5 Myths about the End Times

This article is part of the 5 Myths series.

The Study of Last Things

After the Lord Jesus Christ predicted the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, his disciples asked, “Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” (Matt. 24:3). They probably had no idea how much discussion Christ’s answers to those questions would generate. Today, the doctrine of eschatology (the study of last things) is the subject of much controversy.

Discussions about the end times are muddied by certain false ideas about the end of this age and the second coming of Christ. In this article, we discuss and refute five myths about the end times—namely, (1) that they are a failed promise, (2) that they were entirely fulfilled in the first century, (3) that in the end times God will save everyone or (4) that he will annihilate the wicked, and (5) that after the end times, people will live as heavenly spirits.

Reformed Systematic Theology, Volume 4

Joel R. Beeke, Paul M. Smalley

In the final volume of the Reformed Systematic Theology series, Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley unpack important topics around ecclesiology (church) and eschatology (last things).

Myth #1: The End Times Are a Failed Promise

According to some teachers of theological liberalism, Jesus believed that the kingdom of God would come in its glory during his lifetime on earth—and his expectation sadly failed. Such teachers point to Christ’s statement, “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt. 16:28). Thus, they argue, Christ expected the kingdom of glory to arrive in that generation.

In response, we point out that some of Christ’s disciples did see the Son of Man in the glory of his kingdom. Six days after Christ made this prediction, he took Peter, James, and John to a mountain where Christ was “transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun” (Matt. 17:2). This was a glimpse of kingdom glory (Matt. 13:43). The disciples later saw Christ after he rose from the dead, which was the beginning of his reign as King (Matt. 28:18).

Contrary to the “failed promise” theory, Christ corrected people who “thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear” (Luke 19:11). He taught that he would return to judge his servants “after a long time” (Matt. 25:19). Only after the gospel is “proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations,” Jesus said, “then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14).

Myth #2: The End Times Were Entirely Fulfilled in the First Century

Teachers of full preterism say that God has already accomplished all the eschatological promises of the Bible. The “end times” were completed, they say, in the first century. This view should be distinguished from partial preterism, which teaches that many promises are fulfilled, but not all.

Preterists argue that Christ’s “coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” took place in the same time frame as the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 (Matt. 24:15–34). Prophecies of cosmic disruptions (Matt. 24:29) can be symbolic of ordinary wars among nations (Isa. 13:1, 9–10, 19; Isa. 34:4–5). Thus, preterists say Christ’s “coming” took place when he sent the Romans to destroy Jerusalem. According to full preterism, the promises about a coming resurrection and judgment were also fulfilled in secret or spiritual events in the first century.

In response, we assert that full preterism is a denial of fundamental doctrines of Christianity. At the heart of the Christian faith is the hope of Christ’s second coming in visible glory (Matt. 24:30; Rev. 1:7), the physical resurrection of the dead (John 5:28–29; 1 Cor. 15:20–45), the day of judgment (Matt. 25:31–46), and the eternal kingdom in which God will dwell with his people, make all things new, and bring all their sorrows to an end (Rev. 21:1–5). As Paul says, those who claim that the resurrection of the dead is a thing of the past make a shipwreck of the faith and should be removed from the church (1 Tim. 1:19–20; 2 Tim. 2:17–18).

Myth #3: In the End Times, God Will Save Everyone

The doctrine of universalism or universal salvation is that God will ultimately save all his creatures, so that hell will be empty or nonexistent. Teachers of this doctrine may quote Paul’s statements that “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Rom. 5:18); and, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). They also argue that God must seek to save all because “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

In response, we agree that God is love, but it is also true that “God is light” (1 John 1:5), which means infinite righteousness. “He loves righteousness and justice” (Ps. 33:5). Justice demands the punishment of the wicked, who have rejected God’s goodness and kindness that enfolds them every moment they live on earth (Rom. 2:4–5). God “will render to every man according to his deeds:” to the disobedient and doer of evil, “indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish” (Rom. 2:6, 8–9).

Myth #4: In the End Times, God Will Annihilate the Wicked

According to the doctrine of annihilationism, God will end the existence of the wicked at judgment day. (A similar idea, conditional immortality, is that the wicked cease to exist at death.) Teachers of annihilationism argue that the Bible says that the future of the wicked is “destruction” (Matt. 7:13; 2 Thess. 1:9), just as plants are burnt up in a fire (Matt. 3:12; 7:19).

In response, we reply that the words translated “destruction” do not mean annihilation but ruin. The word translated as “destroy” or “perish” is used of a wineskin that has a hole torn in it—which does not cease to exist but is ruined (Matt. 9:17). The burning of plants is a metaphor for final judgment, but in reality this judgment will be with “unquenchable fire” that never ceases to burn (Matt. 3:12; 18:8; cf. Mark 9:48).

The sobering truth is the holy Scriptures reveal the everlasting conscious punishment of the wicked. The wicked “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night” (Rev. 14:10–11 KJV). Just as the righteous will be welcomed into “eternal life” in the conscious enjoyment of God’s love forever, so the wicked will be sent away into “eternal punishment” in the conscious suffering of his wrath forever (Matt. 25:46). “In that place,” our Lord Jesus Christ warns, “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt.13:42). The man who falls under this condemnation suffers something far worse than nonexistence: “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24).

Myth #5: After the End Times, People Will Live as Heavenly Spirits

It is common for people to think that they will become spirits or angels after they die and will live in a heavenly world forever. Some religious groups, such as Mormonism, expressly teach that angels are glorified men who now exist as divine spirits. Some teachers of neo-orthodoxy speak of the end of the age as the translation of mankind out of this physical world (perhaps at its destruction) into an eternal, spiritual realm. Those who teach that men will live forever as spirits quote Paul’s assertion that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50).

In response, we answer that God created angels and men as two distinct kinds of beings, with angels as spirits (Heb. 1:14) and men as a combination of body and soul, though the soul is temporarily separated from the body at death (Matt. 10:28). At the resurrection, the righteous will become like angels—for they will be immortal and will no longer engage in marriage—but the righteous will not become angels (Luke 20:34–36).

An essential part of the Christian hope is the resurrection of the dead. Christ rose from the dead with a body that could be touched, not as a mere spirit (Luke 24:39). When he returns, he will conform the bodies of his people “to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21). If there is no resurrection from the dead, our faith is worthless (1 Cor. 15:12–19). The bodies of saints that have been sown like seed in the ground will live again at Christ’s coming, with a life that is glorious and immortal in Christ (1 Cor. 15:20–23, 42–44). Paul’s comment about “flesh and blood” not inheriting the kingdom (1 Cor. 15:50) refers to human beings in their present “mortal” condition, which must be “changed” for them to enter glory (1 Cor. 15:52–53).

Therefore, “the glorious liberty of the children of God” at the end of the age will not be liberation from their body but “the redemption of [their] body” (Rom. 8:21, 23). The same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead also dwells in them and unites them to Christ, so that believers, too, will rise from the dead (Rom. 8:11). They will not dwell as spirits in an ethereal, immaterial state but as embodied human beings in “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). There, they will see with their eyes God the Son incarnate, “the Lamb” who died for their sins, and they will serve the triune God forever as his prophets, priests, and kings (Rev. 22:3–5). Hallelujah!

Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley are the coauthors of Reformed Systematic Theology, Volume 4: Church and Last Things.

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