Eschatological Confusion Part 5: The Book of Revelation

Revelation

I think it goes without saying that no book in the Bible has been subject to a more varied interpretation than the sixty-sixth one: Revelation. Those in Christian circles either love it or fear it. They either read it all the time or not at all. But those who have read it (including myself), or have at least tried to, most likely lack a complete understanding. Therefore in Part 5 of this blog series entitled “Eschatological Confusion” we will turn our attention to this mysterious book.

Background
The name of the book is taken from its opening verse: “The revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave Him to show His slaves what must quickly take place…” The word translated “revelation” is the Greek word ἀποκάλυψις (apocalypsis), from which we derive the English word apocalypse. According to BLB, the word means to disclose previously unknown truth, or literally to lay bare or make naked (click on this link to see the lexicon: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G602&t=HCSB). So right from the start we know that in this book God is going to reveal truth to those who read it about events that will soon take place.

We can gather more important information from the rest of 1:1 and into v2: “He (Jesus) sent it and signified it through His angel to His slave John, who testified to God’s word and to the testimony about Jesus Christ, in all he saw.” A man named John was used to record this revelation, a revelation which he “saw.” This means he had a vision, or several visions, of these events. In fact, the book of Revelation states fifty-four times that John “saw” something. But who was this John? Was he the same John who authored the gospel and the three short epistles? Some say it was a different John, yet the bulk of recent scholarship suggests that it was indeed John the apostle, who had already penned four other New Testament books. The second century church father Irenaeus considered John the apostle to be the author of Revelation. This is important because Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp, who was a contemporary and a friend of John the apostle.

Interpretation
When it comes to the interpretation of this book, several things must be kept in mind. First of all, these visions were seen and this book was written at the end of the first century AD (ca. 95). Secondly, this book was addressed to the seven churches of Asia Minor, which were located within the powerful Roman Empire. When we combine these two facts, we understand thirdly that these people were under the reign of the emperor Domitian, who advocated and practiced the persecution of believers. John references this persecution in 1:9, where he states, “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation…” It is referenced again in 2:9 in the letter to Smyrna, “I know your tribulation and your poverty…” As with any other book of the Bible, we must always keep the situation of the original audience at the forefront of our minds when interpreting it.

Though not an exhaustive list, the fourth and final thing to keep in mind when interpreting Revelation is its genre. The sixty-six books of the Bible are composed of several different genres, such as narrative, poetry, prophecy, and epistle. The book of Revelation is a combination of three different genres. First of all, it is an apocalyptic book (remember, the word revelation comes from the Greek word meaning apocalypse). Apocalyptic literature, both inside and outside the Bible, uses numbers, symbols, and figurative language to convey its message. For this reason, it cannot and should not be interpreted literally. And though these symbols and figures may be frightening, it should be understood that apocalyptic literature was actually written to give hope. This book is not attempting to terrorize its readers with nightmares. Instead, it was written to give hope to those experiencing trials and tribulations (then and now).

This book also falls under the genre of prophecy. As we already saw in 1:1, the book was written to disclose things that will soon take place. Also, in 1:3 we read, “Blessed is the one who reads and blessed are those who hear the words of this prophecy…”

Thirdly, Revelation also contains epistolary features. 1:4-8 introduces the author and audience and includes a standard greeting, such as the letters of Paul. Also, the entirety of chapters 2 and 3 contain seven letters, one to each of the churches of Asia Minor (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea).

All of this information (including the author, audience, date, genres, and purpose of the book) should be plenty to get anyone on the right track when it comes to interpreting Revelation. Now, with all of this in mind, let’s look at three ways this book has been understood historically.

A Preterist View
A preterist interpretation of prophecy suggests that the events prophesied have already been fulfilled. So those who hold to a preterist view of Revelation believe that every single prophecy in the book has already occurred. But with all the events that still seem futuristic to most, how do they see them as already fulfilled? First of all, they date the writing of the book earlier than 95 AD. This allows them to say that all the prophecies were fulfilled within the first century and experienced by the original audience. Secondly, they look to the Jewish historians Josephus and Suetonius and see several events they recorded as the fulfillment of Revelation’s prophecies. Even when it comes to the new creation of chapters 21 and 22, those holding to a preterist view say we are already experiencing it.

In favor of this view is the statement in 1:1 that these events must quickly or soon take place.

A Futurist View
It should be mentioned from the start that there are differing degrees of this approach. Some futurists say that none of the events spoken of in Revelation have been fulfilled, while others say some have and some have not. Understanding that this book was addressed to first century Roman residents, it would be difficult to see everything in the book as future. At the same time it is hard to deny that most of the events do seem still in the future, especially the events of chapters 19-22 concerning the return of the Lord, the judgment, and the new creation.

An Idealist View
This view takes to heart the fact that Revelation is apocalyptic literature. Interpreting it as such, those who adhere to this view see the events as mostly symbolic and as an attempt to lift the spirits of persecuted believers. Instead of looking for the fulfillment of each and every prophecy, the idealist steps back and takes a very wide-angled view. When this happens, Revelation can be summed up in one statement: Christ, and therefore believers, have secured the victory!

Where Do I Stand?
I am a huge advocate of interpreting biblical texts the way the original audience would have understood them, always taking the genre into consideration. When it comes to Revelation, this leads me to believe that a combination of the futurist and idealist approaches are the best way to go. I have no doubt that, even though 1:1 does mention things happening quickly, some of the events prophesied have yet to be fulfilled. At the same time, I don’t look for the fulfillment of every single stroke of every single letter. Revelation is best understood when a broad approach is taken. We don’t want to miss the forest for the trees. We don’t want to get bogged down in the details and miss the main point of the book. And what is that? The fact that Christ has triumphed over Satan, evil, and death and that believers will one day share in that victory for all eternity. According to 22:5 the saints will reign with Him “forever and ever.”

Conclusion
Revelation teaches us what the rest of the Bible has already taught us: God is a God of love and justice; He saves those who are His and sends His wrath upon those who are not. Only in the end, these things will happen on a grand scale and will last for all eternity. Those who are His will live with Him in the new creation, while those who are not will be in anguish.

My prayer is that with this information and guidance, you will no longer be afraid to open up the book of Revelation. And when you do, may you be challenged and may you be changed!

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Eschatological Confusion Part 4: Hell and Eternal Punishment

Heaven_Hell sign

Welcome to Part 4 of this blog series entitled “Eschatological Confusion.” So far we have had an introductory post (Part 1) and have dealt with the topics of the rapture (Part 2) and the millennium (Part 3). Today we will turn our attention to hell and eternal punishment.

Who knew there was more than one view concerning hell? Haven’t you seen the imaginative pictures? Haven’t you read Dante’s Inferno? Isn’t hell that fiery place where Satan is and where all the non-believers will go after the judgment? How could anyone believe anything different?

No scholar denies that the Scriptures speak of hell. Finding hell in the Old Testament can be confusing, because the meaning of the word sheol, variously translated as “grave,” “pit,” or “hell,” is hard to ascertain. It possibly refers to a place of punishment for the unfaithful, but could simply be the place of the dead. Whatever the case may be, the concept is undeniably present. When we come to the New Testament, however, there is no such confusion. New Testament authors use three different words to describe the afterlife of the unsaved: hades (11x), gehenna (12x), and tartaros (1x). Here is an example of each:

In Matt. 11:23 Jesus used the word hades when He said, “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until today.”

In Matt. 5:29 Jesus used the word gehenna (translated “hell”) when He said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for the whole body to be thrown into hell.”

The word tartaros is only used once in the NT, in 2 Peter 2:4, which reads, “For if God didn’t spare the angels who sinned, but threw them down into Tartaros…”

Even though the scriptural mentions of hell are clear and are not debated, their meanings are. Let’s take a second to sort through the issues…

Literal vs. Metaphorical
This first point of debate centers around what we might call the “furnishings” of hell. When using the terms “literal” and “metaphorical,” I am not referring to the reality of the place (for that is not in question), but rather what that place looks like and will be like. The overarching question goes like this: Should the New Testament descriptions of a fiery hell be understood literally or figuratively?

Let’s see how the New Testament describes hell. The very first mention of hell in the New Testament is found on the lips of Jesus in Matthew 5:22, “…But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire.” Another way to translate that final phrase is “the fire of hell.” In this instance, there is no reason to take Jesus’ statement as anything but literal. In His famous Sermon on the Mount, of which this is a part, He did use several metaphors, but this does not seem to be one of them. Here Jesus speaks of hell as a place of fire.

Jesus again refers to a fiery hell in Matthew 18:9, when He said, “And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, rather than to have two eyes and be thrown into hellfire.” And in the previous verse, though hell is not mentioned, Jesus speaks of one being thrown into the “eternal fire.”

Within the gospels, hell and fire are also mentioned together in Mark 9:43, 45, and 47. Outside the gospels, James mentions that the tongue is “set on fire by hell” (3:6). The combination is found one final time on Revelation 20:14, where “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.”

There are also places where, even though hell is not specifically mentioned, the concepts of fire and punishment are present. Take, for instance, Matthew 7:19, “Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Also, in the parable of the wheat and weeds, Jesus declares (through the mouth of the landowner), “Gather the weeds first and tie them in bundles to burn them” (Matthew 13:30).

In each of these instances, as well as a few others, hell is described as a place of fiery judgment. This begs the question, Why would anyone believe it to be anything less?

The answer, in short, has to do with the interpretation of the word gehenna. The term is derived from the Valley of Hinnom, a valley located south of Jerusalem where criminals were buried and trash was burned. Since most of the New Testament references to hell and fire occur when the word gehenna is used, some argue that the word was only used as a metaphorical way to describe the place of eternal punishment. If this is the case, then we shouldn’t understand hell to be a place of literal fire.

So what do you think? Is hell literally a fiery place of punishment? Or are the references to fire only metaphorical?

Eternality vs. Annihilationism
The second point of debate asks this question: How long will unbelievers suffer in hell? Will it be an eternal punishment or will it come to an end at some point?

First of all, it should the pointed out that both the Old and New Testaments speak of an eternity. Psalm 10:16 states that “The LORD is King forever and ever.” One of the prophesied names given to Jesus in Isaiah 9:6 is “Eternal Father.” In Romans 9:5 God is the one who is “blessed forever.” Yet all of these mentions of eternity speak of God’s eternal nature. What about the eternal life of mankind?

John 3:14-16 reads, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life. For God loved the world in this way: He gave His only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.”

Romans 6:22-23 states, “But now, since you have been liberated from sin and become enslaved to God, you have your fruit, which results in sanctification—and the end is eternal life! For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

These verses, as well as a myriad of others, speak of believers spending eternity with Christ. But does this concept of eternality carry over to hell?

Some, who believe in annihilationism, argue that it does not. They argue that in John 3:16 Jesus does not contrast eternal life with eternal punishment, but rather with perishing. Also, in Romans 6:23 the wages of sin is not eternal punishment, but death. Understanding hell this way suggests that the fiery flames will not eternally torment unbelievers, but instead consume them to the point of death and basically extinction (Clark Pinnock’s view in Four Views on Hell, Zondervan, 1996).

But what about the words of Jesus? Three consecutive times in Mark 9:43-48 He described hell (gehenna) as “the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”

In Luke 3:17 (cf. Matt. 3:12) John the Baptist said concerning Jesus, “His winnowing shovel is in His hand to clear His threshing floor and gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn up with a fire that never goes out.”

Though these words make it pretty clear that the punishment of hell will be eternal, Revelation 20:10-15 makes the best case. 20:10 states that, “The Devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet are, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Then, in vv14-15, Death, Hades, and “anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” If the Devil will be tormented “forever and ever” in this lake, then why wouldn’t all the others thrown into the very same lake?

A final argument I will present against annihilationism is this: If believers will spend eternity with God, then why wouldn’t non-believers spend eternity separated from God? It only makes sense.

Purgatory
One final point of discussion is that of purgatory. The concept of purgatory is not necessarily a view of heaven and hell, but rather an explanation of what happens to a person between their death and the final judgment. This understanding of purgatory, held solely by the Catholic church, states that at death most believers are not yet ready for heaven, yet neither do they deserve hell, so they go to a place known as purgatory, where living relatives and friends can pray (and pay) them out of purgatory and into heaven (for further explanation, see Zachary Hayes’ view in Four Views on Hell).

Now have you ever read that in the New Testament??? No you haven’t, because it’s not there.

So where do the Catholics find this doctrine in Scripture. It needs to be understood that the Catholic church has adopted extra books into their canon (on top of the 66 books in the protestant canon). One of these books, 2 Maccabees, is where they find the doctrine of purgatory.

Yet contra Catholic teaching, the New Testament indicates that to be absent from the body is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). There is nothing that keeps a believer from entering the presence of Christ immediately after their passing, meaning there is no reason to believe in a place called purgatory.

Where Do I Stand?
As you can probably tell, I can quickly and easily toss purgatory out the window. I cannot find any mention of it in Scripture and therefore it does not fit into my theology. I also have to do away with the thought of annihilationism. Though the New Testament does, in a few places, contrast a heavenly eternity with death and perishing, it also describes hell as a place of eternal punishment. In my mind, this only makes sense. If the reward for believers is eternal, then the punishment for non-believers should be as well. But how could a loving God punish people for all eternity, you ask? Because that same God is also holy and just, and cannot let sin go unpunished. So for those who never placed their faith in the cross of Christ for the forgiveness of their sin, their punishment will be eternal.

So now the only question I am faced with is the literalness of hell. I grew up, as most children do, understanding hell to be a place of literal fire. Even though I can see and understand the metaphorical view, I remain unconvinced. There are too many statements in the New Testament, specifically from the lips of Jesus, for me to believe that hell is anything other than a place of fiery and eternal torment.

So what does all this mean for you and I? It means that one day we will face eternity. And our eternity will be spent in one of two places: heaven or hell. We will either be with Christ for all eternity, or separated from Him for all eternity.

And what determines that? Faith does. Ephesians 2:8 tells us that “By grace you are saved through faith…” And what exactly are we saved from? From hell. From eternal punishment. From being separated from Christ for all eternity.

If you have never placed your faith in the death and resurrection of Christ, I encourage you to do that right now. It is as simple as confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in your heart that God raised Him from the dead (Romans 10:9-10). Why is it so important to believe? Because your eternity is on the line!

May these thoughts challenge you and may they change you.

Eschatological Confusion Part 3: The Millennium

millennium

In Part 1 we surveyed the issues surrounding eschatology. Part 2 focused on the timing of the rapture. Now in Part 3 we will turn our attention to the millennium.

The “millennium” refers to a one thousand (1,000) year period, more specifically, the 1,000 year period mentioned in Revelation 20:1-6.

“1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the abyss and a great chain in his hand. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for 1,000 years. 3 He threw him into the abyss, closed it, and put a seal on it so that he would no longer deceive the nations until the 1,000 years were completed. After that, he must be released for a short time.

“4 Then I saw thrones, and people seated on them who were given authority to judge. I also saw the people who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of God’s word, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and who had not accepted the mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with the Messiah for 1,000 years. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the 1,000 years were completed. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of the Messiah, and they will reign with Him for 1,000 years.”

This is the only place in Scripture where the millennium is explicitly mentioned. Scholars find other places they think it might be mentioned, but that is highly debated.

As you can tell from the text of Revelation 20 above, the millennium concerns Satan’s binding and Christ’s and the saints’ reign on earth. The concept of a “reign” carries with it the idea of a kingdom. In this case, that would be the kingdom of God, the good news of which Jesus spent His entire ministry proclaiming (cf. Luke 4:43). Therefore the questions surrounding the millennium are questions surrounding the kingdom of God. The questions are many:

-Have we experienced this kingdom in its fullest sense or is there more to come?

-Is this 1,000 year period literal or figurative?

-When will this period of time begin?

-Could we currently be living in the millennium?

These and more are the questions we will wrestle with in this post.

The Kingdom of God
The kingdom of God has been around since the creation of the world. Adam and Eve had a chance to obey God and make a good kingdom decision, but instead listened to the voice of Satan. Noah did listen to God’s voice and was a part of His kingdom, while the others of his generation were not. In Genesis 12 Abraham was chosen to be the earthly father of this kingdom, eventually leading to the 12 tribes. In Genesis 49:10 it was prophesied that “the scepter will not depart from Judah,” suggesting one from this tribe will be the earthly king over God’s kingdom. This prophecy was realized when King David was installed as king over Israel and it held true as his sons continued to reign over Judah (the southern kingdom) for years to come.

When we fast forward to the New Testament, we learn that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of that prophecy. Luke 1:32-33 tells us that Jesus (who is from the family line of David) will “be given the throne of His father David” and that “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” God sent Jesus to this earth to be the final and perpetual king of His kingdom. During His earthly ministry, Jesus proclaimed this kingdom (Luke 4:43), told parables concerning this kingdom (Luke 13:18-21), performed signs of this kingdom (Luke 7:21-22), and talked of this kingdom’s final and coming consummation (Luke 13:28-29; 22:16).

But when will that consummation be? When will believers experience God’s kingdom in all its fullness? Historically (and to keep it simple), there have been three answers to that question. Premillennialists posit that the end of the seven year tribulation will bring about the millennium, and that after those 1,000 years God’s kingdom will be consummated. Postmillennialists believe we are currently in the millennium, a span of time that will be concluded when Jesus returns and brings the kingdom. Finally, amillennialists suggest that the millennium is not a literal thousand year period, but that it lasts from Christ’s first to second comings.

Premillennialism
There are a few differing types of premillennialism, but I will focus on historic premillennialism. Those from this camp understand the 1,000 year reign of Christ spoken of in Revelation 20 to be literal and believe it will occur after Christ’s second coming and prior to the final consummation of God’s kingdom. Most historic premillennialists also believe in a pretribulation rapture, so here is the way they see the end of time playing out: (1) rapture of the church, (2) seven year tribulation, (3) second coming of Christ, (4) millennial reign of Christ, (5) eternity (kingdom of God fully consummated). This position presents the most literal and straight-forward reading of Revelation 20.

Postmillennialism
The postmillennial position involves the belief that the kingdom of God is currently being extended into the world through the proclamation of the gospel. As a result, the world will eventually be Christianized and enter into a prolonged period of peace and righteousness. As believers fulfill the Great Commission, the kingdom grows and this world is redeemed.

Following this period, Christ will return, setting into action the resurrection, the judgment, and the rest of eternity (the consummation of God’s kingdom). According to this view, the millennium, which involves the reign of Christ over this earth, is not necessarily a future event that will commence after His return, but is something this world may currently be experiencing. As a result, there is no need to believe that the millennium refers to a literal thousand year period.

Postmillennialists have differing views on other events, such as the rapture and the tribulation, but the main thing is that they place the millennium of Revelation 20 before any of them.

Amillennialism
Much like postmillennialists, amillennialists do not believe that the 1,000 year period mentioned in Revelation 20 is literal. As apocalyptic literature, the book/letter of Revelation uses symbolism to convey its message, therefore suggesting it cannot be understood literally (as the premillennialist understands it). Here is an amillennialist’s interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6:

Christ’s birth and death is what bound Satan, what secured the victory over sin and death for all believers. Yet that victory is not yet fully realized. Satan still has some say in this world, but he can no longer keep people from believing the good news of Jesus Christ. These earthly events are what Revelation 20:1-3 depicts. Moving on to the next three verses, which take place in heaven during this time period, we see people sitting on thrones and reigning with Christ. In these verses the word resurrection does not refer to a literal and bodily resurrection but to the fact that believers who die are not really dead, for their souls are in heaven with Christ. This first resurrection refers to a believer’s spiritual resurrection immediately following death. “The rest,” who do not come alive until the end of this unspecified period of time, are all the non-believers, whose end will be the second death and the lake of fire. But for all those who experienced the first resurrection, they will also experience the second one (which will be a bodily resurrection), and the second death will have no power over them. This refers to the fact that all believers will be made alive and transformed and will reign with Christ forever.

Because they do not hold to a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ, amillennialists have differing perspectives on other eschatological events.

Where Do I Stand?
I hope that I am never forced to choose between any of these positions because I have difficulties with each of them. They each have elements with which I agree and disagree, or at least question. So instead of naming the view I hold to, let me briefly sketch the conclusion I have come to.

Christ’s first coming, including His birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection, ushered the kingdom of God onto this earth in a way it had never been experienced before. When He ascended into heaven, He did not take the kingdom with Him. It is still here for you and I and Jesus is still the King, ruling and reigning from the Father’s right hand. Therefore the kingdom is a present reality; it has been realized in some sense. We can experience its power here and now on this earth. Yet there is more to come. The kingdom has not reached its full potential (it has not been fully consummated/experienced). There is no doubt that Satan still has some say in the matter. Christ’s death and resurrection won the war, but there are still some battles to be fought.

At some point, believers will reign with Christ. In my book Revelation 20:4-6 makes that clear. The question, though, is two-fold: how and when will they reign? Will this be a literal 1,000 year reign that will take place after Christ returns? Or is this a symbolic rule taking place now in which living believers serve as Christ’s vice-regents on this earth and sleeping believers reign with Him from heaven? Obviously the answer depends on your interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6, which depends on the hermeneutic (method of interpretation) used.

As the amillennial position points out, Revelation is highly symbolic and cannot always be interpreted literally. If I absolutely had to make a decision, I would choose to understand the millennium as symbolic. Satan is currently bound and believers are currently reigning with Christ. At some point Satan will be released (Rev. 20:3, 7-8), which could possibly begin the tribulation. After the tribulation, which will be limited because of the elect (according to Jesus; Matt. 24:22), the Son of Man will return to rapture His children while the current heavens and earth are burned up and the new is created (2 Peter 3:10-12). Then the kingdom of God will be consummated and, according to Revelation 22:5, we will “reign forever and ever.”

As you can tell, my view concerning the millennium is not set in stone. Therefore my purpose in writing this is not necessarily to sway you any certain way. Instead, my goal is to educate you on the issues and inspire you to dive deeper into them on your own. In the end, my prayer is that you would be challenged and changed by God and His Word.