When we’re talking about eschatology (that’s the study of the end times), it’s easy to get confused by the different terms people use. Before you really dig into the topic, it’s helpful to know the four main views of the end times:
Those are awfully big words—and they represent some big concepts. Learn more about each view—and why we don’t have to be afraid—in the excerpt below, adapted from Jesus Wins by Dayton Hartman.
When the movie Independence Day was released, I was a young teenager. My parents told me not to go see that movie. But a movie about an alien invasion? It was too much to resist! After watching nearly two hours of cities being destroyed by alien ships, I came away with three conclusions: First, my parents were right—I was too young for the movie. Second, Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith are the perfect action-movie duo. Third, I would never be able to forget the chorus to the R.E.M. song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”
That song expresses the human assumption that someday the world will end. As believers, we know it will end. And we know some of the how it will end—at least who wins in the end. We’ve done our best to mine the prophetic texts in Scripture to gain more and more detail that can be quantified and systematized to tell us how the world might end. It’s comforting to know the details of something coming, even if it’s ultimately beyond your control. To know what’s ahead gives us some sense of security. So, for 2,000 years, Christians have tried to piece together what the Bible says about the end.
A wide swath of orthodox interpretations are possible. This post explains the four broad eschatological (end times) categories: amillennialism, postmillennialism, historic premillennialism, and dispensationalism. Each of these views proposes a different take on three key aspects of the end of the world: the millennium, the binding of Satan, and the relationship between Israel and the church.
Amillennialism’s name is a clear giveaway to its defining mark: “a-millennialism” literally means there is no literal, open, visible, one-thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. Instead, the reign of Christ is understood in a fundamentally different way.
Amillennialism does not have a specific antichrist as advocated in something like the Left Behind series. However, there may be a man of sin (2 Thess 2:1–12), who could fit some kind of antichrist definition or archetype in the modern understanding of the term.
The Reign of Christ: Amillennial thinkers note rightly that the one-thousand-year language describing the millennial period in Revelation 20 can be taken figuratively. So, the thousand-year period isn’t a specific thousand-year cycle on an actual calendar. Instead, with his resurrection and ascension, Christ began his reign. He presently rules on Earth (the millennial age) through his people. And he will return physically, at any moment, to usher in heaven on earth.
The Role of Satan: Satan’s influence has been diminished because he has been bound by Christ. Satan himself is not presently exerting influence over the world.
Israel and the Church: There is not a stark contrast between Israel and the Church. Rather, the Church is spiritual Israel, because Christ is true Israel. This does not mean that the Church has replaced Israel but instead that the church is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham that his offspring (Jesus) would bless all nations (people groups).
Key Passages: John 5:28–29; Romans 8:17–23; 2 Peter 3:3–14; 2 Thessalonians 1:5–10.1
Notable Representatives: Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Louis Berkhof, C. S. Lewis, R. C. Sproul.
You have very likely never met a committed proponent of postmillennialism. That was not always the case. Early in American history, postmillennialism was, in some sense, an American eschatology. Now it’s a theological peculiarity to hear someone speak of postmillennial ideas. In part, that’s because postmillennialism is a difficult system to quantify. Not only is it a minority position, but postmillennial thinkers tend to disagree about the details. We will take a look at the broad points of agreement here.2
The Reign of Christ: Postmillennialists differ as to whether the reign of Christ is 1,000 years or simply a long period of time. At its core, the distinctive of postmillennial thought is the ever-expanding progress of the gospel until the world becomes markedly Christian. Then, Christ returns. The millennial age is ushered in by the unrelenting advance of the gospel.
The Role of Satan: There is no definitive position on the role of Satan within postmillennial thought. Some postmillennial theologians argue that Satan was bound by Jesus (similar to amillennialism), while others would argue it remains a future event (in agreement with premillenialism).
Israel and the Church: The postmillennial position agrees with amillennialism: the Church is the fulfillment of Israel. The Church is spiritual Israel.
Key Passages: Psalm 2; Isaiah 2:2–4; Matthew 13; 28; John 12.
Notable Representatives: Jonathan Edwards, B. B. Warfield, Greg Bahnsen, Loraine Boettner, Kenneth Gentry, Peter Leithart.3
Premillennialism is often assumed to be the default view of Christians in America. This is understandable—it is presently the most common view of eschatology held by American evangelicals. While evangelicals are most familiar with the primary framework of premillennial thought, many are unaware that premillennialism has two major divisions: historic premillennialism (the traditional form, often called simply “premillennialism”) and dispensational premillennialism (usually called “dispensationalism”).
The Reign of Christ: Christ will return physically and visibly in order to usher in the millennial reign—but historic premillennialists disagree whether the reign of Christ will be a literal thousand years or just a long period of time.
The Role of Satan: Satan is currently at work in the world, influencing affairs and deceiving the nations. At the return of Christ, Satan will be bound for the duration of the millennial age.
Israel and the Church: Historic premillennialism proposes that the Church is the spiritual fulfillment of Israel in a manner that is very similar to amillennialism and postmillennialism.
Key Passages: This position shares many of the same key passages as amillennialism and postmillennialism. The distinction between the systems has to do with interpretation. Premillennialism places a heavier emphasis on rigidly literal interpretations of key passages than either amillennialism or postmillennialism does.
Notable Representatives: Irenaeus, Wayne Grudem, Robert Gundry, Ben Witherington III, Craig Blomberg.
The Reign of Christ: For the majority of dispensationalists, the millennial reign of Christ will begin after his return, at the end of a distinct seven-year period known as the tribulation. The millennial reign of Christ begins at the third coming of Christ. Dispensationalists propose a secret rapture concept in which Christ returns (prior to or midway through the tribulation period) to remove the church from the earth.
The Role of Satan: Like historic premillennialism, dispensationalism argues that Satan is actively at work to resist the Church and to undermine God’s people. He will be bound for the duration of the millennium and only released for a final confrontation following his 1,000-year captivity.
Key Passages: While dispensationalism also shares premillennialism’s more literal approach to the key passages, dispensationalism holds Daniel 9 (on the 70 weeks) as a key passage for interpreting the arc of history. Additionally, classic dispensationalism proposes that the content of the Bible is divided along seven dispensations (or eras). While different schools of dispensationalism categorize these eras differently, one common structure is innocence, conscience, human government, promise, law, grace, and the millennium. Key passages are interpreted through this dispensational framework.
Notable Representatives: Lewis S. Chafer, John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, Hal Lindsey, John MacArthur.
Summary of the four views of the end times
There’s actually quite a bit of agreement among the various eschatological views. Regarding the reign of Christ: amillennialists (and some postmillennialists) understand the number 1,000 in Revelation as a symbol and the character of Christ’s reign as spiritual; premillennialists (and some postmillennialists) take the number 1,000 literally and understand the character of Christ’s reign to be visible. Everyone agrees that Satan is bound during the millennium. Postmillennialists stick out a bit here, since they disagree over what constitutes the beginning of the millennium. Amillennialists, historic premillennialists, and postmillennialists agree that the Church is the fulfillment of Israel. Dispensationalists sharply distinguish Israel and the Church.
Complicating any effort to distinguish between each of these views is the fact that they share key passages but interpret them differently. History helps clarify areas of agreement and points of departure.
A common hope
The great tradition of the Church puts a different emphasis on eschatology than many modern Christians do. Early Church historian Ronald Heine says this well: “No one ever seems to have been pronounced heretical solely on the basis of his or her understanding of Revelation 20. We should learn from that toleration of diverse views in the early Church and let that example guide us in our thinking about the millennial question.”4
It’s tempting to identify the oldest Christian position on the end times as the correct position. But we need to examine a position’s faithfulness to the Bible, not how old it is or how many people hold it. If the oldest Christian stance is the right one on every issue, we’re in trouble! During the time between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, all of the disciples denied the resurrection of the dead. And surely the majority doesn’t determine right doctrine—otherwise, the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) would have decreed that all gentiles must be circumcised and follow the letter of the Torah.
Yes, we can rank the four approaches to eschatology according to their popularity throughout the Church’s life.5
We can also emphasize their areas of disagreement. Despite differences on the millennial age, the events leading up to the return of Christ, and the relationship between Israel and the church, these eschatologies agree about more than they disagree. None of these deny the basic eschatology of the Apostles’ Creed: “He will come to judge the living and the dead.”
We share one central hope in Jesus’ victory. We should discuss which system(s) most faithfully and consistently interpret the Bible, but we must do so knowing that our hope is a shared hope. Our hero is the same. Jesus returns, and Jesus wins.
- How Many Times Is Jesus Coming Back?
- Eschatology: The Creeds Agree on the End Times
- Eschatology: Why We Should—and Can—Teach and Preach It
- End Times Prophecy and Why There Is So Much Disagreement
- Perspectives on Eschatology: Five Views on the Millennium (4 hour course)
- Classic Studies on Eschatology (27 vols.)
- End Times Prophecy: Ancient Wisdom for Uncertain Times
The title of this post is the addition of the editor. The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of Faithlife.
- For an excellent cross-examination of these key passages, see Darrell Bock, ed., Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999).
- I only highlight the broad details of agreement in what is historically understood as postmillennialism in the chapter discussion. For more on the points of agreement and disagreement within postmillennialism, check out Kenneth Gentry’s essay in Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond.
- There are subcategories to each of these divisions as well. One of the notable (and growing) subsystems is what is called progressive dispensationalism.
- Ronald E. Heine, Classical Christian Doctrine: Introducing the Essentials of the Ancient Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 177.
- Still, amillennialism, premillennialism, and postmillennialism can claim antiquity. As Baptist theologian Millard Erickson says, “Although all three millennial positions have been held virtually throughout church history, at different times one or another has dominated.” See Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 1107.