December 24, 2020 · C.E. Carter
In our study of the topic of eschatology, we should make sure we have an adequate framework to understand what exactly we are talking about. There is a set of theological terminology which is used to talk about some very general ideas in eschatology, and understanding this terminology will assist in framing our thoughts. As a disclaimer, it is generally unwise to identify yourself with a position without having a good understanding of how to defend that position. The goal here is not to give you a set of labels so you can say, “I’m a futurist with respect to Matthew 24” or “I’m an optimistic amillennialist”, unless you really understand and defend those positions. Rather, the goal is to give a range of perspectives that we can use to categorize interpretations.
Optimism and pessimism. Eschatologists (eschatologians? eschtologers?) most generally and quickly categorize themselves as either optimistic or pessimistic about the trajectory of history. We must be clear about a couple things here. Firstly, that both positions are referring specifically to the victory of the gospel in time, and not necessarily to the progress awarded to humanity because of technological advancements, the abundance of creature comforts, the increase or decrease of health and wellness, or anything else. Both views see these as roughly consequential of the victory of the gospel; a more gospel-filled society will be more likely to prosper more than a secular one, and the success of a present society may be attributed at least in part to its previous or current dedication to the truth of the gospel. The United States is prosperous because of its previous overt dedication to the gospel, but its current prosperity is merely inertial, and unrelated with its current abject rejection of the gospel. Secondly, these positions are referring to what happens on average throughout the course of history. Optimists concede that there will be occasional losses in various times and places, and likewise pessimists recognize (and fight for) victory in various times and places. Where they differ is when it comes to the ultimate teleology of history; where it is headed in the long run. Optimists foresee overwhelming gospel victory, where pessimists either foresee overwhelming persecution, or that things will always be roughly the same as they have always been (which is pretty bad).
Millennium reign. Eschatologists often refer to their eschatological position with respect to the millennium kingdom mentioned in Revelation 20. There are roughly three positions. The first, called premillennialism, claims that Christ will return to Earth prior to (a.k.a. “pre”) the establishment of this 1000 year reign of peace. The second, called amillennialism, claims that the millennium kingdom refers to a “spiritual” or “metaphorical” reign of Christ (“a”, meaning “no”, as in “no millennium”) from the first century to His second coming. The third, called postmillennialism, claims that Christ will return after (“post”) the establishment of the millennium kingdom. Each position is generally connected with a position of optimism or pessimism. Most premillennialists are pessimistic, in that they believe that Christ will return to a planet largely overcome with persecution. Amillennialists can either be optimists or pessimists. Postmillennialists are by far the most optimistic, and expect that the world will be leavened with gospel victory prior to the return of Christ.
Timeframe interpretations. With respect to interpreting particular passages of scripture, there are roughly four ways of interpreting the timeframe of eschatological prophecy. In short, futurists believe that most eschatological passages will be fulfilled in our future, idealists emphasize the metaphorical fulfillment of eschatological passages, historicists believe that most passages will be fulfilled throughout history, and preterists believe that most passages have been fulfilled in our past but were prophesied to be fulfilled in the writers’ future. The key word here, with each view, is “most”. Orthodox preterists (also called “partial preterists”), for example, do not believe in a past return of Christ; they believe that most eschatoligical events have happened in the past, but that the return of Christ is an event which is going to occur in our future (although there are heretics known as “full preterists” who do believe in a past second coming of Christ, but that’s another topic for another time). And, as with the millennium, there are overlaps with this category as well. Most premillennialists are either futurists or historicists, amillennialists have a range of positions, and most postmillennialists are partial preterists.