Simply speaking, there are three main end time events that the Bible alludes to in various places.
- The Tribulation--a time of great trouble, when wars and natural disasters will be rampant on earth. (See Matthew 24, Revelation 6:12-17, Revelation 8:5-9:21, Revelation 16, etc.)
- The Rapture--when Jesus gathers His followers ("the elect" or "brothers") to be with Him. (See Matthew 24:30-31 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18.)
- The Millennium--a time when Christ will rule on earth for a thousand years. (See Revelation 20:4-7.)
I am going to try to do some "nutshell" explanations of the different positions today. I will not thoroughly discuss where each position gets its basis, according to scripture, but each one can be supported by selected Bible verses.
As we consider the different views, I think it is important to maintain a humble heart and remember that Jesus said,
"But about that day or hour no one knows,
not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son,
but only the Father."
(Matthew 24:36 NIV)
We already discussed Dispensational Premillennialism, which is somewhat complicated, compared to some of the other views, probably because of the way it works hard to make sense of Biblical prophecies of the End Times from a very literal point of view.
Historic Premillennialism is similar to Dispensational Premillennialism, in that it agrees with the general order of events, the important point being that those who hold to this position believe that there will be a Tribulation, followed by the Millennium, followed by the coming of the New Heaven and the New Earth. As I understand it (I could be wrong about this), proponents of Historic Premillennialism are undecided as to when the rapture occurs. Some believe that the rapture comes before the tribulation, some believe that it happens in the middle of the tribulation, and some think it happens at the end. Some straight-out admit that they do not know when it will happen.
Regardless of the timing, Historic Premillennialists differ from Dispensational Premillennialists in this: they believe that the rapture is a grand and unmistakeable event that nobody will miss. They do not hold to the idea that people will simply disappear from the earth, leaving those who are "left behind" mystified as to where their Christian cohorts have gone. They believe that the rapture will happen in great glory and the almighty power of God, for all the world to see:
"Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other." (Matthew 24:30-31 NIV)
Postmillennialism is the view that I understand the least, although parts of it make a certain amount of sense to me. Whereas in the premillennial views, the Tribulation happens before the Millennium, in the Postmillennial view, the tribulation comes at the end of Millennium, culminating in the last battle (of Gog and Magog), the great judgment, and finally the New Heavens and the New Earth.
In the Postmillennial view, the Millennium is a time when the church marches forward in victory, proclaiming the truth of the gospel to all nations. The nations are happy to receive the gospel and receptive to it. At the end of this victorious age, the tribulation, rapture and final judgment will usher in the New Heavens and the New Earth. I believe that part of this view stems from their reading of Matthew 24:14, "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come." (NIV)
Historic and Dispensational Premillennnialism both hold to the idea that the Rapture and, especially, the Tribulation happen before the Millenium, hence the use of the prefix pre- in Premillennial. Dispensational Premillennialists believe that it is a literal 1000 year reign of Christ on earth, with His believers, while Historic Premillennialists are undecided as to whether it is a literal or symbolic time frame.
Postmillennialism espouses the idea that the tribulation and rapture happen after the Millennium, hence the use of the prefix post- in Postmillennial. People who hold to this view are divided on whether they believe that it is a literal or figurative 1000 years.
One belief, or assumption, that all these views share in common is that the Millennium is a period of time that we look forward to in the future.
Amillennialism is a much maligned view, poorly named and poorly understood by many, often not spoken of by the people who believe in it. This may be because many conservative evangelicals have often adopted a dogmatic and condemning attitude toward those who do not share their Dispensational Premillennial viewpoint, sometimes accusing them of heresy.
If you consider the term, amillenial, the prefix, a-, generally means "not," or "no." Amoral means without morals. Atypical means not typical. Atheist means someone who maintains that there is no God. So, one would assume that Amillennial means that the people who hold this view think that there will be no Millennium. However, this is not the case.
Amillennialism is similar to Postmillennialism in that both views figure the tribulation and rapture are coming after, not before, the Millennium.
The big difference between Amillennialism and Postmillennialism is that unlike Postmillennialists, Amillennialists do not think the Millennium is something that will come to pass in the future. They believe that it is the church age that we are living in right now, that the good news of the gospel is currently going out in the power of the Holy Spirit. They believe that the Millennium began when Jesus triumphed over Satan, over sin and over death at Calvary, and rose again. They believe that the Millennium will continue until Jesus comes again in the clouds to gather His believers and to judge the living and the dead.
Amillennialism uses a symbolic approach to interpret the book of Revelation. Rather than understanding the prophecy as a sequence of chronologically unfolding events, they see it as a telling and retelling of one story of victory, judgment and rewards. Jesus is coming back in victory, and when He does, the wicked will be punished and His elect will be rewarded and ushered into eternal bliss in the New Heavens and the New Earth.
I would like to discuss Amillennialism further, but for today, I have lingered here too long.
I will just close with some scripture, scripture that focuses on what Jesus has accomplished at the cross and lends credibility to the idea that we are already reigning in victory with our Lord:
When you were dead in your sins
and in the uncircumcision of your flesh,
God made you alive with Christ.
He forgave us all our sins,
having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness,
which stood against us and condemned us;
he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.
And having disarmed the powers and authorities,
he made a public spectacle of them,
triumphing over them by the cross.
(Colossians 2:13-15, NIV)
But thanks be to God!
He gives us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Corinthians 15:57, NIV)