What Presbyterians Believe about the future, Part 3: Our Distinctive Theological Voice

It is no wonder that few Presbyterians know exactly what our church believes about the end of the world. The issue is complicated and there is no clear consensus within our denomination. It has also been 20 years since our denomination has spoken about these matters.

The most recent document approved by our denomination is a position paper adopted, in 1978, by the 118th General Assembly. It is titled “Eschatology: The Doctrine of Last Things.” It is a helpful document and still useful for guidance and study in the church. Our denomination tends to speak in a broad manner when specifics are unclear. But we have a distinctive voice that needs to be heard.

We do not believe that since the Fall there has been any other covenant between God and humanity other than a covenant of grace. In Old Testament times this covenant was mediated through the law but is, now and forever, mediated through Christ. We do not believe in a separate rapture apart from the return of Christ. This confuses the doctrine of the Second Coming of Christ and is not warranted by Scripture.

We do not believe in a series of future resurrections, first of raptured saints, next of those converted during an earthly millennium, then of all the wicked. We believe there will be one resurrection of the dead at the time of the Last Judgment. We do not believe there ever will be two separate people of God, one made up of Jews and the other of Gentiles. We believe there is, now and forever, one people of God, the church, with Jesus Christ as its Head.

We believe in focusing more on the fact of Christ’s return than in speculating on how it may occur. The fact of this culminating event in world history is promised throughout the New Testament. Each time we affirm the Apostles’ Creed, we declare that Christ, “shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” When we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper we “proclaim the Lord’s death, until he comes.” Yet the New Testament gives us few details about Christ’s return. We believe it is far more important to affirm Christ’s return than to try to predict specifics of an event about which the Scriptures say, “no one knows the day or the hour.”

We believe in trusting that God has all things under control even when we cannot see the future clearly. God is moving history toward its completion. But the time of this consummation is unknown. We do not try to be more clear than Scripture. The details of the future are hidden in the mystery of God’s plan. As there was a beginning, there will be an ending of all things temporal, that the eternal kingdom of God may reign forever. Until that time, we trust that God has everything under control.

We believe that to wait expectantly for Christ’s return is the command to every believer. Our hesitancy against outlining specific scenarios about the future is not a failure of nerve on our part. It is so we may not lose our expectancy. The Scriptures purposely do not tell us when Christ will appear, so that we may always be watchful. Christ will return when we least expect him. We should be ready, waiting and always doing the will of our master, until that day.

We believe in practicing obedience to what is clear in the Scriptures rather than the interpretation of the obscure. While much about the future remains hidden in the Scriptures, the majority of what God requires from us is quite clear. This is where our focus should always remain. Revelation is the one book of the Bible on which John Calvin never wrote a commentary. While others make their views of the end of the world a centerpiece of their theology, our proclamation always seeks to center on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We believe that we cannot sit passively by but must work for the kingdom of God until Christ returns. In a world struggling with political conflicts, widespread poverty, nuclear anxiety, racial tensions, economic despair and social chaos, we have a word of hope. The kingdom of Christ has begun among us. It is already present. In a culture that seeks its security in material goods, we offer a greater and more permanent security. For the individual this hope is the promise of eternal life. What greater promise could anyone ever encounter? For our world this hope is that God’s kingdom will one day surely prevail.

We believe that there is room for a variety of opinion concerning the end- times. We recognize that great theologians and saints throughout history have understood these matters differently from each other. The principles to which we adhere, as stated in our 1978 position paper are, “one overarching covenant of grace, one covenant people, one salvation, one return of Christ, one general resurrection and one Last Judgment.” Within these principles there is considerable room for conversation and variety of viewpoint.

We have something to say in this current discussion. The hope for the world, today and in the future, is in Jesus Christ! This is what we can see clearly and must proclaim boldly. We must be about doing the will of God on a daily basis, looking expectantly for Christ’s return, working for the kingdom of God and proclaiming the good news of the gospel. One day, in God’s own timing and own way, Christ will return and make all things new. Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.

Line ROBERT BOHLER JR., is pastor, Central church, Athens, Ga.
This is the third of a three-part series.