In the Greek language, the word eschatos means “last.” Hence the theological field known as “eschatology” refers to the study of last things, or the study of the end of time. Now there are many theological issues that create debate, but there is no bigger debate than when it comes to eschatology.
As a Christian, a pastor, and a recent Bible college and seminary graduate, I am obviously interested in eschatology and am always trying to develop my own scriptural understanding of how things will play out at the end of time. Common questions I often ask myself include the following:
-When will the rapture take place? Before, during, or after the tribulation?
-How long will the tribulation last? Will it be a literal seven years, or will it be longer? Could we possibly already be in the tribulation?
-What about the millennium (1,000 years)? Will it be a literal 1,000 years? Have those years began yet, or are they still in the future?
-What exactly does the book of Revelation convey to us about these end-time events?
Growing up in a Southern Baptist church (the son of a pastor), I knew all the “Sunday School” answers. The general Southern Baptist belief is that the tribulation will last 7 years, and then after that, Jesus will return. But, before the tribulation begins, Jesus will rapture all believers so they will not have to endure it. Pretty simple, right? What could be so confusing about that? Why is there even any debate? Let me share with you some of my journey concerning eschatology…
One of the elective courses I signed up for at Criswell College as a part of my Master’s degree was called “Theology Intensive: Eschatology.” The four textbooks for the course were the following: “Three Views on the Rapture” (Blaising, Hultberg, and Moo; Zondervan 2010), “The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views” (Boettner, Hoekema, Hoyt, and Ladd; IVP 1977), “Four Views on Hell” (Crockett, Hayes, Pinnock, and Walvoord; Zondervan 1996), and “Four Views on the Book of Revelation” (Gentry, Hamstra, Pate, and Thomas; Zondervan 1998). You see, there isn’t just one view on any of these eschatological topics. Brilliant scholars, individuals who have devoted their lives to studying the Scriptures, cannot agree when it comes to these things. So why should we, pastors and church members, believe that we have it all figured out?
Now I am aware that most, if not all of you who are reading this probably believe the way I described above, the way most traditional Southern Baptists believe, the way I once believed. Before we precede any further, let me say this: I am not saying that I am right and you and wrong. What I am saying is this: When it comes to eschatology, we need to approach the Scriptures with an open mind. This is not so that we can make the Bible say whatever we want it to say (as postmodernists do), but so that we can understand the truth it is trying to convey. We have a bad habit of imposing our thoughts on the text instead of letting the text inform our thoughts. We need to break this habit!
In Part 1 of this blog series called “Eschatological Confusion” I want to lay out for you four major issues, the issues discussed in each of the four textbooks named above. Then, in the following weeks, we will delve further into each of the issues.
Interestingly enough, the word “rapture” is never used in the New Testament. Nevertheless, the word has been used for many years to describe the event Paul discusses in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, “Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air…”
The major issue when it come to the rapture is not if it will occur, but rather when it will occur. Will believers be raptured before the tribulation, halfway through the tribulation, or not until after the tribulation?
The “Millennium” is the name given to the 1,000 year span of time mentioned in Revelation 20:4-6. John the Revelator twice mentions that some will reign with the Messiah “for 1,000 years.”
The major issue concerning the millennium is two-fold: (1) Will this be a literal 1,000 year period, and (2) If so, when will it begin?
What’s so confusing about hell? Isn’t it a fiery place where people will be separated from God for eternity? That’s what the Bible seems to say, but of course, not everyone can agree on that.
There are many debated issues when it comes to hell, including:
-A literal vs. a figurative place
-An eternal vs. a temporary place (annihilation)
-A place of separation/punishment vs. a place of the dead (purgatory)
The Book of Revelation
Jesus, Paul, and others all discussed eschatological issues in their teachings and letters, but when it comes to this topic, Revelation gets the most attention. Because of the nature and subject of the book, there should be no surprise that interpretations vary.
-Have all of the events prophesied in Revelation already been fulfilled? Have some been fulfilled? Have none been fulfilled?
-What do all of the symbols and numbers mean? Do they stand for specific figures in history?
-Will all of the events eventually come to pass? If so, when will this be?
As you can tell, the issues are many, and the answers aren’t simple. Please join me on this journey into eschatology and see what we can learn. As always, my prayer is that we will be challenged and changed by it all!