Eschatology

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I'm still too busy to write too much at the moment, but here's a post adapted from something at my old website (originally written 17 February 2003).

Eschatology is one of the most controversial topics in theology today. In my experience, people tend to look at scripture in light of a system they learned that had its basis in some scriptural statements but then took them beyond those statements and interpreted all else in light of those statements. I don't think the scriptures themselves are that had to interpret, at least in their basic message about the end times. What I'm primarily doing in this post is explaining what seems pretty clear to me (or at least very likely) in the scriptural teachings on the end times. This all assumes the divine origin of the scriptures. I'm not giving any argument here. I'm just summarizing my conclusions about what the scriptures say. Also, some of this assumes some background in the terminology.

1) The "last days" began with the ascension of Christ and are still going on. Paul talks about how we're now in the time of salvation and how the time is short. He assumes he might be in the last generation when he says "we who are alive and remain" in I Thessalonians. Yet he also assumes he might not be in the last generation in I Corinthians 15 when he's talking about being resurrected. These letters are not spread out over a long time. They're very near each other in date. So it isn't as if Paul first thought he'd be around at the return of Christ and then changed his mind. They're both early letters, both before Romans even. The short time is the time of salvation, the time when the gospel is offered to all, and it's our responsibility to deliver it to them. Because of the urgent need, the time is short. We're in the last days. Every day brings us closer to the return of Christ, and in some ways we're just as close in our own time scale as the early church and as the last generation, since each of us has only our lifetime.

2) Some of Matthew 24 (and the parallel passages) refers specifically to events around AD 70 as earlier and less significant precursors of events yet to come. You can see how aspects of what it says could fit nicely with that.

3) Some of Matthew 24 (and the parallel passages, though I'm not sure about Mark 13) refers specifically to events that haven't happened yet. Once you get beyond a certain point, it's clear that the events it's describing don't fit well with the time of the destruction of the temple. However, there's a section of the passage in between that could fit well with the earlier time or with a future time. This is probably deliberately ambiguous as a transition to something future.

4) Some of the events in the second half of Daniel, Revelation, and other eschatalogical passages have this dual function. Daniel definitely has some passages that fit historical events that took place after the time of Daniel, but you arrive at descriptions that don't fit any (including the stuff that happened in AD 70). This suggests that Daniel was looking to something much later, and the stuff he describes earlier is another precursor that fulfills in some ways what will ultimately happen in the very last generation. No evil empire exactly fulfills all of what he says, but lots of them fulfill aspects in different ways, often in increasing ways. The same may be said about the events described in Revelation. Much of it applies to any time of persecution and any time of judgment on a regime that stands up in rebellion against God. However, no such regime has totally fulfilled every aspect of it yet. One thing that is clear in scripture is that the final time will be a time of great persecution on the church, such that there is nowhere to hide, nowhere to go without the persecuting authorities being having the ability to persecute. Additionally, the end of it all is the final judgment of all evil, with Christ's return to earth to gather all his people, first those dead to be resurrected and then those alive who remain. Then the Devil and his angels are finally cast into the lake of fire, those humans still unrepentant will join them after being judged (though there will be a large repentance at the end, especially among Jews). It's heresy to deny this last part about the return of Christ and final destruction of evil, as full preterists do. It's not heresy to deny the rest of it, but it is a mistake in interpretation.

5) One thing that confirms this approach is that John's epistles say there have already been many antichrists, yet they assume a future one as the king of all antichrists. Some postmillenialists have to date John's epistles (and Revelation) before AD 70, since there's no other way to fit it into their scheme. However, this date is highly unlikely. The vast majority of conservative, evangelical scholars agree with the mainstream scholars that those letters (and Revelation) were written in the 90s. The gospel of John was probably in the 80s, and the others came later.

6) The seals, trumpets, and bowls in Revelation seem to be repeating the same sort of sequence in a telescoping pattern. The seals unfold, and then the trumpets go through the same ground roughly, with greater intensity. Then the bowls do the same. It's a more intense telling of the same events. The intervening passages often do the same, retelling the whole course from a different perspective.

If this is right, then when you get to chapter 20 after having completed the last telling (with the judgment of Babylon), it makes sense to think of chapters 20-22 as a different perspective on the whole thing. The time of chapter 20 could well be the church age when Satan is blocked from having power over the church in any spiritual way (though he certainly has power over us physically). Passages throughout Paul suggest that Satan is powerless in exactly that way. Then he is released to be given full power but is cut short. The "time, times, and half a time" of Daniel plays a big role here. The progression you would expect is -- one time, two times, four times -- doubling each time -- which would lead to seven. However, what you get is time, times, half a time -- basically cut short just as it is about to become full. The result is 3.5 years when put into time (I think it's also described as 1350 days, 70 weeks, and 42 months).

Then chapters 21-22 retell what chapters 17-19 had done but from a different perspective, with far more focus on the end.

7) Postmillenialism as I understand it takes the reverse attitude. They think the millenium is the last era of the church age (but they don't necessarily hold that it will be exactly 1000 years). Things get better and better, and the norm will be godly living. As more and more people become Christians through an outpouring of God's Spirit, society more and more reflects Christian values. Wicked people will still be around, but they will have a very hard time operating, because most people will live godly lives. This goes against so much of scripture, which indicates that the last days will be a time of ungodliness. See II Timothy 3 for a clear example.

8) A somewhat separate issue is between idealist, futurist, preterist, and historicist interpretation of passages. Without getting into the details, a futurist intepretation of a passage is that it hasn't happened yet. A preterist interpretation is that it happened by AD 70 or the events shortly afterward. A historicist interpretation isn't as clear to me but I think it involves something that happened after AD 70 but has already taken place (such as the view that the Pope at the time of Luther was the antichrist) or that it happens through different eras in history in different ways but physically speaking. An idealist interpretation takes the language as mostly metaphorical and not fully being realized in any time.

9) The important thing here is that all views use all of these methods at different times but not all equally much. Dispensationalists are almost never idealist and futurist about lots of things that don't naturally seem right to take as a literal, future event. (They aren't always literalist, though, as some dispensationalists claim. They don't think Genesis 3:14-15 means a literal seed coming out of Adam and Eve will literally bruise a snake on the heel. Snakes don't have heels. They don't even think Jesus will literally bruise Satan on the heel. Satan is a spirit being. They do take ridiculous things literally though. One of the worst examples is when they take Ezekiel 45 about sacrifices to be a literal restoration of temple sacrifices in the millenium, while Hebrews idealizes all that by saying Jesus' sacrifice is once for all with no need for a memorial sacrifice as they take Ezekiel to be prophesying.)

Premillenialists are futurists about a lot but are willing to say there are elements of all the others. They are futurist about Rev 20. They are much more open to usuing idealist interpretations about prophecies relating specifically to Israel in the OT, since these prophecies are really about spiritual Israel. They are willing to be preterist or historicist about some things, as long as there is a primary future fulfillment also.

Amillenialists are mostly idealist about Rev 20 and about the OT predictions for Israel but not about everything, especially the final return of Christ, which is future. They usually say that elements of these passages have preterist or historicist fulfillments on a smaller scale but ultimately will have a final futurist fulfillment.

Postmillenialists are historicist and preterist about a lot of things but not about the final return of Christ and final judgment. Nothing else is future. Full preterism is total heresy by denying the return of Christ and final judgment. Postmillenialists usually call themselves partial preterists.

10) One important issue is when Jesus says these events will take place in the lifetime of those with him. Some say this term 'generation' refers to the whole church age, meaning it will take place in the age starting now. Dispensationalists and some premillenialists will say this sort of thing. That is somewhat implausible. The word most likely means the generation of those listening to him. Another way out is to say it literally will all take place during the lifetime of all the people who heard him say it. The full preterist goes this way, but that's heresy. It also says that some things aren't literal -- the "coming" of the Son of Man is merely his judging Israel by having Rome destroy the temple. The sun isn't darkened. The stars don't fall literally, etc.

The partial preterist (usually the postmillenialist) tries to say that they do the same thing, but Jesus says some things that can't be taken fully literally if they took place in the first century. One is that the gospel would be proclaimed throughout the whole world, and then the end will come. Postmillenialists think this is still future. If the coming of the Son of Man is still future, that that didn't literally take place at AD 70. The sun and moon weren't literally darkened, and the stars didn't literally fall from heaven. Heaven and earth haven't passed away.

The amillenialist takes some of this figuratively also, namely that the final things won't literally take place during this literal generation. The premillenialist and the dispensationalist have to say that also if they don't go with the implausible reading that it means during the church age. I think the best way to take it is that these things will start happening during the generation Jesus is speaking to. He focuses in on ways the kind of thing determinative of the church age (namely the persecution of the church and the setting up of powers in rebellion against God) will start to be utterly clear while people hearing him speak still live. Later times will have a more different fulfillment of this in different ways, and a last time will get the complete fulfillment. But those hearing him would start to see it. The postmillenialist is right that it isn't taking it absolutely strictly and literally, but every position is guilty of that. The only ones
who aren't are those who think Jesus was wrong.

11) A common preterist myth is to say that the number 666 is symbolic somehow of some Roman emperor. There's no way this works. Every attempt has to fudge a little to make it work. Most commentators on Revelation are aware of this and point out the significance in terms of sixes -- the fullness of man (which the passage does say it means).

12) Another issue is about the temple in Rev 11, which many commentators notice is a symbol of the church, God's dwelling place. This is all throughout the NT. Revelation just picks up on it and treats it as a symbol. Postmillenialists take it to be literal (as do dispensationalists and some premillenialists), but they don't have to, and the decision to take this as literal but other things as symbolic strikes many non-postmillenialists as arbitrary.

For these reasons, I favor an amillenialist view that includes a combination of futurist, preterist, and idealist interpretations with a smattering of historicism as well. Any view that can deal with all the issues in a way consistent with what I've said here would be fine, though, and I think there are minimalist versions of postmillenialism that might do so. Classical premillenialists, except for the issue of Revelation 20, can accept just about everything I've said. Progressive dispensationalists accept less of it but fall within the realm of what I would consider sane. Classic dispensationalism, theonomic postmillenialism, and partial preterism that involves very little futurism are all views I have great trouble with.

4 Comments

> So it isn't as if Paul first thought he'd be around at the return of Christ and then changed his mind.

No. Paul did in fact think that he was going to be around at the return of Christ, and he was around because Jesus did return.

Jesus did return, but He did not return in the sense that we all expect Him to ... the glorious and more fuller Second Coming. He came in Judgement. He did come and He judged.

Thats why He said "THIS generation will not pass away until..." in reference not to us, but to the the people who stood in front of Him.

Thats why this makes sense also ...

"Look, he is coming with the clouds,
and every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him"

Rev 1:7

How could those who pierced him see Him ?

Also ... I think the dual fufillment stuff is hermeneutically suspect.

Actually, perhaps I can use this to my advantage here and say, Jesus did return in a limited, precursor sense back then - in judgement. However he will now return once again in a fuller more glorious sense. This is the 2nd coming.


More on some other day. I need to get back to ecclesiology anyway. I havent read you full article, since I dont have Mark 13, Matt 24 fresh in my mind.

- Raj

Raj, if you think Paul thought he was going to be around for the return of Christ, and you take AD 70 as the return of Christ in judgment, then you have to think Paul was wrong. He was dead by then!

The whole sense of Paul's urgency because of the last days makes no sense if that's all over at AD 70. So the Christian mission and the final times when eschatology is arriving but not fully here has no influence on why Paul said we were in the final days? It's the already and not yet that lies behind all such talk, and being in the final generation is all tied up with that. That's why Jesus said the rule (or kingdom, as modern translations like to translate it) of God is here. He said it was coming and was here. He said it was now present but also still coming. If that's not an already but not yet then I don't know what is. The talk of this generation not passing before it comes seems so obviously to be related to that. Buying into the more culturally expected interpretation of it as the disciples did seems to me to be a mistake, but that's what preterists need to do.

How can those who pierced him see him? Because they'll be resurrected. The dead in Christ will rise first and then return with him for his judgment, which will take place not just for the living but for the dead. They will see him return.

It's not dual fulfillment. It's multiple fulfillment. It's actually the only way to interpret Daniel 11 without saying he got something wrong or pretending he wasn't talking about the empires that we know came after him that did appear to fit what he was saying. It's pretty clear that it's going on in Matthew 10 also. It's extremely common in Isaiah to jump from an immediate or near-future prophecy to something that seems beyond our current reality. Why would the New Testament passages be any different?

I have no problem with seeing AD 70 as a judgment of God and in that sense fulfilling some of the passages about the coming of God in judgment. Seeing it the way you do, though, seems to commit what you call an error on my part. It sees it as a partial fulfillment of the second coming prophecies, of which a more full fulfillment will be future. That's how I was taking Matthew 24, and you said you didn't like that kind of dual fulfillment. The view you're presenting does the same thing.

I just wanted to comment on your 1st paragraph of point 9 -- If you read Genesis 3:14-15, it's not talking about the snake's heel. It's talking about the man's heel, and the snakes head. So I think that before you attack someone's view, you should check your facts.

Lacey, that's completely insubstantial, if you're following the overall argument. The particular point I was making doesn't work, because I wrote that part quickly and misremembered it. So what? The general point is certainly true. There are images in the Bible that aren't meant literally, and no Christian at all of any eschatological view I know of considers the bruising of the head to be about the head of any snake or about the bruising of some physical head that Satan might have. So I think that before you attack someone's overall argument based on some minor detail, you should check to see if your point has any overall impact on the argument. In this case, it doesn't.

Now if you had nicely pointed out that I'd misremembered the details, I would have nicely acknowledged that. But if you want to get insulting about it when the insult is fully unfair given the nature of the overall argument, I have no interest in spending time worrying about such details when the point doesn't at all rely on them.

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