ACST 66: The End


One of the most crucial elements of anyone’s theology is how one sees it all culminating – what happens at the end of the end times. It is at this important place that a major divergence can be detected between conditionalist theology and its counterparts.

1. In universalism, God eventually restores all to himself by finally converting all people, whether before death, or in the fires of hell – however long that might take.

2. In traditionalism, God is said to be glorified through an eternity where hell and heaven – thus righteousness and sin –coexist.

3. In conditionalism, hell does its work by destroying all evil and evildoers, leaving a universe with no evil and no sin. Then, God’s ultimate goal of a new universe under his unchallenged dominion can be realized.

out with the old

John’s revelation describes this culmination in three stages, beginning with the disappearance of this present sky and land,[1] and concluding with the appearance of another sky and land, a new universe. John says “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.”[2] Between the old universe and the new, there will be a two-stage divine dealing with all sin and evil. Those two stages are the Judgment Day, and Gehenna hell. The first stage brings justice against sinners, the second obliterates sin and evil altogether. The first is the great white throne judgment, the second is the lake of fire, the second death. Without these two events, what John saw in Revelation 21:1 could never happen.

John sees our Savior, seated at an enormous white throne. He had come to rule on a throne on earth a thousand years before. Now his throne is outside of earth, and is designed for a different purpose. All the dead who had ever lived stand before him. The sea which had swallowed many who died and were buried there, gives them up. Death and Hades (where all the dead go now) give up the dead. No one who has ever lived will miss this cosmic appointment. The author of Hebrews says that “people are appointed to die once, and then to face judgment.”[3] He did not mean that judgment happens immediately at death. He was referring to this great white throne judgment. It is our destiny. All who have ever lived will experience these two things: death, and the judgment day.

Books are opened, including the book of life. This is the Christ book, the Lamb’s book of life. It contains the names of all those who are saved by grace through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. None of these need fear this great judgment day. Their sins have been covered. God is vindicated in forgiving them of all their sins because of what Jesus did for them. So, why are they there? The judgment day is a vindication of God’s holiness. All who have ever complained that life is unfair will have their day in court that day. They will see that no sin gets by the utter holiness of God. There will be no rewards passed out on judgment day. There is no merit in a life filled with good deeds, because none of those good deeds are good enough to make up for our inherent depravity.

There will be no levels of forgiven. The Lamb’s book of life grants mercy and forgiveness to all who are in Christ, not based on what they have done, but based on what Christ has done. And Christ did not come to thank us for doing good things, but to rescue us from the consequences of our sins. The book of life is an exclusive book. Not everyone’s name is written in it. It is also the only fire insurance that God offers. He has a fire prepared for everyone else. There will be many who have led decent lives by my standards whose names will not be found in that book. That is the Lord’s business, not mine. Perhaps there will be some that I knew as scoundrels whose names will be called out that day. I will have nothing to say. The Lord will not ask me my opinion, nor should he. It is his grace, not mine.

There are no levels of forgiven, but there will be many levels of un-forgiven. The many books opened at the great white throne judgment will detail the entire lives of all the unsaved. Painful detail will be taken to show each thought, each action, each wrong relationship, each transgression, each sin. There will be no hiding, no escape from this judgment. All the trials that all criminals have ever faced will be nothing compared to the terror of this day for unredeemed humanity. God, in his mercy, has been putting off his wrath against all sinners, knowing that this day of his vindication is coming. All those who trusted in their own works to get by will finally see that none of their works qualified.

Perhaps it is not wrong to suggest that another book will be opened that day. The Lamb’s book will list all of those reserved for life. The life stories of the lost will record the reasons they will not make it to the other side. Perhaps the word of God will also be opened that day. It would serve to show how all those who failed to meet God’s holy standards, and how those who rejected Christ are without excuse for doing so. John simply said “the books were opened” but it would seem odd for one of those books not the be the Bible itself.

John’s purpose in revealing the great white throne judgment is not to go into the details of the punishments that sinners will face. His purpose is to show that all the unsaved will be thrown into hell and suffer the second death. There are indications that the lost will experience torment, just as the demons will. The message of the third angel was “”If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.””[4] Some of the lost may not suffer as much, based on their own sin history. At the heart of what John sees is a just God. He will not cause any undeserved suffering.

The ultimate punishment for sin is hell itself: Gehenna, the lake of fire. This picture of the second death that John sees is eternal, not that it goes on forever, but that it destroys sin forever. Jesus called it eternal punishment, and contrasted it with the eternal life that believers will experience.[5] It is helpful here to remember that the word eternal is an adjective, describing the permanence of an event, not an adverb, describing a perpetual process. In Paul’s words, hell is “the punishment of eternal destruction.” In John’s words, it is the second death.

Traditionalists make much use of that word eternal as a means of defending their notion that hell will be a process that goes on forever and ever. Conditionalists reject that idea of hell on many grounds, but of great importance is the fact that a hell that continues forever cannot serve the purpose that John says hell will serve. Hell is to remove the old and make room for the new. That is why the Greek term aionios is used to describe hell. Note the number of times the term aionios is used in the New Testament to portray something that is permanent, compared to something that is temporary.

· the permanent sin which can never be forgiven.[6]

· the permanent weight of glory compared with our slight momentary affliction.[7]

· the permanent things that are unseen compared to the transient things that are seen.[8]

· the permanent house (body) in the heavens compared to our temporary tent (body) on earth.[9]

· the permanent destruction the lost will face at Christ’s return.[10]

· the permanent comfort and good hope we have through God’s grace.[11]

· the permanent glory that accompanies salvation in Christ.[12]

· Philemon’s permanent return to Colossae, after being parted from them for a while .[13]

· The permanent salvation made possible by Jesus, our great high priest.[14]

· The permanent judgment that will take place after the resurrection of the dead.[15]

· The permanent redemption secured by Christ’s sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary.[16]

· the permanent covenant made possible by the shedding of the blood of Christ.[17]

· entrance into the permanent kingdom provided for all those who make their calling and election sure.[18]

The word points to the definitive end of sin and sinners, and to the definitive beginning of a new life under Christ’s control. That is why the second death can be aionios without the torments experienced on the judgment day being so. The punishment is eternal destruction.

The new sky and land described in Revelation 21 are conspicuous for the absence of anything related to sin and sinners. This is understandable, seeing as the great white throne judgment has dealt definitively will all sins. It has either by grace declared sins forgiven through Christ, or has meted out punishment prescribed by law upon those without Christ. Then, the lake of fire destroyed completely those who were not found to be in the Lamb’s book of life, causing them to experience the second death.

For that reason, John includes two parenthetical statements about those who will not make it into the new universe, because they will have been already destroyed prior to it’s appearance. First, he describes those who do not have a place in eternity because their character was found to be decidedly fit for destruction, not preservation. That short list is found imbedded in chapter 21:

· cowards,

· unbelievers,

· the corrupt,

· murderers,

· the immoral,

· those who practice witchcraft,

· idol worshipers,

· and all liars[19]

As John describes what he sees when he looks at the holy city, New Jerusalem as it descends and rests upon the new earth, he notes that it lacks all those kinds of people who made the old Jerusalem an unholy city. His point is that they did not make the cut. God has not hidden them in some corner of the new universe so that he could take pleasure in torturing them. John does not see them because they were among the “former things” which have already “passed away.”[20]

Later, John again describes all those who will not be allowed to enter this new universe. He says “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”[21] This speaks against the idea that God will keep the lost in some kind of purgatorial torment until they finally stop hating him. There is no place for this kind of repentance after judgment. Once the second death has occurred, there will be no resurrection from it, so no one whose name was blotted out of the book of life will ever enter eternity.

The results of sin have also been eliminated from this new creation. This includes all sickness, disease, trauma, emotional distress, and death. John says that the Lord “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”[22] Note that John is describing the new universe, and nowhere does he mention the existence of a pocket within it where people are still suffering. In fact, the point is, all suffering has ceased. The weeping and gnashing of teeth has ended. The new universe is here.

Finally, this new eternal existence will no longer be shrouded in darkness for part of the time. John sees an eternity in which “there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light.” The darkness we experience now is an opportunity for rest and a challenge to trust instead of fear.But in the coming eternal state, the rest and work are the same thing. Trust is complete, and fear is completely gone.

in with the new

John also sees a universe so clean and purified of all sin and sinners that it is now capable of supporting the unqualified presence of God. He writes “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Look! The residence of God is among human beings. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.”[23] The only thing close to this was when the LORD lived in a tent among the Israelites, but his Holy Spirit left that tent due to the sinfulness of those people. In fact, he had only lived there as a sort of foretaste of this time predicted, when he will choose to live among all people in undivided fellowship.

John writes that these redeemed human beings “will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.”[24] This is the mark of protection and possession.What John saw indicates that eternity will not contain any whose hearts and souls are not completely submitted to the LORD. The bride of Christ is described as the new holy city, the new Jerusalem. Like the old Jerusalem, this people will reflect God’s glory. Unlike the old Jerusalem, so fraught with violence, corruption and sin, this new city is God’s moral perfection.John “saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”[25] The bride imagery is fitting, because this new people will be beginning a whole new existence, together with their husband, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The church is the bride of Christ today, but our relationship is an anticipatory one. We have been betrothed to Jesus, but have not yet begun our life together with him as husband and wife. Our relationship is one of faith and trust in a promise. On the day when we enter into eternity, that promise will be permanently fulfilled. John saw that pictured as a city coming down from the sky. It was perfection, and ready for the realities of eternity.

John also sees the tree of life. That glorious image of the immortality that humanity was prohibited from taking will be available to all in eternity. The sin which prohibited us from living forever will have been eradicated, so it makes sense that the good things God wanted us to have in the garden would reappear. These include his presence, a renewed relationship with him, abundant provision, and permanent life.

God’s message to us in the Bible begins with paradise lost, and ends with this paradise regained. At it’s heart is a tree, representing God’s gift of permanent life. That is God’s will, his wish, his desire for us. Jesus Christ is the one who has made that wish come true. His sacrifice on the cross “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light.”[26] We take hold of that promise by believing the gospel.

Permanent life is our destiny.

[1] Revelation 20:11.

[2] Revelation 21:1 ESV.

[3] Hebrews 9:27 NET.

[4] Revelation 14:9-11 ESV.

[5] Matthew 25:46.

[6] Mark 3:29.

[7] 2 Corinthians 4:17; 1 Peter 5:10.

[8] 2 Corinthians 4:18.

[9] 2 Corinthians 5:1.

[10] 2 Thessalonians 1:9.

[11] 2 Thessalonians 2:16.

[12] 2 Timothy 2:10.

[13] Philemon 1:15.

[14] Hebrews 5:9.

[15] Hebrews 6:2.

[16] Hebrews 9:12.

[17] Hebrews 13:20.

[18] 2 Peter 1:10-11.

[19] Revelation 21:8 NLT.

[20] Revelation 21:4.

[21] Revelation 21:27 NRSV.

[22] Revelation 21:4 NRSV.

[23] Revelation 21:3 NET.

[24] Revelation 22:4 ESV.

[25] Revelation 21:2 NIV.

[26] 2 Timothy 1:10.

Author: Jefferson Vann

Jefferson Vann is pastor of Piney Grove Advent Christian Church in Delco, North Carolina. You can contact him at -- !

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