Eschatology, the study of the last things, receives tremendous emphasis within certain Christian denominations. The radio waves of Christian broadcasters and bookshelves of Christian bookstores are filled with materials supporting the views in particular of pre-millennialism—a belief that Jesus will establish a one-thousand year reign on this earth before the end of time in which believers will share in His glory. This view, unfortunately, distorts biblical prophecy, divides denominations unnecessarily, and distracts from the primary purpose of the church—the gospel outreach of Jesus Christ.
Our study of eschatology will be based largely upon a series of bulletin articles written by my father, Pastor Paul F. Nolting, while he served a mission congregation in Austin, Texas in 1981. It will introduce certain teachings of the pre-millennialists and expose their faulty use of Scripture, while expressing the biblical foundation for the teachings expressed within the Apostolic and Nicene Creeds.
Eschatology--the Doctrine of the Last Things
Perhaps the easiest way to maintain an orthodox (Biblical) viewpoint on eschatology is to remember the words of the Apostolic Creed:
From the 2nd Article:
The third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand
of God the Father almighty. From there He will come to
judge the living and the dead.
From the 3rd Article:
I believe in ...the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.
These words were formulated already in the 1st Century as part of a baptismal confession for new members of the church. They represent the understanding of the early church. While millennialists today do at times point back to some early church fathers of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries for support of their beliefs, such beliefs do not represent those of Christ’s apostles or their immediate followers.
Let us review those passages upon which the simple message of the Apostolic Creed rests:
Jesus’ Sitting at the Right Hand of God: Ephesians 1:15-23
The Destruction of this Present World: 2 Peter 3
Definition The rapture is the term for what many believe will be the next great event in the history of mankind. It is believed to be the Lord’s coming FOR His Church in contrast to His later coming WITH His Church. It will be sudden and secret. When the Lord comes for His own, all believers on earth will be snatched (raptured) off this earth. If the cockpit crew of an air-liner, for instance, is made up of believers, they will be snatched away to meet the Lord in the air, while the air-liner continues without a crew to guide it. Cars will suddenly be driverless. A husband or a wife or an entire family will mysteriously disappear. Believers will be snatched from Christian congregations, leaving only the hypocrites behind.
Claimed Biblical Basis The key passage pre-millennialists cite in support of this false teaching is 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17:
“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up (raptured) together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.”
This is believed to be “that blessed hope,” of which Paul wrote in Titus 2:13:
“Looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
In the great resurrection chapter in his first letter to the Corinthians Paul is believed to be speaking of this same rapture:
“Behold, I show you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall al be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” (15:51-52)
So also our Lord allegedly spoke of this same event in His Olivet Address when He said that at the coming of the Son of man:
“…two shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.” (Matthew 24:40-41)
It is also claimed that when our Lord spoke of His going to prepare a place for us and coming again to receive us, John 14:3, He was speaking of the secret “rapture.”
Fact and Fiction We need to be very careful to separate Biblical fact from religious fiction. What are the facts reported in these passages? 1) That the Lord shall come again; 2) That His coming shall be sudden and unexpected; 3) That the believing dead shall be raised; 4) That the living believers shall be changed and meet the Lord in the air; and 5) That this shall be a time of separation.
What fiction has grown up around these facts? This—that the coming of the Lord for His saints (commonly called the “rapture”) is the first in a series of events lasting seven plus one thousand years, ending with the beginning of eternity.
Sequence of Events at the End of Time For almost 2,000 years Christendom has accepted the simply sequence of events as confessed in the Apostolic Creed:
The third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there He will come to judge the living and the dead.
We are now living in the inter-advental era, the time between the first coming of our lord as the Babe of Bethlehem and His second coming as the Lord of glory. The purpose of his coming shall be for judgment. Judgment always has two sides, “the blessed hope,” (Titus 2:13), and “vengeance” (2 Thessalonians 1:8). In that moment time shall be no more. All the laws of nature shall be suspended. All the dead shall rise, the believing dead in their glorious spiritual bodies. The living believers shall meet the Lord in the air with their changed bodies. All shall meet at the judgment seat of the Lord. The final separation shall take place with eternal damnation falling upon the devil, the evil angels, and all unbelievers with eternal salvation for all believers. It is for this day that the Holy Spirit taught us to pray in the concluding words of the Bible: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).
In contrast to this multi-faceted event there are many who look for the “rapture” as triggering a series of events. One spokesman lists them as follows:
Christ, at the rapture, takes the believers out of this world to be with Him.
Christ pours out His judgments on the world during the seven-year tribulation period.
Christ at the end of the tribulation period destroys the Antichrist and his followers.
Christ sets up His millennial kingdom prophesied so often in the Old Testament. A break-down of events is as follows: 1. The Rapture; 2. The Tribulation; 3. The Battle of Armageddon; 4. The Judgment Seat of Christ; 5. The Marriage of the Lamb; 6. The Judgment of Nation Israel; 7. The Judgment of the Gentiles; 8. The Resurrection of the Tribulation Saints; 9. The Disposition of the Evil Ones; 10. The 1,000 Year Millennium; 11. The Final Rebellion; 12. The Great White Throne of Judgment; 13. The Earth Burns Up; and 14. The New Heavens and New Earth Appear.
Different Emphasis The traditional view, as expressed in the Apostolic Creed, concentrates the hope of the child of God on the final coming of our Lord for judgment, that is, eternal salvation or damnation. Whenever the Lord has come in times past, He has always come with salvation for His people and destruction upon His enemies. Salvation for Noah, destruction for the world; salvation for Israel, destruction for Pharaoh; destruction for hardened Israel and salvation for the Israel of God in 70 A.D. Whenever Christ comes, there is either a fall or rising (cf. Luke 1:34).
The second viewpoint, which is generally called “pre-trib and pre-millennial,” pictures our Lord as coming before the alleged seven year period of the “great tribulation.” This coming is pictures as a coming FOR His saints. It is not a coming to this earth, for the saints shall meet the Lord in the air. Thereafter the Lord shall come WITH His saints in glory to set up His 1,000 year reign on the earth. This view features multiple comings of our Lord, multiple judgments, multiple resurrections, a Christ-arranged cop-out for the saints, a second humiliation for our glorified Lord, and the hope of glory for the saints here on this earth.
This view, featuring an escape from tribulation and glory on earth, parallels the false hope of the Jews at the time of our lord’s first coming. It has been condemned by the Lutheran Church in Article XVII of the Augsburg Confession.
The Key Problem The key problem is one of hermeneutics, that is, the proper way to interpret Holy Scripture. Both sides in this dispute believe in verbal, plenary (full) inspiration of the Bible. Both accept the inerrancy and the infallibility of the Scriptures. The one side holds to a literal interpretation of prophecy, while the other side believes such a literal interpretation is often false to the text, thus completely perverting prophecy. In prophecy Kingdom truths are frequently expressed in images of all kinds. One must be careful not to confuse the shell with the kernel. In forthcoming sessions we shall endeavor to let Scripture explain itself as we consider various facets of the doctrines of eschatology.
[Materials taken from a series of bulletin inserts prepared by Pastor Paul F. Nolting
and entitled, “Eschatology—the Doctrine of the Last Things,” 1981.]
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®.
Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.