End Times 101
The term “eschatology” is often batted around in end times websites, ufology forums and other research groups. What exactly does this term mean?
Wikipedia provides a good overview of Christian Eschatology:
“Christian eschatology (from the Greek words ἔσχατος [eskhatos] last and λογία [logia] discourse) is the study of Christian beliefs concerning the final events and ultimate purposes of the world. In Christian theology, eschatology is the study of the destiny of created things, especially of humankind and of the Church, according to the purposes of God.
The “last things” are important issues to Christian faith, although eschatology is a relatively recent development as a formal division of Christian theology.
Epistle to the Romans 8 (ESV):
- 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.
- 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope
- 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
- 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
- 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
- 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?
- 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Christian eschatology concerns the afterlife, the return of Jesus, the End of the World, resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment, renewal of creation, Heaven and Hell, and the consummation of all of God’s purposes.
The term eschatology is often used in a more popular and narrower sense when comparing various interpretations of the Book of Revelation and other prophetic parts of the Bible, such as the Book of Daniel and various sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, concerning the timing of what many Christians believe to be the imminent second coming of Christ. There are various controversies concerning the order of events leading to and following the return of Jesus and the religious significance of these events.
Not all Christians agree with the study of the End Times, notably followers of Eastern Orthodoxy but also members of other sects, who regard most popular discussion of this topic to be fundamentally and dangerously false. Theologians from a number of traditions point out that the Book of Revelation was included late in the Biblical canon, because of lingering questions regarding its usefulness. Many early teachers thought the Christian faith should be single-mindedly preoccupied with what is most transparently understood concerning salvation. The book is not included in the liturgical readings of most traditions. Nevertheless, a great number of Christians consider the effort to understand the Book of Revelation (and other prophecies) to be one of the most important issues, if not the chief objective, of their Christian faith.
Prophetic events prior to the return of Christ
Generally speaking, there are four approaches or perspectives in Christian eschatology.
The Historicist looks to Scripture, and especially to its fulfilled prophecies, for the religious significance in past or present historical events.
The Preterist believes that most or all of the prophecies, especially of the book of Revelation, have already been fulfilled. Revelation is understood as predicting the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, which was the event prophesied by Jesus that would signal the “end of the age” (see Matt 24; Mark 13; Luke 17; 21). The opening and closing verses of the book of Revelation state that the events prophesied in it were to take place “shortly,” and that the time was “near” (Rev 1:1, 3; 22:7, 10–12, 20). The book fits into the category of a “covenant lawsuit,” in which judgment is pronounced against the nation of Israel for violating the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant. It prophesies the end of that covenant, the beginning of the New Covenant, and the inheritance of the Kingdom of God by the saints (cf. Dan 7:18; 12:1–7).
The Futurist looks for religious significance for the present time in events that are thought to be future in history or beyond history. The Futurists have been subdivided into “Premillennialism,” “Postmillennialism,” and “Amillennialism,” named after their particular interpretation of the symbolic “thousand years” of Revelation Chapter 20.
The Idealist looks for regularities, patterns or laws of history or of the internal life which are of perpetual religious significance. These patterns may be continually displayed in history or displayed at numerous times or in a special context (such as in the Liturgy). Idealism may be combined with historicism or futurism, so that the pattern is an echo of a consummate or archetypical event sometime in history or at the end of the world. Additionally, some interpretations are purely metaphorical. Diversity of opinion arises when a particular passage concerning the kingdom of heaven is interpreted ideally, for example, which other groups interpret as history, and others as future or future beyond history. All of these would be opposed to a merely metaphorical interpretation of the same passage.
Literal Millennial Views
Within the special study of Biblical eschatology, there are diverse opinions about the Kingdom of God. Some interpret Rev 20:1–6, concerning the 1,000-year (or millennial) rule of Christ on Earth, to be a future age. The belief that the Kingdom of God predicted by the Old Testament, the Messianic Age or Millennium of Messiah, is still future and will come about prior to the final judgment and final eternal state is called millennialism. A commonly accepted premise of millennialism is that this Messianic rule promised in the Old Testament has been postponed until God’s purposes in the New Testament church have been fulfilled.
Premillennialism is a futurist historical interpretation. It predicts that Christ’s second coming will inaugurate a literal 1,000-year earthly Kingdom, at the conclusion of which will be the final judgment. Upon Christ’s return many anticipate a partial resurrection, only of the faithful, who will reign with Christ for one thousand years. During this time Satan will be imprisoned or restrained in the Abyss or Bottomless Pit. At the end of the thousand years, Satan will be released to deceive the godless people of Gog, who will have re-accumulated during the Millennium. The wicked will attempt to surround the Holy City once more during this Millennial rebellion. Again they will be defeated and for all time. The Great White Throne Judgement will follow, and Satan will be cast into the Lake of Fire. The Devil will be condemned to hell for all eternity, together with those who have trusted in him rather than in God. This penultimate event is the Last Judgment of the Great White Throne. Each person will be consigned to either hell or heaven. The end of all things is a new heaven and a new earth, the mystery of an age of endless ages, when there will no longer be death and “God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). This is that final moment of ultimate perfection and bliss toward which all orthodox Christians finally direct their hope.
Premillennialists fall into two primary categories: historic premillennialism and dispensational premillennialism. Historic premillennialism is so-called because it is the classic form which may be found in writings of some of the early church fathers, although in an undeveloped form. The Montanist sect espoused premillennialism, and their “fanatical excesses” brought premillennialism into discredit with the wider church (Schaff; ).
Dispensational premillennialism is that form which derives from John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) and dispensational theology. It is dispensational premillennialism that first taught the notion of a pretribulation rapture. Pretribulationists believe that the second coming will be in two stages separated by a seven-year period of tribulation. At the first he will return in the air to rescue those who are Christians at the time (the rapture). Then follows a seven-year period of suffering, in which the Antichrist will conquer the world and kill those who refuse to worship him. At the end of the seven years, the final witness will go out before men and angels, and Christ will return to the earth. He will defeat the Antichrist and rescue the Jews and those who have converted to Christianity during the tribulation. Dispensationalism has also spawned Midtribulationists, who believe that Christians will not be removed until 3-1/2 years of the final seven years of this age have elapsed. They place the Rapture when the Temple sacrifices have been halted and the Antichrist has enshrined himself in the Temple, calling himself God.
Posttribulationists (generally the view of historic premillennialism) see no appreciable difference in the timing of the rapture and the “official” second coming. Thus they hold that Christ will not return until the end of the tribulation and that Christians will suffer for the faith as they bring forth the final witness associated with the 5th seal.
The belief in the pretribulation or midtribulation rapture theories of dispensationalism is often criticized, on the grounds that it results in the division of Christ’s single return into two stages. Some see it as an impossible “apartheid of the Elect” of sorts which is not seen in scripture. Pretribulationists defend it on the basis of a scripture passage which affirms that God has not appointed His people to wrath. Posttribulationists counter that the tribulation associated with the final witness of the saints is in no way connected to the wrath of God. This wrath of God will only come at the last day, and it will fall upon the heads of the wicked at the last judgment.
Some specifically criticize dispensational premillennialism for anticipating the rebuilding of the Hebrew Temple and the offering again of animal sacrifices during the millennial reign of Christ. In dispensationalism the return of the sacrifices will be ceremonial in nature. Like the ceremony of Communion or the Lord’s Supper, they believe that the sacrifices will be performed on the appointed feast days in the future Millennium. They say that the reason the animal sacrifices will continue is because they will be enacted as a memorial to the Savior who came to earth as the Sacrifice Lamb. However, critics view the idea of blood sacrifices reinstituted after Christ’s return as incompatible with Christ’s completed work and find the idea abhorrent (O. T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church, p. 248).
Postmillennialism is of two antithetical varieties, millennial and non-millennial. Some postmillennialists believe that the millennium is a future golden age, when Christian saints will reign over all of the earth before the return of Christ and the end of the world. This variety gained brief notoriety through the Anabaptist movement in the 16th century, in the segment led by Thomas Muntzer. Utopian ideals and Marxism in particular have at times brought about revivals of millenarian belief derived from this variety of postmillennial expectations.
Non-Literal Millennial Views
Postmillennialism of the more common form is sometimes called “optimistic amillennialism“. As in amillennialism the “thousand years” is an idiomatic expression for the entire period following the resurrection of Christ until His return. Neither version anticipates a physical throne set up in geographical Jerusalem on earth, where Christ will reign for one thousand years. Both believe that Christ is reigning now, at the right hand of God, in fulfillment of the promises made to David that his throne would be without end. However, unlike the more usual amillennialism, postmillennial expectation for the future is optimistic concerning the progress of the Gospel and the increasing practical benefit of Christianity to all men. Postmillennialists anticipate that prior to Christ’s return, the world will have gradually but entirely converted to Christianity, at least nominally, through the preaching of the gospel. God’s legal sanctions in history are predictable, ensuring the punishment of the wicked and reward of the just, and the power of the Holy Spirit, working through the gospel, will eventually be pervasive. Stated another way, they believe that the Second Advent will be an event that continues the state of earthly affairs at the time, rather than interposing a radical discontinuity to them. Some anticipate a final apostasy, immediately prior to the final judgment. Postmillennialism of this kind was common in 17th-century Britain and in America in the late 19th century and early 20th century prior to World War I. Additionally, postmillennialists typically envision a future conversion of the Jewish people, en masse, to the Christian faith. Some versions of postmillennialism expect the Antichrist to arise in the future, but most have preterist or idealist interpretations of the Antichrist.
This variety of postmillennialism has been revived in the last forty years, particularly among conservative Calvinist groups. The view places particular emphasis on the timing of Christ’s return, which is expected only after a future period of global prosperity. This postmillennial expectation, as an important feature of Christian eschatology, is favored by Christian Reconstructionists such as Gary North, R. J Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, Kenneth Gentry, Andrew Sandlin and Gary DeMar; and by non-Reconstructionists such as Loraine Boettner, Errol Hulse, G.I. Williamson and John Jefferson Davis. This version of postmillennialism has repopularized evangelical interest in Preterist (fulfilled) interpretations.
Preterism is a variant of Christian eschatology which deals with the position of past fulfillment of the Last Days (or End Times) prophecies in varying degrees. The term preterism is derived from the word preterite, or past perfect tense; it also has its roots in the Latin word præter, meaning “past.” The Preterist believes that most (a historically orthodox position) or all (a historically heterodox position) of the prophetic passages in the Bible, which have been commonly taken to refer to the end of the world, in fact refer to events in the first century AD, such as the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Nero, and were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The Preterism page contains much more detail about this view.
Amillennialists (no literal thousand years) hold that the millennium represents the period between Christ’s death and resurrection and his Second Coming, that is, the age of the Church. This view is related to the understanding of a millennium as a short time period to God, with an inexact extent. Some amillennialists and postmillennialists adopt a preterist (fulfilled) historical interpretation of the establishment of the Kingdom of God and the appearing of the antichrist. Others adopt an idealist interpretation either exclusively or in addition to historicism of some kind, so that in their understanding, the kingdom of God is repeatedly established, and many antichrists arise in conflict with it throughout history only to finally be destroyed.
Millennialism is not an all-encompassing description of eschatology, and ideas concerning the timing of Christ’s coming are often not a central issue of eschatology. For example, amillennialism may or may not be the belief of the Catholic church, or of many Protestants; the issue simply is not a central feature of their view of last things or a focus of their faith. Typically, expectations concerning the reign of Christ are seen as partially fulfilled. The kingdom of God is “now and not yet”—realized now in a hidden way in the Church but awaiting full revealing with the Parousia (the appearing of Christ). Generally, the return of Christ is expected “any time”, as the signs anticipating his appearing are believed to have been long since fulfilled by Christ’s return to the Father, and the diaspora of Christianity into all the nations.
The Second Coming of Jesus Christ
- Main article: Second Coming
Eschatology concerns the things hoped for, yet to be revealed. The return of Jesus Christ is the most important eschatological event. The central act of Christian worship calls the Christian’s attention toward the return of Jesus Christ and the renewal of the creation, at the “Lord’s table” (called Eucharist, “The thanks”; or Communion).
- Luke 22:15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” (ESV)
- First Corinthians 11:26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (ESV)
The resurrection of the righteous and the wicked With the coming of Christ, Christians anticipate a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. The last enemy, death, will be vanquished.
Final Judgment (Judgment Day)
Main article: Last Judgment
Following the resurrection of the dead, Christians anticipate that Christ will personally judge the living and the dead, to determine the eternal destiny of each according to whether their names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.