Kenneth A. Krause
In the last days, the study of the last days will be the most important subject for the church to accurately grasp. More than any other generation, the final generation living on the earth must know the mind and heart of the Lord so as to be prepared for the events leading up to His return. Though Christ makes it clear that nobody knows the day or the hour, He expects the church to know the season of his coming so as to not be taken off guard, as were the people in Noah’s day by the flood. Though pre-millennial, pre-tribulation theology has become the most commonly accepted view of eschatology in the American church since the rise of fundamentalism, it is being challenged today and when examined by biblical evidence alone, suffers from multiple weaknesses and inconsistencies. The rise of the acceptance of this eschatological approach coincides with the acceptance of dispensationalism as well as with the increased wealth and comfort of the Western church.
The need to study eschatology
In a paper full of pre’s, post’s, mid’s and a variety of in-between’s, the reader may be tempted to discard the contents as purely academic and unrelated to the real issues facing believers today. To some degree I consent yet am strongly persuaded that though these subjects and thoughts may not strike the ‘relevant’ cord of most church going Americans today, near is the day in which they will.
Jesus’ Olivet discourse is a natural starting point in the study of eschatology and the ordering of the last things. It is by no means the first time the subject is dealt with in Scripture as nearly every one of the prophets before Christ spoke both of his first and second advent. Jesus of course understood himself to be the fulfillment of both aspects of those prophecies though even to this day, many remain unfulfilled.
The entire twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew is dedicated to answer the disciples when they asked, ‘when will this (the tearing down of the temple buildings) happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’
There are three questions asked by the disciples in one sentence. The first is directly connected to Jesus’ prophecy that the buildings would be torn down (in another gospel he mentions them being rebuilt in three days) and of course, Jesus wasn’t speaking of anything but his own body being torn down and within three days being raised again. The likelihood that the disciples really caught onto that teaching at the moment seems slim, but as the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection unfolded, it certainly was clear to them. The disciples ask two other questions, ‘What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ Jesus then dedicates a significant amount of time answering their question, which reveals his desire for them to know the signs of his coming and of the end of the age. If Jesus wanted them to be ignorant of the events and signs preceding his return, he would have rebuked them or, in classic Jesus style, moved on to another unrelated subject with the intent of teaching them something of greater importance. Rarely does Jesus commit such time to teaching on a particular issue. The Sermon on the Mount and His perpetual teachings on the Kingdom of God are perhaps the only two subjects in which He gives more airtime to.
It is clear Jesus wanted the disciples to be aware of the climate of the world in the season preceding His return. The obvious reason is so that they would be prepared for His return and as is obvious now to us, these instructions were more relevant to a generation other than their own.
A few highlights come from the instructions of Jesus in this chapter. First as earlier stated; Jesus wants them to study the issue. He is concerned they don’t get deceived on the matter of the end times, He gives very clear items to watch for including wars, famines and the like. He refers to the prophet Daniel’s vision of these days, gives instructions as to how to pray in those days, He speaks of the horror being so bad that they need to be cut off for the sake of the elect and then says the most interesting thing, ‘Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” Who needs to learn a lesson from the fig tree? Seemingly the generation who witnesses the previous world events and trends. What is the lesson the fig tree teaches? That in the same way we can know spring to be coming by seeing a budding leaf, we know the end is very near when we see the figurative ‘budding leaf’ of these negative world movements.
The last sentence mentioned is one by which many a millennialist will use to support the idea that Jesus has already come and that we are currently living in the millennium yet, to make such a conclusive deduction isn’t necessary. Rather it seems Jesus was speaking of the generation who would witness all of the events he previously mentioned in his discourse would not pass away until He returned. This seems to indicate that once they ‘fig tree buds’, the return of the Lord will occur no more than, to be generous, 90 years.
To make such a conclusion is usually shot down quickly by the next verse in the chapter in which Jesus states, ‘No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’ This is obviously a fact – nobody knows the day or the hour and the Father has no interest and we have no need of knowing the hour as is confirmed in Acts 1:6-7, ‘So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority’.
Did Jesus not, just prior to stating that no man knows the day or hour, finish giving the disciples detailed information related to the signs of the season in which He would return?
The most common conclusion made by casual readers of these words is that Christians are to continue living their lives as usual and while being generally aware that Jesus will at some point return to the earth, not worry themselves with observing and searching for the season in which He will return. The next portion of the chapter makes clear that this is not at all the intention of Jesus. ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away’. There is an obvious contrast here between Noah and the people living in the days of Noah. If we fail to make this distinction we will fatalistically become like the people of Noah’s day and get caught in the flood of Christ’s return unprepared whereas Jesus instructs us, ‘Keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.’
The people of Noah’s day ‘knew nothing about what would happen’ whereas clearly, Noah had divine insight into the future events of his lifetime. God had given Noah foreknowledge of his coming judgment 120 years (Gen 6:3) before the flood so that he could build an adequate vessel to spare his family. God then gives Noah a seven day notice of the flood’s coming (Gen 7:4) so he can make final preparation. As it was in the days of Noah so it will be in the days of the Son of Man. This is not to say that God will necessarily give such exact information related to days, but it would be inconsistent with God’s nature to not give any warning of His coming in judgment. This coincides with the desire of Jesus that the disciples living in the final days of earths history, know more than the mere fact that He is coming, but are aware enough of the season that they adequately prepare for his coming. Days and times are very different than seasons. If we fail to recognize the season of the Lords return, it appears we’ll be caught off guard and left with no oil in our lamps (Matthew 25:11).
A snapshot of the times we find ourselves living in help us realize, even apart from theological and prophetic conviction, that the condition and state of the world is unprecedented. Take for example world population. ‘In 1980 there were one billion people; in 1930, two billion; in 1960, three billion; 1975, 4 billion; 1987, five billion; and 1998, six billion (Swenson 32). There world is consumed by it’s addiction for ‘more’ as Swenson so wonderfully illustrates throughout his book. Our addiction to ‘more’ of everything seems to set the stage for all the prophecies of Scripture leading to the events surrounding the return of Christ and help us interpret the times.
Consequences of being unprepared
Corrie Ten Boom once said, ‘I have been in countries where the saints are already suffering terrible persecution. In China the Christians were told, ‘Don’t worry, before the tribulation comes, you will be raptured.’ Then came a terrible persecution. Millions of Christians were tortured to death. Later I heard a bishop from China say, sadly, ‘We have failed. We should have made the people strong for persecution rather than telling them Jesus would come first’ (McKeever 5). In apologetics with unbelievers, a common tactic proposition might go something like this; ‘If Christianity is true then you have dyer consequences ahead of you for eternity. If Christianity is false, then I will have simply missed out on some fun in life’. Though such a statement does nothing to prove the validity of Christianity, it may assist the seeker in his risk management. Can we not include this thinking as a part of our approach to eschatology in light of Ten Booms statement?
If pre-millennial, pre-tribulation theology is right and the church will be raptured prior to tribulation, then the believer who prepared himself for the tribulation will have, at worst, prepared for a catastrophe that did not come.
If on the other hand, pre-millennial, post-tribulation or pre-wrath theology is more in line with the actual outworking of end time events, then the worst thing that could happen to a believer who did nothing to prepare for such terror on the earth would be a great sense of confusion and possible apostasy. In order to make proper conclusions on matters of eschatology these and various other positions must be explored and evaluated.
The word millennium comes from two Latin words mille, thousand, and annum, year. Each of the three dominant views discussed here include a long period of time referred to as the millennium though not all of them would view this period of time to be exactly one thousand literal, calendar years. Pre-millennialism is basically the belief that a literal thousand year period of time will follow the rapture of the saints through the return of Jesus during which, Jesus will have complete and total rulership and dominion of the earth while Satan is bound. For some this is a literal thousand year period of time and for others, it’s simply a long period of time. ‘According to pre-millennialism, the kingdom of God will be on earth (during the millennium), but Christ will not have returned bodily (Erickson 92).
Post-millennialism is the belief that this thousand year period will commence prior to the return of the Lord and through various means, usher in a thousand year period of worldwide peace which will be followed by the return of Jesus Christ. ‘It should be noted that the postmillennialist is not literalistic about the length of the millennium: the millennium is a long period of time, not necessarily one thousand calendar years. Its length would be difficult to reckon anyway because the millennium has no clear point of beginning. There will not one day be a condition of peace that was completely absent the previous day; the kingdom will arrive by degrees (Erickson 57). There is an expectation of great Kingdom expansion and success on a global scale inherent with this view that no pre-millennial advocate would agree with.
Amillennialism is itself more closely connected with post-millennialism in that it does view the millennium to come prior the return of the Lord and yet it differs in that it views the period of time between the first and the second coming of Christ to be the millennium. This of course demands a less than literal interpretation of the ‘thousand years’ since it is still going on and has to date surpassed two thousand years.
Amillennialism then would view the thousand years to be taken figuratively, meaning it represents a long period time that. ‘A good definition of amillennialism comes from the pen of one of its severest critics. Its most general character is that of denial of a literal reign of Christ upon the earth. Satan is conceived as bound at the first coming of Christ. The present age between the first and second comings is the fulfillment of the millennium. Its adherents are divided on whether the millennium is being fulfilled now on the earth (Augustine) or whether it is being fulfilled by the saints in heaven (Kliefoth).
It may be summed up in the idea that there will be no more millennium than there is now, and that the eternal state immediately follows the second coming of Christ (Cox 1)’. This view would hold that in various historical judgments in the earlier days of the church, Jesus actually fulfilled various prophecies that must occur prior to his return. In a sense, this view believes He has already returned. ‘Jesus brought judgment upon the world; he brings continued judgments upon the world – judgments such as the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the fall of Rome in A.D. 476, etc.; yet a final judgment awaits the world at the end of time. Jesus brought salvation to his own; his own are being saved continuously; yet the consummation of that salvation awaits his second coming, the resurrection, and the final rewarding of his saints into their glorified states (Cox 57).
A critique of the views
Luke 17:23 says, ‘For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.’ The most severe critique that could be given the amillennial view is that it claims Christ to have come already which would of course be grounds to label this view and it’s followers as false teachers. This may in fact be warranted, yet this view often isn’t given the airtime it deserves by fundamentalists who aren’t good listeners. ‘Too often a misguided conception of amillennialism has kept sincere Christians from examining this school of thought which has been the historic teaching of the church since the days of Augustine or before (Cox 3)’.
There is much claim from this camp related to the historic acceptance of this view in church history. ‘Such men as Augustine, John Calvin, and Benjamin B. Warfield have been claimed by both groups (postmillennialists and ammillenialists). Unless a man addresses the specific issues that separate the two positions, he may not clearly enunciate his stand’ (Erickson 73).
One major struggle that conservative readers of Scripture will have with this view is the obvious fact that the millennium is not interpreted to be an actual thousand year period which has been well established for about a thousand years now. Another is related to the interpretation of Revelation 20. Erickson states, ‘After affirming that the martyrs live and reign with Christ for a thousand years, the passage says, ‘The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended’. Although the passage certainly can be construed otherwise, it seems to imply that those who participate in the first resurrection do not participate in the second, for the contrast is between those raised at the beginning of the millennium and those raised at the end’ (Erickson 86). Cox defends his view stating, ‘Amillennarians believe there is more ‘realized eschatology’ than the millenarians are willing to admit. We also believe, however, that much remains to be fulfilled in matters of eschatology (Cox 57). This view is rarely held within evangelical circles today.
Similarly out of fashion is the post-millennial view though, again; it seems to have welcomed much more acceptance historically than it does today. Post-millennialists believe that as the gospel is preached with increasing success and fruitfulness around the earth, the church will become so victorious and powerful that it will hold back the work of Satan in the earth. Christianity will dominate the earth for one thousand years before the return of the Lord at which time Satan will be thrown into the lake of fire and the final judgments of evil will be made.
One critique of this view is the repeated verses in the New Testament related to the downturn in moral and social conditions in the world just prior to the Lord returning. 2 Timothy 3:1-5 for example says, ‘But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God- having a form of godliness but denying its power’.
Erickson says, ‘The post-millennialist expects a conversion of all the nations prior to Christ’s return. The preaching of the gospel will be effective…Not necessarily one hundred percent of the populace will be converted; substantially all persons in each of the areas and nations of the world will, however, come to believe. Worldwide revival will take place, whether rapidly or gradually (Erickson 56)’. This is a one sided and overly optimistic view of the end times in that certainly there will be a great harvest before the return of the Lord as is evidenced both by the fact that the gospel will have been preached in all nations, but also because we know in Revelation 7 that there will be a multitude gathered so large that it can’t be counted. The side of the discussion missing in this view is that there will also be a great apostasy and falling away from the faith (Matthew 24:12).
By far the most widely accepted view of the millennium today in conservative circles is pre-millennialism. The belief that the Lord will come to bring his bride, the church with him to eternal glory after establishing His Kingdom rule on the earth for one thousand years allows for a literal interpretation of the length of time involved which suits a conservative hermeneutic.
Hermeneutics as a side note is one of the major reasons for difference of views on the end times. Walvoord says, ‘There is a growing realization in the theological world that the crux of the millennial issue is the question of the method of interpreting Scripture. Pre-millenarians follow the so-called ‘grammatical-historical’ literal interpretation while amillennarians use a spiritualizing method (Walvoord 50).
Contrasting pre from post millennial thinking, Erickson states, ‘While the millennium expected by postmillennialists may begin so gradually that its beginning will be virtually imperceptible, there will be no doubt about the beginning of the millennium as pre-millennialists perceive it’ (Erickson 92). One of the more common critiques of this view of the millennium is that the Scriptures have so little to say about the millennium. The critic would state that if it were such an important issue, would there not be more than one vague reference to it in the book of Revelation and another in Daniel? Another common critique has to do with why the millennium is necessary at all. ‘Why would we not move directly from the second coming of Christ to the judgment and then to the ultimate states of destiny both the righteous and the unrighteous’? (Erickson 106)
Within the pre-millennial belief system, there are four other major subcategories of thinking related not to the millennium, but to at what point in the scope of prophetic history Jesus will actually return and to what extent will the church remain on the earth during the seven years of tribulation. As previously stated, the most widely accepted idea within evangelicalism today is that of pre-tribulation rapture – the belief that Jesus will, at the beginning of the seven year tribulation, rapture the church and after the tribulation, return again to establish the millennial kingdom. Mid tribulation believes that He will return in the middle of the seven years and of course, post-tribulationists would hold to a conviction that He will not come until the seven years of tribulation have been completed which the Church will have suffered with the world through. A more recently articulated view of the rapture is called the ‘pre wrath view’. This system follows the same seven year tribulation that most do while pegging the return of Christ at an unidentified point somewhere in the middle of the final 3½ years of tribulation.
Today there is an amazing amount of reception to pre-tribulation rapture and seemingly few questions asked about this doctrine. Take for example a well respected evangelist from the early part of the century who stated, ‘Paul says, ‘And now ye know that which restraineth, to the end that he may be revealed in his own seasons. For the mystery of lawlessness doth already work; only there is one that restraineth now, until he be taken out of the way. And then shall be revealed the lawless one, whom the Lord Jesus shall slay with the breath of his mouth, and bring to naught by the manifestation of his coming.’ It is only natural to presume that this restraining power has something to do with the church; and the inevitable implication seems to be that the church must be removed from the earth before the ‘lawless one’ can be revealed on the earth’ (Torrey 106).
Is it only natural to make this conclusion? Is there no other possible explanation than the church being the restraining force that keeps the lawless one from being revealed and later slain with the breath of Jesus? The language used in this verse as it relates to the restraining power is actually singular whereas the church is generally spoken of in the plural and there are multiple commentators who believed this power to be the Roman state. There is clearly a foundational presupposition in the thinking and writing or R.A. Torrey and a host of others on this matter. Arthur Bloomfield takes another stab at the issue while confusing it even more. ‘The rapture must come before the tribulation; however, there will be saints on the earth during the tribulation. They may be accounted for by the work of the four horsemen. So it may be said that there will be a church during the tribulation. In that sense, the church will go through the tribulation. Conditions will be so different that it may not be recognized as a church. There could be no church services or preaching as we know it today. Satan will be in full command, and the complete annihilation of the church will be the first order of business (Bloomfield 205).
Apart from the need to stay true to a dispensational framework of understanding theology and the work of God historically, there is great reason when studying Scripture to believe that the church will in fact go through at least part of the tribulation. There is general resistance to this belief primarily in parts of the world where the church is wealthy and well accepted; whereas in the case of Corrie Ten Boom speaking of the Chinese Church, they recognized the consequence of poor teaching in this realm. Both the post-tribulation and pre-wrath view accept the fact that indeed the church will go through the tribulation and for good reason. One distinction must be made which is that though the church will suffer under the same judgments of God, the church will not suffer under the wrath of God. Even a post-tribulationist would agree to that as is stated by McKeever, ‘Even though Christians may experience the tribulation, they will never experience the wrath of God (McKeever 46)’.
Some of the rationale for the pre-tribulation rapture lies in the notion that God would never want His people to suffer such hardship, which again, is an idea only a wealthy, well accepted and ignorant Christian could hold. Church history from the apostles until the present time speaks loudly the opposite message. There are more martyrs being killed today for their faith than at any time in Christian history. The apostles said in Acts 14, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God”. Isaiah 53:10 states, ‘Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer’.
If Jesus, the apostles, and most communities of Christians in world history have undergone severe hardship because of their faith, it’s not so difficult to reconcile these events with a kind and loving God. 1 Peter 4:12 states, ‘Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.’ If the church will in fact go through the tribulation, or most of it, then there will be many in our pews who will think something strange is happening to them and potentially abandon the faith. None of these verses are adequate to establish that the church will go through the tribulation, but they do lay a foundation and grid from which a Christian can reconcile God induced suffering with His character.
The book of Daniel is the most used book in the Old Testament in the study of end things. Marvin Rosenthal who advocates the pre-wrath position well asks, ‘Will Christ’s rapture of His church be Pre-tribulational – before the seventieth week of Daniel begins? Mid-tribulational – in the middle of the seventieth week? Post-tribulational – at or near the end of the seventieth week? Or…pre-wrath – at the opening of the seventh seal sometime within the second half of the seventieth week’ (Rosenthal 53). Our entire concept of the timeline being broken down into 3½ year sections comes from the book of Daniel and insight is gained from this book in all eschatological study. Rosenthal includes a great diagram outlining the pre-wrath view pictured below (Rosenthal 61).
Is His Return Imminent?
The question often raised is related to the possibility of the return of the Lord occurring at any time. Could it happen this afternoon, tomorrow, this decade, etc… There is debate about this question that is rooted in the other questions raised namely, ‘what must happen before the Lord returns?’ If in fact the tribulation must come to a close before the Lord returns, then it’s not imminent. The return of the Lord will only be imminent once all that was prophesied would happen first occurs. ‘The day of the Lord will not come until after the revelation of the man of sin. Writing to the Thessalonians who had been disturbed by the thought that the day of the Lord had already come, Paul says, ‘Be not troubled, either by spirit, or by word, or by epistle as from us, as that the day of the Lord is just at hand’ (Torrey 105).
Because of evangelicalisms inability to consider dropping dispensationalism, we’ve been unable to objectively and biblically consider eschatological views outside of pre-tribulationism. Fundamentalists hold to dispensationalism for many reasons but it doesn’t appear that eschatology is one of the prized possessions of this camp. For all the good reasons they might hold to dispensationalism, it has many features of a man made system of interpretation that in the case of eschatological study, seems to dictate a limiting of possibilities concerning the end times. If for a moment we could consider dispensationalism to be dispensable and clean the slate before we tackle eschatology, I believe we would make new conclusions as evangelicals related to the events preceding the return of Jesus namely, that the church will go through at least some of the great tribulation if not all of it. If this is in fact how things will happen in the later days, then it’s imperative that the church lay hold of this doctrine in order to prepare for the onslaught of opposition heading towards us. The nearer we get to this great and terrible day, the more imperative it is that we be adequately prepared and that we are watchful.
‘Before judgment comes to the nations of the Earth, it will come to the house of the Lord, the Church. Referring to the Church, Peter warned, ‘it begins with us first’ (1 Peter 4:17). The Lamb of God, Jesus, will be in full agreement and partnership with His Father as He initiates final judgment. Before he shakes Earth, he will shake the Church, shaking all that can be shaken (Heb 12:25-29; Hag 2:6-7)’ (Sliker 98).
May we be a people wise enough to see past our own presuppositions in order to personally prepare for, and faithfully prepare Christ’s bride for the shaking that will come before His glorious return. Though we have much to prepare for, there is a glorious hope in our expectation of His coming and as has been so eloquently written, ‘It is true therefore that the Lord, who loves us so much, is waiting for ‘that day’ when we shall meet him in the air, to be forever with him. Instead of constantly dwelling on the thought of what it will mean to us to see Him, we will meditate on the fact of His deep love for us; and think of what it will mean to Him when He sees us. This suggestive picture of Christ’s love will be a cheer and an incentive as we patiently wait for his return’ (Harrison 94).
Torrey, R.A 1966 The Return of the Lord Jesus. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company.
Sale-Harrison, L. 1938 The Judgment Seat of Christ: An Incentive and a Warning, A Truth That Every Christian Should Know. New York: Sale-Harrison Publications.
Swenson, Richard A. 1999 Hurtling Toward Oblivion: A Logical Argument for the End of the Age. Colorado Springs: Navpress.
Cox, William E. 1966 Amillenialism Today. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company.
Rosenthal, Marvin J. 1990 The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Erickson, Millard J. 1977 Contemporary Options in Eschatology: A Study of the Millenium. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company.
Otis Sr., George 2000 Millennium: The 1000 Year Reign of King Jesus. Tulsa: Albury Publishing.
McKeever, James M. 1978 Christians Will Go Through the Tribulation And How to Prepare For It. Medford: Alpha Omega Publishing Company.
Sliker, David 2005 End-Times Simplified: Preparing Your Heart for the Coming Storm Kansas City: Forerunner Books and Onething Ministries.
Bloomfield, Arthur E. 1959 All Things New: The Prophecies of Revelation Explained Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers.
Erickson, Millard J. 1998 Christian Theology: Second Edition Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Edited by Robert G. Clouse; Contributions by Ladd, George Eldon; Hoyt, Herman A.; Boettner, Loraine; Hoekema, Anthony A. 1977 The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
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