The Eschatological Dilemma

A Study of Some Problems in the Eschatology of Erik Jakob Ekman

by Runar Eldebo

Hereby presented to the general public, those interested in Biblical questions, is the result of several years of research and study in a subject which has been, and is, of great importance for each and everyone who is concerned to correctly assess the end of humankind's development from a Biblical standpoint and to answer the question whether or not; according to the teaching of Holy Scripture, this development shall end in an unsolvable and endless dualism. A correct understanding of this special question involves, also, an understanding of several other primary Biblical questions. Because, if humankind's development ends, so that for the largest part it is in an endless divorce from God from whom it came, and so that "the strong one" in that way retains his quarry even if a "stronger" comes along who should take away his prey, it follows, therefore, that God's whole plan of salvation has been made ineffective and has been thwarted by the prince of darkness and the one chosen by God and sent on a mission to redeem the world has labored to a large degree for naught.

But, if one accepts that this will be the end result of God's plan of salvation and Christ's deeds of salvation, then the Biblical understanding of God and Christ are shaken at the foundation, and the most powerful weapons are placed in the hands of unbelief and denial of God. This in itself must be enough to require a serious and painstaking examination of what the Bible itself teaches regarding this important and far-reaching question. If I now, through these Biblical studies, have contributed in some small measure to placing these questions in the p roper light from a Biblical standpoint and thereby have upheld the sanctity of God's and Christ's work, then my job is not in vain, and I, with thankfulness to God, lay down my pen. With every honest searching after the golden truth, one has to be prepared to time and again stand, where it counts, before a sacrificial altar to offer much of that which in areas of growth was of importance for one's witness. But every victory in the area of truth is also costly, therefore, no offering is too great. It is this victory I myself know I have won and, therefore, I am ready to bring whatever offering.

Stockholm in November 1903.

From Evangelii Fullhet och de Andlosa Straffen (The Fullness of the Gospel and the Never Ending Punishment), by E.J. Ekman. (Translated by Tommy Carlson)

"You have created us for Thee, 0 God, and our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in Thee."


E.J. Ekman (1842-1915) was the first leader of The Mission Covenant Church of Sweden. He was a minister of the Lutheran State Church of Sweden who was touched by the great spiritual awakening and challenged to move his theological positions by P.P. Waldenström. E.J. Ekman was a skilled administrator and he was recognized as a beloved Bible teacher and preacher. The area of eschatology became more and more his utmost concern. In 1886, he published De yttersta tingen (The Last things, Stockholm), a biblical study of the future to come. And, after a real struggle with himself and with his earlier understanding of Christian faith he released his magnum opus in 1903, Evangelii Fullhet och de Andlosa Straffen (The Fullness of the Gospel and the Never Ending Punishment, Stockholm). Following this he had to resign his position, after 25 years, as president of The Mission Covenant Church.

Ekman defines eschatology as crucial for theology. Theology depends for what it is upon an appropriate eschatology. In eschatology the question of God is put forth most prominently. Through eschatology one can argue whether Christian faith has a human face or not. And, according to eschatology, one can reach a decision about the position of Jesus Christ in faith. Is he to be the Savior of the world or not?

Eschatology deals, in the writings of Ekman, with the basic questions of faith and theology. Although Ekman considers himself to be a Bible theologian and although interpreters of his theology agree in this (Arvet fran Ekman, The Heritage from Ekman, Nils Tagt, Falkoping, 1978), it is my intention to show that his theological work is more complicated and more interesting than merely reading and interpreting Scripture.

Sweden in the last part of the nineteenth century is the theological environment of Ekman's work. The rationalistic approach in philosophy and theology, anthropocentricity, and an emphasis upon the human face of God are some features of this environment. The rationalistic approachwas derived from the political and religious liberalism of the period. This liberalism was stressing freedom and fighting for the freedom of the religious mind. One could put Scripture against church dogmatics, however, that requires great faith in one's own rational argumentation — for example Viktor Rydberg's book Bibelns lara om Kristus (What Scripture teaches about Christ). This feature of anthropocentricity had great confidence that the appropriate criteria for interpretation of Christian faith are here and now, in human hands. The doctrines subject to criticism from this anthropocentric out look were of course the "irrational ones": the doctrines of the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, Satisfaction, and Never Ending Punishment. This academic rationalism and anthropocentricity had an intimate and pietistic parallel which sometimes could come very close to one another. And, that is what happened, I think, in the very beginning of The Mission Covenant Church of Sweden. What can seem to be a very biblicistic approach to Scripture, after serious study, can show itself, also, to be what I have described above as rationalistic and anthropocentric. A very good example of this is the human face of God as described by P.P. Waldenström. His five theses are as follows:

  1. That no change occurred in God's heart because of our fall.
  2. That it was, therefore, no wrath in God's heart which, through the fall, came in the way of human salvation.
  3. That the change which occurred through the fall was a change in humans only, in that we became sinful and fell from God and the life which is in God.
  4. That as a result of this fall a reconciliation was necessary for human salvation; but not a reconciliation which appeased God and presented him as merciful, but one which removed humankind's sin and presented humans righteous again.
  5. That this reconciliation has been achieved in Christ Jesus.

The face of God, here painted, and which is painted very much in contrast to the face of God in orthodoxy and church dogmatics, is certainly a rational work, not only a Biblical reading. Features in the earlier face of God are gone. Examples are the more juridical ways of thinking and thoughts of wrath and revenge in the Old Testament. The point is: this is not only a biblical work. Waldenström is not only reading "what is written," he is consciously choosing between passages in Scripture; he is valuing them. He is working in a complicated and interesting way and one is not being fair to just call it "biblicistic."

In the theology of E J . Ekman the overwhelming theme is the love of God. In fact you can say, that in the theology and eschatology of Ekman, the view of God according to Waldenström is given extraordinary theological domination. What does the love of God mean in the utmost perspective? Ekman claims that nothing but love forces God to save the world and that the ministry of Christ is derived out of that love, not a presupposition to it. In that way God is the grammatical subject of salvation. And, Ekman views the world more as theocentric than Christocentric - not in any wish to neglect the importance of Jesus Christ, but only to establish the basic source as God, the One and Only God. Reconciliation is therefore not through appeasing God's wrath. To take wrath away from God would be to change the righteousness of God. The function and purpose of God's wrath is to punish the evil, now and forever.

The crucial issue for Ekman is, therefore, the unsolved and never ending dualistic pattern — heaven and hell. Ekman finds this doctrine of heaven and hell not fitting in our own human concept of righteousness, a biblical concept of God, nor, even, the biblical presentation in its entirety (Evangelli fullhet, p. 1 7). What Ekman sees in the unsolved dualistic view is an end where God is defeated, where his salvatory purpose is not fulfilled. For Ekman the eschatological dilemma is the content of the concept of God. It is not a question of different views of God. It is a question of who and what God is said to be. Is God to defeat Satan, or is God in the end to be defeated? Is just a minority of humankind to be saved and the majority to be won by Satan? Is not, if this is to happen, the Christian concept of God emptied (Evangelii fullhet, pp. 163-164)?

The concept of God demands a victory without defeat. Eschatology, can in an inappropriate way, threaten the very concept of God. When Scripture presents God as "eternal," that means, according to Ekman, a God "for all ages." To be never ending is in the concept of God. By God we mean the One never ending, the Only never ending being. "Eternal" is a translation of aionios (aion) which means age, space of time, lifetime, but not never-ending-time. Now Ekman tries to see this God for all ages with the same face all the time, not choosing to work in one way one age, and in another way in another one. God's love, according to Ekman, has to be seen as a love for all ages and God's wrath, a wrath for all ages. Ekman follows Waldenström in seeing God's wrath as directed toward all evil, a wrath never to be appeased, a wrath fulfilling what it is to fulfill. This perspective is, for Ekman, to show that the biblical God is not a deistic God. God did not exist, create the world, and, thereafter, assume no control over it. That is a God being no God. God can never withdraw. To be God, is to be for all ages, showing the same face, working the same way, fulfilling the very purpose: salvation of humankind through Jesus Christ.

Ekman connects human beings remaining in evil with a defeat for God in his very heart. Because wrath does not cease as long as evil exists, so the feature of love in the very heart of God depends upon the eschatalogical issue.

But Ekman is also wrestling with the independence of God. If God is God, then no one or no thing can stand in his way. Church dogmatics and sermonic literature put the human will or Satan himself in his way. All this is not to really expect everything from him, not to trust him to be ultimately concerned about humans, and not to see him as the ultimate power and purpose of the universe.

Christian eschatology is not to be about your own profit. There are not to be questions of personal or even private aim. Instead, Christian eschatology turns you out into "the healing of what is human." The fortune of one human being is, in Christian eschatology, intimately bound to the fortunes of "the whole" (Evangelii fullhet, p. 1). There is no perfect fortune without the fortune of the entire organism of humanity. This is clear to us out of our natural sense of justice. We just cannot accept inside us the thought of any individual facing never ending punishment. To quote, in translation, a famous passage from Ekman:

Or you who defend a different dogma and think it belongs to one of Christianity's most important points of doctrine, have you earnestly sought to grasp its horrible contents? Have you? An d can you be happy, eat and sleep, talk and joke with full knowledge — in accordance with your understanding — that perhaps your father, your mother, your husband or wife, your children, your brothers, and sisters and millions of fellow human beings exist in hopeless despair, in endless agony, agony which will never cease, but instead, when a million years are past , this ghastly situation will have only just begun! I ask : have you seriously considered this matter? Can you live with such thoughts, with such a conviction'? Must not your own life be poisoned by such and understanding? Your concept of God deranged and the whole mission of Christ to a large part brought to naught? (Evangelii fullhet, p. 14, translation by Graig A. Nordstrom.)

Ekman deals with the poison of a doctrine of never ending punishment. That is, to interpret: an individual in that belief will be separated from what is really human, isolated from the organism of humanity. In this way doctrine uglifies what is inside this individual. And Ekman, in the passage quoted above, distinguishes between what is preached and "believed" and what is really lived — what is the given character of the philosophy of life for all individuals. And the fact that individuals endure life shows in reality that they, in the depths of their hearts, do not hold to the doctrine of never ending punishment. This is the case, according to Ekman, unless one is anti-human. And, what counts in human affairs is to be valid for divine reality, also. Ekman concludes, reasoning in an unproblematic way of his, from our natural sense of justice to the order of the divine reality.

What then is the human? Man is created for aionic life and aionic salvation (Evangelii fullhet, p. 90). That means for a life through ages and through those ages to be saved. There are many ages in God's housekeeping. They are all limited, transcending into one another and never endless. They are eternal, but never in the sense of endless. They are without number, but sufficient for their purpose — to save humans by the changing and transformation of the human will so that it freely and willingly agrees with God's.

One interpretation of Ekman could be that the life of a person is too great to fit into only one age. The secret of the human is too much of a riddle to be captured between the cradle and the grave. Human life on earth is superficial and selfish, charmed and captivated by the outside of things — blinded by life's fascinating illusions. A child of the moment is a human, fluttering around in life's peripheral sphere. But sooner or later he or she comes to a boundary over which he or she cannot cross — the boundary between the surface and the depths, between the shell and the kernel. Some come in this age, some in ages to come, to a moment of certain completion and maturity. Ekman is laboring with the concept of a thorough self-study. Ekman is thinking of a library with as many manuscripts as the number of individuals (Evangelii fullhet, p. 34). Nothing here can be blotted out or changed by human hand. This study is a moment of confrontation with the aim of salvation.

Ekman is wrestling both with the questions of justice and of human identity. How, in Christian eschatology, to be fair to the riddle of the human and the challenges of human life and, also, to the deep conviction that persons are created to aionic salvation. God has a purpose for the different and difficult ways in human life and the very existence of the ages is God's tool to save humankind. The ages exist and will continue to exist until all humankind is saved. And, all humankind has to be saved. Ekman excludes the possibility of never ending punishment. He also excludes the possibility of annihilation. Every individual has his or her coming into existence from God and is part of God's very being. A little piece of God is in each one of us. The life and spirit of human individuals are a breeze (breath) of God's own life and spirit and are, therefore, not to cease (Evangelii fullhet. p. 140).

Thus will the ages carry humans to salvation. The will and freedom of humans is limited. God's will alone is sovereign. The purpose of the ages is to bring one up to perfect freedom by the changing and transformation of the human will so that it freely and willingly agrees with God's. God's tool for that, together with the ages, is his judgments. God's judgments and punishments all have the purpose of salvation.

Ekman points at the overestimate of human freedom. An individual is never as free as he or she may believe. He or she never decided to be. He or she did not decide the place, the age, or the parents. The possibilities for individuals to choose their lives are, in fact, strictly limited. So humans are not to decide in sovereign freedom their purpose with God. Whether the journey here be short or long, there are the ages to serve the changing and transformation to agreement with God.

Ekman jumps right into the most difficult issue throughout the history of theology. Earlier theologians have never highly estimated the human will in its freedom. Salvation has very much been a question of God's will, of predestination. Ekman follows Luther and Calvin in stressing God's will, meaning that the utmost decision is God's — but he links God and the human so closely together that the possibility of never ending divorce is missing.

Ekman never speaks of the resurrection of the body. He is more concerned with the salvation of the human soul, separated from the body. And, he views this soul as a willing, thinking being in a condition still influenced by God. The time of grace is not to be limited to a person's short stay in the body nor does God's will to save change from time to time or age to age. Ekman argues that nowhere in Scripture does it say that our present form of life is the only one in which conversion can take place. It even points in other directions. Ekman stresses especially I Peter 4:6 and Ephesians 4:9-10.

Without conversion there is no communion with God. And, there is no life with God without going through Jesus Christ. The punishment to be is a discipline or a training which takes into consideration the salvation of the sinner, the human being. And the duration of this punishment depends upon how long it takes to gain the end of it — the sinner's submission and love for God in perfect freedom. The judgment day is, therefore, as creation, a period of time rather than a moment. It is a road leading from the surface to the depths, from the shell to the kernel of what it is to be human.

The theological method of Ekman is a working in the tension between exegesis and dogmatics. He wants to be in the ministry of truth. He likes to see himself as one getting rid of church dogmatics for its own sake and looking instead for the real meaning of Scripture and for what is fair to human existence. In his reading and interpretation of Scripture, he claims logical consistency and he refers to our natural sense of justice. This natural sense of justice guides Ekman, for example, in the interpretation of the Revelation to John. Its function is as a criterion inside faith (Evangelii fullhet, p. 1 32); it helps us to evaluate what is said to be Holy Revelation.

The important passages from Scripture are: I Cor. 15:22-28, Eph. 1:3-10 and Luke 15:4. These passages for Ekman are places where he tries to find the answers to some of his questions like: From where does the universalistic approach come? What is it to be Christian and to be congregation in this age, and why? For how long is it possible that God continues to go after an individual?

The perspective of human life grows when reading E.J. Ekman. To be an individual is to have one life in many worlds and one life in many ages. The short run, often described as between cradle and grave, does not answer the important and interesting eschatological questions. What Ekman really tries to do is to dig deeper into Scripture — not stopping any human question or consideration in this area. In this he was one of many who were putting too many questions for the Church and who were having to pay for it. And, he really did pay. But, he was also one who showed courage and love. Love for humankind. Love for truth.

What is missing, perhaps, is a consideration of God's own sovereignty. What Ekman courageously does is to oppose a doctrine of never ending punishment with a doctrine of universalism for sure. As Karl Barth later put it:

If we are to respect the freedom of divine grace, we cannot venture the statement that it must and will finally be coincident with the world of man as such. No such right or necessity can legitimately be deduced. Just as the gracious God does not need to elect or call any single man, so He does not need to elect or call all mankind (Karl Barth: Church Dogmatics, New York, 1957, Vol. II, Part 2, p. 417).