What Does the Bible Tell Us about the Future?—Part I

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from 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, 2nd ed.
by Robert L. Plummer

People who have never shown an interest in the Bible for any other reason sometimes are curious about eschatology (that is, what the Bible affirms about the end of the world and eternity). Whether out of curiosity about their own fate or a desire to make sense of complex and unpredictable times, people will often listen to a teacher who claims to elucidate the Bible’s predictions of the future. Unfortunately, false teachers also capitalize on this widespread curiosity by spreading odd and unbiblical teaching, just as Jesus said they would (Mark 13:21–23).

What the Bible Clearly Teaches about the Future

The Bible does make numerous clear affirmations about the future, and it is best to start with these truths rather than more speculative doctrines. Below is a list of scriptural teachings about the future that Bible-believing Christians  can agree on.

  1. Jesus will come again in visible, bodily form to consummate his eternal In Acts 1:11, to the disciples who had just seen Jesus ascend, two angels declare, “Men of Galilee . . . why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”[1] Many other New Testament passages affirm the second coming of Jesus (e.g., Matt. 24:27–44; 1 Thess. 4:13–18; 1 John 3:2). For this promised return, Christians are repeatedly told to be ready or to watch (e.g., Matt. 24:42; 25:13; Mark 13:34–37; Luke 12:37; 1 Thess. 5:1–11; Rev. 16:15). Watching does not mean staring at the sky or making elaborate charts that speculate as to the timing of Jesus’s coming. In fact, Jesus said, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). As is clear from Jesus’s teaching on his return, watching entails faithful stewardship of the time, abilities, and resources the Lord has entrusted to his people (Matt. 24:45–25:46). Christians are to serve the Lord faithfully, so that they will not be ashamed before him at his return (1 John 2:28–3:3). The lazy or careless Christian will find his inferior work shown for what it really is.
  2. The return of Jesus will reveal true believers. There will be many false professors, persons who claim to be Christians but to whom the Lord will ultimately say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matt. 7:23; see also 13:24–30). The changed hearts of those who truly know the Lord will be made clear by the revelation of their Spirit-directed words and deeds (Matt. 7:15–20; 12:36–37; James 2:14–26; 1 John 2:3–6).
  3. Between the time of Jesus’s first and second coming, there will be a period of political, spiritual, and environmental turmoil. In Jesus’s famous “eschatological discourse” (Matt. 24:4–44; Mark 13:5–37; Luke 21:8–36), he de- scribes the events between his first and second Scholars debate which of these signs were fulfilled in the lifetime of his apostles and which are outstanding, but, excluding the destruction of Jerusalem (which happened in a.d. 70), it seems best to understand the predicted signs as characterizing the entire interadvent period (that is, descriptive of the entire time between Jesus’s first and second coming).[2] Those signs include political instability, religious deceivers, wars, famines, earthquakes, and persecution of Jesus’s followers. A glance at a history book or the daily online newsfeed demonstrates that Jesus accurately predicted the future.When will this turmoil increase, and will we be able to discern this increase as a sign of Jesus’s imminent return? Scholars disagree on these issues, but the Bible does clearly teach that a major opponent of Christ, the Antichrist, or “Man of Lawlessness,” will arise prior to Jesus’s second coming (1 John 2:18; 4:3; 2 Thess. 2:3). How long the deceit of the Antichrist will be allowed and to what degree Christians will be able to recognize him prior to his defeat by Christ is not clear. Christians of previous centuries have labeled various evil leaders in their days as the Antichrist, but the passage of time has repeatedly proven them wrong. The apostle John noted that already in his day “many antichrists have arisen” (1 John 2:18, my translation), even though a final arch-opponent of Christ was still expected (1 John 2:18–22; 1 John 4:3). Similarly, Paul says that the secret power of lawlessness is already at work in the world, even though the final “man of lawlessness” is still anticipated (2 Thess. 2:3–7). A quick glance at previous attempts to pinpoint the Antichrist or the timing of Christ’s return should caution us against such conjecture.
  4. One day, all persons will be resurrected and judged and will enter into an eternal, unchangeable state of glory or Some of the details as to what happens between death and judgment are debated, but the Scriptures seem to teach the following sequence: When someone dies, if that person has trusted in Christ for the forgiveness of his sins, his spirit/ soul goes to be with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6–9; Phil. 1:21–24). If a person has not received God’s forgiveness in Christ, he goes immediately to a place of torment (Luke 16:19–31). When Christ returns, the bodies of all per- sons who have died will be resurrected/reconstituted (Dan. 12:2; John 5:28–29; 1 Thess. 4:16). All persons (those formerly deceased and those still living at the time of Christ’s return) will stand before the eternal Judge, going either to eternal bliss in his presence or eternal torment  in his absence (Matt. 16:27; 25:31–33; John 5:22, 27; Acts 10:42; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:1–15). Those justified by Jesus Christ (declared righteous on the basis of Jesus’s life and death) will be given glorified bodies and enter into eternal bliss in God’s presence (1 John 2:2; Rev. 7:14). Those who have been justified by faith will have demonstrated the reality of the indwelling Spirit through their behavior—as will be made clear in the final judgment (Matt. 25:35–40). The Scriptures also speak of degrees reward  for the glorified and gradations of punishment for the damned (Matt. 11:21–24; Luke 12:47–48; 19:11–27; 1 Cor. 3:14–15).

[1]Note that as Jesus ascended, a cloud hid him from their sight (Acts 1:9). In my opinion, it is best to understand heaven as a coexistent dimension of reality, the entrance to which is best symbolized by a movement upward. Thus, as the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin supposedly noted, he did not see God in outer space. But, the biblical record (1 Kings 8:22–23, 27; 2 Kings 2:11; 2 Chron. 7:1; Isa. 6:1; 2 Cor. 12:2; 1 Tim. 2:8), as well as universal human temperament, testify that God’s greatness and power draw us to look and reach upward—not because God is physically in outer space but because we have no other way of thinking about an exalted heavenly dimension that is far beyond our ability to comprehend.

[2]See Craig Blomberg’s exposition of this passage in Matthew, NAC 22 (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 351–80.


40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible, now in a revised second edition, probes the most pressing problems encountered by churchgoers and beginning Bible students when they try to read and understand the Bible. Using feedback received from pastors, professors, and Bible teachers, New Testament professor Robert L. Plummer includes updated information about Bible translations, biblical interpretation, and Bible study technology and streamlines previous portions to make room for a handful of new issues.

This second edition, updated regarding Bible translations, biblical interpretation trends, and Bible-related technology, will continue to serve professors, pastors, and Bible study leaders as a go-to guide or textbook. New Testament scholar Robert L. Plummer covers historical, interpretive, practical, and theological matters such as:

  • Were the ancient manuscripts of the Bible transmitted accurately?
  • Why can’t people agree on what the Bible means?
  • How do we interpret the Psalms?
  • How can I use the Bible in daily devotions?
  • Does the Bible teach that God wants Christians to be healthy and wealthy?


40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible
provides crucial assistance for students ready to engage with biblical scholarship and for teachers eager to lead Bible studies with confidence.


Want to learn more about the 40 Questions Series? Visit the new website 40Questions.net!

 

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About Author

Robert L. Plummer (PhD in New Testament, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is currently the Collin and Evelyn Aikman Professor of Biblical Studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he has taught for over twenty years. Plummer is the author of numerous books in biblical studies, including The Story of Scripture and Understanding the Bible, and is founder and host of the New Testament Greek learning resource Daily Dose of Greek, DailyDoseofGreek.com.

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