Review – The Promise of the Future by Cornelis Venema

The Promise of the Future, written by Mid-America Reformed Seminary’s Cornelis Venema, is a single-volume comprehensive work on eschatology. Venema draws inspiration from his mentor Anthony Hoekema’s The Bible and the Future but also displays originality and significant expansion. Although the majority of his sources are Reformed, he engages with the full range of evangelical theologies and at times interacts with mainstream, Catholic, and cult views.

Promise opens by establishing a biblical framework for interpreting history. Christ is the centerpiece of history; the Old Testament history pointed to his advent in “the fullness of time.” His first advent marked an epoch in salvation history and inaugurated the kingdom which the second advent will consummate. The next section concerns the intermediate state of departed souls. Venema emphasizes the abnormality of death and the necessity of the body for full human life. Unbiblical notions such as soul sleep and purgatory are stated and refuted.  This section, focusing on individual eschatology somewhat interrupts the book’s flow, and perhaps would have been better placed after the section on millennial views.

Promise continues with a general examination of the second coming of Christ. This event is both the centerpiece of the church’s future expectation and the consummation of salvation history. These two concepts feature as controls on Venema’s eschatology, providing prima facie cases against Dispensationalism and chiliasm respectively. Venema negotiates between texts that stress immanence and those which imply delay by a nuanced explanation of “the signs of the times.” He denies that “signs” refer exclusively to a time immediately prior to the second coming. Rather, the signs run throughout this period of history as constant reminders of the truths of Christ’s two advents yet intensify as the age progresses. For example, although Jewish people are being steadily converted now, a remarkable conversion of Jewish people will precede the second advent.Anti-Christian teaching has always been in existence, but widespread apostasy will immediately precede Christ’s coming. The signs, then, are not wholly new things but progressively intensifying features of the new covenant era.

The heart of Promise is the approximately 150 pages dedicated to explaining and critiquing the various millennial views. Venema gives historic and biblical overviews of all the positions before beginning critiquing them individually. This approach creates some repetition but allows the reader to grasp the various rationales and emphases before being burdened by polemics.

On Venema’s account, premillennialism fails due to lacking explicit evidence and failing to recognize the second coming as the consummation of history. Dispensationalism is even less satisfactory because it introduces errors concerning the role of the church and deflects attention from the real blessed hope, Christ’s visible return to judge the wicked and deliver his people. Venema’s descriptions of Dispensationalism are refreshingly accurate for an outsider; I expect Dispensationalists will agree with his description, if not his critique. Venema devotes a 30-page chapter to Revelation 20, arguing for “nowmillenialism,” the saints’ present reign with Christ. He embraces William Hendriksen’s progressive parallelism theory of Revelation to harmonize Revelation 19 and 20 into varying descriptions of the same event. The binding of Satan occurred during Jesus’ ministry and is effective throughout the church age in the sense that Satan cannot prevent the spread of the gospel to all the nations. The “first resurrection” of Revelation 20 refers to regeneration, the solution to the second death.I will note, however, that Venema does not deal very seriously with Old Testament prophecies that seem to indicate a future time of unprecedented yet not complete prosperity.

Venema argues against golden-age postmillennialism along several lines. A true golden age postmillennialist must make a sharp qualitative break in history sometime between the first and second advents. This runs counter to inaugurated eschatology, which teaches that the first advent ushered in the kingdom to be completed at the second advent. The golden age also requires a sequential understanding of Revelation 19 and 20, against which Venema previously argued. Many contemporary postmillennialists grant that the “millennium” refers to the entire inter-advent period, but that  at some point (perhaps gradually) before Christ’s return the Church will see unprecedented blessing, usually including the approval of the world’s governments. Venema sees this as a major concession, eliminating an exegetical difficulty at the expense of dropping a major justification. He further asserts that the signs of the times militate against postmillennialism, since many of them would be entirely absent during a golden age. Finally, postmillennialism mutes the New Testament’s emphasis on the believer’s suffering, his status as pilgrim and exile in this world. It substitutes a theology of glory for the biblical theology of the cross.

The final section of The Promise of the Future covers the events attached to the second coming. The resurrection of the believers’ bodies is the last great event of redemption. A person’s resurrected body will be significantly altered (renewed) yet somehow still distinctively his own. “Our resurrected bodies will exhibit all of the marks and benefits of Christ’s saving work.” Both believers and unbelievers will be resurrected unto judgment. Believers will be accepted on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone yet will receive varying rewards according to their faithfulness. According to Venema, these rewards are of grace and not of merit (not even half-merit), but it is difficult to see how this is the case if they are really commensurate with believers’ performance. Unbelievers will be condemned to eternal, conscious torment. Venema considers several alternatives to eternal punishment and argues against them. Finally, Promise closes with a discussion of the new heavens and new earth. Like our bodies, the new creation will be a renewed creation with continuities to the present – all things new, not all new things. The distinctive blessing of the eternal state is perfect, unbreakable communion with God in our resurrected bodies.

The Promise of the Future contains numerous sections of personal application. They are not tacked on as devotional afterthoughts, but well integrated reflections springing from the material.  Though close to 500 pages, the accessible and engaging prose keeps the reader moving steadily toward the index. This book is versatile enough that it could be read by a theologically interested layperson or assigned as a general text in an eschatology course. Venema’s uncommon ability to excel simultaneously at instruction, polemic, and application make Promise a valuable addition to the Christian’s library. It is currently my first recommendation for a book on eschatology.

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Published in: on May 11, 2010 at 9:04 pm  Comments (2)  
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