Biblical eschatology can be divided into two categories: personal eschatology and general eschatology. Personal eschatology addresses the subjects of death, hell, and resurrection. General eschatology addresses the timing of events such as the tribulation and millennium. Whereas there is slight disagreement among evangelicals in regards to personal eschatology, there is significant disagreement among evangelicals in regards to general eschatology. The main reason for such disagreements has to do with one’s usage or disregard of a consistent and literal interpretation of Bible prophecy. Of course, this is certainly true in regards to the timing of prophetic fulfillment.
Views Concerning Timing
There are four possible views concerning the timing of prophetic events: preterism (past), historicism (present), idealism (timeless), and futurism (future). Preterism is the view that the majority of prophetic events have already been fulfilled. Historicism equates the current church age with the time of the tribulation; therefore, prophetic events are being fulfilled throughout the church age. Recognizing that approximately 300 prophecies were fulfilled literally in regards to the first coming of Christ, futurism believes that the remaining prophecies of the second coming will also be fulfilled literally in an eschatological period. Idealism is the view that the Bible does not specify a time (chronology) for the fulfillment of prophetic events.
Preterism is a term from the Latin praeter meaning “past.” The preterist view is that most, if not all, of prophetic fulfillment has already occurred. Preterists believe that they have already identified the beast of Revelation. The first beast of Revelation 13 is understood to be Nero and the second beast is understood to be Domitian. It is believed that everything in Revelation has been fulfilled centuries ago and has no meaning in the twenty-first century (apart from an apologetic purpose of proving the Bible is authentic). The preterist view limits the majority of eschatological references to salvation and judgment in the first century of the church.
Historicists believe that Bible prophecy is a panorama of both church and secular history beginning with the apostolic church until the perfection of the age. It is typical that historicists will envision the history of the world as pre-written in apocalyptic language filled with symbols and visions. The majority of the Protestant Reformers were historicists. The majority of the cults appear to be historicists (there are reasons why this is true [which cannot/will not be addressed in this article] which are different than the reasons why most of the Protestant Reformers were historicists). The Reformers believed that major prophetic writings, such as the Book of Daniel, the Olivet Discourse, and the Book of Revelation revealed the rise of the Roman Catholic Church and God’s destruction of that entity. The major prophetic writings were also believed to give exhortation to the church that would be purified during the time of the Reformation.
Within historicism, majority agreement on the prophetic fulfillment of the beginning and ending of historical movements cannot be ascertained; rather, Bible prophecy provides the panorama of historical movements throughout the various ages. It equates the current church age with the tribulation based on the day-age theory. Historicists interpret literal numbers like 2,300 days (Dan 8:14) and 1,290 days (Dan 12:11) as years. They also view Bible prophecy as finding continual fulfillment in the present age. The minority view among historicists is that the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 was consistent with the breaking of the seals of Revelation. The majority view is that the breaking of the first seal is consistent with the death of Domitian in AD 96. The other six seals are associated with the rise and fall of the Western Roman Empire, which would include the invasion by the German barbarians (Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Vandals) around the middle of the fifth century.
Idealism (Spiritual or Timeless View)
Idealists interpret Bible prophecy not as an indication of eschatological events to be fulfilled (historicism and futurism) or that have been fulfilled (preterism); they interpret Bible prophecy as representative of the conflict, recorded in symbolic and metaphoric language, between good and evil. Therefore, Bible prophecy is not an actual record of historical events or future events. In other words, there is no single historical fulfillment. As it merely sets forth great principles that are common throughout the age of the world, Bible prophecy is applicable to believers in any age and history is almost completely separate from its fulfillment. Idealism stresses great ethical principles, hidden in symbols and metaphors, of world events that occur. The conflict between good and evil rages, but the triumph of the ages will be the victory of the good. In the idealist view, time and history for Bible prophecy are meaningless. Bible prophecy is an allegory of the spiritual conflict between good and evil.
A refinement within idealism may be termed “eclecticism.” Those who hold to an eclectic view believe when Christ returns to earth it will be in judgment of the wicked and deliverance. At the time that Christ returns, He will establish His kingdom which is the same as the new heavens and new earth. Idealism does not affirm belief in an eschatological rapture, tribulation, Antichrist, or literal one thousand year millennium. The period between the first coming and second coming of Christ are the “church age” or “latter days.”
Futurists believe that prophetic fulfillment regarding the rapture, tribulation, second coming, and millennium is in an eschatological period. Consistent futurism teaches that the tribulation, second coming, and millennium are all future events pertaining to national Israel. Consistent futurists should never fluctuate between historicism and futurism. Some futurists do interpret current events as fulfilling prophecy; however, when futurists interpret in this manner they are being inconsistent in their interpretation of Scripture. Current events cannot be claimed as the fulfillment of prophecy; neither, can they be claimed as the sign of Christ’s coming. This is true no matter how many false christs, wars and rumors of wars, famines, and earthquakes are present today. History is replete with those who thought they had identified the sign of Christ’s coming only to convey commiseration for their great disappointment. The reason is that the prophecies have specific relation to Israel. In the current age, the only prophecy for the church is the rapture.
The nation of Israel is given signs of Christ’s coming relating to His plans for the Jewish people as the only elect nation. In contrast to Israel, the church is instructed to be ready for the any-moment rapture. Paul wrote,
For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom (1Cor 1:22).Acts 1:6 reads,
And so when they had come together they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?”When the disciples asked the resurrected Lord about His earthly plans for Israel, He said to them,
“It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority” (1:7).The history of the Old Testament illustrates that the times or epochs relate to history with God’s earthly purpose for Israel. During the current dispensation of the church, God has postponed fulfillment of prophetic events and biblical prophecies will await fulfillment until after the rapture of the church.
The interval in the current dispensation of the church of the fulfillment of the messianic program for Israel is derived from the Greek verb apotelw meaning “to complete” or “to be perfected.” Concerning “Prophetic Postponement in Daniel 9:24-27” (chapter in Progressive Dispensationalism: An Analysis of the Movement and Defense of Traditional Dispensationalism) Dr. Randall Price explained,
“The apotelesmatic interpretation recognizes in Old Testament texts that present the messianic program as a single event, a near and far historical fulfillment is intended, separated by an indeterminate period of time.”It is this period of time that is known as an “intercalation” or a “gap,” however, the term “prophetic postponement” is more preferable. Since the Old Testament prophets did not have the current dispensation as a great parenthesis revealed to them, God would reveal the mystery of the church in the New Testament. Postponement is an intercalation (gap) in fulfillment, concluding that the delay is only temporary, and hence prophetic since there is a purposeful and preordained act in the divine program. God implied a parenthesis in His messianic program in the Old Testament with references of Israel’s hardening (Isa 6:9-13; Zech 7:11-12) and judicial exile (Deut 4:27-30; 28:36-37, 49-50,64-68); however, this postponement in the divine program was not fully revealed until the New Testament (John 12:37-40; Acts28:25-28; Romans 11:25-26).
It is because God did not reveal the mystery of the intercalation, or dispensation of the church, that Christ gives the answer as to when Bible prophecy will be fulfilled in relation to Israel. The times or epochs are predestined by God and are not revealed to the church. Again, they relate to history with God’s earthly purpose for Israel. The chronology of when Bible prophecy will be fulfilled, and the signs that demonstrate eschatological fulfillment, all relate to the earthly plans of God for Israel. Therefore, there are no specific current events today that are fulfilling the end times. It is only when the end times are upon Israel that they will understand all end times prophecy in both the Old and New Testament is being fulfilled before them.
In contrast to Israel, the church cannot point to current events as fulfilling Bible prophecy.
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of the law (Deut29:29).This Scripture is drawing a distinction between the secret things (mysteries) that God would reveal about the church and the things revealed that God had set forth in regards to Israel. God does not set forth chronological events for the church as He does for Israel. God must reveal i.e. (special revelation) all things pertaining to the church. This point is made by Moses:
“For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. “It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us to hear it, that we may observe it?” (30:11-12).Moses does not confuse the truth that to understand God’s purposes for things in heaven there must be special revelation. Since the church is a permanent resident of heaven from the time of Pentecost, extending beyond the pretribulational rapture, to the end of the tribulation when the church returns to earth with Christ, then this means that revelation must be given concerning God’s purposes for the church since they will be going on in heaven. For those on earth it is entirely different matter. Specifically, God has revealed secret things concerning the church who will be His heavenly people (at least from Pentecost to posttribulational events) in passages such as Ephesians 1:3, 20;2:10; 3:10; 6:9; Philippians 3:20; Col. 1:5;3:1-4.
Israel does not know the time of Christ’s return to judge and reign, and the church also does not know the time of Christ’s coming in the clouds to take His church to their heavenly home. The rapture may occur at any moment in history, but it may not happen in this writer’s lifetime. Nevertheless, the rapture is the blessed hope of this writer and he will continue, by God’s grace and for His glory, to live his life in such a manner as to be ready in this lifetime for the any-moment rapture. Israel, however, does not know the time of Christ’s return but when the tribulational events do occur, the remnant will recognize the fulfillment of tribulational events leading to His second coming. Both peoples are exhorted to be ready, spiritually alert, and faithfully serving the Lord in order that they are prepared for Christ’s coming.
Lastly, in the current conflict over how to interpret Bible prophecy, there has now arisen a view called “modified futurism.” Advocates of this view do not interpret Bible prophecy as literally as dispensational futurism and may not support a chronological progression of eschatological history. Many modified futurists adopt a midtribulational or posttribulational rapture. Modified futurism, or eclecticism, is the view that the church will experience the seventieth week of Daniel as either three-and-one-half years or seven years of tribulation. Obviously, this view distorts the blessed hope of the church in Titus 2:13 (looking for that blessed hope and the appearing of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus). Rather than awaiting the appearance of Jesus Christ for the church, the modified futurist is anticipating the appearance of Antichrist, for only after his revealing can Jesus Christ return either three-and-one-half or seven years later.
In his commentary on the Book of Revelation, Gregory Beale (Th.M. graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and now professor of New Testament at Wheaton College) exemplifies the eclectic view or redemptive-historical form of modified idealism. In his commentary on the Book of Revelation (New International Greek Testament Commentary), he interpreted Revelation with “no specific prophesied historical events discerned in the book, except for the final coming of Christ to deliver and judge and to establish the final form of the kingdom in a consummated new creation” (p. 48). Additionally, Beale wrote,
“. . . the historicists may sometimes be right in their precise historical identifications, but wrong in limiting the identification only to one historical reality” (p. 49).Conclusion
Concerning the issue of eschatological events, dispensational futurists (if they are consistent in their hermeneutic) believe it is possible to witness signs of the times before God resumes His eternal program with Israel in the tribulation and the millennium. Consistent futurism recognizes that current world events set the stage for eschatological events in relation to Israel. The only prophetic event for the church in the future is the rapture, which is imminent, and without any signs. Even though the tribulational events will not occur during the present church age this is not to imply that world events are not significant. If there are present signs of events that are setting the stage for the fulfillment of prophesies that relate to the tribulation, then, it is appropriate to believe in the soon coming of the rapture of the church since that blessed event will come before the start of the tribulation. Tribulational events do not find fulfillment in the current church age. Consistent pretribulationism will not adopt a historicist interpretation of world events by quoting, as fulfillment, passages that clearly refer to eschatological events in relation to the nation of Israel. Expositors must relate biblical passages to the appropriate period in time (either the church or Israel). Commingling eschatological events for the church and Israel confuses biblical understanding.
It is unfortunate that such significant disagreement exists among evangelicals in regards to general eschatology. However, the disagreements are not due to lack of clarity in Scripture, but they exist mainly because of one’s usage or disregard of a consistent and literal interpretation of Bible prophecy. Disagreements exist due to inconsistency in biblical interpretation (of course, this could be said about so many doctrines of the Bible). The most natural interpretation of unfulfilled biblical prophecies leads to a pretribulational and premillennial expectation.