Sunday, June 19, 2011

What is Theology?: The End!

Well, at last we have come to the final theology series post. Therefore, it is only fitting that I do a post on end times, also known as "eschatology." It has taken me a while to figure out just how I want to go about this, in fact, even as I type this sentence, I'm sorting out what I want to do.

There's a few things I want to cover. There are two or three very basic questions that people tend to ask when it comes to their end times theology. One, when will the "rapture" happen? Two, When is Jesus coming back? And some who are familiar enough with revelation will ask, what is the "millennium" all about?

In order to make this work, I'm going to have to do my best to very quickly state how the four basic views on end times would answer these questions. The four views being: Historic Premillenialism, Dispensational Premillenialism, Postmillenialism, and Amillennialism. I will then Show how my particular view which I will choose from these four holds up against Mark 13. For a thorough defense of all these views, I recommend that you read "The Meaning of the Millennium." It is a four view counterpoint book where different writers state their case and critique each other. It will be my main source. For a more thorough defense of my interpretation of Mark 13, I recommend you all listen to recent podcasts by Kevin DeYoung and Sam Storms concerning the end times. As a warning, I just want to tell you all that my summaries of the views will be extremely basic. One could write for hours getting into the details and scriptural defenses of each of the views. So rather than give all of the scripture supposedly supporting each view, I will simply state their conclusions.

So, here we go, the four basic views:

1. Historic Premillennialism:

This view states that after Christ returns, Satan will be bound. After this, Christ will reign for one thousand years along with those who have believed in him. At the end of this reign, Satan will be released and God will judge the earth. After the earth is judged and the Antichrist, Satan, and death are defeated, the eternal state of a redeemed universe will begin.

2. Dispensational Premillennialism:

This view states that before Christ returns, there will be a sudden rapture of the church where those who have believed in him will disappear suddenly. This will be followed by a seven year tribulation where God's wrath is poured out over the earth. In the midst of these seven years, there will be two witnesses who will prophecy the words of the Lord and will be martyred in the streets and then raised from the dead. After all of this, the Lord and those who have been raptured will return and Christ's rule will be established. During his thousand year reign, evil will be taken out of the world and when it is over, the kingdom will be handed over to the father and the eternal state will be set in place. This is the view that has been popularized by the book and movie series "Left Behind."

3. Postmillennialism:

This view is in fact quite simple. They state that Christ is in fact coming back, however, he will not be coming back for a church in the midst of any real persecution. He will return for a church that has fully evangelized the world, a world that will have Christianity and righteousness as the norm and sin as the exception. The way we are to look at it is that the Church age and the "millennium" are in fact linked. We in fact bring about Christs kingdom here on earth and see the new heaven and new earth in this present age. This is not thought of in a symbolic way but in a very literal way. The Church's final responsibility is to see the full manifestation of the kingdom realized.

4. Amillennialism:

This view is very unique, but has similarities to some of the other positions. This view reads revelation in a manner called "progressive parallelism." Revelation is to be read as seven tellings of the same story running parallel to one another. This matches the seven churches that the letter is written to. We are not meant to read Revelations from beginning to end as one linear story. Therefore the Millennium and reign of Christ while Satan is bound, in fact, refers to the church age when the world is to be evangelized. The "One Thousand years" in fact represent not a literal thousand years, but a "complete" period of time. The term "millennium" tends to stand for this in apocalyptic language. Therefore the persecutions and tribulations mentioned can be taken as warnings and comforting promises to every age of the church. We will see people saved and people rebelling and persecuting the Church to the very end. After this, Christ will return and set up his eternal kingdom.

This final view, for the most part, is the view I take. It makes Revelation relevant to every age the church will go through. It warns us of persecution and promises the return of Christ that we would not lose hope. I struggle with both "Premillennial" views because I find that they cause Christians to read into their times and persecutions as unique. This can lead to a resignation and a premature "waiting" on Christ when he told us to remain diligent and continue our work of evangelizing the world. This way of thinking goes directly against his clear statement in Mark 13 (which I will dig deeper into) that wars and rumors of wars and disasters would not be signs of the end and his return but only birth pangs that would characterize the entirety of the end times, or the church age.

The view I take the biggest issue with is "Postmillennialism." It is clear in scripture that the church age and the age of the eternal Kingdom are to be considered separate. We should indeed realize that the Kingdom of God is within us and that we carry it wherever we go and are to be influencers. We are to pray that God's kingdom would come, but to think that the earth will be transformed into the eternal kingdom by our effort goes directly against Peter's clear teaching that all would be laid waist in the end and that God would himself judge the earth before he himself sets up the eternal kingdom. When we feel we are supposed to see such drastic results in our lifetime and in doesn't come about, we tend to assume that something must be wrong in how we are presenting the gospel. This has caused an overemphasis among followers of this position on social justice and the necessity of being politically involved. They go beyond the church's necessary concern for social justice and often create a "social gospel."

So, how would my view hold up against a passage such as Mark 13? I won't quote the entire thing here, so I suggest you read this next part with an open Bible. This is the passage where Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple, a great persecution, and the Son of Man being crowned in glory. Those who take a Premillennial view of a passage like this, particularly Dispensational Premillennialists, tend to see practically all of this prophecy as referring to our current church's future. They are called "futurists." There are some who hold to an opposite extreme, who would fall out of the boundaries of orthodoxy, who see everything in this passage as having already happened, even the return of Christ. They are called "preterists."

I am what one would call a "partial preterist." As shocking as it may sound, I believe everything that is said from verse 1 to verse 31 has already taken place. The simple fact Jesus says to his disciples, "this generation" shall not pass away before these things take place should make this obvious. Some have tried to read a new meaning into the word "generation" such as "race" but without much success. There is no reason to Think Jesus was referring to anything other than his generation.

Does this mean that Jesus Christ has already returned? Absolutely not. Allow me to clarify how verses 14-27 should be read. When it comes to the "doomsday" imagery, we must realize that Jesus was using what Sam Storms calls "stock" Old Testament language to communicate the persecution that the disciples would go through after he was gone. This was the tribulation that took place during the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Some may think this must be a future event because he says: "such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be." However, this would have been a very familiar way of speaking to Jesus's listeners. The Old Testament often used language like this to speak of how great or how terrible a King was or, for example, how terrible the fall of Babylon was. It did not necessarily mean it would be the worst in history. It did not necessarily mean that the stars would literally fall. It was very common for writers of the Old Testament to use cosmic language to refer to earthly events. If you disagree with this, however, you must explain how two different Kings in the Old Testament were referred to as "The greatest that ever was or ever would be." They couldn't both be. Yet, things are very often said in this way throughout the Old Testament. Language that says things like "that ever was or ever will be" was simply understood as meaning "extremely bad" or "extremely good."

So what about verse 10? How can this have taken place in the past if the gospel has not yet reached the whole world? This in fact can be explained by the Jewish view of the "whole world." At that time, when those surrounding Jesus thought of the "whole world," what they thought of was the entire "Roman" world. This may sound like a cheap answer, but it in fact must be the case if we are to understand some of the writings of Paul. There are times in his letters where he in fact says that the gospel is presently being proclaimed in "all the world." What could he mean? Had they made it to China? Had they made it to Africa? History says no. What Paul wants his readers to understand is that the gospel had made it beyond the borders of Judaism and was being proclaimed among the gentiles. Not just the Jews, but all the world.

So, what about verses 26 and 27? Many of us automatically think this must be referring to the final return and reign of Christ. This return and reign is certainly going to happen and I would be outside of Orthodoxy to think otherwise, but I wish to argue that this cannot be what these verses are referring to. If they were, then the context in which this event takes place and the details surrounding it would contradict what Christ says in verses 32-36. Partial Preterists believe that the event in verses 26 and 27 took place, not on earth, but in heaven during the fall of Jerusalem. This would match the greater theme of Mark where the system of the Jewish temple is being torn down and the Kingdom is being handed over to Christ after his victory on the cross, thus beginning the church age. Again, this must be true because Christ said it would happen in His generation and he pointed out specific times.

Therefore, it is verse 32 and onward that refer to the final return and eternal reign of Christ. The first event is clearly characterized by signs and a time frame, however, this second event is described quite differently. There are no signs to look for. Christ will come when we don't expect him. Therefore we are to look at Mark 13 as Christ answering two questions. When will the destruction of the temple be? (verses 1-31) and when will Christ return? verses 32-36.

This reading of the text makes the most sense. It shows a fulfillment of Christs words in 70 AD, therefore showing his authority, and it warns Christians of every generation to be ready for his return. This reading keeps us from needlessly reading into wars and rumors of wars when Christ tells us not to, but it keeps us vigilant in spite of persecution. Will there be a "great" tribulation, or a "great" falling away in the church before the end? There are texts that suggest this is possible, however to look at things like this as signs tends to lead us into resignation rather than the hard work Christ has called us to in every generation. We do not know the day or the hour. We do not know when he will return, but we know who he is, and we know what he has asked of us. So let's keep awake.


  1. Once again you did a great job looking into the matter. I can not help but wonder how strong you hold your position in light of some of the strong opossing arguments you have read.
    In other words how strong do you believe you are right.

  2. On this issue I'd say I'm pretty comfortable with my stance. As far as strong opposing arguments I haven't seen very many. It seems that the others tend to either read into the Old Testament where the New Testament doesn't give them permission (Premillennial views) or they don't use much scripture at all (Postmillennialism). Amillennialism seems to answer the tougher questions pretty well and leaves the mysteries open that Jesus seemed to want us to.