Historic Christianity is unique among the religions of the world for its explicit emphasis upon both the origin and destiny of humanity. The Christian faith has much to say about important past events, but it also projects forward concerning critical future things.
In parts two and three of this series I described what might be called “Mere Christian Eschatology.” While important differences are apparent concerning the final events of human history, nevertheless all historical Christian theological traditions affirm essential core orthodoxy when it comes to eschatology (study of “last things”). Secondary differences among believers should always be understood within the context of the overwhelming areas of common agreement.
Still, some of the sharpest differences Christians have amongst themselves come down to eschatology.
Three Major Eschatological Differences
1. Understanding of the Bible’s Apocalyptic Literature
Apocalyptic writings are a genre of literature that is believed to present revelations of the end of the world in deeply symbolic language. Through the centuries Christendom has been divided over just how to understand the Bible’s apocalyptic, or prophetic, literature (primarily Daniel and Revelation).
Today, many biblical scholars remain in disagreement over interpretations of these books. They interpret the Book of Revelation through various approaches (preterist, historicist, idealist, futurist) that contribute to eschatological differences. Many scholars consider the Bible’s apocalyptic elements to be the most challenging and difficult areas to understand.
Interpretive Models of Revelation:
- Preterist: first century fulfillment of real events
- Historicist: symbolic events fulfilled in Christian history
- Idealist: present fulfillment of spiritual events
- Futurist: future fulfillment of real events
2. Relationship between Israel and the Church
One of the most important areas of biblical study has to do with the question of how the Old Testament (OT) relates to the New Testament (NT). Some conservative evangelical traditions see great continuity between the testaments. However, others emphasize their apparent discontinuity.
An area that directly relates to eschatology is the question of Israel and the Christian church. Is it appropriate to make a distinction between these two groups? Some assert that there is no distinction between Israel and the church. For them, the church is the new Israel. For those who embrace the historic eschatological positions of amillennialism and postmillennialism (both to be discussed in later articles) the church is designated as spiritual Israel.
On the other hand, advocates of premillennialism (also to be discussed) mark an important distinction between Israel and the church. Historic premillennialists make a subtle distinction (between a literal Israel and a spiritual one), whereas with dispensational premillennialists the distinction is much more pronounced. Dispensational theology has historically made a complete distinction between the two groups and even proposed two individual programs (one for Israel and another for the church).
Determining the proper relationship between the OT people of Israel and the NT church remains an area of critical difference in eschatology.
The next article will discuss one more area in which Christians find major differences in eschatology.