We can follow many tempting rabbit trails in discussing the end times and Jesus’ return, so to give this series a solid foundation, I want to begin by making a distinction between the essential and non-essential beliefs associated with these topics.
An essential belief is a common, historical belief that has been consistently held by a vast majority of Christians across denominational lines over an extended period of time because it is clearly supported by Scripture. A non-essential belief is a belief that is not as widely held because it is not as clearly apparent in Scripture, and as a result, sincere Christians may disagree about it. Essential beliefs are commonly seen as just that—essential. They are usually viewed as the foundational beliefs of orthodox Christianity—the clear biblical teachings a believer in Christ is expected to accept without reservation. Non-essential beliefs are areas where liberty and diversity of thought are allowed and even expected because the Scriptures are not as clear in these areas, which opens up possibilities for different interpretations.
An example of where essential and non-essential beliefs converge is in the sacrament of communion, or the Lord’s Supper. For 2,000 years, Christians have believed, practiced, and taken communion seriously. It is something we know we are supposed to do. However, the specifics about how communion should be served, the frequency with which it is taken, and even the meaning of what exactly occurs in communion are all areas where sincere Christians have held differing beliefs for hundreds of years. The reason for this is because the Bible is clear about the importance of taking communion, but the specifics are not clearly laid out. Therefore, the importance of taking communion is an essential belief, but beliefs surrounding the frequency and format of taking communion are non-essential beliefs for a majority of Christians, even though Catholics and Lutherans would consider them essential.
When it comes to eschatology, the beliefs in the temporary nature of this world and the imminent return of Jesus are essential beliefs Christians are expected to hold. Jesus directly and exhaustively taught about the end times and the ultimate demise of this world (Matthew 24; Mark 13; etc.). He also taught that He would return one day (Revelation 22:20), and on the day of His ascension, two angels appeared and told the disciples, “Men of Galilee…why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
Out of the 27 books in the New Testament, 25 state directly or implicitly that Jesus is returning one day. There are more than 70 references to the return of Jesus and multiple other passages that speak about the end times. A number of different terms are associated with these events, such as the parousia (presence), epiphany (manifestation), apocalypsis (unveiling), the day of the Lord, etc. The Bible uses analogies to describe the suddenness and unpredictability of Jesus’ return, with phrases like “as it was in the days of Noah,” “like a thief in the night,” “as a flash of lightening,” “in the twinkling of an eye,” and the arrival of the traveling “bridegroom.” We are told Christ will come visibly, dramatically, and suddenly. At this event, believers will be with God and reign with Him forever, and there will be a new heaven and new earth (2 Peter 3-13). Unbelievers will be judged according to their sins.
The beliefs that this world will cease and that Jesus will come again are essential, and Christians around the world have historically held to them. However, beliefs about the details of what will happen prior to and immediately after Christ’s return are non-essential beliefs. Christians have debated and disagreed about them for centuries. Nonetheless, some people try to turn these beliefs about details into essential beliefs by insisting believers accept a particular understanding of the events surrounding Jesus’ return, implying or outright stating that a failure to do so will have some great consequence.
When it comes to understanding the end times, theologians hold variations of four primary views. The first is Dispensational Premillennialism, which teaches there will be a rapture in which Christians will be taken out of this world, followed by a literal seven-year tribulation before the return of Christ. While currently very popular, this view has only been mainstream for about 150 years. It was virtually unheard of prior to the 19th century, and even among proponents of this view, there are disagreements over whether the rapture will occur pre-, mid-, or post-tribulation. A second view of the end times is Amillennialism. This school of thought believes that many of the biblical prophecies associated with the end times are figurative and not to be taken literally. Proponents of this view believe the Kingdom of God is here and now but will not be fully realized until the return of Christ. Amillennialism holds that the rapture and Christ’s return are a single event and that the tribulation is not confined to a literal seven-year period. This view is associated with many theologians, such as Augustine, Martin Luther, and Abraham Kuyper. The two other primary views, which I will not expound upon here, are Historical Premillennialism (G. Archer, M. Erickson) and Postmillennialism, which is very similar to Amillennialism (Jonathan Edwards, Isaac Watts, and Matthew Henry).
Once again, many people will insist you must accept their understanding of the end times in order to be a genuine Christian. They will attempt to suck you into arguments about the details surrounding the return of Jesus. Don’t take that bait. Jesus intentionally left the details nebulous. From the first century to the present time, Christians have believed in the imminent return of Jesus, but the details and expectations surrounding His return have been debated and divisive for just as long.
The return of Jesus is an orthodox and essential Christian belief, but the beliefs about the details and order of end times events, which are debated among the four primary schools of thought, are non-essential. And trying to interpret and connect every current event with a specific prophecy or sign of the times is even more troublesome. In a later post, I’ll discuss the mistakes associated with placing too much emphasis on predictions about specific events and details. This is where the real fun will start…