Most of us have probably gone through a period in our Christian lives (or are still there) when we thought about little else than what the Bible says about end times prophecy. In this post, Dr. Michael Heiser offers his thoughts on why there is so much disagreement on the topic of biblical eschatology.
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 end times 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 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 in 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 Genesis 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 disparities in end times prophecy—and how to respond to them
Get Dr. Heiser’s course Problems in Bible Interpretation: Why Do Christians Disagree about the End Times, which will help you tackle the tough questions about end times prophecy.
- 4 Views of the End Times—and What They Have in Common
- The Return of Jesus: 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