– that Jesus Christ only once, on the last day, will come back to earth in visible glory;
– that the time of the last day is determined by God, but hidden from man;
– that the last day could occur at any time, as all signs which herald it, even the prominence of the Antichrist, have already occurred;
– that the last day shall not be preceded by some kind of visible millennial reign on earth;
– that Christ at the last day will judge all men, both living and dead, according to their deeds;
– that at the last day, the world shall end in fire and be replaced by new heavens and a new earth where justice reigns and where no sin and no evil shall be.
The Bible’s teaching about what will happen at the end of time in connection with Christ’s Second Coming and the Last Judgment (eschatology) is an important part of the Christian faith. Around these questions many have been tempted to speculation which has clouded the teachings of the Bible. Some have, for example, studied the book of Revelation and other prophecies in the Bible and there found discernible hidden messages, secret numbers and other things, which are then used to build detailed predictions about what will happen on earth. Several sects, such as the Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, have been trying to figure out the God-decreed time of Christ’s return, despite the fact that Jesus clearly teaches that this is impossible. Only the Father in heaven knows when it shall come (Matt. 24:36).
The fact that Christ once will come back for the great final judgment is manifoldly testified in Scripture. Like the disciples saw Him visibly leave earth, so all eyes shall see Him come back on the last day. He will not come from poverty and insignificance, as when He was born in Bethlehem, but in great divine power and glory and be seen as plain as a blazing flash across the sky.
Jesus speaks of different signs preceding His return, such as war, famine, earthquakes, and persecutions against Christians. The Gospel shall also be preached to all nations before the end comes (Matt. 24:14). The signs that Jesus highlights the strongest are the falling away from the faith and the many false prophets who shall act in His name and deceive many (Matt. 24). Furthermore, the Antichrist or “the lawless one” will come forward and “sits in the temple of God” with a divine claim that man must obey him (2 Thess. 2, 1 John 2:18). All these signs have already come true, and they are becoming increasingly clear. Every Christian must daily and hourly watch and be prepared for the return of the Lord and the earth’s final day.
The Lutheran Church sees the Pope as the fulfilment of the biblical prophecies about the Antichrist, who shall appear before Christ returns. Throughout the ages some Christians have tried to single out some particular evil and cruel person, such as Nero, Hitler or Stalin, as the Antichrist. Neither Luther nor the Reformers engaged themselves in such speculation. A Pope is not Antichrist in the sense that he personally needs to be deeply immoral or impious. It is instead the papacy as an institution and ministry which is the Antichrist. The Pope’s claim to supremacy and infallibility in matters of doctrine fits quite well with the picture of the Antichrist painted in the New Testament. The pope sits in “the temple of God”, where he puts himself above God and Scripture and claims to have the divine power to issue new doctrines to be believed by the church. He is clearly “anti” or against Christ, in particular concerning the Gospel of sinner’s justification by grace through “faith alone”, and deceives people by preventing them to believe that saving doctrine. The Papal Church’s cursing or “anathema” at the Council of Trent (1545-63) of anyone who says “that justifying faith is nothing else than trust in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake” has not been repealed. This is formally the case to this day.
Many teach that Christ in connection with His return shall establish a visible earthly kingdom of prosperity and peace, ruled by Christians and lasting for a thousand years (chiliasm or millennialism). Chiliasts usually refer to Rev. 20, which states that Satan was bound for a thousand years. Furthermore, they seek support in some Old Testament prophecies concerning the future peace of the kingdom, where the “wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the young goat” (Isa. 11:6). Some say that Christ will come twice, once before the millennium (pre-millennialism) and then again on Judgement Day. Others argue that the return takes place after the thousand years (post-millennialism). Between these different perceptions are a number of variants, including resurrection from the dead at various times. Often taught in conjunction with the Millennium is that a general conversion of all Jews will occur – an idea based on a misinterpretation of the phrase “all Israel” in Rom. 11:26. The Jews’ return to their ancient homeland and the establishment of the State of Israel in modern times has attracted a strong interest in millenialist circles and is seen as the harbinger of a millennial breakthrough.
Chiliasm in various forms is a dangerous fallacy which turns the kingdom of God into something visible and in worldly. It is completely foreign to the New Testament view of God’s kingdom. The Kingdom is there described as an invisible realm of the inner man (Luke 17:20 ff.). It consists of the remission of sins, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. But while this peace and joy dwells in the heart, we Christians live here on earth always under the cross, fighting against the Devil, the world and the flesh in afflictions, temptations and trials. The Christian’s glory and spiritual life are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) and its true nature becomes visible only when Christ returns. That Jesus never intended to establish an earthly millennial reign is clear from the fact that He firmly and consistently refused to let the people make Him an earthly king. “My kingdom is not of this world”, He confessed before Pilate (John 18:36). The symbolic language in Rev. 20, Isa. 11:6 and similar verses refers to the hidden peace of the kingdom which has come with Christ in this current time.
The kingdom of God must always be understood on the basis of Jesus’ and the Scripture’s clear doctrinal expositions of it. The real “Millennium” is the time of the Church and the Gospel, when Satan is bound and his dominion is broken wherever people believe in Jesus and receive Him as their Lord and Saviour. The Jews are no longer God’s chosen people and will not play any specific role at the end of time. Israel is today a state like any other and its conditions should be assessed and treated as such. The Old Covenant’s definite end point was, as Jesus predicted, the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41 ff.).
All will be judged on Judgement Day – even the faithful, who will, according to Scripture, not experience any conviction, because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Thus, when Jesus and the New Testament say that we will be judged according our deeds, it does not mean that the gospel doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone is repealed on the last day. This is also shown by the great judgment parable (Matt. 25). When the Son of Man speaks of the deeds of the sheep, He mentions strangely enough, no shame and lack with them. He speaks only of their good deeds. He does so because all sins of the faithful sheep are erased by the gospel’s forgiveness. Good works in God’s eyes are only such deeds that are done in faith in the gospel, and these shall at the last day testify to our benefit.
The old world in the days of Noah perished in water. The current world shall perish in flames, followed by a “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Pet. 3:10, 13). Whether the latter occurs after a total annihilation of the existing world or through a purification and transformation of it into something completely new, we have no definite information about. Very great and wonderful things about the new world remain to be seen. Until then, it should be for us enough to know that it shall be a perfect world with an inexpressible comfort and joy in God and a total absence of all evil.
What the Holy Scriptures say
This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven. (Acts 1:11)
For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. (Matt. 24:27)
Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him. (Rev. 1:7)
But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. (Mark 13:32)
And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet ... And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake ... Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold ... And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come. (Matt. 24:6 ff.)
Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. (1 John 2:18)
Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. (2 Thess. 2:3-4)
When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. (Matt. 25:31)
He (God) has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. (Acts 17:31)
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. (2 Cor. 5:10)
And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. (Heb. 9:27-28)
He who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. (John 5:24)
The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. (2 Pet. 3:10)
Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Pet. 3:13, cf. Isa. 65:17)
What the Lutheran Confessions say
Also they (our churches) teach that at the Consummation of the World Christ will appear for judgment, and will raise up all the dead; He will give to the godly and elect eternal life and everlasting joys, but ungodly men and the devils He will condemn to be tormented without end.
They condemn the Anabaptists, who think that there will be an end to the punishments of condemned men and devils.
They condemn also others who are now spreading certain Jewish opinions, that before the resurrection of the dead the godly shall take possession of the kingdom of the world, the ungodly being everywhere suppressed. (AC 17, Trigl. p. 51)
... the Pope is the very Antichrist, who has exalted himself above, and opposed himself against Christ because he will not permit Christians to be saved without his power, which, nevertheless, is nothing, and is neither ordained nor commanded by God. This is, properly speaking to exalt himself above all that is called God as Paul says, 2 Thess. 2:4. Even the Turks or the Tartars, great enemies of Christians as they are, do not do this, but they allow whoever wishes to believe in Christ, and take bodily tribute and obedience from Christians. (SA, Art IV, Trigl. p. 475 )
And the marks [all the vices] of Antichrist plainly agree with the kingdom of the Pope and his adherents. For Paul, in describing Antichrist to the Thessalonians, calls him 2 Thess. 2:3: an adversary of Christ, who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God. He speaks therefore of one ruling in the Church, not of heathen kings, and he calls this one the adversary of Christ, because he will devise doctrine conflicting with the Gospel, and will assume to himself divine authority . ... Secondly, the doctrine of the Pope conflicts in many ways with the Gospel, and [thirdly] the Pope assumes to himself divine authority in a threefold manner. First, because he takes to himself the right to change the doctrine of Christ and services instituted by God, and wants his own doctrine and his own services to be observed as divine; secondly, because he takes to himself the power not only of binding and loosing in this life, but also the jurisdiction over souls after this life; thirdly, because the Pope does not want to be judged by the Church or by any one, and puts his own authority ahead of the decision of Councils and the entire Church. But to be unwilling to be judged by the Church or by any one is to make oneself God. (Tr, Trigl. p. 515 f.)
all kinds of false doctrines that contrary to the Scripture teach, for example,
– that the date of Christ’s return can be calculated;
– that Christ will return visibly more than once (millenarianism);
– that further signs are awaited before Christ will return, e.g. that Jews in large numbers will convert to Christianity;
– that God has promised His faithful a visible and glorious kingdom of peace on earth, without crosses and tribulations (millenarianism in all forms);
– that the gospel does not now exempt those who believe from the wrath to come.
King of Majesty tremendous, who dost free salvation send us,
Fount of pity, then befriend us!
Think, good Jesus, my salvation cost thy wondrous Incarnation;
leave me not to reprobation!
Righteous Judge! for sin’s pollution grant thy gift of absolution,
ere the day of retribution.
Thou the sinful woman savedst; thou the dying thief forgavest;
and to me a hope vouchsafest.
With thy favored sheep O place me; nor among the goats abase me;
but to thy right hand upraise me.
While the wicked are confounded, doomed to flames of woe unbounded
call me with thy saints surrounded.
Low I kneel, with heart submission, see, like ashes, my contrition;
help me in my last condition.
Ah! that day of tears and mourning! From the dust of earth returning
man for judgment must prepare him; Spare, O God, in mercy spare him!
Lord, all pitying, Jesus blest, grant them thine eternal rest. Amen.
From the Dies Irae, the Great Day of Wrath