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Lesson 10: The Study of Future Events

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He who will not look forward must look behind ―Gaelic Proverb

Introduction

Consider a few of some of the world’s worst predictions. King George II said in 1773 that the American colonies had little stomach for revolution. An official of the White Star Line, speaking of the firm’s newly built flagship the Titanic, which launched in 1912, declared that the ship was unsinkable. In 1939 the New York Times said the problem with TV was that people had to glue their eyes to a screen, and that the average American wouldn’t have time for it. An English astronomy professor said in the early 19th century that air travel at high speed would be impossible because passengers would suffocate.1

Question one: How do we know that the Bible can predict future events? The answer is because it has a 100 percent track record of doing so. Daniel predicted Alexander the Great
(Dan 8:21). Malachi predicted Jesus would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Jeremiah predicted the 70 year captivity (Jer 25:11). Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD
(Matt 24:1-2). And the list goes on and on and on.

Question two: Why is studying about the future in biblical prophecy important? Sometimes Christians are told not to focus too much on prophetic issues because what is important is the gospel. We are told we should focus on the gospel that unites us as opposed to future events, which have not yet happened and people have differing opinions on. In response to this attitude first one must say that future events are part of the gospel. It is a major part of the good news in which Jesus is coming back, we will be in his presence, and God will complete the salvation process in us. We will receive glorified bodies and will be freed once and for all from our struggle with sin. Secondly, when one considers the amount of prophecy that is in the Bible it is apparent that it is such a major emphasis that it must be very important in God’s overall message for us. J. Barton Payne’s Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy lists 1,239 prophecies in the Old Testament and 578 prophecies in the New Testament for a total of 1,817. These encompass 8,352 verses out of 31,102 verses.2 Thus, over a quarter of the entire Bible is biblical prophecy. Why is it there in that quantity if it’s not that important? Third, Paul taught detailed events surrounding the second coming of Jesus in Thessalonica after planting a new church there and only being there three weeks. He thought it was a critical teaching that the church needed to be introduced to at a very early stage in its development. Lastly, God wants us to know certain events about the future so that we can live our lives today with confidence about what is to come. He gives us the light at the end of the tunnel so to speak. Thus, one would have to conclude that biblical prophecy is a critical part of the core faith of Christianity.

In theological terminology, the study of future events is referred to as eschatology. This lesson will briefly survey and focus on key topics related to future events. These areas are: the rapture and great tribulation, our resurrection, the return of Jesus Christ, the millennium and future for national Israel, and future judgments including heaven and hell. Lastly, it will conclude with what not to say about the future and a primary application for us.

The Rapture and the Great Tribulation

The rapture refers to an event in the future in which believers in Jesus Christ who are alive at that time will be taken up into heaven in conjunction with the Lord’s coming without having to physically die. Those believers who had already died will rise from the dead and all those in Christ will receive immortal glorified bodies. The word rapture is from the Latin word rapturo which means to be “caught up.” All evangelicals agree that the rapture will happen but the differences evangelicals have are concerning when it happens in relationship to what is called the great tribulation and the return of Jesus’ coming to earth. There are two primary passages on the rapture both located in Paul’s writings.3

The first is in 1 Thessalonians: “For we tell you this by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:15-17). The second is in 1 Corinthians: “Listen, I will tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Cor 15:51-52).

In evangelical circles, there are three major views on when this rapture will take place. The first is called the pretribulation rapture view.4 This view is that the rapture will occur at the beginning or just before the start of the 7 year tribulation period. The second view is called the midtribulation rapture view as it sees the rapture occurring at the middle of the 7 year tribulation period. A development of the midtribulation rapture position is referred to as the prewrath rapture view, in which sometime during the second half of the seven year tribulation the rapture takes place prior to a great outpouring of God’s wrath on the earth. The last view is called the posttribulation view as it sees the rapture taking place at the end of the 7 year tribulation period.5 The postribulation rapture position along with the pretribulation rapture view are probably to be considered the most common views today. Once one understands the various framework for these basic events one can then consider some of the arguments for the differing positions for the timing of the rapture in relation to the tribulation period. Since the rapture is still future and there are differing interpretations of the biblical data by good scholarly evangelicals, one has to hold one’s position with a degree of humility that reflects some of the ambiguity on this issue. If someone has a view on it, as this author does, it should be held with an open hand rather than a clenched fist.

What is the Tribulation?

The “great tribulation” or just “tribulation” in certain New Testament contexts refers to an unprecedented time of global suffering and trial in the world that immediately precedes the second coming of the Lord. Jesus stated, “For then there will be great suffering unlike anything that has happened from the beginning of the world until now, or ever will happen”
(Matt 24:21-22). If you think about all the different types of and magnitude of suffering has been experienced already in the world, this statement is a sobering description of how devastating this time period will be. In other words this devastation will be far worse than the Christian persecutions under any Roman Emperor, famines in Africa, genocides, what the U.S. saw in its own civil war in which hundreds of thousands of Americans were killed at the hands of their fellow countrymen, what the world saw in World War II with the Holocaust, massive battles and nuclear detonations, or the 2004 Asian Tsunami in which over 200,000 people were killed.6 And the list could go on. In another passage dealing with this time period John writes, “Then one of the elders asked me, “These dressed in long white robes – who are they and where have they come from?” So I said to him, “My lord, you know the answer.” Then he said to me, “These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb!” (Rev 7:13-14). What do we know about this “great tribulation”? It’s a period that lasts 7 years long (Dan 9:27; Rev 13:5). It is a time of God’s wrath (Rev 6:17) and involves at least three series of judgments from God toward the world that are global in nature (seals, trumpets and bowls; Rev 6-18). The suffering and conflict will be greater than has ever been seen (Matt 24:21-22). It involves a unique manifestation of evil driven by the Devil, the Antichrist and the False Prophet (2 Thess 2:3-4; Rev 12-13). People will be faced with a stark choice to repent and worship God or follow evil and receive the consequences of this choice (Rev 14:6-7).

The Postribulation Rapture View

Why do some people hold to the postribulation rapture view? Here are five basic arguments in support of it.7 First, there is only one “coming” of Jesus and both the rapture and conquest of Jesus must be the same event after the tribulation when he comes as seen in Revelation 19. Second, a resurrection is mentioned in Revelation 20 just following the second coming of Christ in glory (Rev 19), which suggests that the rapture that includes the resurrection is there at this event as well. Third, the saints (or elect) are seen in the tribulation period (e.g., Rev 7) and this must be the church. Also, the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 seems to indicate that believers go through the tribulation and these are to be identified with the church as well. It is argued that the church does not have to be removed from the tribulation to be protected from God’s wrath through it, similar to God protecting Israel during the plagues against Egypt in the book of Exodus. Fourth, the pretribulation position is a relatively recent development in part promoted by the writings of J.N. Darby8 and is not seen in the writings of the early church fathers. And lastly, the parable of the wheat and tares suggests that believers and unbelievers will be together until the “end of the age,” which would be until the second coming of Jesus (Matt 13:24).9

The Midtribulation/Prewrath Rapture View

At least three basic arguments can be given for the midtribulation rapture view. First, the rapture is said in 1 Corinthians 15 to occur at the “last trumpet.” In Revelation there are a series of seven judgments that start with the blowing of trumpets. The seventh trumpet blows in Revelation 8 which appears to be approximately half way through the tribulation period.

Second, there is an emphasis in Revelation on 3 and one/half years in the seven year judgment sequence (Rev 11:2-3; 12:6, 14; 13:5 cf. Dan 9:27). This suggests a major event at the midway point. And third, the church is delivered from the wrath of God (1 Thess 5:9) which this view argues starts at the mid-point of the tribulation (Rev 15:1). The prewrath rapture view is a development and modification of the midtribulation rapture position which sees the church going through the midpoint of the tribulation period and undergoing persecution but being taken out sometime prior to the end of the seven year period and before a great outpouring of God’s wrath.10

The Pretribulation Rapture View

The view that in this writer’s opinion provides the most coherence with the biblical data is the pretribulation rapture view. There are four basic arguments that lead in this direction. First, in the Old Testament there is Daniel’s 70 week prophecy, which relate to these end time events.11 Daniel states that these events are for or concerning “his people” (Dan 9:24). This must refer to national Israel as Daniel is an Israelite. Since the first 69 weeks primarily refer to the time when God is focusing his program/dealings with the nation of Israel, it makes sense that the 70th week would as well. The 70th week, a seven year period, is the same length of time as the tribulation period (See Rev 12:6, 14; 13:5 which refers to half of this period) and Daniel’s events fit well with a future tribulational framework (e.g., the abomination of desolation (Matt 24:15), etc). The point then is that the tribulation period is not for the church or concerning the church. Second, while the church is explicitly mentioned many times in Revelation 2-3 it is not explicitly mentioned once in chapters 4-19. It is true that believers are described in Revelation 7:9-17 but they are not described as the “church.” There is a shift in terminology which suggests a change has taken place. In Revelation 4-19 the focus appears to be on the tribes of Israel (Rev 7:1-8), which is contrasted with believers from other peoples (Rev 7:9). Third, in Revelation 3:10 it appears that the church is promised to be kept from the hour or time of trial that is coming on the whole world, not protected through it. We are not just kept from the trial but kept from the time of it. The phrase “to test those who dwell/live on the earth” (cf. Rev 6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 14; 17:2, 8) describes God’s purpose for the event and refers to the unbelieving world some of whom will turn in belief to God. Lastly, the church is not appointed to God’s wrath (1 Thess 5:9). It is clear that even from right at the start of the tribulation with the seal judgments, God’s wrath is unleashed in terrifying force (e.g., Rev 6:16-17).12

Resurrection and Glorified Bodies

Our future resurrection is also a significant theme of understanding the biblical picture of the future. In essence, the resurrection refers to the replacement of our mortal physical body with an immortal physical body. Jesus promised this to those who believe in him in the clearest of terms. In John 11 after a man named Lazarus had died, Jesus gave hope to his sister. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies’” (John 11:25). The foundation of the Christian faith is the death and resurrection of Christ. Also, Jesus’ resurrection is a prelude to every Christian’s resurrection. Paul writes to the church at Corinth, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20). Jesus’ resurrection is only the first of many to come. The reference to those who have fallen asleep refers to Christians who had died. The symbolic language of sleep suggests that we will wake up again. The Christian who dies will wake up in the resurrection. But what kind of body is it? Paul describes, “It is the same with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:42-44). It is an imperishable, glorious, powerful, and spiritual body. What a glorious future we have to look forward to! For the church, the resurrection takes place at the time of the rapture (1 Thess 4:15-17). For the Old Testament saints as well as those believers who die in the tribulation, their resurrection appears to occur at the second coming of Christ prior to the millennium (Dan 12:1-2; Rev 20:4).

The Second Coming of Jesus Christ

The ascension of Jesus Christ was a prelude to his second coming. Luke records, “After he had said this, while they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud hid him from their sight. As they were still staring into the sky while he was going, suddenly two men in white clothing stood near them and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven’” (Acts 1:10-11). While Jesus had predicted his return earlier than this (See Matt 24), the ascension shows how Jesus would return and even where, on the Mount of Olives (Zech 14). In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, the entire theme of the book is centered on the return of Jesus: “Look! He is returning with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the tribes on the earth will mourn because of him. This will certainly come to pass! Amen” (Rev 1:7). Revelation 19 describes the majestic and awesome climax of Jesus’ return as King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev 19).

The Millennial Reign of Christ

Another major topic related to future events concerns what is termed the millennium. This word comes from the Latin term mille, which means 1000. The length of the reign of Jesus is mentioned 6 times in Revelation 20:1-6 as being 1000 years long. John writes, “Then I saw an angel descending from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the abyss and a huge chain. He seized the dragon – the ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan – and tied him up for a thousand years. The angel then threw him into the abyss and locked and sealed it so that he could not deceive the nations until the one thousand years were finished. (After these things he must be released for a brief period of time.) Then I saw thrones and seated on them were those who had been given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. These had not worshiped the beast or his image and had refused to receive his mark on their forehead or hand. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Rev 20:1-4). There are three major views related to the millennial reign of Christ. They are termed amillennial, postmillennial, and premillennial.13

The amillennial position believes that the 1000 years is a symbolic time between the first and second coming. Based on events at Jesus’ first advent14 it also holds that Satan is currently bound by the chain mentioned in Rev 20:1. This view was introduced by the early church father Origen and popularized by Augustine.15 The postmillennial position believes that the church will usher in the God’s kingdom and ideal millennial conditions. After that, Jesus will return to the earth. This view was more popular going into the early part of the 20th century but faded following the devastations of World Wars I and II and lack of the church’s ability to stem it. The premillennial position believes that the 2nd coming of Jesus occurs prior to a literal 1000 year reign on the earth.16 This view was held by early Christian interpreters (Epistle of Barnabus (about 130 A.D), Papias (60-130 A.D. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Justin Martyr (100-165).17

The main test though for the truth of any position is the biblical arguments for and against it. The premillennial position has much to commend it. First, it fits a natural chronology of the book of Revelation. In Revelation the second coming of Jesus comes first in Chapter 19 and then the millennium is described in Chapter 20. Secondly, it will take Christ himself coming in judgment to bring in His kingdom and defeat evil including Satan and his forces. This is what is pictured in Zechariah 14 and Revelation 19. A future millennial reign on the earth also fits the Old Testament passages that promise a messianic kingdom that has not yet been seen. For example, the Son of David is said to rule on David’s throne forever and the government being on his shoulders (2 Sam 7:13-14; Is 9:6). In the New Testament, Jesus told the 12 disciples that in the future they would rule over the 12 tribes of Israel (Matt 19:28). This did not happen in their lifetime.

Also, it is claimed by some that the 1000 years are merely symbolic not literal. While other numbers in Revelation may be symbolic they also have a literal referent (e.g., 12 literal tribes
(Rev 7), 7 literal historical churches (Rev 2-3) etc). The reference to 1000 years is mentioned 6 times and thus it is emphasized in Revelation 20. Whenever time references are given with a number, for example 1260 days or 42 months (Rev 12:6; 13:5), they are always taken literally in correspondence with Daniel’s seventieth week. So it would also seem to be true for 1000 years. Lastly, when John speaks of an indefinite period of time he states it that way. For example Satan is released for “a short time” in Rev 20:3 which contrasts with a definite period 1000 years.

My main objection to amillenialism though from the passage is that the purpose of the binding of Satan is not currently being fulfilled: the deceiving of the nations. During the period of binding there is no indication of any freedom for Satan in his confinement; the pit is locked and sealed. This description of Satan being bound contradicts quite a few New Testament passages. For example, Satan is a roaring lion seeking someone to devour
(1 Peter 5:8).18 Ananias’ heart was filled with Satan (Acts 5:3). Satan blinds people to the gospel
(2 Cor 4:3-4). Satan hindered Paul (1 Thess 2:18). Christians are alerted to Satan’s temptations
(1 Cor 7:5; 2 Cor 2:11; 11:14). This point strongly suggests that we are not currently in the millennial period.

Future Judgments

There are two basic types of judgments described in the Bible, one for believers and one for unbelievers. This is the basic dividing line. Jesus stated, “The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God” (John 3:18). The final judgment and condemnation of unbelievers is sometimes referred to as the great white throne judgment based on John’s description of it in Rev 20:11-15: “Then I saw a large white throne and the one who was seated on it; . . And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne. Then books were opened, and another book was opened – the book of life. So the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to their deeds. . . If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, that person was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:11-15). There is also a final judgment and reward for believers in Jesus Christ. This is sometimes referred to as the Bema judgment based on the Greek word related to this judgment. Paul writes, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat (Gk. Bema) of Christ, so that each one may be paid back according to what he has done while in the body, whether good or evil”
(2 Cor 5:10). This judgment is not related to whether or not a Christian gets into heaven but rather the reward that awaits when one gets there (cf. 1 Cor 3). Lastly, there is a judgment of believers (as represented as sheep) and unbelievers (as represented as goats) at the second coming of Jesus in which the sheep enter the blessing of the kingdom while the goats go off to judgment (Matt 25:31-46).

What is hell like? The Greek word for hell is Gehenna. It is a place of fire (Matt 13:30; Luke 3:17); weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 8:12); darkness (Matt 8:12); separation from God
(1 Thess 1:9) and eternal destruction (2 Thess 1:9). From these verses and others, it is clear that the Bible pictures hell as a place of conscious eternal torment.19 On the converse side, what is heaven like? First there is the continuous praising of God in his very presence by saints and angels (Rev 4-5). Paul states that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord
(1 Cor 5:8). There will be no more sin, death, crying or pain (Rev 21:4). We will be in resurrected eternal bodies. Heaven is a place to be with Jesus forever as well as with our fellow saints
(1 Thess 4:17). A new heavens and new earth will be created for us to live on and in (Rev 22). The tree of life gives healing to the nations and God’s glory lights the new creation (Rev 22:1-5).

Conclusion

In conclusion, despite the debates about the rapture and nature of the 1000 years perhaps the most important point to take away is this: When Jesus comes back he is coming back to earth and when he gets here he will defeat his enemies and rule. As Matthew states, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne”
(Matt 25:31). In this passage, notice the word “then,” which describes the future rule of Christ after the second advent.

But we must not try to make date setting predictions for Jesus’ return. Unfortunately, not all have heeded this advice as numerous people have tried their hand at date setting to the church’s detriment. One of the latest of these attempts was broadcast and publicized on family radio by Harold Camping who predicted that Jesus would come back on May 21, 2011.20 But as Jesus stated, “But as for that day and hour no one knows it – not even the angels in heaven – except the Father alone. For just like the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. For in those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. And they knew nothing until the flood came and took them all away. It will be the same at the coming of the Son of Man”
(Matt 24:36-39). Instead, we need to be ready and live in light of Jesus’ future coming and our accountability before him. Jesus himself gives us our basic responsibility. “Therefore stay alert, because you do not know the day or the hour” (Matt 15:13).

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think the Bible gives us prophecies about the future to think about?
  2. What are the most important things to know about the future and how can we live our life in light of them?
  3. How do rewards for the Christian motivate us to serve God?
  4. How has and does “date setting” for the Lord’s return hurt the church?
  5. How much leeway should we give our fellow Christians in different views about the future?
  6. How does and should God’s sovereignty affect how we think about our personal future and the future of the world?

1 The World’s Worst Predictions in Readers Digest, March 1991.

2 J. Barton Payne’s Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980).

3 Some also add John 14:1-3 to this list but this passage is not as clear as the passages in Paul.

4 One could also add the partial rapture theory in which only faithful Christians are raptured but this view is not that common today.

5 For an in depth presentation of three views on this topic see Stanley Gundry and Alan Hultberg, eds., Three View on the Rapture – Pretribulation, Prewrath, or Postribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).

6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2004_Indian_Ocean_earthquake_and_tsunami.

7 These are developed in part from George Ladd. See George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956.

8 John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) is sometimes considered to be the father of modern Dispensationalism and was a major figure in England in the origin of the Plymouth Brethren Assemblies. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Darby_%28evangelist%29 (Date accessed December 2).

9 Counterarguments could be developed on these points but for now we want to try to understand some of the main arguments for postribulationalism.

10 Marvin J. Rosenthal, The Pre-wrath Rapture of the Church: A New Understanding of the Rapture, the Tribulation, and the Second Coming (Nashville: Nelson, 1990).

11 To start understanding the 70 week prophecy one must realize that a “week” in the Old Testament can refer to a week of days or a week of years and here it refers to a week of years. For more information on this prophecy see Alva J. McClain. Daniels Prophecy of the 70 Weeks (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969).

12 One could also add for those in a premillennial framework that postribulationism does not easily have a solution of how believers will enter the millennium in mortal bodies since at the rapture the church receives its glorified bodies.  Millennial conditions appear to start out with only the saved (Matt 25: 31-46) and also have people dying during that period though at older ages (Is 65:20). For pretribulationalism though those who get saved and also live through the tribulation events can enter the millennium with their mortal body.

13 See Robert Clouse ed., The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1977).

14 One verse that is sometimes given is Luke 10:17-18, in which Jesus states that he saw Satan fall from heaven like lightening.

15 Augustine states: “Those who, on the strength of this passage, have suspected that the first resurrection is future and bodily, have been moved, among other things, specially by the number of a thousand years, as if it were a fit thing that the saints should thus enjoy a kind of Sabbath-rest during that period, a holy leisure after the labors of the six thousand years since man was created, and was on account of his great sin dismissed from the blessedness of paradise into the woes of this mortal life.  And. this opinion would not be objectionable, if it were believed that the joys of the saints in that Sabbath shall be spiritual, and consequent on the presence of God; for I myself, too, once held this opinion. But, as they assert that those who then rise again shall enjoy the leisure of immoderate carnal banquets, furnished with an amount of meat and drink such as not only to shock the feeling of the temperate, but even to surpass the measure of credulity itself, such assertions can be believed only by the carnal. They who do believe them are called by the spiritual Chiliasts, which we may literally reproduce by the name Millenarians (Augustine, The City of God, 20.7).

16 See Donald Campbell and Jeffrey Townsend eds., A Case for Premillenialism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992).

17 Justin Martyr states: “But I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned, and enlarged, [as] the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare.” Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Tryho, 80.4.

18 Someone has once well said that if Satan is currently chained with the description of Rev 20 it must be an awfully long chain.

19 For some differing views on this topic see Stanley Gundry, ed. Four Views on Hell. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

20 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold Camping (Date accessed January 9, 2013).

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Dispensational / Covenantal Theology, Eschatology (Things to Come), Heaven, Hell, Prophecy/Revelation, Revelation