Blog

The Forgotten Gospel of the End Times

One theologian has said that there are two extremes when it comes to studying eschatology (the doctrine of the end times): Eschatomania and Eschatophobia.

Eschatomaniacs talk about nothing else but the end times. With charts in hand they are ready to give the “Gospel of the end times” to whoever will listen. Their “Gospel,” however, is primarily concerned with issues of the Millennium, the timing of the Rapture, the details of the Tribulation, and the Anti-Christ.

Eschatophobics are a product—a reactionary product—of Eschatomaniacs. Because of the emphasis that many would place on the end times, believing that it is all there is, Eschatophobics shy away from any discussions, commitments, or teaching on the end times. It is seen as “unacademic” and counterproductive to the Gospel.

I believe that both of these extremes are unhealthy for the church and are taking their toll on Evangelical theology. I think that issues of eschatology are being relegated to second-class citizens of theology.

As of today, the score is eschatophobia 10, eschatomania 3. Point eschatophobia. Even at Dallas Theological Seminary, the bastion of dispensational theology, the issues are not discussed much. At least that is how it had become when I was there. The respectable positions are in the New and Old Testament and historic theology departments. Not many people are sought to chair the theology department because of their stature in the area of eschatology. It is simply not in vogue anymore. It is the forgotten Gospel of the End Times.

There are several reasons for this, justified or not.

1. Weary of the eschatology debate. Not unlike issues with creationism, the issue of Eschatology has been smothered over the last century. Theologians have fought far too much over the details of the end times and people are tired of being divided. We are living in a century that is seeking to mend old wounds and let theological bygones be bygones (for better or for worse). Many are attempting to live by the dictum “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, in all things, charity”‘ the dictum, though, is playing out this way, “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials, silence . . .”

2. The death throes of popularized dispensational theology. With the resurgence of the “new Calvinism” in the last decade comes the rise of all things reformed. This includes a general acceptance of covenant theology which, traditionally, is at odds with dispensationalism (however, things have changed so much among dispensationalists and covenant theologians, being at “odds” is relative to how informed one is on the current status of both). The concerted campaign to discredit dispensationalism over the last half century has had its affect in the academic world. Dispensationalism is seen as synonymous with pre-tribulationalism, pre-millennialism, and, most importantly, naming the anti-Christ! Although much of the evangelical laity is still dispensational, it is not the majority position among Evangelical scholars. If it is, they are just too afraid (ashamed?) to talk about it. 

3. A return to tradition. For centuries, the church did not wrestle with specific issues of the end times. There has never been an “orthodox” understanding of the millennium or the tribulation. Many Evangelicals are looking to return to their roots, uniting only around the essentials found in the historic Christian faith. These who are looking for this sort of “mere” Christianity don’t find any “mere” understanding of the particular eschatological issues. Therefore, there is little talk about them.

4. Kingdom now Gospel. For that last decade, progressive Evangelicals (including what used to be known as the Emerging/Emergent Church) have attempted to nuance the Gospel a bit differently. Or better, they have changed the benefits of the Gospel from a focus on the future to a focus on the present. No more is the Gospel seen as your “ticket to heaven” or a place in the coming Kingdom but as an opportunity to have the kingdom now through social responsibility and environmental stewardship.

5. The shame of preterism. As shy as Evangelical academics have been about all things dispensational, they are militantly shamed about the discussions of full-preterism. Full-preterism is the belief that all the future events laid out in the Scriptures, including the resurrection and the new heaven and new earth, have already happened. This has caused many to emphasize the basic orthodoxy of the historic Christian faith concerning Christ’s coming: Christ is coming in the future—the church has always held to this basic truth. In the end, the confession is “I don’t really care what eschatological position you hold as long as it is not full-preterism.”

6. The novelty of eschatology. As much as people want to say modernism is dead, it continually shows how ingrained it is in our lives and beliefs. If something does not sound rational when related to mundane life, it is rejected or shunned. This includes demonology and talks about Satan and the nature of hell. It is generally believed but particularly rejected. Eschatology is no different. When the subject turns to the anti-Christ, the bowls of wrath, the mark of the beast, and man-eating locusts, Evangelical leaders and academics begin to blush. It looks like a “novelty” store into which entrance requires a lowered hat and sunglasses.

I am certainly not promoting either eschatomania or eschatophobia. Nor am I using these six reasons as an argument in support of the current condition which tends toward eschatophobia. I believe that most issues of eschatology are non-essential. But while I believe that we should have liberty in the non-essentials, I don’t define non-essential as “non-important.” If non-essential did mean non important then we need to just white out all portions of Scripture that speak on issues that are not essential. If your theology allows you do do that, we need to talk.

Right now, I simply want to open this door of discussion and see whether those of you out in the Parchment and Pen world agree with this assessment. I am eager to hear your thoughts.

Next I hope to argue for the need for Evangelicalism, especially academics, to rethink the new default status of eschatology. I will also argue that we need to be very careful with the new cliché that the Gospel is not about getting people to heaven. I will argue that, without the hope of our place in the new heaven and new earth, we will have lost the good news of the good news.

39 Responses to “The Forgotten Gospel of the End Times”

  1. I think the reason that I personally tend to shy away from all the end times talk is that I am very uncertain as to which position is correct. I mean I currently hold a position, but I do so in such a tenuous way that I would feel wrong arguing strongly for my position. On the certainty scale you often use I would be around a 2 on a scale of 10.

  2. But Jesus is coming back real soon – in our generation, in fact – for those who are PREPARED to receive Him and be His Bride. Watch the promo video for IHOP U (International House of Prayer University) and see – and BELIEVE:

    http://www.ihop.org/Publisher/Article.aspx?ID=1000047287

  3. I think one of the better points you bring up is peer pressure. If you are looking to be ‘in’ and especially to minister full time, there is a pressure to conform. Don’t expect to gain any respect among the reformed if you are a dispensationalist, even if you are a 5 pointer. And if your both those things don’t expect to find a place in the pulpit unless you put on of those two things on the shelf. It’s easier to hang up the endtimes eschatology but it is not easy to hang up the dispensational ecclesiology..You can put the eschatology on hold but the ecclesiology is still simmering and won’t be so easily set a side. My view, as housewife (I’ve got nothing on the line :)) If you hold a certain view on eschatology you might as well spit it out and stand up because eventually all roads lead there. And not only that how do you hide your eschatology? Your path is going to be obvious to others. Isn’t it? I don’t think you have to major in eschatology but I don’t understand how you can avoid it.

    But yes I think you nailed it pretty good with this post, It was an interesting read.

  4. To the topic at hand:

    I am struck by the urgency in the Epistles, as well as the Gospels, about being saved from the soon-coming wrath of God.

    I wrestle with the fact that it’s been nearly 2,000 years since that seemingly imminent (in the apparent minds and words of the authors of the New Testament) eschatological event was expected to occur.

    How does an eschatological theology that wants to be “biblical” reconcile this apparent delay with authorial intent, or what appears to be authorial intent and meaning, without going Preterist or partial-Preterist?

  5. Count me among the eschatophobiacs, Michael. Having been raised amongst good Baptist Dispensationalists (I loved the colored charts), I found myself later in life not caring for the way we looked at the U.S. as the savior. That was 20 years ago. The problem seems to have gotten worse, to the point that presidents even excuse their excursions into the Middle East with the idea that it’s all going to blow up anyway. Let’s play our role and be a part of ushering in Christ’s coming.

    Del

  6. Like Del, I was raised around Baptist Discpensationalist “Eschatomaniacs.” I was pretty young when I realized that “something was rotten in Denmark.” Too many conflicting predictions, all of them wrong — never a retraction, never admitting they had been wrong, just adjusting the time table and printing a new book. Wave after wave of political frenzy.

    I got worn out.

    I still remember the day I learned that there were other schools of thought on the end times! Hallelujah!

    Like Michael, I “hold a position, but I do so in such a tenuous way that I would feel wrong arguing strongly for my position.” (Thanks, Michael!)

    I tend to err on the side of John Calvin — who wrote a book on every book in the Bible *except* Revelations. I handle Revelation like it’s an unpredictable explosive.

  7. Hey, John MacArthur is a 5 point Calvinist and a dispy. He gets a lot of respect.

  8. Truth Unites... and Divides September 30, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    The previews for the movie “2012” look pretty good. I hope to catch it in the theaters.

  9. The best summary of Revelation that I ever read was:

    1. God’s team wins
    2. Choose your team
    3. Don’t be stupid

  10. In Thessalonians (both of them) the purpose of “end times” prophecy is to comfort the believer. In contrast, in 2 Thess 2, false teaching concerning the “end times” caused serious disruption. Comfort is hardly a part of any kind of “end times” discussion today.

    Perhaps the dieing away of eschatology as a topic has to do with the loss in the minds of believers of the biblical reason for the teaching.

  11. I think you’ve represented the situation pretty accurately. I’m of the Reformed persuasion, but only after years of charismatic evangelical church attendance. I never knew there was any way to be but dispensational, though like those above who were raised Baptist, I saw problems with it all along. Since my conversion five years ago (I don’t mean a conversion to being reformed – I mean I got saved after a life of being a false professor of faith. My reformed convictions came later.) I’ve avoided eschatology like the plague. I knew I did not believe in a pre-trib rapture, but that was the extent of it. I’ve only recently begun listening to some teaching on the Revelation. I’ve been convicted for my neglect of this great book, and blessed and challenged to be among those who overcome to the end. I think the preacher of the series may hold to the a-millennial position, but I’m not sure as he’s going through the book “inductively” and has not as yet tipped his hand. Anyway, I’m so blessed to have seen how relevant the Revelation is to us today. I feel I’ve been robbed of a great blessing – and am so happy to have it restored to me.

  12. Werner,
    Tell me what does “leaky dispentationalist” mean? Yeah,exactly, that’s exactly what he intended to convey :) but I do give him credit, John MacArthur does spit out what he believes on the subject. He’s one of the few. He has averted the full affiliation with the title”dispensationalist” but in practical every day language and as the topic comes up he has been plain and straight foward..that is where the respect comes in. He might say he’s leaky but I think he’s full bucket toting dispensationalist.

  13. Spot on, CMP!

    I pastor 2 churches that specifically hold to eschatology being a “minor” which is great, but that really has practically made it an issue of silence. I feel challenged by your blog to rectify that.

    Thanks!

  14. I used to participate in an online forum that was devoted to the pre-trib Rapture. I was made a moderator at one point. We got attacked constantly by people from other end-times perspectives. It seems like end-times and the Calvinist/Arminian debate are two areas where Christians act the most unChristian toward each other.

    I attend a church that is NOT Pre-trib. Most of them tend to be post-millenial or preterist. I’ve heard open scoffing against premillenials from the pulpit.

    I finally reached the point where it wasn’t worth fighting about anymore. It’s God’s book, so He can straighten it out. I’m still convinced of what I believe about the end-times, but I’m not going to fight my brothers and sisters over it.

  15. Can you please elaborate on your point number five?
    It is unclear to me what you are getting across.

  16. Dispensationalism’s early marriage to the Holiness Movement in the 19th century seemed to contribute to its not being taken seriously by Reformed scholars. After MacArthur’s message a few years ago (Why Every Self-respecting Calvinist Should Be a Dispensationalist), which was intended to stir up discussion on end times, serious discussion did not seem to materialize. Kim Riddlebarger posted a blog article that seemed to be representative of the Covenental position. In short he said that MacArthur wasn’t really reformed, anyway, because he didn’t baptize babies. I was at that Shepherd’s Conference, and was asked by a Presbyterian sitting next to me, what I thought of the idea of a literal millenium. When I told him that I believed that the whole of the Bible seemed to point that way, you could almost hear his jaw hit the floor.

  17. Given that Paul only wrote about eschatology when he had to address a problem, and that John was given his revelation in a context where hope was needed in the midst of persecution, I’d say we should treat eschatology in the same way and to the same limited extent. If people we know need to hear it to have strength or hope, then sure, teach it and preach it to the extent necessary to deal with it. Other than that, forget about it. Furthermore, I don’t think that the teaching needs to be anything more than Jesus will come again, He will come like a thief in the night, in the meantime deceased Christians are with God, God’s team wins. End of story. As for my position, I’ve always been a fan of the quip, “pan-trib”, as in “it will all pan out in the end.”

    regards,
    #John

  18. I think the Lord can handle the end times just fine and He doesn’t need my help.

    I guess it can be interesting, but I think we’d be better off just trusting that whatever happens…He’s got it all under control.

  19. Steve,

    I agree.

    Exactly why I don’t get into these eschatology debates. Sharing the gospel with the lost, and concentrating on promoting sound doctrine in the church in these uncertain times is what we need to be concentrating on, especially if we are convinced these are the end times!

  20. Michael,

    I appreciate your fine assessment of the current trend on eschatology. It is one that I have been dealing with for some time now personally and in ministry. I am a dispensationalist and Calvinistic in my theology and make no excuses for being so. It is heartbreaking to see schools like Dallas back away from their public stance and I fear that the slide away from it will continue.

    A solid eschatology leads to great joy and fervency in evangelism for every believer. It is also an encouragement of the hope that lives within us.

    Unfortunately, many chide me for my “uneducated” view of the Scriptures. Apparently being a dispensational believer is par with being a country bumpkin in “scholarly” circles. Yet, with all the concern that people have about the future, what answers can we give without sharing our view of eschatology?

  21. Michael, you are right the evangelical world on both sides is out of balance.

    There are many blessings in this life. Family, friends, the material possesions we enjoy, health, etc….But if this life is what the gospel is what its all about then we are , as Paul said of all men to be most pitied.

    At 48 years old , and climbing,the older I get the more I realize that getting out of this mess of a world will be a blessing.

  22. Chris Skiles,

    You said it!

    It is a paradox of life that it is so wonderful, and so terrible at the same time.

    Often the demands of our lives and the degenerating nature of ourselves and the world around us, along with the promise of what’s to come…make me long for the day when it is all over.

  23. I’ve never thought the “pan-millennial” joke to be particularly funny or insightful.

    There are reasons why God placed things in His Revelation. Gloating about how proud we are of our ignorance does not seem a proper response.

  24. Small exception — there are Progressive Evangelicals who are focused on the “Kingdom” of now b/c, well, Jesus seems to make that clear, heck most of Matthew is Repent for the Kingdom of God is at Hand.

    Where I will agree with you is the loss of focus on the reason the Kingdom of God is now is b/c of the salvation offered through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ allows us to enter into God’s Kingdom work that is currently taking place, and it also allows a place in the future Kingdom when the New Earth is created and we all live happily ever after.

    Those two strands go hand in hand, and it gets back to an earlier thread on this site about Right Practice v. Right Belief. Which, if I remember right, came down to one does not happen without the other.

    I fall on the Phobic side, which probably means I need to stop watching John Hagee and Hal Lindsey. My wife constantly asks me why I watch TBN, Daystar and Inspiration. My response is always for the same reason I also flip over to MTV Hits (they actually show NEW music videos, just like the good ole’ days), I may not like what I am hearing/seeing, but I need to be aware of it.

  25. I’ve never thought the “pan-millennial” joke to be particularly funny or insightful.

    There are reasons why God placed things in His Revelation. Gloating about how proud we are of our ignorance does not seem a proper response.

    There are reasons the Apocalypse had a difficult time making it into the canon. Some of those reasons could be argued today for its exclusion. I don’t have any real criticism of those who look at the Apocalypse with a somewhat skeptical or questioning eye or mind. That some seem to assume that it must be read and obeyed and understood “because it is in the canon” does not change the facts about the nature of the book and its history.

    Protestantism can’t, ISTM, absolutely exclude or prohibit questioning/examination of the canon’s contents or its text (e.g., LXX Greek versus Masoritic or other Hebrew text) from its appropriation of the apostolic message and gospel, or demand unquestioning acceptance of its canon by those who, like them, remain outside of the Roman Catholic and/or Orthodox communions.

    YMMV, as well as the worms in your opened can.

  26. It really did not have THAT hard of a time making it into the canon. It had a less difficult time than 3 John and 2 Peter. And neither of those had that hard of a time either.

  27. You may be right, CMP, but Luther thousands of years later had questions about its inclusion or authority, IIRC, and (again, IIRC) my understanding is that the Apocalypse’s acceptance by the whole church was also part of kind of a quid-pro-quo between East and West – i.e., we’ll accept Hebrews if you’ll accept the Apocalypse.

    I find its imagery fascinating and powerful and confusing, as do many others. It’s one of the first books I tackled when reading Koinê, because it seemed to flow so easily. I especially like its “Holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, holy (holy)” (4:8). :)

  28. Interesting post, Michael. Our church strives for a balance. We view eschatological views as non-essential, but we still study and discuss the issue from time to time. When we do, we usually deal with a few eschatomaniacs who are loudly convinced that only heretics would disagree with them. In reaction, many others take a more eschatophobic, pan-millennial kind of position (or lack thereof). We encourage serious study and even debate, but in a gracious, irenic manner. But I definitely see what you are describing.

    Something else to consider: Many of us have come from a background where dispensationalism was dominant but later, through further reading and study, came to hold a viewpoint that differs to some extent with classic or revised dispensationalism (rightly or wrongly). For many that would be something like historic premillennialism or progressive dispensationalism—and this is true of a large number of scholars as well. This affects the nature of ongoing discussion in at least two ways: 1) The lines aren’t drawn as easily as they were before. There are far more nuances and potentially moderating options to think through now. 2) As you point out, there seem to be a lot fewer dispensational scholars today, at least those writing books and commentaries. Dispensationalists have always written the vast majority of books on this subject, so if this viewpoint is no longer as widespread among scholars, it makes sense that there would be a corresponding decrease in publication. And much of what is being written now on eschatology is being written on a scholarly level that isn’t accessible for many Christians.

    Maybe the pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other (fever-pitch to apathy), and is now ready to swing back toward the center.

  29. I actually thing that the pan-trib or pan-mill position is, in fact, quite insightful and helpful, because it reinforces that the basic point of the apocalyptic and future oriented passages is on comfort and knowing that God will win and preserve us. In addition, even Jesus did not know the times, so why should we? If comfort and solace and future hope are not as big of issues for us as it was for some of the early churches, why should we spend much time on it? There are much bigger fish to fry currently (especially the use of money in the West).

    regards,
    #John

  30. When I teach about end times I emphasize four things we can know with absolute certainity from Scripture: (1) Jesus will return (and it could happen at any moment); (2) There is going to be a final judgment; (3) Everyone will spend eternity either with God or separated from God (hence the need to make a decision for Christ!); and (4) No one knows exactly how or when any of this will happen; and furthermore, it is not for us to know.

    Anything beyond those four things starts getting you into the realm of speculative eschatology, and I don’t see the point of going there. Jesus called us to make disciples, not convert people to certain end-times positions or postulate when the so-called rapture would happen and what would happen after that, etc.

    I grew up in a pre-mil dispensational church and had that pounded into my head for years. Like the other guy above, I can still remember (with incredible relief!) when I finally learned that there were other eschatological views and other ways of reading and interpretting the Scriptures besides dispensationalism. I quickly jumped ship, though I do not dogmatically hold to any eschatological view because of my deep conviction about number (4) above.

    Like one of my former pators used to say, “I’m a pan-millenialist . . . It’ll all pan out in the end!”

  31. Regarding end times (and everything else), God will do what God will do, regardless of what I believe. Therefore, if I take an adamant pre-trip rapture position and it does not happen, how do I respond? People have been known to abandon the faith when thing don’t turn out as they believed or expected.

    In the 70’s I was pretty sure 1988 would be the end of the age. After all, (famous end-times author) had it all worked out. Well, maybe he was off by a few years, but sometime in the 90’s for sure. Oops. Howzabout 2012?

    It just seems better to focus on the main theme – in the fullness of God’s time, Christ will return, as promised. And we wait with joyful expectation for that day.

  32. I appreciate, and to a great extent share, a desire to focus primarily on the basic truth of Christ’s return and the confidence, joy, and motivation that this should give us. But I don’t think we can just leave it at that when the Bible doesn’t. When the Thessalonians were becoming seriously unbalanced in their eschatological views and, consequentially, in their behavior, Paul didn’t write: “Hey, guys, you don’t need to be thinking about any of this. Just know that Christ will return and be victorious.” Instead, he appeals to what he had previously taught them and even clarified the issue further (in one of the very passages that are now frequently debated). His attitude appears to be more: “Look, I already explained much of this to you. You need to understand it. Let me clarify some of what is confusing you.” He sure seems to want them to know and understand what he’s writing concerning the end. Do we just ignore these kinds of passages? (There are quite a few!) Or do we teach them but skip over the original context and inconvenient details, and apply the text only in a very general and safe way?

    I, too, have been turned off by radical, hyper-literal, date-setting, fear-inducing end times books, films, and sermons. And I think it’s silly for us to be fiercely dogmatic about something about which we know so little. I’m sure we’ll all be surprised after Christ’s return. (“Wow, I wasn’t expecting that!”). But I also think there’s a real danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater by essentially dismissing a large portion of Scripture. (Personally, this is one area where I see a real benefit of expositionally teaching through books of the Bible. I can’t obsess over or ignore any biblical topic, including the many detailed passages regarding the end of the age and the return of Christ.)

    If we can discuss such topics with an irenic attitude, seeking to sharpen each other and learn from one another—what’s the problem? Wasn’t it helpful for many of us to learn that there is more than one view? Wouldn’t it be helpful for people that we teach or study with to know the same thing, rather than just telling them not to think too much about those parts of the Bible? And if we somehow can’t discuss these things with a loving, gracious attitude, the fault is not in the issue being discussed. The fault lies with us.

  33. As you might have already guessed I don’t have a good grasp Rev. I have heard many preachers make the same comment (when referring to Rev.) “When I get the 4 Gospels (or New Test) down I’ll look into teaching Rev.” I do agree with the absence of Intellect in our culture. We are so spoiled with multiple choices to do things and and have other people and electronics to think for us. I personally think God has allowed us to see at a glimpse of what lays in store for the end times according to His Word. I have heard 15 different opinions that are conflicting with each other in every degree. I haven’t studied Rev. ever. I have read it and have some general thoughts but nothing where I could try and argue anything. I do agree with you on it being secondary. I am be more concerned with making sure I am going to heaven than when it is going to happen, what order things will happen and what is literally going to happen.

  34. I don’t have Twitter, I really don’t get Twitter, so I’ll comment here. The link, Michael Patton posted on his Twitter box in the top right of the this page, linking to a Eschatological discussion between the three prominent millennial positions was great. I love discussions like that. It was pretty isolated to the millennial reign of Christ. There were many things not included about the millennial reign even though it was a 2 hour session. I enjoyed it. But now my morning is shot!

    http://wbx.me/l/?p=1&u=http%3A%2F%2Fbit.ly%2FnigL7

  35. “12 Reasons Why ‘2012’ is Another Delusional (D)upiter Effect”

    Another waste of time and money watching another dumb doomsday delusion by Roland Emmerich, who’s exploiting the gullible Rapture crowd, then laughing all the way to his bank. Read more here:

    http://www.twoagespilgrims.com/doctrine/?p=5522

  36. I would have to agree. I would also say that a current trend which is occuring would be that those who do “discuss” (proclaim/preach/brain wash) or are open to “talking” about end times ususally end up being crazy fanaticals who spew hate/heresy. This of course is the broad spectrum, not really naming a specific group.

  37. “Dispensationalism is seen as synonymous with pre-tribulationalism, pre-millennialism, and, most importantly, naming the anti-Christ!”

    Hey, did you know that if you take the letter A = 71.5 and B = 72.5 and C = 73.5 and D = 74.5 etc. and then add up the name C. M. Patton you get…. 666!

    Coincidence? I don’t think so! :)

  38. God is an “economist” (economy), the New Creation is in this universe, that for me means an Historic Premillennalism! Note Irenaeus. :)

Leave a Reply