“Are you pre-trib, mid-trib or post-trib?”
This is the too often the entire scope of eschatological debate among today’s Christians. Dispensational premillennialism is the view of most 21st century evangelical Christians. Indeed, most would be surprised to discover that the great figures of the Christian faith, such as Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, wrote absolutely nothing on the “rapture” nor the “seven year tribulation.” Such ideas were foreign to them. Dispensational eschatology, with its elaborate prophecy charts and theories on the “mark of the Beast,” appeared on the scene as recently as 1830. Yet it did not become a prevailing view until the beginning of the 20th century.
I begin with this point of rebuttal. If a doctrine is new, then it probably isn’t true.
For 1800 years, Christian orthodoxy prevailed without encountering the elaborate prophecy charts devised by followers of Scofield and Darby. While the classic premillennial view separates the second coming and the judgment by 1000 years, dispensational premillennialism a view never heard before 1830 separates these two events by 1007 years. Dispensationalism teaches, in effect, three Second Comings: the coming of Christ for the saints at the rapture; the coming of Christ to the earth at the end of the seven year tribulation; and the Father’s coming at the end of the millennium.
If you hold strongly to the dispensational view as the only view and certainly the view of the Bible you should put aside your prejudices for a moment. You should take the time to examine and understand the three more prominent historical views. Finally, you should make judgments pertaining to the plain meaning of the Bible’s texts. The best interpreter of scripture is scripture, not the teachings of so-called “end-times prophecy experts.”
Dispensational premillennialism is the eschatological view furthest from postmillennialism. Here there is the strongest disagreement. The two views are furthest apart on the theological spectrum. We disagree not just in views of the “end-times,” the rapture, the antichrist, the tribulation, and the millennium, but even more fundamentally on the method of interpreting the Bible. The two approaches to scripture are so radically different that postmillennialists and dispensational premillennialists have entirely different worldviews.
Two Views of the Bible
Dispensationalism is derived from the idea that God has worked in different ways throughout history through different economies or dispensations. A dispensationalist makes a severe division between the Old and New Covenants, God acting with wrath and vengeance in the Old Testament and with love and grace in the New Testament. Dispensationalism teaches the imminent “secret” rapture of the Church, divides the end times into several dispensations, and teaches a conspiratorial view of history with evil forces rivaling the forces of God.
John Nelson Darby, founder of a group called the Plymouth Brethren in the 1830s, is the father of modern dispensationalism. Darby taught that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent. He rejected the creeds of the early Church and believed social reform to be useless. C.I. Scofield, a Texas pastor, popularized the teachings of J.N. Darby in a systematic theology known as dispensational premillennialism. C.I. Scofield first compiled his reference Bible as a teaching aid for missionaries. It soon became one of the most widely used tools for Bible study among entire denominations such as Southern Baptists and Disciples of Christ.
Despite the fact that many of the early dispensationalists were orthodox Christians, this shift in theology paved the way for an much greater error, antinomianism, which means literally “anti-law.” Antinomianism states that since man is saved by faith alone, and since faith frees the Christian from the law, he no longer bound to obey the law. Antinomianism creates a false theological system in which the laws of the Bible cannot apply to governing the individual or society. Dispensationalism promoted antinomian thinking by de-emphasizing the relationship of the Old Testament law to the individual under the New Testament. In turn this led to a waning influence of Christians in society, since most of the laws pertaining to civil government are found in the Old Testament.
To the orthodox Christian, the unity of the covenants of Scripture and the moral law of God are obvious foundations of Christian social order. The covenantal idea of God’s unchanging eternal covenant and a corresponding high view the moral law of God, stand in stark contrast to dispensationalism and antinomianism.
The dispensational theory of premillennialism has gained great popularity mainly among modern evangelicals. The dispensational view of premillennialism, with its elaborate conspiracy theories, time tables, charts and graphic scenarios, is essentially a chiliast error. It has been most often accompanied by the false notion that the Second Coming is a predictable event with an identifiable time-table. This is despite Christ’s warning that “it is not for you to know the times or the seasons” (Acts 1:7).
The fascination with the exact date of the Second Coming always appears as history approaches years with big round numbers. Chiliasm reappeared shortly before 500, 1000 and 1500 AD. Not surprisingly, we saw a reemergence of this error in full force as we approached 2000. Financially profitable publications advancing theories and speculations on the Second Coming are appearing everywhere. In contrast to Christ’s biblical admonition against predicting the time of the Second Coming (Mat. 25:13), many evangelical books authored in recent years have predicted the exact time of the Second Advent, for example: Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, Edgar Whisenant’s, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be In 1988, and Harold Camping’s 1994, which was a best seller in 1993, and the novel series, Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye.
However, now that we have passed the millennial milestone of 2000, many Christians are reconsidering their eschatological viewpoint. Many Christians have been taught that geo-political Israel would be a focus of end-times events. Seeing now that over 50 years have passed since the establishment of a Jewish nation-state, many are reconsidering an alternate interpretation of both the Mount Olivet Discourse and the book of Revelation.
In the historic view, the covenant and the law of God have always been the obvious foundations of a godly social order. Covenantal theology laid the groundwork for a political theory which held that the family, the church, civil government, and all society came into being as a contract on the basis of God’s eternal covenant. Hence, the moral law of God must be the foundation for a society’s laws and civil order.
The Puritans held to this covenantal or “federal” theology which maintains that God operates through covenants, or eternally binding legal agreements with men. The Old and New Covenants are God’s basis for governing the universe. There is no division between the Covenants. The New Covenant is built firmly on the foundation of the Old Covenant. This presupposes that the Law does not change: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law of the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). God is not a dispensational, evolving, developing God; He is a God that never changes: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
This is true of both the Old and New Covenant. We have in the Bible 66 books that are really one book. We should interpret scripture with scripture. Daniel, the Mount Olivet Discourse, and the book of Revelation are commentaries on one another. In essence, Revelation is the capstone of all biblical prophecy pointing to the timing of the coming of the Messiah in the first century. If we understand Revelation as being John’s commentary on the same events described by Jesus in the Mount Olivet Discourse, then a mostly preterist perspective is the only approach that makes any sense.
I believe that most of what is written in the book of Revelation was fulfilled in 70 AD. Yet the first time I heard this idea, I was shocked that anyone could propose such a theory. However, when I began to study church history, I began to understand more about the context in which Revelation was written. I was then introduced to some solid preterist commentaries on Revelation and found solid confirmation.
We are not headed toward an end-times tribulation. This has astounding implications for how we should live our lives. Scofield and Darby wrote in the 1800s that since the time was so short and since evil was on the rise (so they thought) Christians ought not involve themselves in social or political issues, but ought to be concerned instead with the saving of souls. Dispensationalists have taught this for over 170 years. Thus pessimistic, conspiratorial thinking has become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Christians have retreated from involvement in the world because of a faulty theology that states that the world is predestined to get worse and worse. And because of this retreat, the world has become worse in many respects. The default of Christians on many social issues has led to increasing godlessness in western societies. But all this can change if enough evangelicals make the necessary paradigm shift toward a vibrant, robust covenantal theology. What the nations of the world experience in the next few years will largely depend on the obedience of Christians to the word of God.
What about the rapture?
In my rebuttal to classic premillennialism, I argue that the purpose of the book of Daniel is to point the Jews to the exact time and circumstances surrounding the coming of the Messiah. The main purpose of Daniel’s prophecy is to point to the first advent, not the second advent. Further, the context of 1 Corinthians 15:23-25;50-54 indicates a simultaneous Second Coming and final judgment.
So what about the rapture? Is the rapture secret or not? Postmillennialists believe in the rapture. We simply do not believe in the dispensationalist version of this great event. The rapture is synonymous with the resurrection of the righteous. However, this event will not be secret. It will not occur seven years prior to a future millennium, nor 1007 years prior to the final judgment. Postmillennialists believe in the rapture. We believe it will occur at the time of the Second Coming, just before the final judgment, after the millennial reign is complete.
Waugh writes: “The rapture HAS to happen BEFORE the Great Tribulation.” As an apparent proof text, Waugh quotes the question asked by Christ: “But will the Son of Man find faith on earth when He comes?”(Luke 18:8). Waugh wants to believe that the Son of Man will not find faith on the earth when He returns.
Yet we postmillennnialists see great victory for the Gospel in history. “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord , ‘when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman and the planter by the one treading grapes. New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills’” (Amos 9:13).
Obviously, postmillennialists don’t interpret Luke 18:8 in the negative. The whole context of this parable is that it is to demonstrate that we always ought to pray in faith and never to grow weary of praying.
“And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?”
The question, “Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” is demonstrative rather than interrogative, that is, the answer is not “yes” or “no.” The question concludes the parable as a rhetorical device. We as Christians must pray in faith and never grow weary. We are commanded by our Lord to pray even if the answer to prayer is late in coming, even until the time when the Son of Man returns to the earth.
The Preterist View of Revelation
The preterist view of Revelation — that it was to be a warning and an encouragement to the early Church that was about to face the wrath of Nero and the Roman armies — would makes little or no sense unless the church at that time understood it as such. Is there any evidence that they did?
Ironically this question exposes the error of the futurist viewpoint. It recognizes the need of Revelation’s relevance to its first century audience, which preterism fits perfectly.
Revelation’s warning about Rome and the coming Jewish War are matters found not only in this book. The same warning is given the Olivet Discourse (Mat. 24), the parables of Jesus (Mat. 20-23), and various warnings of impending judgment elsewhere in the New Testament (2 Thessalonians; Hebrews; James; 1 Peter).
The question should be asked whether Christians understood those references too. We know that the early Christians understood the coming judgment upon Israel and Jerusalem. Eusebius mentions the Christians in Judea escaping as the Jewish War broke out. Later commentaries on Revelation indicate that its events refer to the Jewish War. For example, the Syriac versions of Revelation mention it was written under Nero; Andreas and Arethas of Capadocia and the Sibylline Oracles also refer to Nero as the Beast.
The Context of Revelation
Do preterists believe there is a future Armageddon? If not then do we believe there is going to be war again in the Middle East? (Premillennialists have been predicting an imminent Armageddon in Israel for many years.)
With the developments in the Middle East, with terrorism on the rise, a war in Afghanistan, and Iran and Iraq’s possession of nuclear technology to destroy Israel (and all the power plays concerning that) is there going to be a future final conflagration?
Yes, but it occurs at the end of the millennium, not at the beginning (Rev. 20). Further, it will occur after a time of “peace and safety” not as the culmination of many years of “wars and rumors of wars.” Since we are not anywhere near the end of the millennium (neither from a premillennial nor postmillennial view) I do not see a brewing war in the Middle East as a possible fulfillment of Revelation 20.
According to Rev. 20, there a war between the rebellious among the nations of the world and Christ himself. It will serve to separate the wheat from the chaff on the earth in just before the final judgment. It will occur among all the nations of the world.
Many preterists see the events in Rev. 16 (the Battle of Armageddon) as having already taken place at the time of the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD. In any case, Revelation 16 and 20 are not about geo-political developments in the 20th century Middle East.
Victory or Defeat?
Dispensational premillennialism presents a worldview in diametric opposition to postmillennialism. Dispensationalism teaches, in essence, that evil is a greater force than good in history. Current world events are interpreted in a conspiratorial light. The church as a whole will fall into apostasy and will fail to fulfill the Great Commission. Christ will appear with an angelic cavalry with trumpets blaring to rescue a remnant.
Dispensational premillennialism places the Church in a position of an “evangelism-only” role in the End Times (since Christ’s Second Coming could be very near, it is necessary to save as many as possible while there is still time left); it places the appearance of the Antichrist’s one-world-government somewhere during the last seven years of time; and it usually involves a Great Tribulation in the last seven years of time, during which the Church is to be raptured, or physically caught up to be in heaven with Jesus. At the end of this Tribulation Period, the Second Coming occurs and the saints who were caught up to be in heaven for a period of time return to rule and reign with Jesus on the earth.
Postmillennialism places the Church in a role, not only of evangelism, but of discipling the nations as well (not only will many be saved, but whole social structures will be transformed); the rule of the Antichrist is more loosely interpreted as the current world system of Satan which is being overthrown by the progressive, sovereign judgments of God; thus “tribulation” is viewed, not as a seven-year time period, but as the sum total of all the judgments of God in history, and although the rapture is not usually focused upon, it does occur at the very end of the millennium when Jesus returns physically to the earth and the saints are simultaneously caught away to be with Jesus. Before the Second Coming, the Church’s role is to rule with Christ, not in heaven, but as His ambassadors on earth.
Your view of the end-times will affect how you view current events and it will even greater affect how you respond to the call of missions. If your worldview is dominated by conspiracy, then you need to change your thinking to allow the Providence of God to have full reign in the course of history and in your life.
- The Four Keys to the Millennium
- The Postmillennial View
- Rebuttal to Amillennialism
- Rebuttal to Classic Premillennialism
- About the author
I wrote this series for a book that was published in the Republic of South Africa. The book is a compilation by four Christians (two in Africa and two in the USA) who have put the four major eschatological viewpoints into laymen’s terms.
Each author stated his view in response to a series of questions about eschatology (the end-times). Then each author responded to the three other views in a rebuttal. While I do not have permission to publish on the web the three other authors’ articles, I am able to offer here my own viewpoint and my rebuttals to the three other views. The positions held forth by the amillennial, historic premillennial and dispensational premillennial authors are implicit in my rebuttals. If you want to read the whole book, you can order it here.