Questions About the “End Times”
Dr. Jim Denison
Questions about “end times” are the most common in Christian doctrine today. Theologians call the issue “eschatology,” meaning “a word about last things.” The area deals with such questions as the Second Coming and the nature of hell and heaven. We’ll take each question in turn, beginning with the most perennial of all: when will Jesus return?
During the 16th century, Martin Luther thought the Pope was the Antichrist, and expected Jesus’ return during his lifetime. Christopher Columbus thought the world would end in 1656, and that his explorations would lead a Christian army in the final crusade to convert the world. Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, predicted the “rapture” in 1910 and the end of the world in 1914.
Harold Camping wrote the bestseller 1994? in which he predicted the end would come on September 6, 1994. He again made news by predicting the end would come on May 21, 2011. Edgar Whisenant published Eighty-eight Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988, and sold thousands of copies. Trinity Broadcasting Network president Paul Crouch predicted an apocalyptic event for June 9, 1994. Such predictions will continue, because every believer wants to know: when will Jesus come back? Our question is not new.
Let’s ask three questions: When will Jesus return? How will he return? Why does his return matter?
When will Jesus return?
After his resurrection, “Jesus appeared to his disciples over a period of forty days and spoke to them about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). He then promised them the Holy Spirit (v. 5). They knew that the coming of the Spirit and the coming of the Kingdom were related. So in response, they asked the question Christians have been asking ever since: “Lord, Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).
Their question was logical, but wrong. Calvin said, “There are as many errors in this question as words” (Institutes 1.29).
Jesus says, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (v. 7). “Times or dates” refers to specific dates as well as years. “Not for you” refers to Jesus’ first and closest disciples–Peter, James, John, the others, and even Mary and his brothers. If Jesus wouldn’t tell them when he would return, will he tell you and me?
If discovering the time of his return was possible by scriptural exegesis, or spiritual commitment, would they not have determined it? To say that I know what Peter, James, John, and Mary didn’t is egotism, to say the least.
The Father has placed this decision in his authority alone. Jesus said, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mark 13:32-33). Paul told us that Jesus’ coming would be as surprising and unanticipated as a “thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2). Peter made the same prediction (2 Peter 3:10).
Listen to Jesus’ warning: “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him…It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Luke 12:35-36, 38-40).
No one but God knows when Jesus will return. We must be ready every day, for it could be any day. This is the clear teaching of God’s word.
How should we view the “end times”?
Let’s ask our second question: how should we view the “end times,” the event of Jesus’ return?
Someone asked a wise older pastor his view of the “end times.” He smiled and said, “The Lord put me on the preparation committee, not the planning committee.” He spoke for us all. We cannot control how the Lord chooses to end history. Our theories about the future are just that. The word of God is too practical to focus extensively on an issue which possesses no pragmatic value for our lives. If I could prove a particular theory of the end times to you, would such knowledge change your life today?
Nonetheless, sincere Christians debate these issues passionately. In this section we’ll survey very briefly the various options held by biblical interpreters. And we’ll seek practical applications for our lives today.
Seven approaches to “end times”
Regarding the book of Revelation and other eschatological biblical texts, seven approaches find support among evangelical scholars. Listed in no particular order, we will examine each one.
Preterist: This position asserts that Revelation and other eschatological literature were written primarily for the encouragement of their immediate audiences, not to predict or speak to the future.
Scholars in this tradition emphasize the “apocalyptic” nature of eschatological literature. “Apocalyptic” (from the Greek word for “unveiling”) was a popular literary approach from 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. It used symbolic, visionary and dramatic elements to convey encouragement and hope to persecuted people. Preterists argue that Revelation matches every description of “apocalyptic” literature except that it names its author (“apocalyptic” writings are typically pseudonymous). And so they interpret Revelation as we understand Philippians—a first-century book with perennial spiritual application. They would not see the book or other eschatological literature as predictive in nature, but as intended first for their original, persecuted audiences.
Continuous-historical: A second approach is known as the Continuous-historical school. It sees Revelation and other eschatological texts as forecasting the development of history. It located specific texts with specific events through history. While this approach was popular with Luther, Calvin, and other reformers, it is the least popular of the seven today.