The Theology of the End of the World

Next week, I’m teaching my church’s annual January Bible Study. Given the fact that this year’s study is from a passage in the book of Revelation, I’m reviewing my thinking on eschatology. As always, I’m somewhat dizzied by the amount of diversity among theologians regarding the end of the world. As someone who was raised in the deep south and read the Left Behind books in high school, I didn’t realize how broad end time theology actually is until I entered seminary.

For the most part, there are three broad understandings of how the world will end. Which position a person accepts is usually determined by how they interpret the thousand years mentioned in Revelation 20:3. Depending on how you understand John’s millennium (the thousand years), you will be either a pre-millennialist, a post-millennialist, or an amillennialist.

Historic Pre-Millennialism

The oldest eschatological position is Historic Pre-Millennialism. This position was held by early church theologians such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus.[1] Historic Pre-Millennialism is the belief that one day, Christ will return and inaugurate an earthly kingdom over which he will reign for 1000 years. That is, Christ returns before the millennium (hence pre-millennialism). During the 1000 years, Christians will be resurrected and will live with Christ on earth. Unfortunately, this heaven on earth will not last; for, near the end of the 1000-year period, the devil will lead a revolt against God with people who were not Christians but were alive during the millennium. Christ, however, will crush this rebellion, finish the millennium, and usher in the eternal state in which believers will be in heaven while unbelievers and the devil will be in hell.

Post-Millennialism and Amillennialism

Historic Pre-Millennialism gave way to Post- and Amillennialism following Augustine of Hippo. Broadly speaking, these two interpretations claim that John did not intend for us to understand Revelation 20:3 as describing a literal 1000-year period of Christ’s reign on earth. Instead, they posit that much of Revelation is meant to be metaphorical, including the millennium.

Post-Millennialists believe that the Church will enter the millennium during which it will experience great triumph and growth. The gospel will be preached, people will come to salvation, and the world will experience unprecedented peace. Then, after the millennium is completed, Christ will come and usher in the final states during which believers will be in heaven with him. This position has largely fallen out of favor due, at least in part, to the devastating wars of the 20th century.

Amillennialists are very similar to Post-Millennialists but with one significant difference. Amillennialists don’t necessarily believe that the Church will experience great triumph in the future leading to Christ’s second coming. Instead, amillennialists are open to the possibility that the church will suffer during the present period. Indeed, on this view, things could potentially become quite dark before Christ comes.

The main point for amillennialists is that we are presently living in the millennium. The millennium is not a future event but a present reality. Christ is currently reigning and the devil is currently bound. We simply await the coming return of Christ. When John mentioned a 1000-year period, he simply meant a long time during which Christ would reign and the devil would be bound. It is important to note that amillennialists don’t believe the devil is entirely bound, only that his power has been limited during this time in history.

Dispensational Pre-Millennialism

After Augustine of Hippo, Pre-Millennialism was nearly non-existent until fairly recently with the rise of Dispensational Pre-Millennialism.[2] Dispensational Pre-Millennialism is not to be confused with Historic Pre-Millennialism; instead, Dispensational Pre-Millennialism is the theology advocated by the Left Behind books.

Dispensational pre-millennialists believe that world events will devolve ahead of Christ’s second coming. However, when Christ comes, it will be a secret coming during which he will rapture his Church out of the world. There will also be a seven-year period of tribulation during which the world will experience the judgment of God. After the seven-year period, Christ will inaugurate the final states with believers with him in heaven and unbelievers consigned to hell. Dispensational pre-millennialists break into categories based on when they believe the rapture of the church will occur. Some believe it will be a pre-tribulation rapture, others believe in a mid-tribulation rapture, finally, some believe the rapture will occur at the end of the tribulation.

Dispensational pre-millennialism is not simply an eschatological position. Instead, this is a part of a much broader theological framework that has a unique way of understanding the entire Bible. Dispensationalism is a new theological position that breaks salvation history into seven distinct periods.

Conclusion

Eschatology is an interesting field of theology with widely different positions. Though we disagree with one another, this is a field of theology over which we can agree to disagree. The divinity of Christ, the authority of scripture, and the doctrine of the Trinity are all much more important areas of theology. Since more important doctrines hold us together, we should not allow less important doctrines to divide us.

Notes & Sources

[1] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 1110.

[2] Ibid.

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