BY KENNETH R. SAMPLES – DECEMBER 4, 201
One of the most controversial topics that the Bible addresses is eschatology. This theological term literally means the study of last things—popularly known as end times. Scripture speaks of both humankind’s past origin in creation as well as our future destiny in consummation. Yet rightly interpreting and properly understanding what the Bible teaches about the end of the world has proved difficult and controversial in church history.
A few years ago I wrote a short book on the topic of eschatology titled Christian Endgame: Careful Thinking about the End Times. One of the central themes of the book is that when Christian leaders engage in excessive speculation about the timing of Christ’s return and actually set dates (which are inevitably wrong), they damage Christianity’s credibility in the eyes of nonbelievers. So when eschatology is handled irresponsibly by Christ’s followers, it becomes an apologetics issue (an apparent challenge to the faith).
Some time ago, a person read my book and made several respectful but somewhat challenging comments about some of my conclusions concerning Christian eschatology. Since these comments likely reflect the thought of many evangelical Christians today about the end times, I decided to share both the comments and my responses to them.
I appreciate that the person read my book and was willing to express their thoughts and reactions to it. To respect the person’s privacy, I have reworded the comments to reflect more general statements.
Comment #1: “I am convicted on the basis of God’s Word that we’re definitely living in the end times. There’s no doubt about it. Scripture seems very clear to me—I can read the signs of the times.”
Response: Your strong convictions might prove true. The Lord’s people rightly look forward to the Parousia (Second Coming). But I would suggest greater caution because the same sort of comments have been made by prophecy enthusiasts throughout church history. Many, unfortunately, went further and set dates that were wrong—causing nonbelievers to doubt the truth of the Christian faith. Just in the last 50 years alone, several prominent Bible teachers have set dates and acted, in my opinion, eschatologically irresponsible, and evangelical Christianity’s credibility suffered because of it.
By the way, according to various biblical scholars, the terms last days or end times can describe the entire period between Christ’s two advents. And as I’m sure you know, having strong eschatological convictions isn’t a guarantee that one is correct.
Comment #2: “Israel has become a nation and is presently surrounded by enemies that want to destroy it, which is clear evidence that the very last days are upon us.”
Response: Possibly, but again, prophecy teachers said the same thing in every decade since Israel became a nation in 1948 and have been wrong thus far. Also, what you call “clear evidence” is only true if a popular form of premillennialism is the correct eschatological perspective. But many of Christianity’s classical theologians (Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley) held different eschatological views. Of course we’re free to disagree with these scholars, but I think historical theology plays a very helpful role in testing present-day theological-biblical interpretations.
Comment: #3: “There are currently a number of nations that have the nuclear weaponry to wipe humankind off the earth, and there are other hostile nations presently seeking such weapons.”
Response: You might find it interesting to know that RTB astrophysicist Jeff Zweerink has doubts about whether present-day nuclear weapons could unquestionably wipe all of humanity from the earth. Also, one could reasonably argue that the atomic and nuclear threats were more distressing during the Cold War (from the late 1940s through the late 1980s) than now. But you are correct in stating that the nuclear threat, especially among rogue nations today, is very concerning to Israel specifically, and to world peace, generally.
Comment #4: “I don’t see end times prophecy as a matter of interpretation. Much of what the Bible describes prophetically is happening right before our eyes.”
Response: All of the propositional content of Scripture must be interpreted. Only the Holy Spirit knows all the truth of Scripture intuitively. And as the apostle Peter notes, some people’s interpretations of Scripture are in fact wrong (2 Peter 3:16). So all of us must be careful. Moreover, if a person hasn’t studied all the major eschatological positions carefully, then that person should be even more cautious.
Mere Christian Eschatology
The Bible has a lot to say about end times prophecy, but interpreting what it says is not always easy. It is unfortunately true that eschatology is one of the most divisive areas in Christian theology. That is why my little primer on eschatology spends so much time emphasizing what we can all agree on. In my book, I call it “Mere Christian Eschatology” (see chapter 3), and I hope it helps Christians avoid unnecessary obstacles as we seek to bring nonbelievers to faith in Christ.
Kenneth Richard Samples, Christian Endgame: Careful Thinking about the End Times (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2013).
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