We are obsessed with the end. In recent years disaster media has blown up. In books, music, TV, and movies, the world keeps ending at the hands of aliens, natural disasters, disease, war, viruses—even zombies!
Everyone seems to have end-of-the-world fever. As if we’re reading a book, we want to skip ahead to the last chapter to see how it all ends. We seem to have an innate urge to know what happens in the future.
Christians and the End Times
Christians are no different. From the very beginning, Christians have been obsessed with the end. The theological study of what happens in the end times is called eschatology. The Greek word eschatos simply means “last.” Eschatology, then, is the study of last things.
Christians all agree that things are going to end, but the big question is how.
Every Christian confession and creed in history has stated that Jesus is going to return to earth, and with him will come the end. But the exact nature and timing of that return is debated. The debate centers largely around one term: the millennium.
The concept of the millennium is found in only one chapter of the Bible, at the very end. In Revelation 20, the devil is bound and imprisoned for a thousand years. With the removal of his influence on the world, there begins a period of unprecedented peace in which Christians reign alongside Jesus. But the nature of that thousand years—and even its length—is hotly contested.
There are three major viewpoints when it comes to this millennium—premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism—and a fourth one—preterism—that is growing in popularity.1 These generally differ in regard to the timing of the millennium in relation to Jesus’ return.
The first and the most common viewpoint today is premillennialism.3 Premillennialists believe that Jesus will return before the millennium. This view holds that the time between Jesus’ ascension to heaven and his return back to earth is the age of the church. When Christ returns, the church age will come to an end and Jesus will then establish his millennial kingdom.
The Christian dead will be raised to life and reign with Christ for this thousand years in a literal kingdom that Jesus establishes on the earth. This kingdom will last for an actual period of a thousand years. With the binding of the devil, peace and righteousness will reign over all the earth.
But at the end of the thousand years, the devil will be unbound and released. He will gather those who refused to submit to Jesus and will lead one final rebellion against Christ and Christ’s kingdom. He will fail, and Jesus will finally and ultimately defeat him. Then comes the end.
God will bring about a new heavens and a new earth—a purified and restored creation.4 This is heaven; this is the eternal state. No more sin, no more suffering, no more death. Paradise has been regained. Believers will once again enjoy perfect, unbroken fellowship with God.
These are the basic, core beliefs of premillennialism, but there is much variety within this viewpoint. The most popular variation of premillennialism today is dispensationalism.5
This position has dominated the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If you happen to live in the US and have read a book about the end times or heard a televangelist talk about the end, odds are they were dispensational.
Dispensationalists draw a sharp distinction between Israel and the church—and God’s dealings with each. They believe God has one plan for Israel and another plan for the church. In light of that, one of the major differences in dispensationalism is that it adds a second, secret return of Christ and a secret rapture.
Within the dispensationalist view, before Christ returns to establish his millennial kingdom, he will come secretly to take Christians out of the world. Afterward there will be a seven-year period of great tribulation, terrible suffering, and hardship. The removal of the church allows God to focus on Israel. During this tribulation, there will be a great conversion of Jewish people to Christ. Then, at the end of seven years, Jesus will visibly return and set up his kingdom—as in the premillennialist view.
Though there are many variations, premillennialism is defined by the belief that Jesus returns before the millennium. It generally holds that history continues on a downward spiral. Suffering generally increases as history progresses until suddenly Christ returns.
Postmillennialism takes the opposite stance; it maintains that Jesus will return after the millennium.7 Postmillennialists hold a different understanding of the nature of the millennium. In premillennialism, Christ comes down, establishes his kingdom, and reigns on the earth. In postmillennialism, Christ remains in heaven, exercising his authority on earth through the church.
Whereas premillennialism takes a negative view of the progression of history, postmillennialism takes a positive view. Through the church’s spreading of the gospel, the millennium will be gradually and progressively established on earth. As Christian influence spreads, so will peace and righteousness.
The millennium, then, is the period when universal peace reigns on the earth as a result of the work of the church in spreading the gospel. Some postmillennialists think that the period is literally a thousand years, while others maintain that is it an undefined, extended period of time.
Toward the end of the millennium, the devil will be released and lead a brief rebellion. Jesus will return to the earth to defeat his enemies, raise the dead to face the final judgment, and then bring about the new heavens and the new earth.
The key to postmillennialism is that Jesus returns after the millennium. He comes back after the church has successfully spread the gospel and established peace throughout the earth.
The third major viewpoint is amillennialism.9 Amillennialists agree with postmillennialists that Jesus will return after the millennium, but they do not believe that the millennium is a yet-to-come future event. Instead, the defining characteristic of amillennialism is the belief that the millennium is a present reality.
The millennium is now. It is the church age—the entire period between the departure and return of Jesus.
While premillennialism takes a negative view of the development of history and postmillennialism a positive view, amillennialism takes both. Evil will continue to expand right alongside the spread of the gospel and its positive influences.
Jesus bound and imprisoned Satan with his death on the cross and resurrection. Thus Satan’s influence has been severely limited, making way for the spread of the gospel to all nations. Deceased Christians are currently in heaven with Christ, reigning with him.
Since the millennium is now, when Christ returns it will be the end. He brings with him the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, and the recreation of the new heavens and the new earth.
Amillennialists point out that the only mention of the millennium is found in the book of Revelation. Since Revelation is highly symbolic, it is perfectly acceptable to interpret the millennium as an indeterminate period of time rather than a literal thousand years.
All three of the aforementioned viewpoints are considered legitimate within the bounds of biblical Christianity. The important point upon which all three agree is that Jesus is going to return—and that when he does, the end comes with him.
On this key point, the fourth category of belief differs. Preterism has generally been considered a less-than-legitimate option for Bible-believing Christians. Though this view is held by a relatively small minority, its influence is spreading.
The term “preterism” comes from a Latin word that means “past.” Preterists argue that all of the prophecies and occurrences in the Bible that most people think are future events have actually happened already. Everything predicted in Scripture, including in the book of Revelation, has already happened. Thus Christians are not waiting for the return of Christ—he has already returned.
The year 70 CE is central to preterism. It is then, they argue, that Jesus returned. Since the resurrection, judgment, and new heavens and earth occur when Christ returns, they all must have happened in the year 70 CE as well. Preterists then reduce the millennium to a forty-year period between the ascension of Jesus around 30 CE and his return in 70 CE.
To maintain this position, preterists have to radically redefine the nature of the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead. Preterists believe that Jesus’ return was spiritual; there is no physical, bodily resurrection of the dead—only spiritual.
Many are concerned about the teachings of preterism because they are so contradictory to what the church has historically believed for two thousand years. Preterism is also difficult to reconcile with what the Bible seems to teach about the bodily, visible return of Jesus and a physical resurrection from the dead.
The good news is that the end is actually just the beginning. There are much better things to come. Though Christians may disagree over the exact nature and timing of the event, all agree that one’s relationship to Jesus is the deciding factor of how that end turns out.
The Bible promises that all things work out for the good of God’s people because the end has already been guaranteed by the work of Jesus on the cross.11 Now that is good news.
- For an extended defense and dialogue among the major views, see Robert G. Clouse, ed., The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977).
- For a defense of premillennialism, see Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung, eds., A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).
- Note the prefix “pre-,”which means “before.”
- See The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Revelation 21.
- For a defense of dispensationalism, see Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995).
- For a defense of postmillennialism, see John Jefferson Davis, Christ’s Victorious Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1986).
- Note the prefix “post-,” which means “after.”
- For a defense of amillennialism, see Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003).
- The prefix “a-”means “not” or “without,” thus amillennialism means “no millennium.” This can be confusing because amillennialists definitely do believe in a millennium; it is just a millennium of a different nature than that of pre- or postmillennialism.
- For a defense of preterism, see James Stuart Russell, The Parousia: The New Testament Doctrine of Christ’s Second Coming (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999).
- See The Holy Bible, Romans 8:28.
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