September 25, 2013

Eschatology 101–difficulties

by Jesse Johnson

QuestionsWhy 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.

end is near2. 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.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA.
  • Dan Phillips

    How difficult? So difficult that you’re not three sentences in without saying something that you’ll be faulted for: amillennialists would not agree with their (erroneous) view being characterized as “there is no millennial kingdom.” There is, to them; it’s just all deep and mystical and spiritual and all that.

    • http://thecripplegate.com Jesse Johnson

      Good point Dan. I was intellectually prepared for that, and my retort would be that they should come up with a waaay better title than “amillennial” if they want with a straight face to say that they believe there is a millennial kingdom.

      • Dan Phillips

        True enough. You can call a Jerusalem Cricket a leopard, but it’ll still be ugly as sin.

    • 4Commencefiring4

      It’s not so much that it’s deep and mystical; it’s that it seems so clear–from the only passage in all Scripture that actually mentions it directly (Rev 20)–that it’s not anything approaching the “millennium” of a thousand books on the subject, or Scofield’s notes.

      According to those, we should expect its long-awaited description to include at least a few key things everyone keeps saying characterizes this period:

      How about some mention of Jerusalem, or a temple and/or sacrifices, or a throne, or the Abrahamic Covenant, or the promise of land, or Christ ruling the nations, or the tribes (or even some mention of Israel, for goodness sake), or universal peace, or the knowledge of the Lord covering the Earth…something. Anything.

      But instead, it only says Satan is bound, souls live with Christ, “the rest of the dead” arise afterwards, and not much else. We come all this way to the ending chapters of Scripture, God is telling us about the end of history in a series of visions for John, and we finally get to this millennium, and… Where is it?

      And that’s why, to put it kindly, some question if we’ve got it right.

      • http://thecripplegate.com Jesse Johnson

        Thanks for your comment. I am a bit confused about what you mean though. You list things that are clearly described in Scripture:

        “Jerusalem, or a temple and/or sacrifices, or a throne, or the Abrahamic Covenant, or the promise of land, or Christ ruling the nations, or the tribes (or even some mention of Israel, for goodness sake), or universal peace, or the knowledge of the Lord covering the Earth…”

        But then say you wish they were described again in Rev 20? Is that right? If that is what you mean, my response would be that they are so clearly described in other places (Isa, Ezek, Heb 12, Rom 11, etc.) that John doesn’t need to repeat them in Rev 20. The key detail added by Rev 20 is the 1,000 years.

        • 4Commencefiring4

          But those other references could just as easily be the new earth, not just a temporary era that fulfills nothing. In fact, it’s rather telling that in the Scofield Bible’s paragraph headings in Isa 65, v17 is marked out as where God says He will “create a new heavens and new earth”, yet somehow v18ff he labels a discussion of the millennium, despite the fact that v18 says to “rejoice forever [not 1,000 years] in that which I create”–which is a reference to what? The new heavens and the new earth from the previous verse. But Scofield is compelled to divide the passage into two different times, in spite of the text, because he’s convinced of a theological scheme.

          I’m not aware of any promises allegedly made to the nation of Israel–or to any of the redeemed–which can only be met in the millennium and not the new earth. If we inherit a kingdom which has no end, and we do, the millennium is far short of that. If it is argued that the new earth is just the extension of the millennium (i.e., it’s all “the kingdom” anyway), then why bother with the first part? What does it do that the new earth doesn’t?

          As far as Rev 20 is concerned, it seems to me that taking the references to 1,000 years literally makes sense only if we’re willing to take other time periods literally. I don’t know how we could say, for instance, that the church at Smyrna was slated to have tribulation “ten days” and seriously think Christ was saying they would have a “week and a half” of troubles, or that “Babylon” (whatever that refers to) will actually be destroyed in a literal “one hour”, as ch 18 says.

          Yes, I know there’s huge divide as to how literally to take many Bible passages; but when the only reference to “1,000 years” is found in a book where a red dragon’s tail sweeps away 1/3 of the stars, a woman is clothed with the sun, and another “star” falls on just 1/3 of earth’s rivers, I think that’s a clue that perhaps we should be understanding some of this symbolically.

          • http://thecripplegate.com Jesse Johnson

            Got it. I have no idea about the Scofield reference BIble. I don’t have one, so I don’t know what they are going for. As for promises that can only be fulfilled in the kingdom but not in the eternal state, the two that come immediately to mind are the temple vs. new Jerusalem, people dying vs. death being banished.
            I’d like to quickly point out that you are arguing the amil position perfectly: no such thing as a millennium. Right? I just point that out b/c your comment appeared under Dan’s above, and so I thought it was a response to his. Thanks for interacting here.

          • 4Commencefiring4

            Oh, the Scofield Bible–which served as my introduction to the faith in 1970–can be very informative…if you’re into learning from footnotes instead of the text of Scripture. Some are. :)

            OK, very good–the temple. As I understood it when I was in the pre-mill camp, the temple is to appear again during the millennium. But that’s odd: why would God reestablish the temple (where, presumably, the same sacrifices that were prescribed in the OT as prefiguring Christ are renewed), even as Christ Himself, the very Lamb of God whose work on the cross did away with all that, sat on a throne in Jerusalem? Does this not turn the progressive nature of the redemption story on its head? I’ve even heard it said these sacrifices will only be memorial in nature; but we’ve already got a memorial sacrament–the Lord’s table. Surely we’re not setting that aside and going back to the old prescription? (“And don’t call me Shirley!”)

            New Jerusalem (in the eternal state) is thought to be a future city with walls and streets, and that seems justified–after all, aren’t we given its dimensions and the foundation materials, and language describing a real city? Sure are.

            Yet in 21: 2–the “holy city, new Jerusalem” comes down from heaven “as a bride”, then in v 9 the angel tells John he will show him “the bride, the wife of the Lamb”, and then immediately shows him…”the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down from heaven…” Seems clear the bride = the New Jerusalem. Who is the bride of Christ throughout the NT? Not a city of walls and streets, but us–the body of Christ.

            Additionally, in 22:14, we read that only believers may enter into this city through its gates, and “outside” are the wicked. But there’s no wicked anywhere–inside or outside–on the new earth, only the righteous are there. No one, in any camp that I know of, posits a new earth where there’s a city of righteousness, outside of which the wicked roam about lost and in torment. The New Earth is supposed to be the final form of the Kingdom, wherein dwells righteousness. A lone city isolated in a sea of lost souls doesn’t fit that.

            Well, on it goes. But I appreciate your teaching and enjoy your interactions on this site. I don’t know how you find the time to do this, too. We’re all glad you’re at IBC.

            Blessings, Jesse!

  • Lenin John

    Hi Jesse, can you tell me where exactly does it say that the tribulation will be for 3.5 years or that the Anti-Christ will reign for 7 years. One of my friends who is not convinced with the pre-mill rapture asked me the same question and I was not able to answer him.

    • http://thecripplegate.com Jesse Johnson

      Daniel 9:24-27 describes the last of the 70 weeks of years as the abomination of desolation (a week of years being 7 years–and if that sounds weird, remember the Jews used groups of 7 for time, such as weeks, where as we use decades; equivalent to us would be saying 70 decades–its not code, just convenience). Since the other 69 weeks of years was literally groups of seven years, it seems pretty straight forward that the last week would also be seven years.

      Jesus then uses Daniel’s language of abomination and desolation and applies it to a “time of tribulation not seen since the begining of the world” (Mat 24:15, 21). Paul also uses that same language in 2 Thess 2:1-4.
      Taken together, Jesus and Paul describe a future time of tribulation from Daniel 9, and Daniel 9 describes it as seven years. Does that help?

      • Lenin John

        Well not really. Is there some other place where weeks have been used to signify a decade or a long period of time. Also nowhere in the NT is there a objective proof that it will be for 7 years. Is it there? I am still learning Eschatology hence I’m still not convinced with any of the views. Just d/l all of MacArthur’s “Why every Calvinist should be pre-mill series”. Hope it helps.

        • http://thecripplegate.com Jesse Johnson

          Let me try another run at that: “Weeks” simply means a group of seven. A week of years means seven years, in the same way that a decade of years simply means 10 years.
          Daniel says that there will be 70 weeks of years (70 x 7) decreed for the Jewish people. Seven of them from Daniel’s writting till the order to rebuild the wall. 62 of them from the rebuilding of the wall till the Messiah. That leaves one week of years (1 x 7).
          Jesus says that it remains future, he quotes Daniel (he even cites it!) and says that it is future, in the time of the great tribulation. Paul goes further by saying that it is when the antichrist is revealed in the middle of the tribulation.
          So Daniel says it is seven years, Jesus says it is the great tribulation and it is the same thing Daniel spoke of, and Paul says then uses the same terms as Daniel and Jesus in describing it.

          • Lenin John

            Hey thanks Jesse. Now that makes sense. Looking forward to the remainder of the series next week.

          • http://thecripplegate.com Jesse Johnson

            And a little bit more:

            As for the other part of the question about other places where weeks are used for time, that is sort of the whole Jewish system. God made the world in six days, plus one for rest. HE structured the weeks in seven days. Slaves worked for seven years. Seven sets of those seven years led to a year of Jubilee (seven weeks of 7 years). Jacob serves Laban for seven years (one week of years) to get his daughter, then another seven to get the other daughter. The famine in Egypt (as well as the one under Elisha) was seven years, preceded by seven years of plenty. THe period of mourning was seven days (in the Law for grief, as well as Job’s friends). Many of the feasts (atonement, unleavened bread, booths, ordaining of preists) were seven days. The period of cleansing was seven days. Solomon’s temple dedication is described as “seven days, then seven more days” which is illustrative of the Hebrew way of counting by sevens. Ezekiel describes the new temple in groups of seven (steps, days, cubits, so on).

            Even more to the point though, in Daniel the punishment given to Nebachanezar is in “seven units of time,” which some translations simply give as seven years. But its the same concept you see in the 70 weeks later on (70 units of seven years). Check out Daniel 4:16, 23, 25, and 32, then compare that to Daniel 9:25.

            Sorry for the long walk, but I wanted to make the point that saying seven weeks of years is not as unusual to the Jews as it sounds to us. Like I said, we use the term decades like they use the term weeks. Its not unusual, and doesn’t’ require a calculator to figure out seven decades, just like for the Jews 7 weeks of years would be a normal way of speaking.

          • Lenin John

            Thanks Bro. Jesse for the follow-up. That explanation was very useful. I’ll go back to my friend.

        • http://thecripplegate.com Jesse Johnson

          As for the other part of the question about other places where weeks are used for time, that is sort of the whole Jewish system. God made the world in six days, plus one for rest. HE structured the weeks in seven days. Slaves worked for seven years. Seven sets of those seven years led to a year of Jubilee (seven weeks of 7 years). Jacob serves Laban for seven years (one week of years) to get his daughter, then another seven to get the other daughter. The famine in Egypt (as well as the one under Elisha) was seven years, preceded by seven years of plenty. THe period of mourning was seven days (in the Law for grief, as well as Job’s friends). Many of the feasts (atonement, unleavened bread, booths, ordaining of preists) were seven days. The period of cleansing was seven days. Solomon’s temple dedication is described as “seven days, then seven more days” which is illustrative of the Hebrew way of counting by sevens. Ezekiel describes the new temple in groups of seven (steps, days, cubits, so on).

          Even more to the point though, in Daniel the punishment given to Nebachanezar is in “seven units of time,” which some translations simply give as seven years. But its the same concept you see in the 70 weeks later on (70 units of seven years). Check out Daniel 4:16, 23, 25, and 32, then compare that to Daniel 9:25.

          Sorry for the long walk, but I wanted to make the point that saying seven weeks of years is not as unusual to the Jews as it sounds to us. Like I said, we use the term decades like they use the term weeks. Its not unusual, and doesn’t’ require a calculator to figure out seven decades, just like for the Jews 7 weeks of years would be a normal way of speaking.

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  • Sharon Betters

    Church history has more often muddied the waters instead of clarify teaching, unfortunately. Especially when it come to eschatology. I believe that for the most part it is one’s view or definition of Israel is central. If you hold to believing that the church has replaced Israel, then you will likely come to the conclusion that there is no future Messianic Kingdom. If you believe that the church is the only ‘elect’ of scripture, then you will come to the conclusion that the church goes through the tribulation.
    The sad part of this is that the Lord gave us prophesy to show us what will happen before it happens to encourage and strengthen our faith and too many times it is not taken seriously enough, or literally enough. When one spiritualizes the text, you can make it mean anything you want. There was a Kingdom of Israel in the past, and most definitely a Messianic Kingdom in the future, where Jesus will reign on earth from Jerusalem for a literal 1000. The best commentary that I have read on this subject that has compiled that prophesies of the Old Testament and placed them in the chronological sequence of the book of Revelation is called the Footsteps of the Messiah by Arnold Fruchtenbaum. ~ blessings! :-)

  • http://veritasdomain.wordpress.com/ SLIMJIM

    Looking forward to your case for Pre-Trib in your next installment

  • Stephen Houghton

    I wonder what schools of “pre-New Testament” eschatology existed in Israel regarding the advent of the coming Messiah?
    I’m sure there were the “amessiahists”, the “triumphists”, the “sufferists” and even the “it’s-all-too-hard-to-botherists”…

    • Stephen Houghton

      Correction – “prophesy” instead of “eschatology”

    • http://thecripplegate.com Jesse Johnson

      Funny, but also a good point. You do see it today with sects of Judaism waiting for a literal messiah, but many/most who simply see the messianic prophecies fulfilled spiritually in Israel as a nation.

      • Stephen Houghton

        There must obviously have been “some” OT biblical prophetic literalists for the coming Messiah for Herod to inform the Magi to look for Christ in Bethlehem

  • Vance Marquis

    Jesus is coming back for a 2nd time but it won’t be after a rapture, one world government, or a one world religion. All of those beliefs are caused by eisegesis instead of exegesis. In the mean time all of the big (so called) prophecy experts are making millions of dollars due to their eisegesis of scripture. For over 40 YEARS I have heard the signs are all there. The rapture is imminent get ready! Still waiting for that generation to pass away. The finish line keeps getting moved. Maybe God isn’t listening to the right experts?

    • http://thecripplegate.com Jesse Johnson

      When people say they know for sure when the rapture will be, check your wallet.

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