Views on the end times are anything but fluid or unanimous, with pastors and parishioners alike taking divergent stances on the rapture, the millennium, the Antichrist and other eschatological elements. It's a seemingly never-ending Bible battle extensively documented and unpacked in my new book, The Armageddon Code: One Journalist's Quest for End-Times Answers.
This end-times book differs from past works on the subject in that the topic is approached through a journalistic lens. The book also includes original polling of 1,000 Protestant pastors in the U.S. to explore their views about the biblical "end of days."
Reigning With Christ on Earth
When it comes to the theological circumstances surrounding the Second Coming of Christ, it turns out that American pastors espouse a variety of divergent viewpoints, especially regarding the text of Revelation 20.
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At the center of the debate is the "millennium kingdom," which is referenced in that chapter. The short description of this time period in the Scriptures has created a plethora of questions and prophetic theories among theologians and end-times enthusiasts.
Before diving deeper into the debate, it is essential to explore that section of Revelation:
"And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, that he should deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be set free for a little while.
"I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and the authority to judge was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness of Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who takes part in the first resurrection. Over these the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ and shall reign with Him a thousand years" (Rev. 20:1-6).
These words of Scripture have created quite a bit of discussion and debate. Pastors and theologians have disagreed over whether the millennium period is literal or figurative, and have also haggled over where it fits into proposed eschatological timelines.
The poll, which was commissioned through LifeWay Research, asked the clergy members: "Which one of the following statements best fits your views on the millennium described in Revelation 20? The chapter says that Christ shall reign 'a thousand years.'"
The pastors were given these answer choices:
- There is no literal millennium, but Christ is currently reigning spiritually and in the hearts of Christians (often called amillennialism).
- The millennium is not a literal 1,000 years, but an era in which the world will gradually grow more Christian and just ending with Christ's Second Coming (often called postmillennialism).
- The millennium will be a future literal 1,000-year period during which Jesus reigns on Earth following Christ's Second Coming (often called premillennialism).
- None of these/Not sure
Overall, the largest proportion of pastors—48 percent—expressed support for premillennialism, with an additional 31 percent opting for amillennialism. The third most prevalent view was postmillennialism, which attracted just 11 percent of ministers. An additional 12 percent chose "none of these" or "not sure" when presented with the options.
Caught Up in the Clouds
In addition to asking about pastors' views on the millennial kingdom, the survey also asked whether preachers believe that millions of Christians will be "raptured" and spared from the tribulation period. Well-known faith leaders also frequently take divergent stands on what the tribulation might look like.
Christians who subscribe to "dispensational premillennialism" generally hold a belief in a rapture event during which Christians will simultaneously leave Earth and ascend to heaven before the chaos of a seven-year tribulation period, concluding with the Second Coming of Christ.
Some pastors place the rapture in another part of the tribulation, while others believe the tribulation has already come to fruition at another point in history. While debate has raged for some time, surprisingly there is little data on where American pastors stand on the issue of the rapture.
This is precisely why the survey also asked faith leaders the following question: "Which one of the following statements best describes your views on when the biblical rapture will occur?" The options were:
- The rapture has already occurred (a view associated with Preterism).
- Christians will be taken up before the tribulation period that precedes the Second Coming (often called the pre-trib view).
- Christians will be taken up in the middle of the tribulation period that precedes the Second Coming (often called the mid-trib view).
- Christians will be taken up before the great wrath of God is poured out late in the tribulation period that precedes the Second Coming (often called the pre-wrath view).
- The rapture and the Second Coming are describing events that will unfold simultaneously or close together at the end of the tribulation (often called the post-trib view).
- The concept of the rapture is not to be taken literally.
- None of these
- Not sure
Overall, 36 percent of pastors—the largest proportion by far—aligned themselves with the pre-tribulation view, with the second-largest proportion (25 percent) saying, "the concept of the rapture is not to be taken literally." An additional 18 percent aligned themselves with the post-tribulation belief that the rapture and the Second Coming of Christ are essentially one in the same.
As documented in The Armageddon Code, the debate over the rapture is as contentious as ever and is, perhaps, the most disputed and divisive eschatological element. While proponents claim that the Bible backs the mass disappearance of believers from the Earth, others say its advocates are confusing and misreading Scripture.
While numerous Scripture references point to an event or moment in which Jesus returns and Christians ascend to heaven, there's a great deal of debate over the finer details, Dr. Ron Rhodes, end-times expert and best-selling author, once told TheBlaze.
"You've got a lot of Christians who have different opinions on a lot of this ... and so I think it's a good thing to come to firm conclusions," Rhodes said. "But I don't think we need to have on boxing gloves."
While he acknowledges that there are pre-, post- and mid-tribulation theories, Rhodes believes that the Bible supports the pre-tribulation paradigm—and that many of the events going on in the world are intertwined with biblical eschatology.
Chaos in the Middle East—which is certainly not unique to contemporary times—is a factor that leads Rhodes to conclude that the end times could be approaching. Others, of course, fervently disagree.
The Spirit of Antichrist
The last question the survey asked involved the theological proposal of an Antichrist—a figure some believe will rise to power and wreak havoc on the Earth. While some pastors say they see biblical evidence for this, others push back, yielding a variety of alternative views on the matter.
Nearly half of the Protestant pastors surveyed (49 percent) said they believe the Antichrist will be "a figure who will arise sometime in the future" when asked to choose from a series of descriptions about him. The second-largest proportion of preachers (14 percent) said they believe the Antichrist is "just a personification of evil," with an additional 12 percent saying "there is no individual Antichrist." Almost equal proportions of pastors said that the Antichrist is "a figure who already arose sometime in the past" (6 percent) or is "an institution" (7 percent). An additional 7 percent of pastors surveyed said that they are not sure where they stand on the matter.
As noted in The Armageddon Code, there are a number of key Scripture passages in which some Christians see references to an Antichrist figure, including the following:
"And he shall make a firm covenant with many for one week. But in the middle of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the offering to cease. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed destruction is poured out on the desolator" (Dan. 9:27).
"Do not let anyone deceive you in any way. For that Day will not come unless a falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or is worshipped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself as God" (2 Thess. 2:3-4).
As many pastors know, the term "antichrist" only appears a few times in the Bible and is seen solely in the books of 1 John and 2 John, though the context of those references seems to be speaking more to the "spirit of the antichrist," which is described as the character of a person who denies Jesus. For example, 1 John 2:18 reads: "Little children, it is the last hour. As you have heard that the antichrist will come, even now there are many antichrists. By this, we know that it is the last hour."
Pastors seeking to lead their congregations in understanding end-times theology know that the subject can demand significant time and attention. Disparate views on these doctrines, as seen in the LifeWay research, reveal the need for continued study, all the while acknowledging the sovereignty of God in the last days.
Billy Hallowell is the faith editor and an assistant editor at TheBlaze. He has contributed to The Washington Post, Human Events, The Daily Caller and The Huffington Post, among other news sites. You can follow Hallowell on Twitter (@billyhallowell).
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Billy Hallowell's new book, The Armageddon Code (FrontLine/Charisma House), is available at christianbook.com, amazon.com or wherever Christian books are sold. Learn more at endtimesanswers.com.
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