Hollywood's depiction of the "end of the world" has been portrayed as a nuclear winter, an asteroid striking the earth or a cataclysmic natural disaster. In Christian theology, the subject of End Times has to do with the question of God's control over and what the last days--the End Times--will be like. One of the recurring questions asked of Christ sought clues, or signs, of when the end would come and what it would look like. The "Left Behind" series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins presents a fictionalized depiction of how things could play out using one of the major interpretations of the End Times. Here is a brief look at the major interpretations of what the Bible tells us about the end of time.
There are three major views of the end times, with many variations. These views are something like the accounts of witnesses to an accident that are all different because they describe the same event from different perspectives. In eschatology-the study of end times--those perspectives come from different ways of interpreting the Bible and historical events.
The Bible contains a great deal of prophecy that relates to the people of Israel, the coming of a Messiah, or other events. One of the wonders of the Bible is that God has revealed himself both very clearly and very mysteriously. What some scholars see clearly as the prediction of future events, others see as strong symbolic language to warn or encourage people, and still others see as layers of meaning that combine both a present and future purpose.
Revelation is a good example of these perspectives. John was in exile for his preaching when he wrote Revelation and the church was suffering persecution. There are differences of opinion about exactly when John wrote Revelation and how to interpret its symbolism. Some see John's vision as a prediction of future events. Some see it as a highly symbolic picture of God's ultimate control suitable for any reader at any time. Still others see the symbolism in Revelation as a more obscure way for John to communicate during a time of severe persecution-a kind of secret message.
First, let's look at a number of events related to the End Times. They are understood differently depending on the view a person holds.
First Coming of Christ--the birth, death, resurrection (return to life) and ascension (return to heaven) of Jesus as predicted in the Old Testament and recorded in the New Testament.
Second Coming of Christ--the literal return of Christ to earth.
Church Age--depending on the particular view, this can be the same as the Millennium or a separate period of time before the Millennium.
Rapture--the resurrection of believers at some point before Christ's second coming.
Tribulation--a seven year period of severe judgment and persecution.
Armageddon--a name that has come to mean the last great battle at the end of time, though in some views it is a great battle that will consume all of Israel at the end of the Tribulation.
Millennium--the earthly kingdom of Christ. It can mean a literal 1,000 years or simply suggest a very long time. It can also mean a literal or spiritual reign of Christ during this time.
Final Rebellion--the last global unleashing of Satan and unbelievers against God, in which Satan will be finally defeated. Some people equate this with "Armageddon," while others see Armageddon as an earlier battle at the end of the Tribulation and before the Millennium.
Resurrection--the final end of earthly existence with the raising up of people to face judgment, either all at once (General Resurrection) or in several stages for believers and unbelievers.
Judgment--the final accountability of people before God as they pass from earthly existence (or death) to eternity.
Eternity--a future timeless existence spent in God's presence (Heaven) or separated from him (Hell).
The premillennial view suggests that the Second Coming will occur before Christ reigns during a literal 1,000-year Millennium. It is the view portrayed in "Left Behind." It was the predominant view of the early church and became prominent once again in the last century. It is the most literal interpretation of passages from Daniel and Revelation.
An additional element important to this view is the role and timing of the Rapture-the separate resurrection of believers. Left Behind portrays a pretribulation rapture view, where the rapture occurs before the Tribulation begins. Others see it occurring in the middle or end of the Tribulation.
While there are variations in detail (mostly over the exact order and timing of events), most evangelical Christians today hold a premillennial view. It is the view promoted by Tim LaHaye, Mark Hitchcock, and Brian Coffey, all of whom have written books on prophecy for Tyndale House, the publishers of the Left Behind series.
As time passed and Christ did not return, scholars and church leaders began looking at other interpretations. Amillennialism is the most prominent of these. It is a view widely credited to St. Augustine, who lived from 354-430 A.D.
While people holding this view believe that Christ will literally return, they see as symbolic all of the details that the premillennial view interprets literally (rapture, tribulation, Armageddon, etc.), rolling them all into a millennial age. During this period, Christ does not reign with a physical presence on earth, but builds the church through his influence in the lives of Christians. It is a time of continued struggle between good and evil until Christ's return ushers in the final judgment before eternity. The Roman Catholic Church and major "mainline" Protestant denominations hold this view today.
As the Industrial Revolution transformed the world and advanced human progress immensely in the 18th and 19th Centuries, Postmillennialism emerged. This view is similar to Amillennialism, except that it sees steady human progress over evil, progressively leading to a Christianized world, which sets the stage for Christ's return. Social and economic reforms as well as evangelism are important parts of ushering in this "golden age" of spiritual development. Even with a horrendous Civil War in America and other conflicts scattered across the globe in the 19th century, the sense of human progress was so strong that even World War I--in which over a million people lost their lives-came to be known as the "the war to end all wars." The world moved ahead into a decade of pleasure and renewed technological progress in the 1920's.
Then the Great Depression and economic problems around the world led to radical political change. The world was on the march toward another global conflict. While considerable technological progress took place in the 20th century, the blow of two world wars was enough to remove postmillennialism from its place of prominence.
Regardless of view, there is general agreement that Revelation paints a powerful picture of God's sovereignty and ultimate triumph, an exalted view of Christ, and the accountability that everyone must bear for his or her own relationship with God. Dr. LaHaye makes an important point in Are We Living in the End Times? (pp 6-7). When people have taken prophecy seriously in the past, he says, it has lead to three things: