The Second Coming
When I was a young minister, a man who never attended church (though formally a member) died unexpectedly. Some time later I was visiting with one of his sons and the son’s wife. During our conversation the young man said to me, ‘My Daddy believed that the Second Coming was near and would occur, if not during his lifetime, then during the lifetimes of his children.’
I had to ask myself, ‘Why would a person believe the Second Coming of Christ would be very soon, and yet never go to church?’ You’d think that, if a person were convinced the end of all things was near, he would show more interest in his own relationship with the Lord. I believe this case illustrates that there is no teaching of the Bible people are more curious about than the Second Coming. And, there is no doctrine about which there has been more unprofitable speculation and excitement. This includes serious believers, people on the fringes, and people outside the circle of those who make any profession of faith.
I want in a very broad way to sketch out the teachings that exist about the Second Coming. All of them use the word ‘millennial,’ an adjective that comes from the noun ‘millennium’ which refers to a 1000 year period. When it is used regarding the Second Coming it means the thousand years reign of Christ which the Apostle John speaks of in Revelation 20.
The various views are distinguished by what they think about the thousand years reign of Christ. And the distinctions are made by the use of prefixes, in this case the prefixes ‘post’, ‘pre’, and ‘a’. So we have post-millennialism, pre-millennialism, and a-millennialism. Those prefixes indicate belief about the relationship of Christ’s coming to the millennium.
Post-Millennialism (‘post’ means ‘after’) teaches that the thousand years reign of Christ will precede the Second Coming. Historically most who hold this view have believed that the preaching of the gospel and expansion of the church will take place throughout the present age until the whole world comes under the influence of the gospel. When the gospel has triumphed universally, then there will be an age of unprecedented peace and prosperity among the nations and peoples of the world as Christ exercises his saving rule from heaven. Some who hold this view believe that the thousand years is literally 1,000 years. Others think that the thousand years reign is a figurative number referring to an extended period of blessedness in the world. But all who hold this view believe that John is describing a period that occurs before the Second Coming, the final judgement, and the new heavens and new earth.
In the last century there arose a variation of this view. It arose in connection with a theological view called ‘theonomy.’ ‘Theonomy’ is a word that brings together the Greek words for ‘God’ and ‘Law’ and means ‘God’s Law.’ The distinctive thing about theonomy in relation to post-millennialism is its view of the Old Testament ‘judicial’ or ‘civil’ laws. These laws are the statutes and the penalties that God told Moses to put in place to govern the national life of Israel. Theonomists believe that those laws that governed Israel as a nation give a timeless and universal pattern of righteous law for the nations. So, when all or most of the world becomes Christian, the blessedness of this age will include the introduction of ‘Biblical Law’ among the nations which will lead to the blessings of both national and personal righteousness. When this period ends, the end as described in the previous paragraph will occur.
Pre-Millennialism (‘pre’ means ‘before’) believes that the thousand years reign of Christ will take place after his Second Coming. Christ will come and set up his millennial reign on earth. Usually this reign is understood to involve the restoration of Israel to its Old Testament status of privilege. All the nations will acknowledge a descendant of David as their King. Christ will sit on the throne in his capital city of Jerusalem in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Under Christ’s 1000 years reign the age of blessing will descend on the world. At the end of the 1000 years reign, Satan will be set free and will lead a short-lived rebellion which Christ will put down. Then the final judgement will take place and the everlasting Kingdom will begin. This view is sometimes known as Historic Pre-Millennialism.
There was a further development of this view during the 19th century. It was such a significant development that pre-millennialists become divided into two camps, some holding the older view and others the newer view. They share the view that Christ’s Second coming would precede the millennial kingdom, but they differ on other significant matters. This newer view was developed in England and spread through the English-speaking world in part by the popularity of a study Bible called the Schofield Reference Bible. This view introduced the concept of two comings (sometimes three) of Christ. He would come in the air (not all the way to earth) for his church and take it out of the world, leaving behind only non-believers. This is called the Rapture. This would end the period of history known as ‘the Church Age’ which began after Christ’s ascension. With the removal of the church there will be a seven year period of worldwide, unprecedented time of trouble, called the Great Tribulation. It will involve times of plague, pestilence, and persecution. During this time Israel will at last recognize that Christ is their Messiah. Israel, already gathered to Palestine, will resume its central place in God’s plan. Also, there will be Gentiles, left behind, who will turn to Christ and ally themselves with the Jews and Israel. The Anti-Christ will arise and create a great alliance of nations against Christ and Israel and believing Gentiles. All this will come to a climactic end with the Battle of Armageddon. When it seems all is lost, Christ will come, rescue Israel and defeat the Anti-Christ Alliance. At this point what will follow is along the lines of the pre-millennial view described in the previous paragraph.
A-Millennialism (‘a’ means ‘no’ or ‘non’) is sometimes considered as an variation of Post-Millennialism. It teaches that the millennium of which John wrote is a picture of the rule of Christ that was instituted at his ascension into heaven until he comes again. In other words, the millennium is now, not future. Christ is King, Christ is ruling, and will continue to rule until all his enemies are placed under his feet. However, the reign of Christ does not mean the end of all opposition (as Post-Millennialism believes). Satan, though his defeat is sure, will continue to fight throughout this age. His position is like that of Germany following D-Day (June 6, 1944). Germany’s defeat became sure when the Allies got their foothold on the coast of France. But there was almost a year of war remaining before Germany’s total and final defeat. So the present age is an age of conflict between the Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of Satan. The outcome is certain, but there are many battles during the war, and there will be ebb and flow in the war. The war will end when Christ comes again. Then there will be the last judgement followed by the new heavens and new earth.
Now there are some differences among a-millenniallists that have to do with their expectations concerning the present age. Both agree that the total defeat of Satan and complete triumph of the Kingdom of Christ will not occur short of the Second Coming. But some are more optimistic, believing that, while there will always be conflict, looking at the big picture, the Kingdom of Christ will advance and win many victories. Others are more pessimistic believing that the whole age will involve conflict, perhaps increasingly intense conflict, until the end when Christ will utterly defeat Satan and evil and bring into being the rule of righteousness.
What I’ve tried to do here is simply to give you the ‘lay of the land’ with regard to views of the Second Coming. But you will want me to tell you where I stand. Well, I am an a-millenniallist and have been as long as I have had any view at all. As to whether I am more to the optimistic or more to the pessimistic side, it depends on when you ask.
Rev. William H Smith is Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, Louisville, Mississippi.
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