Some people, it would seem, do not learn from experience.
I remember the year 1994 quite well. I graduated from high school in the spring of that year and in the fall I began my theological studies at Providence College in Otterburne. For me it was a year of memorable experiences. Those experiences did not include the end of the world and Judgment Day.
That should come as no surprise to you since I am writing this seventeen years later in 2011. At the time, however, it came as a surprise to at least one man. That man was Harold Camping, the president of Family Radio, who two years previously had published a massive volume entitled 1994? In that book he speculated that Christ would return in September of the year mentioned in the title.
Camping’s speculations proved to be false and you would think he would have learned his lesson. Camping, however, has adjusted his calculations, and now predicts that the rapture will occur on May 21, 2011.
The 24th chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, begins with Jesus’ disciples coming to Him to show Him the architecture of the Temple. Jesus then says to them “See ye not all these things? Verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” From our vantage point, two millennia later, we realize that Jesus was predicting the destruction of the Temple that would occur when the Romans sacked Jerusalem later that century. At the time, however, His disciples naturally took His prediction to be referring to something that would take place at the end of time. They therefore came to Him privately, when He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, and asked Him “Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?”
The disciples did not realize that their questions pertained to two different events that would be separated by a great length of time. We know that now, however, because it is almost two millennia since the Temple was destroyed and Christ has not yet returned “to judge the quick and the dead”. We therefore have the advantage of knowing that Jesus’ answer to the disciples, which has come to be known as the “Olivet Discourse” and which covers the rest of the chapter and all of the next, addresses both the events of AD 70 and His future Second Coming.
In the course of the Olivet Discourse Jesus says:
But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.
Is this referring to the destruction of the Temple or to His second coming?
We know that it refers to His second coming because Jesus goes on to exhort His disciples to an attitude of watchfulness telling them “Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come”.
Mr. Camping is not the only one who has ignored these words of Christ. In the last half-century there has been a great deal of date-setting, some of it brought on by the end of the second millennium, some of it brought on by historical events like the re-birth of Israel. Nor are Bible teachers, or even Christians, the only ones talking about the end of the world. Hollywood has taken advantage of the end of the millennium, astronomical predictions of an asteroid colliding with earth, speculation about life on other planets and the possibility of an invasion from outer space, the upcoming end of the current b’ak’tun cycle of the Mayan Calendar, Nostradamus’s prophecies, and Al Gore’s environmentalist hysteria to produce a wide array of apocalyptic movies. On occasion some of them were even interesting and entertaining.
The word “apocalyptic” that is used to describe this movie genre is also used to describe a genre of sacred literature. The term is derived from the New Testament where where the Greek title of the last book of the New Testament written, and the last found in the canonical order, is Apokalypsis Ioannu, which transliterated into English becomes “The Apocalypse of John” and translated into English becomes “The Revelation of John”. The word in Greek means the uncovering or the unveiling of that which was hidden or secret. The Book of Revelation is the book that features the seven seals, trumpets, and bowls with their accompanying plagues upon the earth, the unleashing of demons from the bottomless pit, the war in heaven between St. Michael and the dragon who is the devil and Satan, the rise of the twelve headed beast ridden by the Babylonian harlot, the return of Christ, the final judgment, the lake of fire, and the end of the world, which is replaced by new heavens, a new earth, and the New Jerusalem. It is easy to see why it has lent its name to literature and movies discussing the end of the world. The name of the location in the Holy Land that the Book identifies as the place where the armies of the world will gather to wage war against the returning Christ has also become synonymous with “the end of the world”. That place is Har Megiddo or Armageddon.
In theology, the interpretation of the Revelation of St. John and similar literature such as the Book of Daniel, falls under the category of eschatology. Eschatology is a term derived from the Greek word for “last” and is the theology of “last things”. Since the middle of the 19th Century a great deal of theological literature on the subject of eschatology has been published. Some of it is scholarly and academic, much of it is written at a popular level. There is an unfortunate tendency among the writers of popular eschatology towards sensationalism and speculation about how current events might be precursors of eschatological events indicating that the end is near. This tendency is what leads to foolish predictions like those of Mr. Hocking.
There is, however, another eschatological error that has been growing in popularity in recent years. Errors are like the vices Aristotle wrote about – they tend to come in pairs of opposites. The plethora of popular “Bible prophecy” writings whose authors purport to know far more than can actually be known about the end of the world and how close we are to it repels many towards an opposite error which asserts that we can know nothing at all about such matters, that we have no revelation from God whatsoever about what the future holds.
This error currently goes under the name “preterism”. Preterism should be carefully distinguished from pre-millennialism and pre-tribulationism, for while all three are eschatological positions and all begin with the prefix “pre”, the one is very different from the other two.
Preterism holds that all predictive prophecy in Scripture including the prophecies of the Second Coming of Christ, the resurrection, and the final judgment, have already been fulfilled and that nothing is predicted beyond the sack of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple by the Romans. Pre-millennialism, on the other hand, is one of the two major eschatological positions that have vied with each other throughout Church history. The other is a-millennialism. There is a third position called post-millennialism but it has never been as widespread as the other two and has only ever had a significant influence in North America (although certain forms of progressive liberalism could be considered to be a secularized version of post-millennialism).
Pre-millennialism, which was the leading view of eschatology in the pre-Augustinian Church and which has enjoyed a comeback in the 19th and 20th centuries (albeit in a very different form than the chiliasm of the early Church) holds that in Revelation 19, 20, 21, you have a fairly straightforward depiction of what will happen at Christ’s return. Jesus will come back and defeat His enemies (19), will raise His Church from the dead, bind Satan in the bottomless pit, and establish His kingdom on earth, then after a thousand years (the millennium in pre-millennialism, although pre-millennialists may not necessarily believe the number “thousands” to be literal) Satan will be released to lead one final rebellion, that will be instantly crushed, Satan is then sent to his final doom, where he is soon to be joined by those whose names are not written in the Book of Life (20), after which God creates new heavens and a new earth, and the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city with twelve pearly gates, will descend to earth where God will dwell in the midst of His people forever (21).
A-millennialism, on the other hand, holds that the thousand year kingdom described in Revelation 20 is the spiritual kingdom of God that is present on the earth in our own age. The thousand years, therefore, is not something that takes place after Christ’s second coming as a straightforward reading of the last chapters of Revelation would suggest, but is symbolic of the time period between the Ascension and the Second Coming. This is the interpretation of Revelation that St. Augustine expounded and following St. Augustine it came to replace the chiliasm (early pre-millennialism) of the ante-Nicene patrists as the dominant view within the Church. It remains the most widespread view today, although pre-millennialism has become the majority view among evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants.
The term “pre-tribulationism” is a variation of modern, as opposed to early, pre-millennialism. It is particularly associated with the “dispensationalist” school of pre-millennial thought that originated among the Plymouth Brethren and was spread among evangelical/fundamentalist Protestants through the popular Scofield Reference Bible. The term “pre-tribulationism” refers to the timing of the event dispensationalists call “The Rapture”. This term comes from the Latin word rapio, -ere which means “catch up”. This is the Latin word used by St. Jerome to translate the Greek word harpazo in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. “The Rapture” is the event described in this chapter of St. Paul’s epistle, in which living believers are “caught up” together with the resurrected dead in Christ, to meet the returning Christ in the air. Pre-tribulationists believe that this is a separate event from the Second Coming of Christ proper. They believe that the Rapture will take place prior to “The Tribulation”. The word “tribulation” means suffering and distress. Dispensationalists use the term to refer to the period of time, immediately prior to Christ’s return, in which the ultimate Anti-Christ rules the earth.
It sounds awfully complicated doesn’t it? It gets more so. Just as pre-millennialism’s big rival is a-millennialism, so pre-tribulationism comes with its set of rivals. These are post-tribulationism in which the Rapture and Second Coming are identical and mid-tribulationism in which the Rapture takes place after the Anti-Christ has risen to power. There are also some extra creative variations that we need not go into here.
In contrast, the preterist system seems rather simple doesn’t it? The Rapture, Tribulation, Second Coming, Millenium, Final Judgment, and everything else are old news. They all took place by the year AD 70.
Is there support for the preterist position in Scripture?
As mentioned earlier, some parts of the Olivet Discourse have to be interpreted in a preterist way, because Jesus was answering His disciples’ questions about both the destruction of the Temple and His Second Coming. The former event took place in the first century. It seems rather a stretch, however, to reason from this that the Second Coming must have taken place in the first century also.
Preterists can also point to language in the Book of Revelation and argue it is clearly talking about first century institutions and personages with whom the first readers of the book would have been familiar. While this might very well be the best way to read those parts of the book it would seem that the preterists are going too far when they read the events of Rev. 19-22 into the first century as well.
Preterists will argue that futurists (which includes a-millennialists, post-millennialists, and pre-millennialists of all stripes – everyone who believes in a future Second Coming) are making the same mistake that 1st Century Jews made, who were anticipating a Messiah who would be a political liberator who would deliver them from the rule of Rome and re-establish the throne of David in Jerusalem. The kingdom of God is not a literal, earthly kingdom, they argue, it is a spiritual kingdom. Here a number of texts would seem to support them. “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Lk. 17:21). “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (John 18:36)
It is significant that the verses quoted above were not spoken by Jesus to His disciples in response to their own expectations that He would literally establish a kingdom on earth. Indeed, whenever they asked Him about His kingdom, giving Him the opportunity to correct them on this point, He did not do so. Instead He told them to watch because they know not the day nor the hour, and that the places of honour at His right and left hand were reserved for those whom the Father had appointed to them.
In contrast, there were others in 1st Century Judea who held erroneous eschatological views, that Jesus corrected rather bluntly. The Sadducees, for example, denied the resurrection of the dead, hinted at in some passages in Psalms and Job, and predicted outright in the Book of Daniel. These came to Jesus hoping to trip Him up. Here is St. Matthew’s account of it:
The same day came to him the Sadducees, which say that there is no resurrection, and asked him, Saying, Master, Moses said, If a man die, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. Now there were with us seven brethren: and the first, when he had married a wife, deceased, and, having no issue, left his wife unto his brother: Likewise the second also, and the third, unto the seventh. And last of all the woman died also. Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her. Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven. But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. (Matt. 22:23-32)
The Sadducees denied the resurrection outright and Jesus confronted them on it. Later on, St. Paul would confront a different error concerning the resurrection. The Thessalonian Church kept getting disturbed by false teaching about the resurrection. First they were worried about members of their church who had passed away. St. Paul wrote the following to allay their fears:
But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thess. 4:13-18)
But then, shortly after writing this epistle, the church was again shaken, and St. Paul had to write them a second epistle in order “that ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.” (2 Thess. 2:2). Now why would a report that the “day of Christ is at hand” trouble the church?
We find the explanation in St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy. In the second chapter of this epistle he writes about a Hymenaeus and Philetus. What does he say about them?
Who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some. (2 Thess. 2:18)
It would appear that we have here encountered the founders of preterism.
A virtue, Aristotle said, lies between two opposing vices. Likewise we often find truth between two opposite errors.
What truth lies between those who think we can decipher every little detail about what is going to happen at the end of time from Scripture and those who think that the Scripture says nothing about the future whatsoever?
Pre-millennialism and a-millennialism both have excellent arguments in their favour from Scripture. Pre-millennialists have the most straightforward reading of the text and the support of the earliest Church fathers. A-millennialists, however, have the bulk of orthodox theologians down through the centuries on their side and once we have ruled out the preterist position that there will be no future Second Coming, some of the better of the preterist arguments would seem to support the a-mill position.
Pre-millennialism and a-millennialism, at least in their most basic forms, would therefore both seem to fall within Christian orthodoxy. If we are looking therefore, for a definite doctrine about “last things”, something that could be said to define Christian orthodoxy on the subject, we must look at a more basic level of doctrine where pre- and a- millennialists both agree.
Here we come to the basic certainties about the future, affirmed by Scriptures, in line with the Creeds of the undivided Church, and held by the body of Christ in every time and place in which it has been found down through the centuries, the Four Last Things.
There is an old saying that there is nothing certain in life except death and taxes. Scripture would definitely support this saying, for the first of the two certainties at least. The author of Hebrews tells us “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27) We all entered this world through birth. We will all leave it through death. There are exceptions in Scripture that prove this rule – Enoch and Elijah seem to have been translated into the next life without dying and St. Paul, in both 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4 indicates that believers who are alive at Christ’s return will also pass into the resurrection life without going through death first.
For the vast majority of us, however, death will claim us at the end of our lives. What lies after death? This question has made death a terrifying and sobering reality to mankind down through the ages. The author of Hebrews, in the verse quoted above, has told us what immediately comes after death.
The last judgment is one of those themes in sacred art, that all the great masters seem to have attempted at least once. The most famous is Michaelangelo’s fresco rendition on the altar wall of the Sistene Chapel, but other examples abound throughout Europe. It was a favorite subject among the early Flemish masters. Rogier van der Weyden created a well-known polyptych version which can be found in the Musée de l'Hôtel-Dieu, Beaune, and there are famous versions by Jan van Eyck and Hieronymus Bosch.
The renditions vary but in each the dead are depicted as standing before Christ and being divided into two groups, one which is led by angels into everlasting bliss, the other of which is dragged down by demons into everlasting woe.
Do these paintings accurately portray Scriptural truth?
The concept of a final judgment occurs repeatedly in the teachings of Jesus Christ. In His Sermon on the Mount He speaks of the day when many will come to Him pointing to great works done in His name as evidence of their intimate relationship with Him, to whom He will turn away with a disavowal of the relationship “I never knew you”. Elsewhere in the same sermon He warns than an angry word is enough to endanger a person at this judgment and that it is better to mutilate oneself, if needs be, than to sin. Outside this Sermon He warned that men would have to give an account of every word spoken idly.
In the Olivet Discourse Christ describes the Final Judgment as occurring at the end of time, with the angels gathering the nations of the world before Him, where they will be separated into “sheep” and “goats”. The sheep will be rewarded for acts of mercy done to Christ, the goats condemned for not doing such acts of mercy to Christ, with each group being surprised at this judgment and told that the actions in question were done (or not done) to “the least of these my brethren” which Christ counts as being towards Himself.
St. Paul writes that we will all be judged by our works, and in St. John’s Apocalypse the Final Judgment is depicted as taking place before the Great White Throne of Christ, on the basis of the books containing their deeds. The deciding factor is the Book of Life. Those whose names are not written in that book are cast into the Lake of Fire.
It is clear, therefore, that the entire New Testament teaches that we will give an account to our Maker after death for all of our thoughts, words and deeds in this life. This event is closely connected in Scripture to two other events, the General Resurrection and the Second Coming.
Some of the paintings of the Last Judgment can be misleading, however. The Last Judgment by van der Weyden and that of Hans Memling both show the dead being weighed in a scale by the Archangel. In both cases it is a dead saint being weighed against a dead sinner but the introduction of scales can create the popular misconception that the standard at the Judgment will be whether or not one’s good deeds outweigh one’s bad deeds. That is not, however, the standard God judges by. He demands perfection, and a single sin is enough to tip the scales in favour of damnation.
That is why the only way to survive this judgment is to have your sins removed by the blood of Jesus Christ. When Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was dying upon the Cross at Calvary, He bore the sins of the whole world upon Himself and was judged for those sins. The Gospel message proclaims the remission of sins, through His blood, to all who believe in Him for it. The sinner who trusts in Christ can face the judgment with confidence, knowing that his sins will not be brought against him there, because they have already been judged and paid for at the Cross. Those who do not believe in Jesus, He warned, will die in their sins and will be condemned by those sins at the Judgment.
Each of the Gospels records that the night before the Crucifixion, Jesus and His Apostles celebrated the Passover together. Some of the things which Jesus said to His Apostles at this seder which we call the Last Supper are mentioned by all four Evangelists. These include the prediction of Judas’ betrayal and the prediction that St. Peter would deny Christ three times that very night. The Synoptic Gospels – those of Sts. Matthew, Mark and Luke, record the commissioning of the sacrament of the Eucharist at this supper. St. John does not talk of this but he does record a lengthy discourse that Jesus gave at the supper. In that discourse Jesus said the following:
Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. (John 14:1-3)
What Jesus calls “My Father’s house” here is commonly referred to as “Heaven”. Jesus Himself refers to His Father’s house as “Heaven” in the model prayer He gave His disciples which we call The Lord’s Prayer. The prayer begins “Our Father, Which art in Heaven”. This use of the word “Heaven” should be distinguished from other ways in which the word is used in Scripture. Today, we refer to the place where clouds are and where birds fly as “the sky” and we refer to the place where the sun, moon, and stars are as “outer space”. The Bible calls both of these places “heaven” or “the heavens”. The 21st chapter of the Book of Revelation begins with St. John describing his vision of a new heaven and a new earth – the old heaven and the old earth had passed away. The heaven referred to here is the heaven we can see – the sky and outer space. The Heaven which is God’s house will not pass away.
It should also be noted that when the King James Bible uses the word “mansion” in John 14 it is not using it in the way that Ira Stamphill used it in his gospel tune “Mansion Over the Hilltop”. Stamphill understood the word “mansion” the way it is commonly used today – a very big house on a large estate. Some kinds of dramatic productions used to be performed on a long stage on which several booths or tents would be set up to represent a different location within the story being performed. The actors would move from tent to tent as the story dictated. These tents were called “mansions” and this is what is being alluded to by the use of the word “mansion” here. The Greek word translated “mansion” is “monai” and it means “living place” or “abode”.
In Revelation 21, the Father’s house of which Jesus speaks in John 14, is depicted as a great city, the New Jerusalem:
And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Rev. 21:2)
Christ’s bride is His Church, and the holy city is her dwelling place. When the Book of Revelation describes the holy city descending to earth it is saying that following the Judgment Heaven and earth will be one place. Here in Rev. 21 we find the twelve gates each made from a single pearl, and the streets paved with gold. The final chapter of Revelation describes a crystal clear river of the water of life, flowing down the street of the New Jerusalem, from the throne of God and of the Lamb. On the banks of the river the tree of life grows.
Here, the Book of Revelation closes where the Book of Genesis began. The tree of life, which grew in the midst of the Paradise in which man was placed when first created, was denied to man because of sin. In the New Jerusalem, he may eat of it freely, for:
there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever. (Rev. 22:3-5)
The Paradise which man lost through sin, Christ has regained for man through His redeeming sacrifice, so that man may experience the Beatific Vision of God.
In the midst of its description of the new heaven, new earth, and the Holy City, the Book of Revelation warns that not everybody will arrive at this state of blessedness:
But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. (Rev. 21:8)
The point of this verse is not that “murderers”, “whoremongers” and “sorcerers” belong to special categories of evildoers who are far worse than the average sinner and therefore deserve this fate. This is the fate that all people have earned by their sinful actions. The only way to avoid it is through Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world. Christ came to bear the sins of the world upon Himself in order that man might be redeemed, justified, and forgiven. He promises everlasting life to all who believe in Him. Those who believe in Him have their names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, and this second death cannot touch them.
Those who do not believe in Jesus, who do not trust in Him as the sin-bearing redeemer, must bear their own sins eternally, including the sin of having finally rejected the provision God made for forgiveness and salvation.
As Dr. Larry Dixon (1) has put it this is the “Other Side of the Good News”.
Hell is not a very likable doctrine but that is no argument against its truth. Unless one completely shuts one’s eyes to reality, it is difficult to ignore the fact that sin, evil, and suffering abound in the world around us. These things are unpleasant but they are an undeniable part of reality.
Human sin is a reality, and a just God must judge and punish sin. That same just God is a merciful God and has freely given the world of fallen men a Savior in the person of His Only Son Jesus Christ. The salvation Jesus accomplished for man on the cross is available to all who will trust Him for it.
If we don’t trust Him, if we reject the Savior and the salvation God has freely given us, the only option left to us is to bear the wrath of God upon ourselves for all eternity.
Death and Judgment are universal certainties. Heaven and Hell, on the other hand, are mutually exclusive. We either accept the salvation God has freely given in Jesus Christ, or we will receive what we have earned for our sinful rebellion against God.
“The wages of sin is death”, St. Paul wrote, “but the gift of God is everlasting life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:23)
Or as Baptist evangelist John R. Rice paraphrased that verse “if you go to Hell, you pay your own way. You go to Heaven on a free pass”.
The day and hour in which Jesus Christ will "come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead" is not revealed to us and will not be revealed until it happens. It is not important for us to know that. What is important is that we know where we will stand at that judgment.
Whether Christ comes back today or ten thousand years from now, the important thing is that we chose Him today.
(1) Dr. Larry E. Dixon, who is professor of Systematic Theology and Church History at Columbia International University Seminary and School of Missions in Columbia, South Carolina was formerly the professor of theology at Providence College in Otterburne, Manitoba. He is the author of a number of books, including The Other Side of the Good News: Confronting the Contemporary Challenges to Jesus Teaching on Hell, first published by Victor Books of Wheaton, Illinois in 1992, reprinted by Christian Focus Publications of Tain, Scotland in 2003. He was my faculty adviser at Providence and my professor for systematic theology, 1st year NT Greek, and a number of other classes.