Every few years it seems that a group of committed Christians becomes convinced that they have figured out exactly when Jesus is going to return. In 1988, it was the blockbuster book, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. Then, a lot of Christians got worked up about Y2K and the Blood Moons. And today, there are some who are pointing to the pandemic and riots as indications that the end is near.
The study of the end times is called “eschatology” which literally means “study of the end.” In spite of its name, eschatology is not really about the end – it’s about the direction of history. Where is everything going, when will it happen, and how should we live in light of that fact? In other words, there is something very practical about it.
This article is a basic guide to the three main systems of eschatology, and their implications. For a more in-depth look at end time prophecy and where history is headed, check out my book Cracking the End Time Code.
The most popular eschatology system, and the one that you have probably been influenced by even if you aren’t aware of it, is premillennialism. The version that you are probably most familiar with goes as follows: 1. Jesus is coming back to get His church in a secret Rapture at any time. 2. This will be followed by a 7-year Great Tribulation and rule of the Antichrist. 3. At the end of this 7-year period, Jesus will return to reign for a thousand years (the millennium). Satan will be bound during this time. 4. This will be followed by Satan’s release and a final judgment on both the devil and the wicked.
Premillennialism in this form was popularized by John Nelson Darby in the 1830’s and became the dominant eschatology in America because it took the Bible literally in an age when liberals were attacking the Bible as myth. It is the eschatology behind such popular books as The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series.
The main problem with premillennialism, exegetically, is that it reads the end times prophecies as repeated events. Jesus returns twice (once in the secret Rapture and again at the end of it), when in fact the Bible only speaks of a single Second Coming. There are also two separate judgments under the premillennialist system: the righteous stand before God after the Rapture, they return with Jesus to reign with Him on earth, then after the devil’s final rebellion everyone is judged again. And then there are the three defeats of Satan: Jesus defeated Satan at the cross, He will defeat him again at the end of this age, and then yet again at the end of a thousand years. Exegetically, premillennialism makes no sense.
Practically, the main problem with premillennialism is that it is an eschatology of fear and escape. When bad things happen, Christians who are looking at the world through this mindset see it as a sign that the Antichrist is on the rise and Jesus is coming soon. This leads to a perverse mindset where, instead of hoping and working for things to get better, Christians almost want things to get worse because it is a sign of the end. The belief that the world is doomed also leads Christians to avoid building long-term for the Kingdom: instead of seeking to influence government, law, media, and education, Christians retreat to their own enclaves and await the Rapture.
An alternative theory is postmillennialism – “post” because, under this model, Jesus returns after the golden millennium instead of before it. The postmillennialist outline goes as follows: 1. Satan was already bound and judged at the Cross. 2. The golden age that the New Testament prophesied is now. The world is getting better and better; it’s just taking a long time. 3. After the Church has taken over the world, Jesus will return to rule it.
As a system, postmillennialism relies on the book of Revelation having been written before 70 AD, because it posits that most of the prophecies were already fulfilled in the Jewish War and destruction of the Temple. This is debatable, as the external and internal evidence for the dating of Revelation are inconclusive. Furthermore, postmillennialism conveniently puts everything bad in the past, while leaving all the goodies for the end. It also raises the question of why God would put a book in the New Testament that was really only applicable to people in the past. In this system, things just get better and better until the world is ready for Jesus to return. This may take many thousands of years.
Practically, postmillennialism is the opposite of premillennialism. The belief that Satan has already been bound, and that the church is destined to grow in power and influence, creates unbridled optimism, and directs Christians to do all they can to expand the Kingdom of God on earth. At the same time, it can quickly become a politically focused idea: Jesus will return when the Church has taken over the world politically. This kind of church-state alliance has significant drawbacks which we can see from history.
The final system, and the one I follow, is amillennialism. It is the eschatology that Augustine, and many Catholic and Orthodox believers, have held. The millennium is now until Jesus returns. Jesus is currently reigning through us (Rom 5:17). 1. Jesus is currently ruling the world, having bound Satan at the cross. 2. The Kingdom is essentially a spiritual reality, but is breaking in to change this world. 3. After the church has spread the gospel throughout the whole world, Satan will be loosed and there will be a final showdown between Satan’s kingdom and God’s Kingdom. 4. Jesus will return, Satan will be defeated, the world will be judged, and there will be a new heavens and a new earth.
Right off the bat, people have trouble with the idea that Satan is bound. But if you look closely at the text (Rev 20:3), it says that Satan was bound so that he could no longer deceive the nations. “Nations” is the same Greek word for “Gentiles,” and that is exactly what you see: the gospel, which was once limited only to the Jews is expanding in the Gentile world wherever it goes.
People also complain about “spiritualizing away” the prophecies of Revelation 20 by equating the “thousand-year reign” to the present spiritual reign of Christ. However, everywhere else in Scripture, “a thousand years” is always a figurative term (Psalm 90:4, Eccles 6:6, 2 Pet 3:8). Nowhere is “a thousand years” ever used as a concrete expression of historical time. Furthermore, Revelation is a symbolic book, and it makes sense to read it symbolically. So we have every reason to believe that the “thousand years” in Revelation is referring to the Church Age, where Christ the Head is reigning in heaven, and we His Body are extending His rule on earth.
Many amillennials do not believe in the transformation of society, but I do, and therefore I prefer to call it “present millennialism,” or “inaugurated millennialism,” because we are NOW reigning with Christ and changing the world. Practically, this means that the Kingdom is essentially other-worldly, but breaking in to change this world. This change should be visible in every level of society – in individual salvations, in art, science, politics, law, and education. Loren Cunningham, founder of YWAM, the largest mission organization in the world, embodies this outlook. YWAM is about evangelism, but it is also about the long view of history – about discipling cultures and changing the world by the power of the Holy Spirit.
If you would like a deeper dive into eschatology and what it means for us today, check out my book Cracking the End Time Code.