I wrote in my previous post that Christians have a view of time moving from creation toward some end. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has published two excellent documents that address the issues of eschatology. They address how we understand our present circumstances in light of the future.
Eschatology: The Doctrine of the Last Things. - This is a study published by the Presbyterian Church (US) in 1978. It gives a concise history of eschatological thinking in the Church, a history of Reformed thinking on the issue, and offers a discussion on the importance of eschatology in the life of the Church.
Between Millennia: What Presbyterians believe about the Coming of Christ. – This 2001 publication gives a brief presentation about the Reformed view of the second coming of Christ and addresses the “Left Behind” phenomenon. It also offers some confessional statements that address eschatology. There is a glossary at the back.
The various millennial views can be distilled into four perspectives. Here is a short presentation of each of those perspectives from the “Eschatology” paper listed above.
1. Historic Premillennialism (Chiliasm)
Historic Premillennialism holds that Christ will return to the earth prior to the Last Day in order to exercise rule over the nations for a thousand years in the last stage of human history. It is pessimistic concerning the role and prospects of the Church in human history; therefore it posits another age, the millennium, between Christ’s return and the Last Day, during which Christ rules in person over theocratic kingdom to which all the nations of the world are subject.
Periods of great world upheaval and crisis have tended to spawn and multiply despair in society, and premillennial visions within Christianity.
Postmillennialism expects a future millennium or latter-day prosperity of the church prior to Christ’s coming. It holds that the return of Christ introduces, not a temporal kingdom but the eternal state. It does, however, expect a period before the return of Christ and the end of the age in which the Church will have fulfilled its task in the world.
The Reformed tradition, for the greater part of it history, has shown more affinity and support of this millennial perspective than for other interpretations. This is due largely to the Reformed emphasis upon the sovereignty of God, the belief that Christ is now Lord over all spheres of human life, and he conviction that the Christian community has been empowered by the Holy Spirit to call and work for the full promulgation of the Gospel and the transformation of culture and society to accord with the mind and will of Christ.
Amillennialism holds that there will be no future golden age upon the earth for the Church. Whatever rule Christ exercises within history is in the spiritual sphere, in the souls of individuals, or in the life of the Church. It contains no vision of hope for its future prior to the Last Day when Christ returns to institute the eternal state and manifests His glorious Kingdom.
Optimistic amillennialism agrees with the above except that it holds the Church will nearly have finished its task. Days of spiritual awakening and missionary advance have generally reinforced postmillennialism and optimistic amillennial expectations.
4. Dispensational Premillennialism
Dispensational gives premillennialism a complete system. Human history is regarded as a series of ages (dispensations) in which man is tested with respect to some aspect revealed of God’s will. In each case man fails, is judged by God, and then set on the trail under new covenant conditions. The seven ages are labeled: Innocence (in the Garden); Conscience (to the flood); Human Government (from Babel); Promise (from Abraham); Law (from Moses); Grace (from Christ); Kingdom (the coming millennium). The age of Graces ends with the unseen coming of Christ for His Church (the Rapture), both the living, and by partial resurrections, the dead in Christ. A period of seven years ensues on the earth marked by an international treaty of peace, including a protectorate of Israel. This seven years is “the time of Jacob’s troubles” a leftover of the 70 times 7 years, or 490 years, promised as judgment captivity to Israel, but which lasted only 483 years. Midway, the antichrist reveals himself, claiming to be the Messiah, and institutes a controlled world economy and hounds the Jews for their refusal to worship him. Christ appears with His Church and legions of angels quell the Antichrist forces, bind Satan for a thousand years and establish the millennial kingdom under the reestablished throne of David on earth and by the Church out of New Jerusalem hovering visibly in space above the earth. Following the millennium, man rejects the era of enforced peace and plenty by following the then-released Devil in an effort to conquer the Holy City. The uprising is crushed. The general resurrection then occurs, the Final Judgment, the renovation of Heaven and Earth, and the dawn of eternity.
This elaborate futurology has a number of strong appeals. First, it seems to accommodate affairs and events of the modern world to prophetic Scriptures, as other millennial theories have done in the past. Second, it places a benediction on the “world’s mess” which only Christ can correct in visible power, eliminates social responsibility other than the Christian’s duty in citizenship and provides joy in every sign of approaching calamity, for calamity demands Parousia. Third, it makes Divine Election absolute, and freedom of the human will is actually lost in the detailed chart of established future events. Nonetheless, it is based upon many assumptions which violate Reformed theology.