowship with God suggests, and the general resurrection of the dead. Christianity teaches that individuals in body and soul are destined for immortality in fellowship with God, receiving this as a gift from God. The person is a unity of body and soul, so that we can think of a future after death only as bodily renewal as well. Christianity focuses salvation of this once-for-all individual existence.

This link between individual and universal fulfillment of salvation is an essential element in biblical hope for the future. As we view the resurrection of the dead as an event at the end of the age that is common to all individuals, we bind together individual and universal eschatology. We can no more detach individual consummation from the question of universal consummation than vice versa. Jesus is thus the first that God raised from the dead, the firstborn among many, the captain of salvation from generalizing the anticipating of the universal resurrection of the dead in his individual destiny. The event of the resurrection of Jesus shares the uniqueness of his person and history. Participation in the reality of the new life that broke in through him is even now possible for those linked to him. Nor does the death of believers destroy this participation. Obviously, we cannot mark off exclusively from each other the future at the end of history and our present as believers.

Christians hope for the rule of God and prayer that the will of God be done because the lordship of God over creation is not definitive and irrefutable. In the world that God has made, the reality of God will always be debatable. The independence of the creation, and especially among human beings, needs time as the form of their existence in order that we may bring our lives into conformity with the future of the destiny that God given them. Our self-determination does not accord with the destiny that our creator has assigned us. Our question for autonomy from God has led to lack of peace in creation with the consequence that we cannot at once detect the lordship of God in it.

Hope for the end-time kingdom of God carries with it the thought of the reconciliation of the individual and society. God will overcome the alienation present in all human community. The excessive claims that people make upon each other lead to feelings of alienation as well. The feeling of not receiving adequate recognition and respect is also present. Individuals suffer deep wounds and deformations.

Reconciliation of individuals and society is the basis of the concept of the rule of God. It finds expression in the linking of the end-time consummation of the reign of God to the resurrection of the dead. Human society and the race as a species cannot reach fulfillment without the participation of all the members. This participation may mean different things for different individuals in accordance with the different ways in which they have lived their individual lives on earth. Human society and the human race will experience no fulfillment without some participation of all the members. Without that, individuals would be no more than a transitory means to an end. Any overcoming of alienation in this world is an imperfect expression of the hope of a future consummation of humanity. Secular utopian vision has its limit in the individuals who live in the relevant generation that could share in utopia, whether in Kant’s conception of perpetual peace or the classless society of Marx.

In what sense can we speak of the rule of God as the end (eschaton means both end and completion) of this age and the completion or fulfillment of history? The physical and temporal end always threatens the completion or fulfillment. If we suggest a completion without an end, the time that follows loses content. An unrestricted continuation of historical experience rules out the thought of completion of history. If the thought of completion hovers over history without entering into it as the event that ends it, historical existence would find fulfillment for individuals or society. The end of history in the sense of attaining its purpose transcends all moments of the temporal process. The end in that sense is eternity and eternal life. Jewish apocalyptic contains both end and completion of history. It is the background of the message of Jesus and the early church. It is the language of fulfillment, and not just a biological and physical end. Today, the thought of an end of the world and that human history will end have come into question. We might visualize an end to the world, but this would be a natural end in accordance with the knowledge gleaned from science. It would have nothing to with an action beyond history, a supernatural irruption within space-time. We cannot find support for the Christian vision of an end in our scientific knowledge of the world. A cessation of time implies death rather than life. Apocalyptic ideas of a destruction of our earthly environment do not involve the end of the universe or even of the earth. The concept of an end of history and time seems a contradiction to eternal life.

The vision of a saving end of history had re-interpretation within the New Testament. Jesus prepared the disciples with parables focused upon waiting. Paul appeared to move from the expectation of an almost imminent end to the belief that God would delay the end until Israel was saved. John and Ephesians appear to move to an increasingly remote conception of the end of the world. However, re-interpretation does not satisfy the modern need. It still moves in the mythological ideas of the original vision. The whole notion of a divine intervention and the false kind of supernaturalism that it implies does not become more plausible by making it remote. It also robs the vision of its significance. It encourages a focus upon another world rather than significance of this world to us. In reality, our destiny is completion and fulfillment in God in a way that the world continues to endure. The reconciliation and consummation that the bible envisions may embrace our time and history, rather than come from beyond it. A vision of saving end for humanity brings hope and meaning into the picture. The same God who creates is also the destiny toward which God has oriented all things.

The inner logic of the historicity of our sense of meaning may provide a more solid support for the concept of the kingdom of God as both the end of the age and the completion or fulfillment of history. Each individual experience finds definition only in relation to a context that for its part stands within a larger context until we arrive at the totality of all experiences and events. Hence individual meaning always finally depends on the total meaning of all experience and consequently on the totality of all the events and reality that can be the object of experience. Because of the historicity of our experience and the openness of its contexts to the future, we have to think of the total meaning as still incomplete. An anticipation of this totality that is yet incomplete is what we experience. Each individual experience we always presupposes a totality of reality as a condition of the specific nature of the individual experience even though the contours of the totality for its part may still be more or less indistinct. Each individual experience presupposes as a condition of its definite nature an end of history that makes of the history of the universe as well as humanity a total process. We can know the brute fact of the end only as an implication of the concept of reality in its totality as a once-for-all process, a history. Kant showed this in The End of All Things, although what he says about the end of history has the same problems as that of the beginning of the world in his first antinomy in the cosmological ideas of pure reason, for which see Critique of Pure Reason. Openness and even a directing toward such an end can well find a basis in the historicity of our experience of meaning and significance. It is not self-evident that the end of the world should have the character of fulfillment rather than a mere breaking off and a plunge into nothingness. The demand for wholeness, salvation, and our moral striving beyond the implications of the historicity of experience are of significance. However, they do not determine that such end will come. Only the coming of Jesus Christ and the insight that creation orients us toward the end appointed by God allows us to think in this way.

God and not nothing is the end of time. The infinite is the boundary situation of the finite; eternity is the boundary situation for time. The end of time and history means transition to eternity. This can mean participation in the eternal life of God. Whether the transition to eternity will in fact have this positive sense will be decided at the judgment when the eternity of God will confront our time and history. Insofar as eternity is in antithesis to time, its relation to time has in fact the form of judgment, as Barth shows in  Romans, p. 500 and Church Dogmatics, II/1, 635. A positive estimation of a saving end of history presupposes a revision of our understanding of eternity. We must think of eternity as including time or leaving a place for what is distinct in time. We must give priority to the saving future that animated early Christian preaching. The biblical presentation of promise does not help in this regard. Our conception of the future as a saving end must rest on our understanding of eternity and of its relation to time. The resolution of this matter has implications for all parts of Christian teaching:


·        Our understanding of our individuality in distinction from our corruption by sin;

·        The economy of salvation as a whole in its relation to the inner Trinitarian life of God;

·        The identity of those whom God will raise with those who are not alive;

·        The relation of the future of the kingdom of God at the end of history to its being present in the work of Jesus;

·        The relation of the general resurrection of the dead at the return of Jesus to the fact that even at death those who sleep in him are already with him, so that their fellowship with him is not broken;

·        The relation of the return of Jesus to his earthly work;

·        The relation of the lordship of God and the providence of God over the world to the Not Yet character of the kingdom of God.


We will have no answers to questions like this so long as we do not clarify the relation of time and eternity.

The duration of time is decisive for the independent existence of independent beings. Only by their own duration do they have their own existence in distinction from God and each other. The uniformity of events according to laws of physics and biology is a condition of individual independence. The regular order of nature is an important means to the end of individuality and independence of creation. The uniformity of nature is an expression of the faithfulness of God as creator and sustainer. Uniformity is also the basis of the development of new and complex forms in nature. Only in the process of time can a finite being act and show itself as the center of its own activity. Participation in the eternity of God preserves this independence and individuality. The independent existence of individuals has the form of duration as an overarching present, by which they are simultaneous to each other and relate to each other in the distinction of space. Since they do not exist in themselves, their present is distinct from their derivation as their past. Their existence as duration refers to eternity as the future of the good that gives duration and identity to individuals. However, as individuals, they distinguish themselves by their independence from their origin in eternity; their future is outside themselves. The future toward which creative forms move in the duration of their existence has an ambivalent face. Individuals have little control over that future. The future also threatens to end and dissolve their independent form.

Life is present for us as we sense it in its indefinite totality. This presence of the sensed totality is vague when considered in isolation, as Pannenberg shows in his Anthropology, p. 243ff, esp. 247ff. Sensed totality is constitutive for a temporal sense of duration, as Bergson shows in his Creative Evolution, 1-8, 210-12. It acquires definite contours by means of recollection and expectation. Expectation takes precedence, for the future that completes life defines life. As an analogy, we grasp the totality of a song only as we think ahead to the ending that has not yet come, as Augustine shows in his Confessions, 28.38. Anticipations look forward to the occurrence of future experience. They also look forward to the content of such experience. However, given the temporal difference between the anticipation and the anticipated experience, does not the anticipation remain external to the content toward which it is directed? In that case, anticipation would not have a form appropriate to its own content. The concept of anticipation unites both the identity with the thing and the difference from it. Temporality determines the relationship between identity and difference, in that anticipation is Not Yet identical with the anticipated thing; it remains exposed to the risk of untruth or of a failure to grasp. Yet, in the anticipation the thing is already present. Further, the form of anticipation must correspond to the peculiar character of whatever it is that we claim we grasp in anticipation and we can only grasp. In reality, the anticipatory form of knowledge corresponds to an element of the Not Yet within the reality toward which we direct human knowing. Given the limits of finite knowledge, anticipation is not just a preliminary stage in knowing. Further, the identity of things themselves is not yet present in the process of time. Even the events and things that we experience change with the alteration of the context over the course of time. Initially, this is a matter only of their meaning for us; we cannot equate the essence of things and events with their meaning for us. Events and things stand within contexts that change over time. Even the essence of events and forms within the natural world change over time. What they are changes. Only at the end of their movement through time could anyone decide what actually makes up their distinctive character or essence. One would have to maintain that this had been the essence of the thing in question from the beginning. The decision concerning the being that stands at the end of the process has retroactive power.

In our sense of time, we can grasp the totality of our life only as we reach out to the past and the future, and then only fragmentarily in a restricted form. The eternal Today of God has no need of recollection and expectation. The day of God lasts. The fleeting now of our sense of the present, referred to by Boethius, De trin. 4.71.77 corresponds remotely to the lasting and abiding Now of the present of God. We stand now in the presence of the eternal, but we do so looking ahead toward the end. Time contributes to eternal life in each of its moments. Eternity is a coming from, going ahead, and rising to for every moment of time. By the attention with which we hold fast to that which sinks into the past and anticipate the future, does not constitute the duration of our existence. The attempt of sinners to base the identity and totality of their own lives on the Now of the present of the I, and on the earnest attention with which we may make the past and the future present, is bound to fail because in the flux of time each Now is replaced by another Now. The extension of the present beyond a given Now becomes a stretching on the one hand and a disintegration into many things on the other. The I that is tied to the passing and changing Now of the flow of time cannot base its duration and the totality of its life on its own momentary present. Aristotle, Phys. 219b1-2 refers to the idea of the soul as subject of the counting. For Augustine the duration of the human soul does not have its basis in itself but in God. In Kant, the result is the factual absolutizing of the human ego that Hegel rightly criticized. Heidegger severs the grounding in eternity of time by basing it not only on a general structure of transcendental subjectivity but also on the concrete living out of one’s own developing existence in time. The disintegration of time in our experience is no more able than the emptiness of time to blind us to the fact that the objective duration of the allotted span and the sense of duration as the Now wanders through time, with recollection and expectation included, go along with the individual existence that God has given us. We are to see the multiplicity of moments of time and events as they succeed only another as constituent parts of the good creation of God. The independence of individual duration comes into being only as the reintegration of what is distinct. However, any instance of the achievement of individual independence is at the same time a new form of the overcoming of variety by integration into a type of duration that is a form of partial participation in the divine eternity. The complex forms of this integration build upon the simple. The yearning for eternity finds expression in duration. The limits of individuality point ahead to new and higher stages of individual participation in the eternal life of God. All individual and independent beings desire a totality of life that they do not possess. We do not possess the totality of our lives as the totality of the life of God and the creatures of God present to the eternity of God. In the march of time, we can only seek and hope for the totality of life from a future that will integrate the many moments of life into a unity. As yet, the totality of our lives is hidden from us and from all individuals because our future is still ahead of us.

Only a future of the completion of our lives in distinction from the future of death that breaks off life can actualize the totality that will show the identity of our existence in full correspondence with the will of God by unbroken participation in the eternal life of God. Only participation in the eternity of God can overcome the disintegration of human life into moments that are broken by the march of time and integrate such moments into unity and totality. Unbroken participation in eternity presupposes acknowledgement of the deity of God by us as we thank God as our creator. To do this, we must overcome our separation from God that we initiate through our desire to be like God. Overcoming this separation takes place by the working of the Spirit in us. The spirit lifts the ego above itself and in confession of Jesus Christ as the Son gives it a share in his filial relation to the Father. It becomes possible for us to take our life as a whole from the hand of the creator in self-distinction from God and hence in acceptance of other individuals, too. Christians also expect a future in which they will permeate all their temporal life by praise of God and fellowship with God. One might compare this view with Tillich, Systematic Theology, III, 400 and Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 523ff, 530f.

We must think of the essence of things as constituted by the process of history, and hence finally by the future of its consummation. When we speak of essence, we would then speak of the fulfillment of all things. The essence of all things is already present in history. Already on their way to fulfillment, they are what they will be, though only in anticipation. We already are what we are on the way to becoming in our history, but only by anticipation of the future of our fulfillment. Things have duration in time through the proleptic presence of their identity, of their essence, which the end of history will show in their fullness and final form. The future of consummation is the entry of eternity into time. For it has the totality of life and its true and definitive identity that characterizes eternity but that is lost in the disintegration of time. The future is the basis for the lasting essence of each individual that finds manifestation already in the allotted duration of its life and yet will achieve its full manifestation in the saving future. The statement that it does not yet appear what we shall be in I John 3:2 applies to all of us: we are still on the way to becoming ourselves, and yet all of us are in some sense already the persons we shall be in the light of our saving future. All of this assumes an understanding of self-consciousness, the ego, and the self.

In the duration of individual life, the eternal self-identity of God finds only broken resemblance. Only in Jesus of Nazareth did the saving future and the eternity of God enter the historical present. The present of the coming kingdom is open to those who accept the message of Jesus and open themselves to his work.

If the future is already in hidden form the present, we have an answer to the question of the identity of what is present with the future of its consummation. If everything returned to some conceived unity, creation would be pointless. The highest love is not union, but removing alienation from individuality and community. This future does not meet the present reality of individual or social life as a different reality. Present life itself is a form of manifestation and a process of becoming for the essential form that our saving future reveals. The relation between eternity and time mediates the relation of the essential reality of things to their present appearance. The essence of things is the totality of their manifestation in the form of simultaneity but purged of all the traces and consequences of evil in the achieving of independence from God by our individuality. We can visualize this gathering up of all time and all beings in God in such a way that preserves their uniqueness, even if the transformation required would introduce a form of life that we could hardly envision today.

Modern Reflections on Biblical Apocalyptic

We must deal with the relation between individual and common destiny. We must do so in connection with the concept of the end of history that is contained within the idea of an end-time resurrection of the dead.

One problem with the concept of resurrection: What is to happen to the parts of the body that in the meantime have become the parts of other organisms? The question itself omits the possibility of God preserving one’s soul in a spiritual body.

Another problem with the concept of the resurrection: How are those who are raised in a distant future can be identical with the people who are alive now? Can we conceive of a resurrection of this present existence whose life, regardless of all transformation, is still identical with this earthly existence and with the person defined by its one-for-all history? Is the thought of resurrection an answer to this question? The identity of future with present bodily life is basic if the hope of resurrection is to have any meaning. The soul becomes the vital principle of the body as well. What is unique to us as individuals finds structure in the soul.

If we see in the question of the identity of the individual person after death that of the continuity of the person’s existence, then we run up against the problem of the so-called intermediate state. Problems like this led early Christian writers to modify the biblical concept of resurrection with the immortality of the soul. Answers from early Christian theology include the idea that the identity of the individual soul connects the life of the believer now with the transformed existence that is to come in the resurrection at the end, in which God will reunite body and soul. Questions like this lead us to the conclusion that we can understand individual resurrection only in the context of a universal fulfillment of the movement of God toward salvation.

The identity of those who awaken to new life in the resurrection of the dead with individuals who live in the process of history is conceivable as long as we think in terms of the fact that what takes place in time cannot be lost so far as the eternity of God is concerned. To God all things that were are always present. The duration of individuals in their own life we understand as participation in the eternity of God. In this, all individual beings have their own distinctive essence as their distinctive otherness grounds them. The resurrection of the dead and the renewal of creation we may see as the act by which God restores to individual existence that is preserved in the eternity of God the form of being for themselves. The identity of individuals needs no continuity of their being on the time line, because the eternal present of God cannot lose this individuality.

We may also find a solution to the problem of whether individuals go immediately at death into the eternity of God for participation in the eternal life of God, or will rise again only at the end of history. All individuals go into eternity of judgment, salvation, and transformation at the moment of death. Yet, only at the end of the ages will all those who sleep in Christ receive in common the being for self of the totality of their existence that God preserves, and thus live with all others before God.

We have here the solution to the concept of the rule of God as the consummation of society in the unity of the human species. God is the future of the finite from which it again receives its existence as a whole as that which has been, and at the same time accepts all other individual being along with itself. God will overcome the antagonisms between the individual and society in this way. Above all, the existence of all individuals is simultaneous in the eternity of God, so that under the conditions of eternity there will also be fulfilled our individual destiny to belong to the whole of human society across all the boundaries that separate the epochs of history from each other. In the sphere of eternity, we can have an unrestricted actualizing of the unity of our destiny as individuals with that of humanity as a species. The unity of the kingdom of God by the lordship of God will come about by the breathing of the eternity of God, who remains steadfast to that which God created. The participation of all individual beings in the eternity of God is possible only on the condition of a radical change because of the sin that goes along with our being in time, the sin of separation from God, and of the antagonism of individual beings among themselves.

            The relation between the Christian hope of the return of Jesus and the central theme of his earthly message and history is historically close. Early Christianity proclaimed the risen Lord the end-time messianic King whom Jewish future expectation hoped for and whom God will send.

I have wondered about the position concerning the judgment of God.  At 18, the church I attended had a booth at the county fair with the theme, “Where will you be a million years from now.”  The idea was that people needed to consider if they would be heaven or hell.  I had a wonderful philosophy professor at Indiana Wesleyan College.  We talked about divine judgment.  I told him that I struggled with the concept of eternal judgment.  I could not understand how God could judge us eternally for something that we did in our finite existence.  His response was, “George, the worst person I can think of is Adolph Hitler.  The destruction that man brought upon the earth was more than any other.  If I am God, that man rots in hell forever for what he did.”  At that point, he paused, and then said, “I like to think, however, that God is a bit bigger than me.”  His point, of course, was that maybe God had ways of judging and reconciling the world that transcend our understanding. 


·        How would they unite the hope of the future Messiah to the function of the future judge?

·        How might the bodily return of Christ relate to the Easter witness of Christians and their hope of resurrection?

·        What has Jesus of Nazareth to do with the last judgment when Christianity believes him to be the redeemer of the world?

·        What is the relationship between the last judgment and the glorification at the return of Jesus of those who are linked to him by faith?

·        What is the function of the Spirit relative to the last judgment and thus the relation between pneumatology and eschatology?

·        What is the relation between judgment and glorification?


Eternity is judgment. Only a person who loves God would want to spend eternity with God. Heaven is desirable for persons who want more of that opportunity. If a person did not want it, heaven would be like hell. For individuals, confrontation with eternity means judgment as far as we have made ourselves autonomous in relation to God, separated ourselves from God, and involved ourselves in conflict with others. We are in conflict with ourselves, with the destiny that we have received for our own existence, and our existence as sinners makes shipwreck on this inner contradiction in the sphere in which all the moments of our lives come together in the relation of eternity. This raises the question of identity, with ourselves and relations with others, integration of the moments of life into the unity of life as a whole. The march of time means that in the process much is suppressed. The apartness of the moments of life makes disguising and masking possible. In the eternal present, we can no longer engage in suppressing, in masking, in putting on facades in order to preserve identity. Eternity brings the truth about earthly life to light. Here and now, in the transition of time into eternity, the negative is defeated in its claim to be positive, a claim it supports by using the positive and mixing ambiguously with it. The appearance of evil as positive vanishes in the face of the eternal. God is a “burning fire” that toward that which pretends to be positive, but is not. All true things are in agreement in a unity that allows of no contradiction. The ringing out together of all the individual moments of a human life in the sphere of the eternity of God can hardly produce on its own the pure note of the harmony of what is true. Instead, it will come out as more or less shrill dissonance. Thus, the idea of the making eternal of our earthly life leads in the first instance more to a picture of hell than to one of eternal bless.

Must our life perish because of its inner contradictions from the standpoint of eternity? Nothing expresses the insecurity and anxiety of human life more profoundly than the fact of the fear of extinction and the fear of judgment. Fear of extinction is the fear of meaninglessness. Judgment executes that which is in the nature of the case. God is judge only in as much as God is guarantor of truth and justice. The same applies to the last judgment as well. History makes its own judgments concerning good and evil. “Last” judgment makes relative all historical judgments. Evil is inexplicable in principle. The symbolism implied in the last judgment allows every generation to reflect upon the overwhelming presence of evil, whether with its symbols of the devil, the beast, anti-Christ, millennium, demons, thrones, and fire. Even the evil symbol of the anti-Christ stands at the end of history to indicate that evil and chaos are ready to invade our time and history. We are unwise to claim any knowledge of either the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell. We are unwise to be too certain about any details of the kingdom of God that consummates history. Here also the judgment is simply that sinners are left to the consequences of their own deeds. When that takes place, their lives necessarily perish of the inner contradictions of their existence. Yet, God remains creator and holds fast to the purpose of that creation. God will not allow individuals make shipwreck on the dissonances of their existence as these are disclosed in the present. For this reason, God has gone after individuals on the path of their turning away from God, the source of their lives, in order to move them to reconciliation. The life of those who are reconciled with God will also face the judgment of eternity. For them, judgment is not destruction. It will be purifying from the discord of sin and of all that contradicts the divine purpose in creation. Judgment is a purifying fire. Participation in the eternal life depends on a creative synthesis of a one’s essential nature with what one has made of it in time. Those who are linked to God by faith may suffer loss as their works burn up for it will be revealed whether they have built gold, silver, precious, or wood, hay, and stubble. The day will declare it because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what kind of work it is. As the rule of God is already present by faith, so the future of God is also present already as regards purging by the fire of the divine judgment. Purging from sin takes place already by penitence and baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Thus, judgment anticipates purging. Future judgment is already present. Christ will execute that judgment in I Corinthians 4:5 and II Corinthians 5:10.  Paul establishes this view on identifying the Son of Man sayings by Jesus (Matt. 10:32-33, Mark 14:62) with the returning Christ himself.  However, God is the judge in Matt. 6:4, 15, 18, in I Pet. 4:5, in Rev. 20:11, and in Rom 2:3ff, 3:6, 14:10, I Cor. 5:13.  The saints will judge the world in I Cor 6:2.  In I Thess. 1:10, Christ delivers believers from the wrath to come, see all so Phil. 3:20 and I Pet. 1:13.  The returning Christ acts as advocate rather than becoming a judge himself.  Further, John states that Jesus has come into the world to save it, not to judge it, as in 3:17, 12:47.  John also makes it clear that the word of Jesus will be the standard of judgment, as in 12:48, 5:22ff.  Further, Paul identifies this judgment as a purifying fire in I Cor 3:10-5. 

God values human freedom and independence enough to allow people to give a final rejection to the love of God. Reflection upon hell must be coherent with the love of God. It is not a place of vindictive punishment, and is thus more a place of self-destruction, the logical result of one’s final rejection of God. People choose hell. God continues to love those who choose to hell. Hell arises from the human side of the relationship, out of rebellion. These persons God forgave and love, but continue to reject their acceptance by god. God invited them to the eternal banquet, and they declined the invitation. People remain free to spurn the love of God. The love of God cannot force itself upon people who do not want it. Hell exists because independent creatures can refuse love. People can decide to live without God in this life and forever. I do not suggest that it is easy to go there. Some people may remain determined not to love God, no matter how incomprehensible that decision may be to those who now love God. The criterion of that judgment is not simply words, as noted in Matthew 7:21. God will welcome some who did not know that they responded positively to the love of God but who acted in love toward those in need, as in Matthew 25:31-46. The life lived is the criteria rather than specific professions of belief. One way to view hell is as a place where the total person experiences destruction, experiencing what Paul suggests is the wages of sin. In this sense, the fires of hell do not torture but consume. For such person, life will end in the meaninglessness that many fear awaits all persons. God does not participate in the rather sadistic behavior of torturing people endlessly. Viewing hell as a place of destruction is just in that no set of human choices can deserve everlasting conscious torment. No crime could deserve such punishment. Such a traditional view of hell is unacceptable for it becomes a punishment in excess of anything that any human being deserves. The disproportion is between sins committed in time and suffering experienced forever. The only purpose for unending torture is vengeance. Yet, God does not delight in punishment for its own sake. Further, the destruction of those who reject the love of God brings a time of unity and reconciliation of all that is, rather than leaving what is divided for eternity between heaven and hell.

The teaching of the unity of everything in divine love and in the rule of God deprives the symbol of hell of its character as eternal damnation. This teaching does not take away the seriousness of the condemning side of the divine judgment, the despair in which the exposure of the negative is experienced. It does take away the absurdities of a literal understanding of hell and heaven and refuses to permit the confusion of eternal destiny with an everlasting state of pain or pleasure. No human being is unambiguously on one or the other side of divine judgment. Saints remain sinners and in need of forgiveness and even sinners are saints as far as they stand under divine forgiveness. If saints receive forgiveness, their reception of it remains ambiguous. If sinners reject forgiveness, their rejection remains ambiguous.

The Alexandrian theologians in the 200’s developed the idea of judgment as purifying fire and related it also to the penitence that is already taking place in this earthly life.  Origen developed this concept fully as a theology of apocatastasis, in which the judgment will purify all persons of their sin and evil and all creation will experience reconciliation.  In this way, the fire of judgment is a purifying, not a destructive, fire.  Chrysostom criticized Origen for saying that the purifying fire of judgment is an education of the soul that has, as its goal, the restoring of all people.  The educational and ethical focus of the church gave precedence to Chrysostom. Such persons are afraid that the teaching of a purifying fire would destroy the seriousness of all religious and ethical decisions. This fear has foundation. J. A. Bengel inclined toward the view of universalism, but refused to preach it, because he feared others would misuse the teaching to their advantage. However, the concept of a purifying fire in judgment opens the possibility for many results, from cleansing Christians to the total destruction of those who persist in turning aside from God.  However, few people view themselves as destined to eternal death or punishment; it is always for others.

The message of Jesus is the standard of judgment, rather than our fellowship with Jesus.  Christians wrestle with such issues because fellowship with Jesus is historically contingent upon the culture and the period of history in which one lives.  Therefore, fellowship with Jesus cannot be the universal criterion for participation in salvation or exclusion from it.  I assume at this point that we take seriously the New Testament message about the love of God for the world that embraces the world.  The message of Jesus is the norm by which God judges even the case of those who never meet Jesus personally, as Matt. 25:31-46 reveals.  All to whom the beatitudes apply will have a share in the coming salvation, whether or not they ever heard of Jesus in this life.  All who bear the fruit of the Spirit share in divine life. As Jesus himself said in Matt. 8:11-12, “Many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into outer darkness.”  The only advantage that Christians have at the future judgment is that in Jesus they know the standard for participation in eternal salvation and the standard for judgment.  By their fellowship with Jesus, they have assurance of participation in salvation. 

The concept of judgment has its foundation in the holiness of God.  This judgment brings resistance to the will of God to an end.  To take our responsibility seriously is to stand before God as our holy judge.  Without the prospect of judgment, we misunderstand our freedom and use it irresponsibly.  To stand before God and to know oneself responsibly is the same thing.  We face judgment only insofar as we made ourselves autonomous in relation to God, separated ourselves from God, and thus become involved in conflict with other people. Yet, absolute judgments over finite beings or happenings are impossible, because they make the finite infinite.

Yet, salvation as fellowship with God does not have to finally be closed to the guilty.  We have no guarantee of universal reconciliation.  In a history still open to the possibility of forgiveness, God gives people the opportunity to repent.  Judgment and universal grace do not contradict.  We cannot speak of judgment without also speaking of grace.  We cannot speak of grace without also speaking of judgment.  They are not logically compatible.  Law ends in judgment, arising out of the holiness of God.  Gospel ends in universal grace, arising out of the love of God.

Judgment is in the hands of the one who came for our salvation and who died for us. The will of God to reconcile all things to God has no limits as revealed in Christ. Judgment is never the goal of the divine will. The judgment that is put in the hands of Christ is no longer destruction, but a fire of purging and cleansing. This view safeguards the declaration by John that Jesus condemns no one.

The gift of the Spirit can have for the present of believers the significance of an anticipation and pledge of future salvation only because the Spirit is also the power of God effecting future salvation itself. The Spirit is the source of salvation, of the new and eternal life, but also the organ of judgment. Can we find a way of uniting these associated functions in some distinctive feature of the work of the Spirit? The whole compass of saving end toward which the Spirit works comes into view if we think of it as distinctively a work of glorification. To the glorification of individuals as the act of God in which their being is changed to make possible their participation in the eternal praise of God corresponds the glorification of God by individuals.

The work of the Holy Spirit will be constitutive for the return of Christ as it was also for the resurrection of Jesus and his institution of divine sonship. The exalted Christ is present in the work of the Spirit, and conversely the Spirit’s work finds fulfillment in the return of Christ for the renewing of his fellowship with believers. Related too will be the renewal and consummation of the world by world-changing judgment, and all under the sign of the divine glory that will be manifest as the glory of Jesus Christ by the completing of his reconciling of believers for participation in his life. It implies a refutation of this-world utopianism and other-worldliness. The final consummation of history is beyond human action. The final consummation is a consummation of this historical process in which we engage ourselves. The coming again of Christ will be the completion of the work of the Spirit that began in the incarnation and with the resurrection of Jesus. We must understand the new life of the resurrection as a removal of the individual autonomy and separation that are part of the corporeality of earthly life, though with no simple erasure of individual particularity. If Jesus gave his life for the salvation of the world, the new life of the risen Lord, even as bodily life, cannot have a form of existence that separates it from others. The reality of the risen Lord involves more than the existence of the church. Thus before the formation of the church, and alongside the fellowship of his disciples, it showed itself to be a reality of its own that is grounded in itself, or rather in the creative power of God. However, the reality of the risen Lord is not self-enclosed to the exclusion of the fellowship of believers. It establishes, embraces and transcends this fellowship. The distinction between head and body preserves the individual distinction of Jesus from his people notwithstanding his unity with them in the fellowship of his body. Similarly, we must say of the resurrection of believers that their individuality will not disappear even though their separation from each other in their earthly existence is one of the things that the transformation of this mortal life into the new corporeality of the resurrection from the dead brought by the saving purpose of God will change this profoundly. Individuals become members of one body when they no longer have to assert themselves against each other, but mutually accept each other for what they are in their individuality, and for what in this way they are also for others. The return of Christ to judgment carries with it the vital nexus of the deliverance of the world and reconciliation proceeding from the incarnation. In the undivided present of eternity, all that happens in creation becomes in this way a revelation of the love of the Creator and Reconciler of the world. By the power of the Spirit, he can change the dissonance of judgment into the peace of the kingdom of God and the many-voiced harmony of the praise of God that will sound out from the mouth of renewed creation.

The showing of the saving purpose of God at the end brings to light the whole economy of salvation. The purpose of giving individuals independent existence was that they should be able to share in the relation of the Son to the Father. The reconciliation of the world in the history of Jesus precedes the saving purpose of God as the consummation of salvation. Only in the eschaton does the reconciliation of the world come to completion.

So long as creation sighs under the dominion of corruptibility and death, individuals will complain. Nothing will silence the accusation against the creator by which they show their refusal to accept reconciliation with God. Only by having the saving purpose of God revealed within our history will we have definitive proof of the existence of God and final clarification of the character of God. Up to then, the world in its autonomy as it relates to God and the absurdity of its suffering and wickedness will always provide material enough for atheism. I cannot give a conclusive answer to the question of the existence of God. The reality of God remains debatable in the conflict between various religions and in the conflict between religion and atheism. Christians cannot escape the anticipatory character of the reality whose concept of God it claims to be. The revelation of the saving purpose of God in our history will end this process. The perfecting of the world for participation in the glory of God will also show how wrong unbelief is. It will prove the love of the creator for all creation. Every theodicy is provisional at best. Alternatively, they already express unbelief.

The suffering of the righteous and the good fortune of the wicked brought an assault against Jewish faith, since both seemed incompatible with the righteousness of God. Christian thinking, which believes in the one God of reconciling love, has greater difficulty here. If the God of reconciliation is also the creator, why did God ever permit wickedness at all? If the omnipotence of God cannot create a world of independent finite creatures without suffering, would it not be better if no such world existed at all?

Reconciliation involves our conversion from alienation from God. Such reconciliation preserves our individuality. We also need a real history of reconciliation, a real future that will mean both the end of the world and its transformation. The biblical view of the saving end is that of overcoming evil and wickedness. The concept of reconciliation contains an element of change. The life of those who accept the invitation that God has issued in Jesus Christ for reconciliation with himself is changed thereby from a state of distance and estrangement from God to one of fellowship with God. In the process, there is present already in the sense of reconciliation the future fellowship with God by participation in the eternal life of God that is still future for believers. Included is the overcoming of all wickedness and evil that go along with the self-separation of individuals from God and its consequences and that seem to give the separated individual occasion for complaint against God.

Can we speak of an identity of the future life with our present life? Is it still our own life that we shall find again in this form that is so changed from an eternal standpoint? We may maintain an identity of the saving consummation with human life as it now is on earth if we consider what it is that constitutes the identity of a person even now in this earthly life. On the one hand are the specific conditions, experiences, and realities of life that we cannot suppress but that we are to integrate into the unity of our selfhood. On the other side is this selfhood, our destiny as human beings and as specific individuals, and what exactly constitutes this selfhood we can grasp only provisionally because we are still on the way to it. We constantly go beyond what we are and were. All the same, we are also already in some sense what we shall be. In the process of building identity we always find together both identity and change, including change in the significance of what we experienced earlier. The task of building identity is that of integrating the facts of previous and present life into the complex of a more or less clearly envisioned idea of what we can be and shall be. Only when we understand our present situation in terms of an objective anticipation of this selfhood of ours can we hope to achieve and maintain a lasting identity. Thus the reference to the selfhood that constantly transcends all that which has been in our lives stands closely linked to the relationship with God. We are properly ourselves as those for which God has destined and called us, and the task of building identity is that of integrating the data of life into a whole from the standpoint of our individual calling. In the course of any life we can do this only more or less in fragments, and for that reason we feel that our true selfhood always involves something more and other than what we have achieved in our present life history. The eyes of love see in us the potential of our destiny that is realized here only in fragments. This is how the eternal God also sees us. The harmony of all the individual elements in the eternal presence of God is the divine calling of our lives and realizing our destiny. The transformation of our lives on earth in the light of the divine destiny that transcends our successes and failures, makes relative the distinction between them and does not threaten our identity, but completes it beyond anything that we now are by fulfilling that which the fragmentary form of our present life does not yet fulfill. This vision is part of the reconciliation of this earthly life with our creator.

Overcoming the suffering and death that alienates us and causes us to protest against God is part of reconciliation. Only in the fulfillment of the saving purpose of God in our history will this reconciliation be complete. Sinners alienated from God do indeed need reconciliation with God, if they are to achieve renewal of the fellowship with God that the fire of judgment will not destroy. The reconciliation grounded in the death of Christ is itself already foretastes the saving end. It rests on the fact that God has taken away our death by that of Jesus, and that God constantly does so in each baptism by linking our death to the death of him for whom death was a passage to life. God anticipates the end by giving individuals the opportunity to overcome their alienation from God.

What are we to say about God as the one who is in action in this history? The goal of the ways of God is not beyond creation. The acts of God in reconciliation and bringing a saving end of the world are oriented to the fulfilling of the purpose of God in creation. Why did God not give creation already its definitive, end-time perfected form? We see yet again the offense that we take at God permitting evil. The answer in Christian theology has been that permitting sin and the evil that flowed from it expresses the risk that freedom involves when God granted independence to individuals. The independence of individual beings in general implies permitting evil and its consequences. Some degree of independence is an essential condition of the existence of individuals alongside the eternal being of God. With independence, it is very easy for the impossible transition to be made to autonomy in the individual’s relation to the creator. This is supremely true in the case of us humans and our ability to choose among different possibilities of willing and doing, an ability that many still call freedom. The ability to decide among possibilities of conduct is a high form of individual independence, but also a fragile form because the actual use of this ability can so easily lead to the loss of the independence for which God created us. We become slaves to sin and death. God fashioned creation for independence, thus taking the risk that the autonomy of individuals would make God appear nonessential and nonexistent. The fact of evil strengthens the appearance of the nonexistence of God. The result is the ingratitude of individuals in their autonomy as it relates to God. Individuals are unwilling to accept the finitude of their existence; by making a moral protest against God they can have a good conscience.

Yet, God still stands by what God has created, and does so in a way that respects the independence of individuals. The world process means something for God. God is not a separated self-sufficient entity that creates what God wants and saves whom God wants. Rather, love drives God, a love that finds fulfillment only through the other who has the freedom to reject and to accept that love. God drives toward the actualization of the essence of all things.

This independence does not consist in the consummation of the world. Individual independence is not possible without temporality as a form of existence. Not only do creatures need a certain duration as the form of their own existence, but the independence of their active fashioning of that existence also needs the differentiation of tenses. The fruits of an independently led life can persist in eternity insofar as we view temporal existence in the simultaneity of the eternal present. The existence of creatures offers the primary and basic example of the first installment and foretaste of eternity that are the mark of all the action of God in the economy of salvation. We can understand the emergence of the future rule of the eternal God in the time of the creature as the way in which the divine life declares itself. Even though itself eternal, the love of God brings forth time, works in time, and is thus present in time. God grants individuals both existence and fellowship with God. The creation of individuals is itself already an expression of the divine love that grants existence to each one, enabling them during the time of their existence to share in the divine Spirit. The reconciling action of God is the highest form of this love. The saving end of the world can remove all doubts concerning the revelation of the love of God in creation and salvation history, even though the love of God has been at work already at each stage in the history of creation.