What is Eschatology?

Topics: End Times | The Return of Christ

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If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. 1 Corinthians 15:19

“The consummation of all things includes the visible, personal, physical, future and glorious return of Jesus Christ, the resurrection of the dead and the translation of those alive in Christ, the judgment of the just and the unjust, and the fulfillment of Christ’s kingdom in the New Heavens and the New Earth. In the consummation, Satan with his hosts and all those outside Christ are finally separated from the benevolent presence of God, enduring eternal punishment, but the righteous, in glorious bodies, shall live and reign with Him forever, serving Him and giving Him unending praise and glory. Then shall the eager expectation of creation be fulfilled and the whole earth shall proclaim the glory of God who makes all things new.”1

Eschatology is the study of the last things. It is primarily concerned with the coming of the Lord and the events surrounding such an appearing. Although many today do not appear to do so, the Bible expects and encourages believers to look toward His coming with anticipation.2 Since Christ Himself is our great hope (1 Timothy 1:1), eschatology is really a study in Christ,3 a study in hope, the hope of glory, the hope of His presence.

Many who truly love the Lord and await His return with eager anticipation possess different perspectives in dealing with the chronology and meaning of a number of the events which surround His coming. At the same time, there are key requisite beliefs which are not debated among evangelicals and are quite clear from the pages of sacred Scripture.

The intention of this chapter is to outline the essentials as far as the leadership of The Village Church is concerned. It is for these that we are willing to contend and we therefore cling to them for the sake of our joy, the joy of our flock, and the glory of Christ. As these are seen to be integral to Christian belief and practice, we hold to them with a closed hand. At the same time, we hope to provide a primer in discussing the various debated issues, which we do not see as being of utmost importance in light of our understandings thereof. This distinction is not intended to bifurcate revelation or to assert that those doctrines which we have labeled as “of lesser clarity” are less weighty, but rather is intended to guard against the dilution of that which is abundantly clear in Scripture. It seems to us that if you cling to all beliefs with an equal amount of zeal and vehemence then you run the danger of someone using a hole in a more minor and less clear doctrine as a rejection of your overall theology. Why not instead cling tightly (“closed hand”) to those things for which you are willing to fight and die (deity of Christ, trinity, inerrancy of Scripture, etc.) while holding doctrines which are less clearly attested and less central to the basic call toward gospel repentance and belief with an “open hand”?

That which is essential in a study of eschatology:

  1. The Return of Christ
  2. Resurrection of Believers and Unbelievers
  3. Judgment of Believers and Unbelievers
  4. Eternal Destinies

That which is left open for various views within the body of The Village:

  1. The nature of the millennium
  2. The nature of the great tribulation
  3. The timing of the rapture

The Return of Christ

Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him. So it is to be. Amen. Revelation 1:7

Christ will surely return. This is one of the most foundational of evangelical beliefs and is the determinant for all subsequent discussion of eschatology. It is the starting point from which all consequent conversation must begin.

Christ’s return will be a physical and visible return which will shine forth throughout the earth like lightning in the sky and will usher in the end of our present age. This is called His parousia, He return, His appearing, His coming.

As was discussed in the introduction, we believers should eagerly long for the return of our Lord. We should cry out “Maranatha” (“Our Lord, come!” 1 Corinthians 16:22) as we participate in those deeds of which we would not be ashamed in His presence. Those who do not so long for the return of the Lord evidence a fundamental gap in their understanding of the Christian desire, the hope of glory, the joy of His presence.

Although there are signs of His coming, the fact remains that no one ultimately knows when He will return and we are therefore commanded to be vigilant.4 Though there is some debate as to the definite meaning of the imminence of His coming, the Bible clearly states that He is coming soon.5

Resurrection of Believers and Unbelievers

Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment. John 5:28-29

The resurrection of Christ has surely purchased a resurrection for those who are in Him. The Bible tells us that He is “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”6 However, it is not only His bride, the church, who will share in such, but indeed all will partake in a literal and physical resurrection.7

Not much is known with certainty about the form of the body that we will receive at resurrection. We should definitely expect a physical body, but one that is distinct and more glorious from our current dwelling.8 These bodies will be set free from the curse of sin and death and will be imperishable. We are unaware of any distinction to be made between the resurrected bodies of believers and nonbelievers.

Judgment of Believers and Unbelievers

But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. Matthew 25:31-33

At the time of Christ’s coming, after the resurrection of the living and the dead, the Lord will judge all people for belief and deeds.9 It is Jesus Himself and not the Father or the Spirit Who will exercise judgment.10

It is generally believed that judgment of the unbeliever includes degrees of punishment while judgment of the believer includes degrees of reward. Regardless, it is to be affirmed that there is no wrath or condemnation associated with the judgment of believers.11

Eternal Destinies

These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. Matthew 25:46

According to the final judgment rendered by Christ at His coming, both believers and unbelievers will be ushered into their respective eternal destinies. While there has historically been some level of debate as to the nature of the language of “heaven” in Scripture, it is best to assert that believers will go forth into the recreated earth to spend eternity in the presence of the resurrected Lord. Unbelievers will face the wrath of God, away from His presence, for eternity in hell.12

Important Ambiguities

The following doctrines are not, in our opinion, of as equal clarity in the pages of God’s revelation as that which is expressed above and we therefore hold them with an open hand. Teaching and preaching upon such issues must be done with an understanding that a plethora of Bible-believing, God-fearing, passionate evangelical Christians have a wide array of beliefs on these issues. Humility is definitely demanded.

The Millennium

The doctrine of the millennium is birthed primarily from Revelation 20:1-7. There are basically three positions which have developed in understanding this period, although in the case of pre-millennialism, there are two subsets of comprehension.

Options:

  • Pre-millennialis
  • Post-millennialism
  • Amillennialism

Pre-millennialism

Pre-millennialism is that understanding of the period which views the thousand years of Revelation 20 with the most chronological and literal interpretation. According to this view, Christ’s return, or second coming, will follow a great period of tribulation. This return will usher in the millennial age in which Satan is bound from deceiving the nations and the Kingdom of God is fully manifested. At the end of the millennium, Satan is released from bondage and there is a large-scale revolt against the program of God upon the earth. Christ then finally and decisively destroys death and consigns Satan and His legions to the final place of torment. It is at this time that the new heavens and new earth appear and we enter into the eternal state.

Post-millennialism

Post-millennialism is that understanding of the period which is marked by an overwhelming belief in the power of Christ working in the church toward justice and reform. At the start of the millennium,13 there will be a tremendous expansion of God’s program in the church in which peace and prosperity increase upon the earth. Indeed it represents a great Christianization of the world, although it does not teach a universalist perspective. For the post-millennialist, this program will continue for a literal or figurative thousand years until the time of apostasy. This apostasy will finally and decisively be overthrown by the return of Christ which immediately ushers in resurrection, judgment and the eternal state.

Amillennialism

Amillennialism is that understanding of the period which views the current Church age as the millennium which is referenced in Revelation 20. It views the binding of Satan as having taken place at Christ’s death and/or resurrection and uses Matthew 12:28-29 as evidence of such. It therefore sees the kingdom as having already begun with Christ reigning upon His throne in heaven at the right hand of God. Within this understanding, Christ is currently reigning in heaven until such time as His return, which will follow the release of Satan and a time of apostasy. At this appearing will come a general resurrection and final judgment which will then usher in the eternal state.

The Tribulation

The tribulation has various perspectives which depend upon the conceived millennial position and an overall understanding of the program of eschatology. This tribulation represents the Day of the Lord doctrine in which the wrath of God is poured out upon the earth in response to the advancement of Satan and the third great apostasy. It is often argued from Daniel 9 that the tribulation will be a literal seven year period, although that is certainly of some debate within evangelicalism. The main question as far as the tribulation period is concerned is the timing of the Day of the Lord. Is it past, present or future?

Options:

  • Preterist
  • Futurist
  • Complex

Preterist

The preterist understanding of the Day of the Lord and tribulation is that the writings of the apostles on the time of apostasy were primarily and directly concerned with the historical events which transpired in the persecution of Christians within the Roman Empire.

While it is possible to hold to and teach a soft version of this understanding, full preterism14 is to be clearly rejected.

Futurist

The futurist position understands the Day of the Lord to be entirely future in nature and to refer to a literal apostasy which will take place at the end of the current age.

Complex

It is probably best to see the prophecy of the tribulation in a similar manner to those Old Testament prophecies which had a literal fulfillment in history, but which represented a type of that which was to come. In the same way, it could be said that while the preterist position is correct in ascribing a literal fulfillment of some events to some degree in the past, the futurists are also correct in looking for a final and ultimate fulfillment in God’s program.

The Rapture

The Rapture in its simplest form is merely the time in which the church will meet the Lord upon His return. It is derived from the Latin rapio which means to “carry away, seize, snatch”15 and is primarily concerned with the language of 1 Thessalonians 4:17. The debate surrounding this doctrine involves the timing of the rapture.

Options:16

  • Pre-tribulation
  • Post-tribulation

Pre-tribulation

The pre-tribulation perspective understands the rapture to occur prior to the tribulation period. It therefore understands the rapture to be a time in which the church will meet the Lord in the clouds, although this is not the time of His coming, which is to occur at the end of the apostasy period. The main arguments advanced in support of this position are as follows:

  1. God’s wrath will be poured out upon the entire earth and therefore any present on earth will be subject to such wrath. Since believers are not appointed to suffer wrath, they should therefore not be expected to be present during this period.
  2. Revelation 3:10
  3. From a premillennial perspective – the need to populate the millennial period
  4. The language of imminence regarding the return of Christ – that the rapture marks the beginning of the tribulation period negates any necessary signs to occur prior to this day.
  5. The trend of God’s program of removing His people and delivering them from His wrath – Lot from Sodom, Noah, etc.

Post-tribulation

The post-tribulation perspective understands the rapture to be basically synonymous with the resurrection of the church. It therefore views the rapture to occur after the time of apostasy, at which point Christ will return to usher in the millennium or eternal state, depending upon the millennial position to which one holds. The main arguments advanced in support of a post-trib position are as follows:

  1. Nowhere in the New Testament is a “rapture” clearly and explicitly taught as being a distinct occurrence from the resurrection.
  2. In some sense the pre-trib position demands a secret coming of Christ which is distinct from His return. Nowhere is such a secret coming explicitly taught in Scripture and even the passage most often used to support the rapture doctrine, 1 Thessalonians 4, speak of a cry of command, an archangel’s call and a trumpet sounding, none of which seem to teach a somewhat secret return.
  3. The trend of God’s program of delivering His people through times of persecution (without removing them from the environment of suffering, He protects them in the midst of it)– the fact that Noah remained on the earth, the persecution of all believers, etc.
  4. The fact that Christ is said to be seated upon His throne until such time as His return (singular).

Outline of Relevant Passages of Scripture Dealing with Eschatological Issues

The Essentials:

I. The Return of Christ

  • Matthew 24:44
  • John 14:3
  • Acts 1:11
  • Philippians 3:20
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:16
  • Titus 2:11-13
  • Hebrews 9:28
  • James 5:8
  • 1 John 3:2
  • Revelation 1:7

II. Physical Resurrection

  • Matthew 22:30
  • John 5:28-29
  • Acts 24:15
  • 1 Corinthians 6:14
  • 1 Corinthians 15:12
  • 1 Corinthians 15:21-22
  • 1 Corinthians 15:51-52
  • 2 Corinthians 4:14

III. Judgment

  • Punishment and Reward
  • Matthew 25:31-46
  • Acts 17:30-31
  • 2 Corinthians 5:10

IV. Eternal Destinies

  • New Heavens and New Earth
    • Isaiah 65:17
    • 2 Peter 3:13
    • Revelation 21:1
  • Hell
    • Matthew 25:41, 46
    • Mark 9:43b-48
    • 2 Thessalonians 1:9
    • Revelation 14:9-11

Peripherally Debated Issues

I. The Millennium

  • Revelation 20:2-7

II. The Rapture

  • 1 Thessalonians 4:17

III. The Tribulation

  • Matthew 24:21
  • Daniel 9:24-27

Other Passages:

  • 2 Thessalonians 2:1-17
  • Matthew 1:24-25
  • Revelation 3:10
  • Luke 17:26-30
  • 1 Peter 4:17-19
  • 1 Peter 4:12-13

© 2007 The Village Church. All rights reserved.


Footnotes

1 From The Village Church Statement of Faith

2 2 Peter 3:1

3 Revelation 19:10

4 Matthew 22:42-44, 25:13; Mark 13:32-37; Luke 12:40; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 2 Peter 3:10

5 1 Peter 4:7; Revelation 1:3, 22:7, 22:12, 22:20

6 1 Corinthians 15:20

7 Acts 24:15

8 1 Corinthians 15:42-49; 2 Corinthians 5:1-5

9 I realize that various theological systems may interpret certain passages on judgment not together as one unified event, but rather as distinct judgments. For example, the dispensational view would hold to a judgment of the nations (Matthew 25:31-46), a judgment of believer’s works (2 Corinthians 5:10), and a “great white throne judgment” (Revelation 20:11-15). Regardless, the principle of judgment is still upheld, which is the main thrust of this essential. Whether or not there are multiple judgments is really more peripheral and debated and a hard stance on such would therefore quite possibly dilute the overwhelming evidence for the non-obscured fact of judgment.

10 John 5:26-27; Acts 10:42; 2 Timothy 4:1

11 John 5:24; Romans 8:1

12 The error of annihilationism is to be most stringently opposed as it negates the clear biblical evidence for the eternal and lasting punishment of unbelievers. While annihilationists find objectionable the idea of eternal punishment for temporal sin, such a view takes very lightly the offense of even the “tiniest” of sins against an infinitely holy God.

13 There is debate among post-millennialists as to what marks the beginning of the millennium. Some believe that it has already begun while others think that it will begin at: the conversion of Israel, the binding of Satan or the defeat of the antichrist.

14 The belief which states that all of the prophecies regarding the end times have already been fulfilled, including the return of Christ.

15 Grudem, Systematic Theology, page 1100

16 Some also hold to a mid-tribulation or pre-wrath perspective, although it does not represent a dominant eschatological theory in evangelicalism and will therefore not be herein discussed.