There are about a dozen or so popular Christian views concerning the apocalypse. Disciples of Jesus throughout the ages have adopted many different stances, depending on their historical circumstances and theology. For instance, several of the apostles arguably believed that Jesus would come back very soon, even within their own lifetimes. Others believed that the cosmic events of Revelation occurred during the early church or during the middle ages with corruption in the Roman Empire and the western Catholic Church. And we are all too familiar with some Christians today making bold predictions about how Jesus will come back soon–the years 2000 and 2012 might ring a bell!
Personally, I advise taking a humble view of Revelation. We need to take Jesus seriously when he said no one knows the day nor hour. He may come back tomorrow… he may come back more than a million years from now! It may happen according to the predictions of theologians, or in all likelihood, it could be entirely different and catch everyone off guard. But nevertheless, it is important for our own growth as Christians to have some idea of how to read Revelation. Here are definitions of some important terms related to the book:
- Eschatology (pronounced es-kuh-tology)- The theological study of the end of the world.
- Parousia (pronounced pa-roo-see-uh)- A greek word signifying the second coming of Christ. For some Christians, this means a rapture, while others believe this will just be the final judgment where Jesus physically conquers evil on earth.
- Tribulation– The biblical concept that people will undergo a period of intense trial and persecution. Some Christians believe tribulation will last only seven years, but scripture is vague about the timeframe. Some Christians believe that they will be rescued from this, but Jesus was quite clear that we will all experience some tribulation for following him.
- Millenium– This word could signify either a literal 1000-year period of Christ’s reign, or might be a symbolic period of time for the New Testament church and beyond. In scripture, a thousand-year millennium is often just a synonym for a really long time.
- Rapture– This is one possible interpretation of the parousia or second coming of Christ, arguing that Jesus will appear and bring some followers to heaven. This view was created in the late 1800s and depends on one verse in 1 Thessalonians. Scripture is clear that Jesus will come back again, but the rapture teaching argues that Jesus will actually come back twice instead of once like we find in the passages of Revelation.
- Dispensation– This is another possible interpretation of the end times, namely that there are 3-7 different “periods” in history. Some argue that we are in one “dispensation,” and that during the end of the world, we will enter into another.
- Antichrist– Revelation speaks about some kind of entity that directly opposes God and the forces of good, whether that be Satan, a demon, or another character. Some Christians believe there will be a literal antichrist on earth, while others interpret these passages to allude to the cosmic battle in the heavenly realms.
Additionally, here is a general outline of the various interpretations as they relate to the book of Revelation. Remember that Christians have interpreted this book in so many different ways, and the “right” theology of Revelation is obviously up for debate!
Christians will undergo a period of tribulation before Jesus’ second coming, then Jesus will reign on earth. There is a tribulation period and there is no rapture–only Jesus’ return to rule over all creation.
This view assumes that there will be a rapture, of which will be one of two comings of Christ. Jesus will abandon all non-Christians after the rapture. After this, there will be a time of tribulation on earth, followed by another coming of Christ to finally rule.
This outlook says that Jesus will come again after a period of peace, ushered in by the Church’s good works and evangelism in the world. Then after this millennium, Jesus will come back to earth.
This is a symbolic interpretation of words like tribulation, where the millennium after Jesus’ ascension will occur an unspecified amount of time before the last judgment.
Like I said, Christians can have very different views concerning Revelation. Personally, I am mostly an “amillennialist” who believes that Christ will come back after this symbolic millennium of the Church’s work in the world. Likewise, when Jesus promised us tribulation, I understand that to mean he meant Christians in all times and places will experience hardship for following Jesus–from loving our enemies to pursuing God’s nonviolent way in our world.
One thing to keep in mind is that with apocalyptic literature about the end times, it is difficult to discern what is happening on earth versus in heaven or in the cosmic realm. As Christians, we believe God is eternal and not bound by time (in other words, God doesn’t celebrate birthdays or get old like we do! God is not bound by time). So when we read about trumpets sounding, plagues, or even devilish beasts in books like Revelation, it is impossible to know how this lines up chronologically with life here on earth.
A major example of this was Revelation 12, which provided a cosmic view of Jesus’ birth. In this, the incarnation of Jesus signaled a massive battle between the forces of good and darkness (where Satan was depicted as a dragon). Notice that this looked quite different here on earth–Jesus was born to poor peasants under oppressive rule in a simple animal stable! Yet we know that his birth carried cosmic significance, namely that the powers of darkness would be overcome by God’s eternal, life-giving love.
So be humble when reading Revelation. Remember that our business as Christians is to live out Jesus’ calling to spread God’s good news. It can be tempting to obsess over the end of the world, but in doing so, we miss the most basic duty of following Jesus: spreading God’s good news and inviting others to partake in God’s family.