Sunday, March 06, 2011

Looking for the Second Coming - Part Two

This article continues the history begun in my previous post.  I’ll begin with a few definitions.  “Eschaton” refers to the end of the world, or the end of the present age.  The study of beliefs about the eschaton is “eschatology.”  Jewish prophets wrote of “this world” and “the world to come.”  By the intertestamental period, that is, the three or four centuries immediately preceding the birth of Jesus, Jewish thought had developed a two-stage eschaton, in which the arrival of a Savior (Messiah) would bring a temporary period of Messianic rule on earth, to be followed by resurrection into eternal life with God.  The cataclysmic disruption which is understood to usher in the Messianic age is referred to as “the apocalypse,” and apocalyptic literature deals with predicted events of that time.
Jesus’ preaching as recorded in the Gospel accounts includes a number of references to the apocalypse.  For example, the 24th and 25th chapters of Matthew include vivid descriptions of persecutions, and of “wars and rumors of wars,” which are to precede the coming of the Messiah.  After Jesus was crucified, many leaders of the early church gradually adopted and adapted the Jewish belief, proclaiming that Christ would return to earth to rule for a thousand years before the final judgment and resurrection.  The belief in a literal thousand year rule of Christ is called “Millenarianism.” 
Millenarianism can be further subdivided into four scenarios.  Post-tribulational Premillennialism holds that all believers will remain on earth during the period of apocalyptic strife and suffering, to be rescued by the Second Coming which begins Christ’s physical reign on earth.  Pre-tribulational, or Dispensational, Premillennialism believes that Christ will come first to remove true believers from the earth prior to the time of tribulation, usually said to be seven years in duration.  This removal is the Rapture, which has been popularly described in recent years in the Left Behind series of books and movies.  In this scenario, Christ returns to earth with those who were raptured to begin the Millennium after the tribulation has substantially reduced the remaining population.
In Postmillennial belief, humanity achieves a utopian, God-centered society which leads to a thousand-year period of peace and prosperity.  The Second Coming of Christ occurs after – that is “post” – this version of the millennium.  Finally, Amillennialism regards the millennium as a spiritual or symbolic period, to be brought to conclusion with the Second Coming and last judgment leading immediately to eternal life.  Amillennialism does not include belief in a perfected time on this physical earth.
Second century Christian leaders Irenaeus and Justin Martyr were two outspoken proponents of Premillennialism.  Countering them with a firm Amillennialist belief were, among others, Origen, Eusebius, and Augustine.  As was the case in a number of areas, Augustine’s thought became the norm for the church for many centuries.  Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer all adopted the Amillennialist view, while some groups within the Radical Reformation, such as the Anabaptists and the Huguenots, held to Premillennial beliefs.
Millenarianism in its historic form re-emerged in the latter part of the eighteenth century, especially among German Pietists and English-speaking Evangelicals.  Belief in Dispensational Premillennialism increased substantially beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and was widely disseminated in the U.S. by the Scofield Reference Bible.  Within the past 150 years the apocalyptic writings in the Bible, especially portions of Ezekiel and Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Revelation of St. John in the Christian Scriptures, have been the subject of intense scrutiny and speculation.  Today studies and conferences on prophecy and the end times are common throughout the world.
Whatever their particular understanding of events leading up to Christ’s Second Coming have been, until recently virtually all Christian groups agreed that the timing was entirely in God’s control.  They believed, as Jesus had taught, that “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father…” (Matthew 24:36).  Nothing humanity did could hasten or delay Christ’s coming.
In recent years, however, several very disturbing changes in this belief have emerged.  Some nationally known charismatic end-times preachers are now teaching that humanity can, and indeed has the obligation to, advance the clock toward the apocalypse.  Many of these preachers are part of, or affiliated with, the New Apostolic Reformation about which I wrote in the post titled "First Amendment Challenge." 
I call my readers’ attention to two specific teachings in this new eschatology which are deeply troubling.  The first is the belief that all Jewish people must return to the land of Israel before the Millennium can begin.  This end-times scenario requires that Jews must recognize Jesus as the Messiah or be killed during the tribulation.  John Hagee, one proponent of this theology, teaches that Hitler was sent by God to further the process of chasing all the Jews back to Israel. 
The movement known as Christian Zionism, in which Hagee is involved, purports to support Israel.  What they actually support, however, are Messianic Jews and a “greater Israel” extending from the Nile to the Euphrates.  Jews who retain faith in their ancient religion are demonized.  International law regarding national borders is ignored.  All the people now living in the lands to be claimed by “greater Israel” are to be displaced or destroyed.  In speeches to Jewish groups, Hagee denies that his movement’s support for Israel has anything to do with end-times prophecy, but the books and videos marketed by his organization directly contradict this assertion.  Meanwhile some conservative Israelis are happy to receive the funds and political support provided by Christian Zionists, choosing to ignore the undertone of anti-Semitism.
Even more troubling, in my opinion, is the move of increasing numbers of Charismatic evangelicals from Dispensational to Dominionist theology.  Instead of waiting passively for the Rapture, Dominionists are intent on taking control (dominion) of all aspects of society, ultimately replacing our civil laws with a legal structure based on the Levitical code.  This restructuring of society they believe to be a necessary prelude to Christ’s return.  I’ll discuss this threat to our constitutional and democratic way of life in a future post.


  1. Your crystal clear description of the variations in eschatological thinking allowed me to connect some of the dots in my diagram of Bush Second's foreign policy - Which crow call means, "NO, NO, NO!"

  2. Where's the Christian movement calling all these so-called teachings "heretical"?