Previous articles in this series have examined several doctrines and characteristics that distinguish authentic, historic Christianity from the cults that have sprung up in recent times. This concluding article will deal with a belief that has been part and parcel of the church since its very inception—the return of Jesus our Lord to this earth. The disciples were still watching the Saviour ascend into heaven when the angels' promise came: "This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11). In fact, even before His death, Jesus Himself assured the disciples of His eventual re turn to be with them (see John 14:1-3). Thus, from apostolic times to the present, Christ's church has looked for her Lord and testified to her belief in the certainty of His promise.
In distinction to authentic Christianity and its emphasis on an objective religion, the cults predominately stress a subjective religion. What do we mean by that? A subjective religion directs the gaze inward, looking for self-realization and fulfillment, for happiness, peace, and salvation within its own resources of the human heart. An objective religion, while recognizing that inner peace and happiness come with the entrance of Jesus into the life, looks for salvation from without itself.
Actually, the restoration from sin envisioned by Jesus Christ includes not only the restoration of man in a newbirth experience (as vital as that is) but also the restoration of man to his rightful home. The church has instinctively realized, even when its gaze was most directed to the here and now, that to provide for man's spiritual restoration in a new-birth experience while leaving him in a sinful society at odds with every thing his new nature stands for is an incomplete picture of what God intends to do. Something is missing. That missing element is the complete eradication of sin—not merely from the individual heart but from the world and from the universe. God is not content (nor should we be) with islands of allegiance in a vast sea of iniquity and rebellion. He intends that Eden shall be restored so that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:10, 11).
Christians through the years have had a great deal to say about heaven, and rightly so, for the Scriptures clearly state that when Jesus comes He will take His people to heaven with Him (see 1 Thess. 4:16-18; John 14:1-3; 1 Peter 1:3-5). However, the Scriptures state with equal clarity that the ultimate future for God's people involves life on this earth re stored to its Edenic beauty and pristine perfection. The apostle Peter, after citing the example of the worldwide destruction caused by the Flood in Noah's day, declares, "But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. . . . Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness" (2 Peter 3:10-13).
John, in Revelation, speaks also of the new heavens and earth and says he saw the New Jerusalem, the Holy City, descending from God out of heaven. He continues, "And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God" (Rev. 21:3). Likewise he recorded in chapter 5:9, 10 the words he heard spoken by those re deemed from "every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation" saying to the Lamb, Thou "hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth."
Thus it is that this earth, originally designed by God as a perfect home for the people He created, will be restored to its rightful condition so that men and women saved by grace may live on it with Him in an even closer relationship than Adam and Eve enjoyed before sin! God Himself will set up His dwelling place with man on an earth cleansed of all sin.
Viewed from the cosmic sweep of eternity past to eternity future, the sorrowful history of our world with its wretched tale of inconceivable misery, heartache, privation, cruelty, and despair is really but a "brief" interlude—an aberrant ripple in God's onrushing stream of eternal, untainted perfection.
Genesis begins with a couple created by God in a world that sin had never entered. Revelation ends with the people God has re-created entering through the gates of the city in a new world from which sin has been forever banished. Genesis begins with God visiting Adam and Eve in the cool of the day to commune with them. Revelation ends with God establishing His permanent dwelling place in the midst of His redeemed people. Genesis begins with no tears ever falling, no pain or death ever known; Revelation ends with all tears forever wiped away, pain and death eternally abolished. AH that was lost by sin has been restored in full.
Little wonder that in this connection John heard God declare, "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end" (Rev. 21:6). He who knows the end from the beginning purposed at the very inception of sin to implement a plan of salvation so broad and far reaching that harmony with God would be restored not only in man's heart but in his world. The restored kingdom has been prepared "from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25:34).
The entire Bible, then, is in reality an account of a bridge built by God to span the abyss between Eden created and Eden restored. And in order to span the gulf, God Himself in the person of His Son had to leave the bright homeland and enter the dark abyss, there to experience the horrors caused by its sinful rebellion. Because of His love for sinners, the Son identified Himself with us, became one of us, suffered as one of us, died as one of us, and rose from the dead to ascend to heaven that He might lift us out of the morass of sin and lead us triumphant to the farther shore of Eden restored! Such love is beyond our comprehension; we can only wonder and believe and adore.
With such a glorious prospect, it is no marvel that the Christian church through the ages has enshrined Jesus' promise, "I will come again, and receive you unto myself" (John 14:3), as its blessed hope. It's no wonder that authentic Christianity has refused to accept as its ultimate destiny merely the kingdom of grace which God holds in a rebellious world. Nothing less than the total abolition of sin—total restoration—will do. The Christian's glorious future does not consist of holding the hostile world at bay with guns and paranoia in a jungle "paradise" called Jonestown. The Christian does not retreat from the world in order to create his own isolated society where he can avoid the world's sin. Instead, he lives in a fallen world as the representative of a totally different kingdom, and he expects momentarily the glorious restoration of that kingdom when God intervenes in the affairs of earth as He has promised to do.
Authentic Christianity humbly takes its stand beside the host of faithful ones in ages past brought to view in Hebrews 11. With them, Christians today look for "a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God," "a better country, that is, an heavenly" (verses 10, 16). Like them, we have seen the promises afar off, and being persuaded of them, embrace them and confess that we are strangers and pilgrims on the earth (see verse 13).
Such a hope was no ethereal, vague supposition to those such as Noah who staked his all on the sureness of God's word. To Abraham, who in obedience to God's command left his home to follow God's leading in a strange land. To Moses, who resolutely turned his back on the grandeur of the world's mightiest empire to suffer affliction with God's people. To David and Samuel and Gideon and the other faithful ones cited in Hebrews 11. Nor can the blessed hope be any less real to us who stand in their noble line. They endured, seeing Him who is invisible, and so can we. The promises of God took on a reality more real than that which they daily saw and heard, and so it may be with us. (For an extended treatment of this particular theme in the book of Hebrews see the article by William G. Johnsson beginning on page 4 of this issue.)
For the non-Christian, belief in a world where sin is unknown and all is joy and peace and harmony, may well be fanciful beyond credibility. But it can never be so for the Christian. For him to deny the reality of the blessed hope is to deny the consummation of God's redemptive plan. Such a truncated Christian hope is a mere band-aid on the festering wound of a sin-sick society. Without the blessed hope, the Christian has no hope, and this the church has always recognized. "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable" (1 Cor. 15:19). The Christian, then, lives in two worlds simultaneously—the world of the mundane present and the world of the soon-coming, glorious kingdom.
Because of this dual existence, we Christians are able with the eye of faith to look beyond the present world to the restoration of God's kingdom. Yet even with sharpened spiritual insight, we have so long been exiled from our rightful home that we are able to perceive only glimpses of its glories and delights. God's Word gives fleeting, tantalizing descriptions that apparently are all we are able to comprehend until we actually experience it. No finite mind can comprehend the glory of the paradise of God. But as fragmentary as are the descriptions and as limited as is our comprehension, the sketches we have are enchanting and exciting.
Revelation 7:14-17 paints a picture of the heavenly Shepherd leading His ransomed flock to fountains of living waters. "They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat" (verse 16). There in scenes of unsurpassed loveliness the people of God, so long pilgrims and wanderers on earth, will find a permanent home.
We hear echoes of meaningful employment—building houses, planting gardens, enjoying" the work of our hands—all without the frequent disappointments and frustrated hopes that ac company our activities here. We see wolves and Iambs lying together; leopards and goats in peaceful proximity. Thorns and briers give way to decorative and useful plants and trees. Pain, hurting, the desire to triumph and destroy are unknown. (See Isa. 11:6, 9; 32:18; 35:1; 55:13; 60:18; 65:21, 22.)
We sense that there the highest and noblest emotions that God has placed in the human soul will find their fullest expression. Association with the sinless angels and with the redeemed of all ages will provide endless pleasure and growth. Our immortal minds, unencumbered with failing memories and fatigue, can contemplate with unfailing joy the intricate mysteries of God's creation and His redeeming love. "There the grandest enterprises may be carried forward, the loftiest aspirations reached, the highest ambitions realized; and still- there will arise new heights to surmount, new wonders to admire, new truths to comprehend, fresh objects to call forth the powers of mind and soul and body. . . . And the years of eternity, as they roll, will bring richer and still more glorious revelations of God and of Christ. As knowledge is progressive, so will love, reverence, and happiness increase. The more men learn of God, the greater will be their admiration of His character. . . . The great controversy is ended. Sin and sinners are no more. The entire universe is clean. One pulse of harmony and gladness beats through the vast creation.
From Him who created all, flow life and light and gladness, throughout the realms of illimitable space. From the minutest atom to the greatest world, all things, animate and inanimate, in their unshadowed beauty and perfect joy, declare that God is love." Ellen G. White,— The Great Controversy, pp. 677, 678.
Such is the blessed hope that historic Christianity has held tightly to its bosom through the long years since the original promise, "I will come again, and receive you unto myself." Yet beside the Saviour, all other attractions and beauties fade into their proper insignificance. To hear His voice say approvingly, "Well done!" (although we know it was done through Him), to feel His hand rest in blessing on our shoulder, to look into His eyes, will eclipse all other joys.
In the perfect restoration of Eden, in the complete eradication of sin and all its baleful effects, one reminder alone will remain—the Saviour will ever bear the marks of His crucifixion. Like royal in signia, the prints of the nails in His hands and feet, the marks of the spear and thorns will through eternity repeat the refrain, "He did it all for me! I am here because He was once willing to leave His heavenly home and bear my sin for me!"
To be with Jesus—that will be heaven. Thus the witness of the church has ever been: "For the grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all man kind; and by it we are disciplined to renounce godless ways and worldly desires, and to live a life of temperance, honesty, and godliness in the present age, looking forward to the happy fulfillment of our hope when the splendour of our great God and Saviour Christ Jesus will appear. He it is who sacrificed himself for us, to set us free from all wickedness and to make us a pure people marked out for his own, eager to do good" (Titus 2:11-14, N.E.B.).* —B. R. H.