What Every Christian Should Know about the End Times
In the course of most church services, Christians will commonly say “Maranatha,” or “Come, Lord Jesus.” This is the last verse of the Bible and the hope of Christians everywhere. He will come again to judge the quick and the dead, yadda, yadda, yadda. I admit I often would like to add the caveat, “but maybe after I die a peaceful, quiet death.” I’m not afraid of the end of the world, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.
Perhaps you’ll forgive my reticence to care very much about all of this End of Days talk (what the theologians call “eschatology”) as it seems that, like body piercing and regional barbecue, opinions on the matter are very personal and can be really intense. I have never found someone lukewarm on their own predictions about the end of the world. During the controversies surrounding Biblical interpretation at the turn of the nineteenth century, a literal belief in a certain end-times schema actually served as a shibboleth (or a super important thing that divided “us” from “them”). By the time the “study Bible” and Christian colleges started to flower, an easy mark of a fundamentalist, and thus, not a hated “liberal,” was how literal one would take the prophecies contained primarily in the last book of the Bible.
Not only have we all been awash in a particular eschatology (I’ll explain the terms in a minute), but as a Southern Californian, I happen to live in the epicenter of an even more peculiar end times movement: they are called the premillennial dispensationalists. I understand that those two words and twelve syllables might mean nothing to you. Once again, don’t worry about it. But what this does mean is that I often hear interesting and sometimes humorous conversations on Revelation, eschatology and the like. Awhile back I heard the following at a coffee shop:
“Yeah, well, I told the guy that I wasn’t post-trib anymore and so I’m not going to even be there for those seven years.”
Does that make sense? If not, I know what you’re feeling. I remember my first conversation with a group of Bible college exegetes. I was lost in the numbers, not to mention the esoteric theories about years and what “a generation” means. I’m still figuring out some of the nuances with the basic commandments, but I think God will give me a pass if I stay in the dark here.
The point is that the end times and eschatology can get sublimely confusing and if you aren’t careful you can soon lose the forest for the trees and the Gospel for the “signs of the time.” So what’s the Gospel take on the End Times? How do I find comfort in this doctrine while remaining faithful to the historical, Christian witness?
First, the basic positions:
The Premillennial view takes the thousand year millennium of peace (see Revelation 20) and puts Jesus’s second coming before, or “pre-” this new millennium of peace. This seemingly does justice to the reading of John’s Apocalypse using a model that takes numbers, dates, and years with a particular kind of literalism. It is in this premillennial model that things get so, so bad. For the Premillennialist, there can be no pie in the sky aspirations for our generation. Instead, we can only try figure out how bad it will get before it’s finally our turn to shuffle off. Jesus has to return to stop the carnage. And then a thousand years. And then some other stuff. This interpretation gets tricky with a tribulation, happenings in literal Jerusalem, and a rapture before, after or sometime in the middle of the seven years of Hell on earth. It can seem Byzantine or eerily specific about historical events, but it is held in earnest by many faithful Christians. When this system starts to overwhelm, remember that Jesus the millennial hero returns just in time to slay the dragon and rescue the princess: perfect!
The Postmillennial model takes the thousand-year millennium of peace and places the return of Jesus after, or “post” the millennium. In this scheme, there is still a literal, thousand years of peace. But rather than following a well-trod pattern of doom, the Postmillennial's period of peace is the natural outcome of the church in the world, and therefore, ultimately ushers in the Kingdom before Christ’s coming. This was a popular position before the First World War and its large-scale examples of human suffering rejiggered much of our Western confidence in the future. Nonetheless, there are many streams of apocalyptic thought which still carry some of this end times optimism.
At this point in the tour we usually now present the seemingly sane brother of these two theories, Amillennialism. The “A” is a negative, like “a” theism. There is no millennium in this schema, or rather, it is a very different kind of millennium. While there are no literal thousand years, this position sees more allegory and story-telling in the Apocalyptic parts of the Bible. This tradition has the endorsement of St. Augustine and other church fathers and can save us all the embarrassment when it comes to whores and Armageddon and lakes of sulfur. But rather than present this as just one more position to choose from, let me suggest an easier route.
Rip it all up.
Condemn yourself to die with a completely shallow and basic understanding of the End Times. Rumor has it, there are no questions about it on the final exam. I will follow the simplicity of the Apostles Creed and confess that Jesus will come again to judge the quick and the dead, and lead us—fully resurrected—into life everlasting. The modern approaches with their millennial theories can obscure the real questions we have about the end of the world, which might be:
“Am I going to make it? Am I, even still, a child of God? Is this judgment good news, or bad news?”
And thus, by ditching all the theories (and by ditch, please remember that I mean “don’t hold on to tightly”, not “never study this stuff”), we strip down the end times to a historical reality (it is happening and will happen) and an existential reality (you will be judged). I confess Jesus’ resurrection and my own future resurrection on account of Christ. In doing so, I am united to Christ such that His judgment will now be my judgment. God proclaimed at Jesus’ Baptism, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.” And, being baptized into Him, then, now and always, that is your judgment as well.
But what about the charts and graphs and verses and “millennium” talk?
Maybe it’s a fun conversation over drinks. But when I hear end times, I am going to think: resurrection, judgment, life everlasting.
And knowing that my judgment is the same as Christ’s, I can confidently say:
“Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus.”