Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Comparative Views of the End Times (Lesson 2)

Timelines and Other Parameters

It is useful to, in a purely (well, mostly) objective sense, to understand the relevant timelines and other parameters that characterize eschatology.

Before we start, let us remind ourselves of the very basic differences among the different views. We have not formally looked at any of them yet, but keeping in mind their simple definitions will help you to make more sense of the discussion. Soon enough we will be looking at them in detail.


Premillennialists anticipate Christ’s return, following which He will establish on earth a literal, physical and political kingdom. This kingdom will last for a 1000 years (the millennium) during which Satan is bound. To premillennialists, Satan is not presently bound. There are two major flavors of premillennialism, with (among other things) the following timeline difference:
  • Dispensational Premillennialism: Looks for the church to be ruptured, followed by a seven year tribulation (pre-trib rapture), followed by the visible return of Christ to initiate the millennial kingdom.

  • Historic Premillennialism: The tribulation will include the church, followed by Christ’s return to rapture the church (post-trib rapture) and initiate the millennial kingdom.


Amillennialists (many of whom prefer the term present or realized millennialist) do not believe in a literal earthly physical/political kingdom. They believe the kingdom is spiritual, and the millennium is now. It consists of the reign of deceased saints with Christ in heaven. To amillennialists, Satan is presently bound (restrained). They anticipate the end of this age to include a period of increased apostasy and (possibly) the appearance of the antichrist, followed by the return of Christ, resurrection and final judgment, and the onset of the eternal state. Note that amillennialists, while they differ from postmillennialists in many ways, are nevertheless postmillennial—they see the Second Coming as occurring after the millennium. Factoid: Amillennialism has been the dominant view throughout the history of Christianity.


Postmillennials view the millennium as a glorious era of increased righteousness, gospel vitality, and world-wide domination of the church. This leads to an outlook that is unique to postmillennialism: things are going to get better on earth, not worse. Postmillennials look for Christ’s return after this golden age, preceded by a short period of increased apostasy. Christ’s return will herald the general resurrection, the final judgment, and the onset of the eternal state. Postmillennialists are divided over many issues, such as when the millennium begins (or even if it has already begun) and whether the world gradually and almost imperceptibly enters into it, or whether its beginning is a more dramatic event, for example with a readily identifiable defeat of the antichrist and binding of Satan, and a distinct difference between before and after. In many ways an amillennialist is a sort of pessimistic postmillennialist who views the millennium as having started when Satan was defeated on the cross and ending with the Second Coming.

Parameters of the Discussion

With these mini sketches in mind, it is useful to break out some of the points over which the views differ. Some of these differences will not be addressed until we examine the views in greater detail.

The Millennium

The questions regarding the millennium of Rev. 20 include:
  1. Is it literally 1000 years?
  2. Does it refer to the present age or a future golden age?
  3. Will Christ rule from heaven or (physically and literally) from earth?
It is interesting and instructive to look once again at Rev. 20, the only passage in the bible that mentions 1000 years, and ask, stand-alone, which end-times view does it support? That is not critical—we should interpret scripture with scripture, but it is not insignificant either. In particular, what it does not say includes: 5
  • Anything whatsoever about the Second Coming

  • Anything about bodies, resurrected or otherwise (it talks about the souls of those who died)

  • Anything about an earthly kingdom or throne

  • Anything about a rebuilt temple or animal sacrifices

  • Anything about Jerusalem, or Palestine, or Israel

  • Anything about Jewish conversion

  • Anything about righteousness prevailing on the earth

  • Anything about worldwide conversion

  • Anything about Christianization of the nations
In short, this famous passage, taken by itself supports neither the premillennial or postmillennial positions, but (somewhat ironically) the amillennial view. That is because none of the missing elements, each critical for the pre or post millennial view, is relevant for the amillennialists.

The timing of the (visible) Second Coming

Perhaps the most significant question that highlights the differences among the viewpoints is: When will Christ return relative to the millennium? Of the four viewpoints we will examine two (dispensational and historic premillennialism) hold that Christ will return before the millennium. The other two (postmillennialism and amillennialism) teach that Christ will return after the millennium.

Is there one resurrection or two?

Premillennialism anticipates two resurrections, one at the rapture which occurs at the onset of the millennium (give or take seven years), and another at the end of the millennium. Amillennialism and postmillennialism looks for one general resurrection at the end of the millennium, coincident with the Second Coming. It is interesting to not that the historic creeds of the church are not premillennial in a couple of important ways. For example the Nicene Creed includes: He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. It would appear to teach a single, coincident judgment of all men, with no intervening gap of 1000 years. It also mentions nothing of an earthly kingdom, and in fact the only kingdom mentioned is the eternal one. Whether the creeds favor the amillennial or postmillennial position can not really be determined.

The Nature of the Kingdom

This is an important topic and when to which we will return often. Basically there are four broad categories of views:
  1. The kingdom is physical and political (chiliasm). Christ is ruling the nations (and an Israel restored to world-wide prominence) on earth.

  2. The kingdom began with Christ’s first advent, but is incomplete. It will be consummated with a physical and political kingdom with Christ ruling on earth.

  3. The kingdom is now. It is spiritual and consists of (un-resurrected) dead saints ruling with Christ in heaven.

  4. The kingdom began at the cross. It is both spiritual and redemptive and will continue to grow as the New Testament church flourishes.

What is God’s plan for the Jews?

The views differ on their view of the future role of national Israel. The different positions can be broken down into three distinct outlooks:
  1. National Israel and ethnic Jews play no further "special" role in God’s redemptive plan. We hope for a massive conversion of Jews to Christianity, but all God’s promises to the Jews were either (a) fulfilled, (b) void because they were conditional promises and the Jews, through apostasy, did not need meet the conditions, or (c) are fulfilled or will be fulfilled in the new Israel, the New Testament church.

  2. A second view, very similar to the first, except that it views a massive conversion of Jews to Christianity as promise. It can be anticipated with certainty, not just hope. This view also holds that the church is the new Israel.

  3. God will fulfill all promises to the Jews with the ethnic Jews. The church is not the new Israel. God has major redemptive work left with the Jews distinct from His dealings with the Gentile church.

The Rapture

All views agree that there will be a rapture, where living believers are caught up in the air with our returning Lord. Most see it as occurring coincident with the visible Second Coming. One view (dispensational premillennialism) anticipates the rapture seven years before the visible Second Coming in what has been described (by opponents and proponents to the view) as a secret second coming that precedes the Second Coming.

Imminence of Christ’s Return

Views differ on whether they believe that Christ's return is immanent, completely unpredictable, or most likely quite far off. Belief in the imminent return of Christ is nothing new. Every generation has had groups of devout Christians (including such luminaries as Martin Luther) that looked around at political and social conditions (and at contemporary antichrist candidates such as the Pope, the Papacy itself, the Turkish Empire, Hitler, etc.) and declared that the end is near. Many today believe the end is near. I don’t, but I hope they are right. 6 Still, it is a fair question to ponder for those who hold that view: Why do you suppose every generation was wrong, but this one is right?

What is to be taken literally?

No consistent view of the end-times has ever been developed that takes all relevant scripture literally. It is a question of which passages are taken literally and which are viewed as symbolic. Dispensationalism prides itself on viewing all prophetic text literally. For example, consider this snippet from the Olivet discourse: "Immediately after the distress of those days " 'the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.' (Matt. 24:29) Dispensationalists take this passage literally, and look for the tribulation to include the astronomical calamities as described. Other views hold that such apocalyptic writing is never meant to be taken literally, and is merely symbolic of the unleashing of God’s wrath. On the other hand, the same Olivet discourse includes timeline references, such as: I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (Matt. 24:34). Dispensationalists (and others) view "this generation" as meaning something other that its literal interpretation, since they believe the events described have yet to occur some two thousand years after Christ made this prophetic utterance. Others take the "this generation" literally. (You’ll have to wait to see how that works out.)

Outlook for human history

In short, one view is optimistic about the future of human history (postmillennialism) while the other views vary from very to moderately pessimistic. Also under this heading is the question of the extent of human involvement in the advent of the millennium. How much will God employ human efforts? A view that expects a sudden, catastrophic rapture has a very different answer to this question from one that looks for a gradual strengthening of the Church leading to a golden age of Christian world domination. And within the latter view, there is a question of whether humans should push for political change—kind of bringing in the millennium through the ballot box (theonomy and reconstructionism) or just concentrate on evangelistic activities.

The Antichrist

Views will differ as to whether there is or will be a single person identifiable as the antichrist who has yet to appear on the scene, or whether the antichrist is an institution (the papacy has been a favorite candidate). Finally there is the view that the antichrist has already come and gone (usually, in this view, identified as Nero.) Somewhat related is the question of whether Satan is presently bound (restricted from deceiving the nations), will be bound before the Second Coming, or not bound until the Second Coming. All views agree that at the end of the millennium there will be an increased apostasy and Satan will be loosed for a while.

The Seventieth Week of Daniel

We have talked about this a little already. Views differ on the literality of the prophecy, and whether the seventieth week (c.f. Dan 9:27) is contiguous with the first 69 weeks and, more dramatically, whether it is a Messianic prophesy or a portent of the antichrist.

The Day of the Lord

Questions of the meaning of this phrase will arise. In the Old Testament, the phrase "the day of the Lord" is always associated with the terrible appearance of God’s wrath: Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty. (Is. 13:6) For the day is near, the day of the LORD is near- a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations. (Ezek. 30:3) The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD . (Joel 2:31) "The day of the LORD is near for all nations. As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head. (Obadiah 1:15) Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD ! Why do you long for the day of the LORD ? That day will be darkness, not light. (Amos 5:18) "The great day of the LORD is near- near and coming quickly. Listen! The cry on the day of the LORD will be bitter, the shouting of the warrior there. (Zeph 1:14) "See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. (Mal 4:5) And in the New Testament: The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. (Acts 2:20) for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. (1 Th. 5:2) not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. (2 Th. 2:2) But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. (2 Pet. 3:10) The question that we face is what, especially (but not exclusively) in terms of New Testament prophecy, is the Day of the Lord? Is it the rapture? The Second Coming? The final judgment? the destruction of Jerusalem? Armageddon? Or does it refer to different events.
5 This argument is based on a self-published tract called The Millennium by Pastor John L. Bray. 6 Okay, here is a confession. Last year when I taught Calvinism vs. Arminianism, I believed I was right (after all, who doesn't believe they are right?) and I hoped I was right, for I see nothing but hopelessness and despair in the Arminian view. However, for this class while I still think I am right, I hope I am wrong, because I would welcome an immanent rapture that instantly ended our earthly struggles.

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