Views of the "End Times" explored during concluding session of Theologian-in-Residence lecture series
The Christian view of the “end times” that is the most popular eschatological perspective in evangelical, conservative churches is problematic in multiple ways, speaker Oliver “Buzz” Thomas said at Tusculum College on Tuesday (2/26).
Thomas spoke in the final session of this year’s Theologian-in-Residence lecture series, sponsored by the college and the Holston Presbytery. Thomas, a minister, author, and attorney, has spoken to capacity audiences in all of the lecture sessions, which have explored such issues as creation, the teaching of evolution and “intelligent design” in public schools, the nature of the Bible, homosexuality, and the role of women in the church. These subjects are among those addressed in Thomas’ book, “10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can/’t Because He Needs the Job).” In the fourth and concluding session, Thomas focused on issues of the end of the world and death.
The currently popular eschatological view of the end times called “premillennialism” focuses heavily on the “rapture” of Christians out of the world, a period of world tribulation and a literal thousand-year “millennial” reign of Jesus Christ in the world. The weaknesses of this view include failing to place the text in historic context, piecing together of unrelated scriptural passages outside of their proper contexts and reading “highly symbolic books literally,” Thomas said.
Premillennialism is the eschatological viewpoint behind such popular works as Hal Lindsey’s “The Late Great Planet Earth” in the 1970s through the more current “Left Behind” novels by Tim LaHaye. It is the view most often embraced in conservative evangelical circles.
One weakness of the premillennial approach is that, throughout history, adherents of the view have tended to set dates for Christ’s return that have not proven out. “You have to keep moving that timeline,” Thomas said.
Difficult times in world history have tended to make premillennialists believe the end is nearing, Thomas said. “Every time we go through hard times in Christian history, people say we are going through the end times,” he continued.
Another view, postmillennialism, became popular in the late 1800s, Thomas noted. In this interpretation, Christians are believed to usher in the millennium with their good works with Jesus\’ returning at the end of the period. However, he added, the coming of World War I shattered confidence in the human ability to bring about worldly peace, and today postmillennialism finds few adherents.
The view called amillennialism, which interprets the Biblical millennium in non-literal terms, is associated with Catholicism and its strengths include interpreting the book in a historical context and being consistent with statements by Jesus, Peter, and Paul that no one knows when the end of the world will come, Thomas said.
The term “millennium” in the scriptures simply indicates a long stretch of time, not necessarily a literal thousand-year period, amillennialists argue. Thomas himself compared the usage to the modern greeting “I’ve not seen you in a month of Sundays!”, which indicates a long, imprecise period rather than an exactly measured span of time.
Amillennialists view many Biblical references to what premillennialists interpret as future events as actually being symbolic or coded references to events that have already happened. For example, Thomas noted, numerically, the “mark of the Beast” referenced in the scriptures, usually as 666, can easily be tied to names associated with the Roman emperor Nero, a great persecutor of the early church. Strengthening the assertion that the “Beast” was Nero is the fact that an alternative version of the “mark of the Beast” found in some old manuscripts, 616, also ties to the Nero name.
Rather than being a detailed roadmap of future events, Revelation is a “call to faithfulness” on the part of Christians in times of persecution and difficulty, Thomas said.
As an example of “apocalyptic” literature written in a time of persecution, he said, Revelation was written in a manner that would enable Christians of its time to interpret and understand its coded references to leaders and political entities of the time, while enemies of the church would be unable to easily do so.
Thomas also addressed issues of life after death, referencing scriptural teaching and also scientific research into death and dying issues. Members of the audience joined him in relating stories involving the deaths of individuals who have had experiences that appear to provide some insight into events that occur during the death transition.
He noted that early Hebrew theology focused on the life on earth and viewed the afterlife as a shadowy state, similar to the Greek mythological concept of Hades. Hebrew theology changed over time, and in the books of the Old Testament written in later periods, there is more of the dualism that appears in the New Testament, the concept of reward for the good and punishment for the evil, Thomas continued.
In the New Testament, heaven is the destination for the followers of Christ while those who reject God are placed in “the lake of fire.” Thomas noted that the Greek word used in Revelation to refer to the lake of fire as a “second death” for those who reject God means “separated,” as in an eternal separation from God and life.
The word translated as “hell” in the King James translation of the Bible is the Greek word “Gehenna,” which referred to a valley south of Jerusalem that had been the site of pagan sacrifices in Old Testament times and was the garbage dump for the city in the time of Jesus. In his preaching, Jesus would often tell people to repent or they would end up in Gehenna, Thomas said, a powerful image to His audience that they needed to change their ways lest they end up in the garbage dump.
The parable about Lazarus and the rich man is another place in Scriptures where Jesus speaks of the afterlife. Parables were a popular teaching method of the time, Thomas explained, and those of that period had one point they were trying to relate. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man was an ancient Egyptian parable and was also used by Jewish rabbis. However, Jesus changed the ending when telling his version in that Lazarus, the beggar, was the one receiving the reward. Jesus told the parable, Thomas said, not to teach about the afterlife but to teach that material wealth was not an indicator of God\’s favor as was the prevalent thought of the period. The concept of hell as a place of eternal punishment has developed over the ages, particularly in the Middle Ages when works of literature such as Dante’s “Inferno” were popular, he said. Remarking that his view of the afterlife could be incorrect, Thomas said the concept of hell as a place of eternal torture, to him, is not consistent with a loving, just God.
However, Thomas said that the bottom line for him is summed up in the word “trust.” When death comes, he said, he has full trust in God to take care of him in divine love.