Speculations concerning the future multiply as fast as snowflakes in a blizzard. As this decade, century, and millennium come to a close, Christians need to know that not all end-times opinions are facts. Jesus told His disciples:
"No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.... Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come" (Matt. 24:36, 42, NIV).
This passage seems to dismiss study and speculation about the Second Coming. But look closer: the second portion of Jesus' statement commands us to pay attention and eagerly expect His return: "Therefore keep watch...." The best way to keep watch is to know what God has revealed about the future, and to attempt a biblical understanding of events around us.
Jesus' disciples attempted to understand the future, often questioning Him about prophetic events. They even wondered if His first coming would result in political and military upheaval and the overthrow of Israel's oppressors (Acts 1:6). They were wrong in that case, but they never lost hold of the central end-time events: the final judgment (Matt. 25:46); the resurrection of the dead (1 Thess. 4:13-18); the glorification of God's people (Col. 3:4; Matt. 16:27); and the "destruction" of death (1 Cor. 15:25-26).
Central Themes of the End Times. Almost one hundred passages refer to the end times. However, many of these can be grouped into six end-times themes. An easy way to remember these themes is to relate each of the six topics to the six letters of the word F-U-T-U-R-E.
F — Final Judgment. The final judgment of humankind is described clearly in passages like Acts 17:31, Hebrews 10:27, and Revelation 20:4-15. Scripture indicates that Christ Himself will be the Judge (John 5:22; Acts 10:42; 2 Tim. 4:1).
U — Unknown Hour. No one can know the exact time of the Second Coming. Despite the sensationalistic ideas you may have heard from cult leaders as well as from well-meaning but mistaken Christians, no one knows the timing of the Second Coming. Several biblical passages emphasize this, including Matthew 24:27-42 and Acts 1:7.
T — Time and Eternity. Though Christians have differing views on the timing of certain end-time events, they agree on the future eternal state. Following the final judgment of humankind, time will give way to eternity.
Jesus spoke of the eternal state when He said that the wicked "will go away into eternal damnation, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matt. 25:46). Everyone must ultimately be ushered into one of two final states: eternal heaven or eternal hell (Rev. 20:11-15; Luke 16:26; Matt. 25:41-46). Christians will spend eternity with God in heaven; unbelievers will spend eternity apart from God in hell.
U — Unbelief, Apostasy — a widespread defection from the true faith — will characterize the time immediately preceding the second coming of Christ (Luke 18:8; 2 Thess. 2:3; 1 Tim. 4:1-3; 2 Tim. 4:3-4; and 2 Pet. 2:1-3). There will also be widespread mockery of the truth by nonbelievers (2 Pet. 3:3-5). At the final judgment, unbelievers and mockers will have to answer for their actions.
R — Resurrection. The resurrection of the righteous will occur at the Second Coming. Jesus' resurrection — the "first-fruits" of resurrection life — guarantees and typifies the resurrection of the righteous (Luke 14:14; 20:34-38; Matt. 22:29-32; Mark 12:24-27).
E — Essential. The Second Coming is a foundational fact. All Christians and all Christian churches since the time of the apostles have affirmed the Second Coming as an essential or foundational belief. All early church creeds include the Second Coming, such as the Apostles' Creed — "He will come to judge the living and the dead." While Christians unite in the belief that Jesus will literally and physically come again, cults, by contrast, commonly deny a literal and physical Second Coming. The Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, teach that Christ's return was "invisible" and occurred secretly in 1914.
Scenarios of the End Times. Above are some key facts about the future, and Christian opinions concerning the end times must be compatible with them. Over the centuries many biblical interpreters have set forth prophetic scenarios of the end times. Such scenarios are not necessarily bad, as long as we remember the difference between what is factual and what is opinion. Reasonable, well-developed scenarios can help us to understand and organize incomplete information. But they are not infallible.
I think it is noteworthy that while the various scenarios differ on the timing of end-time events, they agree on the "essentials" of the end times. That is, they agree there will be a Second Coming of Christ, a resurrection, a final judgment, and an eternal state.
There are three main scenarios concerning the millennium (Rev. 20:1-4). Premillennialism understands Scripture to teach that the Second Coming will take place before the millennium, after which Christ will personally rule for a literal thousand-year period on earth. Following the millennium will be a resurrection, a final judgment, and the ushering in of eternity.
Postmillennialism understands Scripture to teach that the Second Coming will take place after the millennium, following which there will be a resurrection, judgment, and the ushering in of eternity. In postmillennialism, the reference to 1,000 years in Revelation 20 is not taken literally. Some in this camp believe the "millennium" refers to the inter-advent age — that is, the time between Christ's first coming and His second coming. Many believe that during the present "millennial" age the church will progressively "Christianize" the world. In this view, while the church is not the kingdom, it takes part in building the kingdom through the worldwide spread of the gospel.
Amillennialism understands Scripture to teach that there will be no literal thousand-year kingdom over which Christ will rule, but rather that the "kingdom" represents Christ's present rule over the church on earth (though some amillennialists believe the kingdom promises are now being fulfilled in heaven). Generally speaking, amillennialists believe that world conditions will become increasingly worse until the Second Coming, after which there will be a resurrection, judgment, and ushering in of the eternal state.
Premillennialists often make reference to what is called the "Rapture." The Rapture is a word that refers to the instantaneous removal of the church from the world preceding (or at) the Second Coming (1 Thess. 4:16-17). As was true regarding the millennium, there are different scenarios regarding how to understand the timing of the Rapture. Some scholars place the Rapture before the seven-year Tribulation period (pretribulationism); others in the middle of the Tribulation (midtribulationism); and others immediately after the Tribulation (posttribulationism). Each variation on premillennialism is an attempt by interpreters to understand the details of the end times that are not clearly stated in Scripture.
No matter which view you believe best represents the end times, remember that any legitimate view must affirm the clear "essential" teachings outlined above — such as the Second Coming, the resurrection, the final judgment, and the eternal state. And regardless of your particular position on the above issues, we can all join together and rest secure in the knowledge that our eternity with Him is guaranteed through what He has demonstrated already — most notably, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. With a solid foundation in Scripture, we can join Paul in proclaiming: "We wait for the blessed hope — the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good" (Tit. 2:13-14).