At the heart of the Christian faith is the truth that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and that Christ will come again. While Christians are united in their belief that Jesus will return, there are different understandings concerning the events surrounding his return – including its nature and its timing. Over the next few weeks, as Faith Church studies 1 Thessalonians (a book in which every chapter makes reference to Christ’s return and shows how this reality impacts our lives now), I wanted to discuss various teachings and topics related to the return of Christ and what is known as “eschatology” (the study of the last things). We will kick this series off by giving an overview of the ways biblical scholars have brought together the teachings of various passages about the return of Jesus and the end of time.
Various Thoughts on the Millennium (not Millennials!)
One of the most common ways to explain different views Christians have about the end times and the return of Jesus is to examine the various understandings related to what is called the “Millennium” – the 1,000 year reign of Jesus discussed in Revelation 20:1-10. In using this language as a starting point, the hope is not to make it appear as if this is the only major passage on the topic or even that this encapsulates all that we need to know about Jesus’s return. Rather, it can be a useful teaching tool to help frame the issues that people have discussed while also hopefully driving us back to exploring particular passages to make sure we are reading them correctly (rather than having them fit into any preconceived notion or system that has been developed). There are a number of books available that discuss (in much more depth than this blog post can) the three or four views on this topic., If you want to read about them in more depth you could look at either of those volumes linked above or this one by Stanley Grenz. I will seek to briefly explain the three major views.
- Premillennialism. This view indicates that Christ will return before the millennium and usher in this period of a kingdom on earth. This is called premillennialism as Jesus will come first, before the millennium. After this 1,000 year period of peace, Satan is released again and sparks up a final rebellion (see Revelation 20:7-10), with the defeat after this period then leading to final judgment and the new heavens and the new earth. Some that hold to this view also believe that Jesus will return to bring the church to himself (called the rapture) before, during, or after a period known as the tribulation that will come before the return of Christ to bring about the millennial kingdom. There are thus two subgroups within this view (which are sometimes labeled dispensational premillennialism and historic premillennialism – we don’t have space to explain why those labels have been used, but it should be noted that dispensational premillennialism is the view that teaches about a rapture, while this might not always be the case in the historic premillennial view).
- Postmillennialism. A second understanding sees the return of Christ happening after this millennium of peace. Since the millennium comes first and then Jesus will return, it is called postmillennialism (post being “after”). In effect, this view sees the kingdom of God as being established through the influence of the church here on earth ahead of Jesus’s return, at which point he will raise the dead to bring final judgment and create the new heavens and earth; this “millennial” age may or may not be exactly 1,000 years (as that might be a symbol for a long period of time). This view draws upon passages speak about God’s kingdom growing in impact (see Matthew 13:31-33) and was popular among American Christians during the founding of America and up to the first World War, but is less common these days as the spirituality of the world seems to be in decline and violence and destruction have been increasing.
- Amillennialism. The final viewpoint is one whose name can be a bit misleading, with the “a” prefix literally making it say “no-millennium.” At first, it may seem like this view should not be considered by those who take the Bible seriously, as there is a millennium reign described in Revelation 20! However, when we examine this view, we find that it does not say there is no millennium as much as there is no future 1,000 year rule because this is something that was started when Jesus came to earth, since Satan has been bound (limited in what he can do), and Christ rules from heaven right now. At the end, Satan will be released for a time and then Christ will return and Satan will be not just bound, but fully defeated; at this point, Christ will raise the dead for judgment and usher in the eternal age. In effect, instead of viewing Revelation 19-20 as a sequence in which Christ comes back and defeats his enemies that have gathered together to oppose God in Revelation 19 and then establishes a 1,000 year period of reign (with Satan released at the end to cause more trouble as discussed in Revelation 20:7-10), this viewpoint sees cycles throughout the Book of Revelation, with Revelation 20 more akin to an instant reply of what was discussed in Revelation 19 from a different angle. While the label amillennialism appears to have been developed as a term to dismiss this view, it seems to have stuck and is more common than other terms preferred by those who advocate for this view such as “realized millennialism.”
Why Are There Differences?
A natural question to ask is why Christians have these different viewpoints. I think it is important to remember these are all ways of understanding the future — things that have not happened yet and thus cannot be checked against the events themselves. We also need to remember that there are a variety of passages that teach about Jesus’s return, and these are attempts to try to put them all together. In many ways, these different views have formulated various hypotheses based on how they best understand the data that will only really be tested and confirmed when Christ returns. Therefore, it seems appropriate to have some humility when it comes to these conversations, especially when we remember how few people in Jesus’s time correctly understood the nature and events of his first coming.
Agreements Within the Differences
The differences in the details about Jesus’s return should not obscure the main point…Jesus will return and will put an end to all the evil in this world. These differences also should not cause us to overlook some key places of agreement. While the premillennial and amillennial viewpoints (the two most common ones) have different timelines of how things will unfold, one thing that they both highlight (because you see it in a number of passages) is that there will be struggles with wickedness and sinfulness increasing in the time before Jesus returns. Secondly, both views point back to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 24:14 where one of the things that must happen before the end (Jesus’s return) is that the gospel must be preached in all nations. This does not mean that each person will hear the message of Jesus per se (though that is our hope and what we should strive for), but that every group of people (nation) will have a gospel witness in it. In the midst of the gospel going forth to all nations and this spread of evil, one will see people turning in faith, including an influx of Jewish people. Finally, we need to be ready for his coming. While people often look at various events as signs that the end is near, Jesus reminds us that things like false prophets, wars, famines, and earthquakes will occur throughout the time between his first coming and his return (Matthew 24:4-11; Mark 13:3-8; Luke 21:7-8). Those do not give us a signal to be ready at any moment as much as his teaching that he will come like a thief in the night and when people may not naturally be ready. Our readiness is not based on headlines, but upon Jesus’s promise that he will return soon.
These points of agreement are important because they remind us that teaching about Jesus’s return is not meant as knowledge to allow us to win Bible trivia games or be able to say “I told you so” when it happens. It is meant to shape our lives and spark action now, living as his people in this world. We should not be surprised or alarmed when we see evil increasing in our world, because Jesus said this will happen and that he will put an end to it. We are called to keep ourselves pure and holy in this world and to keep moving the gospel message forward as we look to Jesus’s return. Whenever Jesus or the apostles taught about his second coming, it was to spark hope and holiness — to know that God has a plan to make all things right and also to drive us to holiness. Whatever viewpoint you hold, may we become people of hope and holiness. As we look at various key passages in the coming weeks, may we not forget to look for how they spark hope and holiness as they give us insights into Jesus’s return.
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