Eschatology is the study of last things, the final events in history, the ultimate destiny of humanity, the end of the world. Major issues in eschatology include the rapture, the second coming of Jesus, the tribulation, Millennialism, and the last judgment.
Most of the Christian books I have read do not seriously concern themselves with eschatology, but the Left Behind series of books made it a popular topic. All twelve novels in the series made the New York Times bestselling fiction list – note: the fiction list. Prior to the Left Behind novels of the 1990s, Hal Lindsey’s 1970s bestselling books, including The Late Great Planet Earth, were also bestsellers.
The majority of Christians have probably never heard of the rapture. That is likely because the word does not appear in the Bible. It wasn’t until the 1800s that a British evangelist named John Nelson Darby interpreted 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 as evidence of what he called the “rapture.” According to these verses, the resurrection of the righteous and the believers who are alive when Jesus’ second coming occurs will be gathered together to meet and live with the Lord always. Remember, no Christian interpreter had ever seen the rapture in this text until Darby, therefore the rapture is a rather modern invention.
According to some experts, the following scripture passages are also about the rapture:
• “And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:31).
• “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:51-53).
The rapture supposedly launches a seven year period prior to Jesus’ second coming. All true believers will be taken up to heaven to be spared the “tribulation” – a period of suffering, wars, and devastation. Those who are “left behind” still have the opportunity to repent and commit to Jesus. Many of those who repent will battle the military forces of the Antichrist. At the monumental battle of Armageddon, Jesus will return to defeat the Antichrist. After the battle, the final judgment begins with most people being condemned to eternal suffering in hell.
Belief in the rapture, for me, seriously distorts Christianity. If people believe in an imminent rapture and return of Jesus, their focus is on getting ready. If they truly believe that everything might end tomorrow (or soon), there would not be any reason to improve this world. Why worry about political and economic matters? Why worry about the earth or its environment? If wars and rumors of wars are inevitable, why worry about peace on earth? Violence is a key ingredient of rapture theology – the violent battles between Jesus’ followers and the forces of the Antichrist, but also divine violence as Jesus intervenes, defeats the Antichrist and his military arsenal, sends people to hell, and ultimately destroys the world. Rapture theology is very self-centered: each individual must make certain that they are saved and ready to be taken to heaven to escape the tribulation.
Jesus’ Second Coming
The second coming of Jesus is an event that has been predicted since almost immediately after the crucifixion. It was supposed to occur within a generation, and when it did not, the early Christian communities were thrown into turmoil.
The following are some of the New Testament verses about “the second coming”:
• “And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’” (Mark 9:1)
• “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28 )
• “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.” (Matthew 24:6-7)
• “And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)
• “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (Matthew 24:30)
• “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matthew 24:36)
• “You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (Matthew 24:44)
• “Keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” (Matthew 25:13)
• “But truly I tell you; there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.’” (Luke 9:27)
• “I tell you the truth; this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Luke 21:32)
• “Now when he had spoken these things, while they watched, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw him go into heaven.’” (Acts 1:9-11)
Even though Jesus said nobody would know when he would return, numerous people over time have predicted the time of the second coming, but no one has been correct. Nostradamus predicted that “a great King of Terror” would come “from the sky” in 1999. Some people interpreted this as the second coming of Jesus. In 1757, Emanuel Swendeborg claimed that Jesus would return as a spirit, not in the flesh. The Seventh-Day Adventist Church continually anticipates the second coming, but does not set a specific date for it. The first president of what became the Watchtower Society of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Charles T. Russell, calculated 1874 as the year of Christ’s second coming and claimed that Jesus invisibly arrived on the date he predicted. Although they do not use the term, the second coming is an important doctrine of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They believe that Christ’s visible return will be at Armageddon. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons or The Church of Latter Day Saints, prophesied in 1835 that the coming of the Lord was “nigh – even fifty-six years should wind up the scene.” Famous televangelist, Jerry Falwell predicted in 1999 that the second coming would be within 10 years. One of the latest predictions came from Family Life Radio which purchased billboards that proclaimed that the Bible guaranteed judgment day would be May 21, 2011.
Most Christians believe, or think they are supposed to believe, that Jesus will come again. His second coming is affirmed in the Nicene Creed, one of the most commonly recited creeds in worship: “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead; and his kingdom will have no end.” Some Protestant liturgies also proclaim: “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.”
If Jesus returns, will it be an event that will be seen and experienced by everyone who is currently alive? Will it be the type of event that could be video-taped or covered by news networks? Will he come to a particular place? Perhaps Jerusalem? Or, as the Mormons believe to the New Jerusalem that will be built on the American continent? Or will he appear everywhere at the same time?
In the June 2013 issue of Political Science Quarterly, David C. Barker of the University of Pittsburgh and David H. Bearce of the University of Colorado, wrote that the belief in Christ returning and the end of time occurring soon is a motivating factor in resistance to curbing climate change. Such thinking by the “Second Coming” contingent is very disturbing! People in the Middle Ages were convinced that their time was the last before the end of the world. That type of thinking caused the people to not attempt any improvements or even in some cases, like dumping garbage in the streets, to be the least bit concerned about the future – the next day, week, month or year.
In my opinion, we should not spend too much time worrying about the second coming. I can’t predict when or where or if such a thing will happen. No one can! Wouldn’t it be better to build a little heaven on earth while we are here than worry about the second coming or the end of the world?
The tribulation refers to tumultuous events that will supposedly occur during the last days – a period of suffering, wars, and devastation.
Chapter 24 of Matthew is an eschatological discourse in which Jesus taught about “the end of the age” (not necessarily “the end of days” or “end of the world”). First, Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple, which occurred approximately forty years after his death. He also warned the disciples not to be fooled by many who will come claiming to be the Messiah (in Mary Magdalene, Lynn Picknett said there was an epidemic of Messiahs; one year alone saw over 400 messianic pretenders crucified in Jerusalem). Next he told them some signs to look for that signal the end of the age. He said that wars and rumors of wars are simply routine history. Famines and earthquakes that will occur are nothing compared to what will occur. He warned them that they would be persecuted (tortured, killed, and hated). Many of Jesus’ followers would revert to sinning and would end up hating each other because false prophets would lead them astray. However, if they stay true, they will be saved in the end. The good news of the kingdom will be preached all over the world, and then the end will come. That prediction could be any of many years or decades that have already happened or could still be in the future. He also warned the disciples that they should flee when they see the “desolating sacrilege” (The Message translates this as “monster of desecration”) set up in the temple sanctuary. The prophet Daniel described this desolation (an example of more of Matthew’s quoting Hebrew scriptures to prove his point). There will be trouble like the world has never seen, but because of God’s chosen people, the trouble will be cut short. Further, Jesus said the arrival of the Son of Man was not something a person can go to see. Next Matthew quoted Hebrew scripture again: “Immediately after the persecution of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will turn black, and the stars will seem to fall from the heavens, and the powers overshadowing the earth will be convulsed.” At last, the signal of his coming will appear in the heavens and everyone on earth will mourn. The Son of Man, will come “on the clouds of heaven” and will send his angels who will blow “a loud trumpet call” to gather “his elect” (or “chosen ones”) from the farthest ends of the earth and heaven (the living and the dead). In my opinion, Matthew 24:26-31 contains far too many paraphrases of Hebrew scripture texts. Read more about “God’s elect” in Mark 13:22.
Jesus promised that the present generation would not die before all these things happened. Only God knows the date and hour when the end will occur. Jesus does not equate himself with God; only God knows. No one except Noah knew the flood was coming, so everyone else was swept away (that is a literal interpretation of the flood story). Two men who are working in the field, one will be taken, another left; two women working a home, one will be taken, one left (so this is where the Left Behind series of books got their title). We should be prepared for his unexpected return. If the time of tribulation, the end of the world, or Jesus’ second coming was supposed to occur before his disciples died, Jesus’ prediction was not accurate.
William R. Kimball, in his book What the Bible Says about the Great Tribulation, contends that the great tribulation is not a future time of trouble but was fulfilled when the Romans destroyed the temple and Jerusalem in 70 A.D. That makes sense to me.
Millennialism is a belief held by some Christians that there will be a Golden Age or Paradise on Earth during which Jesus will reign for a thousand years prior to the final judgment. This belief is primarily derived from Revelation 20:1-6. In these six verses, an angel binds Satan and throws him into a bottomless pit. After a thousand years, he will be released. Then the author saw people seated on thrones who were given authority to judge. They will rule with Christ for a thousand years. According to verse 5b, “this is the first resurrection.”
The Final Judgment
According to Revelation 20:7-15, after the thousand years of captivity, Satan will be released for a short time and persecute the people of God. Satan, however, will be quickly defeated and thrown into the lake of fire where, we are assured, he will be tormented forever. The chapter closes with a description of the final judgment. Before the great white throne, all the dead are judged. The Book of Life is opened and judgment is based upon their works that are recorded there (judgment is based on works, not belief in Jesus?). All are judged. Death and Hades are cast into the lake of fire (this is described as the “second death”). Those whose names are not written in the Book of Life suffer the same judgment.
According to Matthew 25:31-46, when Jesus (“the Son of Man”) returns all the people of the world will appear before him. He will sort the people, like a shepherd sorts sheep and goats. Then the king (not capital letters, “the king;” does the author mean Jesus or God?) will allow “the sheep” to inherit the kingdom. The reason they are rewarded is that they fed him when he was hungry (and it continues: when thirsty, gave drink, homeless – room, shivering – clothes, sick – visit, prison – came). Then he told the goats they were good for nothing but the fires of hell (brutal, huh?) because they didn’t do any of those things. This passage suggests that good works equal salvation; the people who act charitably, who exhibit hospitality, etc. are the ones who are rewarded. The do-nothing “goats” are damned. Several New Testament scriptures claim that salvation is by grace through faith, not by good works. But the primary message of this parable is the opposite – works are more important.
The Old Testament Prophecies of the Coming of the Jewish Messiah
Those who subscribe to End Time prophecy are convinced that the following Old Testament verses point towards the second coming of Jesus, but Judaism does not since they do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah:
• “In days to come [or in the last days] the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:2-4)
The above Isaiah passage means that the temple will be rebuilt and the people of all the nations will flock to Jerusalem to see it; also an era of world peace will begin; all hatred, oppression, suffering, and disease will end.
• “And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.” (Isaiah 11:12)
All Jews will return to the Holy Land after centuries of exile; this supposedly happened when the exiled Jews returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Gathering all the Jews from the four corners of the earth is quite an exaggeration.
• “Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’, and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 43:5-6)
The above Isaiah passage is also supposed to mean that God will bring all Jews back to the land of Israel.
• “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” (Malachi 4:5–6)
According to the above verses from Malachi, Elijah, the prophet, will return. Some people think this has already happened when God sent Jesus.
• “The land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by. And they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden; and the waste and desolate and ruined towns are now inhabited and fortified.’ Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I, the LORD, have rebuilt the ruined places, and replanted that which was desolate; I, the LORD, have spoken, and I will do it.” (Ezekiel 36:34–36)
Several verses in Ezekiel 36 and 37 supposedly describe Israel being reborn as a nation at the end of history; the ancient ruins will be rebuilt and the deserts will bloom. This happened in 1948 when the state of Israel was reborn.
• “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them for evermore. My dwelling-place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations shall know that I the LORD sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is among them for evermore.” (Ezekiel 37:26-28)
According to some “authorities,” this excerpt from Ezekiel means that the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem; it is called “the third temple.”
• “On that day I will make the clans of Judah like a blazing pot on a pile of wood, like a flaming torch among sheaves; and they shall devour to the right and to the left all the surrounding peoples, while Jerusalem shall again be inhabited in its place, in Jerusalem. And on that day I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem.” (Zechariah 12:6, 9; also see Zechariah 14:2-3, 9)
Not only will Jerusalem be rebuilt, but God will destroy all of Israel’s enemies.
More Old Testament End Times Prophecy
Author Joel C. Rosenberg, a Christian convert from Judaism, is the author of several books that include apocalyptic times plots (he primarily uses Hebrew scriptures to prove his points). His Dead Heat, the last book in his political thriller series, is particularly eschatological.
One of Rosenberg’s major characters, Jon Bennett, claims that Ezekiel chapters 38 and 39 clearly describe the rise of a future dictator in Russia who would build a military alliance with Iran and other Middle Eastern countries to attack Israel in the War of Gog and Magog. Granted, those chapters are eschatological literature that deal with a cataclysmic battle, but I do not see how it describes a Russian dictator who aligns with Iran and other Middle Eastern countries to attack Israel. Gog was a real person – a seventh century ruler of Lydia – but in Ezekiel he is more mythic than historical. Ezekiel was warning Israel that God was unhappy with their faithlessness. Gog will attack Israel, but God will defeat him. After this battle, all nations will recognize that the God of Israel is also their God.
Rosenberg also has Bennett claim that Ezekiel 5:5 predicts that the entire world would perceive Israel and Jerusalem as the center of history.
Bennett claims that Daniel chapter seven foretells a revived and powerful Roman Empire at the end of time. Previously in the book of Daniel, it was the king who had dreams that Daniel interpreted, but in chapter 7, it is Daniel who has a dream or vision of his own. “The great sea” represents primeval chaos; the winds that stirred up the sea might have been angels; four great beasts symbolize predatory kingdoms that no longer have the possibility of goodness (the lion with eagle-like wings in vs. 4 was most likely Nebuchadnezzar, the bear in vs. 5 was Media; the leopard with four wings and four heads in vs. 6 was Persia, and the fourth “terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong” beast in vs. 7 was Greece). He also saw the angel Michael, Israel’s guardian angel. This vision terrified Daniel. I do not see how this chapter could be interpreted as foretelling the rise of a new Roman Empire.
Bennett also claims that Daniel 8:8-9 indicated “that the Antichrist would be a ruler who emerged from the ashes of the Greco-Roman Empire and would gather enormous powers as his military forces moved south and east toward the land of Israel, to surround and eventually conquer it.” Daniel’s second vision is very similar to parts of the book of Revelation. He envisions the final judgment, restitution of the faithful and punishment of the wicked (“the vision is for the time of the end” 8:17b). He sees a ram with two horns, which represented the kings of Media and Persia. A male goat was the king of Greece. In place of a broken horn, four horns grow representing four kingdoms that will rise “from his nation, but not with his power.” (8:22b) “At the end of their rule… a king of bold countenance shall arise, skilled in intrigue. He shall grow strong… cause fearful destruction… destroy the powerful… make deceit prosper… and shall even rise up against the Prince of princes,” which means he will defy God (8:23-25). According to verse 26, all of this “refers to many days from now.” Daniel was dismayed by this vision and didn’t understand it (8:27b). I understand Daniel’s feeling, I do not understand it either and I doubt that the writer was envisioning literal events that would occur thousands of years in the future.
Furthermore, Bennett claimed that Daniel 9:26-27 indicated that the Antichrist “would emerge from the people who would destroy the Temple and the Holy City of Jerusalem.” It was the Romans, of course, who destroyed the temple and Jerusalem in 70 C.E., approximately forty years after Jesus was crucified. So the Antichrist will come from a revived Roman Empire? Daniel researched how many years “must be fulfilled for the devastation of Jerusalem” and found in Jeremiah that the answer was seventy. Then he implored God to act without delay to restore his temple, his city, and his people. While Daniel was still praying, “the man” (not described as an angel), Gabriel, appeared and said he had come “to give you wisdom and understanding.” Gabriel told him that “seventy weeks” were needed for the people and Jerusalem to complete their penitence instead of seventy years, but according to The New Oxford Annotated Bible this is interpreted to mean seventy weeks of years or 70 X 7 or four-hundred and ninety years. Daniel said Jerusalem would be rebuilt, but “the city and the sanctuary” would be destroyed by a flood and at the end by a war. When Daniel said in verse 26 “an anointed one shall be cut off,” some Christian interpreters insist that Daniel was referring to Jesus. I do not believe that Daniel or any other Hebrew prophet was writing about things that would actually transpire in the far distant future.
I prefer to ignore the gobblegook about end times and concentrate on the here and now. I think there is far more value in living now than in speculating about something that may or may not happen in some undefined future. What good does it do to worry about the end of the world? Can we change the future if it is God’s will to end life as we know it? Of course, not. Shouldn’t we continue our efforts towards making this world a better place and righting its wrongs? Of course, we should.