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The word "eschatology" is derived from two Greek words meaning "last" and "study" (ἔσχατος, last; and λογία, lit. discourse). It is the study of the end of things, whether the end of an individual life, the end of the age, or the end of the world. Broadly speaking, it is the study of the destiny of man as it is revealed in the Bible, which is the primary source for all Christian eschatology studies.

Contents

Introduction

The Angel Appears to John. The book of Revelation. 13th century manuscript. British Library, London.

Eschatology is a relatively recent development as a formal division of Christian theology. It is concerned with death and the afterlife, heaven and hell, the return of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, the Rapture, the Tribulation, the Millennium, the end of the world, the Last Judgment, the new heaven and earth, and the ultimate consummation of all of God's purposes.

Eschatological passages are found in many places in the Bible, both in the Old Testament (Hebrew scriptures) and the New Testament. The prophets Isaiah and Daniel, the gospel of Matthew (chapter 24), and Revelation are just a few examples. There are also many extrabiblical examples of eschatological prophecy, as well as church traditions which have been added to the scriptures over the years.

The second coming of Christ is the central event in Christian eschatology. Most Christians believe that death and suffering will continue to exist until Christ's return. Others believe that suffering will gradually be eliminated prior to his coming, and that the elimination of injustice is our part in preparing for that event. Needless to say, there are various controversies concerning the order and significance of eschatological events, some of which are discussed below (see Major Theological Positions on the Millennium and Associated Events).

Some Christians, notably followers of Eastern Orthodoxy, but also members of other sects, regard popular discussion of eschatological issues as irrelevant or even dangerous. Theologians from a number of traditions point out that Revelation, one of the chief texts of Christian eschatology, was included late in the Biblical canon because of lingering questions regarding its usefulness (see also Antilegomena), and many early teachers thought the Christian faith should occupy itself with what is most transparently understood concerning salvation. Nevertheless, many Christians feel that eschatology is central to the Christian faith, for it represents the quest for a better understanding of the basis for the Christian hope for the future.

Approaches to Prophetic Interpretation

The following approaches are applied by interpreters specifically to the book of Revelation, but Revelation occupies such a central place in Christian eschatology that it is worth mentioning them in this, more general, overview. Parallel approaches can also be used in the interpretation of other prophetic passages. These approaches are by no means mutually exclusive and are usually combined to form a more complete and coherent interpretation.

  • The Preterist (from the Latin praeteritus meaning gone by) believes that Revelation chiefly refers to the events of the apostolic era (i.e. the first century), such as the struggle of Christianity to survive the persecutions of the Roman Empire, the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the desecration of the temple in the same year. Preterists note that the opening and closing verses of Revelation state that the events of the book are to take place "shortly" and that the time is "near."[Rev 1:1-3] [22:7-20]
  • The Historicist believes that Revelation provides us with a broad view of history, as well as an explanation of the religious significance of historical events. Historicists attempt to identify prophetic passages with major events in history, especially the events of the Christian era.
  • The Futurist believes that, while parallels may be drawn with historical events, Revelation is chiefly referring to events which as yet have not come to pass, but which will come to pass at the end of the age when Christ returns to establish his kingdom. This is the approach which most applies to eschatological studies.
  • The Idealist, also known as the Spiritualist or Symbolic method, holds that the events described in Revelation are neither past, present, nor future, but are purely symbolic, dealing with the ongoing struggle of the forces of light and darkness, and with the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Revelation is an allegory of the spiritual path which is equally relevant in all ages and for all people.

Life After Death

The first eschatological event is death. Belief in life after the death of the body, according to Christian eschatology, usually includes belief in an intermediate state between death and resurrection, though some traditions teach that the spirit sleeps until the resurrection of the body. There is support for both positions in scripture.

Ancient Greece

Eos lifting up the body of her son Memnon. Interior from an Attic red-figure cup, ca. 490–480 BC, from Capua, Italy.

Hades, in Greek mythology, is the underworld, the place of the dead. Contrary to popular belief, Hades does not necessarily equate to hell, for there are places within it for both the good and the bad; places of joy and places of suffering. Elysium is a paradise within Hades for those who have lived noble lives, while Tartarus is a place of suffering reserved for those who are evil.

Ancient Israel

In the Hebrew Bible (Christian "Old Testament"), the grave or the place of the dead is represented by the word sheol (שאול, Sh'ol). The belief in life after death in some form was already prevalent in Jewish thinking[1] among the Pharisees[2] and Essenes,[Acts 23:6-8] although there were different schools of thought on the afterlife in ancient Judaism. The Sadducees, who recognized only the Torah (first five books of the Old Testament) as authoritative, did not believe in an afterlife or a resurrection. The New Testament records that they tried to outwit Jesus, because they had heard that he taught the resurrection of the dead. In his response to them, Jesus said: “Concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living’” (Mt 22:31-32). The implication in the passage appears to be that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still alive, though no longer in their physical bodies.

The Pharisees, who not only accepted the Torah, but the other Hebrew scriptures also, believed in a resurrection of the body, and it is known to have been a major point of contention between the two groups (see Acts 8). The Pharisees based their belief on passages such as Daniel 12:2, which says: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt." This belief appears to have been shared by the majority of the general population, and by Jesus and the New Testament authors.

The Intermediate State

The question is, what happens between death and the resurrection? Do we sleep in the grave? Or does the spirit go on to some intermediate place where we will live consciously until the resurrection? When Jesus was crucified, two criminals were crucified with him. As they were dying, one of the criminals said to him, "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus replied, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Lk 23:43-44). On the other hand, Paul wrote to the church at Corinth: "We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality" (1 Cor 15:51-53).

Most traditions believe that the grave does not interrupt consciousness. Rather, the immaterial soul experiences a particular judgment after death while separate from the body. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven—through a purification or immediately—or immediate and everlasting damnation. (Sect. 1022)

The phrase, "through a purification," alludes to the belief of the Roman Catholic Church in a spiritual state, known as Purgatory, in which those souls who are not worthy of hell, but not quite ready for heaven, go through a final process of purification. Some Catholic theologians have also argued for the existence of Limbo—a place for the people of God who died before the era of redemptive grace, and for babies who died before baptism and before having committed personal sins. However, there has never been a definitive Church teaching about Limbo binding on the faithful.

Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism do not require belief in Purgatory. However, these differ from one another in their respective degrees of opposition to the teaching. Orthodoxy does allow that the disembodied soul may have a course to pass through on the way to an ultimate destination. Some believe that theosis (sanctification, or the process of becoming spiritually pure) continues after death. While John Calvin included this belief among those things not worth arguing about, later Protestants definitely reject any idea of intervening experience for the soul after death, prior to being in the presence of God. This is based on the belief that Christ has already made atonement for our sins on the cross, thereby removing all obstacles which would prevent us from coming directly into the presence of God after death.

Such Anglicans as John Macquarrie accept the notion of continuing sanctification after bodily death, in the community of the Church Expectant. Prayers for the departed were a feature of the Primer of Queen Elizabeth I; the editions of the Book of Common Prayer of 1549, 1552, and 1559, respectively; a part of Non Juror spirituality; and also a part of Anglican worship after the 1840s. This is official doctrine expressed in the Catechism of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa (q. 139), although not binding doctrine for Anglicans of different churchmanship in other parts of the world.

Not all Christian sects believe in existence apart from the body. Some regard it to be an extrabiblical notion borrowed from other religions or philosophy (see Annihilationism). The Millerites, or Adventist tradition, for example, typically deny that consciousness is possible apart from the body. Most do not deny the resurrection, however, but believe that the soul sleeps until the body is resurrected. A similar belief can be found represented by a minority in other Protestant groups, among whom it is not necessarily considered a heretical belief, due to a certain amount of ambiguity in Scripture on the subject.

Praying to, and for, the Dead

An issue on which Catholic and Orthodox faiths are united against Protestantism is that the souls of at least some of the saints in heaven are aware of those who call upon them in request of their intercession. In stark contrast, it is antithetical to most traditions of Protestantism to believe that the souls of those who have died should or could be called upon for help or intercession with God. The main reason, for Protestants, is that Scripture nowhere instructs people to pray to anyone other than God or Christ. Prayers directed toward those who have died, or rituals or masses dedicated to assisting the dead in their salvation, are often taught by Protestants to be in contradiction of the doctrine of Christ's all-sufficient atonement. Protestants typically deny that souls adopt omniscience, omnipresence, or ubiquity after death, or that they are troubled any longer with the trials of life, or that their exceeding virtue in life remains as a deposit of grace in the Church that can benefit the living.

Catholic and Orthodox Christians do not claim that departed saints gain omniscience or omnipresence, however. An essential consequence of Jesus' own death and resurrection is the defeat of death itself. Because of this, death neither puts a person beyond God's help nor prevents the Christian from praying. The living are not deprived of the prayers of a Christian simply because the Christian dies; otherwise death would still claim victory. Neither does a person's death make it impossible for God to save or sanctify them; otherwise death would limit what God could do. The Orthodox church does not define exactly how departed saints are made aware of requests for their intercession, or exactly how the departed may be helped by prayers made on their behalf.

The Resurrection and the Rapture

The Doctrine of the Resurrection Predates Christianity

Resurrection of the Dead. Stained glass (ca. 1200 A.D.) From the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, France.

The word resurrection comes from the Latin resurrectus, which is the past participle of resurgere, meaning to rise again. Although the doctrine of the resurrection comes to the forefront in the New Testament, it predates the Christian era. There is an apparent reference to the resurrection in the book of Job, where Job says, "I know that my redeemer lives, and that he will stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though... worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh I will see God."[Job 19:25-27] Again, the prophet Daniel writes, "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt."[Dan 12:2] Isaiah says: "Your dead will live. Together with my dead body, they will arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust, for your dew is like the dew of herbs, and the earth will cast out the dead".[Isa. 26:19] This belief was still common among the Jews in New Testament times, as exemplified by the passage which relates the raising of Lazarus from the dead. When Jesus told Lazarus’ sister, Martha, that Lazarus would rise again, she replied, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day".[Jn 11:24] Also, one of the two main branches of the Jewish religious establishment, the Pharisees, believed in and taught the future resurrection of the body.[cf Acts 23:1-8]

Two Resurrections

In the New Testament, the resurrection was exemplified in Jesus, who is said to have risen from the dead after three days. Paul writes, "Since by man came death, by man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ, all will be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at his coming."[1 Co. 15:21-23] Another development in the New Testament is the understanding that the resurrection of the wicked will not be at the same time as that of the righteous. Revelation says: "Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such, the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and will reign with him a thousand years."[Rev 20:6] The rest of the dead “did not live again until the thousand years were finished."[Rev 20:5] In this passage, there are two distinct resurrections: one for the people of God before the period known as the Millennium (meaning “a thousand years”); the other for the rest of the people after the Millennium. (Some do not interpret this passage to mean a literal thousand years. See the section below, entitled Major Theological Positions on the Millennium and Related Events for more detailed discussion on the Millennial views.)

Concerning the second resurrection, Revelation says, "The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. And Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire."[Rev 20:13-15] According to Revelation, those who are a part of the first resurrection will not have to worry about the "second death," that is, “the lake of fire.” Jesus’ words agree with those of Revelation: "He who hears my word and believes in him who sent me has everlasting life, and will not come into judgement… The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear his voice and come forth: those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation."[Jn 5:24-26]

The Resurrected Body

The Bible teaches that our resurrected bodies will be different from those we have now. Jesus said, "In the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels of God in heaven."[Mt 22:30] The resurrected body, therefore, is a spiritual body which does not have the needs of the physical body. Paul adds, “So also is the resurrection of the dead: the body is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body."[1 Co. 15:42-44] Paul becomes poetic as he contemplates the immortality of the resurrection body, saying, "O death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?"[1 Co. 15:55]

The Rapture

In his letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul writes, "The Lord himself will descend from heaven... and the dead in Christ will rise first.” But he adds that “we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air."[1 Th. 4:16-17] The rising of those who are still alive to join the resurrected dead is known as the Rapture. This passage implies that Paul believed the three events—the coming of the Lord, the Resurrection, and the Rapture—would all happen at more or less the same time.

Among those who believe in a literal thousand years, most place the return of Christ, the Resurrection, and the Rapture ahead of it chronologically. The precise timing, however, is complicated by the events of the Tribulation – a time of great trouble which is said to take place immediately before the Millennium. Jesus said that at the time his coming, "There will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever will be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake, those days will be shortened."[Mt 24:21-22] Jesus also warned people to keep an open mind, saying, "Of that day and hour no-one knows. No, not even the angels of heaven, but my Father only. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming."[Mt 24:36,40-42] Nevertheless, there are various theories with regard to the exact sequence of these events. These will be discussed in the section below entitled Major Theological Positions on the Millennium and Related Events.

The Second Coming

The Central Event in Christian Eschatology

Icon of the Second Coming. Greek, ca. 1700 A.D. Christ is enthroned in the center surrounded by angels and saints. Paradise is at the bottom, with the Bosom of Abraham (left) and the Good Thief (right) holding his cross.

The return of Jesus Christ is the most important eschatological event. The central act of Christian worship in most denominations—the taking of communion—calls the Christian's attention toward the return of Christ and the renewal of the creation (see Eucharist). According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said to the apostles at his last meal before his crucifixion (the “Last Supper”): "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, for I tell you I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God. …do this in remembrance of me."[Lu 22:15-16,19] The taking of communion is in imitation of Christ’s actions and words at the Last Supper. It remembers his death, but also anticipates his return. Paul writes, "As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.”[1Co 11:26]

The Marriage of the Lamb

As we saw above, Paul grouped the coming of Christ together with the Resurrection and the Rapture.[1 Th. 4:16-17] After Christ meets his followers “in the air,” the marriage of the Lamb takes place: "Let us be glad and rejoice and give him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his wife has made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints."[Rev 19:7-8] There is clearly symbolism here. Christ is represented throughout Revelation as “the Lamb,” symbolizing the giving of his life as an atoning sacrifice for the people of the world, just as lambs were sacrificed on the altar for the sins of Israel. His “wife” appears to represent the people of God, for she is dressed in the “righteous acts of the saints.” As the marriage takes place, there is a great celebration in heaven which involves a "great multitude."[Rev 19:6]

The Army of the Lord

The author writes that after the marriage of the Lamb: "I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And he who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and with righteousness he judges and makes war."[Rev 19:11] We now see Christ, not as a lamb, but as a warrior, ready to make war against the forces of evil. There is a passage in Zechariah—often called the apocalypse of the Old Testament—that foretells this event: “I will gather all the nations to battle against Jerusalem. The city will be taken, the houses looted, and the women ravaged. Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations… Thus the Lord my God will come, and all the saints with you.”[Zech 14:2-5] In Matthew, Jesus says, "The sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory."[24:30] It may be significant that the army of heaven is described in similar terms as the resurrected and raptured believers: "The armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed him on white horses."[Rev 19:14] Revelation continues: "I saw the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against him who sat on the horse and against his army."[Rev 19:19]

Isaiah also speaks of such a battle: "The Lord will come with fire and with his chariots, like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire and by his sword the Lord will judge all flesh, and the slain of the Lord will be many."[Is. 66:15-16] Many have speculated about the nature of this fire, whether it is a nuclear holocaust, a huge meteor, something supernatural, or merely symbolic. The image of the sword is used symbolically in Revelation, where the “Lamb” judges by the sword which proceeds from his mouth, i.e., his words are the standard by which people are judged. It may be that the fire and the sword of Isaiah are also symbolic. Regardless, the prophet Zephaniah says ominously, "All the earth will be devoured with the fire of my jealousy."[Zeph 3:8]

The Great Tribulation

The End Comes at an Unexpected Time

There are many passages in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, which speak of a time of terrible tribulation such as has never been known, a time of natural and man-made disasters on an awesome scale. Jesus says:

Of that day and hour no-one knows; no, not even the angels of heaven, but my Father only. But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. —Mt 24:36-39

The Messiah’s return, and hence the tribulation, will come at a time when people are not expecting it. Paul echoes this theme, saying, "For when they say, 'Peace and safety!' then sudden destruction comes upon them."[1 Thes 5:3]

The Abomination of Desolation

The Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed in 70 A.D. Model in the Israel Museum.

Jesus says: "When you see the 'abomination of desolation' spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place... there will be great tribulation."[Mt 24:15,21] The "abomination of desolation" is understood to mean the setting up of a pagan altar in the temple at Jerusalem. This has happened twice already: once in 168 B.C., when Syrian forces under the Greek general Antiochus Epiphanes invaded Jerusalem, and again in 70 A.D., when Roman forces under Titus destroyed the city. However, since Jesus was referring to a future event, the first of these does not apply. In the second instance, the contextual details attached to Jesus' prophecy were not fulfilled. This is, therefore, usually interpreted to mean that there will be yet another occurrence of the “abomination of desolation” – an event which will herald a time of great tribulation, “such as has not been since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever will be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved. But for the elect's sake, those days will be shortened."[Mt 24:21-22] The events of the "great tribulation" are presented in the book of Revelation in considerable, if cryptic, detail.[3]

The Seventy Weeks Prophecy

Many interpreters calculate the length of the tribulation at seven years. The key to this understanding is the "seventy weeks prophecy” in the book of Daniel. The prophet has a vision of the angel Gabriel, who tells him, "Seventy weeks [literally "sevens"] are determined for your people and for your holy city [i.e. Israel and Jerusalem]."[Dan 9:24] The seventy weeks are divided into three time periods: seven weeks, sixty-two weeks, and one week. After making a comparison with events in the history of Israel, many scholars have concluded that each day in the seventy weeks represents a year. The first sixty-nine weeks are interpreted as covering the period "from the going forth of the command to restore and build Jerusalem" (Dan 9:25) until Christ’s first coming (or, according to another interpretation, the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.), but the last week is thought to represent the years of the tribulation which will come at the end of this age, directly preceding the millennial age of peace. This time is said to coincide with a restoration of the temple in Jerusalem, and the reinstitution, and final abolition, of the daily sacrifices.

The people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end of it will be with a flood, and till the end of the war, desolations are determined. Then he will confirm a covenant with many for one week. But in the middle of the week, he will bring an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations will be one who makes desolate, even until the consummation which is determined is poured out on the desolate.[Dan 9:26-27]

This is an obscure prophecy, but in combination with other passages, it has been interpreted to mean that the "prince who is to come" (i.e. the Antichrist) will make a seven-year covenant with Israel which will allow the rebuilding of the temple and the reinstitution of sacrifices, but “in the middle of the week,” he will break the agreement and set up an idol of himself in the temple, which people will be forced to worship—the “abomination of desolation.” Paul writes:

Let no-one deceive you by any means, for that day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.[2 Thes 2:3-4]

It should be kept in mind that these events —- a future rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, the reinstitution of the animal sacrifices, the subsequent desecration and destruction of the temple—seem to be implied in scripture, but they are not explicitly stated. They are interpretations of prophecies which are at best difficult, and if there is to be a future fulfillment, it may not be in the way we expect. The general thrust is usually clear enough, but the specific details present many problems. Many interpreters find that as soon as they reach a conclusion, another passage will appear to contradict their findings. Consequently, a number of positions have arisen. The major ones are presented in the section below entitled Major Theological Positions on the Millennium and Related Events.

Satan Is Bound for a Thousand Years

In the end, according to Revelation, the Lamb and his armies are victorious and the “beast,” generally identified as the Antichrist, is captured and thrown into the lake of fire, while his battle casualties are left as food for the birds. Satan, the spiritual driving force behind the beast and his armies, is imprisoned: "I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. And he cast him into the bottomless pit and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished."[Rev 20:1-3]

While only Revelation speaks of a period of a thousand years for Christ’s rule on Earth, there are numerous other prophecies in both testaments concerning a future age of peace. Isaiah speaks of such a time and describes it in Edenic terms:

The wolf will dwell with the lamb; the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf, and the young lion, and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them. The cow and the bear will graze; their young ones will lie down together; and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The nursing child will play by the cobra's hole; and the weaned child will put his hand in the viper's den. They will not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. —Isaiah 11:5-9

Just as the physical bodies of people are changed into spiritual bodies in the resurrection, so Isaiah implies that animals will undergo a transformation which enables them to live in peace with human beings and with each other. There is no more killing, either in the human or the animal kingdoms. God reverses the covenant made with Noah in which he said, "The fear and the dread of you will be on every beast of the earth, on every bird of the air, on all that moves on the earth, and on all the fish of the sea."[Gen 9:2] If the passage in Isaiah is interpreted literally, a return to the vegetarian diet of Eden[Gen 1:29-30] seems to be a natural conclusion.

Micah expresses similarly lofty thoughts, adding that Jerusalem will be the Lord’s capital in those days:

Out of Zion the word of the law will go forth, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples, and rebuke strong nations afar off. They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war any more. But everyone will sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one will make them afraid. —Micah 4:2-4

Major Theological Positions on the Millennium and Related Events

Comparison of Christian millennial interpretations

There are diverse opinions concerning the thousand years of peace (Millennium) described in Revelation, and the events associated with it. Some interpret a literal, future, thousand-year time period in which Christ will rule over the Earth, a time which will be characterized by peace and harmony. Others understand a literal age of peace, but think the “thousand years” is a figure of speech. Still others see the Millennium as symbolic of a spiritual ideal, with no corresponding earthly condition. All of these positions fall into the category of Millennialism, a broad term which includes any and all ideas relating to the Millennium of Biblical prophecy. The most commonly held viewpoints regarding the Millennium are described in this section.

Premillennialism

Standard premillennialism posits that Christ's second coming will inaugurate a literal thousand-year earthly kingdom. Upon Christ's return, there will be a resurrection of the people of God, who will reign with Christ for a thousand years. During this time Satan will be imprisoned in the Abyss. After the thousand years, there will be a second resurrection – that of the godless people who were not a part of the first resurrection. Satan will also be released to lead the people of the Earth astray once again. The armies of Gog and Magog will attempt to conquer Jerusalem during this time, but they will be permanently defeated by the army of the Lord. The final judgment (also known as the “Last Judgment” or “Great White Throne Judgment”) will then take place, and Satan and his followers will be cast into the Lake of Fire, from which there is no return. The people of God who were a part of the first resurrection are not subject to the Last Judgment. After this judgment, our present world will be replaced with a new heaven and a new earth. God himself will be present there, and death and sorrow will be things of the past.

Within Premillennialism, there are two primary categories: dispensational premillennialism and historic premillennialism. Dispensational premillennialism derives from John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) and dispensational theology. This is where we first find the notions of a pretribulation Rapture and a midtribulation Rapture (for a general definition of the Rapture, see the section above entitled The Resurrection and the Rapture.) The third position, that of the posttribulation Rapture, comes from historic premillennialism, which is so-called because it is an older school of thought which has its roots in the writings of the early church fathers. As eschatological studies have advanced in recent times, this position has largely given way to the pretribulation and midtribulation positions.

Pretribulation Rapture

Pretribulationists believe that the second coming will be in two stages separated by a seven-year period of tribulation. At the beginning of the tribulation, true Christians will rise to meet the Lord in the air (the Rapture). Then follows a seven-year period of suffering in which the Antichrist will conquer the world and persecute those who refuse to worship him. At the end of this period, Christ returns to defeat the Antichrist and establish the age of peace. At this time, the Jews and those who have converted to Christianity during the tribulation will join him.

Midtribulation Rapture

Midtribulationists believe that Christians will not be removed until the halfway point of the seven-year tribulation, i.e. after 3½ years. The Rapture coincides with the abolition of the sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem. The “abomination of desolation” will take place – a desecration of the temple where the Antichrist enshrines himself and demands worship, an event which begins the second, most intense part of the tribulation.

Some interpreters find support for the "midtrib" position by comparing a passage in Paul's epistles with the book of Revelation. Revelation divides the great tribulation into three sets of increasingly catastrophic judgments: the Seven Seals, the Seven Trumpets, and the Seven Bowls, in that order. Paul says, "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" (1 Cor 15:51-52). If the "last trumpet" of Paul is equated with the last trumpet of Revelation, the Resurrection and the Rapture would clearly be in the middle of the Tribulation.

Post-tribulation Rapture

In this particular view, Christ's return is premillennial, and the Rapture is posttribulation and prewrath. The Seal Judgments (of the book of Revelation) are synchronous with the Trumpet Judgments, and the Bowl Judgments are part of the last trumpet. A pagan resurrection occurs at the end of the Millennium. The Millennium is seen as a fulfillment of both Old and New Testament prophesies.

Posttribulationists hold that Christ will not return until the end of the tribulation. Christians, rather than being raptured at the beginning of the tribulation, or halfway through, will live through it and suffer for their faith during the ascendancy of the Antichrist. Proponents of this position also believe that there will be a final evangelistic effort during this time which will work with external conditions to bring many to Christ.

Posttribulationists often criticize the pretrib and midtrib positions on the grounds that they divide Christ's return into two phases—an "apartheid of the elect" which is not justifiable in scripture. Pretribulationists defend their position on the basis of a scripture passage which says, "God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ."[1 Thes 5:9] Post-tribulationists counter that the tribulation is not a time for the believers to experience the wrath of God, but for the final witness of the Gospel at a time when dire circumstances will lead to great numbers of converts. The wrath of God is reserved for the wicked at the Last Judgment.

Some criticize premillennialists of all stripes—pretrib, midtrib, and posttrib—for teaching that the Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem and the animal sacrifices reinstituted, saying that such an event would lead to animal sacrifices during the Millennium. Such sacrifices would be contrary to New Testament teachings which say that Christ eliminated the need for further animal sacrifices when he gave himself as an atoning sacrifice. While some have countered that the Millennial sacrifices may only be symbolic in nature and not entail the actual slaughter of animals, such a defense is unnecessary. The premillennial position does not teach that sacrifices are offered during the Millennium, but only during the tribulation (the seventieth week of Daniel's Seventy Weeks Prophecy (see above), and then only the first half of the tribulation. The Antichrist puts an end to the Jewish sacrifices before the Millennium when he sets up his own image in the temple – the “abomination of desolation.”

Postmillennialism

Postmillennialists do not believe in a premillennial appearance of Christ. The postmillennialist position is that the Millennium will happen, not as a result of the coming of Christ, but when the global population converts to Christianity as a result of evangelization. The age of peace is still a work of divine grace, but without the visible presence of Christ to take the place of an Earthly ruler. Christ will appear at the end of the Millennium to lead his people into the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem. This view was popular among that segment of the Anabaptist movement in the 16th century led by Thomas Muntzer.

Another form of postmillennialism, non-literal postmillennialism, is more accurately known as optimistic amillennialism (see Amillennialism, below).

Amillennialism

Amillennialists, as the name implies, do not believe in a literal age of peace, a thousand years long or otherwise. The term, Millennium, is an idiomatic expression for the period from Christ's death and resurrection until his Second Coming, i.e. the age of the Church. Some, known as optimistic amillennialists, believe that during this time period, the church will continue to evangelize and grow until the world is sufficiently ready for Christ’s coming. The Second Coming will be a natural culmination of the process of world evangelization, rather than a revolutionary event that brings sudden and dramatic change. While some anticipate a final apostasy prior to the Last Judgment, associated with the coming of the Antichrist, others adopt a preterist (historic) or idealist (symbolic) interpretation with regard to the Antichrist and the kingdom of God. Others combine the two, so that the kingdom of God is repeatedly established, and many antichrists arise in conflict with it throughout history.

Optimistic amillennialism was common in 17th-century Britain, and in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It has been revived in the last forty years, however, particularly among conservative Calvinist groups, where there is a particular emphasis on the timing of Christ's return, which is expected after a future period of global prosperity.

Preterism

Preterism posits a past fulfillment of prophecy. (See the definition of Preterism above, under the heading Approaches to Prophetic Interpretation.) In this view, most of the prophetic passages in the Bible which are commonly interpreted as referring to the end of the age or the end of the world are said to actually refer to events in the past, in particular the events of the apostolic era (first century A.D.). Preterists find in prophecy such events as the death and resurrection of Christ, the destruction of Jerusalem and desecration of the Temple in 70 A.D., the Roman persecutions of Christians in the mid and late first century, and the growth of Christianity from a Jewish sect to a major world religion.

The Larger Context

The Millennium and its associated events should be seen within their larger theological context. Within all three major branches of Christianity (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism), there are varying schools of thought on the subject, as well as large numbers of people for whom it is not a key issue at all. Most people see Christ’s work in more personal terms—that is, in terms of the kingdom of God as it takes shape within their own lives. Ultimately, this internal work of the Holy Spirit may be the most important aspect of the kingdom, for if people’s hearts are not changed, there can be no Millennium. Jesus said: "The kingdom of God does not come with careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you."[Lk 17:20-21] Most Christians, therefore, are able to view the reign of Christ as at least partially fulfilled. The kingdom of God is both "now and not yet" —- partially realized now within the Church, but awaiting full revealing with the coming of Christ (Parousia).

The End of the World and the Final Judgement

Satan Is Set Free

According to the Bible, the Millennial age of peace (whether a literal thousand years or not) all but closes the history of planet Earth. However, the story is not yet quite finished: "When the thousand years have expired, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle, whose number is as the sand of the sea."[Rev 20:7-8]

There is continuing discussion over the identity of Gog and Magog. In the context of the passage, they seem to equate to something like “east and west.” There is a passage in Ezekiel, however, where God says to the prophet, "Set your face against Gog, of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal, and prophesy against him."[Ezek 38:2] Gog, in this instance, is the name of a person of the land of Magog, who is ruler (“prince”) over the regions of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal. Ezekiel says of him: "You will ascend, coming like a storm, covering the land like a cloud, you and all your troops and many peoples with you..."[Ezek 38:2] Despite this huge show of force, the battle will be short-lived, for Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation all tell us that this last desperate attempt to destroy the people and the city of God will end in disaster: "I [i.e. God] will bring him to judgement with pestilence and bloodshed. I will rain down on him and on his troops, and on the many peoples who are with him: flooding rain, great hailstones, fire and brimstone." [Ezek 38:22] Revelation also says: "Fire came down from God out of heaven and devoured them."[Rev 20:9] It may be that the images of fire raining down are an ancient vision of modern weapons, though these passages may also be interpreted as a supernatural intervention by God, or they may be interpreted symbolically.

The Last Judgement

The Last Judgement - Fresco in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo.

Following the defeat of Gog, the last judgement begins: "The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever."[Rev 20:10] Satan will join the Antichrist and the False Prophet, who were condemned to the lake of fire at the beginning of the Millennium. Following his consignment to the lake of fire, his followers come up for judgement. This is the “second resurrection,” and all those who were not a part of the first resurrection at the coming of Christ now rise up for judgement:

I saw a great white throne and him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away, and there was found no place for them. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. And Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire. —Rev 20:11,13-15

John had earlier written, "Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection [at the beginning of the Millennium]. Over such the second death [the lake of fire] has no power."[Rev 20:6] The death of the body is the first death; the lake of fire is the second. Those who were included in the Resurrection and the Rapture are excluded from the final judgement, and are not subject to the second death. Due to the description of the seat upon which the Lord sits, this final judgement is often referred to as the "Great White Throne Judgement."

A New Heaven and Earth

The New Jerusalem

The Great White Throne Judgement marks the end of history as we know it. The drama of this earth has reached its conclusion and the curtain is lowered on the stage of human history. In Isaiah, God promises a new heaven and earth: "Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former will not be remembered nor come to mind."[Isa 65:17] The author of Revelation has a corresponding vision: "I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away."[Rev 21:1]

The focus turns to one city in particular, the New Jerusalem. Once again, we see the imagery of the marriage: "I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband."[Rev 21:2] In the New Jerusalem, God "will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.."[Rev 21:4] As a result, there is “no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” Nor is there a need for the sun to give its light, “for the glory of God illuminated it, and the Lamb is its light."[Rev 21:22-23] The city will also be a place of great peace and joy, for "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying; and there will be no more pain, for the former things have passed away."[Rev 21:1-4]

A Description of the City

The city itself has a large wall with twelve gates in it which are never shut, and which have the names of the twelve tribes of Israel written on them.[4] Each of the gates is made of a single pearl, and there is an angel standing in each one. The wall also has twelve foundations which are adorned with precious stones, and upon the foundations are written the names of the twelve apostles. The gates (tribes of Israel) and foundations (apostles) are often interpreted as symbolizing Israel and the Church.

The wall itself is made of jasper stone and the size of it is a hundred and forty-four cubits, or about seventy-two yards. The walls of ancient cities were very wide as well as high. Some even had roads running along the top of them. If this city wall follows that model, it could be that John is referring to the width of the wall, rather than the height. Either way, we know that it is a huge wall, beautifully decorated with precious stones.

The city and its streets are pure gold, but not like the gold we know, for this gold is described as being like clear glass. The city is square in shape, and is twelve thousand furlongs long and wide. Twelve thousand furlongs is equivalent to fifteen hundred miles. If these are comparable to earthly measurements, the city will cover an area about half the size of the contiguous United States. Oddly enough, the height is the same as the length and breadth, and although this has led most people to conclude that it is shaped like a cube, it could also be a pyramid.

The Tree of Life

The city has a river which proceeds "out of the throne of God and of the Lamb."[Rev 22:1] Next to the river is the tree of life, which bears twelve fruits and yields its fruit every month. The last time we saw the tree of life was in the Garden of Eden.[Gen 2:9] God drove Adam and Eve away from it because it bestowed eternal life and he did not want them to have it in their degraded state.[Gen 3:22] In the New Jerusalem, the tree of life reappears, and everyone in the city has access to it. Genesis tells us that the earth was cursed because of Adam's sin,[Gen 3:17] but John writes that in the New Jerusalem, "there will be no more curse."[Rev 22:3] The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker, 1984) says:

The rich symbolism reaches beyond our finest imaginings, not only to the beatific vision but to a renewed, joyous, industrious, orderly, holy, loving, eternal, and abundant existence. Perhaps the most moving element in the description is what is missing: there is no temple in the New Jerusalem, 'because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.’ Vastly outstripping the expectations of Judaism, this stated omission signals the ultimate reconciliation.

See also

Footnotes and References

  1. ^ Jewish eschatology#The afterlife and olam haba (the "world to come") Jewish eschatology: The afterlife and olam haba
  2. ^ Pharisees#Pharisaic Principles and Values Pharisees: Pharisaic Principles and Values
  3. ^ See Wikiversity, Revelation: Visions of the End
  4. ^ Note: People often identify the twelve tribes of Israel with the Jews, but today’s Jews are principally descended from only two of the tribes: Judah and Benjamin. History has lost track of the descendants of the other ten tribes.

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