If you expect Jesus to return within the next forty years, does that make you an optimist or a pessimist?
The Pew Research Center recently released a survey about what events Americans believe will unfold in the next forty years. One interesting question asked about the return of Jesus Christ:
As expected, predictions about whether Jesus Christ will return to earth in the next 40 years divide along religious lines. Fully 58% of white evangelical Christians say Jesus Christ will definitely or probably return to earth in this period, by far the highest percentage in any religious group. Only about a third of Catholics (32%), and even fewer white mainline Protestants (27%) and the religiously unaffiliated (20%) predict Jesus Christ’s return to earth.
In addition, those with no college experience (59%) are much more likely than those with some college experience (35%) and college graduates (19%) to expect Jesus Christ’s return. By region, those in the South (52%) are the most likely to predict a Second Coming by 2050.
The Washington Examiner sifted through the data and discovered that 26 percent of Democrats and 19 percent of Republicans believe that the Second Coming “will definitely” happen within the next four decades. Among those who think Jesus will probably return to earth in forty years, there are more GOPers (24 percent) than Democrats (18 percent) that believe this will happen. While these results won’t surprise evangelicals in the South—who recognize that theological views cross party lines—it will probably come as a shock to many Northern secularists that Democrats can be as “Christianist” as Republicans.
But what does it mean? How does this fit into the overall views of Christians in America?
Not surprisingly, there are few areas of Christian theology more contentious or confusing than eschatology, the study of the end times. Should the Book of Revelation be interpreted literally or metphorically? Will Christ establish his Kingdom on earth or has his millenial reign already begun? While I don’t know how much overlap there is with other Christian traditions, within evangelicalism there are four general points of agreement and four general perspectives on eschatology.
The four points of agreement are:
1. Jesus Christ will physically return to earth one day.
2. There will be a bodily resurrection of all people who have ever lived.
3. Satan will be defeated and constrained forever.
4. There will be a final judgment in which believers join Christ for eternity while nonbelievers are separated from God’s presence.*
How this occurs, though, is an issue of great debate. One of the central issues involves the millennium, the thousand-year period during which Christ is said to rule the world. (Revelation 20:1-10). The four most popular views in evangelicalism are dispensational premillenialism, historical premillenialism, amillenialism, and postmillennialism.
Dispensational premillenialism is the view that Jesus will return to remove the church from the world in an event known as the rapture. Theories differ on whether the rapture will occur before, in the middle of, or after a seven year period called the tribulation (pre-trib, mid-trib, post-trib). These events will culminate in a literal thousand year rulership of Christ when peace will reign, the natural world will no longer be cursed, and evil will be suppressed. A final rebellion, however, will break out which will end in God crushing evil forever, judging the resurrected, and establishing heaven and hell.
The following beliefs are features of dispensational premillenialism:
Historical premillenialism is the belief that Christ will return “before the millennium” in order to resurrect the saints (the “first resurrection”), establish his rule from Jerusalem over the rebellious nations (the battle of Armageddon), and usher in a thousand year period of material peace and prosperity; at the end of this period the nations (still in unresurrected, natural bodies) will rebel and make war against Christ and the resurrected saints (the battle of Gog and Magog), who will be saved by fire from heaven, followed by the second resurrection—now of unbelievers—and the final judgment
The following are features of historic premillennialism:
Amillenialism is the belief that the millennial kingdom is indeterminate in length and fulfilled by Christ currently ruling in heaven. At the end of this reign Christ will come back to gather the church and judge the nations.
The following are features of amillennialism:
Well-known proponents of this view include Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin.
Postmillenialism is the belief that Christ’s second coming will follow the millennium, which will itself be ushered in by the spiritual and moral influence of Christian preaching and teaching in the world.
The following are features of postmillennialism:
An extended period of great spiritual prosperity may endure for millennia, after which history will come to an end by the personal, visible, bodily return of Christ accompanied by a literal resurrection and a general judgment, which ushers in the final and eternal form of the kingdom.
Postmillennialism was popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and is still popular with many mainline denominations. Few evangelicals, however, hold this view of eschatology.
One last group that could be included is “panmillenialists”—folks who simply believe “whatever happens, it will all pan out in the end.”
(In case you're curious about my own view: Like many Southern evangelicals, I assumed for many years that dispensational premillenialism was the historic biblical position. But now I’m an amillenialist who subscribes to partial preterism (e.g., I believe that Nero was the antichrist that St. John was referring to).)
*Boyd and Eddy, Across the Spectrum
**All points listed as features are from R.C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus