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16 December 2015

The four main End Times theories.

Covering what 99 percent of Christians believe about the End Times.

At some future point, Jesus is gonna return. Mt 24.42, Ac 1.11, 1Th 4.16-17, 2Th 2.1, Rv 22.20 Not maybe, not we hope he will: Gonna. It’s in the creeds; it’s orthodox Christianity. Any so-called “Christian” who says Jesus isn’t returning, or who thinks his return isn’t literal but a metaphor (or is “spiritual,” by which they mean imaginary) would fall under the category of heretic. Sorry, heretics. He’s coming again.

But even though Christians are unanimous in our belief that “from [heaven] he will come to judge the living and the dead,” we’re not universal as to how that’ll happen. Because Jesus didn’t give us specifics. He gave us apocalypses, images which represent what God’s up to, but aren’t meant to be taken literally. (Not that some Christians, out of sheer frustration, don’t interpret ’em literally regardless.) His Olivet Discourse—the bit in the synoptic gospels where he teaches his students about the End—is full of these apocalypses. His revelations to John in Revelation: All apocalypses. Jesus told us what the End is like, but not what the future is. We have to trust him to be in charge of it, and let it unfold as he chooses.

Since we aren’t agreed on how the End will come, most Christians agree to disagree. Most. Some of us are absolutely certain it’ll happen the way we say it will, and have declared war on any Christian who teaches otherwise. In fact, they’ll go so far as to say differing Christians are heretics. I know I’ve certainly been called one. Sure glad those folks aren’t in charge of what’s orthodox and what isn’t; ain’t nobody getting into heaven if they’re in charge.

But as far as End Times interpretations are concerned, there are four major camps we Christians fall into. So I thought I’d introduce you to them. And admit, since I have a particular preference for one of them, why I lean that way—but again, you’re not heretic if you go for one of the other views. Wrong, probably. But not heretic.

Millennialism and tribulationism.

Oh, before I get to the four views, I need to define some of the terms I’m gonna be throwing around here. ’Cause people who are big on the End Times tend to use them too, so you may as well learn ’em if you don’t know ’em already.

The millennium. First of all there’s the millennium: After Christ Jesus returns to conquer the world, he’s gonna reign over it for a thousand years. Rv 20.4 This being part of an apocalyptic vision, it’s not a literal thousand years, but it does represent a significantly long length of time. Could even be ten thousand years. Of course, literalists insist it’s a literal thou.

From time to time, Christians get that millennium mixed up with our millenniums—the years 1-1000, the years 1001-2000, and the years 2000 to now. Whenever there’s a turn of the millennium, sometimes Christians claim the next millennium will be Jesus’s millennium. Which has to do with postmillennialism; I’ll explain.

First the handy diagram, then the definitions.

Not to be confused with the tribulational scenarios. That’s on the next infographic.

Amillennial, as you notice, means you don’t believe this millennium will happen in any literal sense at all. Maybe it refers to the Christian era; maybe it refers to living forever with Jesus in heaven; whatever. It’s not gonna happen like the other Christians think. It’s “spiritual,” by which they mean imaginary. It’s what you’ll find in the End of Days view below.

Premillennial means Jesus returns before the millennium, pre-millennium. As you’ll find among most other Christians.

Postmillennial is found in the utopian view: Jesus returns after the millennium, post-millennium. We Christians somehow achieve a thousand-year reich period of peace and prosperity, and afterwards Jesus returns to reward us for the good job we’ve done saving the world. You notice I didn’t put any judgment in the diagram. That’s mainly because all the evil folks will have been liquidated dealt with during the millennial period.

The tribulation. Jesus warned us there’s gonna be suffering in this world. Jn 16.33 And during the End Times there’s supposed to be some sort of extra-bad suffering, a great tribulation. At least that’s what it sounds like.

The juicy bit: Whether we escape tribulation.

Pretribulational means you believe Jesus is gonna rescue all the Christians before any of the great tribulation stuff happens. How? Well, instead of rapturing us during his second coming, like it says in the scriptures, 1Th 4.16-17 he’s gonna make a special secret pre-tribulation visit and rapture us then. This is the most common Darbyist view, and very popular in the United States. Personally I love the idea of getting bailed out before the bad stuff. Pity it’s not in the bible at all.

Midtribulational means Jesus is gonna pull that secret-rapture stunt in the middle of the tribulational period. It’s because certain Christians think Revelation is in chronological order, and confuse one of Revelation’s several visions of Jesus’s second coming Rv 7.9-17 with a mid-tribulation rapture. It’s held by the rest of the Darbyists.

Postribulational means Christians are gonna go through tribulation, just like Jesus said we would. And his return will put a stop to it.

Them’s the vocabulary words. Not all of them apply to the popular End Times scenarios below. But all of them have Christians who believe in them, to some degree.

The End of Days view.

The most common, and most popular, of the many, many End Times views found in Christendom, is the End of Days view. This is the one you’ll find Hollywood uses to make movies, unless they’re Left Behind or Thief in the Night movies. Basically:

  • Evil starts to gather its forces for one big final showdown between them and Christ. Plagues, pestilence, horsemen of the Apocalypse and all that. The Beast shows up and tries to take over the world.
  • Jesus returns and wipes out the Beast and its forces instantly. The wicked go straight to hell.
  • The end of the world. It’s wiped away. Gone. Boom.
  • The righteous suddenly find themselves in heaven, where they’ll live forever.

There’s a lot of End Times imagery, you’ll notice, which is totally missing from this scenario. Where’s the tribulation? Where’s the rapture? Where’s the resurrection? Where’s the millennium? It’s like the short version of the End Times.

It’s based on the idea that all the apocalyptic visions in Revelation are happening behind the scenes. They don’t play out in human history. They happen in angelic history, in heavenly history. They represent the major events of the angelic war which has been going on since creation. But they don’t have a lot to do with us; we’re minor figures in the cosmic plan. So we don’t see those events play out. We just go straight to heaven.

Heaven is the whole point of this view. Apparently, all this time, there hasn’t been an afterlife. People don’t go to the afterlife when they die: They go to heaven. And heaven is New Jerusalem, New Earth; it’s what Jesus meant all along by “the kingdom of heaven.” Resurrection sorta happens… in that when we die and go to heaven, we sorta find ourselves back in human bodies, as tangible and physical as ever. When the End comes, Jesus just takes the rest of his people to heaven. Kinda like he killed us all when he blew up the world. Except he didn’t.

Yeah, very few of these ideas come from the bible. Well, not directly. Indirectly, through folk Christianity and Christian myths. They’re guesses about the End, made by people who figure Revelation is too confusing, so they skipped it and created an End Times view which lets ’em go straight to heaven. Not even New Heaven.

Under this scenario, any world-ending event can mean the End of Days. A massive plague, an extinction-level meteorite, a global thermonuclear war; heck, even a space alien invasion. Anything which was guaranteed to kill every last human on earth. In the process, it’d send us either to heaven or hell—effectively doing Jesus’s work of coming to get us. They’ll even figure this was how he’d pull it off. Why should the Son of Man appear in the clouds when a solar flare could send us to heaven just the same?

As you can tell, this scenario really doesn’t even need God to get involved. It’s probably why so many pagans are okay with it as their End Times scenario too.

The utopian view.

The word utopia was coined by St. Thomas More; it’s Latin for “no place,” because his book Utopia is fiction. But the idea of a perfect, heavenly society has been around since Plato’s Republic and before. And Christians earnestly believed, with the Holy Spirit’s help, we could really achieve it. For the longest time it was the next-most-popular End Times view:

  • Humans decide to stop fighting and scratching and biting one another, and work together, under God, for the good of us all.
  • We unify our economies, unify our governments, pass laws eliminating bloodshed and poverty, and promoting peace and harmony.
  • We live in comfort and ease, solving every new problem we come across with grace and generosity. What a beautiful world this will be; what a glorious time to be free.
  • Jesus, seeing we’ve finally achieved the kingdom he wanted for us, returns to personally reign over us all.

No tribulation, ’cause the Beast and its minions were defeated back when we finally got serious about sorting out the world’s problems. And it’s definitely a postmillennial perspective. And sounds an awful lot like Star Trek—which stands to reason.

Utopianism and utopian science fiction like Star Trek are based on modernism, the philosophy which states humans have the ability, even the right, to recreate or improve our environment through science and technology. Modernism was the product of the late Enlightenment era, and it’s debatable whether it was produced by Christian thinkers, or merely adopted by them. We still find modernism among many progressives—even though they tend to promote a more humanist than Christian view.

Modernists all share the same optimistic vision of the future: If we buckle down and get serious about humanity’s progress (or, to the Christian, Jesus’s teachings) we can actually create heaven here on earth. Isn’t that what Jesus wanted us to do?

After two world wars, the utopian view fell out of fashion. One of the more “enlightened” civilizations in the world, Germany, attempted to create just such a thousand-year kingdom here on earth, but turns out it was led by some antichrists, and in the process it committed some really monstrous acts of evil. Other attempts—and failures—at creating utopias led the bulk of Christians to conclude utopianism isn’t really in our DNA; total depravity is. So Christians quit utopianism to seek a worldview which was more “realistic”—that is, more pessimistic than optimistic.

There are exceptions, of course. Fr’instance Christians in the United States often insist we were founded as a Christian nation, as a special and chosen people, by God-fearing founding fathers. If we just returned to biblical standards and principles, we could fix our nation’s problems and turn this into God’s kingdom. And y’know, even Christians who don’t believe in utopianism fall for this rhetoric on a regular basis. It just sounds so optimistic and patriotic… and blind to the fact Germany tried the very same thing, and look where they went. All it takes is a few hypocrites in power to turn a noble idea into hell on earth.

Nope; Jesus has got to rule his kingdom personally. Unregenerate humans can’t. And once Jesus conquers the world, he’s overthrowing every government. Including ours. No matter how “Christian” we’ve made it look.


I went through Darbyism in my series on There’s a New World Coming, so you can read through that if you want. Or you can just read my summary.

John Nelson Darby expanded upon a system of biblical interpretation called dispensationalism, and his followers call their End Times view “Premillennial Dispensationalism.” For short I call it Darbyism: The view that every single apocalypse in Daniel and Revelation—with many extra prophecies from all over the bible, thrown in for good measure—will be dumped upon the world in a seven-year hellscape. But Christians will sit out either some of it (as midtribulationists claim) or all (as pretribulationists claim) because Jesus secretly raptures us away, ’cause we’re his favorites.

Goes like so.

  • The world’s Christians (the real Christians, anyway) unexpectedly vanish in the rapture.
  • In the ensuing chaos, the Beast takes over the world, promising peace and security. It makes peace in the Middle East for once, signing a seven-year treaty with Israel.
  • Various plagues and disasters smite the world anyway, according to schedule (i.e. the Darbyist timeline—they’ve got it all mapped out).
  • Halfway through the seven years, the Beast breaks its deal with Israel, declares itself God, and declares war on Israel and any other people who won’t worship it. (And now, say the midtribulationists, comes the rapture.)
  • God miraculously defends Israel, just like he did in Exodus, whose history is sorta repeating itself. Plus more plagues and disasters.
  • At the very end, the Beast attempts one big final battle… and Jesus invades, destroying the Beast and its armies, slowly and bloodily and painfully.
  • Jesus, his Christians, and Israel take over the world, and run it for a thousand years.
  • Satan tries to start one more battle, but Jesus easily wins. Then he raises everybody from the dead, judges the world, throws the wicked into hell, and replaces earth with New Earth. The End.

Darby had some really weird ideas about how God works, which is why all these events happen in such a specific order, and why they’ve all gotta happen within this seven-year timeline. Basically, these are Darbyism’s underlying ideas.

  • Dispensationalism, that there are multiple plans of salvation. Not just one, through Christ Jesus: Darby identified seven. Christians are saved by grace, but the ancient Hebrews were saved by following the Law. (No they weren’t, but Darby sure thought so.)
  • Cessationism, that during the current dispensation, God turned off the miracles. Miracles were just for bible times, when there was no bible yet; something needed to convince them of God. But now we have bibles, so we don’t need miracles, so they don’t happen. Any charismatic or Pentecostal who claims otherwise is a heretic. (True—and weirdly—many charismatics are Darbyists, and try to downplay its cessationism. But its futurism is entirely based on the cessationism.)
  • Futurism, that all the prophecies of the End have to happen in the future. After all, so many prophecies describe miracles happening—and as all good cessationists know, God turned off those miracles! For the seven-year End Times, God turns them back on so all the prophecies can be fulfilled. Till then, they won’t. They can’t.
  • If a Darbyist can’t figure out whether an Old Testament prophecy has been fulfilled yet, and figures it probably hasn’t been, whammo: It’s included in their End Times timeline. ’Cause it’s gotta get fulfilled sometime, and it can’t now ’cause cessationism—ergo futurism, ergo timeline! This is why there’s so very much about Israel in their timeline.
  • God had plans for Israel: Plans to make ’em his people, plans for all Israel to be saved. Ro 11.26 Darbyists take ’em as promises, and hold God to them: Within their timeline, God rescues Israel from the Beast like he did the Hebrews from Egypt. This time, instead of rejecting God once they got to Canaan and dying in the wilderness, all Israel embraces Jesus as their Messiah and becomes Christian—just in time for his return. This is why Darbyists are so pro-Israel in their politics. (More accurately, in favor of any Israeli political party which grants no land nor rights to Palestine.)
  • Literalism, that the apocalypses have to be interpreted literally whenever possible. If Jesus doesn’t say they’re representations of something else, better take ’em literal. To be fair, not all Darbyists are agreed on how literalism works. Hal Lindsey is pretty sure the locusts from the Pit Rv 9.3 are helicopters, and Tim LaHaye is pretty sure they’re demonic locust-creatures. Both are trying to be “literal” in their own way.
  • Revelation takes place in sequence. Chapter 4 (John’s vision of heaven) happens first; chapter 22 (river of life) last. Chapter 12, the birth of Jesus and the fall of Satan… um… er… Okay, they tend to treat that chapter as a flashback. But everything else is in sequence.

Because Darbyism is very detailed—they claim to know exactly what sequence all the End Times events take place—it appeals to those people who really wanna know about the End. Even if they believe they’ll be raptured out before any of it can touch them.

But since no two Darbyists believe precisely alike, they’ve each gotta publicize their own specifics. Hence Darbyists write End Times books like you wouldn’t believe. Go to any Christian bookstore and they dominate the shelf. They have “prophecy conferences” galore, where you can go listen to a bunch of of ’em unroll their timelines and tell you how it all plays out. Look up End Times on the internet and nearly all the sites will be of the Darbyist persuasion. They even have study bibles, which’ll show you just which verses they cherry-pick to construct their timelines.

Like I indicate (okay, bluntly say) in my New World Coming articles, I think they’re all wet. I hang my hat on the last of the four, the preterist view.

The preterist view.

When Jesus told his students about the End, he was speaking of their future. Well, that future came. And went. The bulk of those prophecies were fulfilled. That’s preterism—the belief these End Times events happened already.

Some preterists call themselves historicists, ’cause the End Times events of Revelation describe Christian history. (The horsemen of the apocalypse, Rv 6.1-8 fr’instance: The white horse’s rider, Christ, conquered the Roman Empire, and the other horses describe the backlash ever since against the spread of Christendom.) They reserve the term preterist for the small number of preterists who claim everything in the apocalypses was fulfilled in the first century. Including Jesus’s return, which they claim was a “spiritual” (imaginary) appearance, just for those Christians who died in the tribulation. To them, Jesus isn’t really coming; like the End of Days folks, they figure when we die, or when the world ends, we go to heaven.

Other preterists like to call those guys “full preterists,” and the rest of us “partial preterists.” But “full” preterism slides into heresy too often. The rest of us preterists easily admit: Jesus hasn’t returned yet. Obviously. But we want him to. The sooner the better!

We figure, as most of the New Testament indicates, the only thing we have left to look forward to is the soon, unexpected, and rapid return of Christ Jesus. The skies roll back, the trumpet blasts, the angel shouts, the Lord descends, every Christian (dead and alive) gets transformed, joins him in the air, and the billions of us proceed to Jerusalem where he takes over the world. It’s gonna freak out everyone. But it’s gonna be awesome.

Nope, nothing else has to happen first. ’Cause they’ve happened already. They’ve had 20 centuries to happen. You can figure out when they happened, assuming you didn’t skim that part of your history classes. Or if you haven’t already assumed, as the Darbyists teach, that those events can’t be fulfillments, ’cause futurism. But only Jesus happens in the future. Everything else got out of his way.

The great tribulation? Happened in the year 70, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. But tribulation, persecution, suffering, is the usual state of Christianity. Heck, if you told any refugee who was driven out of their homeland by antichristian terrorists that the great tribulation was in the future, they’d look at you like you lost your mind. How are they not going through great tribulation? Christians are still the most persecuted religion in the world, and only comfortable, safe Christians in the United States are under the delusion it’s the circumstances of a different dispensation.

The Beast? Might exist today, and despite the rhetoric, isn’t some loony casino-owner who’s running for president. Might just as likely have come and gone. But history, as usual, repeats itself: There’ve been a bunch of power-mad world leaders who are decent candidates for the Beast.

And so on. Go through all the other prophecies in the bible: Either they’re done—or they don’t have to be done till Jesus returns. Like all Israel getting saved. Once their Messiah arrives, he’ll sort them out. Till then, keep doing as we’re doing: Share him with them. ’Cause we’d all prefer they rejoice at his return, not freak out like the pagans.

Yeah, there are other theories.

I went through the main four theories, which you’ll find among most Christians; probably 99 percent of ’em. There are of course others. In fact, you might be one of those exceptions, grousing, “You didn’t cover my view.” No, I didn’t.

But I will cover this fifth one: Apathy. “I’m a pan-millennialist,” a Christian of my acquaintance liked to joke. “I believe it’ll all pan out in the end.” A lot of Christians, fed up with “prophecy scholars” who know nothing about either prophecy or scholarship, have decided this is precisely the way to go. He didn’t want to get into End Times debates; he didn’t care which came first, the chicken or the Beast. He just figured Jesus would come for him someday, and he was fine with that.

Well of course Jesus will. The reason we Christians fret about the End Times (“What’s gonna happen?” “Who’s the Beast?” “Must stop the one-world government!” “Must fight the New World Order!” “They’re out to kill us all!”) is the Fear. And since knowledge is power, we figure if we get a little End Times knowledge, we can have some control over the future.

Here’s the reality. No we don’t have control over the future. Jm 4.13-16 Because Jesus has it. He holds the keys to death and hades, Rv 1.18 not us. It makes not a whit of difference what we know about the End. But because we think it might, Jesus preemptively stopped us from foolishly trying to control or change things… and that’s why he gave us nothing but apocalypses to work with.

You get to know the future of a few things. Jn 16.13 You don’t get to know the future of the world. Neither do I. Neither does any Christian. Anyone who claims they figured it out, is simply trying to sell you a book or conference or video. Or they’re nuts. Either way, there are no experts on End Times prophecy. This stuff remains in the hands of the LORD, and that’s best.

What we do get to know is that in the End, God wins. Jesus reigns. We live again, and live forever. No more tears and sorrow. Evil is dealt with. Faith is rewarded. Let it be enough.

And if anyone, anyone teaches it’s okay to suspend God’s commands because the End is coming—if anyone values their own life above God’s kingdom, if anyone values their own interpretations over God’s grace and power, and if anyone tries to exploit human fears for fun and profit—they’re wrong. Don’t let the Fear become a justification for evil. Those behaviors put us outside the kingdom, Ga 5.17-21 even if we think we’re doing them for the kingdom’s sake. We’re not. They’re not. Don’t stand for it.