Does The Bible Teach About The End Times?
by Bryn MacPhail*
Why should we bother with the study of eschatology?
Before we begin comparing the main views of eschatology, and before we examine the differences between these main views, it is imperative that we understand what beliefs all Christian views on eschatology hold in common. There are, indeed, aspects to the study of eschatology that Christians will continue to disagree on until Christ returns. But there are some beliefs that must be held if we are to be regarded as holding to the Christian faith.
First of all, as we will soon see, all Christians
are constrained by Scripture to believe in the visible and bodily
return of Jesus Christ. Secondly, it is manifest in Scripture that
there will be a resurrection of all people from every age.
Thirdly, there will be a judgment of all people from every age.
All of the views of eschatology that we will be studying tonight share
Goals for the our study
Compared to the other 3 main eschatological systems, dispensationalism is a recent development. The distinctives of dispensationalism were first set forth by John N. Darby, a leader in the Plymouth Brethren group in England, in about 1830.
Dispensationalism became popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible and stands today as the prevailing eschatological system in the United States.
Dispensationalism's governing principle is that the history of humankind is divided into different periods, and God deals with the human race on the basis of some specific principle for each period. It should be noted that not all dispensationalists are agreed on the number of dispensations
While most postmillennialists look forward to a
'golden age', a period of spiritual prosperity, this does not mean that
every person will be a Christian or that all sin will be abolished
(Boettner 14). This period of spiritual prosperity comes about
gradually "as an increasingly larger proportion of the world's
inhabitants are converted to Christianity"(Boettner 19).
Biblical Evidence of a "Golden Age"
Matthew 13:31-33: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds; but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches." (Jesus) spoke another parable to them, "The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till it all was leavened."
According to Loraine Boettner, the parable of the mustard seed and that of the leaven "teaches the universal extension and triumph of the Gospel, and it further teaches that this development is accomplished through the gradual development of the Kingdom, not through a sudden cataclysmic explosion" (Boettner 27, 131).
Criticism of the "Golden Age"
Though I do not deny that the Gospel will succeed,
and though I do not deny that God's kingdom will advance and progress
over time, to argue that the majority of the world's inhabitant's will
be converted to Christianity is to promise far more than the Bible ever
does. To say that the Gospel will succeed does not necessitate
believing that all or most will become Christian. Postmillennialists,
from my reading, tend to run out of biblical arguments for the 'golden
age' very quickly and are left to conclude their arguments based on
observing the era that they belonged to. It is no surprise to me that
Postmillennialism's popularity was at its height during the Great
Awakening of the 1700's and again, in our own century, in the 1950's.
Reading & Interpreting Scripture
It must be said that all of the main systems of eschatology base their beliefs on the teachings of Scripture. It would be unfair and inaccurate to say that any of the main eschatological systems are unbiblical. So why is there disagreement? There is disagreement because of the manner and method of biblical interpretation that is employed by each eschatological system. If I had to pear the problem down to one thing it would be the confusion today regarding the "literal sense" of Scripture.
From time to time I get asked the question, 'Do I take the Bible literally?'. Usually, what is meant by that question is, 'Do you believe the Bible is completely reliable?'. To that, I answer with an unequivocal, 'Yes!'. But if that is not what is meant by the question about literalness, what do I do? If I say yes, I take the Bible literally, someone may quote Jesus when He said that, "if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you"(Mt. 5:28).
In order to interpret the Bible "literally", in the classical sense, we must learn to recognize that Scripture is made up of different genres. Poetry must be interpreted as poetry. Parable must not be treated as historical narrative and vice versa. A figurative statement must not be treated as a literal command and vice versa. And, as R.C. Sproul reminds us, "much of the biblical prophecy is cast in an apocalyptic genre that employs graphic imaginative language and often mixes elements of common historical narrative with the figurative language of poetry"(Sproul 65).
In plain English, some parts of the Bible are
easier to understand than other parts. And since Scripture will not
contradict Scripture, a steadfast principle for our interpretation is
to interpret the less clear passages in light of the passages with
greater clarity. As we will see a bit further on, one of the main
eschatological systems gets into a bind because they begin with the
less clear passages of Scripture rather than with the more
Brief Commentary of Key Eschatological Texts
One of the primary teachings of dispensationalism is the belief in a pretribulational Rapture. That is, when Christ returns for His Church, He will take the Christians out of the world, leaving behind unbelievers for a time of tribulation. If you ask a dispensationalist to point to a biblical text that teaches this, they will likely point to 1Thessalonians 4:16, 17. If we read this text, it is clear that some kind of "rapture" is occurring here: "the Lord Himself will descend with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air".
While it seems obvious that some kind of rapture is occurring here, we must note that there is no mention of the Church being raptured either before or after a tribulation period. Nothing in the text even points to a tribulation period.
How are we to understand these 2 verses then? Not
wanting to force more out of the text then what is there, we should
only conclude that these verses are referring simply to the general
resurrection of the saints--dead and living--at the coming of Christ.
This is one of the key texts for the dispensationalist position. The disagreement between theologians has to do with how we understand the 70th week. To make the dispensational system work, the 70th week has to be disconnected from the 69th week. The 70th week, according to dispensationalists, is still future. Each "week" represents 7 years, and so the 70th week represents the 7 years where the "antichrist" will desecrate a newly rebuilt temple by proclaiming himself to be god (DeMar 58).
The problem with this interpretation is that it
requires snipping the 70th week (7 years) from the previous
69 weeks (483 years) and depositing a gap of nearly 2000 years between
the 69th and 70th week of Daniel 9:24-27. This is
a problem because there is no biblical warrant for stopping Daniel's
prophecy of the seventy weeks after the 69th week (Boettner
222). The conclusion I am left with is that the dispensational system,
usually known for their literalness, are forced to do gymnastics with
Daniel 9 in order to make it fit with an already established prophetic
For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and will then recompense every man according to his deeds. Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.
If one was to argue that the event described by
Jesus is still in our future, how do we explain Jesus' promise that
some of those with whom He was speaking would still be alive when He
did "come in the glory of His Father with His angels"? As Gary DeMar
points out, "If we are still waiting for the fulfillment of Jesus'
prediction of His coming "in the glory of His Father with His angels",
then some of those who were with Jesus are still alive!"(DeMar 27).
Since this, of course, is highly improbable, "we must look far enough
in the future that most of Jesus' hearers would be dead, but not so far
in the future that they all would be dead. Is there such an event? Yes!
The destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 by the Romans"(DeMar 27).
Theologian, J. Marcellus Kik maintains that Matthew 24:34 "gives the key to understanding the entire chapter"(Kik 30). Verse 34 reads, "Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled". Other commentators attempt to substitute "generation" with "race", but they do so in order to fit their theological system and not because there is any precedent for such a translation anywhere in the New Testament.
Many commentators who agree that "generation" means "generation" begin to backpedal when they interpret verses 29 through 31. These words, they say, can only find fulfillment at the second coming of the Lord. In other words, these things, verses 29-31, did not occur before the passing of the then living generation. We must bear in mind, however, that Jesus said, "This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled".
It would be inconsistent for us to maintain that "generation" means "generation" on the one hand, only to argue that "all these things" actually means "some of these things" on the other hand. A close look at verse 29 also helps us: "Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken". The very first words, "immediately after" binds this verse to the events which are described in verses 4 through 28.
v.30 and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.
The tendency of some is to read this as the second coming of Christ, but this is not a necessary conclusion. The expression Jesus uses in Matthew 24:30 is taken from Daniel 7:13 and was well known to the Jews as significant of the Messiah and His reign (Kik 36). Daniel 7:13 reads, "I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed." Surely, this is not a picture of the second coming of Christ, but is, as Kik puts it, "the coronation scene of Christ, which took place after His ascension"(Kik 37).
Daniel 7:13, 14 reminds us that we simply cannot
interpret every mention of the "coming" of Christ as the second
coming of Christ. Daniel 7 helps us to understand Matthew 16:28, "Verily
I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of
death, till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom". We have
only 2 options open to us for interpretation: One interpretation is
that Jesus was mistaken about the timing of His second coming. The
second option is that Jesus did not mean to refer to His second,
personal, coming, but to some other kind of "coming". Believing
that Jesus would not have erred, and believing that no disciple of
Christ is now alive on this earth, we are forced to accept the second
option--that Jesus spoke of a "coming in His kingdom" that is
distinct from His second coming.
Theologian, Gary DeMar, writes that "Much of contemporary last days madness would be eliminated if Christians could be convinced, through a thorough study of Scripture, that Matthew 24:1-34 is a prophecy that was fulfilled in A.D. 70"(DeMar 25).
Jewish historian, Josephus, concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, wrote that 1,100,000 people perished during the long and fiercely contested siege, and that 97,000 survivors were sold as slaves (Wars of the Jews, Book VI, Chapter 9:3). The temple was destroyed and the city was razed to the ground.
Lorraine Boettner writes that, "One of the most remarkable events in connection with the fall of Jerusalem was the escape of the Christians from the city before the siege began. Nearly 40 years earlier Jesus had foretold this destruction and had made provision for the escape of His people . . . "when you see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that her desolation is at hand"(Luke 21:20); and again, "When therefore you see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let him that breadth understand), then let them that are in Judea flee unto the mountains . . . for then shall be great tribulation, such as hath not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, nor ever shall be"(Mt. 24:15, 21)" (Boettner 200).
Boettner continues, "History informs us that the
Christians took the invasion of the Roman armies as the appointed sign
and made their escape to Pella, a village east of the Jordan about 15
miles south of the Sea of Galilee and that none of them
The Book of Revelation
Determining the date that a given biblical book was written is extremely difficult. Thankfully, knowing the precise date that a book was written seldom hinders our interpretation. However, in the case of dating the book of Revelation, the date of its writing is critical to our understanding of the prophecies of the end times.
If a majority vote ruled, we would date the book of Revelation somewhere between 90 and 100 A.D. The trouble is, we don't arrive at origin dates by casting a vote. There are many capable scholars who argue that the book of Revelation was written in the mid to late-sixties (Sproul 147). This dating has enormous implications for our interpretation.
If the book of Revelation was written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, it seems strange that John would be silent about those events. And although this approach requires arguing from the silence of Scripture, as R.C. Sproul puts it, "the silence is deafening"(Sproul 147). Not only is the temple's destruction in 70 A.D. not mentioned, the book of Revelation frequently refers to the temple as still standing. If that is the case then it follows that much of the prophecy contained therein has to do, not with a Tribulation remaining in our future, but a tribulation that was only a few years away from when John wrote these prophecies.
Chapter 11, verse 1, in Revelation reads, "And there was given to me a measuring rod like a staff; and someone said, 'Rise and measure the temple of God, and the altar, and those who worship in it.'" The apostle John speaks as if the Jewish temple is still standing. A genuine possibility is that it still was. If Revelation can be dated pre- 70 A.D., then much of the prophecy found therein clearly comes to pass in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 A.D.
Philip Hughes explains that "the number 144,000 stands here for the complete company of the redeemed. As with the numbers elsewhere in this book, it is a symbolic figure, and therefore should not be taken literally"(Hughes 94).
As is the case with other numbers in Revelation, the period of 1000 years is symbolic of a relatively long period of time(Hughes 209). Theologian, Philip Hughes describes the thousand years as "the period between the two comings of Christ, or, more strictly, between the return of the ascended Son to glory, his mission to earth completed, and the loosing of Satan 'for a little while'"(Hughes 212).
Understanding the 1000 years symbolically rather than literally should not be seen as a liberal interpretation. As we read the book of Revelation, figurative/symbolic expressions are met on every hand. The churches are symbolized by the seven golden candlesticks. Seven spirits before the throne are used to symbolize the fullness of the one Holy Spirit. We read of the Lamb having seven horns, yet we do not expect to see either a literal lamb or seven literal horns. We recognize that certain numbers, certain items, and certain creatures symbolize and represent different things. It is the thing represented, and not the symbol itself, that we regard with a literalness (Boettner 63). As Lorraine Boettner puts it, "Strict arithmetic has no place here. The term (millennium) is a figurative expression, indicating an indefinitely long period of time" (Boettner 64).
How is it that Satan is bound?
The binding of Satan means that he now has restrictions that he did not previously have. Satan is not restricted in every way, but only in regard to his ability to deceive the nations. Until the advent of Christ, Satan had kept all nations but Israel in spiritual darkness. But now, with Satan bound, he is no longer able to prevent the Gospel from being preached to all the nations.
What about the Antichrist?
One of the distinguishing marks of dispensationalism is the belief in the revealing of the antichrist after the rapture of the church. The term "antichrist" is used by John in his epistles, noting that there are actually "many antichrists"(1Jn. 2:18). In the book of Revelation, the "antichrist" is termed the Beast or the False prophet. The apostle Paul makes a similar reference using the phrase, "man of sin" (2Thess. 2:3, 4) in his second letter to the Thessalonians.
With the raptured saints in heaven, the antichrist establishes his kingdom, but after three and one-half years he breaks his covenant with the Jews and begins to fiercely persecute them. Seven years after the rapture of the saints, just before the Jews are about to be overwhelmed, Christ returns, destroys the antichrist and his armies, delivers the Jews, and sets up His millennial kingdom.
Very few Post- and Amillennialists deny the
existence of a personal antichrist. The difference is Post- and
Amillennialists picture the Christians on earth during this time, as
opposed to raptured away. Some Post- and Amillennialists maintain that
the "man of sin", the "antichrist", the "Beast"
was a person existing in the first century. The apostle John, in fact,
writes in the present tense when he says, "even now there have
arisen many antichrists". And Paul, writing about the "man of sin",
says that he was already at work in his day (2Thess. 2:7f.).
'Stop Sitting On Fence Bryn!' -- What Do I Recommend?
Because the 4 main systems of eschatology are just that--systems, I believe that there are holes and unanswered questions within each system. That being said, I believe we need theological systems. They help us organize biblical truth. In a day and age where Christians snip single verses to justify certain behaviours or convictions, I think we desperately need theological systems. These systems prevent us from isolating certain texts from the rest of Scripture.
Now while I admit that none of the 4 systems are 'air tight', that is not to say that the arguments of each are equally helpful. If you haven't already figured me out, I believe premillennialism--historic and, particularly, dispensationalism has a lot of holes.
Premillennialism, as we have heard, makes the kingdom of God into an earthly and national kingdom when the greater part of Scripture describes the kingdom of God as spiritual and universal.
Premillennialism separates the resurrection of the righteous from that of the wicked by a period of 1000 years when the Scripture speaks of the resurrection of the just and unjust in a single breath (Dan. 12:2; Jn. 5:28, 29; Acts 24:15).
Premillennialism also divorces the last judgment from the second coming of Christ, though the inseparability of these events is testified to in Matthew 16:27 and 25:31-32--just to name a couple of texts.
My contention with Postmillennialism is singular. There is insufficient biblical evidence to maintain that the majority of humankind will be won for Christ.
To the other extreme, Amillennialism is often guilty of being overpessimistic about the state of the world and the success of the gospel. This pessimism comes from overemphasizing the other-worldly nature of the kingdom of God. Though the kingdom of God is predominantly spiritual in nature, it has some this-worldly dimensions as well--namely, the preaching and the success of the Gospel.
So I acquiesce with the Postmillennialist who says the Gospel will succeed, yet I stop short of believing that the world will become predominantly Christian.
To summarize my understanding of eschatology:
R.C. Sproul says it best, "Debates over eschatology will probably continue until the Lord returns and we have the advantage of hindsight rather than the disadvantage of foresight. The divisions that exist within the Christian community are understandable, considering that both the subject matter and the literary genre of future prophecy are exceedingly difficult. This does not mean that we may push the Bible aside or neglect its eschatological sections. On the contrary the interpretive difficulties . . . call us to a greater diligence and persistence in seeking their solution" (Sproul 203).
In seeking a solution, however, we should remember that the Christian Church, in virtually all her branches, has refused to make any one of the millennial interpretations an article of the creed. The preference has been to accept as Christian any person who believes in the visible return of Jesus Christ. So while, personally, we may have very definite views concerning eschatology, our motto should be: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."
Glossary of Terms
Eschatology - The study of the 'last
things' or 'end times'.
Millennium - The "thousand year" reign of Christ described in Revelation 20.
Olivet Discourse - Christ's prophetic discourse recorded in Matthew 24-25. It is a reply to His disciples' questions about the destruction of the temple, the end of the age, and His return.
Preterism - An eschatological viewpoint that places many of the eschatological events in the past, especially during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
Postmillennialism - The view which holds that the Kingdom of God is now being extended in the world through the preaching of the Gospel, and the saving work of the Holy Spirit. Christ will return after a long period of righteousness called the Millennium.
Amillennialism - The word literally means "no millennium", but most advocates of this system refer to the millennium as the period between the ascension of Christ and the loosing of Satan. During the millennium, there will be an advancement of both good and evil. With the loosing of Satan comes a time of intense persecution of the church, followed by the glorious return of Christ.
Premillennialism - The view that Christ will return to earth to establish an earthly, millennial kingdom, over which He will reign from an earthly throne.
Dispensationalism - The view that human history is divided into dispensations(different periods) where God treats humanity according to a governing principle particular to that dispensation. Accordingly, a strong distinction is made between Israel and the Church.
Rapture - The word literally means "to snatch away". It is the raising of those who are alive when the dead are resurrected. According to dispensationalists, this is the coming of Christ in the air for His saints prior to the Tribulation.
The Tribulation - The dispensational belief in a 7 year period of earthly troubles that occurs between the coming of Christ for His saints and the coming of Christ with His saints. This 7 year period is associated with the 70th week of Daniel's prophecy.
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* Bryn MacPhail is pastor of St. Giles Kingsway
Presbyterian Church (Canada). Visit his website at www.reformedtheology.ca