Questions about “end times” are the most common in Christian doctrine today. Theologians call the issue “eschatology,” meaning “a word about last things.” The area deals with such questions as the Second Coming and the nature of hell and heaven. We’ll take each question in turn, beginning with the most perennial of all: when will Jesus return?
During the 16th century, Martin Luther thought the Pope was the Antichrist, and expected Jesus’ return during his lifetime. Christopher Columbus thought the world would end in 1656, and that his explorations would lead a Christian army in the final crusade to convert the world. Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, predicted the “rapture” in 1910 and the end of the world in 1914.
Harold Camping wrote the bestseller 1994? in which he predicted the end would come on September 6, 1994. He again made news by predicting the end would come on May 21, 2011. Edgar Whisenant published Eighty-eight Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988, and sold thousands of copies. Trinity Broadcasting Network president Paul Crouch predicted an apocalyptic event for June 9, 1994. Such predictions will continue, because every believer wants to know: when will Jesus come back? Our question is not new.
Let’s ask three questions: When will Jesus return? How will he return? Why does his return matter?
When will Jesus return?
After his resurrection, “Jesus appeared to his disciples over a period of forty days and spoke to them about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). He then promised them the Holy Spirit (v. 5). They knew that the coming of the Spirit and the coming of the Kingdom were related. So in response, they asked the question Christians have been asking ever since: “Lord, Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).
Their question was logical, but wrong. Calvin said, “There are as many errors in this question as words” (Institutes 1.29).
Jesus says, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (v. 7). “Times or dates” refers to specific dates as well as years. “Not for you” refers to Jesus’ first and closest disciples–Peter, James, John, the others, and even Mary and his brothers. If Jesus wouldn’t tell them when he would return, will he tell you and me?
If discovering the time of his return was possible by scriptural exegesis, or spiritual commitment, would they not have determined it? To say that I know what Peter, James, John, and Mary didn’t is egotism, to say the least.
The Father has placed this decision in his authority alone. Jesus said, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mark 13:32-33). Paul told us that Jesus’ coming would be as surprising and unanticipated as a “thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2). Peter made the same prediction (2 Peter 3:10).
Listen to Jesus’ warning: “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him…It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Luke 12:35-36, 38-40).
No one but God knows when Jesus will return. We must be ready every day, for it could be any day. This is the clear teaching of God’s word.
How should we view the “end times”?
Let’s ask our second question: how should we view the “end times,” the event of Jesus’ return?
Someone asked a wise older pastor his view of the “end times.” He smiled and said, “The Lord put me on the preparation committee, not the planning committee.” He spoke for us all. We cannot control how the Lord chooses to end history. Our theories about the future are just that. The word of God is too practical to focus extensively on an issue which possesses no pragmatic value for our lives. If I could prove a particular theory of the end times to you, would such knowledge change your life today?
Nonetheless, sincere Christians debate these issues passionately. In this section we’ll survey very briefly the various options held by biblical interpreters. And we’ll seek practical applications for our lives today.
Seven approaches to “end times”
Regarding the book of Revelation and other eschatological biblical texts, seven approaches find support among evangelical scholars. Listed in no particular order, we will examine each one.
Preterist: This position asserts that Revelation and other eschatological literature were written primarily for the encouragement of their immediate audiences, not to predict or speak to the future.
Scholars in this tradition emphasize the “apocalyptic” nature of eschatological literature. “Apocalyptic” (from the Greek word for “unveiling”) was a popular literary approach from 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. It used symbolic, visionary and dramatic elements to convey encouragement and hope to persecuted people. Preterists argue that Revelation matches every description of “apocalyptic” literature except that it names its author (“apocalyptic” writings are typically pseudonymous). And so they interpret Revelation as we understand Philippians—a first-century book with perennial spiritual application. They would not see the book or other eschatological literature as predictive in nature, but as intended first for their original, persecuted audiences.
Continuous-historical: A second approach is known as the Continuous-historical school. It sees Revelation and other eschatological texts as forecasting the development of history. It located specific texts with specific events through history. While this approach was popular with Luther, Calvin, and other reformers, it is the least popular of the seven today.
Spiritual principles: A third interpretive method views eschatological texts with regard to spiritual principles. It sees Revelation and other literature as teaching spiritual facts (good will triumph, God’s people must persevere, etc.), but does not relate these passages to specific historical events or issues.
Postmillennialism: The next four approaches focus in various ways on the “millennium,” the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth described in Revelation 20:1-6. Postmillennialism believes that the church will usher in the Kingdom on earth for a thousand years, and that Jesus will return after (“post”) this millennium. At one time this was a very popular position, but following two world wars it is much less attractive today.
Amillennialism: This approach (from the Greek word “a” for “no”) believes there will be no literal millennium. Many in this approach find seven cycles within the book of Revelation, each descriptive of life on earth from Jesus ascension to his return. For them, Israel is the Church today awaiting the Second Coming of our Lord.
Dispensational premillennialism: This approach views Revelation and other eschatological texts primarily as a forecast of the very last days of history. It separated Israel and the Church, believing that any promises made to Israel in the Old Testament have been or will be fulfilled literally. Interpreters using this approach divide history into “dispensations,” various time periods during which God dealt with humanity in different ways. Jesus will “rapture” the church out of the world so God can return to his work with Israel during the “Great Tribulation.” This period will culminate in Jesus’ return to earth and the millennium (thus “premillennialism”), followed by the final judgment and eternity in heaven or hell.
Clarence Larkin’s charts made this position very popular. His pictoral description of the “end times “became well known. This is the most popular position with many laypeople and pastors in conservative traditions, especially in the South. The Scofield Study Bible, Dallas Theological Seminary, and similar schools have done much to advance this approach.
Historic premillennialism: This approach believes that Jesus will return to earth prior to the millennium, but does not expect a “rapture” or seven-year Great Tribulation. It typically views Old Testament prophecies as fulfilled in the church, the spiritual Israel. This is probably the most popular position today in conservative scholarship.
The practical issue
What difference does any of this make to your life today? Three facts may help.
Interpretive approaches must not divide fellowship. We can agree on the essentials of the Christian faith while disagreeing about this speculative theological area.
We should always interpret the Bible according to its intended meaning. Scripture can never mean what it never meant. If a suggested interpretation would hold little or no relevance or meaning for the original audience of God’s word, it is suspect for us as well.
We must be ready to meet the Lord whenever he comes. He may come for us today, or we may go to him. Our earthly lives may end in physical death or Jesus’ return, but we will all one day stand before his throne (2 Corinthians 5:10). And we have only today to be ready. “Tomorrow” is promised nowhere in God’s word. So live every day as if it were your last, because one day you’ll be right.
Why, then, does the Second Coming matter? Jesus makes clear the practical response to our perennial question: “You will be my witnesses.”
The Bible is not a speculative book. We ask rational, philosophical questions. We want to know about creation and the end-times, two subjects about which we can do nothing. But God’s word was not written in the western, Greek, rational tradition. It is a Hebrew book, written from the Hebrew present-tense, practical world view. It seldom tells us all we want to know, but it tells us more than we can do.
And it is clear: “You will be my witnesses.” No one knows when Jesus will return, so everyone must be ready. You and I must be ready. Then we must help other people be ready.
And we have only today to do so. The early Christians were sure about this. And so they lived in the daily expectation of Jesus’ imminent return. They wanted to be found doing what they would be doing if they knew Jesus were coming back that day. They wanted everyone they knew to be right with God, today. They had a passion for missions and evangelism, for they knew the time was short.
They were right. Jesus may come back for us all today. Or you and I may go to him. Either way, the time is short.
Consider the word of God:
“The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime” (Romans 13:11-13). Are you living in the “daytime”?
“Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (2 Peter 3:11-12). Are you looking forward to his return?
“As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no man can work” (John 9:4). Are you doing his works while you can?
“And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming” (1 John 2:28). If it were today, would you be “confident and unashamed before him”?
“Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed” (Revelation 16:15). Are you awake? Are you ready?
“Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done” (Revelation 22:12).
If right now you’re thinking, “I have plenty of time, this doesn’t apply to me,” know that you are deceived and wrong. I’m sure you’ve heard the old story about the time the devil had a meeting of his demons to decide how best to deceive men and women. One said, “Let’s tell them there’s no heaven,” but the devil said that wouldn’t work, that God has put heaven in every heart and we know it’s real. Another said, “Let’s tell them there’s no hell,” but the devil said that people know wrong must be punished, so that won’t work. Finally a third said, “Let’s tell them there’s no hurry.” And they did. And they still do.
So I must ask you, are you ready to see him? If it were today, would you mourn or rejoice? If you knew he were coming back today, would you change your life? How?
Dwight Moody presented the gospel one Sunday, then told his vast congregation to go home and think about it. The next Sunday he would give an invitation, and he would expect them to come to Jesus. But that night the Great Chicago Fire began. 18,000 buildings were destroyed; $200 million was lost, a third of the entire city’s value. No one knows how many died, but some estimates range as high as 15,000 casualties, many of whom had been in Moody’s service. He never waited again.
Nor should we.