Jesus is Coming Back When?

If you expect Jesus to return within the next forty years, does that make you an optimist or a pessimist?

The Pew Research Center released a survey in 2010 about what events Americans believe will unfold in the next forty years. One interesting question asked about the return of Jesus Christ:

As expected, predictions about whether Jesus Christ will return to earth in the next 40 years divide along religious lines. Fully 58% of white evangelical Christians say Jesus Christ will definitely or probably return to earth in this period, by far the highest percentage in any religious group. Only about a third of Catholics (32%), and even fewer white mainline Protestants (27%) and the religiously unaffiliated (20%) predict Jesus Christ’s return to earth.

In addition, those with no college experience (59%) are much more likely than those with some college experience (35%) and college graduates (19%) to expect Jesus Christ’s return. By region, those in the South (52%) are the most likely to predict a Second Coming by 2050.

But what does it mean? How does this fit into the overall views of Christians in America?

Not surprisingly, there are few areas of Christian theology more contentious or confusing than eschatology, the study of the end times. Should the Book of Revelation be interpreted literally or metphorically? Will Christ establish his Kingdom on earth or has his millenial reign already begun? Within evangelicalism there are four general points of agreement and four general perspectives on eschatology.

The four points of agreement are:

1. Jesus Christ will physically return to earth one day.

2. There will be a bodily resurrection of all people who have ever lived.

3. Satan will be defeated and constrained forever.

4. There will be a final judgment in which believers join Christ for eternity while nonbelievers are separated from God’s presence.*

How this occurs, though, is an issue of great debate. One of the central issues involves the millennium, the thousand-year period during which Christ is said to rule the world. (Revelation 20:1-10). The four most popular views in evangelicalism are dispensational premillenialism, historical premillenialism, amillenialism, and postmillennialism. (Note: Hundreds (thousands?) of books have been written on each of these views. They are complex and any attempt to provide a basic explanation for them will be unsatisfactory, particularly to those who have strong opinions on the subject. What follows is meant to be merely the beginning of a general examination of views held by evangelicals for those who are confused about the differences.)

Dispensational premillenialism is the view that Jesus will return to remove the church from the world in an event known as the rapture. Theories differ on whether the rapture will occur before, in the middle of, or after a seven year period called the tribulation (pre-trib, mid-trib, post-trib). These events will culminate in a literal thousand year rulership of Christ when peace will reign, the natural world will no longer be cursed, and evil will be suppressed. A final rebellion, however, will break out which will end in God crushing evil forever, judging the resurrected, and establishing heaven and hell.

The following beliefs are features of dispensational premillenialism:

  • Christ offered to the Jews the Davidic kingdom in the first century. They rejected it, and it was postponed until the future.
  • The current church age is a “parenthesis” unknown to the Old Testament prophets.
  • God has separate programs for the church and Israel.
  • The church will ultimately lose influence in the world and become corrupted or apostate toward the end of the church age.
  • Christ will return secretly to rapture his saints before the great tribulation.
  • After the tribulation Christ will return to earth to administer a Jewish political kingdom based in Jerusalem for one thousand years. Satan will be bound, and the temple will be rebuilt and the sacrificial system reinstituted.
  • Near the end of the millennium. Satan will be released and Christ will be attacked at Jerusalem.
  • Christ will call down judgment from heaven and destroy his enemies. The (second) resurrection and the judgment of the wicked will occur, initiating the eternal order.**

Well-known proponents of this view include: Dallas Theological Seminary, Tim LaHaye (author of the Left Behind series), and Cyrus I. Scofield (editor of the Scofield Reference Bible).

Historical premillenialism is the belief that Christ will return “before the millennium” in order to resurrect the saints (the “first resurrection”), establish his rule from Jerusalem over the rebellious nations (the battle of Armageddon), and usher in a thousand year period of material peace and prosperity; at the end of this period the nations (still in unresurrected, natural bodies) will rebel and make war against Christ and the resurrected saints (the battle of Gog and Magog), who will be saved by fire from heaven, followed by the second resurrection—now of unbelievers—and the final judgment

The following are features of historic premillennialism:

  • The New Testament era Church is the initial phase in Christ’s kingdom, as prophesied by the Old Testament prophets.
  • The New Testament Church may win occasional victories in history, but ultimately she will fail in her mission, lose influence, and become corrupted as worldwide evil increases toward the end of the Church Age.
  • The Church will pass through a future, worldwide, unprecedented time of travail. This era is known as the Great Tribulation, which will punctuate the end of contemporary history.
  • Christ will return at the end of the Tribulation to rapture the Church, resurrect deceased saints and conduct the judgment of the righteous in the “twinkling of an eye.”
  • Christ will then descend to the earth with His glorified saints, fight the battle of Armageddon, bind Satan, and establish a worldwide, political kingdom, which will be personally administered by Him for 1,000 years from Jerusalem.
  • At the end of the millennial reign, Satan will be loosed and a massive rebellion against the kingdom and a fierce assault against Christ and His saints will occur.
  • God will intervene with fiery judgment to rescue Christ and the saints. The resurrection and the judgment of the wicked will occur and the eternal order will begin. (pgs 199-200)

Well-known proponents include the late theologian George Eldon Ladd, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and the early church fathers (e.g., Ireneaus, Polycarp, Justin Martyr).

Amillenialism is the belief that the millennial kingdom is indeterminate in length and fulfilled by Christ currently ruling in heaven. At the end of this reign Christ will come back to gather the church and judge the nations.

The following are features of amillennialism:

  • The church age is the kingdom era prophesied in the Old Testament, as the New Testament church takes the role once assigned to Israel.
  • Satan was bound during Jesus’ earthly ministry, restraining him while the Gospel is being preached in the world.
  • Insofar as Christ presently rules in the hearts of believers, they will have some influence on culture while living out their faith.
  • Toward the end evil’s growth will accelerate, culminating in the great tribulation and a personal antichrist.^
  • Christ will return to end history, resurrect and judge all men, and establish the eternal order.
  • The eternal destiny of the redeemed may be either in heaven or in a totally renovated new earth.

Some amillennialists are preterists, believing that many of the prophecies (including the one about the antichrist) have already been fulfilled (usually around a.d. 70).

Well-known proponents of this view include Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin.

Postmillenialism is the belief that Christ’s second coming will follow the millennium, which will itself be ushered in by the spiritual and moral influence of Christian preaching and teaching in the world.

The following are features of postmillennialism:

  • The Messianic kingdom was founded on earth during the earthly ministry of Christ, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and making the New Testament church the transformed Israel.
  • The kingdom is essentially redemptive and spiritual rather than political and physical.
  • The kingdom will transform society and culture during history.
  • The kingdom of Christ will gradually expand in time and on earth through Christ’s royal power as King reigning in heaven not on earth.
  • The Great Commission will succeed bringing about the virtual Christianization of the nations.

At this point there are two types of postmillennialists. Pietistic postmillennialists deny that the postmillennial advance of the kingdom involves the total transformation of culture through the application of biblical law. Theonomic postmillennialists (e.g., Christian Reconstructionists) affirm this.

An extended period of great spiritual prosperity may endure for millennia, after which history will come to an end by the personal, visible, bodily return of Christ accompanied by a literal resurrection and a general judgment, which ushers in the final and eternal form of the kingdom.

Postmillennialism was popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and is still popular with many mainline denominations. Relatively few evangelicals, however, subscribe to this view of eschatology.

One last group that could be included is “panmillenialists”—folks who simply believe “whatever happens, it will all pan out in the end.”

* Summary found in Boyd and Eddy, Across the Spectrum

**All points listed as features are from R.C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus

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  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Clearly evidence for the doctrine of perspicuity. (tongue-in-cheek).

    • John Carpenter

      What is clearly taught is that (1) Jesus will return and (2) there will be a judgment in which (3) some will be saved and some damned. It’s when we press beyond what is clearly there that things begin to seem unclear. I believe in the doctrine of perspicuity. But scripture is only perspicuous about what it intends to be perspicuous about. If it appears unclear on other things, it’s not the fault of scripture but ours.

  • Shayne McAllister

    I love “An Evening of Eschatology” with John Piper, Doug Wilson, Sam Storms and Jim Hamilton. I watch it every few months, and have been impressed by how different men can hold strong to the Bible, but come out with different interpretations. It took me several watches with my Bible open to really get the sense of their arguments, because I hadn’t been exposed to serious Post-Mil or A-mil interpretations.

  • William C. Roach

    I think this was a good post, but I’m disappointed by the references they used to represent Dispensationalism (hence, revealing my position). While all of those are dispensationalists, they do not represent the best expressions of the view. At least include Ryrie,Pentecost, Feinberg, Walvoord, Geisler, etc. Tim Lahaye and Scofield, while dispensationalists, do not represent the best articulations of the view.

    • John Carpenter

      By citing “Dallas Theological Seminary” he included Ryrie, Pentecost, Walvoord, and even Geisler (who taught at DTS for a while). So the citation of DTS was a short-hand way of including all those and more.

    • Joe Carter

      ***Tim Lahaye and Scofield, while dispensationalists, do not represent the best articulations of the view.***

      While i agree that they are not the best articulations of the view, I included them because they are probably the two men who have done the most to popularize it. Between the Scofield Bible and the Left Behind novels, they’ve introduced millions of people to the viewpoint (so much so that many people assume it is *the* Christian view on eschatology).

      • Elaine

        LaHaye is probably the one who helped to sensationalize the premillennial view. Not a good example of serious scholar work.

        It is true, however, that many people assume LaHaye represents the total and definite word on premillennianism.

        • John Carpenter

          There is no example of advocating the pre-tribulation rapture that is “serious scholarly work”. The doctrine was unknown until John Nelson Darby taught it in the 19th century and he probably picked it up from a “prophetess” of the “Catholic Apostolic Church” (an early Pentecostal-like movement in Britain). The reason no one taught it for over 19 centuries: because it’s not in the Bible

          • Tim

            *Sigh* I get tired of these responses sometimes. Just quoting what you’ve always heard. Here is an article,

            I know that wikipedia is not the most respected source ever and this article is certainly one-sided, but there are still facts in there and it is the only source I could think of off hand that was short and free. Look up the DTS theologians already mentioned for more detailed responses. And that’s another thing, DTS is a serious scholarly source.

            • John Carpenter

              Hi Tim, First, that’s the worst wikipedia article I’ve ever seen. As a church historian, there is one easy way to discern real history from false: the sources listed for real history are primary sources as far as possible; the article you linked relies entirely on a few secondary sources, and those are not from good scholars either.

              Second, the assertion stands: the pre-tribulation rapture is a novel idea, popularized by Darby who may have picked it up from Margaret McDonald a “prophetess”. It’s not found in scripture. Therefore, DTS’s allegiance to it undermines it’s claim to be a serious scholarly source.

          • Melody

            Such an incredibly ungodly response with no basis in fact.

  • Christopher Kerr

    Awesome post. It’s frustrating when someone like Harold Camping comes along, or a book series like Left Behind, and everyone automatically attributes that specific theology to all Christians. We’re not all the same. Nearly all of us are unified behind a risen and glorified Christ, but sadly the similarities stop in that vicinity.

  • B.C. Askins

    Here’s a link defending the evangelical eschatological “minority report”:

  • John Carpenter

    Thanks for this. While this is helpful, it can suggest that there are about four equally dogmatic “camps” of eschatology. It seems before the advent of dispensationalism that evangelicals freely allowed a wide variation in eschatological views — so much so that it’s not even clear that they defined themselves as belonging to specific “camps”. But dispensationalism brought in a dogmatism and divisiveness apparently unknown on the subject before. Dispensationalism not only introduced a totally new theory — “pretribulation rapture” — but so insisted that it was “clear” in scripture that they excluded those who believed otherwise.

  • steve

    You forgot one…panmillenialism. We believe Jesus comes back, it will all pan out.

    • B.C. Askins

      Tsk, tsk, you should read before commenting. :)

      “One last group that could be included is ‘panmillenialists’—folks who simply believe ‘whatever happens, it will all pan out in the end.'” (last line in the post)

      • Melody

        Hey there are people that miss things at the beginning and end of articles. We can’t help it. :-P

        • B.C. Askins

          The browser must have created a blind spot, right? :)

          • Melody

            No personally I think it may be a reading disability or have something to do with my ADHD but I’m used to be made fun of either way.

      • John T. “Jack” Jeffery

        Recently John G. Reisinger “clarified” his millennial position with two additional tags to his previous Panmillennialist and Promillennialist: 1) millennial agnostic, and 2) existential millennialist.

        “Let me clearly state my millennial position at the very beginning of this article. I am not a premillennialist, an amillennialist, or a postmillennialist. I am a millennial agnostic. I honestly do not know what to believe about a millennium. In one sense, I am an existential millennialist, since I am unsure if an objective viewpoint exists, and even if it does, I am by no means certain that I can access it. I have no hope of finding the final answer.”

        Source: John G. Reisinger, “New Covenant Theology and Prophecy – Part 1″, Sound of Grace, Issue 182 (NOV 2011), pg. 1.

      • Matthew Raap

        I second that “tsk tsk”…. ;)

    • John T. “Jack” Jeffery

      That wasn’t the one Joe left out. It was “promillennialism”: “I’m for whatever happens!” I must give credit to my friend John G. Reisinger for this. :-)

  • D.B.

    Do you (or others) see a difference between a basic Amil view and a “Covenant Amil” view? I’ve heard some people make a distinction and others use them synonymously. Thoughts?

    • Joe Carter

      That’s a good question. Unfortunately, I’m not well-versed enough in the covenant amil view to give a decent answer. Anyone know how they differ?

      • B.C. Askins

        It’s always been my understanding that “covenant amill” is a term used to refer specifically to covenant theologians who are amillennial, distinguishing them from various non-evangelical views (i.e. neo-orthodox amill, Roman Catholic amill, Eastern Orthodox, etc.).

        It also emphasizes the non-dispensational flavor of their theology. Two cents.

  • JCS

    Joe – Is a rapture position necessary for a dispensationalist? I thought that the sine qua non of dispensationalism a specific stance on Israel/Church, which had ramifications for the millennium, but not necessarily for a rapture. In other words, it seems as though one must be a premilennialist to be a dispensationalist, but one doesn’t really need to take a stance on the rapture (or believe in one at all) to be a dispensationalist. That could very well be wrong, though.


    • Joe Carter

      That could be the case, though I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a premilennialist that *didn’t* believe in the Rapture.

      I’d be interested in hearing from any dispensationalists who might know the answer.

      • B.C. Askins

        The term “rapture” has been used at times within broadly evangelical circles as a synonym for the Parousia (with 1 Th 4:17 cited as the basis for such usage).

        Within particularly dispensational circles, the rapture refers specifically to the event in Christ’s return which involves the removal of the church from the earth to heaven. This rapture is viewed as occurring in relation to the Great Tribulation (i.e. pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, pre-wrath, and post-tribulation). I’ve never read or heard of a dispensational theologian who doesn’t have a view regarding the rapture.

        In fact, not believing in the rapture would probably push one out of dispensational bounds into historic premillennialism (which is practically indistinguishable from post-trib dispensational premillennialism as it is).

        Ha ha, more than two cents…

      • John T. “Jack” Jeffery

        Joe – There have been many historic premillennialists who would not have been included in the ranks of those who believed in a pretribulational rapture. You mentioned George Eldon Ladd above. I can think of a few more including the following:
        Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung, eds., A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).
        Note: This work is the result of the 2007 International Conference on Historical Premillennialism sponsored by the Denver Seminary Institute of Contextualized Biblical Studies at Denver Seminary (Denver, CO). This annual conference has been sponsored since February of 2000. Timothy Weber’s contribution to this volume, “Dispensational and Historical Premillennialism as Popular Millennial Movements”, lists many other proponents of the subject view that are not included in this bibliography on pp. 13-14. See also the International Conference on Historical Premillennialism at Denver Seminary, April 23-25, 2009, [accessed 15 MAY 2010].
        Barry Horner, Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged, in the New American Commentary Studies in Bible and Theology, series ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007).
        Allan Alexander MacRae, The Millennial Kingdom of Christ (Hatfield, PA: Biblical School of Theology, n.d.; and Wilmington, DE: Faith Theological Seminary, n.d.; originally in the Christian Beacon, March 11, and 18, 1937). This work was later extensively revised and republished as A Glorious Future: A Premillennialist Looks At The Millennial Kingdom Of Christ And Examines Postmillennial And Amillennial Objections (Hatfield, PA: Biblical Theological Seminary, 1981).
        J. Barton Payne, Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980).
        George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1952).
        Nathaniel West, The Thousand Years (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1993); from original Studies in Eschatology (1899).

    • Marko

      a true Dispensationalist would be either preTrib or midTrib.
      a Premil who holds to a postTrib position is in fact a Historic Premil view.

      for the Dispensationalists one of their KEY TEACHINGS is “immenency of Christ’s Return” – one can’t hold to this while affirming postTrib.

      hope that helps

      • Elaine

        well, not really Marko. A historic premill doesn’t see a restoration of the nation of Israel in the millennial kingdom, whereas the post-trib premill does (note that “salvation” and “restoration” are two different points).

        The key teaching of dispensationalism has nothing to do with the rapture or its timming. It has to do with the restoration of the nation of Israel and the fulfillment of God’s promises to that nation during the millennial kingdom.

  • Lisa

    This is a helpful resource. Thank you.

  • Marc Axelrod

    I’m not sure that the Trinity faculty across the board would be considered historic premillenial. David Larsen is dispensational, and there used to be others. Some of the adjuncts (Knute Larsen, Timothy Warren, Don Sunukjian) are dispensational. Historically, TEDS has always held to the EFCA statement of faith, (which includes a belief in the imminent, pretribulational return of Jesus, or at least it did the last I checked) while allowing other tribulational views.

    Also, not all pretribbers believe the rapture is secret.

    But this is still a good summary.

  • Marc Axelrod

    I remember hearing someone say that if you’re a Christian who doesn’t offer animal sacrifices, you are a dispensationalist :)

    But Ryrie says the three distinct beliefs of dispensationalists are 1. A clear distinction between Israel and the church 2. A consistently literal interpretation of Scripture and 3. That the main theme of Scripture is the glory of God

  • Peter Green

    Postmillenialism is definitely a minority, but it is a growing minority so the phrase “relatively few,” while accurate, might be misleading. Furthermore, the development of “optimistic amillennials” represents a move toward postmillennialism among the Reformed. I half-joking tell my “optimistic amill” friends that they subscribe to “postmill-lite”.

    • John T. “Jack” Jeffery

      Peter, I had to chuckle when I read your comment! Spoken like a true postmillennialist! It reminded me of some cherished memories during the late 1970s when I had the privilege of meeting regularly with Rev. Jack Debardeleben, a Westminster Seminary grad in the Lancaster, PA area. He was a postmillennialist, and loved to relate how one little old lady had approached him when she learned that he held that conviction, and said, “I didn’t know there were any of those left!” Debardeleben insisted that holding to postmillennialism does wonders for your theology. He would say, “It puts fire in your veins, and iron in your soul!” To this day I recall him saying that whenever I think of postmillennialism. He was definitely not “postmill-lite”! :-)

  • Steve Martin

    “If you expect Jesus to return within the next forty years, does that make you an optimist or a pessimist?”

    I think it makes you an optimist.

    Tomorrow would not be soon enough for me.

    • Denes House

      Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

  • david carlson

    I like CMP write up – – a little different take

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  • Matthew Raap

    Thank you TGC for sharing this concise overview of the four main eschatological views! I would however, just like to point out that when you presented the view of the amillenialist, you mentioned the preterist view of some amillenialists and then immediately after in the next sentence list a few men who have been known to hold the amillenial view. It might give the impression to readers that those men are preterists. Here is the section I am referring to:

    “Some amillennialists are preterists, believing that many of the prophecies (including the one about the antichrist) have already been fulfilled (usually around a.d. 70).

    Well-known proponents of this view include Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin.”

    Thanks again for your labor in the Gospel for the glory of God!