Disagreement about the End Times: Must It Be Verbal Armageddon?

Apocalypse_vasnetsov

In this guest post, Dr. Michael Heiser explores the complexities of biblical eschatology. Explore this and other challenging theological topics with courses in the Mobile Ed Tough Topics sale.

Let’s be honest. We’ve all likely gone through that period of our Christian lives (or are still there) when we thought about little else, biblically speaking, than what the Bible said about end times. I recall how, shortly after I became a Christian as a high school student, the timetable for the tribulation period and the rapture became an obsession. To date myself, it was right around the time when Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth was made into a movie. While I know some people who came to the Lord because of that film and its end-times trajectory, my path toward becoming a biblical scholar showed me that discerning exact end-times details wasn’t a fruitful use of my time.

Now having taught eschatology at a Bible college many times, I know that not only was Jesus unsure of precisely when he would return (Matt 24:36), but we aren’t going to figure that out any time soon either. No end-times scheme is self-evident (or “biblical” as adherents like to say). There are intentional ambiguities in the biblical text when it comes to prophecy. And by intentional I mean that prophecy is deliberately cryptic. There were very good reasons why, even after the resurrection, the disciples had a hard time understanding what was going on (Luke 24:44-45).

Why is eschatological prophecy so unclear?

I wrote about why prophecy regarding the messiah’s first incarnation was intentionally obscure in my best-selling book, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. Similarly, messianic prophecy surrounding the second arrival is also hard to determine with any certainty; but I didn’t lay out that case in my book. Instead, I saved that discussion for a new Mobile Ed course, Problems in Bible Interpretation: Why Do Christians Disagree about the End Times? In this course, I work through several examples of why every position on end times has significant uncertainties and, more importantly, why that ought to compel us to be gracious and charitable toward believers with whom we disagree.

The idea that the Bible’s teaching about end times is not self-evident—that you can’t just study the Bible and get a clear, beyond-any-reasonable-doubt answer to what’s going to happen—may be new to some readers. If so, you need only to spend some time studying other views of end times besides your own. Don’t fear such an enterprise; it’s good for you. You’ll discover that biblical passages related to eschatology really can be read more than one way. The fact is that all of the end-times systems look beautiful and elegant—until their assumptions are challenged by other systems. All end-times reconstructions cheat where they have to in order to take care of “problems” (i.e. passages that raise the possibility the system could be wrong). That’s just the way things are. And in my view, God intended that to be the case.

Illustrating the ambiguities

It’s not difficult to demonstrate from Scripture that beliefs about the end times lack certainty. Let’s take the question of the nature of the kingdom of God. Many Christians default to a future earthly millennial reign when they see or hear that phrase. But Paul viewed Christians as already having been put into the kingdom (Col. 1:13). The apostles regularly linked the gospel with the kingdom of God (Acts 8:12; 28:30-31). The kingdom is an already-present reality in the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:6; 5:10) before one ever gets to the “millennium” passage in Revelation 20:1-6.

The reason a literal millennial kingdom is expected by so many is because of the land promise given to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:17-20). Since a specific land was promised to the people of God, the children of Abraham, and those promises were unconditional, then, so the reasoning goes, the future kingdom promises are tied to the physical land of Israel and ethnic Jews. But were the promises of Abraham unconditional? Not according to Gen. 17, where inheritance of the land is promised with a condition—faithfulness to Yahweh of Israel:

1When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly. . . . 8And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

Genesis 22 echoes the same idea:

15And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies . . . 18and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

In addition, the land described by God to Abraham (Gen. 15:18-19; Exod. 23:31) aligns very closely to the land brought under the dominion of Israel at the time of Solomon (1 Kings 4:21). The implication would be that the land promise to Israel was fulfilled in Solomon’s day—so there’s no need to expect a future fulfillment.

But on the other side of the issue there are relevant rebuttal questions. First, while the Abrahamic covenant had conditions, does that mean that it was also unconditional? Paradoxically, yes. Parsing the covenant exegetically leaves one with the realization that it was indeed unconditional (God would have a people and a kingdom—including an earthly one—because that’s what he wants), but how that unconditional purpose was accomplished, and what people participated in those purposes, depended on loyalty to Yahweh. One could not worship another god, or no god at all, and expect to be part of God’s family and kingdom at any time, including the future.

Second, while the land boundaries align well with Solomon’s kingdom, there are actually differing boundary descriptions of the “Promised Land” in the Old Testament (i.e., they aren’t consistently the same). Some of these do not conform to Solomon’s dominion. Does that matter for the kingdom promise? It may well, but we cannot know for sure.
Consider a different example: the rapture. When you study all the possible references to what has to describe the return of the messiah (given Jesus’ identification as messiah) the descriptions do not match in all details. In some, Jesus touches down on earth (Zech. 14:4) and comes as a warrior (Rev. 19:11-16). But in others, Jesus is said to return “in the air” to take believers, living and dead, with him (1 Thess. 4:16-18). While the content of all the passages is closely related (Jesus returns), if the Bible student makes the decision to keep these descriptions separated, two returns of Jesus emerge, one of which has been described as the rapture, and the other the second coming. But is this the way we handle divergent wordings elsewhere in the Bible?

Rarely. When two closely related incidents or conversations in the Gospels disagree, Christians nearly universally say the solution is to harmonize the passages. Adopting that common strategy when it comes to passages about a messianic return systematically eliminates a rapture, since the decision to harmonize produces only one return. So the question becomes, are you a splitter, or a joiner? The Bible contains no instruction manual for helping us make this choice—we are left with ambiguity on the issue.

Learn about eschatological disparities—and how to respond to them

Dr. Heiser’s course, Problems in Bible Interpretation: Why Do Christians Disagree about the End Times?, is available for 40% off for a limited time as part of Mobile Ed’s Tough Topics sale. Tackle the tough stuff with this and dozens of other courses on everything from creation to eschatology. Check out all the courses available and save up to 70%!

why is the bible hard to understandDr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and has taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing. I think the important thing is for each individual to have a position that he or she has on the end times. With that, we need to have humility for other positions and views. If we at least don’t know where we land on eschatology, it is harder (I have found) to show appreciation for another person’s beliefs. Thanks for sharing this post and explaining a couple of views.

    • Phil Winfield says:

      Perhaps it is the fact of His coming and not the timing of His coming that we are to keep in mind. Knowing our propensity for procrastination and selfishness if we knew Jesus would return six weeks from next Tuesday some would not get serious about it till the weekend before. We are to indeed “love his appearing”, but not fixate on it to the point of paralysis. We are to occupy till He comes not hold our breath till He comes. May we go on with heralding the kingdom.

    • Rev. Jeffrey Kran says:

      The issue is a grammatical historical hermaneutic and avoiding false Supersessionism. If we say End-Time Prophecy is vague, we run the danger of inferring first time prophecies are to vague to know if they are fulfilled. Remember the Jews of Jesus day did understand first and second comings. Prophecy was prophecy, and for ever one prophecy related to the 1st coming there seem to eight related to His 2nd coming.We need to be careful of saying any doctrine is too vague for us to have some understanding. However do agree with Pirke Avot 4, “who is wise, he who can learn from all men”.

  2. Good article. I think it’s important to study eschatology since there is so much Scripture devoted to end times, the return of Christ, the day of the Lord, etc. But I absolutely agree with you–let’s work on being a bit more charitable in our disagreeing! some of the harshest words i’ve seen are between followers of Christ who disagree–and it turns into a fight to the death, you’re-a-heretic, etc… I have good friends in all the positions (pre, post, amill) and we have good interactions. Goal–to know God and His Word to the best of our ability. He’s going to return and when He does (or if He takes me home first), then we’ll know accurately. So, when the rapture happens, you’ll have to high5 me ;-)

  3. The promise to the Fathers are certain in their ultimate fulfillment, but conditional in timing bases on the performance of their descendants: Genesis 18:19 (NASB95)
    19 “For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.” That is why the inheritance was announced for the fourth generation after 400 years (Gen 15:16) but put off by their unbelieving disobedience. The same happened to Solomon and his generation (1 Chron 28:7-9, Heb 4:6-7). I think Jesus states he doesn’t know when the Kingdom will come because it is still up to that generation to determine if they will endure to the end and receive the rescue or turn back and be judged (Heb 6;4, Mal 4:5-6). That is the Hebrews question: The promises are good and at hand, but will you follow Jesus and receive the Kingdom or turn back and be judged like the Exodus generation? I assume the Hebrews did turn back, and we are waiting for the next time the Lord will say, “Today if you will hear my voice, and harden not your hearts…. I think the next “Today” offer comes to the 144,000 Hebrews following the Rapture..

  4. Paul Panto says:

    I know that there are different views about end times especially about the timing of the rapture. What amazes me is not what the individual believes but how has his or her life changed because of their belief.

    I know when I studied the book of Revelation to teach on in 1994, its like the scales of confusion fell off and very clear understanding of Revelation, particularly, the rapture, was seen. It wasn’t so much that my beliefs of 35 yrs. had changed, but how my new understanding,changed my life.

    I see more of an urgency to share the gospel with others than ever before. My question to those who believe different is not to start an argument but ask them how has their life changed because of their belief.

    As a Christian I know we’re to “encourage one another, day after day” and not start arguments with fellow believers.

  5. Thanks Dr Heiser. I created a small study group in our church recently to read thru your book together. Really enjoyed it…thank you! Re end times, thank you for your post. I am firmly committed to my point of view and feel that it explains the biblical data best…but I recognize that my view has holes, ambiguities and questions it can’t answer. I am a Senior Pastor, but am blessed to have the former Senior Pastor on staff along with a “Theologian in Residence” with me…and they both hold a different view. I find it refreshing to hold to my own view…it gives me a grid for understanding and a way to put the pieces together. But I try to hold to it loosely and charitably. “In core issues, unity, in other issues diversity, in all things charity.”

  6. When I was younger I to was captivated by all things end-time related. Then I learned the difference between essential and non-essential doctrines. Then I learned the gospel. Then I learned that we are justified by faith in His finished work on the cross apart from our own work. Then I realized I wished someone would have pointed out that I did it backwards, Then I learned professing Christians need to come to agreement on the most essential doctrine of them all…..Salvation. Because we have been arguing about the wrong stuff for far too long.

    • Amen BK! That really says it well. If we don’t get Salvation … we don’t got nothin’!

  7. It’s not so much about the WHEN and HOW of Christ’s return, but THAT this will happen, and that we must in “holy living and godliness looking for and earnestly desiring the coming of the day of God”.
    http://bible.com/12/2pe.3.11-14.ASV Seeing that these things are thus all to be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy living and godliness, looking for and earnestly desiring the coming of the day of God, by reason of which the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? But, according to his promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for these things, give diligence that ye may be found in peace, without spot and blameless in his sight.
    WHEN? PRACTICALLY for sure will this be the day that you as a person die.

  8. J.T. Haney says:

    To me, the entire point is that we do not know, and will not know until it happens and must therefore live our lives as to be ready for His return at ALL times.

  9. Brother until you do correct timeline analysis you won’t understand the word of God as a living in reality. In other words it’s a script written like no other, sequenced right into events that we step into. I can clearly see by Holy Spirit where were at in this time and season of history for example through the minor and major prophets. One example is I can clearly see that we are living in the time-line Daniel 11:24 – 43. I also can clearly see events around the world and where were at in the New Testament and where we’re at and going to from within the book of Revelation.

    The difference between myself and most believers is that I’m getting way out in front of the enemy and moving in the natural to pre-prepare our nation for the sake of countless unaware women and children.

    When you look at Daniel 11:24-43 emph 43 what do you think you need to do in the natural like David to prepare or co-counter the enemy? Can you see the context of the living realities of that chapter and the exploit right within?

    I’ll send you Holy Spirit’s Hybrid site so you can clearly see the example of how we spent seven years to build a infrastructure in the natural out of that context and the living reality of those words that you will step into from those exact scripture’s and, how we have built with our G-d what is to counter Revelation 13:15-17 emph 17.

    When you look at the Revelation of Yeshua, that G-d our Father gave us through John (& his messenger/angel/ same word as it is interchangeable) to show us things that are coming or eminent, approaching faster (as they’ll hit in rapid succession) than you know, make sure you look for the word “causes” as it is none other then the word for coming “law and legislation” which you will not be able to stop according to the words of our G-d and Messiah.

    Please consider what I am saying and may our Lord give you living understanding in these matters that are closest to his heart.

  10. Eschatology is spelled out in the books of Daniel and Revelation. You cannot understand one without the other. It takes many hours of study and prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The book of Revelation is just that, a Revelation. It is a Revelation of Jesus Christ an his mission and plans for this world. It is our preconceived ideas that get in the way or our understanding of eschatology, like the Jews had when Christ came the first time, they misunderstood Him and didn’t recognize Him because of their preconceived ideas of what He was supposed to do and why he came as the Messiah. Let us not let our preconceived Ideas get in the way of understanding Eschatology.