“[E]schatology gives us the framework of history. It tells us the nature and direction of events, describes God’s judgment and victory in history, and gives us the meaning of our lives in the context of God’s plan.”1
Man operates in terms of faith, not reason. Man’s reasoning, or thought, derives from what he believes to be true. Whether called a starting point, given, basis, or presupposition, one’s faith determines how truth itself is understood.
Much of modern man’s faith lies in himself, either collectively in humanity, or a certain group, or as an autonomous individual who has the ability to determine truth. Such men will see faith and religion as evolutionary outworkings of man’s psychology; for the humanist, everything has its origin in man.
Eschatology, or the end times of history, is not a product of human psychology. Rather, one’s faith-based eschatology creates one’s psychology.
What a man believes matters. This is why preachers preach, teachers teach, and parents nurture their children. We can assume the belief behind most eschatology is the infallibility of God’s Word. But just as differing beliefs about man’s nature, human will, baptism, and the covenant have great implications for how they are practiced, so too will differing ideas about eschatology.
Eschatology, first of all, depends very much on one’s view of God and His Christ, and that view will dictate how we see our redemption, our callings, and our sanctification as well as
the end of history.
God is not bound by time; He created it. God is distinct from the creation, human history, and the constraint of time. As men, we cannot step back in time, or before it, or forward in it. But for God, all human history, in both its total scope and individual parts, is His decree. His decree was from before the foundations of the world, and He always has the beginning and end of the Creation before Him. No part of human history is past and no part is future to Him.
As creatures, in the image of God, we can only accept this truth and order our finite thinking in terms of it. Our view of God and His governance of time and eternity always determine our eschatology. Eschatology is thus “the framework of history” which “gives us the meaning of our lives in the context of God’s plan.”
Eschatological studies usually center around the timing and nature of the Millennium and the return of Christ. That is a very Christian perspective; before the birth of Christ, eschatology was concerned with His first coming.
Eschatology is about not just the end time, but about all end times. Noah’s family certainly would have viewed the flood as an eschatological event. Babel, the exodus from Egypt, the end of the monarchy, the Ascension, and the opening of the covenant to Gentiles, were all great eschatological events.
So too have been many events since. Two decades ago many churchmen viewed communism as the great threat to Christianity. Why then, after its fall, do they not see that event as a great end point in history? Eschatology is about all the end points of history, all the changes and judgments that mark God’s direction of its course. The Christian church’s interest in the Millennium and Second Coming is merely about the next great eschatological event.
Premillennialism is the belief that Christ will physically return before the Millennium and rule over an earthly Kingdom. Most premillennialism is dispensational — that is, it divides history into seven (more or less, depending on the variation) dispensations. In each of these dispensations God is said to deal differently with men. We are now, since Pentecost, said to be in the sixth (at least according to C. I. Scofield, whose study Bible margin notes long popularized the doctrine), that of grace.2 Most of Scripture is held to pertain to either the first five dispensations or the last, the Kingdom or Millennium.
Most of Scripture, though held to be inspired, is considered not binding. Virtually all dispensationalists reject the applicability of Old Testament laws; some reject even the Ten Commandments as belonging to a previous dispensation. Some also reject the Lord’s Prayer and the gospels themselves for their references to “the Kingdom” which, they believe, is future. Although its extreme form has, in recent years, declined in popularity (revived somewhat by the Left Behind series), most evangelicals and even many ostensibly Reformed churches are committed to at least a truncated dispensationalism, with law as the old dispensation and grace as the new.
Dispensationalism posits a changing God. It must reject God’s law, based upon the assumption (another word for faith) that each dispensation represents a different divine plan. The assumption that law and grace are opposed is the product of dispensationalism’s sway over modern theology. It is thus not only future eschatology that directs our thinking: our view of past eschatological events controls how we think, act, and view the church and its message today.
Most Premillennialism teaches that the church will be taken away, or raptured, before the Millennium. It sees the “church age” as one of progressive defeat at the hands of the increasingly powerful forces of Satan. It believes Satan is winning and it thinks and acts accordingly. A few years ago it was common to hear dispensational premillennialists declare, “Isn’t it wonderful how bad things are? It means Jesus is coming soon.”
The Millennium, in this view, will be a new dispensation under a new way of divine government of Christ’s immediate authority. The Kingdom itself is only partly the reign of Christ: it is, to a large extent, a revived Jewish Kingdom with the modern state of Israel at the forefront. Some of the most adamant Western supporters of the early Zionist movement, the creation of Israel after WWII, and its ongoing supporters have been, for obvious reasons, premillennial dispensationalists. Israel was and is seen as a harbinger of the imminent change from one dispensation to the next. The dispensational faith produced Christian thought and action which helped shape the Middle East and international politics in our times.
The Rapture represents a personal victory for believers, but not a social victory. It represents no advance of the gospel or faithfulness. The premillennial church has therefore been focused on soul saving, not sanctification of believers to serve God. It has been a faith in defeat and the blessing of rescue from that defeat by means of the Rapture — an instantaneous evacuation from the battlefield.
Amillennialism sees no millennium in history, and the hope of victory as largely a reference to heaven. It sees a parallel development of good and evil, of God’s Kingdom and of Satan’s. That of Satan will progressively predominate until the coming of Christ at the end of the world.
Amillennialists see Christ’s victory in heaven, but not in history. Their eschatological belief is in the certainty of defeat. Some have, traditionally, been opposed to much Christian action as a diversion from the spiritual work of the church, though in recent years there has been a strong movement among amillennialists to see the church’s work in much broader terms. Not as ready to dismiss the law as are dispensational premillennialists, they have often reduced it to a spiritual law of personal piety; but this view, too, has in recent years been broadened.
In recent years, those amillennialists who have been influenced but not entirely persuaded by postmillennialism have jokingly referred to themselves as “optimistic amillennialists.” This tongue-in-cheek oxymoron betrays the inconsistency of much of the older amillennial thinking with the obligation to Christian action many now feel compelled to undertake.
To both premillennialists and amillennialists, God’s decree is the historical defeat of the church. They see the creation mandate as doomed by sin (though amillennialists do not generally deny its applicability). Their faith relegates their thoughts and actions to the saving of souls before the end. Christian Reconstruction, even if deemed a godly pursuit, is seen as certain to fail.
The dispensational premillennialist is antinomian, with a frequent contempt for God’s law as inferior to grace. He falsely believes that law was once, in another dispensation, the way of salvation, but now he opposes God’s law because he believes man is saved by grace in the present dispensation. The amillennialist does not reject the law as much as he sees it a matter of personal piety alone.
Both premillennialism and amillennialism tend to surrender the world to Satan. The church is seen as moving toward defeat while snatching souls from the fire as it is able. Both positions see the future as blocked to the success of the Christian faith. Premillennialism sees victory only in the earthly reign of Christ, which is to take place in the next dispensation after the end of the church age of grace. Amillennialism sees victory only in eternity. Neither have a strong eschatological reason for Christian action.
Postmillennialism sees Christ as Lord progressively triumphing through His people, accomplishing in time and history all the prophesies of a world submitted to God, in which His power and reign are acknowledged, and which will see a great material and spiritual reign of peace and righteousness. It sees the second coming of Christ and the end of the world as coinciding after that long millennial reign.
Postmillennialism holds that Scripture is a consistent whole which presents one way of salvation and one eternal law-word of God. It sees the Christian message going beyond soteriology, the doctrine of salvation (which is the beginning of the Christian life, not its end-point), to every area of life and thought. Postmillennialism emphasizes dominion in terms of the creation mandate and the Lordship of Christ, who now rules as our head and Lord of Lords, to Whom every knee shall bow and every tongue confess.
Postmillennialism sees salvation as a personal victory that foreshadows the cosmic, historical victory that shall be universally acknowledged at the Second Coming and Final Judgment. It sees man’s role as one of faithfulness to God and His law, and the Christian life that of a soldier–servant in the Kingdom of God. Its theme is not that men will bring in the Kingdom, but that men must be found faithful in the service of the King and His Kingdom that shall know no end.
What we believe about eschatology is what we believe about all of history and the meaning and context of our lives as the people of God. Confusion about eschatology is understandable, apathy is not. What you believe about eschatology matters.
1. Rousas John Rushdoony, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1994), 789.
2. C. I. Scofield has a strong claim as the most influential churchmen of the 20th century. He marginalized both his notes and most of the Word of God as of historical value only.