Are We Truly in the End Times?

By | 20 Mar 2024
Image of Jesus' second coming

Lately, I’ve been completely rethinking my views on eschatology, that branch of theological study dealing with the “last days” aka the “end times.” For the first 50 years of my walk with God, I was aligned to one degree or another with the prevailing dispensationalist school of theology which has championed the ideas of the Rapture of the Church followed by the appearance of the Antichrist followed by a 7-year Great Tribulation followed by the Battle of Armageddon followed by the 1,000-year earthly reign of Christ followed by the Final Judgment and the descent to earth of the New Jerusalem.

Whew! What a mouthful! I just caught myself competing with the Apostle Paul for the title of “King of Run-on Sentences!”

All seriousness aside, that prayerful reevaluation has resulted in my abandoning the whole modern end-times paradigm. As a result, I’ve already taken down my only 2 prior articles on the topic, both of which had that viewpoint as their conceptual foundation.

This article is their replacement. Be forewarned this my 10,000-foot view on the topic; for me to truly do it justice would require writing an entire book.

Why the Drastic Shift?

My journey on this particular topic this far into my walk with God has been what you could call “Holy-Spirit-accidental.” It started with my stumbling across some YouTube videos on the subject. These, in turn, caused me to reexamine my 50 years of end-times assumptions. My curiosity being further aroused, I felt led to conduct my own research and, finally, am writing my current findings in this article.

That being said, my odyssey continues…

During that journey, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that most, if not all, the prevailing theological teachings concerning the end times are — at least in my own mind — completely bogus. Modern eschatology is shot through with more terrible hermeneutics, false assumptions, and even occasional outright falsehoods than I had thought possible for a theological viewpoint so widely accepted throughout evangelical Christendom.

The prevailing view, dispensationalism, tries exceedingly hard just to “make it all work.” In other words, a tremendous amount of effort has been expended to make perfect sense of some very lofty, intense, and hard-to-grasp Bible passages, most of which strain the understanding and credulity of our modern Western mindset. We Greco-Roman-Western-Civilization types tend to arrogantly demand the things of God fall neatly into clearly defined categories with scientific precision and zero anomalies, exceptions, or vagaries. Our Lord, on the other hand, seems to get an immense kick out of evading all our attempts to accomplish this.

Until now, I’ve been a bit reluctant to come out publicly on this because so many ministers — literally all of whom are far more renowned and highly regarded than yours truly — have espoused the dispensationalist viewpoint on the end-times for the last 170 years or so and counting. That list is composed of a veritable who’s-who of theologians, pastors, teachers, and televangelists, many of whose names you would quickly recognize if I listed them here.

But this article isn’t about famous personalities and what they think, but what the Bible says. Or at the very least, what I think it says for the time being.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

dunning-kruger effect graphTragically, as with all topics theological nowadays, there are innumerable self-proclaimed social media “experts” on the end times. Just mention eschatology in passing on FaceBook or X (formerly Twitter) and you will instantly have them swarming around you like a bunch of angry bees whose hive has just been raided by Winnie the Pooh.

I’m not one of them.

I have, however, developed sufficient knowledge to be somewhere between the “it’s starting to make sense” and the “trust me, it’s complicated” point on the Dunning-Kruger Effect curve shown at right.

The Problem

The theological trap both they — and formerly I — fell into is two-fold:

Metaphor vs literal words of Jesus meme

  1. The Bible contains passages which are clear and others which are figurative or symbolic. This is especially true when addressing the topic at hand. Proper hermeneutics requires us to not only clearly distinguish between the two, but also interpret the figurative portions in light of the clear ones, not the other way around. Much of dispensationalist eschatology violates that by reversing the two.
  2. We, as members of Western Civilization living in the scientific era along with our attendant modernist cultural biases, have a huge tendency to take figurative portions of the Bible and interpret them literally, whereas the original hearers back in the day would have had a far better grasp of the prophetic language used in the Scriptures, thus leading to a proper interpretation. The writers of both testaments were Jewish in their worldview (hereafter Hebraic); our trying to interpret their writings using our modern-day Greco-Roman thought processes (hereafter Hellenistic) causes us to miss quite a lot of nuance when trying to properly construe the prophetic language occurring in either one.

    Case-in-point: Jesus said during His Olivet Discourse:

    Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken…
    Matthew 24:29

    When we Westerners read this verse, our tendency is to interpret that sentence literally in light of modern scientific discoveries: there is going to be a solar eclipse and other observable astronomical events. Actually, such prophetic phraseology has been used multiple times throughout the Old Testament to indicate God’s judgment upon a variety of other nations, including Egypt, Idumea, Babylon, Samaria, and others. All those judgments have already occurred in the ancient past, yet here we are thousands of years later with a perfectly functional sun, moon, stars, and skies.

Divine Mysteries

In my humble opinion, there is no human being — least of all me — qualified to speak in absolutes on this topic.

Why?

Because the majority of eschatology is shrouded in divine mystery.

Such mysteries defy our puny human abilities to intellectually fathom them. We Christ-followers are required to accept them by simple faith apart from our flesh-driven-knowledge-is-power cravings for exhaustive understanding. We can look into such mysteries to our hearts’ content, examine them from every angle, explore all the Scripture references, read all the commentaries, and listen to our theological betters until we are blue in the face, but the bottom line is such matters are — and will always remain this side of eternity — just that: mysteries.

The ability to tolerate and accept divine mystery is a direct barometer of our child-likeness before our Heavenly Father. And, as I’ve said elsewhere here on Miscellaneous Ramblings, every heresy which has ever been invented throughout church history was instigated by one or more bozos who pressed on regardless, desperately trying to pound the square peg of a divine mystery into the round hole of their intrinsically flawed human intellect.

So I will not be offering any new insights, opinions, and/or scientific wild guesses as replacements for dispensationalist eschatology here because I have no answers, only more questions than when I first started. The only thing I do know is this: we evangelicals have been collectively sold a bill of goods when it comes to end times theology.

If you’ll permit me a reference to one of my all-time favorite sci-fi movies, The Matrix, I now offer you a choice between the blue pill and the red pill. The blue pill is you dismissively blowing off the rest of this article without reading further, secure in your preexisting theological assumptions on this topic. If you choose the red pill, we’ll reexamine those preconceptions and find out just how deep this rabbit-hole goes. Then you can decide for yourself where to stand on these issues.

You game? Here we go!

The Challenges of Interpreting Biblical Prophesy

I believe the two of the most significant challenges when dealing with biblical prophesy are these:

  1. Bible prophesies were written within the cultural milieu and frame-of-reference (lifestyle, worldview, symbology, and social norms) of a specific audience living within a given geographic region during a unique era in history. In each case, God was speaking through a prophet to that target audience, all of whom shared those cultural reference points, so the Almighty could be clearly understood by His listeners.

    That being said, we are now beneficiaries of all that, privileged to learn from both the audience’s good and bad choices as well as the attendant revelation of God’s character, will, and ability.

    Years, centuries, even millennia later, subsequent Bible scholars of every stripe have brought their own cultural assumptions and mental filters to the table, all of which are significantly different from the original prophet and his audience. These combine to hinder both their and our perceptions of what was said and how to interpret its meaning. The rule of thumb is this: the further away in time and/or the greater the cultural differences, the more pronounced that obstacle tends to be. We today are farther away than anyone else in the history of mankind.

    The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic (both Semitic languages) using Hebraic concepts and terminology to a Hebraic audience having a Hebraic frame-of-reference. Even though the New Testament was written in Koine Greek, its authors all wrote from that same Hebraic mindset and its shared cultural assumptions.

    Also, the Bible was written across a timespan measured in thousands of years. Each of the authors wrote in the vernacular of their time, so even interpreters from only a hundred years or so after something was written shared the same challenges as we do, only somewhat less so.

    Accordingly, when exegeting prophesy, we with a Hellenistic heritage must work diligently to bypass our own cultural mindsets, biases, and narratives to decipher the true meaning(s) of what was originally spoken and why. Therein lies a seemingly insurmountable challenge. That being said, the Holy Spirit is both ready and willing to help us overcome that obstacle if we but have ears willing to listen and the humility to recognize and allow Him to work in us to overcome our cultural limitations.

  2. Prophesies in Scripture are rarely understood in advance, almost always fully grasped only in retrospect after they have been fulfilled. We then do a face-palm and exclaim, “Oh, cool! That’s what God meant by that!”

    Jesus Himself is a significant case-in-point. We can find literally hundreds of Old Testament prophesies concerning His incarnation. They all can be binned into 2 seemingly contradictory portraits of Him superimposed over one another:

    1. Suffering Servant
    2. Reigning King

    When He appeared the first time around, it was as the former; when He comes back, it will be the latter.

    What the Jewish scholars prior to His first advent could not see was the immense gulf of time between the two views. Today, when we look at Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, and similar prophesies, we can easily, immediately, and clearly perceive how those passages described the Suffering Servant view and marvel at how specifically they were fulfilled in the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Messiah.

    However, when we examine prophesies concerning His return as King, we are oftentimes left scratching our heads, going “Huh!? What’s that about?”

A Glossary of Terms

Because imprecise terminology is a prime tool of deceivers and propagandists, it’s crucial for us to clearly define our terms so we’ll all be on the same page whenever I mention them as this article progresses. I will also offer my perspectives on each of them as we work through them. These are listed in no particular order.

The Second Coming of Christ

Jesus will indeed return to earth as reigning King at some future time to judge both the living and the dead, period, end of story. Theologians call these two doctrines the “Second Advent” and the “Last Judgement,” respectively. Because they are virtually inseparable conceptually, some folks might even consider them to be a single point of doctrine, rather than two distinct ones.

Here’s what we do know about those landmark events:

  1. Jesus Himself prophesied them in the gospels.
  2. The New Testament writers also attested to them in their letters to the churches.
  3. We can find them listed in both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.

These three facts collectively cement those two events as “essential doctrines” of the Christian faith.

A Quick Review on Essential Doctrines

For those of you who may not have read my previous article on hermeneutics: an essential doctrine is one that, if you don’t believe it, you are not a Christian believer and not going to heaven, no matter what other doctrines you may choose to correctly believe. Whenever someone distorts, redefines, or rejects one or more essential doctrines, those alterations are called “heresies.” The folks who devise, adhere to, and teach them are called, logically enough, “heretics.” Any group of heretics gathered around the same set of heresies is called a “cult.”

Just to be perfectly clear: Christ-followers are expressly forbidden in the New Testament from worshipping alongside heretics and fellowshipping with them. God commands us to eject such folks from our churches and avoid contact with them. This is why it is so crucial for us to:

  1. Know what the essential doctrines of the faith actually are and, just as importantly, what ones are not;
  2. Believe them all as they have been defined throughout church history, and;
  3. Know where to draw the line between bona fide heretics and those folks who merely have the temerity to disagree with our personal opinions about Christianity. 🙂

Furthermore, Jesus proclaimed no one outside of the Godhead knows when His Second Advent will occur (can you say, “like a thief in the night?”), so any and all attempts — past, present, or future — to set such a date are bogus on their face, no matter how erudite or renowned the prognosticators may be or have been.

The Millennium

The 20th chapter of the Book of Revelation describes a 1,000 year imprisonment of Satan and reign of Christ. The theological term for that epoch is, predictably enough, “The Millennium.” And no falcons are involved, so this is not taking place a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away! 😀

Views on the millennium infographic

(click to view full-size image)

The Millennium is the conceptual lynchpin for all end-times theology. All 4 of the major camps of eschatological thought use The Millennium as the reference point for their views as illustrated by the infographic at right.

Three of those four camps believe The Millennium is a literal 1,000-year period in time and space. The fourth camp, known as “amillennialists” considers that term to be prophetic language for “forever.”

Devotees of each school tend to cite the early church fathers (the post-apostolic writers during the first 3 centuries of the Church) as being united behind their own position. In reality, the early church fathers were all over the map on this topic with almost no consensus to be found among them. So all those claims are pure propaganda because no such consensus ever existed.

Several members of each school — both back in the day and throughout the ensuing centuries up until now — have been terrible exegetes at best and outright heretics at worst.

There is also a fifth, much lesser-known school of thought regarding eschatology called “preterism.” Preterists believe all the prophesies of Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21, and Revelation were fulfilled in their entirety at the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70AD including Jesus’ return, the Final Judgment, and so on. Full preterism is borderline heretical at best and completely heretical at worst for a variety of reasons which are too lengthy to get into here, the Second Advent, the Resurrection, and Final Judgment being its chief points of failure.

Partial preterists draw a conceptual line in the sands of time, believing the Second Advent, Resurrection, and Final Judgment are yet to be fulfilled. Some of them also add the Rapture, the Antichrist, and the Great Tribulation to that list.

Regardless of all that, it is entirely safe to say Satan has used the contentious debates over The Millennium as a major tool to tragically divide the Church over the last 2,000+ years with each side proclaiming all the others to be heretics, apostates, and false teachers.

The major problem with our dividing over this topic is this: apart from the aforementioned essential doctrines that Jesus will indeed return at some point in the future to judge the earth, we can safely categorize the entire remainder of eschatology as “peripheral doctrines.” I think I’m on pretty safe ground here because outside of the Second Advent and Final Judgment, no other aspect of end-times theology is found in any of the creeds.

A Quick Review on Peripheral Doctrines

As I’ve covered in my article on hermeneutics, peripheral doctrines are those which are clearly taught in the New Testament, but are not part of the “essence” of Christianity. Other examples of peripheral doctrines include, but are not limited to:

Believers refusing to believe or participate in any of these, regardless of their motives, deny themselves the blessings and privileges attendant to each. However, such folks are still going to heaven and cannot be regarded as heretics. In other words, Christ-followers of good conscience can agree to disagree over peripheral doctrines without disfellowshipping one another, much less labeling their opponents as heretics as many on both sides of this debate have done and are wont to do, especially on social media.

The Rapture of the Church

This term refers to a “catching away” of the saints from the earth to be with Jesus in heaven. While the word “rapture” per se is used nowhere in the Scriptures to describe such an event, it is indeed succinctly described in Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessaloniki:

For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
1 Thessalonians 4:16-18

The Rapture is the second major point of contention within all the debates on eschatology down through church history, primarily about when that “catching away” will actually occur and, to a somewhat lesser extent, who will or will not qualify as a “catchee.”

Small theological wars have been fought over whether the so-called Rapture would occur before, in the midst of, or after the Great Tribulation. Fascinatingly and ironically, the proponents for each position tend to use the same set of Scripture passages to prove their points by interpreting them differently. Yet others have opined that all three viewpoints are correct, that there will be 3 raptures, one pre-trib, one mid-trib, the other post-trib, rather than a single one occurring uniquely at one of those times. Sheesh!

The Great Tribulation

This is a seven-year period of time mentioned in Matthew 24:21,29 and Revelation 7:14, among others. The Scriptures never specify “years” as a measurement of this timespan (at least that I have discovered thus far), only months, weeks, or days, any of which total seven years give or take.

For dispensationalists, the aforementioned Rapture of the Church starts the timer on this brief era. In the absence of the Church on the earth, the Antichrist aka “the man of sin” appears on the scene and seems to be a pretty cool guy for the first half of it, then in the second half is revealed as Satan incarnate, literally the polar opposite of Jesus.

Full and partial preterists believe this time started during the reign of Nero and ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD.

The Book of Revelation

Revelation is the final book of the New Testament. It’s authorship is almost universally attributed to the Apostle John, written during his exile on the Isle of Patmos, a penal mining colony located between coasts of Greece and Turkey in the Aegean Sea, though even the early church fathers could not universally agree on this. John’s authorship has been further contested by some theologians over the centuries, most notably those having a decidedly liberal theological viewpoint. However, no one of any serious consequence believes otherwise nowadays; the literary style of Revelation when compared to that of John’s gospel and epistles makes this fairly conclusive. One case-in-point: John uses several unique-to-him Greek words in his four books, words which appear nowhere else in the New Testament.

Biblical scholars have hotly debated the timeframe in which Revelation was written for centuries. Some say it was written during the reign of Nero in the 60s AD. Legend has it that Nero attempted to have John boiled alive in oil, but John miraculously survived the attempt, so the emperor exiled him to Patmos to get him out of Rome. Others believe John wrote it during the reign of Domitian around 95AD. That latter date is based upon a 4th-century church historian who was supposedly citing a 3rd-century church father who was in turn citing another dude in the 2nd century who supposed to be a disciple of the Apostle John himself. It’s kind of a quote of a quote of a quote covering 3 centuries give or take, so it’s not unreasonable to take issue with the provenance of that date.

That date is crucial because it is the source of much of the theological debate over how Revelation fits into the timeline of history. Point-of-fact: dispensationalist eschatology utterly depends conceptually upon the 95AD timeframe.

For what my opinion is worth to you, I believe it to be the earlier of the two. Frankly, the book makes little sense when we assume the latter one. Here’s why:

  1. As I said, there is no credible direct historical evidence for it.
  2. John repeatedly states the events described in his book would soon come to pass, not sometime in the far future.
  3. The 7 churches of Asia Minor listed in chapters 2 and 3 were actual congregations in existence at the time he wrote the book. While communities of Christ-followers still inhabit a couple of those locations in what is now Moslem-dominated modern Turkey, the rest of those cities are now reduced to picturesque and evocative ruins.
  4. John instructed the book to be read aloud in those churches. He even pronounced a blessing over those who would do so (Revelation 1:3) and cursed those who might try add to or remove anything from it (Revelation 22:18-19). When Revelation was read to those churches, it would have been read all at one sitting, not taught as a weeks-long sermon series with accompanying analyses as we are prone to do today.
  5. For it’s contents to have made sense to the original target audiences, the events described therein would have been perceived by the listeners as coming to pass within their lifetime, rather than well over 2,000 years into the distant future.

The Mark of the Beast

This concept comes from the Book of Revelation:

He causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666.
Revelation 13:16-18

The terms number or mark are pretty much interchangeable in most people’s thinking when in actuality they are two separate things.

  1. The number of the beast is 666 (his next-door neighbor is 668 😀 ).
  2. The mark is what actually denotes those who are surrendered to him.

root of all evil memeThe mark has been portrayed in dispensationalist end-times literary and theatrical media as everything from a tattooed barcode on one’s forehead or hand to an embedded RFID chip similar to what we have vets insert into our pets. If the mark was indeed a future event, such mechanisms are indeed the only way modern-day commerce can be tightly controlled given the current state of technology, so these are reasonable concepts given that premise.

I’ve even heard one guy state that the number 666 when read in the original manuscripts isn’t Greek at all, but the Arabic acronym for the Moslem Shahadah, their declaration of faith: “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet.” It sounded plausible to me at first due to the seeming ascendancy of militant Islam at the time, but after personally comparing the two visually, I found it to be too much of a stretch and abandoned that premise.

However, there is another viewpoint which I have recently found to be far, far more compelling. Nowadays, we have an alphabet used to form words and a separate set of symbols to represent numbers. These two character sets are not interchangeable unless you’re performing higher mathematics and employing alphabetical characters to represent variables, vectors, etc. Even when using alphabetical characters as variables, actual real-world numbers need to be substituted for each of them in order to achieve a practical result in daily use.

On the other hand, neither the Hebrew nor Greek languages have a comparable set of dedicated numerals; in both those languages, their alphabets do double-duty. Here’s the kicker: “Nero Cæsar” in the Hebrew alphabet is “NRON QSR.” When interpreted numerically, those letters represent the numbers 50 200 6 50 100 60 200, which all add up to none other than guess what? 666!

I am convinced this is compelling evidence the Book of Revelation was written circa 60AD to prophesy Nero’s pending persecution of Christians as well as the destruction of Jerusalem. It completely blows the 95AD timeframe for the book out of the water. I mean, does it make sense to say Nero is the beast during the reign of Domitian a good 30-odd years after Nero’s ouster and death? This, by extension, also utterly nukes the dispensationalist position on this topic.

As for the visibility of the mark itself, a case can be made that it is only perceptible in the spirit-realm, just like the spiritual mark of water baptism on Christians is also only evident there (I mean, once you’re dried off after water baptism, where else could that mark be seen?).

As far as the significance of the two locations, it’s interesting to look at the parallels between them and a passage in Deuteronomy 6:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.
Deuteronomy 6:4-8 (emphasis mine)

A Messianic Jewish rabbi I’ve been listening to lately, Rabbi Josh Taiz of Congregation Beth Sar Shalom in Tucson, Arizona explained that “sign and frontlets” passage nicely in a recent sermon series.

  • Our hands are used to work and interact with the world and other people. The sign of the Word of God being bound to the hand signified a reminder that we are to allow it to control our interactions with those around us as well as our business dealings.
  • The word for “frontlets” in the Hebrew literally means “bangs of long hair hanging over our eyes.” The significance of that is our worldview; as we look at the world around us through God’s Word, some things are seen and others are blocked, the blocked ones most often being those things which oppose His character, will, and ability as well as our responsibility to trust and obey Him. The seen things result in us seeing the world as through His eyes, rather than ours.

When applied to the mark of the beast, it appears to be a companion metaphor demonstrating the godless Greco-Roman culture of that day was allowing satanic influences to control their behaviors and their worldview. That correlation would not have been lost on the original hearers.

The unbelieving Jewish rulers who ran Jerusalem had locked Christian believers out of the marketplace as part of their persecution of them, so that explains the “unable to buy or sell” aspect of the equation.

In the midst of my contemplating all this, an idea occurred me which may or may not be Holy Spirit inspired: what if Revelation was written using the prophetic language and symbology of the Old Testament so only believers could understand it and any Roman authorities who found a copy could not easily interpret it to use it as evidence of sedition on the part of Christians? What if the mark of the beast was written in code as part of that?

Inquiring minds want to know! 😀

The Book of Daniel

Daniel was written during the Jews’ 70-year Babylonian captivity. This book is the Old Testament counterpart of Revelation. Many of Daniel’s dreams and visions have direct parallels to passages found in John’s book. Much of the prophetic language used in Daniel is echoed in Revelation, some of it as direct citations.

Most of my remaining questions about the end times at the moment concern this book, specifically Chapter 9.

The Olivet Discourse

This event is recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. In each of these accounts, Jesus prophesied God’s impending judgment upon Jerusalem as He and His disciples viewed the city from the Mount of Olives. He gave a rather detailed description of its complete destruction which was to include the Temple it contained. He also proclaimed that the generation already in existence at that time would see it happen.

One particular point to note is what Jesus said in the following passage:

But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those who are in the midst of her depart, and let not those who are in the country enter her. For these are the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! For there will be great distress in the land and wrath upon this people. And they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
Luke 21:20-24

Here’s why that is important: during Jesus’ trial before Pilate, the Jews in Jerusalem committed high treason, publicly declaring Cæsar was their king rather than Jesus, shouting out that His blood would be upon their own heads. In response, God executed the scariest judgment available for any group of human beings this side of eternity: He gave them up (see Romans 1:18-28).

Here’s how all that was fulfilled roughly 30 years later:

  • Gessius Florus, the Roman governor of Judea, was ordered by Nero to confiscate 17 talents of gold from the Temple in 66AD, ostensibly as payment for back taxes owed. This lit the fuse of what became known as “The Jewish War.”
  • The Roman governor of Syria, Cestias Gallus, got word of the revolt and invaded Judea to quell it, briefly besieging Jerusalem. For no recorded reason, Gallus abandoned the siege after only 6 weeks and retreated north.

    As he did so, he and his army were subsequently attacked and routed by the Zealots — the terrorist party of the Jews in that day — at the Battle of Beth Horon. About 6,000 Roman troops were killed with many more wounded in that battle. It is regarded as one of the worst military defeats at the hands of a rebel province in the entire history of the Roman Empire.

    That victory transferred political ascendancy in Jerusalem from the Sadducees (who were in bed with the Romans, including the High Priest) to the Sicarii, the terrorist branch of the Zealots.

    Here’s the kicker: when this first siege was lifted, all the Christians in the city remembered Jesus’ prophesy and fled to the desert en masse and thus survived.

  • A year later, Nero dispatched General Vespasian and 4 legions to stamp out the Jewish revolt once and for all.

    Employing scorched-earth tactics along the way, Vespasian crossed the Euphrates River and headed south, eventually besieging Jerusalem for the final time. As he did so, the Jews from the northern cities and countryside fled south before him to Jerusalem, thus flooding that city with refugees. Interestingly, he did not establish the siege until a flood of pilgrims had entered the city to celebrate the Passover, as well.

  • The Jews in Jerusalem were already fractured into 3 factions: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Zealots. All of them began violently warring amongst themselves as the Romans tightened the noose of their siege.
  • At the time the siege began, Jerusalem had several years worth of grain and other supplies to comfortably withstand such an event. However, the Zealots decided to burn it all in an attempt to force a divine miracle (can you say, “tempting God?”). Immediate famine set in, eventually reducing the populace to cannibalism in order to survive. The dead could not be buried because of the siege, so corpses stacked up in the houses and the streets. The strongest among them tortured the weaker in the most vile ways possible, such as impaling them on sharp stakes (a la Vlad the Impaler of Dracula fame) to rob their victims of what little food they may have hoarded.

    The Jewish historian Josephus Flavius — himself a general on the Jewish side and an eye-witness to all that transpired — describes some of the diabolical behaviors among the Zealots in the following passage:

    Now this Simon, who was without the wall, was a greater terror to the people than the Romans themselves, as were the Zealots who were within it more heavy upon them than both of the other; and during this time did the mischievous contrivances and courage [of John] corrupt the body of the Galileans; for these Galileans had advanced this John, and made him very potent, who made them suitable requital from the authority he had obtained by their means; for he permitted them to do all things that any of them desired to do, while their inclination to plunder was insatiable, as was their zeal in searching the houses of the rich; and for the murdering of the men, and abusing of the women, it was sport to them.

    They also devoured what spoils they had taken, together with their blood, and indulged themselves in feminine wantonness, without any disturbance, till they were satiated therewith; while they decked their hair, and put on women’s garments, and were besmeared over with ointments; and that they might appear very comely, they had paints under their eyes, and imitated not only the ornaments, but also the lusts of women, and were guilty of such intolerable uncleanness, that they invented unlawful pleasures of that sort. And thus did they roll themselves up and down the city, as in a brothel-house, and defiled it entirely with their impure actions; nay, while their faces looked like the faces of women, they killed with their right hands; and when their gait was effeminate, they presently attacked men, and became warriors, and drew their swords from under their finely dyed cloaks, and ran every body through whom they alighted upon.
    Josephus Flavius from Josephus Flavius: Complete Works and Historical Background
    (pp. 420-421). Kindle Edition.

  • When Nero was deposed and forced to commit suicide, Vespasian headed back to Rome to eventually become emperor, taking the best of his legions with him. When he left, he handed command of the remaining troops — mostly mercenaries drawn from Egypt, Arabia, Syria, Persia, and other neighboring nations, all of whom roundly hated the Jews — over to his son Trajan to finish out the siege. Trajan, who himself eventually succeeded his father as emperor, finally broke through the walls, razed Jerusalem and the Temple to the ground, and slaughtered many of its inhabitants wholesale. What Jewish survivors remained were then enslaved and scattered thoughout the Roman Empire. The massive influx of these Jewish slaves so glutted the Romans slave markets that prices took years to recover to pre-70AD levels.

    A few Zealot survivors managed to flee to the Herodian stronghold of Masada. They in turn were also besieged by Trajan. When the Romans finally broke through into the fortress, they found the inhabitants had all committed suicide rather than allow themselves to be slaughtered, tortured, and/or enslaved.

The Jews, who had up until that point in history enjoyed a certain amount of respect, financial influence, and political power within the Empire, were unable to recover from that event for centuries. Israel literally ceased to exist from that moment until its rebirth as a modern nation in 1948.

The destruction of Jerusalem was one of the most horrific events in recorded human history as attested to by more secular historians of that day than merely Josephus. It completely rocked the Roman Empire.

Once these cataclysmic events were over, the Church entered into a period of relative peace until the brief persecution of Domitian in 95AD. After he died, things calmed down again for a couple of centuries with Christian persecution ending once and for all in 313AD when Constantine issued his Edict of Milan. In that, he declared Christianity to be a legitimate religion within the Empire.

Supersessionism

Also known as Replacement Theology, this line of doctrinal thought posits that the New Covenant in Jesus’ blood has superseded the Mosaic Covenant.

This is scripturally accurate in many ways. The Book of Hebrews proclaims we Christ-followers have inherited a better covenant based on better promises. The foremost of those promises is how grace supersedes the Law of Moses. Other such doctrines and practices include, but are not limited to:

  • The shed blood of Jesus permanently abolished the practice of animal sacrifices.
  • The physical temple in Jerusalem has been replaced by the physical bodies of individual believers in whom the Holy Spirit dwells.
  • Christians are no longer required to observe the Jewish festivals, ceremonial rituals, or dietary laws.
  • The full-time professional priesthood previously drawn from the tribe of Levi has been permanently replaced by rank-and-file Christ-followers who are now a royal priesthood (see 1 Peter 2:9).

Some theologians, however, have moved well beyond this and have gone on to proclaim the Body of Christ has permanently replaced the Jews outright as God’s covenant people, that the Jews have been discarded outright by God.

This is where the supersessionist train completely derails. The Apostle Paul expresses clearly and unequivocally in Romans 11 that God’s rejection of Israel is, in fact, neither total nor final. In that same chapter, he further states how Gentile believers, as wild olive branches, have been grafted into God’s olive tree, Israel.

Nowhere in the New Testament does it claim non-Jewish believers have replaced the Jews.

This utter replacement ideology has often been one of several justifications offered by Christendom for the persecution of Jews over the ensuing centuries.

The End of the Age vs. The End of Time

Almost everyone conflates these into a single event. In truth, they are two entirely separate occurrences separated by over 2 millennia and counting.

The “end of the age” refers to the end of the Old Testament era. Many believers mistakenly assume that epoch ended with Jesus’ resurrection. It actually ended in 70AD when Trajan razed the Temple, thus forever divorcing the Body of Christ from that geographic location and sacred premises. Prior to that, the Church in Jerusalem was still heavily Temple-centric in its worship life.

Along with that, when Jesus and the New Testament writers spoke of “living in the last days,” they were referring to the time period between Jesus’ ascension and that catastrophic event. So the “end of the age” and “the last days” are past historical occurrences, not future ones.

On the other hand, the “end of time” or “the end of the world” signals the Last Judgment which is indeed a future event. This is when Jesus will return and pass judgment on Satan, his minions, and those humans whose names are not found in the Lamb’s Book of Life will be thrown into the Lake of Fire (see Revelation 20).

Where Did Dispensationalism Come From?

mister peabody and sherman meme

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to the 19th century!

Yes, Mr. Peabody!Ripped off from Peabody’s Improbable History in
The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle

The Second and Third Great Awakenings during the 19th century were amazing moves of God worldwide. D. L. Moody, Charles Spurgeon, William Booth, Hudson Taylor, R. A. Torrey, and other giants of the faith all walked the earth during that time, leading thousands to Jesus. The Holiness Movement, the forerunner of the 1906 Azuza Street Revival, also came about during this period.

About 1840, a British minister named John Nelson Darby, left the Anglican Church to become one of the founders of the Plymouth Brethren. He subsequently came up with the systematic theology framework which we now know as dispensationalism.

Dispensationalism views history as divided into distinct periods in which God interacts with mankind in a specific way. Each of these periods is defined as a specific dispensation. The defining characteristics of a dispensation are the distinct governing relationship in which God interacts with mankind in the specific period, and the resulting responsibility placed upon mankind in each of these periods.
Wikipedia

Like all attempts at systematic theology before and since, dispensationalism has its flaws. All such theological endeavors are inherently imperfect because, as we already have discussed, they are devised by human beings trying to wrap their finite minds around the Infinite. Such frameworks are also suspect because of all the aforementioned interpretational challenges I mentioned earlier.

Unfortunately, Darby wasn’t the greatest exegete and some of his theological preconceptions are just plain wrong. One of his non-eschatologically-related doctrinal stands was actually heretical on its face. Tragically, no one during that era called him into account for that. Instead, folks who were in a position to make that call tended to hush it up. All that being said, everything outside his end-times teachings seems to work pretty well theologically, though I cannot definitively weigh in on due to my lack of detailed study on that topic.

In fairness, Darby was not alone in expressing bogus opinions about theology, philosophy, or science during that era. I have often opined that more religious, philosophical, and pseudo-scientific horse hockey came out of the 19th century than any other time in history. Darwinism, Marxism, existentialism, white supremacy, Mormonism, Christian Science, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are merely low-hanging fruit when it comes to exemplars — lack of time and desire preclude my presenting an exhaustive list here.

Darby’s Eschatological Influences

When it comes to the end times, Darby’s ideas on this topic were far from original.

Francisco Ribera [1]

Harkening a few centuries further back in time, the leading lights of the Protestant Reformation all thought they were living out the Book of Revelation during their day. They believed they were experiencing the Great Tribulation, the Roman Catholic cult was “Mystery, Babylon the Great, The Mother of Harlots and of the Abominations of the Earth” (see Revelation 17:5), and consistently portrayed the reigning Pope as the Antichrist in their writings as multitudes fled to the Protestant banner.

In an attempt to stem that mass exodus to Protestantism, the Pope enlisted the help of a Spanish Jesuit theologian named Francisco Ribera (and no, he was not part of the Spanish Inquisition who no one expects! 😀 ). In obedience to that papal command, Ribera authored in Latin a 500-page commentary on Revelation entitled Commentaries on the Apocalypse of the Blessed Apostle and Evangelist St. John In that book, he invented a future-centric view of Revelation which sought to theologically debunk the Protestant’s propaganda campaign on the subject. His commentary was published in 1591 and immediately became official Roman Catholic dogma concerning the end times. It was then employed as a counter propaganda tool to reassure faithful Catholics it was indeed the reformers who were the real heretics.

Emmanuel Lacunza [1]

In 1812, another Spanish Jesuit theologian named Emmanuel Lacunza (tragically, no unexpected Spanish Inquisition here, either!) published his own book in Latin entitled The Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty which built upon the futurist ideology promulgated by Ribera. Employing a clever deception worthy of the Jesuits’ well-deserved reputation for such, it was published under the nom-de-plume of Ben-Ezra, who was supposedly a learned Messianic Jew.

Somehow that book found its way onto the bookshelves of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican/Episcopalian Church’s equivalent to a pope, and elsewhere.

It is crucial to note that all Protestants would have rejected this book out of hand had they been informed of its true authorship.

Edward Irving [1]

Lacunza’s book somehow landed in the hands of a Presbyterian minister in the Church of Scotland named Edward Irving. The book greatly influenced his thinking on the topic, so much so that he not only translated it into English, but later authored a 203-page preface for it in 1827. Irving, in turn, had an immense impact on none other than our dispensational protagonist, John Nelson Darby.

The Spread of Dispensationalism

Various evangelists latched onto Darby’s framework and spent the rest of the 19th century popularizing it, the most notable being D. L. Moody. It was then taught in various Bible institutes which arose during that period, Moody’s among them.

Both C. I. Scofield and Finis Jennings Dake embraced Darby’s teachings and permanently enshrined it in American evangelical thought via the Scofield Reference Bible first published in 1909 and Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible released in 1963.

Dispensationalism also became the core theological framework for the Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) founded in the following century. It has remained a doctrinal touchstone among evangelicals — non-charismatic and charismatic alike! — ever since.

Dispensationalism in the Modern Era

late-great-planet-earth-cover imageIn 1970, a minister named Hal Lindsey — himself a graduate of DTS — immensely popularized dispensationalism’s take on eschatology in his best-selling book The Late, Great Planet Earth. That book was virtually required reading for all evangelical Christians back then — especially members of the then-in-progress Charismatic Renewal/Jesus Movement. Prior to that book, most Christians had never even heard of eschatology as a branch of theological study.

The topics found in Lindsey’s book were on virtually all of our lips as we all breathlessly compared the day’s news headlines and political trends/events with his dispensationalist interpretation of Scripture. All our pseudo-analyses were liberally seasoned with heaping helpings of enthusiastic-but-ignorant theorizing along with more than a pinch of modern conspiracy theories, and garnished with a boatload of what can only be described as wild speculations and wishful thinking.

We constantly speculated on who the Antichrist candidate du jour; might be. Several schemes were put forward to discern that personage’s identity such as Hebrew numerology, just for one example. Such wild conjecture continues to this day with former US-presidents Obama and Trump being the latest candidates for that dubious honor.

Around that time, several movie production companies released end-times-focused, feature-length films of wildly varying performance and production values. All of them were ostensibly intended as evangelistic tools, but it was clear the producers were cashing in on the “rapture-mania” of the day.

left-behind-cover imageIf all that wasn’t enough, between 1995 and 2007 a well-known American Baptist pastor and author named Tim LaHaye jumped on the bandwagon and co-wrote the “Left Behind” series which consisted of 16 near-future-sci-fi eschatological novels, all of which took the evangelical world by storm. The books described what it was like for those left behind after The Rapture and took its cast of characters from that event all the way through to Jesus’ millennial reign. The novels were later adapted into a series of five theatrical-release movies.

End-Times Specialists

John Hagee's Revelation timeline wall mural

John Hagee’s Revelation Timeline Mural
(click image for full-size view)

Dispensationalist eschatology was further promoted by “end-times specialists,” such as J. Vernon McGee, Hilton Sutton, Jack Van Impe, and John Hagee, just to name four nationally-known ministers who immediately come to mind.

Including Lindsey, all of these minister’s have created elaborate timelines for the end times (Hagee still has a painted mural of his timeline at the front of his church’s auditorium to this day). Much time and energy has been spent attempting to shoehorn modern events into them to show how close we are to “the end.”

Date Setters

Several others, such as the late American Christian radio broadcaster and evangelist Harold Camping, made unscriptural attempts (see 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 2 Peter 3:10) to set specific dates for Jesus’ return, leading many spiritually immature and scripturally ignorant church-goers to quit their jobs, sell all their possessions, and wait on mountain-tops for the end to occur. As we all know, those dates came and went; bupkis!

Though Lindsey himself never fell into the trap of precise date setting, he did write a second best-selling book in which he opined that the Battle of Armageddon would occur sometime before the end of the 1980s. That decade came and went; again, bupkis!

The Role of the USA

  • Hilton Sutton committed hermeneutical violence on several Old Testament passages in a convoluted attempt to portray the USA in a positive light during the end-times. Why? So we patriotic American believers could feel good about how our country would fare despite it not being mentioned anywhere in Scripture.
  • Pat Robertson, the founder of CBN, wrote his own novel entitled The End Of The Age, expressing yet another entirely different postmillennial take on the same concept.
  • David Wilkerson of The Cross & The Switchblade renown weighed in with precisely the opposite; he opined the USA is Revelation’s “Babylon the Great” and would be completely destroyed in a single day by a surprise nuclear attack (a position I used to hold myself, I might add).

And the endless wrangling over this and that end-times verse meaning this or that in the grand scheme of things has continued ceaselessly ever since, though admittedly the topic has faded from being front-and-center in many believers’ minds over the last few decades or so as dispensationalism’s eschatology has increasingly proven itself faulty.

The Church’s Siege Mentality

So why is all this of any never mind?

Back when Darby was devising his framework, Protestant beliefs were coming under increasing fire within Western Civilization. In other words, rather than the general public assuming the tenets of Christianity to be true on their face as had been the case during earlier eras, folks increasingly were calling that assumption into open question. This occurred on 3 fronts:

  1. The invasion of liberal theological thought (Schleiermacher, Ritschl, H. W. Beecher, Soren Kirkegaard, von Harnack, etc.) into mainline denominations — especially their seminaries — was rapidly progressing (the current apostasy we are witnessing within those denominations today has its roots in that doctrinal corruption)
  2. The writings of secular philosophers (Schopenhauer, Marx, Engels, Nietzsche, Hegel, Heidegger, etc.) was taking root among the European and American universities and intelligentsia.
  3. The pseudo-science of Darwin and others of that era contradicted the biblical narrative concerning the Creator and His creation.

Those views increasingly rendered the Scriptures as obsolete in the minds of the general public. That trend continues to this day, growing only steadily worse as any casual examination of modern culture will attest.

Darby reacted to that burgeoning trend by promoting a toxic and unscriptural mindset regarding what we can expect to see during the end times: we are now in the era of the lukewarm Laodicean church described in Revelation 3. Tragically, the Body of Christ has completely bought into his schtick, hook, line, and sinker.

That mindset can be defined as:

medieval seige illustration

  • The whole earth is relentlessly growing more and more evil by the day.
  • The Church is under relentless attack, a beleaguered fortress beset both by barbarians at the gates and traitors in our midst.
  • Despite Jesus’ Great Commission, we will ultimately lose our battle for the hearts and minds of the lost in the culture wars.
  • We are helpless to effect any significant change in that trend, so all we can do is hunker down in our churches and endure (Calvinists would, of course, insert here “and suffer”) until Jesus rescues us at the Rapture of the Church which launches the Great Tribulation.
  • He then returns and triumphs at Armageddon seven years later and judges all humankind by whether or not they are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. He then establishes His 1000-year earthly reign.
  • From there, the Church will reign alongside Him and live happily ever after.

In other words, church folks are awaiting God’s external military rescue from heaven, rather than seeking Him on how to influence our culture with His Kingdom values until He comes as taught by the Bible. Incidentally, that “influencing culture” mindset I just mentioned was held by the Puritans (Jonathan Edwards, etc.).

This “divine bailout” mindset has become so pervasive you pretty much cannot find an evangelical church anywhere on the planet that does not embrace this concept as an indisputable fact.

So Where Does That Leave Us?

I can only speak for myself here. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions. Here are mine:

  1. For the time being, I have revised my viewpoint on eschatology to partial preterism. That being said, just because I’m landing the plane of this article with that claim doesn’t mean my seeking God on this matter is over and done with. Instead, it seems like it’s merely gaining momentum. My next steps are to explore what some Messianic Jewish scholars have to say, especially about the Book of Daniel, and then we’ll see where that leads.

    Stay tuned!

  2. I still have more questions than answers at the moment, but will cheerfully embrace any divine mysteries I encounter without having to compulsively wrap my puny mind around them.
  3. I no longer believe we are in the end-times with an imminent Rapture of the Church to supernaturally pull us out of here. Yes, I look forward to Jesus’ return. Yes, I love His appearing. Whether He does so within my lifetime — or not! — is anybody’s guess. But I refuse to view the Church in general and myself in particular as helpless victims until then.
  4. I no longer believe Bible prophesy is being fulfilled by every event/catastrophe covered by the drive-by media.
  5. I believe it is my responsibility/duty to fulfill my calling as a Christ-follower and minister of the Gospel to do whatever Jesus commands me to do to fulfill His Great Commission.
  6. I believe I am responsible for obeying Jesus’ command to love and forgive others, both our brethren and the lost, no matter how reprehensible their behaviors and/or repugnant their individual beliefs may be to me and others.
  7. I believe I am responsible for my own personal holiness, i.e., conducting myself in alignment with God’s standards of behavior and morality, all by the grace of God.

Now let me pose a question to you, my precious reader:

If you were absolutely certain Jesus was returning tomorrow, what, if anything, would you do differently from now until then?

If your answer is anything other than “Nothing new!” you’ve got a problem.

My point is this: we should already be doing everything Jesus commanded of us to the best of His ability in us by His grace and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

If not, we need to repent. How? By getting off our own bus and back onto His.

That is the only way we will hear those coveted words when we finally stand before Him:

“Well done, good and faithful servant!”

Selah!

Thanks for reading!

[1] from A Better End Times: There is a Better Future Before Jesus Returns by Dr. Dan Coflin