Examining Christian Eschatology
Shaun T. White
Of all the subjects to study in Christianity, eschatology is one of the most heated and debated; likewise, eschatology is one of the most important and least understood. End Times subject matter strongly involves covenants, prophesies, foreign cultural, and complex figurative language; thus, it is not an easy subject to jump into without a firm background (i.e. reading Revelation by itself reveals very little).
An eschatological view also correlates to history and timelines; therefore, one’s understanding of the end times dictates what one believes has already happened in history, and likewise, what shall occur in the future. For these reasons, we can begin to see how a variety of views exist and how many divisions and doctrines are established. Some are very similar to each other while others are so radically different, they almost appear to be unrelated to Christianity. One thing seems constant, however – those in Christendom seldom examine or try to understand eschatological views and models which differ from their own. Thus, many possess an eschatological view, but very few actually study and understand eschatology.
Why Study Christian Eschatology?
Apart from developing ideas and understanding what has historically happened / what is to come, studying eschatology has many other purposes and benefits. First and foremost, it proves or disproves Christianity as a whole. Is this not a really important reason? What I mean is that, Jesus Christ, like thousands of other people throughout the human experience, made specific prophecies about major catastrophes (i.e. cosmic occurrences, earthquakes, major wars, famine, etc…), all of which generally purport to the end of the world, or the end of an age. Further in the essay, we will examine the specifics of Jesus’ prophesies, but for now, it is important and reasonable to understand that Jesus and his prophesies must be held to the same standards that any other supposed prophet of God would be – that is, if the specific things which Jesus foretold did not occur according to the timeline and manner he prophesied, then that means that both he and the Christian religion are false. Such a conclusion might sound absurd, but surprisingly, Pre-Millennialists Christians (the dominant eschatological view) have this very outcome. We will return again to this subject for a more in-depth examination and argument.
The second reason why we should study eschatology somewhat correlates to the first reason – that is, an eschatological model will either provide a great deal of harmony and clarity to God’s plans and intentions for mankind via the Holy Scriptures, or else it will make Biblical passages and doctrines into confounding, incoherent, contradicting mud. I am quite aware that there are many Christocentric people who are more than content to “just believe” that Jesus is the Son of God without any clear, reasonable, Bible-grounded understanding for doing so (they might easily “just believe” in anything for that matter, and, likewise, they are equally content with the measure of cognitive dissonance assigned to them by educated religious skeptics), but I believe that Christians should know and understand, both the “What’s” and “Why’s” of their beliefs and religion… especially if such is grounded in sound, fulfilled prophesy.
The third reason why Christians should study eschatology is because the End often dictates one’s own actions for meeting it. Allegorically speaking, if I was expecting a thief to break into my house at night sometime this week, would I not be driven to take preventative actions to protect myself, i.e. getting the police involved, arming myself, etc? Or, what if I knew that I was going to die in the next month – would I not try to see the people I cared about and make preparations for my death and unresolved issues? The same idea applies to our beliefs and understanding of the End Times; hence, an eschatological model often dictates what we choose to do and focus on throughout our lives. For example, Pre-Millennialists Christians who are awaiting Jesus’ second coming are apt to politically and fiscally support Israel’s efforts to fight Muslims and regain Palestine because they believe that Israel must rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem in order to bring about the Rapture, and hence, Jesus will then return – results then vary depending on what I term Type A and Type B Pre-Millennialism (more on this later).
Also, over the last two hundred and fifty years, each generation of Pre-Millennialists Christians have tended to believe that Jesus’ second coming would occur during their own lifetime (hence, a multitude of false prophesies and false religions have been made, and are still being made by religious leaders today regarding the eschaton), and this has tended to influence the focus and actions of these church members. For many of them, the Gospel (or “Good News”) isn’t that Jesus has brought light and life into the world so that we, though our faith in him might have them too, but instead, that the world could end “in the twinkle of an eye,” “like a thief in the night,” and that, in order to avoid burning in hell for all of eternity, one must join this particular church or that one in order to be saved. In my opinion, Gospels like this suffocate joy, peace and hope – important fruits of the Spirit – and instead enable fear, anxiety and dread (if not for one’s own self, then certainly for others).
Hence, we see the importance of studying Christian eschatology: it proves or disproves Christ and his religion as being established by men or by God, it enables validity and clarity to Biblical scriptures, and it greatly affects one’s own religious focus and actions throughout one’s life. There are many other valid reasons to study eschatology as well, i.e. it can be fun and rewarding (like putting together a puzzle or solving a mystery), it enables critical thinking (something that is often discouraged, and nearly non-existent in most Christian-based churches), and it does require one to learn / research ancient history, thus broadening one’s understanding of the world. It may be true that we will never understand everything in God’s plan for mankind, but that certainly doesn’t mean that we cannot learn more than we already know, or un-learn something that is obviously incorrect. For all these reasons and more, anyone who desires to better understand Christianity should strongly be encouraged to study Christian eschatology.
The Three Major Views of Christian Eschatology
Earlier, I mentioned Pre-Millennialism as one of the most popular and dominant views of Christian eschatology and I assigned two types to it: A’s and B’s. In short, Pre-Millennialists are a more specified branch of The Futurist View. The other two major views include Preterism (the Preterist View), and The Early Historical View. There are many other models; some differing in name only, and some with slight variations, while others are so unbelievable that they really are not worth mentioning at all. For this reason, I will exclusively focus on the three major views stated above. The following definitions given for each view comes from Arthur M. Ogden’s commentary on Revelation, The Avenging of the Apostles and Prophets:
The Futurist View: This method of interpretation [of Revelation] pictures the book as yet unfulfilled. The Millennialists and dispensationalist groups hold to this view. They place literal interpretations upon the signs and symbols of the book, projecting them into the future while they look for Jesus to return to the earth, set up an earthly kingdom, and reign for 1,000 years from the city of Jerusalem. [In conclusion,] [t]his interpretation would have no meaning whatsoever to the people of John’s day. [Thus,] [i]n reality, it is a contradiction to the stated purpose of the book which was to reveal “things which must shortly come to pass” (1:1), yet in our day it is the most popular view of the book. (5)
The Preterist View: [Revelation] is viewed by the Preterist as written for the people of John’s day. The events “shortly to come to pass” are described as happening in the immediate future of the people then living, and little is left to be fulfilled. Accordingly, to the Preterist, the book has little, if any meaning for the Christian of today. (5-6)
I would like to briefly mention that Revelation and all other End Times passages are not, to the Preterist, as Ogden indicates, possessing “little, if any meaning for the Christian of today.” To Preterists, Revelation and all End Times passages possess a great deal of meaning to the Christians of today, just not the contextual applications given to John’s audience during the first century. Contrary to what Ogden might believe, Preterists dedicate their eschatological research towards illuminating the meanings behind Revelation, the Old Prophets, and all related scriptures. In short, it would be fair to say that Preterists view Revelation as an important history book that is completely and intentionally misread, misunderstood, and misapplied by most Christians today.
The Early Historical View: [Revelation] is pictured as written to the people of that day and fulfilled for the most part in the events of the first century. This view seeks to derive a message from those events that are applicable for all times. (6)
To elaborate a bit further on the differences between the Preterist View and the Early Historical View, the latter generally believes that “almost everything” in Revelation and the Old Testament prophesies were fulfilled in the first century, but that Christ will still return again to gather up his saints in one fashion or another, and then proceed to destroy the world with fire (based on descriptions from Peter’s 2nd epistle). For this reason, they are sometimes referred to as “Partial Preterists.”
To conclude then, we have seen the three major eschatological views on Christianity and the ways that each view approaches End Times scriptures. In the next section, we will begin to examine specifically how, where and why each view believes what they do, and also lay out some big broader pieces to the puzzle of the eschaton.
The former believes the final fruit of the Resurrection will be spiritual, whereas the latter (namely the Jehovah’s Witnesses) believes in a physical resurrection – that is, all righteous believers, except for the elect, will live in their earthly bodies on earth for eternity without war, death, disease, pain, strife, and every other unpleasant thing.