When it comes to eschatology (the study of “last things” or “future things” ), Christians sometimes fall into the fundamental error of being preoccupied with the most speculative elements of this doctrine. Ironically this error has been made numerous times in church history and is even explicitly spoken against in Scripture.
Preoccupation with Speculation
Anticipation of Jesus Christ’s literal second coming to Earth should motivate believers to live in holiness and gratitude to God for his precious gift of redemption (1 John 3:2-3). They should strive to reflect their gratitude through works that promote goodness, peace, and justice. Scripture calls Christians to be “salt and light” to the culture in which we live (Matthew 5:13-16). The Lord’s promised return should also inspire his followers to seek to extend God’s Kingdom by doing their part to fulfill the Great Commission–delivering the gospel message to all people (Matthew 28:19-20).
Unfortunately, instead of pursuing the noble ventures just mentioned, too many Christians become consumed with the more speculative elements of biblical eschatology. For example, throughout church history Christians have (at times) been known to engage in date-setting concerning the Lord’s return–even though the Bible expressly forbids this practice (Matthew 24:36.
The Millerite Movement of the 19th century led by the New England Baptist minister William Miller is probably the most egregious example of date-setting for Christ’s second coming. When the predicted day came but the Lord didn’t, the “Great Disappointment” that followed caused many to view Christianity with scorn. Yet, still scores of eschatology teachers over ensuing decades continued to make predictions that have, of course, been dead wrong.
Every person who has predicted a date for Christ’s return has been wrong and, therefore, I think we can conclude that everyone who repeats this mistake in the future will also be wrong.
Another speculative game that far too many Christians engage in is what one person describes as “pinning the tail on the anti-Christ.” When my father was a young man World War II produced numerous potential candidates for this role, including such evil dictators as Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. I am comfortable identifying all three of these ruthless men as types of “anti-Christs,” but again the exact eschatological predictions proved false. More recent predictions have included former Soviet leaders, past American presidents, and some recent Roman Catholic popes.
Rather than emphasizing the more speculative areas of eschatology Christians ought to stress the essential features that they all agree on. In parts 2 and 3 of this series I discussed what I call “Mere Christian Eschatology.”
Five Historic Christian Eschatological Essentials
1. Second Coming of Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ will literally (bodily) return to Earth at his second advent (Matthew 25:31-32; Acts 1:10-11; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17; Titus 2:13).
2. General Resurrection of the Dead
Subsequent to Christ’s second coming, God will resurrect the physical bodies of all human beings who have ever lived on planet Earth (John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52).
3. Final Judgment of Humankind
After Christ raises humanity from the dead he will judge human beings (Matthew 25:32-33; John 12:47-48; Acts 17:31).
4. Eternal State
5. New Creation
These five points of essential eschatological agreement mark the profound common ground that believers share even in an area that reflects marked differences and controversy. The Christian vision of reality includes an incredibly hopeful and peaceful apocalyptic picture of the future state.
For an introduction to the topic of general eschatology, see Donald G. Bloesch, The Last Things.
For some excellent theological analysis of the Christian view of individual eschatology, see John Jefferson Davis, Handbook of Basic Bible Texts.