Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Exegetical Eschatology: Four Views of the Future

The word eschatology is defined as "any system of doctrines concerning last, or final, matters, as death, the Judgment, the future state, etc." In Christian theology, it is the study of the "end times." It includes discussion of such topics as the return of Christ, the antichrist, the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment. Relevant passages include Jesus' Olivet Discourse, the book of Revelation and much of Daniel's prophecies.

The word exegesis is "critical explanation or interpretation of a text or portion of a text." It comes from the Greek exegeisthai which means "to interpret," and is comprised of the root words ex, meaning "out," and hegeisthai, meaning "to lead, guide." Thus, exegesis is the extraction of meaning out from, in the case of Judeo-Christianity, the Bible. In contrast, eisegesis means "an interpretation...that expresses the interpreter's own ideas, bias, or the like, rather than the meaning of the text." In other words, it is the reading into the Bible one's own beliefs.

In this new series, "Exegetical Eschatology," as the name suggests, this subject of the "end times" will be discussed with an emphasis on the extraction of meaning from Scripture. Throughout the history of the Church this topic has been the subject not only of intense debate, but also of speculation as to its relevance to contemporary world events. Particularly in modern times, there are large numbers of Christians speculating as to whether some modern figure is the antichrist, or if microchips implanted into body parts are the "mark of the beast," or if perceived increases in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters like hurricanes indicate the end is at hand. Eschatology has also in modern times been the subject of popular entertainment, in the form of horror movies and pseudo-fictional literary works such as Time LaHaye's Left Behind series.

With so much in-house debate amongst Christians as to the nature of biblical prophecies concerning the "end times," with such frequent and, often, fanatical speculation as to the relevance of modern persons and events to prophetic passages in the Bible, and with so many varied eschatolological positions infusing modern entertainment, one may wonder why we should concern ourselves with what Scripture has to say about the subject at all. Is there any hope of coming to properly--that is, biblically--understand anything about the "end times?" I happen to think there is, and even if I did not, I'm not inclined to believe that wholesale portions of Scripture were given to us by God knowing full well that we stood no chance of grasping even the smallest iota of His words.


The purpose of this first entry in this series is to introduce the four major views of eschatology held by orthodox Christians throughout history. Each has its own unique interpretation of prophetic passages in the Bible, which will be examined later in this series. However, it is important to recognize that, despite their differences in understanding of the "end times," adherents to each of these doctrines have, historically, agreed to the following "essentials" of the Christian faith: the future return of Christ, the future bodily resurrection of the dead, and the future final judgment and consummation of all things. Thus, though these schools of thought differ in their understanding of the nature and timing of many eschatological passages in Scripture, they are each orthodox in terms of the historic Christian faith.
  • Futurism: Futurists believe that most "end times" prophecies have yet to be fulfilled. To them, for example, the contents of the book of Revelation portray events in a largely literal fashion, most of which will take place in the future. Its antichrist or beast is a figure that is yet to appear, and when he does he will institute the "mark of the beast." The "great tribulation", and the thousand years during which Satan will be bound in some sense, have not yet begun. Discussions over the timing of the "rapture"--pretribulational, midtribulational, posttribulational--and of Christ's return relative to the "millennium"--premillennial, millennial, amillenial--are discussions about the chronology of future events from a futurist's perspective. Thus, as the name implies, futurism "looks toward the future" for the fulfillment of most "end times" prophecy.
  • Preterism: In contrast, preterism "looks toward the past" for the fulfillment of most "end times" prophecy. Preterists believe that most--but not all--eschatological prophecy was fulfilled in and around 70 A.D., when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. The language of prophecy is viewed as being largely symbolic in its description of nonetheless literal events, typical of the apocalyptic imagery utilized by ancient Hebrew prophets. Typically, the emperor Nero is viewed as the antichrist or beast of Revelation, the number six hundred sixty-six (666) a numeric code for Nero's name, and the "mark of the beast" symbolizes devotion to Rome rather than to Christ. To the preterist, though Jesus will bodily return in the future--the "second coming"--many references to His future coming pointed forward merely decades, not millennia, to what they view as His coming in judgment upon Jerusalem during the "great tribulation," the time of difficulty for Jerusalem approaching and during its destruction.
  • Historicism: Rather than looking forward or backward for the fulfillment of most "end times" prophecy, historicists instead view eschatological prophecies as describing the continuous course of Church history throughout the ages, including and continuing today, particularly the struggle between the true Church and apostasy. It could thus be said that historicism "looks toward the present." Historicism has, historically, placed a special emphasis on the clash between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestants. The antichrist, beast and "whore of Babylon" are often identified as the system of popes characterizing Catholicism. Historicism arguably has had the greatest number of adherents throughout Church history, though in modern times, and particularly in America, it appears to have been surpassed in popularity by futurism.
  • Idealism: Whereas each of the other three eschatological positions view most "end times" prophecies as finding literal (in some sense) fulfillment in the past (preterism), present (historicism) or future (futurism), idealism takes a more allegorical approach, viewing them as purely symbolic--with the exception of the aforementioned "essentials". They are fulfilled in some spiritual sense throughout Church history, and continue to be until Christ's second coming, as part of the conflict between the kingdom of God and that of Satan.
Having a minimal familiarity with these terms and the views they describe will be helpful in interpreting Scripture and its "end times" passages. Theologians in the Church have, for nearly two thousand years, spent countless hours and immeasurable effort and prayer trying to understand what the Bible has to say about the subject. As a result, they have almost universally fallen into one of these four camps. It is likely, therefore, that one of them is correct, or that at least for any given prophecy, one of them is correct. As Dee Dee Warren, founder of The Preterist Blog, puts it: "Theological novelty is not a good thing."

In this series we will look at how each of these views interprets prophetic passages in the Bible, comparing and contrasting them with one another, and will attempt to put aside presupposed eschatological biases in an effort to let the God-breathed Scripture guide us toward which view is correct, either as a system in itself or regarding specific passages. First, however, in the next entries in this series we'll look a bit more closely at the variations within futurism, followed by a war over words regarding preterism.

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