A couple of quick goals for this post:
-4 Basic Terms for talking about the End Times
-4 Interpretive Strategies
-4 Basic Views
-4 Reasons Why This Matters Right Now
4 Basic Terms
1. Eschatology - the study of the "end times." This term requires a lot of nuance, because we have been living in the "last days" since the time of Jesus's ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension. (Hebrews 1:2a - "but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son...") Eschatology generally refers to the very end of these last days and extends to studies of eternity, heaven, and hell.
2. Apocalypse - rather than thinking of a dramatic event at the end of the world, this term is about an "unveiling." Symbolic language is used to address a people (usually in the minority) living in a crisis situation. The language is meant to reveal the work of God beyond what the people could see with their eyes at the present time. An apocalypse can reveal what is currently happening in the supernatural realm and/or what is going to happen in the future.
3. Prophecy - prophecy can include predictions of the future (sometimes called "foretelling"), but can also include God's Word being spoken into a situation in order to comfort or challenge His people ("forthtelling").
Even when speaking of the future, prophetic words are meant to make an impact on the audience. In addition, studies of prophecy are complicated by whether or not a prophecy can have an immediate result plus another fulfillment further into the future.
(Example = Can an Old Testament prophecy refer to something that happened close to when the prophet spoke, but also refer to something that would take place in the future, either into the time of Jesus or even to the end of the world?"
4. Millennium - the term for "1,000" only occurs a couple of places in the New Testament, but its occurrences in Revelation 20 have had a disproportionate impact on study of the end times. The nature and timing of this thousand year reign of Christ will impact the 4 basic views of the end times listed below.
4 Interpretive Strategies for Eschatology
1. Preterist - the prophetic events of passages like Matthew 24 and of virtually all of Revelation (other than chapters 20-22) were fulfilled in the 1st Century AD and have no future referent.
2. Idealist/Symbolic - the prophetic and apocalyptic language is meant to be taken symbolically, with limited historical referents and limited connection to future events. The language is meant to portray the timeless battle between good and evil, played out in the lives of God's people.
3. Futurist - prophetic and apocalyptic language primarily points to the future. First-century events play a limited role in fulfilling the meaning of passages like Matthew 24 or the Book of Revelation.
4. Dynamic/Combination - a "catch-all" sort of position that combines elements of the above passages (often finding both a past referent and a future indicator in the prophetic language).
4 Basic Views of the End Times
(*the terms for these views are not the same in every source you read; I've used some middle-of-the-road options)
1. Premillennial (Dispensational/Classic)
This view was popularized in the 20th century by Hal Lindsey and then later in the Left Behind novels, but the roots are often traced back to scholars such as Darby and Scofield. In this approach, Jesus will return before His millennium reign to rapture the church away from earth, then after the great tribulation, He will return (sometimes called His parousia or Second Coming) to reign on earth during the millennium before the final judgment.
Features include: literal interpretations of apocalyptic/symbolic language; a primarily futurist reading of passages like Matthew 24 and Revelation 4-19; a limited role for the Christian Church and a heightened role for the nation of Israel in the end times; and a rapture of the Church.
2. Premillennial (Historical/Modified)
This view emphasizes Christ's thousand year reign, but does not emphasize a strong distinction between the Church and national Israel; often does not include a rapture before the tribulation (so the church goes through the tribulation); and does not take such a literal view of apocalyptic/symbolic language.
In this approach, the Second Coming of Christ will occur after the millennium. The millennium is not usually taken as literally 1,000 years, and when this millennium comes (following a time of tribulation), Christ's reign will not be physically present on earth but He will rule through His Church. Accordingly, people will come to believe in Christ, the evil regimes of the world will begin to fall, and finally Christ will return to raise the dead and bring judgment.
The term amillennial is a bit misleading, because "a-" at the beginning of a word tends to negate the root word (example: atheism = a-theism).
In the amillennial approach, the millennium isn't absent; instead, it represents the period from the beginning of the Church until Christ's Second Coming. So, we live in the millennium period now. In the future, Christ will return (Second Coming) to raise the dead and bring judgment.
4 Reasons Why This Matters Right Now
*This past week, Moore High School experienced a tragedy as 6 students were struck purposefully by a vehicle. Two students have died (as of this writing), with the other four in various stages of recovery.
So many people have rallied together for prayer and support.
The school officials, families, and friends have cared for the injured and for one another in incredible ways.
A local pastor wrote a helpful and insightful article about how to trust God and respond to this type of tragedy.
Courageously, the first victims's father shared 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 on social media in response to his daughter's death.
Providentially, the Sunday before the tragedy, the sermon at Emmaus was about Matthew 24:1-14 and our youth Sunday School classes were studying 1 Thessalonians 5. Both passages teach us how to live when faced with suffering and death amid a broken world.
Why is this important? Because, if we're not careful, eschatology and "end times" discussions can become very theoretical or academic. Too often, we miss the purpose of these passages. But, they hold important and helpful lessons:
1. Encouragement toward Others
1 Thessalonians 4:13 - But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
1 Thessalonians 4:18 - "Therefore encourage one another with these words."
In between these two verses in 1 Thessalonians, we are reminded that death is not the end of the story. Jesus will return to raise the dead and bring His final victory. So, instead of panicking or speculating or arguing, eschatology should drive us encourage one another even as we hurt and grieve.
2. Humility and Love toward Others
1 Corinthians 13:12 - For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.
The four views presented above do not distinguish between who loves Jesus and believes the Bible, and who does not. One view isn't "conservative" and the others "liberal."
Studying and thinking about the future should make us humble and loving, not prideful and divisive.
Certainly, how we think about the future will impact how we live now. But, if our views of how Christ's return will play out cause us to miss those parts of the Christian life that are most important (loving God and others; making disciples), we will have missed the purpose both of academic and church life.
3. Endurance through Suffering
Matthew 24:13 - But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Depending on your interpretive strategy, there is a chance "to the end" in Matthew 24:13 doesn't even refer to the end of the world, but simply means something like "all the way through" the suffering.
Remember - apocalyptic literature (such as Matthew 24 and the Book of Revelation) was directed toward a minority audience living under oppression in a time of crisis. The whole purpose of apocalyptic literature is to "pull back the curtain" and let us see enough of God's power and His ways so that we will stay the course and not give up.
In Matthew 24, Jesus urged His disciples not to give up, but to endure suffering amid a chaotic and broken world. Thinking about eschatology can remind us that what we face now is not the end of the story. We can endure through the power of Christ and the gift of His Church.
4. Preparation for the End
2 Peter 3:8-9 - But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance
Eschatology is important because studying this subject -- either academically or pastorally -- encourages us to prepare for the future. We can't ignore our own morality or the reality that this world and its "things" will come to an end.
How do we prepare?
A) Preparation means considering our own relationship with the Lord. We live in a broken world; but more than that, we are broken people. Each of us is broken by sin and facing death. But Jesus has defeated both sin and death -- the two things we could never defeat on our own. So, we look to Him in faith and receive the free gift of salvation that we could never deserve or earn on our own.
B) Preparation also involves how we live each day. Looking to the future shouldn't make us passive or lazy; instead we are called to be faithful, holy, and wise servants, making the most of every opportunity we have.
May each of us live faithfully and lovingly today knowing that our faith in Christ means hope and joy for the future.