Eschatology is not an issue I have sought to do much thinking and study on in my lifetime. Admittedly, I tend not to have much patience for theoreticals, which is to me what eschatology tends to be full of. Furthermore, the realm of eschatology has been so inundated with wide-eyed crackpot speculations in our time, and it really seems that the predominant category of people interested and invested in studying eschatology anymore is filled with people who end up displaying cult-like behavior; or, at the very least, tend to be a little too high strung. And no one wants to be that guy.
As a result, I’m not very hip to the eschatology terms. I have a very general understanding of what it means to be an amillennialist (like I consider myself), premillenialist, and postmillenialist, but once you start talking dispensational, preterist, futurist, and et cetera and so on, I’m just kind of sitting here playing with my lip.
On the other hand, this is an important issue, and one that does end up impacting my pet subject, apologetics, in different ways. For this reason, I have spent a fair amount of time in the past year thinking about how to think about eschatology in preparation for maybe tackling the subject a bit more wholeheartedly in the future (and I’ll probably start with Kim Riddlebarger’s stuff – from what I’ve heard from him he seems to be in the same general place as me). For this post, I wanted to go ahead and address 3 things that I tend to hear a lot in the amillenialist circles in which I run when this subject comes up, and which I have come to disagree with during my thinking – kind of as a way to dip my foot in the river really. Constructive criticisms are of course welcome.
1) “I don’t see the point in thinking or talking about eschatology; doesn’t it just stir up fear and distract from Christ?”
This is the kind of statement I have a lot of sympathy for. In the first place, I’ve already pointed out above that a lot of eschatological discussions in our time tend to happen with wide eyed men who you are fairly convinced own a subterranean bunker stocked with mostly expresso and are clearly more interested and predicting and surviving the apocalypse than finding comfort in Christ. At least in my limited experience.
However, I absolutely reject the idea that talk of and study of eschatology must necessarily devolve into head-for-the-hills panic and to forgetting Christ’s place as ruler of all things. For one thing, why did God see fit to inspire such prophesies in the first place if by looking into them we automatically drift from our proper roots?
But to me it comes down to this: how are we to approach prophetic texts which are not full of warm fuzzies? I propose we let Jesus teach us.
In Luke chapter 21 we have Christ instructing about bad things to come. He talks about the destruction of the temple, and of Jerusalem, and many would also see connections to the end of this world as well. He says,
There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
Truly terrifying stuff is being predicted here. Yet after all of this we have what should be read as words of comfort.
And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
I think all study of eschatology needs to focus on this, first and foremost, and over and over throughout. The truth is that, whatever the days to come might look like, we are promised that even the most terrifying happenings are to us a sign that our redemption is near at hand. What that does is dispel fear by the very fact that it points us to the Son of Man who is our redemption.
2) “Most of what we think of as end-time prophesies were fulfilled almost immediately after they were written.”*
I’ve heard this one a lot, often followed by, “and the only prophesy left to be fulfilled is for Jesus to come back and the resurrection to commence.” As indicated by the fact that I’ve put it in this list, I think it is overly simplistic, at best, and downright misleading at worst.
One example of this is those who say that the Beast of Revelation fame is Nero, the 1st century Roman Caesar. This is because the name of Nero Caesar (in Greek) transliterated into Hebrew has the numeric value 666 (or 616 for the Latin name transliterated, which some manuscripts reflect). Fair enough, I agree. But upon these grounds an eschatological fulfillment of the beast is said by some to be ruled out. It refers singularly to Nero, it will be said, and cannot be applied to any other – final days – entity.
My problem with this idea stems from being someone who has done a lot of reading on Jewish apologetics, along with some limited discussion with Jewish folk. What I find is that to adopt this method of reading and interpreting Biblical prophesy virtually undercuts my ability to use Old Testament prophetic texts which point to Christ; and not only mine but the New Testament writers’ use as well. Let’s make Isaiah 7:14b the example.
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Matthew in ch. 1 vv. 22-23 tells us that the birth of Jesus was in fulfillment of this prophesy. However, if you try to raise this text with a Jew who denies that Jesus is the Christ the answer you will get is that, no, it couldn’t be so, because the fulfillment of the prophesy actually takes place in the very next chapter of Isaiah, where in the 3rd verse we read:
And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son.
Like it or not, I think we forfeit an important argument against this (and other such texts the Jews say were fulfilled much before Christ) if we read Biblical prophesy with a short-term one-and-done type of paradigm.** Rather, what we have to get our Jewish friend to recognize is that Biblical prophesies are often given with a short-term “incomplete” fulfillment, which serves as a “type” of the greater fulfillment which is to come.
And this is something the Jewish people have recognized at least as far back as the Exodus, when Moses had prophesied of a prophet like him to come who would lead the people (Deut 18:15-18). They recognized that this was not merely fulfilled in Joshua, who assumed command after Moses. Nor indeed merely in the prophets to come later – even Elijah or Elisha. Certainly they were all types and shadows, fulfilling in part but pointing forward to a still greater and final fulfillment to come, which many Jews even today would claim for the Messiah.
Therefore, I think we need to be cautious in limiting a text to a short-term fulfillment and utterly voiding the possibility of an eschatological fulfillment. That’s not to say that we can’t ever look at a prophetic text and say that it is as fulfilled as fulfilled can be – I think we certainly could in the case of Isaiah 53, among many others. But it is to say that there needs to be an awareness of the existence of types and shadows in these matters, and ruling out an eschatological fulfillment on the grounds that X, Y, or Z happened in the short-term does not necessarily always follow, since (again) it may be that the short-term fulfillment was simply a prefiguring of a later, greater fulfillment.
3) “Don’t read the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other when it comes to prophesy.”
I can actually completely agree, or strongly disagree with this statement, depending upon the direction it is aimed.
If, for instance, the point is that we should not become like William Tapley, trying to read waayyyyy too far between the lines and losing the forest for the Ents, then I agree wholeheartedly and in an unqualified manner.
If, on the other hand, the idea is that there is no point upon which Biblical prophesy can instruct us as to the signs of the times we are currently in, then I think Jesus’ words to the Pharisees and Sadducees when they demanded signs of him serve as an appropriate response.
He answered them,
“When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”
– Matthew 16:2-3
Here’s the thing: if we grant my premises as expounded above – namely that there are quite possibly prophetic texts yet to be fulfilled in an ultimate sense – then it follows that when the time comes for their fulfillment the signs will be public. Might even make the nightly news, so to speak.
But again, this is not to encourage massive speculation and paranoid news checking (see point 1 above). There have been certain members of every generation since Christ to think that they live in the last days. And of course, in one sense they were all correct (Hebrews 1:1-2), but so far none have been correct who have speculated on the imminent return of Christ in their lifetimes. Maybe the current generation’s speculators will be, but just as likely not.
At any rate, my point here is that I think it’s a mistake to rule out prophetic eschatological fulfillments showing up in the paper and being recognized as such (if such they truly are) by Christians. However it must be stressed that Biblical prophesy tends to be most clear in the rearview mirror, and chicken-littleism is definitely to be discouraged.
Anyway, that’s my foray into the world of eschatology for now. Overall I think I’ll stick with apologetics, but I hope my preliminary thoughts on eschatology are either worth something when it comes to my personal building a foundation for later study, or else quickly corrected by someone with more learning so I don’t get further afield than I need to if they aren’t.
*Admittedly, not all amillenialists say this (though Hank Hanegraaff does, and as he claims to be an amillenialist I think a lot of people just follow him here), and to my knowledge it is more strongly pushed by preterists and so-called partial-preterists (which is about all I know regarding preterism).
**Granted that in the case of this text we are still left with the argument that the Hebrew “almah” should be understood to mean a virgin, and therefore cannot be referring in principle to Isaiah’s wife. Unfortunately, many Jews today prefer to emphasize the fact that “almah” has as its primary reference a young woman of marriageable age and does not necessarily connote virginity, and upon these grounds assert that the prophesy was fulfilled in Isaiah’s son. It may be rightly pointed out of course that the Septuagint translator(s) of Isaiah thought “virgin” the proper understanding and translated it in the same way as Matthew (parthenos), hundreds of years before Christ, but many Jews today disavow this interpretation to avoid the obvious implications. That all said, it seems to me that the original Hebrew text leaves room enough for both interpretations: a partial, “near”, fulfillment in Isaiah 8, and a complete, “ultimate”, fulfillment in the advent of Christ.