Now that Harold Camping has been proven false again with the coming and going of May 21 and no signs of any judgment or rapture, the world is left to wonder what Christians really do believe about the end times.
Ligonier Ministries, a prominent Reformed education organization, released a series of teachings on the subject of the last days to provide some clarity amid apparent confusion.
"There's all kinds of debate about what actually is going to take place in the rapture and again when the rapture will take place," said prominent theologian Dr. R.C. Sproul, founder of Ligonier.
What Sproul lays out in his lectures are the various positions Christians hold with regard to the end times.
What the public may be most familiar with, following Camping's Judgment Day proclamation, is what is called dispensational premillennialism. Adherents of this theological view expect the rapture to take place, where the church will be caught up to meet Jesus in the air, right before a period of great tribulation. Afterward, Jesus will return again with the saints for his final manifestation and reign for a thousand years.
"This scheme has two returns of Jesus at the end of the times: one ... just for his saints and then his final return after the tribulation," Sproul summed up.
Disagreeing with this view, Sproul pointed to the imagery that the Apostle Paul used in his account of the rapture in the New Testament book of 1 Thessalonians.
"The whole point of the imagery here echoes and reflects something that was commonplace in the contemporary world in which Paul wrote – namely, the pattern and practice of the triumphal return to Rome of the Roman armies," the Reformed theologian stated.
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After winning a battle, Roman armies would camp outside the city and send a messenger to announce their arrival. The city would then be prepared with decorations and an arch of triumph. At a prearranged time, a signal would be made whereby trumpets would be blown. That is when the armies would march in triumph into the city.
"But before they began their march at the signal of the trumpet, everyone who was an actual citizen of Rome was invited to come outside the city to join the parade to march back in through the arch of triumph with the victorious army," Sproul said.
With that, the Pittsburgh native concluded, "What I hear Paul saying is that when Jesus comes, he's going to come back to this earth with his whole church; the church will be caught up to meet him as he descends and he will continue to descend along with his whole entourage of believers."
More specifically, citing Paul's teaching, Sproul stated that those who died will rise first and be taken up into the air and those who are alive at the second coming of Christ will also be taken up to meet the Lord as he descends.
As to when this all occurs, that is unknown.
Sproul outlined other eschatological positions that Christians hold:
This view holds that the rapture, along with the resurrection of saints and judgment, will take place after the great tribulation all within the twinkling of an eye, Sproul explained.
These adherents believe the New Testament era church is the initial phase of Christ's kingdom and that the church will win occasional victories in history but ultimately fail in her mission, Sproul stated. The church will become corrupted to the point of apostasy and then pass through an unprecedented time of tribulation. That will then be followed by Christ's return to rapture his church, the battle of Armageddon, the earthly 1000-year reign of Christ, another massive rebellion by Satan after being loosed, God intervening and rescuing Christ and the saints, and then the final resurrection and final judgment.
Postmillennialists are the most optimistic with respect to the church's influence on society.
They believe that as the power of the Gospel and church will become greater rather than smaller. And as the church fulfills the Great Commission there will be great blessing in the world. After 1,000 years of this, Jesus will return with the final judgment.
Amillennialists do not believe in a literal thousand year period. They hold to the view that the Kingdom of God began with the first appearance of Christ.
"The amillennial position is based on the conviction that the Kingdom of God is not something that is completely out there, somewhere in the future but that it has already begun. It still awaits final consummation," Sproul explained.
They believe the Lord Jesus Christ reigns right now and that we are in the Kingdom age but the Kingdom has not yet been consummated, he elaborated.
Towards the end of time, according to amillennialism, the church will become corrupt and end in a radical state of apostasy. This will result in the great tribulation. At the end of this period, Christ will return and triumph over evil and finish the work of redemption which includes the renovation of all creation with the new heaven and the new earth.
Full preterists believe that all of the specific events prophesied in the New Testament regarding the end times have already taken place in the first century. That would include the return of Jesus, the great resurrection and the rapture.
Denouncing this position, Sproul contended, "In order to take the position that both the resurrection and the rapture took place in the first century, one has to spiritualize the texts."
"It's very difficult to spiritualize the bodily resurrection of the saints without at the same time actually denying the bodily resurrection of the saints," he argued.
Sproul affirmed the belief, as found in the Apostle's Creed, that in the resurrection, "we will have glorified bodies."
"We will not be disembodied spirits wandering through eternity in that state because there will come a time when our souls will be reunited with our bodies. Our bodies will be raised and the new bodies that we will enjoy will be incorruptible and immortal, so to speak. That's always been a major hope of the Christian community, that we look forward to that day where we will participate in the resurrection of the body."
What full preterists argue is that a spiritual, silent and invisible resurrection and rapture already took place.
And to Sproul, that "involves a serious bending of the words of this text (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) to talk about a secret which, according to the language of the apostle, will be the worst kept secret in history and hardly a silent event as all heaven will break loose."