Epistle to the Romans 8, verses 19 through 25 (ESV):
Christian eschatology concerns the afterlife, the return of Jesus, the End of the World, resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment, renewal of creation, Heaven and Hell, the establishment of the Kingdom of God, and the consummation of all of God's purposes, the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy and the beginning of the Messianic Age.
The term eschatology is often used in a more popular and narrower sense when comparing various interpretations of the Book of Revelation and other prophetic parts of the Bible, such as the Book of Daniel and various sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, such as the Olivet discourse and the Judgment of the Nations, concerning the timing of what many Christians believe to be the imminent second coming of Christ. There are various controversies concerning the order of events leading to and following the return of Jesus and the religious significance of these events.
Some Christians, notably followers of Eastern Orthodoxy but also members of other sects, regard most popular discussion of this topic to be fundamentally and dangerously false. Theologians from a number of traditions point out that the Book of Revelation was included late in the Biblical canon, because of lingering questions regarding its usefulness, see also Antilegomena. Many early teachers thought the Christian faith should be single-mindedly preoccupied with what is most transparently understood concerning salvation. The book is not included in the liturgical readings of most traditions. Nevertheless, a great number of Christians consider the effort to understand the Book of Revelation (and other prophecies) to be one of the most important issues, if not the chief objective, of their Christian faith.
In many Roman Catholic and Protestant dogmatic, mystical or folk traditions, in addition to the other doctrines and prophecies of the Bible, there are also traditional teachings, or writings of people granted gifts of prophecy or a special visitation by messengers from heaven, such as angels, saints, or Christ.
Nearly all traditions of Christianity believe that suffering, disease, injustice and death will continue until the second coming of Christ and the end of the world. However, there are dissenting traditions, which teach it to be an ethical or moral principle that all suffering ought to be eliminated prior to Christ's return.
Premillennialism is a futurist historical interpretation. It predicts that Christ's second coming will inaugurate a literal 1,000-year earthly Kingdom, at the conclusion of which will be the final judgment. Upon Christ's return many anticipate a partial resurrection, only of the faithful, who will reign with Christ for one thousand years. During this time Satan will be imprisoned or restrained in the Abyss or Bottomless Pit. At the end of the thousand years, Satan will be released to deceive the godless people of Gog and Magog, who will have re-accumulated during the Millennium. The wicked will attempt to surround the Holy City once more during this Millennial rebellion. Again they will be defeated and for all time. The Great White Throne Judgement will follow, and Satan will be cast into the Lake of Fire. The Devil will be condemned to hell for all eternity, together with those who have trusted in him rather than in God. This penultimate event is the Last Judgment of the Great White Throne. Each person will be consigned to either hell or heaven. The end of all things is a new heaven and a new earth, the mystery of an age of endless ages, when there will no longer be death and "God will be all in all" (1 Cor 15:28). This is that final moment of ultimate perfection and bliss toward which all orthodox Christians finally direct their hope.
Premillennialists fall into two primary categories: historic premillennialism and dispensational premillennialism. Historic premillennialism is so-called because it is the classic form which may be found in writings of some of the early church fathers, although in an undeveloped form. The Montanist sect espoused premillennialism, and their "fanatical excesses" brought premillennialism into discredit with the wider church (Schaff; ).
Dispensational premillennialism is that form which derives from John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) and dispensational theology. It is dispensational premillennialism that first taught the notion of a pretribulation rapture. Pretribulationists believe that the second coming will be in two stages separated by a seven-year period of tribulation. At the first he will return in the air to rescue those who are Christians at the time (the rapture). Then follows a seven-year period of suffering, in which the Antichrist will conquer the world and kill those who refuse to worship him. At the end of the seven years, the final witness will go out before men and angels, and Christ will return to the earth. He will defeat the Antichrist and rescue the Jews and those who have converted to Christianity during the tribulation. Dispensationalism has also spawned Midtribulationists, who believe that Christians will not be removed until 3-1/2 years of the final seven years of this age have elapsed. They place the Rapture when the Temple sacrifices have been halted and the Antichrist has enshrined himself in the Temple, calling himself God. Posttribulationists (generally the view of historic premillennialism) see no appreciable difference in the timing of the rapture and the "official" second coming. Thus they hold that Christ will not return until the end of the tribulation and that Christians will suffer for the faith as they bring forth the final witness associated with the 5th seal.
The belief in the pretribulation or midtribulation rapture theories of dispensationalism is often criticized, on the grounds that it results in the division of Christ's single return into two stages. Some see it as an impossible "apartheid of the Elect" of sorts which is not seen in scripture. Pretribulationists defend it on the basis of a scripture passage which affirms that God has not appointed His people to wrath. Posttribulationists counter that the tribulation associated with the final witness of the saints is in no way connected to the wrath of God. This wrath of God will only come at the last day, and it will fall upon the heads of the wicked at the last judgment.
Some specifically criticize dispensational premillennialism for anticipating the rebuilding of the Hebrew Temple and the offering again of animal sacrifices during the millennial reign of Christ. In dispensationalism the return of the sacrifices will be ceremonial in nature. Like the ceremony of Communion or the Lord's Supper, they believe that the sacrifices will be performed on the appointed feast days in the future Millennium. They say that the reason the animal sacrifices will continue is because they will be enacted as a memorial to the Savior who came to earth as the Sacrifice Lamb. However, critics view the idea of blood sacrifices reinstituted after Christ's return as incompatible with Christ's completed work and find the idea abhorrent (O. T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church, p. 248).
Postmillennialism is of two antithetical varieties, millennial and non-millennial. Some postmillennialists believe that the millennium is a future golden age, when Christian saints will reign over all of the earth before the return of Christ and the end of the world. This variety gained brief notoriety through the Anabaptist movement in the 16th century, in the segment led by Thomas Muntzer. Utopian ideals and Marxism in particular have at times brought about revivals of millenarian belief derived from this variety of postmillennial expectations.
This variety of postmillennialism has been revived in the last forty years, particularly among conservative Calvinist groups. The view places particular emphasis on the timing of Christ's return, which is expected only after a future period of global prosperity. This postmillennial expectation, as an important feature of Christian eschatology, is favored by Christian Reconstructionists such as Gary North, R. J Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, Kenneth Gentry, Andrew Sandlin and Gary DeMar; and by non-Reconstructionists such as Loraine Boettner, Errol Hulse, G.I. Williamson and John Jefferson Davis. This version of postmillennialism has repopularized evangelical interest in Preterist (fulfilled) interpretations.
Preterism is a variant of Christian eschatology which deals with the position of past fulfillment of the Last Days (or End Times) prophecies in varying degrees. The term preterism is derived from the word preterite, or past perfect tense; it also has its roots in the Latin word præter, meaning "past." The Preterist believes that most (a historically orthodox position) or all (a historically heterodox position) of the prophetic passages in the Bible, which have been commonly taken to refer to the end of the world, in fact refer to events in the first century AD, such as the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Nero, and were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The Preterism page contains much more detail about this view.
Amillennialists (no literal thousand years) hold that the millennium represents the period between Christ's death and resurrection and his Second Coming, that is, the age of the Church. This view is related to the understanding of a millennium as a short time period to God, with an inexact extent. Some amillennialists and postmillennialists adopt a preterist (fulfilled) historical interpretation of the establishment of the Kingdom of God and the appearing of the antichrist. Others adopt an idealist interpretation either exclusively or in addition to historicism of some kind, so that in their understanding, the kingdom of God is repeatedly established, and many antichrists arise in conflict with it throughout history only to finally be destroyed.
Millennialism is not an all-encompassing description of eschatology, and ideas concerning the timing of Christ's coming are often not a central issue of eschatology. For example, amillennialism may or may not be the belief of the Catholic church, or of many Protestants; the issue simply is not a central feature of their view of last things or a focus of their faith. Typically, expectations concerning the reign of Christ are seen as partially fulfilled. The kingdom of God is "now and not yet"—realized now in a hidden way in the Church but awaiting full revealing with the Parousia (the appearing of Christ). Generally, the return of Christ is expected "any time", as the signs anticipating his appearing are believed to have been long since fulfilled by Christ's return to the Father, and the diaspora of Christianity into all the nations.
Most Christian traditions teach belief in life after death as a central and indispensable tenet of their faith. "All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth" (Heb 11:13). It is charged by some that this belief in an afterlife is an innovation of Christianity, perhaps by admixture with Greek philosophy; however, it is apparent that such a belief was already prevalent in Jewish thinking amongst the Pharisees and Essenes, and that this particular aspect was brought to the fore as a result of the teachings of Jesus, his resurrection, and the proclamation of the gospel message.
Christian churches such as the Catholic Church that accept the Deuterocanonical books as part of the Old Testament point to the second book of Maccabees as Old Testament justification for the belief in an afterlife. Second Maccabees 7 relates the martyrdom of a mother and her seven sons:
Within the accepted Protestant canon, it is only in the book of Daniel that a "modern" understanding of an afterlife appears. From a prophetic Christian view, this aforementioned proposed denial of the possibility of afterlife may be interpreted in a different manner: One might see it as a distinction between the "dead" and the "resurrected dead" rather than a denial of the afterlife. The "dead" would represent those who have died outside of God's grace, who by choice do or did not follow God, and thus are dead (spiritually and bodily). The ones who go to be with God, by their choice of faith or actions depending on the religion, would be the "resurrected dead," "living dead" or, simply, "living."
When the Sadducees were testing him, Jesus explained this difference by pointing out that God is the God of the living, not of the dead, yet saying that God is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, three apparently dead people.
In Matthew 22:31–32, Jesus says, "But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead but of the living." (NIV)
Looking at the above "contradictory to the afterlife" scriptures in this light, one might suggest the quotes from Isaiah, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes to mean that those who have chosen not to praise God are "dead," but those who have chosen to praise God have been given eternal life and thus are "living" or "resurrected dead." This interpretation however conflicts with ancient Israelite religion. According to Professor James Tabor, Chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte:
Christian tradition however still interprets the Hebrew Bible's passages by explaining that rather than saying there is not an afterlife, the author is simply saying in each case that those who do not have "eternal life" will not or cannot praise God (perhaps because their choice to not praise God in life is permanent in the afterlife). Furthermore, the words in Job are a metaphor. The construction suggests that the idea is being used as a metaphor and is not so much a fact as a generality. "Consider that my life is but wind; I shall never see happiness again . . . As a cloud fades away, so whoever goes down into Sheol does not come up." In other words, in general, whoever goes down into Sheol does not come up. But also, the whole selection of text is,
Job does not say whoever goes to Sheol lives no more; he says a person who goes to Sheol does not return. Reading further in the passage, one finds he is speaking about returning "to his house again." In other words, a person does not come back to regular, physical life. This does not bar resurrection in the spirit (or even in the body) to an afterlife. Christians believe that Job was wrong about never seeing happiness again (again, he was exaggerating using standard literary technique, but he certainly saw happiness later. See Job 42). What does that say about his comments on Sheol? Actually Job certainly believed in a life after death. "And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another" (Job 19:26–27). Christian tradition believes Job implies that a continuity of existence is necessary for any reward or punishment to be just; in his opinion, then, though he should die, he never would at any point cease to exist nor would he at any point be unreachable ("dead") to God. This Christian interpretation conflicts with the objective approach taken by most scholars, Job's interpretation of the afterlife is more clearly evident in Job 14:10-12.
But man dies, and is laid low; man breathes his last, and where is he? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so man lies down and rises not again; till the heavens are no more he will not awake, or be aroused out of his sleep. (Job 14:10-12)
Professor Tabor reveals that the passage is often "misunderstood as offering some hope of life after death or resurrection from the dead. The context makes clear that the answer to Job's question, "If a man die, shall he live again?" is no. That is precisely Job's point."
However, an issue on which Catholic and Orthodox faiths are united against Protestantism is that the souls of at least some of the saints in heaven are aware of those who call upon them in request of their intercession. In stark contrast it is antithetical to most traditions of Protestantism to believe that the souls of those who have died either should or even can be called upon for help or intercession with God. Prayers directed toward those who have died, or rituals or masses dedicated to assisting the dead in their salvation, are often dogmatically taught by Protestants to be contrary to Scripture. Protestants typically deny that the souls of men adopt omniscience omnipresence, or ubiquity after death, or that they are troubled any longer with the trials of life, or that their exceeding virtue in life remains as a deposit of grace in the Church that can benefit the living.
Catholic and Orthodox Christians do not claim that departed saints gain omniscience or omnipresence, however. An essential consequence of Jesus' own death and resurrection is the defeat of death itself. Because of this death neither puts a person beyond God's help nor prevents the Christian from praying. The living are not deprived of the prayers of a Christian simply because the Christian dies; otherwise death would still claim victory. Neither does a person's death make it impossible for God to save or sanctify them; otherwise death would limit what God could do. The Orthodox church carefully avoids defining exactly how departed saints are aware of requests for their intercession, or exactly how the departed may be helped by prayers made on their behalf. It just continues to pray as it always has, with faith in God for the results.
Not all Christian sects believe in existence apart from the body, which they regard to be a purely extra-biblical notion borrowed from the non-Christian philosophies and religions (see Annihilationism). The Millerites, or Adventist tradition, for example, typically deny that consciousness is possible apart from the body. Most do not deny the resurrection, however. A similar belief can be found represented by a minority in other Protestant groups, among whom it is not necessarily considered a heretical belief.
With the coming of Christ, Christians anticipate a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. The last enemy, death, will be vanquished.