The End Again
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal
With the ending of every old year, and as each new year opens, we have an new opportunity to begin again. That is one of the most wonderful things about New Years’ celebrations: if we want, we can begin again. We can strike out on new paths, with bright expectations and great hopes for tomorrow. We can set aside the “should have done” and “wish I’d done” recriminations, and can set out afresh. To use a bit of Biblical terminology, this is a time of “Jubilee.” In Leviticus 25 we find that, for the Hebrew people, each fiftieth year was to be celebrated as a jubilee year, when every household would recover its absent members, all lands would be returned to their original owners, all slaves would be set free, and all debts remitted. In other words, in the year of Jubilee the people were set free from slavery to their past and given a new lease on the future. We, too, can experience a sense of this Jubilee each and every new year by resolving to “begin again.”
But beginning again can be difficult. The future can sometimes be rather frightening. We lack God’s omniscience – God’s ability to know everything – hence, we cannot say for sure what’s going to happen next. We have wars and rumors of wars to worry about. We have rocky economies and uncertain personal and family relationships with which to deal. Indeed, the future can be a frightening place in which to dwell … and especially when fears about “End-Times” continue to abound.
I had hoped that, when the year 2000 moved into our rear-view mirrors and began to recede into the dim misty recesses of the past, that the current “End-Times” hysteria would begin to subside. Just as happened in the year 1001, when the first thousand years of the Church came to a close and Jesus didn’t return, so also I was in hopes that people would start to settle down and rediscover some of the long-established, time-tested methods of understanding the Book of Revelation. This hasn’t happened. Rather, I fear that far too many Christians would rather get their understanding of the End of Time from the best-selling fictional series, Left Behind, then they would from a serious study of the Bible and the history of its interpretation.
Most do not realize that many of the End-Times theories, about which we hear so much these days, are actually a recent invention in the history of the Church, and that many aspects of this way of reading and interpreting the Book of Revelation date from the mid-1800s. Indeed, in the year 1832 John Nelson Darby, an ex-Anglican priest and co-founder of the Plymouth Brethren Church, created the interpretive approach known as Pre-tribulation Dispensational Pre-millennialism – the End-Times theory which is popular today. It is otherwise known as Darbyism, which is the term I use (since it is easier to say that than the other mouthful, above).
During the first couple of centuries of the church most Christians had a fairly imminent expectation for the return of Jesus. The Apostles (Paul, for instance) believed that Christ was returning “next Tuesday” – i.e. real soon – but in fact the early Christians never made any attempts to offer a precise date for his return. According to Paul (in 1 Corinthians 15:51-55) Jesus’ return would include the resurrection of the dead-in-Christ and the transformation of all those Christians who were still-living. Others (John, following the thinking of many Jews in his day) believed that there would then be a thousand years (The Millennium) of peace under the reign of the Messiah, following which Satan would be loosed for a final battle. After being defeated by God, Satan would be cast out forever and there would be a new heaven and a new earth. This was the dominant Christian view during the first three centuries of the Church, but by the beginning of 4th Century so much time had passed since the death and resurrection of Jesus that most Christians were rejecting these End-Time ideas in favor of other approaches. Indeed, by the time Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire the whole concept had been declared a heresy.
John Nelson Darby took the early church’s understanding of the pre-millennial return of Jesus and extensively modified it with many non-Biblical and semi-Biblical ideas: chief among his additions was the concept of a pre-millennial (rather than post-millennial) seven-year period of "tribulation." Contrary to popular opinion, such a scheme had never-before been proposed in connection with the Book of Revelation – a 3 and half year period does show up (Revelation 11:3), but no fully-articulated temporal scheme that involves seven years for a period of "Great Tribulation" is to be found in the last book of the Bible. Rather, it stems from an incorrect reading and artificial application of the Book of Daniel to the Book of Revelation. Additionally, Darby altered the biblical understanding of the resurrection of the “dead-in-Christ” and the transformation of living Christians at the time of the Second Coming: essentially, he separated these events, focusing upon the “rapture” of all living believers to the effective exclusion of the resurrection of dead Christians.
Some premillenialists disagree with the concept of a pre-tribulation rapture, favoring instead either a post-tribulation or mid-tribulation one. These people are a minority among futurists, however, and are certainly not reflective of the popular thinking, today.
“But, Dr. Neal, what do you believe about the rapture, the tribulation, and the end-times?” This is a question which I am asked rather frequently these days, and it is one that is not easy to answer. Unpopular viewpoints are not usually well received, and that is the case here. I know that people want answers, and I’m not sure I have the answer that they want … not about the “end-times,” at least. However, allow me to offer a few observations.
- Firstly, I believe that those who focus extensively upon these questions are actually doing so at the expense of reaching unbelievers with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To use some modern jargon, I prefer to keep the “main thing” of the Gospel the “main thing” of my message. The core of the Christian message – Salvation by Grace through Faith in Jesus Christ and all which this message entails – should, I believe, be our focus as the church. There is a place for talking about the future and for considering the second coming, but endless End-Times speculation, theories about pre/mid/post tribulation raptures, and ceaseless prognostications about the identity of “the Antichrist” and the "false prophet" do very little to “make disciples of Jesus Christ.”
- Secondly, I have met a lot of people – many over the Internet – who find such speculation frightening, uncomfortable, and a repellent to hearing and receiving the Gospel. Some Christians believe that non-believers can be effectively “sacred” into the Kingdom of God through fire-and-brimstone messages, but I don’t agree. Oh, there is certainly a place for “fire-and-brimstone," but Salvation is by Grace through Faith, not through being terrified into Jesus' arms. The kind of “faith” that is produced through making people afraid of God and the future is not the kind of faith that withstands the valleys of a long Christian life of many tribulations, nor is it the kind of faith which can comprehend the joy of the mountain-top experiences. The end-times message, as communicated through the currently popular theory, causes many people to be afraid of the future … afraid of “missing the rapture” or being suckered into taking the “mark of the beast.” Such fear is, in my opinion, useless; it does nothing to further the gospel, engender faith, or empower Christian action.
- Thirdly, and most importantly, while I won't say that the current end-times theories are altogether wrong, I don't believe that they are the best way to interpret the Book of Revelation. Darbyism ignores, or discounts, far too much of the historical and cultural setting of the author and the original audience of the book. Rather than dealing with the book's vast array of metaphorical, allegorical, typological, theological, and symbolic language, Darbyism tends to over-simplify and over-literalize to the point of absurdity. It draws content from all over the Bible, often without justification, freely adding material to Revelation's account in ways that violate sound exegetical methodologies. In doing all of this, Darbyism tends to rob us of the wonderful, exciting, life-transforming message of hope which can be discerned when we allow the biblical Book of Revelation to speak to us as the author intended.
"But what do you believe?" After many years of examining both the Book of Revelation and the history of its interpretation, I've come to the conclusion that no one method of approach is entirely or exclusively correct. I've held to and accepted, at one time or another, most of the various approaches: Preterism, Historicism, Amillennialism, Futurism, Pre-millennialism, Post-millennialism, and a few variations on several of the above positions -- yes, I've even believed in Pre-tribulation Dispensational Pre-Millennialism! As of today, however, I tend to accept an eclectic composite of several of the above approaches.
I am an Historicist in that I believe that much of the Book of Revelation prior to chapter 13 has been fulfilled, at least in part, throughout the course of the Church's history. This doesn't mean that I deny that these chapters might be fulfilled again — I happen to believe in the pre-critical principle of: "multiple fulfillment of prophecy," where any given Biblical prophecy may have several accomplishments and applications through out the past, present, and future. I just believe that we have strong historic indicators that some of the Book of Revelation is fulfilled prophecy.
I am also a Futurist in that I believe that a great deal of what follows Revelation 12 references our future, although some portions have been, at least partially, fulfilled in the past. On anything to do with the future, I reserve my opinion and refuse to prognosticate other than to assert that, in the end, God always wins.
I am, at times and in a sense, a partial-Preterist in that I believe that John expected the events and visions he received to be fulfilled in his immediate future; he believed that the beast— the Antichrist -- would be the Roman Emperor, the False Prophet would be the Imperial cult, and that the "Great Tribulation" (such as it may be found in the Book of Revelation) was the period of persecution which was breaking upon the Church during the reign of the Emperor Domitian.
I am an Amillenialist in that I believe that the Church catholic (the Universal Body of Christ made up of all believers, everywhere, not just one denomination or congregation) is the present-day foretaste and actual manifestation of the fully-formed coming Kingdom of God. I believe that we are, in a sense, living in the millennium even today, while also realizing that the millennial Kingdom of God is also yet to come to fruition.
I am also, at the very same time, a Pre-millennialist in as much as I believe that, at some point in the (probably very distant) future, Jesus will return to establish the full manifestation of His Kingdom and to bodily reign in it, as he reigns in it today in the Church.
Needless to say, I believe that it is possible for one to hold multiple interpretive stances on eschatological (i.e. "end-times") issues. I also believe that all Christians should feel free to read and study the scriptures and come to their own conclusions without fear of being judged a heretic or, somehow, less than a "true believer" by others who may hold a different point-of-view. Indeed, the only essential question I ask is "what think ye of Christ?" Matters of "end-times" speculation are interesting, and even fun, to consider, but they should never be thought of as critical to one's salvation. With this in mind, we should move forward from day to new day, and from year to new year, with hope and excitement and with our gaze fixed, firmly, upon Christ. We have a bright and exciting future in front of us, and we have the Grace of God around us; if we are willing to step out in faith, we cannot fail when we walk with Christ. Yes, Jesus is going to return, and yes we await the coming Kingdom of God, but it is also true that we are with Jesus, today, and that we live in the Kingdom of God -- the Church -- today. We should give thanks to God that Jesus sees us through every tribulation that we face in this life, and on into the next.
© 2004, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.