Tribulation and Millennium: Professors Debate on Eschatology

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December 11, 2002|8:21 am

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Tribulations + Rapture + The Second Coming = The End

With the new beginning of another millennium, growing ubiquitous popularity of books and movies such as “Left Behind” is an evidence of the timeless prevalence of human interests in the apocalypse of its own existence.

For once, the audience at the Southern Theological Seminary begs to differ from the shallow fascination of cinematic sensationalism and carefully listens to three professors’ dispositions on eschatological doctrine (end-time theology).

More than 200 students attended the function in November, which was part of Boyce College's Berea Forum -- a periodical gathering in which faculty members tackle tough issues. Boyce College is Southern Seminary's undergraduate school.

No speaker was restrained by political reactionaries, but fervently voiced his beliefs and ideas in a scholarly viewpoint: the motive was to educate; not to dissuade or to persuade.

Daniel Akin presented a progressive dispensational (pre-tribulation, pre-millennial) position. Chad Brand defended a post-tribulation, pre-millennial position, and Hal Ostrander presented an amillennial position.

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"It's a good thing to make a decision," said New Testament professor Thomas Schreiner, who moderated the event. "Yet, at the same time, it's a good thing to love one another where we disagree and have some differences on this matter."

Akin pointed out that the panel agreed on the essentials of the Christian faith laid forth in the Southern Baptist Convention's 2000 Baptist Faith and Message as well as in the seminary's statement of belief, the Abstract of Principles. Each seminary professor must agree to teach within the framework of both documents -- each of which upholds a future judgment of the world and a physical, bodily return of Christ.

"I knew that their particular eschatological position was not identical to mine, and yet I also knew that we were of one mind on those things that are absolutely essential and non-negotiable," Akin said.

The positions of the three professors centered on various viewpoints of two terms -- the tribulation and the millennium.

According to evangelical doctrine, the tribulation is a period of time (often seven years) in which the world will undergo massive suffering and chaos. Some Christians believe that an antichrist will rise up during these days. A person holding to a pre-tribulation position -- such as Akin -- believes that Christians will be taken up (or "raptured") by Christ just before the tribulation (thus, the person is pre-tribulational). A post-tribulationist (Brand and Ostrander) believes that Christians will live through the tribulation before they are taken up by Christ.

The same logic also applies to the millennium -- a term which describes a thousand-year reign of Christ and is derived mainly from Revelation 20:1-8. In pre-millennialism (Akin's and Brand's position), Christ returns to earth prior to his thousand-year reign, then reigns alongside his saints in a peaceful kingdom. At the end of the thousand years he crushes Satan forever.

In amillennialism (Ostrander's position), the millennium does not refer to a literal thousand years. Instead, the millennium began with Christ's first appearance on earth and will end at his second coming. In this position, Christ is currently reigning both in heaven and on the earth (within the hearts of believers).

A third position, postmillennialism, asserts that Christ's second coming will take place following a time of great spiritual and moral influence by Christians. Conversions will dramatically increase and evil will diminish. None of the three men held this position.

Akin began by explaining the differences between his position -- progressive dispensationalism -- and one known as classic dispensationalism. In the later viewpoint, God works in unique ways (or dispensations) throughout human history and has different plans for Israel and the church. Akin's viewpoint is a departure from the classical system.

"Unlike classic dispensationalists, progressives believe there is a genuine joining of Israel and the church as the one people of God who fully share together in the covenant promises," he said, adding that both Old Testament and New Testament believers make up the church.

Akin asserted that his position of pre-millennialism is derived from "the natural reading and chronology of Revelation 19 and 20." He also said that, according to Matthew 19:28, "Jesus was a pre-millennialist." He added that the majority of the early church fathers -- including Polycarp, Tertullian and Justin Martyr -- were pre-millennialists.

"I do believe that the second coming of Christ will take place before a literal, visible, historical millennial kingdom that will be realized on this earth with Jesus Christ ruling from Jerusalem as the king and lord of the entire universe," Akin said.

Brand agreed, saying that the thousand years could be either a literal or figurative number.

"The idea is that there will be a period in which the will of God is actually done on the earth," he said. "This is one of the fundamental ideas of pre-millennialism."

Ostrander, professor of Christian theology, contended that it is unclear to what Revelation 20 is referring. He said passages such as Daniel 12:2, John 5:28-29 and Acts 24:15 are more clear in their teaching.

"My hermeneutical conscience won't allow me to use Revelation 20 to find support for an earthly millennial reign," Ostrander said. "I find it odd that Jesus never mentions this, that he's to preside over such a time [and] such a kingdom. Paul doesn't mention it directly, but he does mention it indirectly with respect to the lack of a millennial reign.

"The millennial reign of Christ is therefore now -- both in heaven and on earth. Jesus himself declared before Pontius Pilate, 'My kingdom is not of this world.' So he reigns presently in the hearts of his new covenant people here on earth," Ostrander said. "... He also reigns in heaven now over a host of the redeemed and over the angels. That is not of this world."

Akin pointed to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 as verses supporting a pre-tribulation rapture. He added that 1 Thessalonians 5:9 says that God has not destined Christians to wrath. Akin went on to contend that Paul, in Titus 2:13, tells believers to be on the outlook for "the appearing of the glory" of Christ.

"The New Testament clearly emphasizes the imminent return of Christ," he said. "... If the tribulation must take place before that can happen, then Paul should not have admonished us to look for the glorious appearing of Christ. He should have admonished us to look for signs that the end of the age has dawned upon us."

Brand, a post-tribulationist, said he jokingly tells pre-tribulationists, "I think I'm right but I hope you're right." Brand asserted that the second coming and the rapture are not separate events.

He disagreed with Akin's interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 5:9 and said that God will protect Christians during the tribulation -- much like he protected the Israelites during the Egyptian plagues.

"God is able to protect his own people from the recipients of his wrath," said Brand, professor of Christian theology. "I believe that the people of God will be the recipients of the wrath of [the] antichrist but not the recipients of the wrath of God."

Brand also said Scripture presents no clear passage outlining a pre-tribulation position.

"I find a lack of any clear specific teaching in the New Testament that there is a rapture of the church which occurs at the beginning of the tribulation which takes the church out from the tribulation period," he said.

Ostrander, also a post-tribulationist, agreed. He said Matthew 24:29-31 "seems to indicate that such an event occurs immediately after the tribulation."

Brand pointed out that although the panel disagreed about the specifics of eschatology, they agreed on the basics -- including Jesus' literal, bodily return to earth.

"What do we do now?" Brand asked. "... We go out and win people to Jesus. We get people ready for the second coming. We do everything we can to make sure that our churches talk about this. You need to preach about the second coming. You need to preach about heaven. You need to preach about hell."

By Albert H. Lee
chtoday_editor@chtoday.com

 

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