Before 1950, only four movies were made about the apocalypse. By the end of our decade, in 2019, 80 apocalyptic movies will have been produced in just the previous ten years.1 This number represents an almost 6,000 percent increase since 1950.
If our society shows such an appetite for end-time consumption, should we not grab this opportunity and present a hope-inspiring and biblically informed vision for the future?
Despite their proliferation, not all presentations of the end, which endeavor to speak in the name of the Bible, understand “the day of the Lord” in its full complexity. Historically, Christian traditions saw the end time as a blend of a postmortem heaven and hell fused with a belief in future judgment, resurrection, and the Second Coming. In this end-time imagery, these individual elements were not distinguished.2 The Second Coming, and the whole eschatological package that comes with it, has been deeply misunderstood, even from the first centuries of Christianity.3
Eschatology is in need of a renewed biblical-systematic investigation. It is the overall theological framework, the Bible’s “grand narrative,” that can create a surprisingly fresh vision of the future.4
What is the “day of the Lord”?
We will begin by looking at a key Pauline text.
“But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief” (1 Thess. 5:1–4, NKJV).
In this well-known passage, Paul mentions “the day of the Lord.” But what does he mean by it? Paul is, of course, Jewish, so his theology is shaped by the Old Testament. He often returns to the Hebrew Scriptures when he reasons about the Messiah. So when the phrase “day of the Lord” appears in the Old Testament, what does this mean?
When Christians read “the day of the Lord,” they usually equate it with the Second Coming. But what about Paul? Undoubtedly, “the day of the Lord” included the coming of the Messiah King. But the phrase is much broader. It also includes the arrival of the kingdom of righteousness, the deliverance and justification of God’s people, the restoration of true worship, the defeat God’s enemies, the end of sin, and the restoration of the lost paradise. “The “day of the Lord” was, then, shorthand for a whole package of divine actions.
The sequence of the day of the Lord events
Paul’s understanding is nicely illustrated in 1 Corinthians 15:22–28: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. For ‘He has put all things under His feet.’ But when He says ‘all things are put under Him,’ it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all” (NKJV).
Paul is emphasizing a sequence, all of which is contained in phrase, “the day of the Lord.” He speaks about “order,” “afterward,” “then,” “and then,” “when,” and “after.” For Paul, the end is not just one event but a series of events, one after the other, that leads to the restoration of God’s order and the final destruction of sin, evil, and death.5
What is this order? First, there will be the resurrection of the righteous dead, when Jesus comes. Second, Jesus will end the rule of God’s enemies, and this will happen through His reign after His coming. Third, the Son will subject Himself to the Father by handing over the rule to God.6 Fourth, God will become all in all.
The purpose of the final divine actions The key element in Paul’s discussion is the defeat of evil and the full restoration of God’s rule. Evil forces are defeated during a specific activity of Christ; Paul refers to this as His reign. It becomes apparent, later in the New Testament (NT), that this refers to a legal activity that follows the Second Coming (Rev. 20:4).
Importantly, these events in the day of the Lord do not have a redemptive purpose. They are, in essence, judicial actions targeting the removal of all evil, once and for all.
What these essential Pauline images also indicate is that he regards “the day of the Lord” as historical events. They will happen at some point in redemption history. From the biblical grand story perspective, only three such major historical-transitional events impact the destiny of humanity: (1) the Fall (origin of evil), (2) the redemption by the Messiah (the solution to evil), and (3) the day of the Lord (end of evil). “The day of the Lord” is, thus, a key historical stage in the big framework of the Bible.
Toward a fuller picture
Paul, of course, is not the only one who offers key insights into the eschatological divine actions. Revelation 13–22 presents a coherent narrative and contains not only John’s description of the final story but also what Paul does not say in 1 Corinthians: that the day of the Lord does not start with the Second Coming.7
The overall story John depicts includes (1) the dragon’s persecution, (2) God’s judgment, (3) seven last plagues, (4) the second coming of Jesus, (5) judgment during the millennium, (6) executive judgment after the millennium, and (7) new creation. In the overall perspective, what emerges are the specific pre-Advent, Advent, post-Advent, and new creation stages of the divine eschatological action. In other words, the unique meaning of the individual events becomes clearer once we grasp the full scope of “the day of the Lord” itself.
|Sequence of Events||Theme/Narrative|
|Revelation 13||Persecution of the beasts and their activity against God and God’s people|
|Revelation 14||God’s response to beasts through judgment|
|Revelation 15-16||Signs of completion of God’s judgment of response—the seven last plagues|
|Revelation 17 to 19||Additional descriptions and the second coming of Jesus|
|Revelation 20||Further judgment after the Second Coming, millennial events, and the final executive judgment|
|Revelation 21 and 22||New creation, wiping the tears away; and God is all in all|
The rehabilitation of the biblical vision
The complex biblical picture of “the day of the Lord,” which Seventh-day Adventism began to highlight from the nineteenth century, marks a radical departure from classical conceptions of the end. However, not even Adventists have always done full biblical justice to “the day of the Lord” theme. Sometimes we have chosen clumsy language in depicting judgment, putting it and other eschatological aspects in negative light. And then, again, sometimes we have reduced the complex nature of this occasion only to an emphasis on the Second Coming and the signs leading to it, when much more is involved. The coming of Jesus will not solve the problem of evil, nor will it wipe away the tears of the saved. More is involved.
The big picture We need to understand the “day of the Lord” in its mature biblicaltheological form, which contains several major events. Each one of those events gradually, chronologically, and logically advances God’s plan of restoration towards the eradication of evil and the full restoration of God’s good rule of peace. But this will not happen until the last event of the day of the Lord is finished. In its developed systematic shape, there are seven major events discernible in the final activity of God:8
(1) Pre-Advent judgment. The judgment justifies or vindicates the saints from the charges and persecution of the dragon. (2) End of the probation time and the end of judgment. The sign of this is the arrival of the seven last plagues. (3) The second coming of Christ. His second advent will bring deliverance, resurrection, and eternal life to God’s faithful. (4) Post-Advent judgment. This judgment will openly investigate the cases of God’s enemies and clarify the question of God’s righteousness and evil. (5) The third coming of Jesus and His saved. This event will bring the second resurrection to God’s enemies. (6) Execution of the judgment. This event contains the final attempt to remove God and His people but ends in the destruction of evil, and what we know as the “second death.” (7) New creation. The newly created Earth becomes the home of God’s people. Here God will wipe away all the tears and heal all nations. In this stage, the curse of evil ends. King Jesus hands over the reign to God His Father, and God will be all in all. The story of humanity will continue where it began in Genesis 1.
We need to get better acquainted with the complex nature of “the day of the Lord.” This topic needs biblical rehabilitation. With so many conflicting and misleading unbiblical perspectives, the biblical vision needs a fair hearing. Biblical theology, not Hollywood screenwriters, should inform the world about the nature of the end.
1 See “List of Apocalyptic Films,” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia .org/wiki/List_of_apocalyptic_films. For a detailed statistics across all media, see the Wikipedia article “List of Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction.” Overall in the last 65 years—during the span of one generation—the American, English-speaking cinematic industry alone has produced some 233 apocalyptic films.
2 One exception to this general rule would be the work of Lutheran scholar Johann Gerhard. See Johann Gerhard, Loci Theologici, ed. J. R. Cotta, vol. 17 (Tubingen: 1762–1779), especially page 7, where he distinguished the various end-time actions of God more carefully.
3 The story of salvation ends in heaven after death. This means that eschatology is not only individualized and removed from history, but also its goal becomes escape to heaven rather than God’s removal of evil from the world—a key point developed below. For example, Cyprian of Carthage (ca. 250), Treatise VII: On the Mortality, especially sections 21–22; in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol.5, 469 and 474; Origen (ca. 225) “De Principiis,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, 293, and Hippolytus (ca 205), “Against Plato, on the Cause of the Universe,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5,222.
4 For the overall shape of the biblical narrative and the place of the day of the Lord stage, see my article “The Grand Story,” Ministry, March 2012, especially page 22.
5 It is a well-established fact that NT theology sees the end coming in two stages often referred to as “already/ now” and “not yet.” The new age, indeed, began with the coming of the Messiah (Acts 2:32–34, 3:31; 1 Pet. 1:20). However, the old age is still present and will be pushed out by specific end-time actions of the Messiah (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:22–28). Precisely, the purpose of these final actions of God is to remove the evil age that we refer to as “the day of the Lord.” The redemptive purpose is not present in the “not yet.” For this reason the “already” of the end could be seen in fact as a separate stage in the big biblical framework. Equally, the final actions of the “not yet” could also be seen as separate stages in the biblical narrative as I have argued in ”The Grand Story,” pages 21, 22, 24.
6 Paul is borrowing the theme for this image from Psalm 110:1, 2, 5, 6 (and partly Psalm 8:2). In the psalm, God’s chosen One is given rule in order to rule among God’s enemies. This reign is given until the enemies are subjected to Him and God. Paul appears to pick up the concept with the additional conclusion that the Messiah Jesus, once the enemies are defeated, will give back the rule to God.
7 The visions of the book of Revelation are said to happen “on the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10). Scholars have observed that this could indicate that John was given to observe the events of history leading up to the time of the end from the “sphere of the eschatological day of the Lord.” Ranko Stefanovic, Revelation of Jesus Christ, 2nd ed. (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2009), 97. For the book’s outlook, it is important to notice the key transition in the book’s focus in 11:18. This indicates a crucial transition to the end-time visions. In this context, the immediate sections in chapter 12, which introduce “the great dragon [that] was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world,” defines the fundamental purpose of what is coming up in the visions. This deals with the deceiver once and for all. For this reason, the visions of Revelation from chapters 12 to 22 can be very well seen as the scenes of the “not yet” day of the Lord. Crucially, their purpose is to judge and terminate.
8 While Adventist publishing houses have published scores of books with end-time focus, most of them have treated only selected aspects of the day of the Lord. In Adventism, Jon Paulien’s What the Bible Says About the End-Time (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1994, 1998) represents a good attempt to outline the broader eschatological framework.