Apocalypse: A Beginner's Guide to the End
Updated: Oct 9, 2020
The phrase The End Times invokes awe, wonder, fear, confusion, and skepticism. Eschatology has become a divisive subject in the Church due to entrenched doctrinal differences as well as con-men and charlatans who have made dubious predictions and maligned the topic via guilt by association. But the theological implications of eschatology are enormous and the volume of content on the subject in scripture is difficult to ignore. An overview of the apocalyptic scriptures and their implications therefore is vitally important for every believer—even if it is somewhat uncomfortable.
Importance of Prophecy
Many question the importance of the prophetic and apocalyptic passages in scripture. There are several reasons for downplaying both the meaning and the gravity of these warnings, but we must realize that none of them are consistent with biblical teaching. One might argue that some have been led down a problematic path of date setting or mystical theology due to their focus on such passages and therefore claim it is a slippery slope that is best to avoid akin to the warning against doctrines which produce idle speculation found in 1 Ti 1:3-4. However this argument ignores the fact that many have been led astray and have developed bad theology and heretical ideas from the rest of scripture as well (2 Pe 3:16). Yet we still teach from those texts and passages, so this is not even a logical argument, let alone biblical one. Scripture is clear that we are to be aware of the prophetic events recorded in its text and be on the lookout for their fulfillment, but Christians are tempted to ignore this command due to fear, ignorance, apathy, or skepticism. We are so engrossed in our daily lives, that Jesus’ return seems distant or irrelevant—but it's important to note that this attitude isn’t just indifference, it’s sin (Luk 12:45-46).
End-times prophecy was being recorded thousands of years ago to a generation that didn’t even witness Christ’s first coming, let alone His second. Yet God deemed it pertinent to speak those words to His prophets at that time. How much more so are these words relevant for us in this day and age? Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven being at hand (near) and He scolded the Pharisees for not being aware of the signs of the times (Mat 16:2-4). Jesus also spoke through many parables about being on the watch and ready for His return (Mat 24:42-51, Mat 25:1-13, Luk 12:35-38 et al). The apostles and New Testament writers were equally clear—hardly a single letter was written that did not include a warning of the end times and a challenge to be ready. Even Jesus’ birth was a lesson in prophetic awareness—the Jewish shepherds who should've been watching and waiting had to be told by angels the Messiah had been born while the Gentile wise men were aware of the signs of the times and were ready.
But what is the practical importance of prophecy? First of all, God is outside of time and sees all events in human history simultaneously. His plan for creation and redemption is always in motion and He, being the relational Father that He is, wants to communicate that plan to us (Amo 3:7). But the communication is also intended to spur us into action, to partner with God in His plan (Jas 2:26). Jesus didn’t redeem all mankind, He made their redemption possible and then called us to partner with Him in the redemption process (Mat 28:19-20). God uses the very thing that caused death and destruction in His perfect creation (mankind) to redeem it. Not because we are worthy or capable, but because He loves us and wants to share with us the joy of redemption. Christianity is not a spectator sport nor does it foster a fatalistic worldview (the idea that God’s will is done all the time regardless of our actions).
Fatalism is a very Islamic worldview which has probably crept into our faith simply because it’s very convenient as it requires nothing of us. Fatalism places all the onus on God—He does everything and we’re just along for the ride. But this is not biblical Christianity—or even biblical Judaism. Biblical Christianity is a covenant with God, a relationship that requires the bride of Christ moving with her Bridegroom to accomplish His will. This can be seen throughout the biblical texts from Old Testament conditional promises (“if you do that, then I will do this”) to Jesus teaching his disciples to pray “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” In other words, God’s perfect will is done in heaven, but not always on earth—we have to pray and partner with God to bring it to pass. Scripture says we are the body of Christ—His hands and feet, His ambassadors, His salt and light. We are working with our Father to redeem all of creation.
But Christians have often accepted a fatalistic view of the end times and the return of Christ rather than a participatory one. They think the clock is set, God has ordained it, and there is nothing they can do to affect His return. Scripture says something quite different however. When asked about Christ's return, Christians often take the “no man knows the day or hour” response as meaning it is set but unrevealed rather than the exact timing is unknowable due to dynamic factors. Jesus explained to His disciples of what to be on the lookout for as signs indicating the nearing of His return (wars, famine, earthquakes etc.) but called them all “birth pangs” (Mar 13:8). There is no precise schedule for a birth—a woman can be in labor for minutes, hours or days—but contractions are certainly a sign that a baby is on the way sooner rather than later. But what is telling is that Jesus also gave a very clear response to the question of when He would return saying, “This gospel must first be preached to all nations and then the end will come” (Mat 24:14, Mar 13:10). In other words, we play a dynamic part in determining when Christ returns by being faithful to complete the task which Christ left us. Just like a woman in labor, there are things in which we can do to help or hinder the birth, to speed up the process or to slow it down. Ultimately the baby is going to be born, but we do have some influence on the timing. Jesus said our influence was world missions—get the gospel to every nation and His return would come sooner, procrastinate and His return would come later. As Peter says in his second letter, we're not waiting on Christ to return—He's waiting on us.
Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.” ...The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. -2 Pe 3:3, 4, 9
The Beginning of the End
Before we go any further we need to understand that we are indeed living in the "last days." However, the biblical definition of this phrase is important to understand as it relates to the entire period of time between Christ's first and second coming, not just the time immediately prior to the return of Christ. The "last days" are not literal days in apocalyptic texts, but are metaphorical with a prophetic "day" traditionally understood as a year in some contexts (such as in the book of Daniel), but also interpreted as a period of a thousand years. It is this latter usage which applies to the term the latter days as currently two prophetic "days" have elapsed since Christ ascended into heaven and left His church behind to finish the task He began. Many believe that Genesis and the creation week establish the biblical timeline of seven prophetic "days" equaling 7,000 years of human history. Others are skeptical of this claim, but there is certainly an internal logic to this interpretation with the millennial (1,000 year) reign of Christ being the final "day" of history—the sabbath established and foretold in the creation week event in Genesis. This interpretation leans heavily on a premillennial eschatological view—that the 1,000 year reign of Christ mentioned in apocalyptic texts is both literal and has not yet occurred. We'll cover the three major millennial views later, but first let's look at the biblical evidence for the day/millennium argument in the context of prophecy.
Most are familiar with the passage in 2nd Peter which makes the plain text connection between a day and a thousand years (2 Pe 3:8), but of course the context of that verse is the promise of His return. Indeed the whole of 2nd Peter 3 was discussing the second coming of Christ and was the major theme present in the entire book. So it is reasonable to note that within this prophetic context, the day/millennium connection is important. It also isn't a recent doctrine—it's literally as old as the church itself. The writings of Barnabas (companion of Paul) from the first century clearly establish this doctrine in The Epistle of Barnabas chapter 15 when he writes, "Attend, my children, to the meaning of this expression, He finished in six days. This implies that the Lord will finish all things in six thousand years, for a day is with Him a thousand years. And He Himself testifies, saying, Behold, today will be as a thousand years. Therefore, my children, in six days, that is, in six thousand years, all things will be finished."
Of course the early church got this idea from the Jews, who to this day maintain a (reconstructed) Hebrew calendar which differs from our modern Gregorian calendar in several ways. Of course it is a lunar rather than solar calendar, but more importantly it is not broken into BCE and CE timelines, rather it counts each year starting from Adam. The Gregorian year 2020 CE (or AD if you prefer) is the Hebrew year 5780—that is the supposed 5,780th year since Adam was created. Now this calendar was reconstructed in the 12th century by the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, so though it is the official calendar used today in Israel, it is not necessarily an accurate number. I stress this point to avoid the temptation for some to argue that in precisely 220 years we will enter the beginning of the prophetic 7th "day" and the millennial reign of Christ as date setting is extremely problematic. I simply want to establish the provenance and logic of the day/millennium argument. But the classical Jewish sources—the Talmud, Midrash, and even the extreme sectarian Kabbalistic texts of the Zohar—all align on this idea of 6,000 years of human history before the coming age or "day" of the Lord where the Messiah reigns from Jerusalem.
Now the principle of Shabbat—the Sabbath rest—is not just tied to the 7th day of the week—it was tied to cycles of seven. For example, in the 7th month of the Hebrew calendar was a seven day long Shabbat called the Feast of Booths (Lev 23:33-36). The 7th year was also a Sabbath year in the Old Testament, called the Shmita (Ex 23:10-11). This principle extended out to many multiples of seven as well, including the year of Jubilee which was every 49th year. You are also to count off seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years, so that you have the time of the seven sabbaths of years, namely, forty-nine years. You shall then sound a ram’s horn abroad on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall sound a horn all through your land. You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family. You shall have the fiftieth year as a jubilee; you shall not sow, nor reap its aftergrowth, nor gather in from its untrimmed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you. You shall eat its crops out of the field. On this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his own property. -Lev 25:8-13
In the New Testament era, we celebrate Pentecost as the day the Holy Spirit came upon the church, which occurred 49 days, or seven weeks after Christ's resurrection. There are also 490 year cycles alluded to in scripture (70x7), so this Sabbath principle runs deep. Therefore it is perfectly logical and consistent to view the 7th millennium of human history as a Shabbat, a "day" of blessing where all the earth rests from its turmoil and the final "day" before a new age begins—the destruction of the heavens of the earth and the creation of all things new.
The Three Views of the Millennium
We must understand that there are different ways to read prophetic, and particularly apocalyptic, texts. There are four main hermeneutical approaches to these passages: the historic view, the preterist view, the futurist view, and the idealist view. Without going into great detail, the historic view of eschatology reads the apocalyptic texts as events which unfold throughout history on a grand timeline. The preterist view reads all apocalyptic texts as events which have already been fulfilled and are now only part of church history. The futurist view reads apocalyptic texts as events which will only be fulfilled around the return of Christ. Finally, the idealist view reads apocalyptic texts as not actual events, but rather metaphors which can be recognized as symbolic spiritual truths throughout history. It should be noted that each of these views have some merit and should be applied to certain texts. Often, multiple hermeneutical approaches can apply to the same text as prophecy often has both near horizon and far horizon implications with types and shadows often setting up the ultimate fulfillment. There are indeed passages which are symbolic, passages which appear to be completely fulfilled, some which seem to have an unfolding fulfillment throughout history, and others which appear to be future, unfulfilled events. So be aware of all four of these interpretive tools, and be willing to consider all available evidence to see which one is most applicable for any given text.
Given these different hermeneutical approaches and the fact that not everyone will agree which one is most applicable to any given passage, consequently there are differing views or interpretations of apocalyptic literature. The millennial reign of Christ on earth has been interpreted at least three different ways in the Church as a result. The more literal (and futurist) interpretation, which ascribes the "day" of the Lord as being a thousand year period after He returns as described in Revelation chapter 20, is called the premillenial view—meaning Christ returns before the millennium. That is the premise of this article of course, but it is important to understand the two other views—amillenialism and postmillennialism— which many Christians, historical and modern alike, have adhered to. Each of these frameworks centers on a short passage in Revelation (Rev 20:1-10) and the implications of how one interprets it.
The amillennial framework asserts that the millennium described in Revelation 20 is a metaphor for Christ's current reign in heaven. As such, it began at Christ's ascension and ends at His return. By the time of Augustine (4th-5th century AD), amillennialism had become the dominant view of the church and it is still the dominant view of the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church. It is also held by many Protestants as it was the view ported over by many of the reformers, including Luther. This view holds that in the last 2,000 years, Satan has already been bound and defeated and that the resurrection of the dead in Christ isn't a future event, but rather an ongoing process which happens as soon as a believer dies.
And He will judge between the nations, and will render decisions for many peoples; and they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war. -Isa 2:4
And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he threw him into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he would not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed... When the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison, and will come out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together for the war; the number of them is like the sand of the seashore. -Rev 20:2-3,7-8
The main objection with this view is that one of the main attributes the apocalyptic texts describe of the millennial reign is a time of unprecedented peace on earth, and the last 2,000 years simply have not borne that out. Rather than Satan being bound and God's will being done on earth with weapons of war being turned into farming tools and all nations being at peace, we see the exact opposite. Indeed, the bloodiest wars in all of human history have almost all been fought since Christ ascended into heaven. WWII in the 20th century saw over 70 million people killed, the Mongol conquests of the 13th century saw 30-40 million killed, the Manchu conquest of China in the 17th century saw over 25 million killed, the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire in the 16th century saw over 24 million killed, the conquests of Timur in the 14th century saw 10-20 million killed, and WWI in the 20th century saw over 17 million killed.
In stark contrast, the casualty numbers of notable wars before Christ's ascension pale in comparison. The conquests of Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BC only saw around 100 thousand killed, the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC saw only around 140 thousand killed, and the combined deaths of the first and second Punic Wars of Rome in the 2nd and 3rd century BC saw only around 1.5 million killed. One may argue that war frequency or total numbers of wars are a better metric than war death counts, but this would not cast the last 2,000 years of human history in any more of a positive light—it has been two millennia fraught with bloody conflict. This should not surprise anyone as one of Jesus' warnings of the signs of the times was the increase of wars and rumors of wars. So Jesus' own words really make interpreting the millennial reign of peace as His reign from heaven in the church age questionable.
That is not to say that amillennialism has no merit however—clearly there are some elements which amillennialism rightly emphasizes. Amillennialism points to passages like John 12:31, Colossians 2:15, Hebrews 2:14-15, and 1 John 3:8 which allude to Christ coming to destroy the works of the enemy and establishing the Kingdom of Heaven. I agree that Christ's first coming began that process, I just don't think that process has yet culminated and indeed won't be completed until after Christ's second coming when His enemies will finally be crushed underneath His feet and all the nations will be under His rule and reign. Again, my argument against this position would not be just doctrinal or theological in nature, but rather evidential—it is difficult to observe the world today and conclude the Kingdom of Heaven is fully in authority, the will of God is being done on earth as it is in heaven, and that the power of Satan is not at work. In fact, it's hard to even say any of that about the Church today, let alone the world.
The postmillennial framework asserts that, like the amillennial view, we are currently in the millennial reign of Christ. Where postmillennialism differs is that it believes that during the church age, the Kingdom of Heaven is expanded and therefore the "millennium" will become an increasing golden age of spiritual prosperity with uplifted social, economic, political, and cultural life. In other words, the world gets better and better and will eventually enjoy a state of righteousness and peace never before seen. Once righteousness and peace is established by the Church during this period, only then will Christ return—hence the post-millennial nomenclature. The “arrival” of the kingdom is thus gradual and brought about by the slow, steady advancement of the Church until eventually, all the world’s population will be converted to Christ. This is a very optimistic view which essentially takes Christian Triumphalism from the personal, to the global level.
This framework again runs aground of reality where the last 2,000 years have not seen a decrease in sin and wickedness, nor have we witnessed an increase in righteousness and peace in the world. It also runs aground of both Jesus and Paul's warnings in the New Testament which specifically predict an increase of wickedness in the last days.
As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”... “Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name. At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. Because wickedness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved." -Mat 24:3, 9-13
But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these... Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. -2 Ti 3:1-5, 12-13
Both amillennialism and postmillennialism seem to suffer from what is often called over-realized eschatology where Christians seek to claim all the benefits in the present age that we will have when Christ returns. Theologians refer to the “already, and not yet” mindset of the New Testament and this is an incredibly important concept to understand. After Christ's first coming we may have all the benefits and privileges in Christ, but they are not yet fully realized until Christ returns. So as believers we are stuck in between advents in a transitional period living with one foot in both the old age, and the other foot in the age to come. This reality is alluded to by Paul when he stated, "When the perfect comes, the partial will be done away... For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known" (1 Co 13:10, 12).
But again, postmillennialism is not without merit. It does acknowledge a biblical and historical reality that God's kingdom and government is growing and expanding in the world (Isa 9:7). So we can acknowledge the kernels of truth in this view while also acknowledging that the framework as a whole appears to be flawed and problematically optimistic. Indeed, any outlook which tends to either remove or downplay the reality of suffering in the life of a believer and creation as a whole until Christ's return is, at best, a rather naive expectation.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. -Rom 8:18-23
The premillennial framework is unique in that it is the only one of the three major views which does not assert that we are currently living in the millennial reign of Christ, but that it is a future reality which we are eagerly awaiting. This framework asserts that the millennium begins at Christ's return and takes a decidedly more literal and chronological approach to Revelation and other apocalyptic texts. Some have argued that this view is a recent invention of the Church and therefore should not be taken seriously, but there is certainly evidence of this view dating back to antiquity. As already shown, clearly the writings of the early church fathers such as Barnabas in the 1st century alluded to a premillennial view. Second century church fathers such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus also held a premillennial view. But while the provenance of doctrinal views holds some value, the more important test of any doctrine should be its hermeneutical integrity as ultimately it doesn't matter which idea is older, it matters which idea fits all available evidence better. It is important to note however, that like most doctrines and theologies in the Church, the premillennial view has certainly changed and developed throughout the centuries. As such, there is actually a distinction made between two versions of this view—Historic Premillennialism and Dispensational Premillennialism.
As the name would imply, Historic Premillennialism is the older of the two views and the one held by the aforementioned early church fathers. It differs from Dispensational Premillennialism in that it sees no distinction between the Church and Israel and therefore takes on a Replacement Theology flavor where the Church becomes the "new" Israel. Dispensational Premillennialism on the other hand makes a distinction between national Israel and the Church in the end times as well as believing national Israel is at the center of most of the apocalyptic texts. A secondary distinction between the two versions is the placement of the rapture. Historic Premillennialism tends to place the rapture at the end of the 7 year tribulation period while the Dispensational variety tends to place it at the beginning.
Criticisms of premillennialism exist too of course. Besides the odd argument of when it was first proposed in the Church, some criticize the idea that in premillennialism, sin and death still exist after Christ's return and establishment of the millennial reign, which they argue conflicts with 1 Corinthians 15, particularly 1 Co 15:20-25. This is a strange point to take issue with however, as both the amillennial and postmillennial view share this supposed problem as they claim we are currently living in the millennial reign of Christ and yet it is quite apparent that sin and death exist in it. Understanding that Revelation 20 describes that the final judgement and destruction of death itself doesn't happen until after the millennial reign reconciles this supposed conflict.
Another criticism is that at least the Dispensational variety of premillennialism places too much geopolitical emphasis on national Israel in the end times. This is also a strange argument as it has little to do with textual or hermeneutical criticism with the position. What is most odd about this criticism is that if you read all of the apocalyptic texts, it is abundantly clear that the focus of the entire narrative centers on the geographic region of Israel. From the four kingdoms in Nebuchadnezzar's dream (Dan 2:31-45) foretelling of empires which would rule over the the Middle East until Christ's return, to the list of nations which the Antichrist will conquer or war against, to the geographic home of the Antichrist himself which both Isaiah and Micah call The Assyrian, it is very clear where the epicenter of every apocalyptic vision lies. What's more, the Dispensational view was developed in the 1800's—long before the nation of Israel was reestablished in 1948—so it can hardly be argued that this view was political in nature.
One very valid criticism of premillennialism is its penchant for false predictions and date setting. As the only eschatological view which places many of the apocalyptic events recorded in scripture in the future rather than in the past or present, this is somewhat understandable even if it does produce some unfortunate side effects. However, this is like criticizing evangelism because of the guy with a bullhorn ranting on a street corner—bad examples are not good rebuttals. This rather intent focus on prophetic events should not be scorned however—the New Testament is replete with instruction for believers to be aware of, and on the lookout for the signs of the times. It should not however produce a consistent or repetitive state of mass hysteria and constantly be making false or contrived equivalences and crying wolf. This does indeed do a great disservice to the Church. But while the premillennial view may be guilty of making some tenuous connections with the present or future to prophecy, so too is the amillennial and postmillennial views with the past. Trying to paint historical events as fulfillment of apocalyptic texts is often just as dubious and contrived as trying to paint current events as such. If you're straining to shoehorn historical or current events into prophetic contexts, the reality may very well be that the clear and obvious fulfillment is an event which has not yet occurred.
The Issue of the Rapture
There is of course the question of the rapture which is tied to a premillennial framework. An amillennialist or postmillennialist would question the need for any rapture at all as their views either remove, downplay, or shift the timing of the calamitous events described in apocalyptic texts. Indeed if they either aren't as severe as would seem if taken at face value or if they have already occurred, there is little need for a rapture of the Church. However, if many of the apocalyptic events are truly as described in scripture and have yet to transpire, it would make sense for God to save the righteous from such calamity just as He did with Noah before the judgement of the flood and Lot before the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah. Another criticism is that the idea of a rapture creates an apathetic mentality in the Church as believing they won't be around for the end times causes them to disengage. This argument has some validity, but it presupposes a pre-tribulation rapture within the premillennial framework, which is not at all a given. What the arguments against a rapture struggle to address are the passages of scripture which definitely seem to allude to such an event.
“Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life..." -Dan 12:1-2
And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other. -Mat 24:31
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. -1 Co 15:51-52
...and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come. -1 Th 1:10
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. - 1 Th 4:16-17
For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. -2 Th 1:6-8
And I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God; and he cried out with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads"... After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands... “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." -Rev 7:2-3, 9, 14
While some assert that the idea of a rapture was invented in 1830 by John Nelson Darby, there are clear historical references that prove the rapture was indeed taught by church fathers long before Darby—in the 2nd century by Irenaeus, the 3rd century by Cyprian, and the 4th century by Ephraim the Syrian. Darby does indeed appear to be the one who developed, or at least popularized the idea of a pre-tribulation rapture, but there are several views as to when the rapture will happen within the premillennial framework. Despite the recent popularity of books like The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series, the pretrib view isn't the only game in town, but rather competes against three other views—a post-tribulation rapture, a mid-tribulation rapture, and a pre-wrath rapture.
While certainly experiencing a surge in popularity among evangelicals, the pre-tribulation rapture isn't necessarily the best fit either for the texts which appear to describe it, or for the greater theological and missiological themes in scripture. As much as we'd all like to get out of Dodge before calamity strikes, scripture does not promise that believers will be spared from tribulation—quite the opposite in fact (Mat 24:9, John 16:33, Acts 14:21-22, Rom 5:3-5, Rom 8:35, Rom 12:10-13 et al). What scripture does promise is that believers will not suffer the wrath of God as Christ bore it in our stead (Rom 5:9, 1 Th 1:9-10, 1 Th 5:9). This is critically important as it is only the events described in the seventh seal of John's Revelation which are stated to be God's wrath—seals one through six are simply tribulations. In fact, seals one through five are really the consequences of man, sin, and the actions of the Antichrist, then the sixth seal is the pivotal moment where God darkens the sun, turns the moon blood red, and causes a great earthquake putting everyone on notice that His wrath is about to be unleashed (Rev 6:12-17). It is here, in the interlude between the sixth and seventh seal where the Angel of the Lord gathers up all the righteous in Revelation 7. This sequence of events directly parallels Jesus' words in Matthew 24 and the apocalyptic vision in Joel 2.
“But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other." -Mat 24:29-31
“I will display wonders in the sky and on the earth, blood, fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who escape, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls." -Joel 2:30-32
But a pre-wrath rapture doesn't just fit the biblical sequence better, it fits the overall narrative of scripture better. God doesn't just bring wrath and judgement upon people, He also brings warnings and calls to repentance. Remember that Noah didn't just build an ark to prepare for his own escape from God's judgement, he also preached (2 Pe 2:5) according to Jewish and Christian tradition (recorded by Josephus and Philo), giving anyone who would listen a chance to repent. Likewise God sent Jonah to Nineveh to warn them of the coming judgement and call them to repentance. So it would seem odd that God, in His redemptive mission through the Church, would remove the Church—and hence His witness to the world—in the hour in which the world will be in its greatest need and potentially in its most receptive state. But with a pre-wrath rapture, there is no break in the presence of God's witness to the world—the Church is here until the seventh seal and the two seemingly immortal witnesses of Revelation 11 are sent during the seventh seal.
So the pre-tribulation rapture does seem to misplace that event in the biblical sequence and does indeed seem to disengage believers and give a false sense of security. It also tends to produce a fatalistic mentality due to the doctrine of imminence—the idea that Christ could return at any moment—rather than instill an evangelistic and missiological work ethic to save as many souls as possible and complete the Great Commission so that Christ can return. But while a pre-trib view may be a bit hopeful and optimistic, a post-trib view is a bit meaningless. Not only do believers have to suffer the wrath of God meant for unbelievers (specifically the Antichrist and his followers), but the rapture itself is a bit of a non-event (sometimes referred to as the "yo-yo rapture") due to being caught up in the sky only to immediately be brought back down to the earth to reign with Christ—which is one of the reasons why amillinnialists and postmillennialists tend to not believe in a rapture at all. A mid-trib view also doesn't seem to offer a clear purpose, but rather just seems to offer a compromise between the pre and post camps. The pre-wrath view on the other hand seems consistent theologically as well as textually while serving a clear purpose—though certainly no one would complain if the pre-tribulation rapture position ends up being correct. But this seems like a situation where the "hope for the best, plan for the worst" kind of mentality would really benefit the Church.
The Apocalyptic Sequences
As you read Revelation and other passages of apocalyptic texts, patterns begin to emerge and sequences become apparent. However, what often happens in the Church is that particular events mentioned in the prophetic scriptures are viewed in isolation from their context which leads to many false correlations, predictions, and alarm. A good example of this would be the recent focus on the blood moons which caused quite a stir in the Church. The problem with this method of evaluating current events in light of prophetic texts is that it ignores the sequence in which those events occur. Blood moons in and of themselves are not particularly rare or interesting (even four of them). When such an event would be important to take note of is if it happens in conjunction with the sun being darkened and a great earthquake. Has that ever happened before? Then ask, has it ever happened after an intense season of Christian martyrdom, which followed an intense season of war and famine which claimed the lives of nearly a quarter of the earth's population? Because that's the blood moon we need to be looking for.
Therefore, while there is much debate on how to properly interpret apocalyptic literature, what is often lacking in the discussions is looking at the overall prophetic sequence rather than trying to find (or predict) events which line up with specific prophetic warnings. So rather than attempt to make tenuous connections, let's instead zoom out to see the bigger picture, structure, and sequence of Revelation.
As you can see in this first chart, according to the premillennial view the "Last Days" begin at Christ's first coming while the final "day" begins at His second coming and ends at the Judgement of the Great White Throne. There are many, many Old Testament and New Testament apocalyptic texts, but the book of Revelation is certainly the most comprehensive record we have, drawing from and often compiling other prophetic passages of scripture. As such, we can use Revelation as the big picture framework of the Last Days and then see where other passages zoom in, confirm, and bring greater detail and understanding of a particular event in the sequence.
What is both interesting and immediately obvious about the seven seals of Revelation is that they are written very sequentially and therefore one seal often requires the previous seal in order to come into play. But despite this fact, some argue that it is impossible and unwise to develop timetables or chronologies around these events. Certainly setting specific dates around these events is unwise, but the visions are clearly sequential and ordered very specifically just as the seven days of creation were. However, while parts of Revelation appear to be written rather linearly or sequentially, that does not mean that every section of the book of Revelation is—prophetic texts are glimpses into the future and are often fragmented descriptions of a larger panoramic canvas (1 Co 13:9-12). So it is also obvious upon reading Revelation that there are several different visions described in its pages which give insight to different times and events in human history. Fortunately these breaks which shift from one vision and begin another are fairly obvious even to the untrained eye. These segments are broken down into visions about the churches, the seals, the Christs, the bowls, the judgement of the Antichrist, the millennial reign, and the new heavens and earth as outlined in the above chart.
As we read these visions it is quite obvious that the events depicted within them are fairly sequential or chronological, but not necessarily the order of the visions themselves. There are some segments which overlap or seem to occur concurrently with other segments and this is why many doubt that any timeline could possibly be formed—because they are frustrated by the lack of continuity between these different visions rather than looking at the continuity within them. So here we shall give a brief overview of each vision, explain how they overlap, and where they likely fit on the timetable.
The Seven Churches
The letters are obviously an encouragement to the church prior to the tribulation alerting them of the trials ahead as well as the reward for those who overcome (a phrase repeated in every letter). Some argue that each letter is written to the church of a certain age or season in time and that they are chronological. There seems to be some merit to this reasoning as this is definitely a prophetic passage and reads in a particular order. If so, this passage covers the entire church age from Christ’s ascension up to the time of the tribulation beginning with the breaking of the first seal. So the prophetic letters and the seven seals are two segments which appear to be chronological in order, though there may be some overlap between the last letter and the first seal. Assuming the historical framing of these letters, the last letter to the church of Laodicea (Rev 3:14-22) might be of particular relevance to the church today.
The Seven Seals
Revelation chapter 4 then introduces the book with the seven seals and continues on through chapter 11. This vision gives us the biggest overview of the end times period and begins with the first seal either at the end of, or during, the last church age of Laodicea. It ends with the seventh trumpet which ushers in the millennial reign of Christ. It is important to note that the seventh seal itself is simply the beginning of the seven trumpets of judgement (Rev 8:1-2). The seven trumpets are not a separate vision or set of prophecies, they are a detailed account of the seventh seal as Revelation chapter 8 clearly states. The first part of Joel also neatly parallels the vision of the seven seals and then goes on to cover the millennial reign.
The Christ & Antichrist
After the seventh trumpet of the seventh seal concludes in Revelation 11, we are whisked back in time to the birth of Christ in Revelation 12. Here we are given one of the signs in the heavens that appeared around the season of Christ’s birth which the wise men followed. Then in Revelation 12:3 another sign appears—a great red dragon which swept a third of the stars from the sky with his tail. This passage has long been used to calculate how many angels followed Satan and rebelled against their creator. This is because stars are symbolic of, and synonymous with, angelic beings in Jewish literature. This sets up the contrast between the true Christ and the Antichrist who is then introduced properly in Revelation 13. While chapter 13 coincides with the rise of the Antichrist depicted in the first five seals of Revelation chapter 6, Revelation 14 seems to cover the same time frame of the sixth and seventh seals depicted in chapter 7 as it begins with the 144,000 saints with the Lamb’s name written on their foreheads which is most likely the same 144,000 recorded in Revelation 7 in the vision of the seven seals. And just like in chapter 7, which records a great harvest right before the seventh seal is broken, chapter 14 likewise records a great harvest (Rev 14:16-17) before the wrath of God is poured out in Revelation 14:18-20.
The Seven Bowls of Wrath
Revelation 15-16 then detail the vision of the seven bowls of wrath which is an expounded view of the wrath poured out at the end of chapter 14. While some may view them as a separate series of events, it seems clear from the context that they actually take place simultaneously with the seven trumpets of the seventh seal. To really see this synchronization, just look at the similarities between each trumpet and each bowl. As the Wrath Timeline Overview chart below clearly shows, the visions of the seven trumpets and the seven bowls both seem to describe the same events with only minor differences in perspective and detail—similar to the differences found in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Doom of the Antichrist & the Return of Christ
The next section of prophecy recorded in Revelation chapters 17-20 foretells of the Antichrist’s doom and Christ’s victory. As this vision takes place in the time frame leading up to Christ’s return and the millennial reign found in Revelation 20, chapters 17-19 must take place during the same time as the seventh seal of the seven trumpets and seven bowls. Chapter 17 goes into detail of the identity of Babylon and her crimes as well as an explanation of the seven heads and ten horns imagery—the most important being the ten horns symbolizing kings over ten kingdoms that in the period of the seven seals, will give over their authority to the Antichrist. Revelation 18 foretells the fall of Babylon while Revelation 19 foretells of Christ’s return and the marriage supper of the Lamb. Chapter 20 then depicts the millennial reign of Christ from Jerusalem and the final rebellion of Satan and those who follow him at the end of that millennium, after which comes the resurrection of all the dead (minus the righteous who were resurrected at the return of Christ who have already been given their glorified bodies) and the day of judgment.
The New Heavens & Earth
The last section of prophecy in Revelation 21-22 foretells a completely new creation. The current heavens and earth have been destroyed and God’s perfection without the blemish of sin is restored. At this point in time Sheol/Death/Hades, Satan, and all those deceived by him have been cast into the lake of fire—the second death. This is heaven as most Christians use the term, but it does not come directly after one’s death—it is a future place that has not yet been created and won’t be until all the prophecy of the seven seals, Christ's return, the millennial reign, and the day of judgment are fulfilled. For more information on this framework, you can read the article, Understanding the Underworld: Hell, Hades, Death, & Sheol.
The Accelerating Timeline
As alluded to earlier, there is another pattern we should be aware of in scripture which may give the Church a rough idea of the times they may be living in. Four times in the New Testament Jesus and Paul used the analogy of a woman in labor to describe the series of events which would ultimately lead to Christ's return (Mark 13:8, John 16:19-21, Rom 8:19-23, 1 Th 5:1-3). We tend to look for specific events to call a "labor pain" but again the pattern is more helpful to step back and see. No one knows the exact day or hour a woman will give birth but certainly when the labor pains begin, everyone in the house knows the time is close. Then the labor pains themselves also give an indication of how close to the birth you are. The contractions start relatively mild and spaced far apart, but gradually become more intense and spaced closer together until they are practically happening one on top of another. In other words, there is both an escalation and acceleration of events.
Christ's ascension began the period of time scripture calls the Last Days so the question is, if we look at world history in the last 2,000 years, do we actually see this escalating and accelerating pattern? The answer is yes—in just about every way imaginable.
In the last 2,000 years, many kingdoms of man have been established but only four have risen to prominence to become what is called unipolar powers—empires which control much of the known world and are able to establish periods of relative peace. These four seasons of peace are called the Pax Romana, Pax Mongolica, Pax Britannica, and Pax Americana. What is striking is the pattern which emerges as you plot these empires out on a timeline. The Pax Romana lasted roughly 450 years after Christ, followed by roughly 730 years of a multipolar and bipolar world before the Mongols became the next unipolar power. But the Pax Mongolica only lasted about 150 years before crumbling. It was then only roughly 450 years before Britain came to power, but the Pax Britannica lasted only about 100 years before the world came unglued again with WWI and WWII during the multipolar season, and the Cold War during the bipolar season. But this interim period lasted only about 75 years before Communism collapsed and America rose to global power. All evidence suggests the Pax Americana will be the shortest unipolar moment yet with its collapse likely to happen within the next decade. The timeline is definitely accelerating.
Global Church growth is directly linked to these polarity shifts in world empires as the Church expands during unipolar seasons and contracts during multipolar and bipolar seasons. But again, plotted on a timeline, the pattern which emerges is crystal clear. Each period of growth was both more rapid and more significant than the previous. From a peak of 20% of the world's population during the Pax Romana to a peak of 24% at the end of the Pax Mongolica, to the massive jump to 33% during the Pax Britannica, there is a clear escalation. This reality is so dramatic, that just in a single decade during the Pax Americana (1990-2000), numerically more people came to Christ than in the rest of church history combined. The birth pains are intensifying.
Furthermore, the world population at the time of Christ was around 160 million people. This is a significant detail as we tend to think of Christ coming rather late in human history. But the reality is an estimated 98% of those who have ever lived were born after Christ. By the collapse of the Roman empire over 400 years after Christ's ascension, the world's population had only increased to around 195 million. Nearly a thousand years later at the collapse of the Mongol empire, that number had only risen to 350 million. It wasn't until the 1800's that world population numbers finally reached one billion people, but in the last 200 years or so, we then added nearly another seven billion (we're expected to break 8 billion by the year 2023). The timeline is definitely escalating and accelerating as the majority of people who have ever lived are being born at the same time that access to the Gospel is growing like never before. God's providence is truly at work.
He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist... -Acts 17:26-28
Other metrics include wars, knowledge and technology, Bible translation progress, and unreached people group efforts. We've already discussed how the last 2,000 years have seen the bloodiest wars and conflicts ever and how the 20th century was the bloodiest yet—a trend which is almost certain to continue as we shift from the Pax Americana to the next multipolar season and global conflict. In fact, the devastation of WWIII is likely to be so unprecedented that Albert Einstein was quoted as opining, "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."
The increase of knowledge and technology in recent history has been almost as dramatic as the increase in population. We have more information at our fingertips today than any previous generation could have dreamed and we can access that information through supercomputers which fit in our pockets. This is an incredible escalation which was actually predicted in scripture within the context of the end times.
"But as for you, Daniel, conceal these words and seal up the book until the end of time; many will go back and forth, and knowledge will increase.” -Dan 12:4
But the most exciting, and probably most indicative metric to examine is that of the progress of translating the Bible into every language and reaching every nation which speaks it. Never before has the completion of that task been possible... Until now. This generation is the first in human history which could see all 17,426 people groups—every tribe, nation, and tongue—in the world reached with the Gospel. In fact, it could happen in the next 10-15 years.
Preparing the Way
"This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come." -Mat 24:14
So are we going about our Father's business or are we being the lazy servant? A bit of both actually. The reality is the American church is currently the missions hope of the world as we must remember "to whom much is given, much is required" (Luk 12:48). America is the unipolar power in this season and God has risen it up to be a world leader, not just in geopolitics, culture, and economics, but in the sphere of religion as well. Though America makes up just 4.25% of the world’s population, the American church holds 60% of all global Christian finances, 70% of all global Christian technology, 75% of all global Christian training resources, and provides virtually 100% of all global missions innovation, strategy, and leadership. We are also the largest missions sender by an enormous margin: the US had around 135,000 missionaries on the field in 2020 compared to the #2 sending nation (Brazil) at 35,000 and the #3 sending nation (South Korea) at 30,000. But to complete the Great Commission in this generation, we need to send an additional 200,000 to the field and we need to send them before the Pax Americana ends.
While that number may sound enormous, America is far from being maxed out in her sending capacity—especially in light of the unparalleled resources she has. The US currently sends only 600 missionaries per million church members. For context, South Korea sends over 1,000 missionaries per million church members, while Malta and Ireland send around 2,000 missionaries per million church members. Meanwhile, Palestine sends around 3,500 missionaries per million church members. America would be sending six times more missionaries—over 800,000—if it matched the sending ratio of Palestine, which is a church region with meager resources and ability in comparison. So sending a mere 200,000 additional missionaries is well within not just our capacity, but even our comfort. Sending a total of 335,000 missionaries (135k current, 200k new) would put the US at around 1,500 missionaries sent per million church members which would only be 0.15% of our congregants, or 1 missionary per 667 church members—a very comfortable number indeed.
Until the Great Commission is completed, any speculation of the timing of the return of Christ is a bit moot. Let us focus on the task at hand with an ear to the ground and an eye on the sky—watching and waiting, but active and faithful. Let us be the generation which can stand before Christ and declare the task was finished on our watch, that we were faithful with what we were given. Let eschatology motivate us once again, rather than lull us into a sense of complacency, fatalism, and security. For if the woman is in labor, now is not the time to fall asleep.