Are We Truly in the End Times?
Part #2: Some Terminology & History

By | 20 Mar 2024

Now that we’ve explored the challenges involved with interpreting prophecy, now let’s define its terminology and explore some ancient history along the way. 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. 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 the 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 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 Sicarii — the terrorist arm of the Zealots party 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.

    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 Sicarii 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 Sicarii 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).

In the next and final installment in this series, we’ll explore the most common modern-day myth surrounding the end times.