Reflections on Last Things

By Ed Hommen

A guest essay by Ed Rommen. Rommen received his Dr. Theol. at the University of Munich (Lutheran Faculty). After fifteen years of church planting and teaching in Europe, he returned to the United States to teach missions and theology, then returned to pastoral ministry after becoming Orthodox. He served as the rector of Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Raleigh, NC until 2017, and is currently adjunct professor at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC and the resident priest at St. Mary and Martha Orthodox Monastery in Wagener, SC. His newest book is called Into All The World: An Orthodox Theology of Mission (2017).

Every time we recite the Nicene Creed, we confess that Christ is coming again with glory to judge the living and the dead, that His kingdom shall have no end, that we look for the resurrection of the dead and eternal life in the world to come. It is this teaching concerning the Last Things that ties together the five readings from the lectionary for this week.

These truths call to mind the fact that time is not simply repeating itself, but is moving toward a specific goal, a terminal point and end, which the Scriptures call the Day of the Lord. On the one hand, these teachings represent the binding dogmatic convictions of the Church, and, on the other hand, they serve as a reminder of the living hope that is in the heart of every believer.

Dogmatic Convictions

Let’s begin with a brief reminder of several key doctrinal components of this teaching: Death, the Second Coming, and the Kingdom.

While every human being will die, death is not the end of individual existence, but merely the separation of the soul from the body. The Scriptures speak of death in terms of the soul being freed from the body (II Cor 5:1–4, II Pt. 1:14), after which the immortal soul continues to live unto God (Mt 22:32). Although there is much speculation on the state of the soul just after death, the Scriptures seem to indicate only two possibilities: a state of blessedness (Lk 23:43) or torment (Lk 16:22).

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“The Three Servants” by Kazakhstan Artist Nelly Bube.

Although the time of that “last day” is not and cannot be known (Mt 24:36, Acts 1:7), we do know that Christ is coming again. This has been referred to by Christ Himself (Mt 16:27, 24, Mk 8:38, Lk 12:40, 17:24, John 14:3), by the angels at the ascension (Acts 1:11), and by various apostles (Jude 14–15, I John 2:28, I Peter 4:13, I Cor 4:5). Moreover, it will come suddenly and visibly (Mt 24:27). It will come with power and glory (Mt 24:30, 25:31, Mk 8:38) and in judgment of the world (Acts 17:31, Mt 16:27). We are also told that the Day of the Lord will bring with it a universal judgment. This event is anticipated in so many scriptures as to make it an absolute certainty. (Mt 16:27, 24:30, 25:31–46, Acts 17:31, Jude 14–5, II Cor 5:10, II Thess 1:6–10, Rev 20:11–15).

After this revelation of God’s justice (Rom 2:5), those so judged will be divided into two groups and rewarded accordingly. The righteous will go into eternal life in the presence of God. The unrighteous will be sent into eternal punishment, a place of fire and torment called gehenna (Mt 25:41,46). The exact nature of this place is not known. John of Damascus writes that sinners will be “given over to everlasting fire, which will not be a material fire, such as we are accustomed to, but a fire such as God might know.” Others have speculated that it might be the deprivation of God’s love and glory, which would be a torment more cruel than Gehenna. In any case, these torments will be eternal and unending.

When Christ has come and the world is renewed, the Kingdom of God will be revealed in all its glory, this Kingdom of glory that shall have no end. It will be a life of eternal blessedness as described in Rev 21. There we read that everything will be immortal and holy. There we will complete our salvific journey and become partakers of the Divine Nature (II Pt 1:4), participants in that perfect life, knowing and seeing God as do the angels. And there will be no hunger, no thirst, no tears, no suffering, no death. Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard… the things which God has prepared for those that love Him (Is. 64:4, I Cor 2:9).

This, then, is what we confess: Christ is coming again, he shall judge the living and the dead, and His Kingdom shall have no end.

A Living Hope

For these reasons the whole of theology and the whole life of the Church is permeated with eschatological hope and the life of Christ. Eschatology is not merely a set of doctrines, not primarily futuristic, not exclusively individualistic, but the living and enlivening relationship to the person of Christ, which is the present confession of the whole Church. It is not something that is much discussed, but rather something that is lived and experienced in almost every aspect of ecclesial being. This eschatological consciousness is expressed in, among other things, the Church’s understanding of salvation, Eucharist, and holiness.

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The Parable of the Talents, Speculum Humanae Salvationis, 14th century.

So it is that Christians understand themselves to be a community of those redeemed by the “eschatological saving event of Jesus Christ.” Because of His work, the Kingdom of God has come near, has broken into our reality. This is the salvific awareness of the Church, that we have been saved (Rom 8:24, Eph 2:5,8), are being saved (I Cor 1:18, Gal. 2:20), and will be saved (Phil 1:6, Rom 5:9). Life in Christ is at its very root eschatological, a living hope that has already dawned, an active anticipation of the fulfillment of the Kingdom.

The very heart of the Christians’ Sunday service is the Eucharist, which we celebrate in anticipation of the second coming of Christ (I Cor 11:26). In communion there is a looking back, a remembering of the saving events of Easter. But there is also an active deliberate looking forward, an anticipation of the Lord’s return. So the communion connects both the past and the present with the future. It spans heaven and earth. It unites the redeemed with the real and actual presence of the Redeemer. By partaking of the bread and the wine we are, here and now, united with Christ who is to come.

“The Church is the community of the new eon. It does not belong to this world, but to God… The Church, by virtue of the eschatological act of God in Christ, transcends history and is raised above the realm of social order and human possibilities.” So, while the Church is a concrete, historic reality, it is at the same time rooted in the eternal Kingdom of God. This awareness has obvious implications for the way in which the faithful live. The redeemed are called to holiness and separation (II Cor 6:17–7:1). They are not to compromise the holiness of the community with idolatry, greed, or immorality. They are to live by a different set of standards, those of the Kingdom (Mt 5–6). Holiness, then, articulates one aspect of the Church’s “eschatological consciousness, namely, that it is an entity in history which is essentially supra-historical and otherworldly.”

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