The Four Last Things

Reflections and Advent Candle Lighting Litanies on Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell
I once heard a story about a cook who always cut off the ends of a roast before putting it in the pan. When someone asked her why, the cook admitted that she didn’t know. It was just the way her mother taught her. Curiosity piqued, she inquired of her mother as to the purpose, only to learn that the mother’s pan was small and it was the only way to get a roast to fit. Sometimes we do something in a certain way because it’s always been done that way, so we think it must be the “right” way. I wonder if we’ve been doing something similar with our Advent practices.

Every year as Advent approaches, I receive at least one email asking me what the correct order is for the Advent themes (hope, love, joy, and peace) and on what week the rose candle is supposed to be lit (the third). And every year I provide the information with a caveat: Advent, its themes, the use of a wreath, candle lighting—none of these things are mandated by Scripture. They are tools for proclaiming the gospel and forming Christ’s followers, and they are useful only as long as they help us achieve those goals. Lately I’ve begun to wonder if we are using the tools of Advent out of tradition without truly understanding their purpose and how best to use them. Do we understand Advent?

In many churches, Advent is seen as the start of a Christmas season that ends on Christmas Day or certainly the first of the new year. By the start of Advent, Christmas decorations adorn our sanctuaries, and Christmas carols feature prominently in worship. We attend children’s Christmas pageants and choir-led Christmas celebrations early in December. It’s hard to brace against the commercialization of the season and the expectations of parishioners who prefer the lights of Christmas over the darkness of Advent. “Christmas creep” is real. But if Advent is a tool not mandated by Scripture, does it really matter? Well, yes—and no.

It doesn’t matter in the sense that salvation doesn’t depend upon it. Christians across time, place, and denominations have not marked the Advent season. While it may be hard to fathom, Advent does not even hinge on the use of wreaths and candle lighting, a practice that began in the middle of the nineteenth century and wasn’t adopted in some traditions until the 1970s or ’80s.

On the other hand, not observing a season like Advent means that it is easy to miss parts of the gospel story. There is evidence that suggests that, already by the fourth century, church leaders thought Advent themes from Scripture were important enough to develop tools and structures to ensure the church attended to them. As is often the case, different practices developed independently of each other, and some confusion arose. Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1038, when Christmas fell on a Monday and different parishes observed Advent in different weeks, that church leaders set the start date and length for Western Christianity’s Advent season. It should also be noted that, while Christmas was used as a marker for setting the start date, Christmas and Advent weren’t as closely connected as they are today. In fact, Christmas was and still is its own mini-season spanning the twelve days from December 25 until January 6, the beginning of Epiphany.

So what were the biblical teachings that church leaders thought important enough to create tools and structure for? It wasn’t today’s familiar themes of hope, love, joy, and peace, but rather, according to Fleming Rutledge, “the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell—in that order, so that the subject of hell was preached on the Sunday just before Christmas Eve. That was no accident. The idea was—and is—to show how the light of the birth of Christ appeared against a backdrop of darkness, depravity, and despair” (Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, 2018, p. 238). Rutledge cautions us against leaning too heavily into the idea of Advent as preparation for Christmas and encourages the church instead to “emphasize the theme of watching and waiting” (5). Christmas preparations put us at the center, as if our busyness could somehow usher in Christ’s first or second coming. Watching and waiting, on the other hand, require us to be actively attentive to God’s Word, the world around us, and the state of our own relationship with God. It shouldn’t be so surprising, then, that originally Advent was very similar to Lent, with both emphasizing penitence and sometimes including the practice of fasting.

If the number of times I have heard it referenced in the past few years is any indication, something about Rutledge’s naming of the medieval themes of death, judgment, heaven, and hell has caught our imagination. I don’t think any of us would argue for setting aside talk of hope, love, joy, or peace. Our world needs more of all of those. But maybe it is a result of COVID or a realization that in many of our churches we have stopped talking about death, judgment, heaven, and hell—or at least stopped talking about them in meaningful, intentional, or helpful ways—that we find ourselves at least intrigued by those themes.

Maybe, like me, you are wondering how best to use tools like Advent wreaths to communicate a more robust understanding of Advent. If that describes you, are you adventurous enough to consider what Advent might be like if you were to follow the themes of the four “last things” and courageous enough to suggest it at the next worship planning meeting?

I’ve done some initial work on each theme, and I offer it to you as a place to start your own thinking. Each of these themes warrants much more study and reflection than what can be provided in Reformed Worship, and there may be tools better suited for the task than what I’ve provided here. As always, we are eager to see where you take these ideas in your own services and liturgies so they in turn can be sources of inspiration to others.


Advent Candle Lighting Litanies on the “Four Last Things”

First Sunday of Advent: Death and Hope

[An introduction for the bulletin or newsletter that could also be spoken at the beginning of worship on the first Sunday in Advent.]

When you’re traveling, it’s very helpful to know where you are coming from so you can locate your current position. And your current position is needed in order to figure out the journey you need to take in order to reach your destination. Without knowing your exact destination, it’s difficult to ascertain if you have actually arrived. In the case of the Christian year, the journey is circular, with Advent essentially serving as both the beginning and the ending of the cycle. Advent introduces the story; it is the prelude to Christ’s first coming to two young parents living temporarily in the small town of Bethlehem. This is where we have come from. Advent also leans into the future, into Christ’s second coming, our future destination, the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Connecting the past and the future is the present, the now.

Advent, in a way unlike any other part of the Christian year, orients us to our current reality—a reality not that different from Jesus’ day, with oppressive rulers, injustices, displaced persons, refugees, the powerful and the powerless, mass killings, and unimaginable grief. It is the darkness of the present moment—not just globally, but in our communities, churches, families, and our very selves—that helps us see the Nativity for the bright light in the darkness that it was. If we don’t acknowledge the “not-yetness” of this world, refuse to name and join in the laments of our fellow humans, and fail to address injustices, we loose our bearings.

Locating ourselves in the present darkness raises within us a longing for the Second Coming. Our faith in the Second Coming is only possible because we know the past; Christ has already come and has already been victorious. Advent, then, is what reorients us so we can make sense of the gospel and can join Mary in proclaiming, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46–47).



[Ideally the worship space would be dark and sparsely decorated.]

As Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and the acknowledgment that we are dust,

so Advent begins by acknowledging the reality of death.

Let us pray to the Lord of life and the overcomer of death.

Lord God,

We begin our Advent journey surrounded by darkness,

acknowledging our grief for those who a year ago sat beside us

and for children who never had that opportunity,

all gone but never forgotten.

Today we remember and name those who have died this year.

[Allow time for names to be spoken aloud or for silent reflection.]

We know that grief does not know time.

It may change, but it doesn’t go away.

Today we remember and name those we’ve lost in years past.

[Allow time for names to be spoken aloud or for silent reflection.]

Lord, you have known grief,

the loss of friends through death,

but also through betrayal.

Loss takes many forms,

and so we name before you

the many ways we have experienced loss this past year.

[Allow time for spoken and silent reflection.]

We see all too much death:

refugees dying as they cross deserts, mountains, and seas;

so many lives lost as a result of gun violence, drugs, and war—

more trauma, more death, more grief.

In the midst of death caused by the chaos of nature—

floods, hurricanes, tornados, fires—

or by people’s actions,

we pray for a peace that defies comprehension.

Lord of life,

we recognize our own mortality,

though we don’t often want to talk about it.

Yet we are a people of hope,

for you are the God of resurrection.

Jesus has overcome death.

We know that, having been joined to Christ in our baptism,

we are also joined to Christ in his death,

“in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead

through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his,

we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:4–6).

Therefore, we look forward to the day of your return.

Then what was once dead will be made alive,

what was decayed will be renewed,

and death will be no more.



Lighting the Candle

People of God,

because we serve a God who overcomes death,

we light this candle, a small light in the dark,

a symbol of protest and hope,

proclaiming together in one voice:

“Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.

But thanks be to God!

He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, stand firm.

Let nothing move you.

Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord,

because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

—based on 1 Corinthians 15:55–58


Second Sunday of Advent: Judgment and Love

[An introduction for the bulletin or newsletter that could also be spoken at the beginning of worship on the second Sunday in Advent.]

Last week we focused on death. This week we are talking about what comes after death—namely, judgment. After we die, all people—believers and nonbelievers, whether we were good people or not—will be judged. For many of us that is a scary thought. But what if it didn’t need to be? What if we could look forward to the judgment?

Imagine you went to the doctor and were told that you have a tumor, a growth. Sadly, some of us don’t need to imagine that scenario. But for the rest of us, imagine you had a tumor, and the doctor told you that if you did nothing, you would certainly die from it, but if you had surgery to cut the tumor out, you would live. The cutting away of unhealthy cells would be necessary for the healthy cells to thrive.

What if Judgment Day isn’t about a vengeful God seeking retribution, but rather about a God bringing about restoration, a God of healing, a God who overturns injustices, a God who puts right all that is wrong—a God of love? What if God’s wrath was God’s righteous indignation directed at all that is wrong in this world?

While we all have parts of our lives that need to be refined at the Day of Judgment, God will recognize God’s own as those who act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with him (Micah 6:8). God’s people are those who yearn for justice and stand with the oppressed. God’s people welcome judgment because they desire the purity and holiness that allow them to have right relationships with God, fellow humans, and creation. God’s people welcome judgment because they stand in solidarity with those suffering from injustice and are crying out, “How long?” N. T. Wright writes:

In a world of systematic injustice, bullying, violence, arrogance and oppression, the thought that there might be a coming day when the wicked are firmly put in their place and the poor and weak are given their due is the best news there can be. Faced with a world in rebellion, a world full of exploitation and wickedness, a good God must be a God of judgment.”

Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (2008, p. 137).


Lighting the Candle

[Light the first candle before the service. The following litany can be done by three readers and a fourth person pouring water into the baptismal font and lighting the candle, or those tasks can be done by one of the readers. Because Voice 3 reads only one question, it is a good opportunity to engage the help of a non-reader. The final section should be printed in the bulletin or projected for the congregation to join in.]

Hear these words from 2 Peter 3.

[Begin pouring water into the baptismal font or bowl when Voice 1 says “and the earth,” trying to make it splash loudly for all to hear.]

Voice 1: “Long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water.

[Voice 1 pauses until all the water is poured out and then continues reading.]

By these waters also the world of that time

was deluged and destroyed.

Voice 2: By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and the destruction of the ungodly.

[Light the second candle.]

Voice 1: But do not forget this one thing, dear friends:

With the Lord a day is like a thousand years,

Voice 2: [interrupting] and a thousand years are like a day.

Voice 1: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise,

Voice 2: [interrupting] as some understand slowness.

Voice 1: [looking at Voice 2] Instead he is patient with you,

not wanting anyone to perish,

but everyone to come to repentance.

Voice 1: But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.

Voice 2: [growing in intensity] The heavens will disappear with a roar;

the elements will be destroyed by fire,

[after a pause and more quietly]

and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.

Voice 3: Since everything will be destroyed in this way,

what kind of people ought you to be?

Voice 1: You ought to live holy and godly lives

as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.

Voice 2: That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire,

and the elements will melt in the heat.

Voice 1: But in keeping with his promise

we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth,

Voices 1 & 2: where righteousness dwells.” (2 Peter 3:5b–14)

Voice 1: And so will the prophecy of Isaiah be fulfilled:

“The oppressor will come to an end,

      and destruction will cease;

      the aggressor will vanish from the land.

In love a throne will be established;

       in faithfulness a man will sit on it—

      one from the house of David—

one who in judging seeks justice

      and speeds the cause of righteousness.” 
(Isaiah 16:4b-5)

And so we watch and we wait.

Come Lord Jesus, come!


The Third Sunday of Advent: Heaven and Joy

[An introduction for the bulletin or newsletter that could also be spoken at the beginning of worship on the third Sunday in Advent.]

We continue our journey through the four last things. Death, then judgment, and now heaven await those who belong to Jesus Christ. But the heaven of Scripture is very different from the heaven that has captured many of our imaginations—the idea of floating celestial beings in a nonstop worship set of praise choruses. Neither is heaven a specific location somewhere above us in the atmosphere. It is more akin to a parallel universe from which Christ will come again to transform and renew this world. We get a sense of heaven in liminal spaces and moments: the birth of a child, a beautiful sunset, or a stirring piece of music; in a loving gesture, acts of justice, and worship, especially as we participate in the sacraments. In those moments heaven breaks through and gives us a glimpse of what could be—of what should be. In an interview with the Christian History Institute, N. T. Wright noted that we are not saved from the world; “[r]ather, we are saved FOR the world—rescued to be rescuers, put right (justification) to be putting-right people (justice); restored to the beauty of being image-bearers so that we may be beauty-bringers, beauty-creators, for the world. We are, in other words, to be saved ultimately, in the future, from corruption, decay, and death; from being ‘out of line,’ unjust; from ugliness. So, the new ‘you’ will be the ‘you’ that God had in mind all along” (“Life after life after death,”

When Christ returns, heaven will come to earth, and the earth will be restored. There will be both continuity and discontinuity with what was. But we know that the work we do now in caring for creation, in restorative justice, in our acts of love, through our own creative work—all these things make a difference. They won’t just pass away.

So with joy we celebrate Christ’s birth, when heaven came down as a child, and we look forward to Christ’s return, when all of creation will be renewed and our bodies transformed. In the meantime, we join in the work of the Holy Spirit: we restore, we create, we await.


Lighting the Candle

[Light the first two candles before the service. The readings could be done by one voice, or each passage could be read by a different person without pauses between them. If you would like to have the congregation respond with Romans 8:38–39 make sure to include it in the bulletin or projection slides.]

Listen to these words from the apostle Paul:

Reading: Romans 8:9–11

Reading: Colossians 3:1–4

[Light the third candle.]

Reading: Philippians 3:20–21

Reading: Romans 8:38–39

And so with joy we proclaim:

“I am convinced that neither death nor life,

neither angels nor demons,

neither the present nor the future,

nor any powers,

neither height nor depth,

nor anything else in all creation,

will be able to separate us from the love of God

that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”


The Fourth Sunday of Advent: Hell and Peace

[An introduction for the bulletin or newsletter that could also be spoken at the beginning of worship on the fourth Sunday in Advent.]

Whether or not we like to talk about it, we all will die. Following our deaths, we will experience a judgment that will be welcomed by some but catch others by surprise. We know that those who are in Christ will be raised to life, their bodies will be transformed, and heaven will come down and the earth will be restored. But what about those who are not in Christ, those who don’t profess Christ as their Lord and Savior?

The truth is that though Scripture provides many warnings about the perils of not following Christ, of not living a just and righteous life, it doesn’t exactly lay out whom that includes and what exactly happens. We do know that “there must be such a thing as judgment. Judgment—the sovereign declaration that this is good and to be upheld and vindicated, and that is evil and to be condemned—is the only alternative to chaos” (N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, 2008, p. 178). However, what Scripture is most concerned about is our life here and now and how we choose to live. Will we worship and serve the Lord of the universe and be part of the Spirit’s transformative work of building God’s kingdom, or are we going to put ourselves at the center of our world, worshiping an idol created in our own image, thus losing our very selves and our souls?

“The power of the gospel lies not in the offer of a new spirituality or religious experience, not in the threat of hellfire (certainly not in the threat of being ‘left behind’), which can be removed if only the hearer checks this box, says this prayer, raises a hand, or whatever, but in the powerful announcement that God is God, that Jesus is Lord, that the powers of evil have been defeated, that God’s new world has begun” (Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 227). Shalom. Peace on Earth.


Lighting the Candle

[Light three candles before the service. The readings can be read by one or two readers. The person who reads from John 1:9–13 should continue without a break to lead the congregational reading of John 1:14. The declaration of faith should appear in the bulletin or be projected.]

Reading: Psalm 36:1–9

[Light the fourth candle.]

Reading: John 1:9–13

Declaration of Faith: John 1:14

The Word became flesh

and made his dwelling among us.

We have seen his glory,

the glory of the one and only Son,

who came from the Father,

full of grace and truth.

Rev. Joyce Borger is senior editor of Reformed Worship and a resource development specialist at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Reformed Worship 149 © September 2023, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.