Jesus’ resurrection marks the beginning of the end (goal, purpose toward which history is moving) but we still look forward to the end of the end.
There are many views circulating in the religious community concerning the details attached to Jesus’ second coming. One critical factor, though, is that believers should face the future with hope.
A presentation of an eschatology of hope can begin with the text of Scripture itself. One of the clearest statements about God’s future for creation is in Romans 8: “The earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance” (vv. 19-25).1
Here Paul depicts the entire creation groaning in agony, subject to futility, and literally rotting in the results of sin. But Paul also says the same creation also lives in hope “that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (v. 21, NIV).
We all live together in this hope of redemption, not just of our spirits or souls, but of our bodies. The entire physical creation is being redeemed and renewed by God, and this is our hope. The Spirit of God is the down payment on this future redemption. So we, along with the creation, wait in patience.
In contrast to an eschatology of escape or annihilation, the Bible pictures not so much a new earth as a renewed earth. God is renewing His creation. One of the factors that contribute to this confusion is a passage from 2 Peter 3:10—“The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.”
What we often forget is the different ways that fire functions. Fire is useful in purification, not just annihilation. (As a matter of fact, pur is the Greek for “fire.”) We often see the destructive role of fire rather than the purifying role of fire. But consider this passage from the same Bible author: “These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:7, NIV). Here, the fire of God purifies and cleanses rather than destroys. Dross is burned up; the pure gold remains. This is more consistent with the whole narrative of God’s work to reconcile all creation to Himself.
The important point to notice is that this vision of the future—this eschatology of hope— still involves a power outside ourselves. It is God’s fire. The question is not whether or not God will intervene in human history to accomplish His purpose fully. The question is, What kind of action will God take in human affairs? The answer that Scripture presents is one of restoration, reconciliation, repair, and healing. These concepts are the opposite of wanton destruction and annihilation. Nevertheless, some things are consumed by the fire. The part that is not gold, the part that is not consistent with God’s good and peaceful kingdom, will perish so that God’s good creation can be restored.
The practical result of this is twofold. On the one hand, we cannot disregard the world as something disposable, something that will perish anyway. Keeping our eye on the beginning of the story, we remember that God created a good world. His good creation has been corrupted and abused. But it is good nonetheless and God is intent on restoring it.
On the other hand, we cannot fix what is wrong with God’s creation ourselves. It will take power outside of human effort to accomplish God’s redemption. It is this tension that is the heart of Adventist eschatology. The world is not disposable, like a used-up bag from which the important contents have been removed. But neither is the human race ultimately capable of a final solution to sin and decay. We act today in harmony with that which we believe—our hope. We act in hope now, knowing that God will complete God’s work of healing His creation.
From a human perspective then, we neither take ourselves too seriously (reasoning that we are the answer and that ours is the moment in history) nor do we disregard our role in God’s work (reasoning that God will do whatever God will do, and we are free to pursue our own selfish gain). Instead, we are enlisted, as citizens of God’s kingdom, to do now what we anticipate. We are invited to act now in hope, witnessing to the world that will one day be here in fullness.
This tension is sometimes expressed as the “now and not yet” nature of God’s kingdom. This language—“now and not yet”—arises from the fact that some Scripture speaks as though the kingdom is present now. Other passages speak of God’s kingdom as something off in the future.
One helpful way of looking at this apparent paradox while doing justice to the whole narrative is that Jesus, particularly by His resurrection, inaugurated a new age that has yet to come fully to fruition. Jesus’ resurrection, in other words, marks the beginning of the end (goal, purpose toward which history is moving) but we still look forward to the end of the end. So we see signs of God’s kingdom all around us. The Bible writers are careful to say that the kingdom is “at hand,” never “in hand.” We don’t have the kingdom. Nor can we “bring in the kingdom” by our own strength or organizational abilities. Rather we are called to enter and serve God’s kingdom and in so doing, bear witness to the way the whole world will be one day.2