Eschatology is something which is frightening (or utterly stupefying) to many at worst, and slightly perplexing at best. Not only are people confused about how to make sense of it all, but they also wonder why it even matters. Simon Sinek gave a TED Talk — one of the top three most-watched in history — where he says that the “why” is always more powerful than the “what” and it should always be done in that order. So I would like to unpack the “why” (as well as the “what”) of eschatology.
The “why” basically is that context matters. Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty at Talbot School of Theology, affirms the necessity of history and context in his reflections on Biola’s new Statement of Biblical Principles in the 2019 Biola Magazine article, “Faithfully Forward.” Rae said: “These [Theological] distinctives [the predecessor to the new SBL] were very precise, but they didn’t have any narrative or any context to try to tell people why we thought these things matter… We wanted to have something that would communicate why these matter. In a page or two, we can’t give an exhaustive rationale. But we wanted to have something about why we thought these were a compelling vision for human flourishing.”
In 2010, I co-authored a book called Routes & Radishes (Zondervan), and I had written that I was amillennial. But many people know that Biola is premillennial, and sometimes I am asked how those two can cohere. The short answer is that I changed my mind. But that begs the question why? In order to answer that, let me use an illustration.
If someone says that they are Democrat or Republican, I would ask them what they meant by that. If they are Republican, does it mean that they are against abortion? Or does it mean that they love Donald Trump? Or does it mean that they want small government? Or does it mean that they want tighter immigration standards? Or does it mean that they value the second amendment to the Constitution and want to retain their right to bear arms? It could mean a whole host of things. The same goes with Democrat: does it mean they are for gay marriage? Or does it mean that they support ethnic minority rights? Or does it mean they want socialized health care? Or does it mean they really care about climate change?
My point is, these are loaded terms that have a ton of implications. And each person who chooses the label may have completely different reasons for choosing that label, so we cannot just assume we know what someone means when they identify themselves a certain way. Which brings us to the topic of eschatology: similarly, it all depends what you mean by those terms. For example (and I will not be addressing postmillennialism here, just to keep things simple):
If someone says they are premillennial (particularly if it is linked with classical dispensationalism), it might be that:
They prefer a literalist hermeneutic in reading Scripture. They are afraid that if Revelation is taken symbolically, then that is a slippery slope to taking everything symbolically, including hell, which would steer one toward universalism.
They support the state of Israel, and/or ethnic Jews, and believe that Israel has a part to play in the salvation of the nations in the future. They don’t believe in “replacement theology” which is that the Church is the new Israel; rather, the two are distinct.
They are pessimistic about the progress of history, thinking that things will get worse until Jesus returns. Postmillennialism (an optimistic theology) was very much in vogue in the 19th century but the 20th century — with two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Holocaust, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, etc. — turned many toward premillennialism.
They care mostly about spiritual/soul salvation (as opposed to other kinds of salvation, like physical or social).
They believe the gifts of the Holy Spirit (tongues, healing, prophecy) have ceased in the present day.
If someone says they are amillennial, it might be that:
They care about social justice. Their Gospel is not just about the future but also about the present. They think that “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is something that needs to be taken seriously as Jesus taught us to pray. This would also include creation care, that the earth is not something that will be swept away but will be renewed in the eschaton, in fact heaven comes down to earth, we don’t go up to heaven.
They have a hermeneutic that takes genre into consideration. My Old Testament professor at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, Doug Stuart, co-wrote a bestseller book called How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, making the case that one has to read history differently from poetry differently from epistle differently from prophecy, etc. There is not “one size fits all” when it comes to how to read the Bible, and literalism is not always the appropriate tool in every circumstance. Revelation is particularly complex in its genre, as it seems to be a mix of all of the above: history and poetry and epistle and prophecy. To be faithful to Scripture is actually to adapt the hermeneutic to the relevant genre.
They regard God’s perspective (e.g. 2 Peter 3:8, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”) as beyond our comprehension. The millennium is something we are in right now (some might even equate “millennium” with “Kingdom”), because God’s sense of time transcends our understanding of it. There is an air of mystery about it all. In fact, we have no idea when Jesus’s return will be — whether before the millennium, or after the millennium, or during the millennium, or even what exactly or how long the millennium is.
They don’t think that Christians have an escape clause. They will not be raptured (at least not without going through the “tribulation” first), so Christians will be living through the tough stuff along with the non-Christians, so let’s prepare ourselves. There is no triumphalism here.
So as I reconsidered my eschatology, I had to ask: when I call myself premillennial or amillennial, which of the above do I mean? (And the above is not even an exhaustive list).
Just as Gordon-Conwell Seminary (my alma mater) influenced me to be Reformed and amillennial, Biola (my current place of employment) has influenced me to be premillennial and (progressive) dispensational. I soon realized that most of my hesitation was that I was hung up on my understanding of classical dispensationalism, particularly the exclusively future-oriented nature of such a theology. I really could not accept the idea that salvation was only about the future and had nothing to say about the present, that the soul was the only thing that mattered and that God didn’t care about our bodies (to me this smacked of Platonic dualism, or even worse the ancient heresy of Gnosticism which the Bible warns against, particularly in the Johannine writings). Also, as a missions professor, I am aware that the fastest-growing segment of the global church is Pentecostalism, and to malign or dismiss them seems anathema and really just highlights Westerners’ flaw of the excluded middle more than anything.
Then I realized that progressive dispensationalism solved all those hang-ups for me: it is both already and not yet (the Kingdom is inbreaking in this present world, not just as a future consummation); it is not necessarily cessationist with regard to the gifts of the Spirit, and I even think that most progressive dispensationalists today are continuationists; there is less certainty (in a good way) about being able to predict exactly when Jesus will return again; and there is not a discontinuity between Old and New Testaments. And in fact, the main concern of Biola’s premillennial dispensationalism was Israel, which I can totally affirm. Russell Moore, in his book The Kingdom of Christ, sums all this up well:
“The most significant development on the future aspects of the eschaton, however, have come not in progressive dispensationalist understandings of the Millennium, per se, but in their treatment of the eternal state. Many progressives refuse to divide the Millennium and the eternal state into two separate redemptive epochs, but instead speak of them as two phases of the one final manifestation of the Kingdom… In so doing, the progressives have found themselves charged by some traditionalist dispensationalists with starting down the path toward covenant premillennialism, if not amillennialism… Progressive dispensationalists have responded, however, that their understanding of the Millennium is still quite distinct from all covenantal systems because it retains a unique place for the fulfillment of geopolitical blessings to a reconstituted Israelite nation.“ (pp. 43-44)
And there it is: progressive dispensationalism is almost the same as covenantal amillennialism except for the affirmation of Israel and the literal fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies for ethnic Jews. As a former covenantal amillennialist, I was encouraged how much agreement there was between my former beliefs and my new beliefs.
In conclusion, when I changed from amillennialism to premillennialism, in my journey I found that the points where I most held onto amillennialism actually cohered quite nicely with progressive (though not classical) dispensationalism. As such, I can affirm a premillennial eschatology. And I hope that you, as the reader, will be encouraged if you too are wrestling with — and still on — an eschatological journey. May some of my reflections help you on your way as you endeavor to disentangle all the myriad details and make sense of the “why” more than just the “what” of eschatology.