Why is eschatology a difficult topic? Consider: there are three views on the return of Christ as it relates to the millennial kingdom. Either Jesus will return before the kingdom or after the kingdom, or that there is no millennial kingdom. That pretty much covers all of the bases right there. Moreover, when you look through church history, you see all three of those views advanced by major theologians. Why isn’t this easier?
The same tension is true inside of premillennialism. You have those who think the rapture is before the tribulation, those who see it as occurring during the tribulation, and those that see it at the end. Why can’t MacArthur and Piper simply meet at Starbucks and sort this out for the rest of us?
I think there are a two main reasons studying eschatology is difficult: 1. The complexity of church history. As I noted, there are famous pastors and theologians all over the eschatological map. Thus, people on all sides often appeal to authority, as in “Jonathan Edwards was the greatest theologian ever, and he was post-mil, so there.” I call this the “Confessions Can’t be Possibly be Wrong” syndrome.
The problem with it of course is that all of the views have their adherents. It is easy to forget that people—even our heroes in church history—are products of their time and their own education. Every era has its own theological blind spots, and some of those remain even to this day.
2. The difficulty of telescoping prophecy. Prophecy tells of future events, but it often does not distinguish between future events that may be separated by thousands of years. The most obvious example of this is Isaiah 61, which describes the advent of the Messiah. Isaiah tells us that he will come to preach the good news to the afflicted and proclaim liberty to the captives. Jesus said that he fulfilled that prophecy. But then Isaiah 61:2 says that the Messiah would also proclaim the day of Vengeance from God. When Jesus read the scroll of Isaiah 61 in Luke 4:18, he stopped in the middle of the verse, declaring that some of it was fulfilled at his first coming, and implying that the rest would be fulfilled at his second coming.
This effect is often compared to the similar illusion you have of mountain peaks. From a distant valley two peaks appear to be next to each other, but once you begin hiking, you realize that they might in fact be several miles apart. From a distance they looked parallel, but on top of them you see a huge valley between.
This same effect is in prophecy. Daniel tells of 70 weeks for example, and the first 7 and the second 62 are end-on-end. But it is that 70th one that lies on the other side of over 2,000 years. Isaiah describes the kingdom and the eternal state, two events that I think are separated by 1,000 years, but he often flows from one to the other seamlessly.
This effect makes the study of prophecy anything but an exact science. Scripture is clear as to the future events, and we know that they will be fulfilled down to the exact detail (as was prophecy at the Messiah’s first coming), but it becomes difficult to sort out the precise order of all future events.
Yetwith that said, I hasten to add that scripture is perspicuous, and while the exact order of all future events is prophetic and thus slightly veiled, there is enough revelation to discern a general framework.
Which is why I am comfortable calling myself premillennial and pretribulational. The teaching of the Bible is such that I have never really been able to understand how someone could reject the reality of the millennial kingdom, and the weight of a few passages compels me to see the return of Christ before that kingdom. That’s not to say that I know all the details of the kingdom, but I am more than comfortable saying that I thinks Scripture is clear on the issue.
As for the rapture, because of the difficulty of prophetic passages, I understand why all three major rapture views (pre-trib, pre-wrath, and post-trib) have problem passages. They involve the timing of future events, and those events are often described in contexts where prophecy is telescoped, and it remains unclear precisely how all the details will line up. However, I am still confident with saying that the best understanding of the verses that speak of a rapture points to one that is pretribulational.
Next week I’ll lay out my positive argument for that view.