The Eschatological Divide

The Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible defined “eschatology” as

The department of theology which is concerned with the “last things,” that is, with the state of individuals after death, and with the course of human history when the present order of things has been brought to a close. It includes such matters as the consummation of the age, the day of judgment, the second coming of Christ, the resurrection, the millennium and the fixing of the conditions of eternity.

Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, StudyLight.org

The Book of Revelation remains to be one of the most neglected writings in the New Testament Scripture. It is seldom preached or taught in the pulpit due to perception that it causes division. For whenever it was/is taught to Christians, controversies – worse, even fights – ensues. Hence, it was/is avoided in many Christian congregation, not by members but its leaders. Yet, the relevance of the book cannot be ignored Like a dying man’s last word, Revelation spoke of the last words of Jesus Christ for the Old Covenant people of God.

The highlighted phrase from Hastings explains the present confusion about eschatology, but if we simply change the thought by replacing some words, then the unity of Scripture may finally be explored without contradiction. Compare the statement below with that of from Hastings.

“Eschatology concerns the ‘last things,” with the state of individuals after death, and with the course of human history when the Old Covenant of God has been brought to a close.”

I simply change the phrase “the present order of things” to “the Old Covenant of God”. Oops! There it goes – that statement could already spark controversy, though it could be nothing for ordinary readers.

At present, biblical scholars admit there are at least four perspectives in approaching the Book of Revelation or prophetic literatures. Not one of them is considered heresy or false teaching simply because every view was supported by biblical passages from Scripture. The battle is not with the Scripture itself but its interpretation. All four proponents of eschatology affirms the absolute authority and inerrancy of the 66 books of the Bible. Therefore, the problem rests on human error. I believe that is something each side would agree.

Despite the fact that Christianity has been around for two millennia, a lot of arguments and debates remain unresolved. That is the main reason why none of the four perspectives of eschatology have been classified as heresy or false teaching, so for the moment it is simply categorized “debatable”.

However, in the course of my years of study on the Bible, as of today going 21 years, I can boldly say the eschatology divide does not exist during the early church. Every New Testament writer of the Bible has one single perspective of eschatology. Therefore, it would be a mistake to say that Christianity was founded on controversy or conflicting claims. Again, let me reiterate: “The error rest on humans, not the Bible.” Better yet, the errors or misinterpretations appeared years after the New Testament Scripture have been completed when the last of the apostles no longer exist. Yet, we have to recognize that the early church does have its opponents. These truly were the false teachers. I wrote a blog on the dependability of Scripture, its dating, and a glimpse of attempts to distort the Gospel of Jesus Christ; see “Flock of Cults”.

The four views of eschatology, namely the Futurist view, the Preterist view, the Historical view, and the Idealist view.

Christian Theology by Millard J. Erickson, a book required of us for reading – at least during my time at the seminary – covered four semesters for Systematic Theology class. I have a particular interest in this class mainly because it covers the topic of death, due to my earnest desire to search for the truth of what happens after death. If you have read all my blogs, perhaps you would know that I came to faith due to the tragic death of my only son. I wrote about my journey in the blog entitled “Regarding Wilmer“.

Here is an excerpt from Christian Theology, by Willard J. Erickson:

At this point it will be helpful to note a system which is used to classify the various interpretations of prophetic or apocalyptic material in Scripture. While it is often most utilized as a means of classifying interpretations of the Book of Revelation or, more generally, all such prophetic literature, the system can also be applied to distinguish views of eschatology:

1. The futuristic view holds that most of the events described are in the future. They will come to fulfillment at the close of the age, many of them probably clustered together.

2. The preterist view holds that the events described were taking place at the time of the writer, Since they were current for the writer, they are now in the past.

3. The historical view holds that the events described were in the future at the time of writing, but refer to matters destined to take place throughout the history of the church. Instead of looking solely to the future for their occurrence, we should also search for them within the pages of history and consider whether some of them may be coming to pass right now.

4. The symbolic or idealist view holds that the events described are not to be thought of in a time sequence at all. They refer to truths which are timeless in nature, not to singular historical occurrences.

Christian Theology, Unabridged, one-volume edition p.1154, by Millard J. Erickson

I understand the above definition is not easy to comprehend, even to Scripture-loving individuals due to the perception of vagueness of some biblical passages in the Bible. And that’s the reason why a seminary training would be helpful. Hence, even after I had left the organized religious system and have done my ministry independently, I remember encouraging someone to enter the same seminary, and he did. He is now in a local congregation.

At this point, without mentioning names, I thank God for my professors during my stay at the seminary. Indeed, they have provided me the proper training and equipped me well for the study of the Bible. But of course, it’s just like learning to drive a car. Though skills are taught and acquired, excellence comes with practice or actual driving. But pardon me, for I’m not claiming excellence rather eligibility in doing exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation of a text in Scripture) and applying hermeneutics (knowledge in dealing with the Bible).

The futurist view should be the most familiar to most. Revelation or prophecies in the Scripture speaks of future. Only a portion of Bible prophecy has been fulfilled and all else are still in the future. A lot of novels and books about the supposed future Second Coming of Christ have been written since the 1970’s, and movies were made and shown, so that explains its popularity. Not to mention the Scofield Reference Bible of the early 1900s. Altogether, that’s a hundred years of influence on Christians. Yet, here is a video teaching of Bruce Gore’s study and presentation of a comprehensive teaching of the dominant prevailing futurist view and its questionable origin. The futurist view comes in many shapes and forms, and it continues to evolve. Click here for information about Bruce Gore. Another video, a shorter one is from Ben Witherington III, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Though I assure you, it will be worth your time watching the more lengthy video of Bruce Gore.

In reality, a lot of pastors today, though futurist, simply claim Jesus Christ is coming soon. Many didn’t know that if you follow the dispensational futurist view, the kingdom of heaven is yet to come. Yet, Jesus Christ clearly declared the presence of God’s kingdom; see Matthew 12:28.

But if it is by the Spirit of God that I [Jesus Christ] cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

Studying the Bible is a must. If you have clicked on the link of Scofield Reference Bible, you will see Got.Question.Org has good words for the said reference Bible, yet Bruce Gore and Ben Witherington III dispute it. No, the contention is not with the Bible itself but its notes and comments.

Though it has been two millennia now since the Book of Revelation has been written, Jesus promised He’s coming soon, not once but repeatedly. See Revelation 1:1-3.

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending His angel to His servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.

I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.” (Revelation 3:11)

“And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” (Revelation 22:7)

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing My recompense with Me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 22:12-13)

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)

Proponents of futurism – especially the dispensationalist, which practically represents today’s Christianity – is notorious for constantly watching for signs in the hope of detecting its arrival. Hence, in our present circumstance, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a lot excitement and fear that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ is near. Yet, in the early 1900s, with a pandemic known as the “Spanish Flu,” the same expectation may have emerged if the novels, books and movies based on the futurist view have been done similarly. If indeed that was the scenario then, it would have been a century now since Christians claimed Jesus is coming soon. I truly cannot see a hundred years as soon. Sad to say, but the futurist perspective may have become a fragment of the fable “boy who cried wolf”.

Here is a reasonable and worthy presentation, again, by Bruce Gore on origin of the historical perspective of the Book of Revelation. To view, click on the highlight. I won’t be exploring this perspective further, except that it is also futurist in nature. Somehow it was overshadowed by futurism.

Next is an excerpt from GotQuestion.Org about the idealist view. Click on the link to read more.

In the idealist interpretation, the symbols in Revelation are not normally thought to refer to specific individuals and historic events but to typical individuals and events. For instance, every generation will have an “antichrist” and a “mark of the beast”—any number of individuals, world leaders, or empires who exalt themselves against God are the “antichrist,” and those who follow those leaders receive his “mark.” Some part of the church is always going through tribulation, and there will be martyrs in every generation. The idealist interprets Revelation as the ongoing struggle between God and His people and Satan and those who follow him.

The idealist view’s refusal to acknowledge a singular fulfillment of biblical prophecies but simply see prophecies as repeated events throughout human history may have unintentionally leaned closely to the futurist approach. But the problem herein lies on the implication that there would be no real fulfillment of prophecies, though it may not have been officially concluded as such.

Finally, the lone ranger among the four is the Preterist view, but that should not be a reason to dismiss it outright. However, I have to confess I was guilty of doing it back in my seminary days. I remember once my professor opened the idea – actually it was more in passing – of the possibility that the second coming has been fulfilled. Not a single student in the class considered the thought or took the initiative to take a second look at the Scripture; it was dismissed outright. Perhaps that’s the reason the professor didn’t pursue further.

Actually he might or surely be in trouble later for pursuing the thought and teaching the idea to us, considering the strong influence of futurism among local congregations nationally. If you are familiar with the struggles of Martin Luther with the Reformation movement during the 16th century, that is the scenario I am describing concerning the trouble that could have ensued if said professor pursued or perhaps even just to explain further the Preterist view.

Looking back, despite its shortcomings, the Reformation opened the floodgate for believers to freely study and rediscover the original teachings of Jesus Christ and the apostles.

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”

ESV Bible, Acts 2:42

Yet, like any movement, left in the hands of man, combining Scripture and human ideas, the Reformation movement somehow went south. To read more about my perspective on the Reformation, click on this link “Reformation Went Poof!

Again quoting Christian Theology by Millard J. Erickson, here is the written discourse of Charles Harold Dodd (7 April 1884 – 21 September 1973). Though not an adherent of the Preterist view per se, he is actually considered a proponent of Realized Eschatology.

In formatting his eschatology, Dodd pays particular attention to the biblical references to the day of the Lord. He notes that whereas in the Old Testament the day of the Lord is viewed as a future matter, in the New Testament it is depicted as a present occurrence

Christian Theology, Unabridged, one-volume edition, p.1159, by Millard J. Erickson

“Present occurrence” meaning, at the time of its writing – first generation Christianity. Herein lies the strong argument for a Preterist view of the Bible. It has been more than a decade since I became a Christian. As you can read from my blog “Regarding Wilmer,” it was due to the death of my only son that I became a Christian. The reality of death came staring at me. All my previous beliefs failed to answer a simply question about humanity – what happens after death? To make the long story short, my earnest desire to find the answer to life’s most practical question and in the course of studying and leading Bible studies, I was led back to that brief moment in the seminary when we were asked if we would consider the possibility that Jesus had return.

It was a struggle. I had moments of wanting to deny clear and obvious biblical passages that proves indeed Jesus had returned, just to stay safe from rejection, ridicule and persecution. Finally surrendering to the text of the Scripture, my quest to dig deeper in my understanding of the Bible is rewarding. I was able to reconcile seemingly loose ends of biblical teachings, specifically the unity of Scripture’s eschatology on the topic of death and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

A few years ago, together with my pastor friend, who also believes Jesus had returned, we had a friendly discussion with another pastor friend, who is a futurist, and we asked him a practical and important question: “Where would Christians go after death?” His answer was, “There are actually three possibilities to that question.” He can’t say with conviction, “The Christian man would go straight to heaven.” Yet, we hear that all the time in funeral services. Was it then just a cliche to comfort the bereaved family? Surely that was not the intention. The problem lies with conflicting passages opposing each other, like when we put the eschatology on the topic of death with that of a future return of Jesus Christ.

To prove my point, you will see my futurist pastor friend is not alone in that predicament, though some may boldly assert surely the Christian death would immediately go to heaven. I offer a friendly challenge to anyone making that assertion yet believe that Jesus has yet to return to give biblical passages to backup his assertion. Here is the reality, and I am quoting an excerpt from Thomas G. Long, professor at Candler School of Theology, his answer to the question, “Do they go directly to heaven or hell or to a holding place until Christ returns for the final judgment?”

“There are two images in the New Testament about what happens. First, the Resurrection Day, when the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised up incorruptible. If you only had that image, what we would imagine is that when people die, they lie in some intermediate state awaiting the great Resurrection Day.

“The other image, however, is that death contains no victory over us at all. As soon as we die, we are with God. We get this in the Book of Revelation where John looks up and already the saints who have died are praising God around the throne. In terms of linear time, we can’t work this out. We’ve got two competing images: You either wait until the general resurrection or you go immediately to be with God.

“But the imposition of linear time on what is an eternal idea is what creates the contradiction. I don’t try to make a theologian out of Einstein, but he did show us that events that happen in sequence can also be events that happen simultaneously. If Einstein can imagine that in terms of physics, theologians can imagine it also in terms of the intrusion of eternity into linear time – that we are both immediately raised and raised together.”

With such an answer, it appears to me that there is no assurance that a Christian may immediately go to heaven after death. Don’t you think that is a serious dilemma? The Bible needed science to help explain its teachings? It might even put serious doubt if salvation is secured or not. That is the effect of an “eschatological divide.” The doctrine of salvation rests heavily on the eschatology of Christ’s return. We won’t be left hanging on a rope doing the balancing act if we have a comprehensive understanding of Christ’s return. Surely, the futurist view left us wanting for answer.

Fellow pastors, we can’t be pulling people’s legs just to comfort them. The Bible, in Ephesians 4:11-14, said:

And He [Jesus Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds [pastors] and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

Since we all claim in unity that the Scripture is true, authoritative in matters of life and death, without error, shouldn’t we give justice the Words of Christ and explain with firm conviction, backed up by clear and valid Scriptural passages, every declarations that we made? After all, by faithfully doing our duty to Christ Jesus our Lord, we will be rewarded accordingly, the unfading crown of glory.

Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

1 Peter 5:2-4, ESV

It is a delusion to see this passage no longer applicable if Christ had returned. Jesus Christ is King Eternal, and His reign is without end. So pastors remains to be under the approval of Christ Jesus, the Chief Shepherd of God’s flock.

I understand a lot of questions need to be asked and answered. But I also know it would be difficult to absorb everything in one sitting. So that is the goal of this blog – to unlearn tradition and relearn Scripture. As they say, “Patience is a virtue”. In time, with diligence in reading and studying the Bible you too will see the light.

To end, all my citations are from the camp of futurist, except for Bruce Gore, a partial-Preterist. Anyone who deems futurism lacking in substance, perhaps you may want to do baby steps by going through these videos – one by Bruce Gore, and another by Kenneth Gentry, another Partial-Preterist, on the dating of Revelation.

Disclaimer: We don’t endorse completely the sites or sources we cited, simply the ones we share here. Though we also don’t claim to have watched or listened to other videos or teachings those sites have posted. In time, you too will learn and discern which one to pick up or drop.

Blessings!

If you want to follow our journey of unlearning tradition and relearning Scripture, you can stay updated by liking our Facebook page. You can also head to our Home page and subscribe directly to receive notifications in your inbox.

Published by Eric

I am a pastor. In the course of leading Bible studies, I have noticed inconsistencies in the traditional Christian beliefs and teachings. So now I am on a journey of in-depth study of the Scripture. By the grace of God, having been liberated by the truths of the Word of God, now I am doing the ministry independently, teaching the Word of God.

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