[This post is part of the Eschatology series]
I’ll try to keep this post from simply being a junk drawer of ideas that couldn’t be treated in the first 3 parts, but it might be hard. I’d like to move on from talking about my difficulties with dispensationalism, and back into eschatology in general. I think in many ways, eschatology does get a bad rap and is either seen as too complicated to give attention to, or too irrelevant to bother with. From my studies though this semester, I’ve gotten to a point were I see neither of those options are stemming from a robust biblical eschatology. When eschatology is construed as not just last things, but ultimate things (which it seems to be when cast in the drama of redemption) then it is the framework in which the biblical story as a whole fits. That story has an ending, in talking about that more specifically, hopefully I can bring together some issues that haven’t been treated so far.
Revelation 21 is the dawn of the New Creation, the fulfillment of Isaiah 65:17-25 and Ezekiel 40-48, as well as all Old Testament prophecies concerning a future golden age of unprecedented blessing and righteousness. This is an abbreviated way of saying the promises in the OT regarding land, temple, and kingship are different figurative ways of depicting the reality that is fulfilled in Revelation 21. Christ’s person and work in his first coming reshaped the way those prophecies are understood, as had the progress of revelation throughout the NT. When all the evil have been cast into the lake of fire and Satan has been ultimately defeated, believers live on for eternity in the glorious presence of God as described in Revelation 21:1-22:5, while the wicked spend that same eternity in conscious torment in hell banished from the presence of the Lord, which is what they spent their life striving to achieve anyway (i.e. separation from God)
In many ways, it is hard to imagine exactly what the eternal state will hold. We know for sure it will involve a restoration of the heavens and earth, and uninhibited dwelling in the presence of God, but beyond that, I do not think we can fathom which parts of OT and NT prophecy are literal, and which are contextualizing the reality of future blessing in terms the original audience would understand. An example of a contextualization that is rather obvious, is the comment about there being no sea, which is not to deny the existence of oceans in the eternal state, but rather the existence of chaos of which the sea was a common figurative symbol. This is especially true in ANE creation accounts. Since Revelation 21:1 is invoking creation account motifs, it is most likely talking about the creation of a completely new heavens and earth, not sans oceans, but sans chaos. Overall though, we are not the best interpreters of what is different figurative depictions of the same thing and what is actual descriptions of what will be “literally” fulfilled. And again, the box top problem confronts us.
In reality, given what has been said so far, it be might helpful to sketch out what to me really undermines dispensationalism. As stated earlier, it requires a premillennial view of the return of Christ, but in order for that millennium to be populated with people that can then rebel at the end of it, there has to be a 7 year period of tribulation. The reason for this is so that the church can be removed from the earth in order for God to resume his plan with Israel and then unite the two together at the end in the millennial kingdom. By removing the church from the earth, more people will join the earth during the Tribulation, and if they survive it, will move into the millennium with non-glorified bodies. Without these people living on into the millennium, there is no one who could rebel at the end, unless there is basically what would amount to a second fall of man. In the end, this view rises on falls on the plausibility of a 7 year tribulation, or a separation of the rapture of the church from the return of Christ.
Interestingly, the only text that can possibly support this view is Daniel 9:24-27. The short version is that the 70th week of years spoken of in Daniel 9 is yet to be fulfilled and so it is posited that it reaches its fulfillment in this tribulation period (which is 7 years, since it is one week of years). If that week has already been fulfilled though, there is not only no need for a 7 year tribulation, there is no biblical warrant for the idea. In what we discussed in my 4th semester Hebrew class, it seems very much that the events described in this week find a better home elsewhere in history, and in many ways, find their fulfillment in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ (or as a second option, during the intertestamental period).
In other words, Daniel 9:24-27 does not still have a week of years left to be fulfilled. The cutting off of the anointed one (which is Messiah in Hebrew, by the way, but not necessarily with a capital M) was Christ’s crucifixion and the week ended shortly after. It may still await a typological redo, and certainly there will be a time of tribulation at the 2nd coming, but outside of Daniel 9, there is no reason to expect a 7 year tribulation as usually outlined in dispensational premillennialism. The time scale presented in that passage allows the 70th week to start with Christ’s public ministry (because the first week started in 587BC) and thus have Him be the abomination of desolation that occurs in the middle of the 70th week to put an end to sacrifices, which from the Talmud can be somewhat seen to be true, as sacrifices didn’t go quite right from 30AD onward. Since I do not see Daniel 9 itself allowing for a dangling 70th week to be fulfilled in the future, neither I do see any reason to separate the Rapture and the Second Coming. In doing so, I can’t be a dispensationalist.
The second issue, and the one to which the idea of a reign of Christ over an earthly kingdom after his return, is with Revelation 20:1-10. Dr. Kreider cites the chronological view of Revelation 20 happening after 19 as the main, if not, only reason he is a premillennialist. If that view does not comport well with the data of Revelation, then there is little reason to support it elsewhere.
The first thing to note about the text of Revelation 20, is that the reign is described as occurring from heaven, as that is where the throne is for this reign. This alone seems to eliminate a geo-political fulfillment, but rather is describing the present conditions, Christ reigning from heaven. This is also interpreting Revelation 20 as a recapitulation (a re-description of events from a different vantage point), evidence of which would be the following:
- Final battle depicted not only in Revelation 20:7-10; but also 16:14-16; 17:13-14; 19:19-21.
- The imagery from Ezekiel 38-39 is used in both Revelation 19 and 20, implying they are describing the same set of events but from different vantage points
- The wrath in the bowls in Revelation 15:1 includes all wrath, which would include 20:9-10.
- The sky fleeing in Revelation 20:11 is the same as 6:14.
- The nations in Revelation 20:3 would have perished in 19:19-21, which to me is the strongest argument against a temporal succession of 19 and 20. I see no reason to assume much of Revelation 4-20 is sequential, but is rather a series of visions sometimes depicting the same thing from different angles, which is common in prophecy and apocalyptic literature.
Now, in light of all this, it seems that basing much of anything on Revelation 20 necessarily describing a sequence of events that follow Revelation 19 chronologically is problematic at best. I find it rather unconvincing. When that was coupled with a lack of concrete reason why there must be a millennium in the first place, it seemed best to interpret all the unfulfilled promises of blessing as applying to the eternal state. The two age model makes better use of the Bible’s own eschatological language, and the progress of revelation and the effect of the Incarnation seems better taken into account by not following dispensationalism.
Since I do see the Bible teaching earthly, geo-political reign of Christ on earth after his return, I can’t be a premillennialist. Likewise, since I do not see the Bible teaching either a 7 year tribulation or a separation of the rapture of the church from the return of Christ to judge the wicked, then I can’t be a dispensationalist. For me though, this is rather freeing, and does not create the cognitive dissonance that it might for some. In the end, I am more interested in exploring eschatology now that I am looking at it with a different frame of mind. And to that end, this series just might continue.