Jesus’ own words seem calculated to dissuade endless speculation about His return. Today, Barry Cooper outlines how the Bible’s revelation of the world’s end is meant to stir us to action today.
You may remember, when we approached the year 2000, there was a rush of panic. People were very anxious that when the clock ticked from December 31, 1999, to January 1, 2000, our computer-dependent infrastructure would fail in catastrophic ways. There were nightmare scenarios of planes falling out of the sky, medical machinery shutting down, and financial systems going haywire.
In the end, the only computer-related problem that occurred in my household on January 1 was that I still couldn’t insert a USB cable correctly on the first attempt (or the second attempt, which doesn’t make any sense at all given there are only two possible ways to insert it).
But anyway, there’s always been angst surrounding the millennium and exactly how the world will end. If not a computer bug, then perhaps a second ice age? Robots turning on their masters? A burly asteroid with a grudge against earth?
But what of Scripture? Does Scripture say anything about what will happen at the end?
A key chapter is Revelation chapter 20, which speaks of a thousand-year period often referred to as the millennium. This is the only place in the Bible which speaks of it, which is not to say it’s unimportant, but the figurative language of apocalyptic literature like this poses some unique interpretive challenges.
Revelation chapter 20 describes an angel seizing Satan and binding him for “a thousand years,” after which time he is released for a while. Then Scripture speaks of believers’ being resurrected and reigning with Christ for “a thousand years.” The rest of the dead, we are told, “did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.” Then Satan is released, and deceives the nations, stirring them for battle against God’s people, until finally God overthrows Satan and all those with him.
Christians have interpreted the “thousand years” in several ways. One of these views is called amillennialism, which was originally suggested by Augustine in the fourth century. This view holds that the “thousand years” of Christ’s reign should be interpreted symbolically rather than as a literal period of one thousand years.
Amillennialists believe that the “binding of Satan” took place during Jesus’ earthly ministry: Satan was restrained by God while the good news of Christ’s salvation was announced, and that “restraining order” is still in force today, as the gospel continues to go out. So the “thousand years” in Revelation simply means “that extended period of time during which the gospel is preached to the world.”
Unlike some other views of the millennium, amillennialists believe that while Christians will have a “salt and light” influence on the culture in which they live, they won’t ultimately “redeem” or “transform” the culture. Instead, as the end draws near, evil will continue to grow, leading to a “great tribulation” for all believers, and the appearance of the Antichrist—a figure who will persecute God’s people. Then Christ will return to resurrect the dead, judge all humanity, and inaugurate a new heaven and a new earth, in which His people will no longer be subject to suffering or pain, only joy—a kingdom which will be eternal.
I think many of us deliberately preoccupy ourselves with speculation about how the world will end as a way of avoiding the uncomfortable fact that the world in its present form will end. And many Christians are so preoccupied with exactly how and when it will happen that they ignore Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 verse 36, where He says, “Concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” Jesus’ words seem calculated to dissuade endless speculation on the subject.
One old pastor friend of mine, when he was asked if he was amillennial, postmillennial, or premillennial, simply gave a wry smile and said, “I’m a pan-millennial. I believe it’ll all pan out in the end.”
It was an old joke, even in 1995. But it gets at something important. If you are in Christ, none of these “end of the world” scenarios will truly be “the end” for you. However the details work themselves out, whatever the actual nature of “the millennium,” the Lord will return in full majesty and power, and exactly as He promised, He will not lose even one of those the Father has given Him. And He will raise them up on the last day.
Until then, the promise that the end is coming really ought to motivate us to go into the world with urgency and make disciples, telling our friends that there is freedom and joy and safety in Christ alone. As Jesus said Himself, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses . . . to the end of the earth.”