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End-times theology at core of theology, prof contends

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Eschatology — the study of last things — is not just a part of Christian theology, but one of two central themes upon which all other Christian doctrines depend, writes to E. Earle Ellis, research professor of theology emeritus and scholar in residence at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Ellis’ latest book, “Christ and the Future in New Testament History,” published this year by Brill, does not take the usual systematic theology approach of treating the doctrines of God, Christ, salvation and last things independently.

Instead, Ellis sees Christian theology as interrelated concentric circles with Christology and eschatology at the core.

“The most likely core concept of New Testament thought is eschatology, that is, the kingdom of God and the two-fold consummation of the present age in salvation and in destructive judgment,” Ellis notes in the preface to the book.

“But this statement must be immediately qualified,” he continues. “The core is eschatology as defined by the person of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who is the preeminent eschatological event.”

This view of eschatology as central to Christian belief, said Ellis, is a unique contribution of his book along with his view of man as both individual and corporate.

The latter view is in part a development of the work of an earlier Baptist scholar, H. Wheeler Robinson, author of “Corporate Personality in Ancient Israel,” who wrote that one’s understanding of New Testament anthropology, in particular the believer’s corporate existence “in Christ,” has important implications for understanding its eschatology.

One motivation for writing the book, Ellis said, is his belief that much modern scholarship downplays the witness of Scripture to the deity of Christ.

“He’s not merely a human Messiah or the King of Israel,” he said. “He’s both God and man.”

Assertions of Christ’s deity are found throughout the Gospel of John as well as in the first three Gospels, including his unique and mutual knowledge of God the Father (Matthew 11:27), his forgiveness of sins in his own name (Luke 5:20), his identification of himself with the Son of Man in Daniel 7 (Mark 14:58) and his claim to raise himself from the dead, Ellis said.

“He performed actions that only God can do — the forgiveness of sins in his own name, the raising of the dead,” Ellis said. “That kind of authority showed his claim to divine prerogatives.”

Ellis also compares the eschatology in the gospels with Pauline eschatology, seeing common ground in the “already-not yet” perspectives on the kingdom of God that characterize the whole New Testament.

The gospels, Ellis noted, view the kingdom of God as present in the Holy Spirit’s work in Christ’s ministry and as future in its final and public manifestation; the letters emphasize the kingdom as present in the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church (e.g. Romans 14:17) and as future in the second coming of Christ.

The difference, Ellis said, is one of terminology — the gospels speak of the coming of the kingdom, while the letters refer to the coming of Jesus.

Differentiating the biblical teaching of redemption from that of other belief systems, Ellis explained that Greek philosophy and other religions sought deliverance from time and from matter, while the Scriptures proclaim redemption of time and of matter.

Christ’s work in history is progressing toward a historical consummation in which “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay” and believers will receive “the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:21, 23; compare 2 Peter 3:13), Ellis stated.

This, he noted, illustrates the importance of the resurrection of the dead for the Christian faith.

The Christian hope is “that Jesus Christ is the one who brings into being the future we’re looking for and moving toward,” Ellis said. “Biblical eschatology views salvation in temporal terms.”

In the book, Ellis purports that in the final judgment those who have refused to turn to God will be erased from existence.

While most Baptists hold that the wicked will be subject to an everlasting separation from God in hell, Ellis understands Scripture to teach that the wicked, including Satan himself, will ultimately be annihilated — a punishment that has an everlasting effect.

Ellis arrives at his view from his understanding of the biblical teachings on immortality, the nature of man and the nature of death.

Passages like 1 Corinthians 15:53-54, where it is only those in Christ who will put on immortality, and 1 Timothy 6:16, which states that only God has immortality by nature, Ellis believes, give the New Testament teaching that immortality is God’s gift to “those belonging to Jesus Christ.”

Seeing immortality as a gift from God for the righteous, said Ellis, allows for a very literal reading of the terms used to describe the fate of the wicked like annihilation, destruction, death, disintegration and wrath.

Ellis also notes that “everlasting salvation” and “everlasting redemption” in the Book of Hebrews and “everlasting fire” in the Book of Jude refer to one-time events with eternal effects, suggesting that “everlasting judgment” and “everlasting punishment” also refer to the effects of a singular event.

“The ultimate outcome is the end of all evil,” Ellis said.

But “ultimate annihilation does not exclude the process and degrees of pain and agony and remorse leading up to that final end,” he said.

Ellis added that though Christ’s second coming will mean judgment for many, the Lord’s goal is redemption.

“God’s last word is not judgment but salvation,” Ellis notes in his book. “It is the magnificent biblical teaching of resurrection to immortality and everlasting life in a ‘new heavens and a new earth’ (2 Peter 3:13). At that wonderful time the whole of God’s creation will be in perfect harmony and the former ‘Silent Planet’ will resonate with God’s praise and prospects. And all evil in God’s universe, including all evil creatures, will have passed into nothingness.”

The three concluding chapters concern the historical framework and the hermeneutical presuppositions from which the theological studies proceed. One chapter, which is also a unique advance in the research, offers a new paradigm for the history of early Christianity.

Unlike the theory of biblical critic F.C. Baur, who held that the Pauline and general letters represented a division between Paulinists and disciples of the original apostles, Ellis holds that the early Christian church consisted of four independent but allied apostolic missions, a theory he explored in another recent book, “The Making of the New Testament Documents.”

The last chapter compares and contrasts the approach of philosophy with the approach of the biblical prophets to the question of truth.

The philosophical approach, Ellis noted, is man-centered and attempts to reach up to the truth but always falls short because of man’s fallen state. The prophetic approach, however, is God-centered. Truth comes down from God through revelation, and prophets mediate the mind of God to their audience. In this sense, all the biblical writers are prophets, Ellis said.

    About the Author

  • Cory J. Hailey