September 4, 2013
ii. The end of God's appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of His mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of His justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient. For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fullness of joy and refreshing, which shall come from the presence of the Lord: but the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power. (Matt. 25:31-46, Rom. 2:5-6, Rom. 9:22-23, Matt. 25:21, Acts 3:19, 2 Thess. 1:7-10).
There are three points that should be underlined in this section. First, this paragraph rightly and wisely connects the truth of the dual destinies of all of humanity with the glory of God. The biblical teaching of the final judgment has its ultimate and climactic goal in the truth and manifestation of the glory of God.
With respect to the glory of God, the Confession has consistently maintained that this glory is the rationale for all that takes place in history, and into eternity. "From Him, through Him and to Him are all things" (Rom. 11:36). This summary of all of creation is oftentimes not given its proper due in our thinking and living, and it will help us understand the final judgment if we remember its centrality. All things are what they are, ultimately, for the glory of God. This glory has two covenantally-connected aspects to it.
1. The glory of God is just who God is. That is, the character of God is itself His glory. When Moses asked God to show him His glory, the Lord explained to Moses that if his request were granted, he would perish. No one can see God's glory and live (see Ex. 33:18ff.). This glory of God, which is His incomprehensible and refulgent character, of course, fully and completely characterizes the three persons of the Trinity, in that each is fully God. But it is not something that mere humans can have or grasp or experience. He is the LORD and there is no other. He will not give His glory to another (Is. 42:8). To "glorify" God is to give Him His due weight; it is to ascribe to Him the proper praise because of who He is. This is what man, as image of God, was meant to do; we were/are meant to show God's character, in an "image" and derivative way.
2. The covenantal condescension (WCF 7.1) of this triune God, however, includes the condescension of His glory. So, as God relates Himself to His creation, part of that relationship includes various manifestations of His glory, which is to say, manifestations of His majestic character. When Scripture tells us that "all things" are "from, through and to Him," what it is telling us, in part, is that all things are designed to show us something of God's resplendent and glorious character.
I know from teaching the "Doctrine of God" to seminary students that the centrality of God's glory is one of the most difficult truths for Christians to digest. It seems, more often, to provoke spiritual indigestion, rather than fruitfully to nourish Christian growth. But we will not be rid of our dysfunction and sin in our daily lives and in this world unless we learn joyfully to embrace this glorious truth. Everything in this world and beyond has God's glory, and not us, in view. Anything that happens to us, for us and in us is meant to point to that glory. It is not meant to point, in the first place, to us and our lives. (In light of this, re-read chapter 3 of the Confession and notice how the Confession in its explanation of God's eternal decree and meticulous sovereignty repeats the refrain, in various ways, of the "glory of God." We struggle with election to the extent that we neglect to center it on God's character, and attempt to focus it on man).
Since God's glory is a manifestation of His character, the final judgment, in its dual modality, shows us something of the glory of God; it shows us what God is like in His dealings with men. It shows us, as the Confession says, "the glory of His mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of His justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient."
This leads to our second point. Every person will acknowledge that the biblical teaching of eternal damnation brings grief. That is as it should be. God Himself takes no delight in the death of the wicked (Ez. 18:23, 33:11). Christ wept over Jerusalem because of their unwillingness to come to Him (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34). There is no delight that emanates from the triune God when men refuse to come to Him.
But we should not allow that grief to cloud the reality, and tempt us to pervert or distort it. We may not have all the information we would like to have about why God set the world in motion and providentially directed it the way that He did. We do know, however, that His judgments are inscrutable and His ways past finding out (Rom. 11:33ff.). If we lose the true, biblical focus on eternal damnation, therefore, we may be in danger of losing the God whose glorious justice is manifest in its reality.
There must, then, be a dual affirmation with respect to eternal damnation. We must rightly grieve its existence; its existence is a manifestation of all that opposes God and His character, and it is an ugly and abhorrent place, devoid of the mercy and grace of God. But we should not grieve that existence only because some we know may be there. That is tragic, and we "think God's thoughts after Him" when we take no delight in it. But the ultimate tragedy of it is that its existence is a testimony of those whose lives were set against the holiness of God's character, and who would not honor Him for who He is. The biblical focus of the tragedy, in other words, is the opposition to God that hell displays. With this focus, we should, in turn, learn to hate and despise that same opposition to the extent that its effects still remain in us.
This brings me to a third point, which itself is not explicit in the Confession, but is implicit, and which should at least be broached here, given its influence. Why can we not hold that those who die outside of Christ simply cease to exist? Why not affirm the doctrine of annihilationism? This doctrine is not only reserved for cults, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, but has found its way into some otherwise orthodox contexts as well.
Briefly, annihilationists argue that the orthodox view of everlasting punishment misreads Scripture, in at least two important areas. They argue, first of all, that the word eternal (aionios) is assumed to mean endless, though it really means (something like) "belonging to the age to come." "Eternal" refers, they think, to a quality, and not to longevity. Thus, "eternal punishment" (Matt. 25:46) does not mean eternally enduring punishment, but "the punishment of the age to come." The problem with this is that, while the term ainios is used in the New Testament in the context of the biblical distinction between the present age and the age to come, the "age to come" is by definition endless, endlessness being an essential element in its quality.
Annihilationists also argue that biblical terms such as perishing and destruction in Scripture should be taken for what they mean, i.e., the end of existence altogether. The problem with this is that Scripture uses those terms not as the end of existence, but as the disintegration of a previously constituted state or condition. So, for example, in Matt. 9:17, we see that men do not put new wine into old wineskins, or they will be destroyed. What is destroyed here is not the existence of wineskins, but their ability to function as intended. 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 is of special interest in this connection. It speaks of being "punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord." But if destruction means complete and total annihilation: 1. the adjective "everlasting" serves no function whatsoever, and 2. "shut out from the presence of the Lord" loses its force, since the phrase naturally implies ongoing conscious existence. Paul is speaking here of the destruction that consists in being excluded from the presence of God. Instead of implying cessation of existence, therefore, the biblical terminology actually underlines its continuation (1)
It is the glory of God that rightly focuses our view of the final judgment. All that takes place on planet earth, all that takes place in our lives, has its terminus in that judgment, and its meaning in His glory. If you are in Christ as you read this, praise Him for His grace. If you are not, now is the favorable time, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2).
Tomorrow we will finish with the third and final section of this chapter.
1. This section on annihilation is a slightly edited version of the "Appendix" in K. Scott Oliphint and Sinclair B. Ferguson, If I Should Die Before I Wake: What's Beyond This Life?, (UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2004).
Dr. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).