Eschatology is the study of “the end times” or “last days” as depicted in the book of Revelation and alluded to by Old Testament prophecies (such as found in Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Daniel, among others).
Eschatological discussions tend to revolve around the topics of the millennium, tribulation, “rapture,” the battle, and final judgement. Stark hermeneutical differences in literalness and the timeline of events have led to much controversy. I believe it can be beneficial to consider and attempt to understand these details, however such differences of interpretation are a good indication that scripture is just not entirely clear on them. As such, I do not believe that dogmatic doctrinal (or political) stances on eschatology, such that it leads to division, is beneficial.
For this reason, I will not be identifying my eschatological beliefs based on how I view the timeline of events, or how literally I interpret the characters and events described in Revelation. What I will focus on is what I believe to be of far greater significance: the overarching themes and truths which should not depend upon how literally you view the prophesies or the order in which events take place. I will then also address a few topics which I think have been misunderstood or inappropriately obsessed over at large.
Key Themes and Truths
At its core, the message is very simple: Jesus will come again to rule and complete the work of conquering sin & death forever. Those who follow him will ultimately rule with him in a recreated world where heaven and earth are reunited, and God’s glory permeates and sustains all things. All of this is a consummation of God’s plan for humanity, and a climax for Old Testament narrative and prophesy.
The Return & Rule of Jesus
Revelation 19-20 is the source of much of the controversy surrounding Eschatology. However, no matter your interpretation, I believe the crux is clear. It describes the arrival of the king of the world, and the vindication of His people. He judges everyone and everything on earth, dead or alive, and casts away those who are not in “the book of life.” Regardless of the details, these chapters serve to give hope for those who are in Christ (particularly the persecuted), and a warning for those who are not (particularly the persecutors and deceivers).
One detail I do think is notable is that in John’s vision, the “Lion of Judah, Root of David” is portrayed initially not as a majestic lion or king, but as slaughtered lamb. (Revelation 5:5-6) The lamb of course represents Christ, and this portrayal connects His sacrifice to His role as the messiah and conquering king. It was not through war or political upheaval that Jesus began His reign, but through His crucifixion and resurrection. By contrast, chapter 19 describes Him with far greater splendor and ferocity. However, that ferocity is very precisely aimed. The wrath He delivers is primarily to rulers, nations, and mysterious forces of evil, and the people who are rejected are those who rejected the offer of love and mercy made possible by the cross.
The Consummation of God’s Love for Humanity
Revelation 21-22 is where it really gets good! Here is where John has a vision of a new world. Heaven, once the dwelling place of God, is no longer as distinct from earth as it was. The two seem to merge, as the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven, and God dwells with humans on earth. This union of heaven and earth is so joyous and so intimate that it is likened to a marriage. (See also the ecclesiological concept of the church as the bride of Christ). Like a husband and wife, heaven and earth still exist as two entities, but are unified in a profound way. Jerusalem is described as God’s bride, which explains the marriage supper described earlier in 19:6-9.
21:9-22:5 describe the new world as resplendent, idyllic and glorious. God’s presence is no longer confined or withheld, nor even is light itself, as the sun and the moon are replaced by the light of God’s glory. His servants worship Him and reign with him forever.
Climax for Old Testament Narrative & Prophesy
While the book of Revelation can seem like a unique and even bizarre book, I think it is a very cohesive climax to the story of scripture, and its prophesies are very much woven into those of the Old Testament. In fact, there are far too many connections for me to examine thoroughly here, but I would like to point out a few that have stood out to me.
Humans Restored to Original Position
In Genesis, humans are created in God’s glorious image to rule. (Genesis 1:27-28) Romans 1:22-23 points out how humans’ decent into depravity was an inversion of that role, in which we abdicated God’s glory to worship images of the things we were meant to rule. Revelation sees a restoration to humans’ rightful place in God’s kingdom, made possible by Jesus.
Repetition of The Exodus Narrative
The plagues and bowls of wrath in chapters 15-16 echo the plagues in Egypt through which God showed his power and executed judgement on Pharaoh and the Egyptians. This creates a conceptual analog between the unrepentant recipients of wrath in Revelation to the unrepentant Pharaoh in Exodus. In both cases, the recipient is portrayed as a monstrous evil entity, while God is the powerful and heroic rescuer who defeats them.
Building on Old Testament Prophesies
The concept of God recreating heaven and earth is not unique to Revelation. Consider Isaiah 65:17-18: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.”
Furthermore, the descriptions of the new creation mirror descriptions of the Eden ideal, as found in Genesis 2 and Ezekiel 47, and fulfill prophesies of Jerusalem’s role as described in Isaiah 2 and Zephaniah 3.
There are a few eschatology-related words and concepts which I think have been misunderstood or misrepresented in popular discussion and media, and/or which have been given a disproportionate amount of attention. This will certainly not be an exhaustive or scholarly examination of such topics; however, I would like to bring up just a couple that have become especially glaring to me while studying eschatology.
The Word “Apocalypse”
The English word “Apocalypse” comes from the Greek word (ἀποκάλυψις) of similar pronunciation (“apokalypsis”). It is commonly used in modern context to be synonymous with “the end of the world.” I find this unfortunate for several reasons. First, the meaning of the word itself is simply “revelation” and is the Greek title of the book. Secondly, the book of Revelation is not so much focused on the end of the world as it is the judgement and redemption of the world.
Furthermore, there is other apocalyptic literature in the Bible, such as can be found in the prophetic material of Ezekiel and Daniel, as well as in other second temple period writings. However, the subjects of such writings are generally associated with God’s victory and vengeance and “the day of the Lord” as something to be longed for by God’s people. When is the last time you heard someone say “I long for the apocalypse‽”
Antichrist & The Beast
I think there has been an excessive amount of interest and speculation over the concept of “the antichrist.” The term simply means “against Christ” and scripture refers to a plurality of such figures. It never refers to an all-important figure called “the antichrist” only “antichrists” or “an antichrist.” So, the expectation of a single human fulfilling that role is quite unfounded in my opinion. Of far greater significance (in my opinion) is “the beast” of Revelation and I do not think that term necessarily replies to one person either.
Numbers were highly significant and symbolic in Jewish thought and literature. There is a rich depth of meaning to the numbers used throughout prophetic text. For example, the number 7 is found all throughout Revelation (53 times!) and is the number of completion. I personally have barely even scratched the surface of such depth and am surer of what the numbers do not provide than I am of what they do provide. I am certain that Revelation and other apocalyptic texts do not predict or provide an exact timeline such that anyone could know when these events will take place. This is easily confirmed by the words of Jesus himself (Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32) and by comparisons of Jesus to a “thief” who comes unexpectedly in the night. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-3, 2 Peter 3:10, Revelation 3:3)
Regardless of whether Christ comes back today, or in ten thousand years from now, and regardless of what happens when He does, we (the church) should look forward to that time with hope and strive to accomplish “heaven on earth” in the meantime. That is, act as tabernacles of God’s presence to bring the light of His reign, His glory, truth, and love, to the world around us. Jesus is king, and will bring that mission to completion, conquering sin and death forever, and reuniting heaven and earth for eternity. What a blessing to have such a great hope; let us anticipate it with joy!