This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2006 vol. 163 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
The Last Things: Resurrection, Judgment, GloryIVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL December 16, 2005
In this volume on eschatology Bloesch completes his series of seven books on the major theological topics. This final work is a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise commendable set. Bloesch’s stated intention in this volume is to pursue theological novelty. In the preface he explains that he will “explore themes that are generally overlooked in the contemporary discussion on eschatology” (p. 13). These include the communion of saints, “the interaction between the communities of faith on this side and on the other side of death,” the proposal that the “underworld is not beyond the reach of God’s grace but instead is invaded by the light of his grace,” and the theory of “divine perseverance based on the belief that God continues to pursue fallen humankind even in its sin and depravity, even beyond the barrier of death” (pp. 13–15). On the millennium and hell, Bloesch promises that he will “offer new and sometimes controversial interpretations, which I nevertheless believe stand in continuity with the biblical message” (p. 14).
He certainly delivers on the promise to deliver new and controversial views, and that is the major problem with this book. His novel views are often difficult to understand and sometimes are inconsistent with the teaching of the Scriptures and Christian tradition.
After an introductory chapter in which Bloesch correctly notes the connection between ecclesiology and eschatology, he moves into a discussion of “controversial themes in eschatology” in the second chapter. A chapter on angels, which Bloesch asserts belongs here since “sacred tradition has consistently discerned the inseparable relationship of eschatology to angelology and demonology” (p. 47), is followed by successive chapters on the Day of the Lord, the millennium, the resurrection, the future of Israel, the triumph of grace, and the eternal state.
Several unsubstantiated yet strong statements make Bloesch’s work confusing and difficult to understand. He rejects a millennial reign of Christ on the earth. “Scripture seems clear that there will be no visible reign of Christ within earthly history” (p. 57). There is no discussion of Revelation 19–20 in this context. Although he does later give an interpretation of Revelation 20 (pp. 88–90), he has already rejected the possibility that an earthly millennium might be in view. Bloesch criticizes premillennialism for “entertaining an overly pessimistic view of world history,
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sometimes bordering on fatalism” (p. 93). This is a strong but unsubstantiated claim, but there are even stronger criticisms to follow. “One glaring weakness in premillennialism is its lack of a firm biblical basis” (p. 93). Since premillennialists find biblical basis for their view in Revelation 20, it would have been helpful for Bloesch to interact with this text and its interpretation. Bloesch devotes several pages to an evaluation of dispensationalism, including the “current controversy in evangelical theology . . . whether the dispensations are different ways of salvation” (p. 95). It is difficult to know which is more tragic, that Bloesch thinks that there is a controversy there or that he thinks that this controversy is current. Many dispensationalists have responded to this straw-man accusation (e.g., Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, rev. ed. [Chicago: Moody, 1995], 105–22).
Amillennialism and postmillennialism are also rejected by Bloesch, in favor of his novel “transmillennial” position. In his view the “millennium is a fluid symbol representing any period in the history of the world where the victory of Jesus Christ becomes manifest” (p. 110). This is not amillennialism, he says, because his view sees “the kingdom of Christ surging forward within history” not simply a kingdom beyond history (p. 111).
In his discussion of the resurrection of the dead Bloesch asserts, “In the light of Christ’s resurrection, death acquires a positive as well as a negative connotation. Death is no longer a barrier to eternal happiness but now a passageway to eternal happiness. Whereas once it was a curse, it now becomes a blessing” (p. 125). But this flies in the face of the clear teaching of Scripture that death is an enemy, the last enemy to be defeated (1 Cor. 15:54–56). Since all creation groans as in the pains of childbirth waiting for the resurrection, it seems that the digging of graves to bury the dead is a constant reminder to the earth itself of the curse of sin and death (Rom. 8:22–24). Further, the Spirit has been given as a deposit to guarantee the resurrection of the body, when the curse will be removed (2 Cor. 5:1–10). So how could death, the result (or wages) of sin, be a blessing? But perhaps an even greater problem with Bloesch’s claim here is that it is to allege that death is both good and bad, both a curse and a blessing, both something to be dreaded and something to be embraced, both an enemy and a friend. It is difficult to understand how such language is coherent. If death is both a blessing and a curse, the language of good and evil seem synonymous, which is confusing on a most charitable reading.
Bloesch’s attempt to take a mediating position between Calvinism and Arminianism results in a strange “blending” of the two. He writes, “Predestination is both conditional and unconditional” (p. 181). Also “divine election is both universal and particular. It is universal in its outreach and particular in its efficacy for faith. All are elected to be in the service of Christ, but only some are destined for fellowship with Christ” (p. 183). “We must avoid both universalism in which all things are destined to return to their original divine source (as in Origen), and particularism in which Christ’s atoning work is limited only to the elect (as in Calvinism)” (p. 183). Bloesch’s protestations notwithstanding, his position seems closer to universalism than to historic Christian orthodoxy.
In his discussion of heaven, hell, and the eternal state Bloesch’s position is very confusing. It is difficult to understand this claim: “Salvation is fixed at death for those who are in Christ, but the condemnation of those who have never known about Christ is not yet decided at death” (p. 146). He seems to believe in the possibility of salvation after death. “It is my contention that a change of heart can still happen on the other side of death” (p. 146). Later he makes a similar declaration. “I affirm both a twofold and a singlefold outcome to human history, but the latter is more comprehensible. In the climax of world history the elect and the reprobate will be separated, but this separation is not irrevocable” (p. 238). Yet the following sentence sounds like universalism: “From my perspective hell as the outer darkness, eternal perdition, has been destroyed by the cross and resurrection victory of Christ, since he died for all and his gracious election goes out to all” (p. 217).
Further confusion is found in these assertions: “Fire in the Bible is a symbol of both God’s love and God’s wrath” (p. 222). “In the fuller biblical perspective the lake of fire proves to be none other than the ocean of God’s searing love. The fire of God’s wrath is the fire of God’s chastising love, and therefore we can still hope for those who are lost and despairing” (pp. 223–24).
Bloesch seems to place hell within the eternal kingdom. “I have likened hell to a hospital for sick souls within the domain of the kingdom. Yet it lies outside the holy city, outside the joy and rapture of the kingdom” (p. 233). Although this view might be supported by an appeal to Revelation 22:14–15, where the wicked are described as residing outside the gates of the heavenly city, Bloesch’s position goes much further. He places hell within heaven! “The polarity of heaven and hell must be radically rethought. Heaven is not beside hell but over hell and in hell. Hell is not parallel to heaven but preparatory to heaven. Hell is a penultimate, not an ultimate reality. It is a searing word of judgment before the final word of grace. At the same time, it is a means by which God conveys his grace to incorrigible sinners. Paradoxically the severity of God’s judgment attests the boundlessness of God’s grace. Hell is a reality in heaven, not alongside heaven. Only one kingdom will be left standing—the eternal kingdom of God” (p. 238). If hell is in heaven, then the inhabitants of hell are also in heaven and that is universalism. Yet Bloesch is inconsistent when he adds, “We must not teach the wholesale emptying of hell, but we can hope that some, perhaps even many, might be reclaimed for salvation” (p. 241). The Scriptures, however, provide no basis for such a hope. And the Bible affirms the eternality of the state of both the righteous and the wicked (Matt. 25:47).
Finally Bloesch denies that Scripture is itself divine revelation. “Against evangelical rationalism I see the language of faith, including the language of Scripture, as second-order language. It is not itself revelation but a human witness to revelation” (p. 194). Even more problems exist in this book, so much so that this book cannot be recommended.
—Glenn R. Kreider