Eschatology is the study of last things in relationship to the second coming of Jesus Christ. It is the science of prophetic study drawn from the Holy Scriptures. It is an area of study that has been the source of heated debate and controversy through the centuries among theologians, writers, and preachers. Because of the controversy and confusion created by the varying schools of prophetic interpretation many people in our day have determined to leave the study of eschatology alone. Those who fail to study the major themes of prophecy rob themselves of great blessings according to Revelation 1:3 which declares: "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand." We are exhorted to read and hearken to the great truths of prophetic Scripture. Thus, every Bible student must be committed to unlocking the great mysteries of prophetic truth. Some scholars estimate that the prophetic word makes up approximately twenty percent of all Scripture. Therefore, the study of prophecy must be taken seriously by the earnest student of the Word of God.
Through the years the subject of prophetic study has brought the saints of God much comfort, strength, and hope as they have anxiously awaited the soon return of the Lord Jesus Christ. How our hearts should be thrilled with the prospect of the imminent return of Jesus Christ! The present moral and spiritual condition of our world should motivate the people of God to obey the admonition of Titus 2:12-13 which states: "Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in the present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ." Jesus is coming! What a cordial to the afflicted saint of God. Jesus is coming soon! What a motivation to live a holy life and be a faithful and zealous herald of the Gospel to all the lost. Jesus is coming! What a blessed promise to cling to as we faithfully watch and pray until our Lord returns.
The last words of Jesus Christ are recorded in Revelation 22:20 which states: "...Surely I come quickly..." May God enlighten our eyes and grant us the grace to understand the full import of this promise from our Saviour's lips as we study the major themes relating to Bible prophecy.
There are three basic schools of thought in the realm of eschatalology. They are Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism. Each of these systems of interpretation revolve around one's idea of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. The word millennium never occurs in Scripture but it is derived from two Latin words which mean one thousand years. The reference to the thousand year period of time is found in Revelation 20:1-7 where the words 'thousand years" are employed six times. Millennium is simply a theological term based upon this passage of Scripture. How an individual interprets what the thousand years refers too determines what system of interpretation they adhere too. For example, a premillennialist believes in the return of Jesus Christ to the earth before the setting up of the millennial kingdom. A postmillennialist believes that Jesus will return after the millennial kingdom. The amillennialist believes that there will be no literal millennial kingdom upon the earth.
A simple definition of a premillennialist is one who believes that Jesus Christ will come back to the earth before His thousand year reign upon the earth. In the early centuries of Christianity premillennialists were branded by their opponents as chiliasts which comes from the greek word chilias which means a thousand years.
A premillennialist interprets Revelation 20:1-7 just as it reads. He gives this passage of Scripture a literal meaning. A premillennialist believes that Jesus Christ will literally come back to the earth to establish His kingdom and to reign with the saints for a thousand years. As a general rule premillennialists interpret Old and New Testament prophecies relating to the kingdom of Christ in a literal vein. This does not mean that premillennialists do not see symbolic and typical teachings in the Scriptures. What it does mean is that premillennialists follow the golden rule of Bible interpretation which is: "When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise." Thus, a premillennialist is dedicated to a literal interpretation of prophetic Scripture. This is what sets him apart from an ammillennialist who will often spiritualize or allegorize Scriptures of prophetic significance.
There are several prophetic truths that are all linked together to form the premillennial position of eschatology. Premillennialists believe that world conditions will grow worse and worse prior to the coming of Jesus Christ just as II Timothy 3:1 and 13 declare: "This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come...But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived." The present age will end with the greatest time of trouble and wrath the world has ever known described by Jesus Christ as the great tribulation in Matthew 24:21 which states: "For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be." This time of tribulation will culminate when Jesus Christ comes back in the Second Advent to destroy the Antichrist, the False Prophet, apostate Christendom, and all other enemies of Christ as Revelation 19:20-21 declares: "And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire bruning with brimstone. And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh." Satan will then be bound for a thousand years just as Revelation 20:2 declares: "And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years." There will be two bodily resurrections, one for the righteous, and one for the unjust that are separated by the thousand year reign of Christ. Christ and His saints will then rule and reign upon the earth for a thousand years just as Revelation 20:4-5 declares: "...and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection." This millennial kingdom upon earth will be marked by righteousness, peace, and unsurpassed spirituality.
Premillennialists also believe that the elect nation of Israel will be revived, restored to her land, and regenerated by the mighty power of the Holy Spirit just as Ezekiel 34:11-13 implies: "For thus saith the LORD GOD; Behold, I, even I, will both search my sheep, and seek them out. As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudly and dark day. And I will bring them out from the people, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land, and feed them upon the mountains of Israel by the rivers, and in all the inhabited places of the country." Premillennialists see a definite distinction between the church that Jesus started during His earthly ministry and the elect nation of Israel, meaning that they are not one in the same, but two seperate entities. These are the basic tenets of the premillennial faith.
Historically, premillennialism was the doctrine believed by Christians up until the third century A.D. The early Christians were virtually all premillennialists who interpreted prophetic Scripture literally. A study of the early church fathers will reveal that an overwhelming majority believed in the premillennial coming of Christ. Included in the list of early premillennialists are Barnabas, Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, Polycarp, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. In fact Justin Martyr considered premillennialism a test of orthodoxy in his dialogue with Trypho as the following quote reveals:
"I, and as many as are orthodox Christians, do acknowledge that there shall be a resurrection of the body, and a residence of a thousand years in Jerusalem rebuilt, adorned and enlarged as the prophets Ezekiel, Isaiah and others do unanimously attest...Moreover, a certain man among us whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, in a revelation made to him, did prophesy that the faithful believers in Christ shall live a thousand years in the New Jerusalem, and after that shall be the general resurrection and judgment." (1)
During the Roman Catholic reign of terror known as the Dark Ages there were basically two ancient Baptist groups who preserved the premillennial faith known as the Waldensians and the Paulicians. During the Reformation many were so concerned with the doctrine of justification by faith little attention was given to the subject of eschatology. In the 1600's and 1700's English Baptists such as Bunyan, Keach, and John Gill defended the premillennial faith.
From the early 1800's up until our present day the premillennial faith has been widely accepted by Bible students, preachers, theologians, and scholars.
Amillennialism and postmillennialism did not gain notoriety as systems of eschatology until the Roman Catholic Church formally came to power during the reign of Constantine the Great. Both systems were born in Romanism and later adopted by Protestants.
An amillennialist does not believe in a literal reign of Christ upon the earth. They interpret the "thousand years" in Revelation twenty as an indefinite period of time, not a literal time period. As a general rule amillennialists today hold to the theory that the thousand years is a symbolic number of perfection or completeness signifying the time period between the two Advents of Christ. Amillennialists often refer to themselves as "Gospel millennarians" meaning that the reign of Christ is only figurative and spiritual as it exists in the hearts of those who have embraced the Gospel message. Some believe that the present age with its Gospel benefits is the fulfillment of millennial prophecies. Others believe that the millennium is fulfilled by the departed saints who reign in Heaven. They believe that Satan was bound at the first coming of Christ. They deny that there are two separate bodily resurrections of the just and the unjust. Instead they hold to a general resurrection as well as a general judgment. Oswald T. Allis, an amillennialist defines his system thusly:
This is the teaching that the only visible coming of Christ to this earth which the Church is to expect will be for judgment and will be followed by the final state. It is anti-chiliastic or a-millennial, because it rejects the doctrine that there are to be two resurrections with an interval of a thousand years...between them." (2)
The amillennial system is based upon a spiritual or allegorical method of interpretation when it comes to the prophetic Word. As a general rule they give symbolic meanings to various passages that relate to prophecy. For example, they interpret Israel and the New Testament church to the one in the same. They believe that all the promises concerning Israel were transferred to the church. They somehow interpret the throne of David to mean Heaven. They refer to the words "thousand years" as an indefinite period of time. As I have read amillennial works I have noticed that they spend most of their time telling you what the millennium is not, rather than what it is. They seem to rework every prophetic passage to fit their theories of the kingdom in spite of what II Peter 1:20 declares: "No prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation." When it comes to other passages of Scripture that deal with soteriology they use a literal method of interpretation. Thus, they use a literal method of interpretation for a majority of Scriptures, but use the spiritual or allegorical method when it fits their prophetic fancy.
Pieters, an amillennialist, admits the crux of the amillennial dillemma when he said:
"The question whether the Old Testament prophecies concerning the people of God must be interpreted in their ordinary sense, as other Scriptures are interpreted, or can properly be applied to the Christian Church, is called the question of the spiritualization of prophecy. This is one of the major problems in biblical interpretation, and confronts everyone who makes a serious study of the Word of God. It is one of the chief keys to the difference of opinion between Premillenarians and the mass of Christian scholars. The former reject such spiritualization, the later employ it; and as long as there is no agreement on this point the debate is interminable and fruitless." (3)
When the literal method of interpreting the prophetic word is abandoned, the interpretation of a passage is basically left up to the discretion of the interpreter. When the allegorical or spiritual method of interpretaion is employed the interpreter can make the text read however he wants it to read. If he wants to make Israel the church, or a thousand years to be an indefinite period of time, he is free to do so. The problem with this brand of interpretation is that it was born in the bowels of Romanism and it leads to liberalism I am not saying that all amillennialists are liberals and higher critics. I know some amillennialists who are holy and godly men. However, a great number of amillennialists deny the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Scriptures.
Historically, the basis for amillennial theology was framed by two men, Origen and Augustine of Hippo. In the first and second centuries the theories of amillennialists were virtually unknown. The prophetic word was interpreted literally by the mass of Christians. However, Origin who was from the apostate school of Alexandria, Egypt began to incorporate the allegorical interpretation of Scripture into his writings and teachings. He continually attacked the literal method of interpretation. The origin of the allegorical rantings of Origen are summed up by Farrar who is not a premillennialist:
"Allegory by no means sprang from spontaneous piety, but was the child of Rathionalism which owed its birth to the heathen theories of Plato. It deserved its name, for it made Scripture say something else than it really meant...Origen borrows from heathen Platonists and from Jewish philosophers a method which converts the whole of Scripture, the New and Old Testament alike, into a series of clumsy, varying, and incredible enigmas. Allegory helped him to get rid of Chiliasm and superstitious literalism and the 'antitheses' of the Gnostics, but it opened the door for deadlier evils." (4)
Augustine was a Roman Catholic theologian who wrote The City of God, which promoted the idea that Satan was bound during the earthly ministry of Christ, and that there is no literal period of time known as the millennium. The influence of Augustine has been widespread among Catholics and Protestants alike. Many theologians of the Protestant Reformation adopted the views of Augustine simply because of his supposed orthodoxy concerning the doctrines of grace. However Augustine was inconsistent. He said that he believed in sovereign grace, yet held to the antichristian teaching of infant baptism. As a Baptist I refuse to stake my method of interpreting the Bible on a man who baptized babies and who persecuted those who would not. Nor do I agree with his allegorical interpretation of Bible prophecy.
Thus, the basic difference between premillennialists and amillennialists is the way in which each interprets the prophetic word. Amillennialists will interpret a majority of the Bible in a literal fashion. However, when it comes to the field of eschatology they will use the figurative or allegorical method of interpretation, a method borrowed from pagan philosophers. Premillennialists, on the other hand interpret the Bible in a literal manner except in those instances where the Bible makes it clear that the language is figurative or symbolic.
The third system of eschatology is postmillennialism. This theory is based upon the assumption that the entire world will be evangelized and converted, thus bringing in a reign of peace and righteousness at the end of which Jesus Christ will come back. The basic supposition of postmillennial theory is that Christ will come back after a period of millennial bliss among the nations. They believe that the world will get progressively better before Christ comes back in the second advent. Augustus Strong, a Baptist theologian, wrote the following in 1907, aptly summarizing the postmillennial position:
"The Scripture foretells a period, called in the language of prophecy 'a thousand years,' when Satan whall be restrained and the saints shall reign with Christ on the earth. A comparison of the passages bearing on his subject leads us to the conclusion that this millennial blesedness and dominion is prior to the Second Advent... We may therefore best interpret Rev. 20:4-10 as teaching in a highly figurative language, not a preliminary resurrection of the body, in the case of departed saints, but a period in the later days of the church militant when, under special influence of the Holy Ghost, the spirit of the martyrs shall appear again, true religion be greatly quickened and revived, and the members of Christ's churches become so conscious of their strength in Christ that they shall, to an extent unknown before, triumph over the powers of evil both within and without." (5)
Postmillennialism as we know it today had its source in the teachings of Daniel Whitby who lived from 1638-1726. He, as well as many other postmillennialists, attempted to interpret Bible prophecy in relationship to the supposed advancement of mankind. They saw the world getting to be a better place because of all the cultural, industrial, intellectual, and technological advances of mankind. The Postmillennial theories thrived in the 1800's when worldwide missions were becoming more and more prevelant. The postmillennialists saw the evangelizing of the nations as the key to ushering in the Millennium. However the theories and hopes of postmillennialism all but faded with World War I and World War II. Instead of the world becoming a place of peace and righteousness, it was fast becoming a world filled with chaos and violence. Thus, for all practical purposes postmillennial theology died in the twentieth century. There are however a group of Christians in our present day known as Reconstructionists who are attempting to revive postmillennialism through what they call dominion theology. It is basically nothing more than the old heresies of postmillennialism wrapped in a new package.
The basic error of postmillennial theology is that it presupposes that the world is going to be a better place before Christ comes back. Mankind is not getting better, it is getting worse, just as the Bible teaches. The errors of postmillennialism gave birth to the heresies of the social gospel movement at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Many Christians falsely supposed that by changing a man's environment and meeting his physcial needs would somehow change his spiritual nature. I do believe that we ought to help those that are less fortunate, but it will not save their souls or eradicate their depravity. Only the new birth performed by the almighty power of the Spirit of God can bring about spiritual renewal. The world will not be changed through governmental agencies and social programs. These things do not bring peace to sinful soul or impute righteousness to a bankrupt sinner. Only the grace of God can do that. There will not be universal peace and righteousness on the earth until Jesus Christ comes back with His saints to rule and reign for a thousand years!
I have attempted to briefly summarize the basic beliefs, history, and methods of interpretation of the three schools of eschatology. I believe that the premillennial position is the only one that harmonizes with the Scriptures. The premillennial system is the only tenable position if one hopes to interpret the Bible as it reads, in a literal manner. I do not presume or claim to have the corner market on all of prophetic truth, however I am not ashamed to be called a premillennialist.