Part question, part protest, the plaintive cry “Are we there yet?” punctuates any family vacation worth talking about. Clearly, we’re not where we were, but we also haven’t arrived at our highly anticipated destination. After a few hours, parents may wonder, along with their children, why they left the comfort of home in the first place. They’ve seen the website. Friends have told them how great the place is and assured them of the wonderful experiences they’ll have. Uprooted from the familiar and yet far from their journey’s end, the middle of the trip is where we get testy with one another. It’s easy to look for offramps to quench our thirst for immediate gratification. Even otherwise unspectacular distractions appeal to us. Outlet malls, McDonald’s, the World’s Largest Ball of String—anything to interrupt the boring drive.
We find in this family ritual a homely analogy of our pilgrimage to the Everlasting City. On the way, it’s easy to grow impatient—with each other, ourselves, even God. We’ve heard the good news. The brochure has been read to us every week, and in our daily devotions we’re reminded again and again of its “solid joys and lasting treasures.” We have everything we need for the trip. We are washed in baptism and refreshed in the Supper, as Christ spreads a table for us in the wilderness of this pilgrim journey. Yet the routine can start to feel pretty boring. Our friends, the prophets and apostles, have consistently told us where we’re headed: “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). But are we there yet?
Although they had just witnessed God’s mighty acts of deliverance from Egypt and provision in the desert, the Lord’s people almost immediately wanted to return. “Sure, we were slaves, but at least it was home. And oh, the leeks!” God miraculously provided them with water from a rock and manna and quail, but they still complained. I read these stories with unease because I see myself among the comfortably complacent. Then there are the outright scoffers: “They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pet. 3:4). It’s a dangerous thing to become bored of the trip; it’s far more dangerous to come to believe there is no promised destination after all.
Most dangerous for sincere believers, however, are the distractors. “Of course, Jesus is the center. But we also need these other things over here. Grace? Of course. But aren’t those things over there more interesting?” Paul warns us against being so easily distracted:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? (Gal. 3:1–6)
Suffering and then glory: that’s the path we follow by faith in Jesus’ footsteps. But in the middle of the journey, the most banal or even dangerous distractions dazzle. We’ve left the comforts of home, but we haven’t arrived at our destination. We get restless and quarrel and grumble. Instead of fixing our eyes on Christ, we’re lured by off-itinerary attractions. This is why we need to be reminded time and again of the blessing we’re promised upon our arrival and how much of it is given to us to enjoy now.
In this essay, I’ll reflect on what is often called the already/not-yet tension in biblical eschatology as it applies to individual Christians, the church, and the world. In the Scriptures, eschatology is not restricted to “last things.” In fact, right at the beginning, humans were created with a great destiny laid before them if they survived their trial. Instead of patiently enduring the journey by hanging on God’s every word, our first parents questioned and then rejected God’s road map. Drawn to the serpent’s billboards advertising instant gratification, they took the nearest exit. But God did not withdraw his promise of glory, nor did he chop down the tree of life. Instead, he prepared a history in which he would bring redemption through his incarnate Son, the last Adam. Our destination is a city, not a garden, but the tree still stands in its midst (Rev. 22:2). Thus the whole Bible is eschatology: the prospect of glory ahead if we do not turn away from God’s word.
Two Ages, Two Installments
Like most readers of this magazine, I am a Gentile. Historically, that means my imagination’s default setting is to picture heaven as a sort of vague “afterlife.” When I die, I hope my soul flies away to another world of light and spirit, leaving behind forever my earthly body along with the rest of this dusty globe down below. Maybe I’ll become an angel and win my wings like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life. Yet this Gentile picture is hardly biblical. In the Bible, creation—even the dusty parts of it—are “very good.” To be human is to be embodied. Upon death, our soul will be kept in God’s care while our body in its corruptible condition returns to the dust. However, the soul is not meant to be separated from the body and this intermediate state will not last forever. We will be raised in glory. The whole creation—this world God made—will be restored beyond its original luster.
While we as heirs of Greek philosophy tend to think in terms of Two Worlds—an eternal, spiritual heaven and a temporal, physical earth—the Hebrew prophets speak of Two Ages: the present age and the age to come. God alone is eternal; the rest of us, from angels to ants, are creatures bound intrinsically to time and space. The exiles in Babylon were buoyed ultimately not by an afterlife somewhere else but a future this-worldly promise of resurrection, vindication, and everlasting rest from violence, sin, death, war, and injustice:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. On this mountain He will swallow up the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; He will swallow up death forever. The Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face and remove the disgrace of His people from the whole earth. (Isa. 25:6–8)
These are not different worlds, but different epochs marked by different regimes. Jesus and Paul frequently invoke these categories. Jesus did not speak in terms of an “end of history” but “the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Paul says that this present age lies under sin and death, blinded by “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4), with the whole creation subjected to corruption because of humanity’s sin (Rom. 8:19). However, the age to come is marked by immortality, incorruption, righteousness, peace, and joy in fellowship with God and each other.
So let’s return to our family vacation refrain, recast in the language of the prophets: “Are we living in the last days yet?” The answer is yes, we’ve arrived. The prophets spoke of “the last days” when the Lord’s mountain would rise above all others and the nations would stream into it (Isa. 2:2). They longed for a new covenant of forgiveness and new birth by grace alone (Jer. 31:31–37), when the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh (Joel 2:28–32). The New Testament tells us that we have been living in “these last days” since Jesus rose from the dead (Acts 2:17; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:1; Heb. 1:2; 2 Pet. 3:3, etc.). His resurrection started the clock, and time is running out for “this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). Jesus’ return in glory marks the transition between the two ages.
How much of the age to come can we expect in these last days of this present age? Election and justification do not have a “not yet.” These gifts of our union with Christ do not have any further fulfillment. The references to both occur in the aorist tense: a completed work in the past. Justification is not the “already” portion of something yet to be completed in the future. In this declaration of the gospel here and now, I hear God’s final verdict on judgment day. Thus the future judgment is realized fully for me now in justification. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). There is no further installment on our election or justification.
But while we’ve arrived at the last days with Jesus’ resurrection, we still await his return. Until our full enjoyment of our destination in the new creation, we still long for the completion of our journey. Just about everything else but election and justification awaits a future fulfillment in the age to come. It’s true that Christ’s redeeming work was completed once and for all in his life, death, and resurrection. No one redeemed by Christ in his first advent will be unredeemed at his return. With respect to the accomplishment of redemption, it is finished. Yet Scripture also promises us that our “final redemption” is completed when our bodies are raised (Rom. 8:23). We find all three tenses for reconciliation in a single verse: We have been reconciled by Christ’s death and therefore are now reconciled, guaranteeing that we shall be saved by his life (Rom. 5:10). God has reconciled sinners to himself objectively, but the complete enjoyment of this gift will be realized in the fellowship we enjoy with him face to face (1 Cor. 13:12).
Already/Not Yet for Believers
Throughout the ages, spiritualists have reduced the promise of bodily resurrection to a merely inward regeneration, emphasizing being “born again” as something that strictly concerns the fate of our immaterial souls. Some react by downplaying the new birth as concerned with only individual renewal, and they focus instead on a wider redemption of creation. The Bible neither assimilates the outward to the inward nor the inward to the outward. Rather, it distinguishes the regeneration of each as phases of a complete salvation. A good example comes from Paul in 2 Corinthians:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (4:16–18)
In this present age, the outer condition of the world—including our bodies—is corrupt, decaying, and dying while simultaneously we have been raised spiritually (cf. Eph. 2:1–5) and are being conformed more and more to Christ’s likeness. On the outside, we look like we’re falling apart, but we’re inwardly alive and growing younger. In saying that “the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal,” Paul is not following Plato. His visual contrast between visible and invisible is based on a historical contrast between the already and the not yet: what we see now versus what we will see up ahead. He is not saying, “Our bodies are wasting away, but we’ll finally get rid of them and be invisible and eternal forever.” Instead, he’s telling us, “For now our body is in a condition of corruption but then it will enjoy a condition of glory.” He makes this point explicitly a little later:
For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. (5:1–5)
Paul uses stereotypically Platonic language, but in a distinctive and perhaps even playful manner. Christians look forward to our heavenly home, but only “if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.” What? This should surprise us Gentiles. Why should we be worried about being naked if we have a glorified spiritual existence? Right now, Paul says, we’re burdened and we groan in our bodies, “not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” In other words, these corruptible bodies will be raised incorruptible.
The body was never the problem in the first place. Sin was the problem, and it’s made itself visible in our bodily suffering. If the soul lived forever without its body, it would be “naked”—a horrifying thought to Paul, even if attractive to Plato! The gospel is not that “what is mortal” is finally left behind but that “what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” We need to be liberated not from our bodies but from their mortality and corruption.
In short, this same body that groans because of its suffering will one day rejoice because of its glory. Outwardly, there is nothing powerful and glorious about individual believers. Yet we are being inwardly renewed day by day. God’s security deposit on “this very thing,” Paul says, is the indwelling Holy Spirit. We believe this not because we can see and chart it or broadcast it on the evening news, but because we hear the good news of God’s promises that never fail.
Already/Not Yet and the Church
There is no worldly power and glory for the church on the global stage. Yet through means the world considers weak and a gospel it counts as foolishness, Christ is conquering the nations. “And as [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down’” (Mark 13:1–2). Then Jesus began to teach about a long period of history in which the headline news will be wars, violence, natural disasters, and persecution. Not until the gospel is preached to the whole world will Christ return, for only then will he have his entire kingdom with him as he comes on the clouds as the Son of Man (Matt. 24:30–31). All the nations, before or after Israel, will be reduced to rubble. All will be shaken and only Christ’s kingdom will be left standing (Heb. 12:26–29).
Through the preaching of the word, administration of the sacraments, and care and fellowship of the saints—hardly attention-grabbing marketing devices—this kingdom advances. Don’t take an off-ramp to the Mall of Morality or Vanity Fair. Rather, “let us consider how to stir one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24–25). Let’s face it: church can be pretty boring. I can be pretty boring, and if you really think about it, so can you. None of this is surprising. The routine of it all can make us forget that corporate worship is a solemn assembly of God’s embassy where he distributes gifts from the riches of his estate, to which we are coheirs with Christ. Your brothers and sisters are the princes and princesses of the everlasting empire.
Think for a moment about the images Jesus gives for his kingdom in the parables. In contrast with the temple’s “wonderful stones” that so captivated Jesus’ disciples, he compares his kingdom to a little light set on a stand. It’s like a tiny seed, he says, whose branches grow to cover the whole earth. The kingdom is like a banquet. Yet everyone on the first invitation list RSVPs with “I have to wash my hair that day.” Even today, it’s not an event for which many of the world’s elites—including religious leaders—mark their calendars. So the royal servant goes into the alleys to draw in the drunks and prostitutes by the free promise of a place at the king’s table.
Who would have thought that the temple of Christ’s body, with you and me as living stones, would replace and surpass Herod’s glorious edifice? Yet through the external (preaching and sacrament) God gives the internal. The inward and outward manifestations of Christ’s reign are not severed but intertwined. The Holy Spirit takes what is Christ’s in glory and gives foretastes of it to us now in our otherwise arduous pilgrimage.
The two ages, however, are not airtight compartments. We cannot neglect pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit). In his Upper Room Discourse (John 14–16), Jesus explains that he will depart bodily but won’t leave his followers as orphans. On the contrary, what we need now is Christ reigning in our flesh for us at the Father’s right hand and the Holy Spirit opening our hearts to embrace the gospel. As Calvin observed, if we are not united to Christ here and now, then all he accomplished objectively is in vain (Inst. 3.1.1). Christ accomplished redemption, and now the Spirit applies it.
The Spirit brings the realities of the age to come into this present age just as the dove brought a leafy twig to Noah as evidence of life. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of the church as the sphere in which the Holy Spirit relays these gifts to the world here and now. Here people are “enlightened” (baptized), “have tasted the heavenly gift and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.” Wherever the gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered, a garden blooms in the desert, like “land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated” (Heb. 6:4–5).
In the context of pagans blaming Christians for the sack of Rome, Augustine’s City of God remains a vital companion for us today. Christ’s kingdom progresses even as the politics, economics, and social engineering policies of worldly salvation crumble. Plus, the visible church itself is a mess, with sheep outside and wolves within. Not only is it a mixed body of elect and non-elect, but the elect aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Yet each local church remains an embassy of grace, receiving forgiveness from God, and sending out ambassadors of reconciliation to others.
Already/Not Yet in the World
If we don’t expect outward power and glory for ourselves or the church, then we certainly shouldn’t be surprised when the world seems to be getting worse rather than better. Jesus is no more of a historical optimist than Paul. On the Mount of Olives (Mark 13; Matt. 24), Jesus taught that the headlines will grow progressively nasty, even while the gospel succeeds in its mission to the world. Jesus’ entire sermon on that occasion focuses on the advance of the gospel. He says nothing about Christianity fostering great civilizations or nations. The world grows worse, yet the gospel still manages to reach the ends of the earth. “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as the testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (v. 14).
When exactly will the end come to this present evil age? Will it be when we can compare the newspaper to Bible verses? When the common market nations are established? Maybe the United Nations with some political leader as the antichrist? No, the end will come when the gospel is preached to all nations. Jesus will then have the kingdom given to him by the Father with the elect from every tribe, and they will reign forever (Rev. 5:9).
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says he has come to “restore all things” (Matt. 17:11). With the definite article, the word he uses becomes a distinct event: tê palingenesia (Matt. 17:11), like the Fourth of July. In fact, “ the new birthday” would be a fair translation. “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’” (Matt. 19:28). Peter proclaimed that “heaven must receive [Jesus] until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (Acts 3:21). Thus the restoration is seen as an event that will occur when Jesus returns. It will be all encompassing, “far as the curse is found.”
Creation’s new birthday will indeed be universal. The Creator is the Redeemer. He who “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” will never turn his back on it. Yet it begins now through the regeneration of individual human hearts. What would the Holy City be like if its citizens were still rebels? What would peace with God obtain unless the ungodly had been justified and raised to newness of life? Even sanctification is incomplete until Christ returns, so inward renewal in this age could never suffice for a perfect society. The resurrection of Jesus sets in motion “the new birthday.”
I am dying and so are you, but we’re being inwardly renewed. The church is outwardly weak and foolish, but inwardly powerful and glorious. Inner and outward correspond not to Plato’s eternal soul and the “mortal coil” to be sloughed off at death, but to the body and the visible world under the reign of sin and death versus both under the reign of righteousness and life.
The “not yet” doesn’t become the “already” all at once. Christ is the beginning—the firstfruits—of the resurrection from the dead, but this renovation of all united to him begins with inward and, finally, outward regeneration. Right now, our physical bodies are dying—they must die in order for death to come to an end (1 Cor. 15:36)—while people around the world are being inwardly raised to new life and growing healthier in Christ. Jesus’ return will be “the time for restoring all things” in their entirety. The regeneration begun in human hearts will then spread to the rivers and oceans, mountains and plains, cities and RV sites; the kingdoms of this world will then become the kingdom of Christ.
Until then, we can’t expect the gospel to transform the world into Christ’s kingdom or the church into a perfect society or ourselves into glorified saints. But we can be patient with one another and with God’s promise as we travel the miles of unexciting terrain, knowing that along this very highway he spreads a table in the wilderness. Let’s not get discouraged or distracted. The rays of the age to come penetrate this evil age every time a sinner is regenerated, every time an anxious believer feels Christ’s hand in preaching, in the Supper, or in the hands of fellow sinners who share this journey to the City of God.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. . . . For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Rom. 8:18, 22–25)
See D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic, 200 BC–AD 100 (London: SCM, 1964), esp. 269; cf. C. Rowlands, The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity (repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), esp. 355.Back
Jesus appeals to the distinction in the Gospels (Matt. 12:32; 13:49; 19:28; 24:3; Mark 4:19; 8:38; 10:30; Luke 18:30; 20:35), and it’s frequently found in the Pauline Epistles (1 Cor. 2:6; 10:11; Eph. 1:21; Gal. 1:4; 1 Tim. 6:19) as well as Hebrews 6:5.Back
A few chapters earlier, Matthew refers to Herod’s birthday with a closely related Greek word, genesiois (Matt. 14:6).Back
Strangely, the ESV renders palingenesia “new world.” I’ve used the NIV translation here.Back