Politics & Prophecy: A Lawyer’s View of the End Times
by Gerald R. Thompson
Four Principal Views
For better or worse, there are four principal views of eschatology held by Christians, with many sub-variations and individual perspectives. I say “for better or worse” because it must grieve God there is so much division among His own people about matters He has disclosed to us. He made those disclosures in order to give people understanding, not confusion. God is not divided in His opinion, and He didn’t want His people to be divided in their opinions either.
There are even some branches of Christianity that claim not to have an eschatology, as if avoiding the matter will get them closer to the truth. But the truth is, there are simply too many prophetic scriptures in the Bible – from beginning to end – for any serious student of God’s Word to ignore. If God devoted so much of His written word to prophecy, we ignore it at our peril.
Nevertheless, any way you slice it, many people – many Bible-believing people – are going to be wrong because each major viewpoint of the end times has many adherents, and each viewpoint is in significant respects mutually exclusive with the others. Thus, no matter which viewpoint is right, a substantial number of believers (if not the vast majority of them) will be wrong. What a shame. And no, I’m not saying everyone who disagrees with me is wrong – I’m simply pointing out that not everyone can be right. If there were only two major views, one could hope the majority would be right, but with so many views out there, only a statistical minority can be right no matter which view it is.
The four main camps of prophetic views are known as Dispensational (God works in distinct ways at distinct times with little continuity) – a sub-group of premillennialism; Historic Premillennialism (the Millennium, or Golden Age, is yet future); Postmillennialism (the Millennium has already started, and we’re in it now); and Amillennialism (there is not now, and never will be, any earthly Golden Age or political kingdom of Christ).
Dispensationalists generally believe in a secret Rapture of the Church before (or midway through) the Tribulation, and after the Second Coming there will be a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth. Pre-Tribulation Rapture adherents believe that it could literally happen at any moment. This view is popularized in the Left Behind series of books and movies. It is a common viewpoint among Baptists, Pentecostal and charismatic churches, and independent churches. This view is also often (but not always) understood as maintaining a strict separation between Israel and the Church – to the extent that not only do they never mingle, but in fact God has two separate programs for them and He never deals with them in the same way or even at the same time.
Historic premillennialists generally believe the Tribulation could come very soon, but there are a number of things which still need to take place first, and the Rapture (so-called) is really just a part of the First Resurrection which takes place concurrent with the Second Coming at the end of the Tribulation (not secret and not a separate event), following which Christ will rule for 1,000 literal years on earth. Premillennialists (or premills) view both the first and second resurrections as physical (i.e., the dead will rise from the grave both times). People who hold this view are scattered among the Protestant and evangelical churches. Historic premillennialism is essentially what premills believed (historically) before Dispensationalism came along in the mid-19th century.
Postmillennialists (sometimes postmills herein) generally believe the Tribulation already happened, Christians will eventually come into political domination worldwide for a period of uncertain duration, and Christ won’t return until that happens in the distant future. This viewpoint is also called “Preterist,” i.e., that the Tribulation has already happened (around 70 A.D.) and we’re in the Millennium now. This viewpoint is common among Presbyterians and other churches which consider themselves Reformed or Calvinist. It is a common (but not the only) motivator for Christian political involvement in the modern world.
Amillennialists (sometimes amills herein) generally believe the Tribulation is the next major prophetic event to occur, but won’t happen until the distant future, and Christ (or Christians) will never rule the world politically. The amills, together with the postmills, also view the first resurrection as spiritual only (i.e., personal salvation), and there will only be one physical resurrection of both believers and non-believers at the end of time. The cornerstone of this view is that the kingdom of Christ will only ever be spiritual, not physical, during the entirety of history. This view prevails in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches and is probably the most common view of the four.
See the attached chart comparing these four views in much greater detail in Appendix B.
These four views form two meta-camps. Both postmillennialists and amillennialists believe that history ends, and eternity begins, when the Second Coming occurs. For postmills, the Second Coming marks the end of the Millennium (because we’re already in it), so there is nothing that comes afterward in terms of earthly history. For amills, who skip the millennium altogether, there is also nothing which comes after the Second Coming in terms of earthly history. For both groups, all that comes after the Second Coming is the Final Judgment and eternity.
That is why you often hear some people say that the Second Coming and/or Armageddon imply the end of the world, which in reality simply betrays their postmill or amill viewpoint assumptions.
To premills (dispensational and historic), neither Armageddon nor the Second Coming are the end of the world, and history will go on for at least another 1,000 years after them. This is a major departure from the other views. At any point in time prior to the Second Coming, a significant portion of world history remains yet future – a future where the topography of the earth, the structure and governance of the nations, the state of affairs of the Jewish people, and the knowledge and influence of Christianity and God’s laws will all be significantly altered from current conditions. In other words, premills believe in a new world order prior to and separate from eternity.
One thing many people from all camps will agree with is that the Mayan calendar, the Doomsday Clock, the writings of Nostradamus, and similarly fanciful ideas will play no part in how the end times actually unfold. Mankind is not going to bring about its own destruction, the earth does not have a built-in expiration date, we are not going to spoil the earth and need to colonize space, and no comet, asteroid or alien invasion is going to destroy the world or produce an extinction level event. Therefore, we don’t need to colonize other planets and make our escape from earth before it’s too late.
If those are the things you expect to happen to the world in the future, your time would be better spent reading science fiction and fantasy books rather than biblical prophecy. Granted, the future is going to see some fantastic events taking place. However, God is firmly in control of the earth and He is going to ensure that His purposes are accomplished. Only God controls the future of the world – not natural forces, not an alien intervention, and certainly not humanity. So if you have the idea that we control our own future – sorry, it just ain’t so.
What Really Drives End Times Viewpoints
To hear people talk, you might think that theologians pick the point of view that seems to fit the evidence best. In other words, that they examine the scripture texts containing prophetic statements (the evidence) and the sequence of events they describe in an unbiased fashion, and the results of this unbiased analysis is what drives people to pick one view over another. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, a person’s view of the end times is entirely predetermined by their view of three things:
1) the nature of the divine covenants – mainly, whether they are separate and distinct agreements applying to different groups and/or at different times, or installments of a single agreement which all ultimately merge together;
2) whether the ministry of Christ includes an earthly political kingdom and who will bring it about (God or man); and
3) the role of the Church in the world (especially whether it merges with or replaces Israel in God’s plan since Christ), and the degree to which God maintains a separate program for Israel compared to the Church.
If you believe the ministry of Christ will always necessarily be limited to the spiritual only (not temporal, or political), then you will tend to view the role of the Church as being concerned with spiritual matters only, and the Millennium as merely allegorical. In other words, you will be an amillennialist.
Think it through. When Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36), did He mean only at that time, or did He mean it will always be that way? If the second way and not the first, then He will never need an earthly kingdom. And if the head of the Church won’t need it, then how can it be the business of the body of Christ to implement an earthly kingdom? And if neither Jesus nor the Church will ever have an earthly kingdom, what do you need a Millennial eschatology for? But if Jesus’ statement in Jn. 18:36 was merely a description of a temporary condition, then it leaves open the possibility for an earthly kingdom.
If you view the various divine covenants according to the principle of continuity, i.e., that each covenant is a successive chapter in a single unfolding (progressively revealed) relationship between God and His people in which later installments modify or supersede prior ones, then you will necessarily regard the divine covenants as applying to Christians only (because the Church covenant is the last one to date and all the earlier covenants merge into it). However, those covenants include a variety of temporal government items – such as capital punishment (Noahic covenant), title to the land of Israel (Abrahamic covenant), sundry laws and regulation of God’s people (Mosaic covenant), and the throne of Israel (Davidic covenant).
If you assume all of those divine covenants (and their political attributes) are now primarily directed towards Christians in their application, then you will tend to regard it as not only the right, but the duty, of the Church to bring about the earthly kingdom of Christ (and not merely wait for Jesus to do it) to show its obedience. Since this work of the Church will gradually bring about an earth completely governed by Christ, it necessitates the view that we are in the Millennium now, because the Millennium is the time when the kingdom of Christ comes to fruition in an earthly sense. In other words, you will be a postmillennialist.
A consequence of the postmill position is that if we are in the Millennium now, then the Tribulation must have occurred in the past (which means the book of Revelation had to be written before 70 AD instead of the usually accepted date of 95-96 AD). Not even postmillennialism upsets the universally agreed upon sequence of scripture that the Tribulation precedes the Millennium. Thus, most postmills are also Preterists, i.e., people who believe most end times prophecies have already been fulfilled – primarily, that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD was the culmination of the Tribulation period.
If, however, you take all of the various prophecies about the restoration of Israel as literally applying to Jews and not to Christians, and you understand some of the divine covenants (especially the Mosaic covenant, the Davidic covenant, and the Abrahamic covenant as it relates to the land of Israel) as applying to Jews and not to Christians, then you will necessarily believe the Church has not replaced Israel in God’s plan, and the destiny of Israel and the Church (while interrelated) are distinct. The restoration of Israel as a nation necessitates the second coming of Christ to inaugurate it, which means that if you believe this you will be a premillennialist.
As a premill, you will tend to view some of the divine covenants as applying to non-Christians (i.e., the Adamic and Noahic covenants applied to all people), the ministry of Christ and the role of the Church being mainly spiritual now, and temporal/political after Jesus comes back, and you will tend to view the Golden Age as something which the Church cannot bring about on its own current authority, but will require an additional intervention by Jesus.
If you are a premillennialist, but you also believe in a secret Rapture (that the Church will escape the Tribulation before it happens or at least before it gets really bad), and either that some of the divine covenants no longer apply to anyone or, that God maintains a separate program of a “kingdom economy” for Israel even today, then you will tend to view the Church as having limited or deferred spiritual authority now, and even possibly that the present Church Age is an “unplanned period” in God’s overall plan (because God wanted to offer the kingdom to Israel first and see if they accepted it). In any event, with those assumptions, you will be a dispensationalist.
As a consequence, when a premillennialist, postmillennialist and amillennialist all read the same scripture texts, they will read them literally or allegorically in keeping with their previously determined theological framework. Everyone claims to be objective, but human nature gets in the way and nearly everyone allows their pre-conceived theology to force a reading of the text in a certain way.
That’s why I revisit the topic of eschatology every few years – to re-examine what I believe, what the texts actually say, and to scrub out as many pre-conceived notions as I can identify. Also, I have tried to be as objective as possible in coming to an opinion on the nature of the divine covenants, the ministry of Christ, and the role of the Church. Whether I have been more or less successful than anyone else, I will let you decide. All I can say is, I have tried my best.
Why I Am an Historic Premillennialist
Some of the most fundamental questions to ask when reading the Bible are: Should these words be taken literally (at face value) until contrary evidence shows otherwise? Do these words have any fixed meaning that does not change with time? Were these words actually authored by God and did He exercise great care in selecting which words to use? I answer yes to all of these. If you answer no to any of them, you are hereby advised that these are the assumptions which guide everything that follows. But even if you answer no, read on to see what logical conclusions those assumptions will lead to.
When I look at the divine covenants, for example, they are clearly directed to distinct groups of people: Adam (and by implication his descendants), Noah and his descendants, Abraham and his descendants, Moses and Israel’s descendants, David and his descendants, and all those who would follow Jesus. Since the descendants of Adam and Noah include everyone in the world (all others were destroyed in the Noahic flood), and the descendants of Israel and David include only Jews, I simply cannot read these words of covenant as being directed exclusively and/or primarily to Christians or the Church without doing violence to their plain meaning.
Take the Abrahamic covenant as a key example of the problem. Notwithstanding that God told Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3), or that Abraham’s faith serves as the model for Christian faith, when it came time for God to speak the words of covenant which actually governed the relationship (i.e., the express terms of agreement), God said they would apply to Abraham and his offspring (Gen. 12:7; 17:7). Not spiritual offspring, but biological offspring.
I do not dispute that certain aspects of Abraham’s life had far-ranging implications for the Church. Those things may be considered as by-products of the covenant with Abraham, but they do not comprise the covenant. As a lawyer I cannot be guided by implications, surrounding circumstances, or spiritual double meanings and archetypes. The interpretational rule is clear: surrounding circumstances are considered only when the text is ambiguous, and here it is not. The only thing that counts is what God actually said, and whether there is any textual basis for understanding those words in any way other than literally.
If Abraham understood the word offspring literally when first spoken, then my assumption is that I must take it literally as well. I cannot adopt a view which treats the words spoken to Abraham personally as having a primary meaning that would only be revealed to others two thousand years later (i.e., that offspring’ refers to Christians, not Jews). That would render the words spoken to Abraham as deceptive at the time, since God knew what would follow.
Therefore, unless you are a biological descendant of Abraham, the terms of covenant between him and God regarding the land of Israel and circumcision do not apply to you. And to make the argument that the Church is actually intended by God to be understood as the offspring of Abraham is to draw in another whole set of assumptions and implications nowhere directly stated in the actual text of the Bible. So I cannot go there. Thus, I cannot view the divine covenants as applying exclusively and/or primarily to Christians.
Nation of Israel
I have already explained that I view three of the six divine covenants (Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic) as applying solely to Jews or Abraham’s biological offspring. This logically necessitates that I view the nation of Israel as an entity God is not finished with yet, since none of those divine covenants have ended (that is, the land, theocracy and throne of Israel have neither been totally destroyed nor fully restored). Nor is there any textual evidence in the Bible that any of these covenants will terminate before the arrival of the new heavens and new earth. Which means God’s distinct plans for the nation of Israel will continue through the end times period.
This is corroborated by many biblical prophecies concerning Israel which (as we will see later) have simply not been fulfilled yet. These prophecies include such things as the full restoration of the land, Israel living in peace with its neighbors, the fortunes of Jacob being restored, and the temple being rebuilt. I defy anyone to show that any of these things have already taken place in any literal sense. Similarly, can anyone deny that the land of Israel, particularly Jerusalem, is as crucial to the world now as it has ever been?
And if these prophecies are not to be taken literally, then I ask, “Is God a great exaggerator, or just a poor communicator?” For if the prophecies are not literal, then it would seem God has a problem finding the right words to convey His actual meaning, in which case He is a pretty pitiful Supreme Being. Or perhaps He simply says a great many things He really doesn’t mean – that He is just talking, you know, evangelistically. But why would the God who knows all things from the beginning to the end need to overstate His case? If that is the God you know, it isn’t the one I know. Thus, I cannot view the Church as having replaced Israel in the prophetic plan of God.
When I look at how God operated in the Old Testament (O.T.), and consider that His nature has not changed since then, He strikes me as being very earthy, which is to say, temporal (grounded in physical reality) and political. God’s laws regulated food consumption, urination and waste excretion, sexual activity, diseases, criminal punishment, and all kinds of things physical and temporal.
In fact, as I look at the Mosaic covenant generally, it is as much political and practical, as it is spiritual and moral. The same is true of the Adamic and Noahic covenants, both of which were primarily temporal (dominion over the earth, raising families, eating meat, capital punishment, etc.) and not spiritual. Nobody was spiritually saved by virtue of the Adamic or Noahic covenants. So there is no reason to take any of these covenants in primarily a spiritual sense.
When Jesus came and died, He did so in the physical world, not as a spirit. That was the whole point – His incarnation as a human being in a body of flesh. Though His death and resurrection accomplished only a spiritual redemption at the time, the promise is that eventually there will be a physical redemption of all believers modeled after the bodily resurrection of Christ. If God is concerned only with spiritual things, then why did Christ receive a new physical body that had nail prints and other scars on it? Why didn’t He just come back as a spirit?
As I look at the O.T. I see other examples of redemption in the physical world being provided for in God’s law: financial redemption (i.e., from debt), redemption of the land, and the physical redemption of people (from slavery or servitude). The evidence to me screams out that God is not merely concerned with spiritual things. If God is concerned only with spiritual things, then why weren’t His laws concerned only with spiritual things? Why would He clutter his laws with all sorts of non-spiritual things He didn’t care about? Thus, I cannot adopt a view of the kingdom of Christ which is merely spiritual, and never temporal or political, in this life.
It is nearly universally held by Christians that the work and ministry of Jesus Christ is complete and finished. Insofar as the gospel of personal salvation is concerned, I agree. What Jesus did through His death and resurrection to effectuate spiritual redemption for individuals is indeed a complete and finished work.
However, the Bible nowhere says that the ministry of Christ is limited to the gospel of personal salvation. Yes, that’s what He did when He came the first time. But if that is all Jesus is ever going to do, why does He need to come a second time? Is it to finish or make more complete what He already did? No, by definition, it needs no further work. Therefore, His Second Coming must be for some other purpose, something related to, but separate from, His initial ministry.
If all Jesus is going to do upon returning is collect the saints and take them up to heaven, He can do that without touching ground. If the only purpose of the Second Coming is tie up the loose ends of Jesus’ First Advent (i.e., give the saints their immortal bodies and perform a physical redemption to sync up with their spiritual redemption), then all He needs to do is meet us in the air like it says in 1Th. 4:17. The saints will be changed in the twinkling of an eye (1Co. 15:52) and poof! – it is done. But the Bible says He will touch ground and that He will come back the same way He went up, even to the point of returning to the exact same spot (the Mount of Olives). Zec. 14:4; Acts 1:11. Why would He do that?
A possible response is that He will defeat the forces of Satan – the Antichrist, the False Prophet and their armies. But if that’s all He is going to do, He can do that without touching the ground either. The Bible says He will kill the Antichrist by the mere appearance of His coming (2Th. 2:8). It’s not like there is going to be an actual battle – there will be no heavenly boots on the ground. The armies of heaven are not actually going to engage in personal combat. All Jesus has to do is show up and open His mouth and it’s over, which hardly requires Him to touch ground, since He can do that from the air, too.
Besides, at the time of the end, God is going to create a new heaven and new earth, destroying the old earth. So once the saints meet Jesus in the air, Jesus can slay the Antichrist with the breath of His mouth, God can just destroy the old earth and poof! – Satan and the armies of the Antichrist are defeated without Jesus having to touch ground. Certainly God can destroy the earth without Jesus having to stand on it at the time, so there must be something more.
Well, the Bible also says in numerous places that Jesus will establish His kingdom. If this simply refers to heaven or His spiritual kingdom, isn’t that already established? Are we to believe that there is something in heaven or in the nature of the spiritual kingdom that God has not yet established, which can only be done after Jesus comes back, and not before? It only makes sense that there is something undone if it is on earth, and not heaven. Thus, I have adopted a view of the ministry of Jesus which necessitates an earthly (political/ temporal) kingdom of Christ which is yet to come.
For all these reasons, I am an historic premillennialist. Additionally, I see the future earthly kingdom as presenting a unique problem from a divine covenant perspective that must also be addressed before eternity sets in, further distinguishing me from postmillennialists and amillennialists. See the chapter on the Seventh (or Eighth) Divine Covenant, later.
As to why I am not a dispensationalist, that is partially based on the fact I do not view any of the divine covenants as already having expired. Plus, I believe scripture is pretty clear that God only operates under one program or rule of law at a time, and this absolutely precludes the possibility that He has two separate kingdom tracks or redemption programs for Israel and the Church operating at the same time. See, e.g., Exo. 12:49 and Num. 15:16.
My other reasons are based on interpretational concerns. For example, I do not believe a proper interpretation of scripture supports a 2,000 year gap between Daniel’s 69th and 70th weeks, a secret Rapture before the Second Coming, that the Church Age will end when the Tribulation begins, or the Tribulation saints are not part of the New Testament Church. Don’t worry – I’ll explain it all.