Eschatology

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“This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven,” the angel said, “will come again in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Christians believe that Jesus “ascended to the heavens,” and “will come to judge the living and the dead.”[1] This, in a nutshell, is the study of eschatology. Eschatology (from ἔσχατος) is the study of last things. In a sense, we have been in the last days since the Lord’s ascension. Isaiah 2:2 prophesied the “last days’ as they began with the beginning of the church saying “In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s house will be established at the top of the mountains and will be raised above the hills. All nations will stream to it, and many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways so that we may walk in his paths.” These last days are to culminate in “the last day” which Jesus described in John 6:40, “everyone who sees the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Everything between the beginning of the church until the final judgment is part of the “last days.”

The Parousia (Jesus’ Return)

Jesus Will Return

One of the biggest questions about the future is when Jesus will return. Before we get to ask if we can know when Jesus’ return will be, we need to be reassured that he will return. Jesus said, “You also must be ready; for the So nof Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matt. 24:44). He promised “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (Jn. 14:3). The angels told the disciples “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heave, will come in the same ways you saw him go into Heaven.” Paul preached that “The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command” (1 Thess. 4:16). Jesus’ last words recorded in Scripture are “Surely, I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:20).

We Do Not Know When Jesus Will Return

We know that Jesus will return, but we cannot know when Jesus will return. Jesus said he would return “at an hour you do not expect” (Matt. 24:44). “The practical result of this is that anyone who claims to know specifically when Jesus is coming back is automatically to be considered wrong.”[2] Many modern religious groups were built on prophecies of Jesus’ return. We may be right to say whenever a modern prophet “works out a date for Jesus’ return” he has eliminated that day as a possibility for Jesus’ return. Jesus said, “Now concerning that day and hour no one knows—neither the angels of heaven nor the Son—except the Father alone….This is why you are also to be ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matt. 24:36, 44). We must be ready because “you yourselves know very well that he day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night.”

Are there events which must come to pass before Jesus returns? Jesus said that before he returns the Gospel would be preached to all nations (Mk 13:10, Matt. 24:14). That may refer to the Gospel being preached to the Gentiles or it may be a more literal to all people of the globe. Paul taught that the Gospel had been preached to the whole world (Col. 1:5-6, 23). Jesus also said that his return would be after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 (Mk. 13:7-8, 19-20; Matt. 24:15-22; Lk. 21:20-24). Jesus said that the second coming will not occur until after the tribulation of “those days.” Only after that was complete would he return. Jesus said, “Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”[3] John wrote that Jesus would not return until after “the rebellion” or “the great falling away” (1 Jn. 2:18; 2 Thess. 2:1-10).

All these events which Jesus said must occur before he returns have, likely, already occurred. Perhaps we should read again Luke 21:28 which says, “Now when these things begin ot take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

We Do Know A Little About What Will Happen That Day

              God revealed to us a little about what that final day will be like. God said, “When they say, ‘peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, like labor pains on a pregnant woman, they will not escape” (1 Thess. 5:3). Jesus said,

Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and they will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, don’t be alarmed; these things must take place, but it is not yet the end. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains. (Mk. 13:5-8).

When Jesus returns, it will be a day of judgment. Jesus said, “Behold, I am coming soon bringing my recompense, to repay everyone for what he has done” (Rev. 22:12). Paul described the “closing ceremonies of earth” this way:

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For we say this to you by a word from the Lord: We who are still alive at the Lord’s coming will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout,,with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are still alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord (1 Thess. 4:14-17).

Jesus’ words are both an exhortation and a comfort: “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 He will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (Mk. 13:26-27).

Millennium?

A millennium is 1000 years. “Belief in a literal one-thousand-year reign of Christ is called millenarianism, from the Latin mille (thousand), which translates the Greek word for thousand, chilia, in Revelation 20. Hence, for much of church history belief in a literal millennium was referred to as “chiliasm.”[4] The discussion of the millennium from Revelation 20:4-5 has been intense for centuries. There the Bible says:

Then I saw thrones, and people seated on them who were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and who had not accepted the mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection.[5]

From this section of Scripture, several interpretative options have emerged.

Millenial Options

The Amillennial position holds that the “millennium” refers to the current church age and may last for an indefinite amount of time. The “1000 years” refers, in this view, to a really long time. This fits with the statement in Revelation 2:5 that “the rest of the dead” would “come to life” or be resurrected after “the thousand years were completed.” Those who are resurrected to life will not suffer the second death (Rev. 20:6).

Postmillennialism teaches that the church will continue to prosper and grow until a golden age or “millennium” occurs.[6] At the end of the 1000 years of that “golden age,” postmillennialists teach that Christ will return in judgment.[7] Premillennialism teaches that Christ will return after the church age but before the millennium. According to this view, the eternal state will begin after the completion of the millennium. According to this view, Christians will reign on earth with Christ during the millennium. Unbelievers will also be present with believers and Christ during that millennial reign. Premillennialists also hold that Satan will be loosed at the end of the millennium and lead a real physical war with the unsaved against Christ and the redeemed who are ruling with him.

Dispensational premillennialism began with John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). Darby “became convinced that the prophecies of Isaiah, Daniel, and Revelation referred to a future kingdom that was utterly distinct from the church.”[8] Grudem noted that “These categories (a-/pre-/postmillennialism) originated in the nineteenth century, so we should be wary of imagining that there was such refinement in end-time thinking throughout church history.”[9]Dispensational Premillennialism is like premillennialism but teaches that there are two returns of Jesus: 1) before the millennium and 2) before the great tribulation in which there will be a “secret rapture” for believers to be take up to Christ. Dispensational premillennialism divides all of history into seven periods or dispensations: “(1) innocence (prefall), (2) conscience (postfall to Noah), (3) human government (Noah to Abraham), (4) promise (Abraham to Moses), (5) law (Moses to Christ), (6) grace (the church age), (7) kingdom (the millennial age).”[10]

Full preterism is almost the opposite of dispensational premillennialism. It teaches that “every biblical prophecy has already been fulfilled (including the Second Coming, the general resurrection, and the final judgment). There is no resurrection of the body, according to full preterists. However, partial preterists hold that the second coming of Christ to raise the dead and judge the world is still future.”[11] Full preterism is similar to, if not equivalent to, what has been called the AD 70 doctrine.

Arguments for Amillinnialsim

“In the main, the ancient church seems to have held that the kingdom had been inaugurated with Christ’s first advent, yet awaited its full consummation in the future: the position associated today with amillennialism.”[12] The amillennialist view seems to be the correct one. The amillennialist view is commended because:

  • Revelation 20:1-6 seems to be the only passage that mentions anything about a millennium. If we take that to be a literal thousand years, then we must also take some other strange details in that section to be literal as well.
  • It is also important to note that the Bible only teaches one bodily resurrection of all people (Jn. 5:28-29; Acts 24:15). The pre and post-millennial views maintain that there are multiple resurrections and therefore do not fit the Biblical data.
  • There is no Biblical reason for Jesus to return and do something other than judge all the souls who have ever lived. The Bible does not speak of a second opportunity for repentance for anyone or a future age in which Jesus lives on earth with his saints.
  • The final events as occurring all at once rather than spread out over any significant amount of time.
  • Premillennialism finds its greatest strengths in applying prophecies of the church age to some future time (i.e. Is. 11:6-9; Ps. 72; Zech. 14:5-17). We must be careful to read prophecies of the Messianic age appropriately so that we understand what God intends for the church age to be in contrast with the hostility and suffering of the prior dispensations. Amillennialism provides this proper balance by recognizing the “already-but not yet” theme which is constant in the Scriptures. “Premillennialism fails adequately to appreciate the “already,” while postmillennialism undervalues the “not yet” of Christ’s kingdom.”[13]
  • “Against both premillennial and traditional postmillennial tendencies to reduce the kingdom to an exclusively visible regime of geopolitical power and glory, Jesus answered the question of the Pharisees concerning when the kingdom would come, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Lk 17:20–21).”[14]
  • “An amillennial perspective is more consistent with the way in which the New Testament itself interprets the Old.”[15] The Bible demonstrates that prophecy has a “telescopic” aspect meaning that prophecies are fulfilled partially (by individuals like David), but then fully by Christ. In the same way, we can see that prophecies can be fulfilled partially in the kingdom now, and fully in the kingdom in the hereafter.
  • Amillennialism has been consistently received by the Christian tradition. “Like their predecessors in the ancient church, the churches of the Reformation identified millenarian enthusiasm with the apocalyptic expectations of first-century Judaism: identifying God’s end-time kingdom with a political regime—a restoration of the Sinai theocracy. The Reformers believed that it was precisely this misunderstanding that left Jesus’ contemporaries (even his disciples) disillusioned when his triumphal entry into Jerusalem was followed by his crucifixion. Therefore, the Reformers rejected both the “Christendom” version of amillennialism and the millennial literalism of radical sects.”[16]
  • Finally, Revelation 1:6 describes John and all the church as already being a kingdom under Christ who rules the kings of the earth (1:5). Furthermore, John said he was then presently a “partner” with the Christians “in the tribulation, kingdom, and endurance that are in Jesus” in Revelation 1:9. If John and the Christians were already the kingdom ruled by Christ and suffering the tribulation, then we should not expect a new king, new kingdom, or new tribulation. We are already in the current age.

 

Jesus’ Future Return Shapes our Present Life

Christians can look forward to Jesus’ return. Christians are waiting for their Savior (Phi. 3:20). In fact, Christians should look forward to Jesus’ return when he will make everything right. This is why John prayed, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20). Christians live in expectation of Jesus’ return. So Paul instructed Titus “to live sober, upright and godly lives in this world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2:12-13). Wayne Grudem suggested that “To some extent, then, the degree to which we actually long for Christ’s return is a measure of the spiritual condition of our own lives at the moment.”[17] Perhaps, there is some truth to this suggestion. If we are excited for Jesus to return, our spiritual life is likely to be more healthy. If we fear Jesus’ return, then our spiritual life likely needs some work so that we may be ready for Jesus’ return (Matt. 24:44).

 

[1] J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, Third Edition. (London; New York: Continuum, 2006), 216.

[2] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 1094.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 24:30–31.

[4] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 920.

[5] Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), Re 20:4–5.

[6] “Dividing history into three periods, Joachim advanced the thesis that the Age of the Father (from the time of Adam to the time of Christ) was the era of law, the Age of the Son (from Christ to Joachim’s day) was the era of grace, and the coming Age of the Spirit (which he predicted would begin in 1260) would bring an end to the church and the necessity of all external aids (such as preaching and sacrament). Everyone would know God directly and immediately in that age, producing a complete spiritual unity of the human race. Although the categories we employ today are somewhat anachronistic as applied to that age, Joachim’s views are closest to what we would call “postmillennial.” Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 925.

[7] Alexander Campbell held to this view. This is why he titled his journal The Millennial Harbringer.

[8] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 928.

[9] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 920–921.

[10] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 928.

[11] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 929.

[12] “A more nuanced version of ancient amillennialism was advocated by Augustine in the fifth century. Discerning the thread of Christ’s kingdom throughout redemptive history, and recognizing its varied manifestations and administrations, Augustine’s City of God distinguished clearly the “two cities” of this present age—each with its own commission, purpose, destiny, and means.” Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 923, 924.

[13] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 936.

[14] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 936.

[15] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 936.

[16] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 926–927.

[17] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 1093.

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