One of the clearest, most often repeated teachings of the Bible is that God plans to give faithful believers an inheritance consisting of everlasting life with Him in His eternal city. Yet no teaching has been disputed more, debated more, or subjected to more confusing speculation than the question of what the final destiny of God's people will consist of.
Almost as soon as the apostles were gone from the earth a few men began to speculate about a thousand year reign of Christ here on earth. In later years there came the idea that this would be preceded by a seven year trip into the clouds which is called a "rapture." Then came ideas about a world wide military empire to be achieved at a "battle of Armageddon," and countless other theories, each of which claims to have Biblical support, especially in the sections of scripture which are prophetic in nature.
Now some are even saying that God's plan concerning "last things" has already been executed and the promised inheritance received. They say that back in AD 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed all that had been promised occurred: the second coming of Christ, the resurrection, the judgment, and the coming of the eternal kingdom. They say the holy city that John saw in Revelation 21 and 22 came down and this is where we are now. Thus what we refer to as "the future destiny of God's people," they see as having already come about and that all Bible prophecies concerning "last things" were fulfilled when Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70 A.D.
To me it seems surprising that so many different notions about the final reward of believers could get a foothold, especially in view of the fact that so many scriptures speak so clearly on it. In fact, while Jesus was on earth in person the apostles asked Him this question specifically and received a clear and concise answer. Peter asked the question, "Master, we have left all to follow thee. What shall we have therefore?" The Lord's answer was simply that all who are faithful to him in temporal things would be blessed in this life in physical things, along with enduring persecutions, and would receive eternal life in the world to come. "Verily I say unto you, there is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake and the Gospel's, but he shall receive a hundredfold now, in this time, houses and brethren, and sisters and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions, and in the world to come, eternal life." (Mark 10:28-30; Matthew 19:27-29).
This seems about as simply put as it could be said. There is a here and now of physical life in an earthly setting and there is another life to come later which will be everlasting. Matthew's record calls it "in the regeneration." In Mark it is "the world to come," or literally in the text, "the age coming." Looking at the two different times, or "ages," Jesus simply says that the first one is temporal when we live in the flesh and the future one is eternal where we are not subject to things of the flesh, the laws of nature, death, and the such like.
Any theory of interpretation which does not preserve this simple concept of the distinction between earthly life as we know it and eternal life in the age to come, denies what Jesus said about the matter and therefore has to be a misunderstanding. Not only did Jesus state it explicitly and often but it is the view consistently set forth throughout the scriptures. So then, to take any age in which God's people still live in the flesh, still die, are still in the natural world, and call that "the age to come" to which Jesus referred, is to contradict what the Lord said and to deny observable facts of what exists around us. Doing that reduces the promise of the Gospel to an outright deception.
This is the very thing Paul said in I Corinthians 15. "If in this life only we have hope in Christ we are of all men most miserable." (vs. 19). In other words, if your concept of the hope we have in Christ does not get outside this earthly life, you negate the whole thing. In the first twenty verses Paul pictures the Gospel message as resting entirely on the fact of the resurrection of the dead. From verse 12 onward he elaborates that the resurrection of Christ is the basis on which our hope of resurrection rests and that to deny the resurrection of the dead is to both nullify the hope of the Gospel and make false witnesses of the apostles because of the fact that this is how they preached it.
From verse 20 onward Paul affirms that the resurrection is a fact regardless of what men might say. He specifies that it will occur "at His coming" (vs. 23), "at the end" (vs. 24), and after "the last enemy, death, is destroyed." (vs. 26). The remainder of the chapter is devoted to explaining this at length and in explicit detail. So many details are provided that one would think it impossible to misunderstand it. Yet there always seems to be men who come up with theories that make it mean something other than the physical resurrection of God's people to everlasting life.
At verse 50 Paul even specifies that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, neither doth corruption inherit incorruption." We cannot possibly be in God's eternal kingdom and be in the flesh at the same time, Paul says. So at verse 53 he says, "this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality." It is only in the state of immortality that it is possible to reach the final destiny God has in mind for His people. Any theory which says that men in the flesh, who are still mortal and have not yet put on immortality, have received the inheritance of the faithful, is affirming what Paul said is not possible.
At verse 54 Paul nails it down precisely as to when it is that "death is swallowed up in victory," according to the promise of the prophets. "So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory". To take any period of time when men are still mortal and have not put on immorality, and say of it "Death is swallowed up in victory" is to categorically deny every verse of the 15th chapter of I Corinthians.
From verses 35 through 50 Paul tries to impart an understanding of what the difference is between earthly life and celestial, or heavenly, life. The central theme is that Jesus, in coming down from the heavenly realm voluntarily reduced Himself to this lower life in order to conquer death for man and make immortality possible. The conclusion is that "through our Lord Jesus Christ" we are given the victory. (vs. 57). The whole idea throughout the chapter is that Christ's resurrection is the model for what ours will be like and that He was Himself "the first fruits of them that slept." (vs. 20). To illustrate some kind of symbolic transmigration from one dispensation to another, such as from Judaism to Christianity, would not have required a physical death and resurrection by Jesus. The resurrection Paul referred to did require that to provide a model for it.
The Hebrew writer tells us that Jesus in His death "delivered them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Hebrews 2:15). The text further states that in coming to live on earth as a man Jesus "took not on Him the form of angels but He took on Him the seed of Abraham." The angels of heaven then, are a different form of life than mankind on earth, or "Abraham's seed." Peter described human life this way: "All men are like grass and their glory is like the wild flower. The grass withers and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord stands forever, and this is the word that was preached unto you." (I Peter 1:24-25). (NIV).
The scriptures abound with references to the temporary nature of things here on earth, including human life and the brevity of it. To this is contrasted the eternal nature of things in the world to come, including the life of God's people and the unending nature of it. Thus the primary feature of the reward God will give is said to be "eternal life." Paul wrote that "The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 6:23). How could there yet be confusion about a concept so simple and so clearly expressed in the scriptures?
Attempts to interpret prophecy seems to be the source most often muddling this picture. It is the same age old problem that man just does not stop where the Bible stops in their defining of Bible prophecies. In the Scriptures prophecies are usually given in language involving a lot of
symbols and figures.
Many refer to it as prophetic language: The symbols and figures represent things and therefore it is necessary to interpret them if one is to know what is referred to in the prophecy. Some of these prophecies are interpreted in the Bible itself and what they refer to is stipulated. In that case we know what their fulfillment is. But a great many do not have a definition given in any text. To determine what those refer to we have to go farther than the Bible goes. This is where the guess work begins and problems usually originate.
It is the most common characteristic of "prophecy interpreters" that they do not accept the spot where Biblical information ends as being the end of what man can know of the event predicted. They insist on filling in that which scripture has left blank and pinpointing the application of prophecies to specific events of their own selection. This is what lures them out into the sea of speculation where so often they end up creating concepts that do not harmonize with clear and fundamental Bible teachings.
When Homer Hailey wrote his commentary on the book of Revelation he referred to this situation as "an era of run away speculation on the subject of Bible prophecy." (Dust jacket). In the introduction he wrote that because of the apocalyptic nature of the book of Revelation, its imagery and symbolism, many differing interpretations abound and thus "it ill-becomes any of us to be dogmatic in the positions we take."
This is the way it is in the study of prophetic passages. They were not written to satisfy man's curiosity about future things beyond what he really needs to know and what is appointed for us to know. They were written to provide whatever information is within that which God wants man to know. Runaway speculation in this area of study is the source of unnecessary confusion about the matter of what the final reward God has in mind for all who are faithful to Him. When Jesus said that all who are loyal to Him above worldly things will have blessings in this life, along with persecutions, and eternal life in the next, He spoke from first-hand knowledge and experience in both worlds. Between here and there things will occur according to God's appointed timetable. Our part in the matter is to place our faith entirely in the Lord and to live out the days allotted to each of us to be in the flesh in the manner prescribed in the word God has given us. In all prophecies where precise interpretation is not given the part that is given is an urging toward preparedness. The message is always: "Prepare! Be ready at all tunes!" This is the important thing for us, not the pinpointing of what is destined to transpire between now and then. In the case of Old Testament Israelites there was a need to know some things that were soon to happen because they would be relevant to their religious practice and particularly their recognition of the Messiah when He came. In the case of the destruction of Jerusalem there was a need to know the signs pointing to it so they could "flee into the mountains" and escape the terrible suffering that was to be inflicted on people who remained in the city. So the prophets gave Israel some details of that kind and Jesus gave believers of His time a description of many signs they could recognize.
But concerning the time when "heaven and earth shall pass away" Jesus said, "Of that day and hour knoweth no man, no not the angels of heaven but my Father only."(Matthew 24:36). Through the rest of that chapter the illustrations Jesus gave depict a situation of total surprise, "In such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh." (vs. 44).
Probably the most certain thing in this whole picture is the uncertainty of manís ability to interpret prophecy on his own. When men take bits and pieces of information from here and there in the Bible and try to assemble them into a definition of some prophecy they are almost certain to err. The main problem is that man has no way to know which of the "apocalyptic images" are to be seen as literal and which are figurative or symbolic, so he usually makes arbitrary choices, one time choosing to take it literally and another time choosing to see it as figurative. To illustrate: Most prophecy interpreters see "streets of gold" in heaven as figurative because it is just not the sort of thing one expects to see. For the same reason they say there will not be any dragons or beasts with four heads and that these are figurative language.
But suppose we had lived in Israel after the Old Testament was written and before the New Testament came. How would we have interpreted the prophecy that a "virgin" would be pregnant and bring forth a son? To us that is impossible so we would likely have pronounced it figurative. But we now know it happened literally. How would we have perceived the prophecy about the coming king "riding into Jerusalem on a donkey?" A symbolic figure, no doubt. But in the New Testament we find it was fulfilled literally. But Joel's prophecy about the sun, moon and stars being darkened and the "moon turned to blood" in the great day of the Lord, would seem like something the creator of the universe might do, so we would probably figure that one to be literal. Wrong again! In Acts 2 the fulfillment is pin-pointed as consisting of other things.
What we have then is uninspired men trying to say what God meant beyond what God said He meant, and they alternate between "literal" and "figurative" application evidently at random. When reading statements about "the time is at hand," and the day of the Lord as "coming soon," they insist "We must take this at face value." But when reading statements about the eternal city of God coming down and the description of it they say, "This cannot be taken at face value."
The notion that such hit or miss guess work should be accepted in contradiction to explicit Bible statements seems preposterous to me. When men have put together all their assorted items of "evidence," gathered from prophetic statements here and there, and have made their judgments about which ones are meant to be taken figuratively and which ones are literal, they are still without textual confirmation that their deductions are correct. Prophetic symbols are not the kind of information man naturally interprets correctly. This may be the reason some in the early church were given the special "gift of prophecy" and the "gift of interpretation." No one today has that gift. Thus our knowledge of the ultimate inheritance God's people will receive is limited to the definitions which are given in the Bible text.
Notwithstanding the "prophetic interpretations" of men, the pertinent facts in the case are these:
1. Just as Jesus visibly ascended into heaven in full view of His disciples (Acts 1:11), that is the manner in which He will return, in the clouds at the last day, for so it is expressly stated in the text.
2. On that day all the dead will come forth from the graves in response to His voice. (John 5:28-29).
3. On that day all nations will be gathered before Him for judgment. (Matthew 25:31-33).
4. The place to which the faithful will go to meet Him will be "in the clouds." (I Thess. 4:15-17).
5. All who have not yet died will be transformed, in the twinkling of an eye, as this passage says, for all must put on immortality.
6. In that life there will be no more subjection to the flesh and they cannot die anymore. (Luke 20:34-36).
7. In that life God shall be with His people and all tears will be removed. No sorrow or death or pain of any kind will ever again be experienced. (Rev. 21:1-4).
Many arguments can be adduced for the "thousand year reign on earth" concept, for the AD 70 concept, for the "Rapture" concept, and others, by men who feel that their arguments are sure and certain. But the truth is that human wisdom has never been sure and certain. I am thankful for the clarity with which the Lord and His apostles pictured our coming transition from this life into the next and for the beautiful hope it gives us. This is what is sure and certain. I like especially Paul's capsulized version of it at 2 Timothy 4:6-8: "I am now ready to be offered and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge will give to me in that day. And not to me only but to all them that love His appearing." This is the day I am looking for.
Yes, a lot of questions are left unanswered such as: What kind of body will we have in the resurrection? Will our facial features be as they are now? How old will we appear to be? How similar will our resurrected body be to this one? Will we recognize each other as we do here? But one overriding concern is not left unsaid: we will put off fleshly mortality and will put on immortally in the holy city of God, where none of the unpleasantness of this world will ever be experienced again. As Paul said, "And so shall we ever be with the Lord." This is the Final destiny of the faithful. What earthly events lie between now and that time are not specified in God's message to us. It is because they are not relevant. What is relevant is our need to be prepared for eternity.