Eschatology: Wrongly Dividing the Church of God
There is one in every church – the guy who, whenever a discussion of eschatology comes up, feels he has to share the old millennialism joke. He will invariably say that he is not a premillennialist, nor a postmillennialist, nor even an amillennialist No, he is a panmillennialist. When you ask what he means, he snorts, "It will all pan out in the end!"
Underneath the humor is the message that all this debating over when and how the millennium is fulfilled is not worth the effort. Eschatology, however, is a very divisive subject in some churches, and it is important to determine if such divisions are biblical. Should Christians be divided over eschatology?
The Error of Dispensationalism
2 John 10 and 11 clearly set forth the principle of separation. God tells us that we are not to receive false teachers into our houses or associate with them. Christians are to be very careful about doctrinal purity in the midst of their congregations. The rich heritage church, with her founding through a courageous act of separation from apostasy, points to the importance of this biblical teaching. If someone is teaching falsehood in our churches, that person is to be corrected, and, if nonrepentant, is to be removed from our midst.
There are areas of eschatology where the difference in belief does involve false teaching. The clearest example of this is Scofieldism (a.k.a. dispensationalism). This theological system teaches that God divides history into different dispensations, and makes provisions for different ways of salvation in each dispensation. The dispensation of the Law, for example, was inadequate, and therefore God sent Jesus to make salvation by grace possible. According to the usual form of this system, God will take the church out of the world at the "Rapture," and then judge the world for seven years. After these seven years of tribulation, Christ will return to earth and reign for a thousand years, after which there will be a final great battle and Satan will be cast into the Lake of Fire.
The error of this system is that it teaches that God changes his method of dealing with people. It teaches that God was unable to provide salvation in the prior dispensations and finally had to resort to Christ's sacrifice. This is disputed by the Reformed understanding of the Bible, which teaches that there is but one Covenant of Redemption, which was initiated with Adam. God promised in Genesis 3:15 that the Seed of the woman would bruise the serpent fatally. James 1:17 tells us that with God there is no shifting shadow. He does not change his mind; he does not change his plans. Jesus' sacrifice was decreed from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). The elect of all time are saved by Christ. People do not get saved in different ways at different times. A system that undermines God's sovereignty and character so fundamentally must be rejected.
Room for Disagreement
Yet there are other areas within eschatology where Christians disagree, and there it is not so easy to label certain views as heretical. There are areas which seem ambiguous enough to prevent dogmatism. The most obvious example of this is the three views of the millennium. In Revelation 20:1-10, the Bible speaks of a one-thousand-year reign of Christ while Satan is bound, after which he is released to wage war, and then finally is cast into the Lake of Fire. Yet due to the highly symbolic nature of the book of Revelation, it is not exactly clear when this will happen.
There are those who do not accept dispensationalism, but who do hold to what is called historic premillennialism. Those who hold this position believe that Christ will return and reign on earth for one thousand years before the consummation of heaven. There are others who believe that the present time, with the advance of the gospel and the spread of Christian influence throughout the world, is what is being represented in Revelation 20. The number one-thousand is symbolic for the completeness of this present time, and there is no literal kingdom lasting exactly that long. Those who hold this view are called amillennialists. Finally, others believe that due to the influence of the gospel, Christ's reign will become ever more complete, and the world will enter into a golden age of peace, prosperity, and righteousness. This time will be consummated by the return of Christ. Since the millennium precedes Christ's return, those who believe this are called postmillennialists.
It is important for Christians to realize that the differences between these three eschatological views are based on details of exegesis, not on fundamental teaching. All three views teach the physical return of Christ to judge the living and the dead. All three teach the power of the Spirit and the Word to change people. All three teach that ultimately Satan will be cast into the Lake of Fire. All three teach that God is sovereign and in absolute control of history. The differences have to do with when, where, and how this will happen. These are details which do no strike at our Westminster Standards.
The Bible shows us, by example, that we cannot have absolute confidence in our answers to the when, where, and how questions of the future. One look at the cryptic prophesies regarding the details of Jesus' incarnation, ministry, and death will show that prior to his first coming, no one could have worked out the details. Surely an Old Testament believer could have read Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53 and known that the Messiah would suffer and die for the sins of his people. Yet prior to the conquest of Palestine by the Romans, could anyone have envisioned a cross as the mode of execution?
A perfect example of how we cannot know for sure the details of what God plans to do in history can be seen in the prophesy regarding the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas. Zechariah 11:12-13 (NASB) says,And I said to them, if it is good in your sight, give me my wages; but if not, never mind!' So they weighed out thirty shekels of silver as my wages. Then the LORD said to me, throw it to the potter, that magnificent price at which I was valued by them.' So I took the thirty shekels of silver and threw them to the potter in the house of the LORD.
Anyone reading Zechariah, without knowledge of what happened to Jesus through Judas, could not have guessed precisely what was being prophesied. The context is highly symbolic, and is dealing with the breaking of staffs. While one might have realized that the price of the Messiah would be that of a slave, and that this price would be tossed to a potter in the temple, no one could have figured out the exact historic course of events. Judas did not toss the money directly to the potter! He threw it into the temple, and then the priests used it to buy the burial field from the potter. It definitely got into the potter's hands, and, as Matthew 27:3-10 states, that fulfilled this prophesy and those in Jeremiah, but the historic sequence would have defied anyone's prediction prior to the fulfillment. Hence, when we dispute and argue about the details of eschatology, we show ourselves to be foolish. Just as no one could have predicted the details of Judas' act, so we cannot predict what is yet to come.
The Westminster Confession shows us the wisdom of our theological forefathers in this whole area. In chapters 32 and 33 on the resurrection and the Last Judgment, there is no reference to any kind of timetable or eschatological system. While the Larger Catechism, Q. 88, does seem to preclude premillennialism, it should be noted that the Westminster divines did not find it necessary to stipulate details in this area. They were cautious not to wrongly divide the church over it. We should also pursue peace with our brethren in this matter. Unless a teaching undermines a doctrine of Scripture, it is not worth causing separation over it. It will be to our shame for Christ to return and find us divided and fighting about the timing and circumstances of his return.