Starts with an E ends with a Y and WILL MESS YOU UP! That’s right. You know what I’m talking about.
It’s a little pill your friends might make you swallow, and you wonder to yourself if it’s a good idea at the time, but then you get to where you can’t resist it, and you have to keep going back because of the intoxicating effects. You can’t get enough of it. You start craving it more and more, until finally you overdose, and those same friends have to hold you back from starting fights and convince you that the world’s not going to end this very second. This little pill will cause you to irrationally act out and get a little paranoid if you’re not careful. And if you get into a bad batch of it, you’ll be wishing you were never born after a while.
Uh-huh. You guessed it. I’m talking about Eschatology.
Eschatology: the study of last things. The end times. Ze end of ze world. The second coming. The apocalypse. The Big Lebowski.
Wait, strike that last one.
This post is a short exploration in the dangers that come with doing eschatology and how to avoid them.
Where I’m Coming From
To lay my cards on the table, for those who understand the terms, I hold to a classical (Ryrian) dispensational premillennial pretribulational scheme of eschatology. What does that mean? In short, it means I read the book of Revelation literally. I think we’re not yet living in the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus’s return will precede that kingdom’s beginning, which will last for 1,000 literal years. I think that Revelation 19, 20, and 21 are sequential and literal chapters. I think that a literal rapture (catching up of the church into the clouds to meet Christ, 1 Thess 4) will happen before the tribulation begins and I think that the beast of chapter 13 of Revelation (colloquially called “the Antichrist”) will make a firm covenant with Israel which he will break after 3.5 years.
Are you confused or bored yet?
Eschatology is a fun field of study in my opinion, but it is one that requires a great deal of humility, and, unfortunately, not a lot of people big on eschatology possess that particular virtue. Many of us with friends interested in eschatology are aware of the rather… errrmmmm, shall we say spirited… personalities that often accompany the field of study.
We can often get caught up in the minute details when it comes to eschatology. We end up fighting over questions like “Who are the two witnesses in Revelation 11?” “When will the tribulation begin?” “Who will be part of the 144,000?” and “What color hair will I have in my resurrected body?”
I think these are fun questions to argue about, but only if we’re agreed on the essentials of true Christian eschatology first.
So what are they?
Here are what I consider the three non-negotiable eschatological truths. These are the things within the realm of eschatology that you can’t deny without necessarily denying Christianity. There are side arguments to be had on all of these points, but the core of them must first be agreed upon to continue any more energetic discussions.
1. Bodily Resurrection
The first truth, that the believer will be raised from the dead to eternal life in a real and physical body, is essential to the gospel. It is one of the ways to summarize the gospel itself into a single word: Resurrection (1 Cor 15). The bodily resurrection to eternal life is the hope that Christians have, Christ being the first-fruits and the Holy Spirit being a down-payment. that is what this whole thing is about. If you don’t believe we’ll be literally living in literal bodies in the literal future, then you’re not a literal Christian. This truth exists in contrast to an ancient heresy known as gnosticism. Gnosticism teaches the idea of the material being inherently evil, and so a bodily resurrection and an eternity on a new, material, earth was abhorrent to adherents of this old heresy. As a result the Apostles and fathers addressed it directly in their writings. Christ will return physically, and we will be raised physically, and our eternity will be spent in a physical body. It was the gnostics in the first century who believed in a purely spiritual eternity. Christians do not. That’s part of what makes the gospel so hard to believe: we’re talking about literally coming back from the dead! That is what the whole story of the Bible is about. (check out the Story of the Bible series in the homegroup tab for more on that!)
2. Physical return of Christ
The second truth is that Christ will literally, physically return to the earth. The words of the angels after the ascension in Acts 1, Revelation chapters 19 and 20, and all of the early creeds make the affirmation of a literal return of Christ a vital one. Jesus is coming back in the same way in which he left… so what are we going to do about it? If we don’t think he’s coming back (we can argue about whether it’s before or after the millennium) then what’s really the point of Christianity? Without Christ, what’s the point of living forever? We’re living, but whatever for?
3. Not All Will be Saved
The third truth is that not every human being who has ever lived will be spared eternal torment in hell. Some people, indeed many, will go to the lake of fire. This should sober every believing Christian and make all the more urgent that gospel message from point one. It should hasten us to make clear both possible eternities. Are you headed to hell or the New Jerusalem? Paradise or torment? Pray and ask God that he might spare you from the torment you deserve, as a rebellious sinner, and that he might grant you the paradise you don’t deserve, by His grace. In short: believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and by believing have life in his name! (John 20:31) This truth exists in contrast to an ancient heresy known as Universalism, or the idea that all will be saved, no matter what. That simply isn’t the case. Again, go read Revelation 20 and then try to defend Universalism from it. It just doesn’t work. People can be biblical Christians, or they can be Universalists. They can’t be both.
There are other areas of eschatology I would consider negotiable. By negotiable I mean two people can be truly believing Christians and still amicably but passionately disagree about the proper view to take. Refusing to accept certain doctrines does not exile one outside orthodoxy, depending on the doctrines in question. Such doctrines that I would affirm that fall in this category would be a pretribulational rapture, a premillennial return of Christ, a millennial rule of Christ, a seven-year future tribulation, a non-historico-prophetic view of the letters to the seven churches, an identification of the angel Michael as the restrainer, and many others. On all of these eschatological issues I hold to the view I have stated, but there are a variety of views that are at least
This does not mean that strong convictions about a particular view should not or cannot be held. I am hard pressed to imagine myself, at any point in the future, adopting a historico-prophetic view*** of the letters to the seven churches; however, when I learned that Dr. Walvoord taught such a view, I didn’t burn all the books of his I have on my shelf.
Confusing these two categories, the non-negotiable and the negotiable, can lead to all sorts of unnecessary pain and division in a church body, and the way you keep them separate is you let the text speak. What does it emphasize? What does it not? Mimic its enthusiasm and clarity. Fanatic zealous commitment to a particular negotiable doctrine, and confusing it with a non-negotiable one, almost inevitably leads to sinful behavior on the part of the fanatic, condemning brothers who ought not be condemned. We must temper our views based on the prominence they are given in the text, not the prominence they are given in our tradition or our sect. The three non-negotiable eschatological truths are those within the field of eschatology I think must be held to be within the bounds of orthodoxy. All other eschatological doctrines can be disagreed upon without being cast out of fellowship. How can you better go about disagreeing with your brothers and sisters? How will you preserve unity but stay firm in your beliefs? Can you study eschatology and not give into its trans-inducing effects? I pray you can, and I’m ready to argue with you about a pretribulational rapture when you do.
***(Which says that the seven letters written to seven churches in Revelation 2-3 are actually to the universal church at different periods in history. For example, the church of Ephesus represents the church as it existed in the Apostolic period, and the church of Sardis represents the Medieval Church period. Different schemes ascribe different periods to different churches, depending on the interpreter.)