The word “eschatology” literally means “the study of last things.”
The doctrine of eschatology is really two doctrines unified by a chronological theme.
- Personal Eschatology: Sometimes, when Christians talk about eschatology, they talk about personal eschatology. Personal eschatology is the study of God’s final judgments and the eternal state, heaven and hell.
- Prophetic Eschatology: At other times, Christians use the term eschatology to describe Bible prophecy. Prophetic eschatology is the study of the second coming of Christ and the various events related to His return (the signs of His coming, the Rapture, Great Tribulation, and the kingdom).
Some Christians seek to minimize the study of eschatology. They see the many abuses of this doctrine by those who have strayed from the truth of Scripture. These abuses include date-setting, making controversy over minor points, ignoring the future, getting caught up in details and forgetting Christ. Other people recall controversy in a church over some relatively minor prophetic teaching and equate the study of Bible prophecy with divisiveness.
But about forty percent of the Bible was prophetic when it was written, therefore, the student of the Bible must study prophecy or neglect a vast part of the Scriptures.
It is important to avoid the abuses of this doctrine. This can best be accomplished by an understanding of what the Bible teaches.
As is the case with other doctrines, some Christians have minor differences of opinion concerning some of the more exact details of the interpretation of prophecy.
But there are two areas in which all evangelical Christians agree concerning the return of Christ.
The first is the certainty that He will in fact return. This is the basis for our hope as Christians.
The second is that He may return at any moment, perhaps before you complete reading this article.
When we study Bible prophecy, we should not study the Scriptures exclusively to learn details and arrange prophetic charts.
A correct understanding of prophetic truth will impact the way we live our lives…
- First, prophetic truth motivates us to develop Christian character. Prophetic truth is taught in Scripture as an incentive to godliness (Titus 2:12-13), holiness (2 Peter 3:11), joyfulness (1 Peter 1:8), patience (James 5:8), purity (1 John 3:3), faith (John 14:1-3), sobriety (1 Peter 1:13), moderation (Philippians 4:5), sincerity (Philippians 1:9-11), faithfulness (Revelation 2:25; 3:11), discernment (1 Corinthians 4:5), accountability (Matthew 25:19), and righteousness (Titus 2:12).
- Second, prophetic truth motivates us in our Christian life. Prophetic truth is taught in Scripture as an incentive to obedience (1 Timothy 6:13-14), repentance (Revelation 3:3), watchfulness (I Thessalonians 5:6), abiding in Christ (1 John 2:28), brotherly love (1 Thessalonians 3:12), discipleship (Luke 9:26), readiness (1 Peter 1:13), mortification of the flesh (Colossians 3:4-5), personal separation (1 Thessalonians 5:22- 23), bearing persecution (1 Peter 4:13), enduring the trial of faith (1 Peter 1:7), every good work (2 Thessalonians 2:12), and faithful church attendance (Hebrews 10:35).
- Third, prophetic truth also motivates us to become involved in Christian service. This truth is described in Scripture as an incentive to preaching (2 Timothy 4:1–2), shepherding (1 Peter 5:2-4), comforting one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18), teaching (Matthew 28:20), and evangelism (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).
Signs of the Times. Over the years, scientists have noticed a cause and effect relationship between certain activities. For example, a certain kind of cloud always appears in the sky prior to a thunderstorm. Since God established His world in such a predictable pattern, it should not be surprising that He has also established certain signs to indicate the second coming of Christ.
Two passages of Scripture are generally interpreted by students of prophecy as prophetic accounts of the course of this age. In the kingdom parables of Matthew 13, Jesus taught the growth of Christendom as a result of sowing the Gospel, and the eventual judgment of God. In the church epistles of Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus addressed seven churches which represent seven periods of church history. Many Bible teachers believe the Laodicean church (Revelation 3:14-22) represents the church today, indicating that the return of Christ may be very soon.
In addition to these prophetic pictures of church history, many Bible teachers also look to Israel as an indicator of the soon return of Christ. God’s character demands that He honor His covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-6). Scripture describes a restoration of Israel to the promised land (Ezekiel 37:11-14). Some Bible teachers see the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the expansion of its territory during the Six Day War of 1967, and the declaration of Jerusalem as its capital during the summer of 1980 as partial fulfillments of this prophecy. But the Bible also teaches a regeneration of the nation (Ezekiel 37:14). Today, Israel is in the holy land in unbelief (Deuteronomy 30:1-3), but the stage may be set for a great national revival in Israel which will result in many coming to Christ (Romans 11:25-26).
The growth of internationalism is also viewed by some as a sign of Christ’s soon return. Scripture describes the presence of a world government (Revelation 13:7) and world religion (Revelation 17:1) in the final days prior to the Christ’s return. With a growing number of political and trade alliances being established around the world and a greater ecumenical spirit among nominal Christian churches and some non-Christian faith communities, it is easy to conceive of these things quickly coming into being.
The Rapture of the Church. The next event on God’s prophetic time-table appears to be the rapture of the church. While there are certain signs associated with the second coming of Christ, there appears to be no preconditions established for the rapture of the church. Although the word “rapture” does not occur in Scripture, it is described in both 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4. The word rapture means “caught away” and is used in the Latin versions of 1 Thessalonians 4:17. That verse describes the moment when Christians who are alive when the Rapture occurs will be “caught up” to meet the Lord in the air.
Scripture appears to distinguish between the Rapture and the revelation of Christ in power and glory. In the Rapture, Christians meet Christ in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:13) whereas in the revelation, Christ stands on the Mount of Olives (Zechariah 14:4, 9). Following the Rapture, believers are judged and rewarded (2 Corinthians 5:10). The revelation is followed by judgment and condemnation of unbelievers (2 Thessalonians 1:7). The doctrine of the Rapture is a message of comfort (1 Thessalonians 4:18) but the doctrine of the revelation is a message of judgment (1 Thessalonians 5:4-9).
Not all Christians agree concerning the time of the Rapture in relationship to other prophetic events. Some see it as taking place during or toward the end of the Great Tribulation period, but others argue the Christian will not experience the wrath of God poured out on the world during that period (1 Thessalonians 5:9). Regardless of when one believes the Rapture occurs on their prophetic chart, Scripture teaches that it could occur at any moment (2 Peter 3:8-10). When we argue over when the Rapture may occur and fail to live in anticipation of it taking place imminently, we have failed to understand the biblical teaching of the Rapture.
The Great Tribulation. Much of Bible prophecy is tied to God’s commitment to His people, Israel. Daniel was told that God will deal with the nation for “seventy weeks” (Daniel 9:24). Each day in that prophecy represented one year. At the end of the sixty-ninth week, the Messiah would be cut off (Daniel 9:25). This coincides historically with the crucifixion of Christ. This leaves one more week (seven years) of God’s unique dealings with Israel. Most Bible teachers refer to this future seven-year period of judgment as “The Great Tribulation.”
Scripture describes this period of world history as a time of great distress (Zephaniah 1:15), judgment (Revelation 14:7), darkness (Amos 5:18, 20), and suffering (Matthew 24:21). In the account of this period in Revelation, three distinct series of judgments come upon the earth. The first is associated with opening a seven-sealed scroll in heaven (Revelation 6:1-17; 8:1). The second is associated with blowing seven trumpets in heaven (Revelation 8:1–10:19). The third series of judgments are portrayed as bowls of God’s wrath being poured out upon the earth (Revelation 16:1-21).
Every indication in Scripture is that this future period will mark the darkest days the world has ever experienced. The world is described as being in total chaos under the leadership of a Satan-inspired political leader. There will be significant losses of life and serious negative environmental changes that make life on earth unbearable. Ultimately, the most powerful economic centers of the world will collapse with international consequences. Although this period may begin with the promise of peace, it will be marked by conflict especially directed at the nation Israel and end in an ultimate conflict with the hosts of heaven.
The Kingdom of God. At the end of this tribulation period, “the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven” (Matthew 24:30). Jesus will return as He promised to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth. For a thousand years, He will bring about a reign of peace on earth under conditions of general prosperity. The Old Testament prophets often looked to this kingdom age as a ray of ultimate hope for the nation of Israel which was so often subject to judgment because of their reluctance to repent of sin.
The kingdom period of world history is described as a time when creation will be released from the bondage of corruption in which it now exists (Romans 8:21). This suggests that the environmental problems which characterize the Great Tribulation will be corrected in the Christ’s return. Also, the chaos which characterizes the end of the tribulation period will also be replaced by an orderly state of affairs under the authority of Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Jerusalem will become His royal capital and Palestine will once again be the center of world activity. Everything about this kingdom period is described in the most desirable terms in Scripture.
The Judgments of God. At the end of the thousand years, there is one final rebellion. Satan, who had been restricted during this period, is released to lead one final attack. Some who have been born during the kingdom period but have not come to personal saving faith appear to follow Satan in this doomed attack. This period of human history – “the millennium” – ends with casting Satan and all his followers “into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14).
The Lake of Fire is one of several judgements described in Scripture. The Cross was God’s judgment upon sin (Galatians 3:13). Believers are encouraged to engage in self-judgment (1 Corinthians 11:28). God engages in a disciplinary judgment of His own much as a father who faithfully disciplines his own children (Hebrews 12:3-11). After the Rapture of the church, Christians will appear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive their rewards (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). God will also judge the Gentile nations on the basis of their treatment of His “brethren” (Matthew 25:32-45). In addition to the Great Tribulation and final judgment at the end of the kingdom age, the Bible also teaches that angels will be judged (1 Corinthians 6:3).
Hell. When people think of the judgment of God, they usually think of hell sooner or later. Actually, most Christians prefer not to think of hell, especially if they understand something of its nature. The Bible describes hell as the eternal destiny of Satan and all those who refuse God’s gracious offer of salvation.
Some people object to the Bible’s teaching concerning hell, claiming a loving God would never send people to hell. The testimony of Scripture is that our loving God does everything in His power apart from violating a person’s will to encourage him or her not to go to hell. Those who spend eternity in hell are those who choose not to spend it with God. The reality of hell ought to motivate us to work hard to reach people for Christ and thus depopulate hell by populating heaven.
Heaven. While some people struggle with believing in hell, few struggle with the concept of heaven. Heaven is everything we could want or wish for that is good for us. When John described heaven in the book of Revelation, he described it as the very best of the city (gold streets, brightly lit) and the very best of the country (the pure river of life, healthy trees). He described heaven not only by what he saw, but by what he saw missing (no death, sorrow, crying).
The Bible uses several expressions to describe both heaven and hell, but in both cases those expressions are probably limited. Hell is probably far worse than we could imagine with our limited human ability. In contrast, heaven is probably far greater than we could ever hope in our wildest imagination. As she closed her eyes in death, a dying saint said, “I didn’t realize it would be so beautiful.” Many of us may be surprised at how beautiful heaven is when we first walk through those gates.
The early church “continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine” (Acts 2:42). This means they had a basic understanding of biblical doctrine upon which they built stability into their Christian life. As you have engaged in this introductory study of Bible doctrine, you too have been given the opportunity to begin developing that foundation in your life. As you continue in your Christian life, you will want to learn more and reinforce your doctrinal foundation. But more than just learning doctrine, you should apply these doctrinal truths to life and build stability into your own Christian life.
The Lord bless you in this pursuit.
Dr. Elmer Towns is Vice President of Liberty University, which he co-founded in 1971 with Dr. Jerry Falwell. Dr. Towns has been a popular Sunday school teacher and college and seminary professor for decades.
Here is a summary article of the Foundational Doctrines of the Christian Faith
RELATED ARTICLES: WHAT WE BELIEVE ABOUT…
- THE BIBLE
- THE HOLY SPIRIT
- THE TRINITY
- THE CHURCH
- ESCHATOLOGY (END TIMES)
To grow as a Christian, you need to…
- Pray, worship God and read The Bible each day,
- Join a small group with other Christians to encourage each other’s Christian growth,
- Each week, join in worship at a good Church that preaches The Bible as God’s Word,
- And minister to others in the name of God.
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