My next real encounter with Revelation came in college, when I read a historical-critical analysis of the book which interpreted it as being an encoded message to First Century Christians encouraging them to keep a stiff upper lip during a persecution by the Roman Emperor Nero. According to the analysis Nero was the Beast, and the Number of the Beast (either 666 or 616 depending on what manuscript you were reading) was the numerological value of Nero’s name. Revelation therefore had no relevance whatsoever for modern times because all its prophecies were about what was going to happen to the Roman Empire.
The impending release of the Left Behind movie has rekindled my interest in the subject of the end time and the interpretation of the Book of Revelation, so I’ve recently done some study on the subject. Here’s what I think I have learned.
Various groups of Christians subscribe to one of three basic interpretations of the end times:
2. Postmillennialism; and
Let’s start with what (almost) everyone agrees upon: There is going to be a Second Coming of Christ, and there is going to be a Final Judgment of the just and unjust. Things begin to get complicated when we get past those two points.
Premillennialism is divided into two types. All Premillennialists believe in a Second Coming of Christ, a Tribulation, a Millennium (thousand year reign of Christ) and a Final Judgment. Where they differ is on the timing of those events. The Tribulation is supposed to be a disastrous time of suffering which precedes the Millennium. (This is the part of the Book of Revelation which frightened me so when I was a child). The two types of Premillennialists are pre-Tribulation Premillennialists (better known as Dispensational Premillennialists) and post-Tribulation Premillennialists.
The post-Tribulation timeline goes 1. Tribulation; 2. Second Coming; 3. Millennium; 4. Final Judgment.
The pre-Tribulation timeline is somewhat different: 1. First Second Coming (which is more or less secret) and Rapture (when all good Christians simply disappear from the face of the Earth and go to meet Jesus in the sky); 2. Tribulation; 3. Second Second Coming; 4. Millennium; 5. Final Judgment. This is the timeline adopted by the popular Left Behind series.
Postmillennialists predict a somewhat different timeline: 1. Millennium; 2. Second Coming and Final Judgment.
Amillennialists believe that if there is a thousand year reign, Christ instituted it with his first coming (with the number one thousand being symbolic rather than literal). The Amillennialist timeline goes either 1. Millennium; 2. Second Coming and Final Judgment; or simply 1. Second Coming and Final Judgment.
Amillennialists who believe in a Millennium sometimes call themselves Nunc Millennialists. We won’t even discuss the difference between Preterist Amillennialists and Partial Preterist Amillennialists.
So which timeline is correct? I vote for none of the above. The more circumstantial a description of the end time becomes, the more I recall Jesus’s words on the Mount of Olives: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” Matthew 24:36 (KJV).