Eschatology – Part 24

Eschatology – Part 24

September 1997

Dear Co-laborer,

Eschatology, Part 24


This is the final issue in a rather long series on eschatology. I am sure that many of you tired of this long ago, and are happy with this news. In this last issue I would like to summarize where we have been.

In the days of our Lord’s life on earth, no effort was made to separate His ministry from the Old Testament hope of Israel. He came proclaiming that He was the fulfillment of their expectations. In the minds of His followers, Israel and the fruit of Jesus’ ministry were one and the same. Did He not come exclusively to the Jews?[1] The followers of Christ were the true people of God. Granted, they weren’t numerous, but then the elect in the Old Testament were never but a remnant.

In Acts, the disciples saw themselves as the true Israel. Gentile converts had to come to Christ via the law. A mission to the Gentiles was not in the thinking of the early church. The time between Christ’s two advents would be short, and the inclusion of the Gentiles in fulfillment of the Old Testament, would take place when Christ returned to sit on David’s Throne.

The Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 changed all of this. Paul alone saw that the Mosaic Law was no longer in force in the church, allowing for the inclusion of Gentiles without their having to change cultures. His definitive treatment of this is Romans 9-11, especially 11:25-28.

No one in these early days of the church believed that two thousand years would lapse between the first and second coming of Christ. The New Testament Authors are consistently in agreement in anticipating His imminent return. Having expected the Lord’s return during his life, Peter closes his second epistle reflecting on the possibility that his death would precede Christ’s second coming.[2]

John’s Revelation lays out the events preceding the Lord’s return. Granted, there are a plethora of interpretations on what John saw and recorded, but let’s take a broad overview of it. Revelation 6-19 deals with a time of tribulation of seven years duration prior to Jesus’ second coming. This is followed by a thousand year reign of Christ, a discussion of two resurrections (Rev 20:1-6), followed by a loosening of Satan, Satan’s judgment, and the judgment of the Great White Throne (Rev 20:7-15).

If amillennialism is correct and the return of Christ comes after the millennium, then the disciples would have anticipated a rather lengthy period of time between the two advents. Augustine, the father of amillennialism, thought the thousand years were literal, beginning at the conversion of Constantine. But let’s assume that it isn’t understood literally, representing, rather, an indefinite period of time. Still, the disciples of Jesus would have had no legitimate reason to believe in His imminent return.

If we assume that the Apostles had just cause to believe in Christ’s imminent return, then whatever conclusions we come to regarding the interpretation of Revelation, Jesus would have to come before the tribulation and millennium to gather His saints. This, of course, is the first resurrection mentioned in Rev 20, and may coincide with I Thess 4:13-18.

The Patristics who commented on eschatology were all, in the early years of the church, premillennial. It formed the foundation of their hope in perilous days of persecution. They saw the millennium in Gentile terms, having rejected the Jew’s claim as the people of God. From the very beginning, the Patristics saw themselves as the New Israel, which was the perception of the Apostles as well – with this difference: The Apostles saw the true Israel in Jewish, not Gentile terms, and even Paul, the one who argued for the inclusion of the Gentiles into the church apart from the law, believed that the Gentiles came to the Jews, not vice versa. [3]

As persecution began to wane, the church saw opportunity to expand its influence in the Roman Empire. You can see a direct correlation between the tapering off of persecution and the ascendance of a-millennialism. By the time of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, not only was there no need for premillennialism, it proved to be an impediment to a church that saw itself in imperial terms.

If premillennialism was ridiculed for its excesses, it at least maintained a consistent hermeneutic in so far as its interpretation of Revelation is concerned. Those who would later be classified as a-millennial were even more excessive in the sense that their hermeneutic allowed for all sorts of fanciful interpretations. You see this clearly as you read men like Jerome, Eusebius, Tyconius, and Augustine.

Greek philosophy such as Gnosticism had an influence on the church. As the church began to shed its acceptance of an eschatology that was material or earthy and rooted in history, while embracing a figurative interpretation of Scripture, it began to drift towards a Hindu world-view, seeing history as cyclical rather than linear. In large measure, Augustine was responsible for correcting this drift.


Discussions on eschatology tend to be emotional and polemic. For a long time I wondered why this is so. As I studied the subject it became apparent that eschatology, in defining a biblical hope, sets the foundation for your world-view. In short, it is the difference between a temporal and an eternal world-view.

Amillennialsim and postmillennialism are more optimistic than pre-millennialism. Since they see themselves in Old Testament terms, their vision for the world is Theocratic.[4] Whether they believe that there efforts will succeed or fail, they understand their mission in temporal terms: correcting the ills of society and claiming her institutions for Christ. Anti-abortion, religious right, Colorado Amendment 2, etc., are all expressions of this.

Pre-millennialism tends to be more pessimistic. The mission of the church is defined by the New Testament in general, and the great commission in particular. Taking their clue from Jesus who said, “My Kingdom is not of this world,”[5] they see this life as the seed-time for eternity. Life has no purpose other than to prepare people for the life hereafter. We are best prepared by participating with God in what He is doing: reaching people with the gospel and helping them mature in Christ so they can repeat the process.

If you have been reading this series on eschatology, you no doubt have concluded that I am pre-millennial in my understanding of Scripture. You are correct. I of course, cannot convince you or anyone else that I am right. All I can do is present the evidence, and even here, I have not tried to exegete the biblical passages on eschatology. Rather I have sought to lay out its historical development. But I can suggest the consequences or implications of your decision on this important manner. By way of review they are:

It will influence your view of the mission of the church, as already noted above.

It will influence your view of the role of the laity. When you see the church in Old Testament terms, there is a tendency to make a laity/clergy distinction not found in the New Testament and hold in suspect an unruly laity not under the control of the institutional church.

It will influence your view of the place of the Mosaic law in the Christian life. A-millennialism says that you are obligated to obey the Old Testament law unless it is repealed in the New Testament . Pre-millennialism argues that you are not obligated to obey the Old Testament law unless it is repeated in the New Testament.

It will influence your view of the church. In the Old Testament God had a dual commitment, to the individual and to the institution of Israel. In the New Testament He has only a commitment to His elect.


Finally, let me note that pre-millennialism has never been popular in the institutional church. It is, by and large, a lay theology. It is born out of a simple, straight-forward hermeneutic that reads the Bible as one reads the newspaper. The laity generally have no vested interest in the institutional church, and therefore have no problem with the implications of chiliast eschatology.

Humans are creatures of hope. In the Old Testament, this hope was principally temporal, rooted in the promised land. In the New Testament, a biblical hope is primarily eternal, rooted in the life to come.[6] It is hard to maintain a focused hope that remains eternal rather than temporal. We all want to express our creative energies and make our environment more comfortable and attractive.

The laity can embrace a temporal hope, pouring his talent and energy into his vocation, while objectively concluding that the Bible calls upon the believer to hope in the eternal. This is a bit more difficult for the clergy, simply because there is lacking that clear distinction between the temporal and eternal in his vocation.

The work of God cannot be created, measured, or controlled; the work of man can. Ministry, therefore, cannot be created, measured, or controlled. It is hard for a man to pour his life into what he can never create, measure and control. Thus he is prone to embrace a world-view that argues that God is committed to the temporal, and that his contribution can be created, measured and controlled.

Even those trained in premillennial seminaries, such as Trinity, Dallas, Biola, and Western in Portland, become “closet amillennial” for this reason. And it is precisely for this reason the subject of eschatology takes on an emotional, polemic tone.

Consider well what the Bible says, and the pull of culture, as you formulate your eschatology. The implications are eternal.

Irrespective of your eschatology,

I am,

Your friend and co-laborer in Christ,

[1] cf., e.g., Matt 15:24.

[2] cf. II Peter 3:3-4.

[3] cf. Eph 2:11-22, esp. vv. 11-13.

[4] We remind ourselves that within each of the schools of eschatology, there are as many variations as there are adherents. My summary endeavors to capture an overview of each system, understanding that it may not accurately represent the convictions of all concerned. I simply suggest that this is how it was concieved at its conception.

[5] John 18:36.

[6] cf., e.g., John 6:27, Matt 6:19-20, II Cor 4:18.