This blog post is adapted from Johann Gerhard’s Theological Commonplace On the End of the World and On Hell, specifically Gerhard’s notes on the reasons for the end of the world.
The purpose for which this entire universe is to be destroyed is either primary and principal, or secondary and less principal. The primary purpose concerns God; the secondary one, men.
The principal purpose: the glorification of God.
The principal purpose is the glorification of God, for in the destruction of the world shall be seen:
- The truthfulness and immutability of God. From eternity, God has decreed and revealed in His Word His decree that at a definite appointed time He wishes to destroy the machinery of heaven and earth and to create a new heaven and a new earth. Therefore when He will give this decree for its execution, He will reveal the glory of His truthfulness before angels and men and will show that He is truthful and unchangeable.
- The power and majesty of God. Just as God revealed His power and majesty in the creation of the world, because producing all things out of nothing is a work of infinite power (Tertullian, Apolog., ch. 16: “The object of our worship is the one God, who brought out of nothing the entire mass of our world with all its apparatus of elements, bodies, and spirits for the adornment of His majesty by His commanding word, His arranging wisdom, and His mighty power”), so also in the destruction of the world He will reveal His same divine power and majesty. For just as nothing comes from nothing by nature, so also no being ceases into nothing by nature. However, as divine and supernatural power were able to produce being from nonbeing, so also it will be able to reduce being into nonbeing again.
- The justice of God and the severity of divine wrath. In that last burning of the whole world God will reveal His wrath against the sins of men because He is “a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29). For just as He revealed His wrath against the sins of the inhabitants in the destruction of the world through the flood, in the destruction of the Sodomites through fire rained down from heaven, and in other special devastations of the earth through floods, earthquakes, fires, because the earth is said to be corrupted through the wickedness of men (Gen. 6:12), contaminated and polluted (Lev. 18:27), set in a desert (Ps. 107:33)—so also in that final conflagration of the whole universe He will reveal His burning wrath against men’s extreme ungodliness. Ps. 11:6: “The Lord will rain coals of fire and brimstone on sinners.” Ps. 50:3: “Our God will come, and He will not keep silent. Fire will devour before Him.” 2 Thess. 1:7[–8]: “The Lord will be revealed from heaven in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance.” Therefore when the ungodly, standing at the left hand of the Judge, will see heaven and earth burning with fire, they will be struck with an indescribable horror because they will readily understand from this that hellfire has been prepared for them and in it they will pay eternal penalties for their sins. On the other hand, the godly will praise the judgment of God with grateful heart and mouth, just as is said about the burning of Babylon (Rev. 18:20): “Rejoice over her, heaven,” that is, you blessed inhabitants of heaven and holy apostles and prophets, “for God has “given judgment for you against her.” Rev. 19:1–2: “I heard the voice of a great multitude in heaven saying, ‘Alleluia. Praise and glory and power to God because His judgments are true and just.’”
The secondary purpose: the deliverance of the godly.
The secondary purpose of this consummation is the deliverance of the godly. Luke 21:28: “When these things begin to take place,” that is, these signs that announce the end of the world is near, “look up and lift up your head, knowing that your redemption is approaching.” For just as the death of a godly man is his individual redemption—because through death any truly godly man is delivered from sin and all the punishments for sin and, as regards his soul, is made to share in heavenly glory and blessedness—so also the consummation of the age will be the universal deliverance of all the godly because at that time the souls of all the godly will be reunited with their bodies which will have been raised from the dust of the ground or effectually changed by the power of God, and with the kingdom of Satan and of death wholly destroyed, all the enemies of the church completely wiped out, and all calamities and adversities ceasing entirely, they will be brought into full possession of the kingdom of heaven.
The burning of Sodom was the deliverance of Lot. So also the burning of the world will be the full deliverance of all the godly, a comparison the apostle uses (2 Pet. 2:6–9): “God, in reducing the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes, condemned them to extinction and made them an example to those who were to be ungodly, and He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the self-indulgent behavior of the wicked (for he lived among those who tormented his righteous soul with their lawless deeds). The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial and to keep the unrighteous until the Day of Judgment to be punished.”
If someone were being held captive in a fortress, deliverance would come to him if that fortress should burn down after being struck by lightning or ignited by the subsequent flames. In the same way this present world is a prison for the godly. Therefore when God sets this prison on fire with heavenly fire, then the godly will be able to force their way out of it and into the palace of the heavenly fatherland and be restored to their right to return home, so to speak.
Blog post adapted from Theological Commonplaces: On the End of the World and On Hell, or Eternal Death copyright © 2021 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
Want to learn more? Order On the End of the World and On Hell.