This is the third installment in a five-part blog series on how to think carefully and faithfully about what the Bible teaches about the end of the world. Each of the subsequent parts of this series will be released monthly through the end of the year. To read part 2 of this series, click HERE.
Last month we considered the historical problem of predicting the end of the world. We should be humbled by the interpretative failures of previous generations and learn from their mistakes. Jesus and Paul were both abundantly clear. We are not to read the eschatological material in the New Testament as a means of predicting when the end will come. That is not its purpose. The knowledge of the timing of the end is not for us to have.
How then should we talk about the end of the world? We should begin with what we say about all of the Scripture—its inspiration and its authority.
We believe in the inspiration of the Bible. When Christians say that the Bible is God’s word, this is what they mean. The Bible claims inspiration for itself (e.g. 2 Timothy 3:16), and we believe that claim because its truthfulness is demonstrated by miracles, fulfilled prophecy, and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Consequently, we believe in the authority of the Bible. It is the only reasonable conclusion in the face of the Bible’s inspiration. Because the Bible is God’s Word, we believe that to disobey or disbelieve any part of it is to disobey or disbelieve God himself. (e.g. John 15:10)
When it comes to doctrine then, especially the doctrines about the end times, we must be careful not to make certain interpretations of the Bible the test of belief in the Bible’s authority. Christians are often guilty of insinuating that because other Christians don’t interpret certain passages the way they do, those Christians must not believe in the authority of the Bible. This is both untrue and unfair. Differences of interpretation, especially on matters related to the end times, have been a feature of the Church since the beginning. Here is just a sampling of the way that faithful, Jesus-loving Christians have understood the end times.
Not all Christians read the eschatological material in the Bible in a futurist way. There are those who, for example, understand eschatological prophecy in a historicist manner. They believe that biblical prophecies, particularly the visions in Revelation, are not about some future events in the end times. Rather, they believe that these prophecies are about the history of the world and are useful for understanding the world we live in right now. This was the eschatological understanding of most of the Reformers and, for that matter, most Protestants in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, though hints of this thinking can be seen as far back as the third century. For these Christians, eschatological prophecy is not a secret code for understanding far off events that may not even involve the faithful. For them, eschatological prophecy warns the faithful of the perils of living in the world right now and tells them how to faithfully follow Christ in a hostile time.
Historicists are not the only non-futurist interpretations of the eschatological material in the Bible. There are also the preterists. They, like the historicists, believe that the best reading of eschatological prophecies is as historical events in the here and now and not in the end times. Preterists, however, also believe that all those historical events have already happened. Most preterists believe, for example, that the events prophesied about in Revelation all happened in the first century, usually by AD 70. Preterism in its formal sense dates back as far as the sixteenth century. To the preterist, seeing the fulfillment of prophecy throughout the first century powerfully demonstrates the power and faithfulness of God. To them, the faithful can draw great hope and instruction from reading the unfolding of the first century of the church in Revelation much the way all Christians might read the book of Acts.
The readers of this blog are probably most familiar with futurists interpretations of Revelation and other eschatological material in the Bible. This blog series most directly address ideas within futurism. I, myself, am a convinced futurist. But even within futurism, there are many variations relating to the timing and nature of God’s Kingdom in the end (e.g. amillennialism, premillennialism, and postmillennialism), the relationship of the church to the tribulation (e.g. pretribulationism, posttribulationism, and the various forms of midtribulationism), and the relationship of the Church to Israel (e.g. dispensationalism, progressive dispensationalism, historic premillennialism, progressive covenantalism, etc.).
The first two posts in this blog series were primarily directed toward the Christians who have, in recent history, been the most likely to try to use the eschatological material in the New Testament to predict the future—premillennial dispensationalists. Though echoes of the dispensationalist interpretative method can been seen throughout the history of the Church, the system was largely codified in the early nineteenth century and brought to America just before the Civil War where it became immensely popular. Early dispensationalists believed that the natural language of the Scripture (what they called the historical-grammatical method) wasn’t being taken seriously enough by Bible scholars and they sought to remedy that. Now, one hundred and fifty years later, there are many variations of dispensationalism (e.g. classical dispensationalism, new dispensationalism, progressive dispensationalism, etc.), but most dispensational scholars of all stripes agree that trying to use the prophetic material in the book of Revelation to predict when the end will come is not only a fool’s errand but is in direct disobedience to Christ himself, making all those who do try to predict that the end is near with the book of Revelation outliers in their own camp.
I know to some of my readers, the laundry list of isms listed above means very little, but I wanted to include them to make it clear just how much variety there is in the history of the Church on this issue. Just because your way of reading Revelation is relatively recent, or is not the view of Calvin and Luther, or is a view that was popularized by Catholics during the Counter Reformation doesn’t mean your view is wrong. But the variety of disagreement should give us all a healthy dose of humility. Christians have been wrestling with these issues for millennia, and, if the Lord delays his coming, we will continue to wrestle.
I think every Christian should strive to learn what the Bible says about the end. Read the Scripture. Read good books about the Scripture. Form an opinion. Take a side. Change your mind. I have done all those things. But whenever I get too confident in my eschatological conclusions, I remind myself that, whatever my view is, the vast majority of Christians for most of the history of the Church would have thought I was dead wrong on how to read Revelation. But I don’t give up, and I certainly don’t stop reading Revelation. No other book in the Bible gives such a clear picture of the sinfulness of man, the justice and judgment of God, the grace and mercy of Christ, and the victory of God that we all so long for.