by William Powell Tuck
In one of the churches I served as pastor, a high school student wrote a paper entitled, “The End of Time.” He began his paper with this sentence: “This paper will tell and explain about the end of time.” That’s a remarkable claim for a high school student! But that’s the only time I felt I had all of the answers to the Doctrine of the Last Things. When I was in high school, I preached a youth revival in my home church in Lynchburg, Virginia and I spoke with authority on the Second Coming of Christ, Hell and Heaven. I have not been so knowledgeable since!
The theological term for “the last things” is eschatology. Eschatology is the Christian doctrine which is concerned with the final end of humanity. It focuses on matters such as death, the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the immortality of the soul, the final judgment, heaven and hell. As I reflected on these topics, I realized that these themes are at the heart of the Christian faith, but it is difficult to voice with clarity what we mean by them.
Although there is no clear, simple, New Testament answer on all of these issues, the New Testament is unequivocal in its hope for men and women in Jesus Christ. No one can speak with certainty about such matters as the mystery of death, the resurrection, heaven and hell, the second coming, or the final judgment of God. However, the New Testament does offer some concrete pointers which I believe can be helpful to us. I invite you to join me as we look to see if we can gain some insight to determine the future hope for those who die in Christ.
The journey toward the “undiscovered country” is filled with uncertainty, puzzling questions, strange reflections and enigmatical images, but it also travels across the bridges, mountains, and valley paths of mystery, faith, hope and anticipation. As Christians, we should travel toward our final destination with quiet confidence and Christian assurance.
The Christian approaches death with the awareness that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Death is not our “natural” end, but is an enemy of God and stands in opposition to God’s ultimate will. “Death is the peak of all that is contrary to God in the world, the last enemy,” says Karl Barth, “thus not the natural lot of man, not an unalterable divine dispensation.” But Jesus Christ has already won the battle against death and so Paul can shout: “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 15:57). Death for the Christian becomes a transitional path from this life to the next; it is not a dead‑end street but a thoroughfare that leads into another dimension of living. “Death is no more the dark door that shuts forever behind man,” Brunner says, “but the opened door through which he enters into true life.”
Imagine how a baby might try to philosophize if he or she were able to contemplate another kind of life outside his or her mother’s womb. What could she use as a base from which to speculate or surmise? How could she understand life free from surrounding liquid? What does she know of light, or breath, or food, or eating? What does he know of choices, companionship, friends, work, art, or reading? Is it not possible that to the infant the birth process is a crisis which is a sort of “death” as he or she leaves the safe, comfortable, secure world where every need had been met? A new and marvelous world awaits; he or she has no resources to imagine what it will be like‑and how wonderfully different from the other world. Death for the Christian is a “birthing” from the physical world to the spiritual realm. How can we possibly describe it; words fail us. “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
In my book, The Journey to the Undiscovered Country: What’s Beyond Death? I deal with some of these issues.