Biblical Future Prophecy –Part 1: Introduction to Biblical Future Prophecy

[This is the first in a series of articles on biblical future prophecy. The material has been adapted from the author’s book, What the Bible Says About the Future, second edition, 2011, by Sam A. Smith. To jump to the next article in this series tap or click here.]

One of Jesus’ final teachings before he went to the cross was that the Holy Spirit would soon come to guide the disciples in “all truth” (Jn. 16:13). At least part of that truth relates to future events, for he went on to say, “ . . . and he will tell you what is yet to come.” Of course, this was not a new task for the Holy Spirit; he had been revealing the future to God’s people for thousands of years, but it does underscore the fact that our Lord considered it very important that his followers know what the future holds for them, and for the world. It is an unhappy circumstance that so few Christians are familiar with what the Bible says about the future, particularly when so much of the Bible is occupied with this subject. Perhaps it is the enormity of the task that deters us from this study, or the complexity of finding our way through the maze of seemingly cryptic prophetic language. Whatever the reason, the Christian who is without a solid foundation in Bible prophecy has missed something God clearly wants him, or her, to have. The good news is that by reading this article, you are already taking a major step toward a greater understanding of these critically important truths.

Why Study Biblical Prophecy?

Prophecy isn’t just “window dressing” for the Bible; it tells us of God’s plan for the world, and for ourselves. God’s plan is like the keel of a great ship; everything that is part of the ship is somehow, directly or indirectly, secured to the keel. The keel runs all the way through the vessel, and every beam or support, every deck or bulwark, connects to it in some way. Many Christians see the Bible as a collection of stories and spiritual or moral teachings with no central theme; the reason is they fail to understand that the Bible is just one story, the story of a sovereign God who is working through history to bring his chosen ones into his eternal kingdom where he can manifest his glory and love to them, and through them, forever. It is truly the greatest story ever told, and the reason for which God created man. God’s great plan for the ages is revealed in prophecy. From creation to the present, and into the eternal future, every movement of history and every verse of scripture is somehow related, directly or indirectly, to God’s master plan. Prophecy gives us a window through which we can see that plan, as much as God has chosen to reveal, and understand how the events of history, and our very lives, fit into what God is doing.

Aside from the fact that neither biblical nor secular history makes much sense apart from understanding God’s great plan, there are other reasons to study what the Bible says about the future; let’s look at some of those reasons.

1) The emphasis that God places on prophecy tells us its importance. About one-fourth of the Bible is prophetic. It seems safe to assume that if God devoted so much of his word to prophecy, it must be important.

2) Jesus was critical of the prophetic ignorance of the people of his day; in fact, he predicted the destruction of Jerusalem, Israel’s political and religious capital, would happen because they failed to recognize the time of his coming. Had the people of Jesus’ day been more attentive to Bible prophecy they should have been able to recognize who he was, since his life was the fulfillment of many prophecies. Of course, as in our time, many of the people of Jesus’ day did not have hearts inclined toward God; nevertheless, Jesus’ charge against them was that they did not recognize the time in which they were living (Lk. 19:44). It is sad to be living at a time when God is doing a special work and completely miss it because we are unaware of his purpose.

3) Scripture tells us that an appreciation of prophetic truths has a purifying effect upon our lives. John said:

[1Jn. 3:2-3] Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.

John tells us that the hope we have in Christ, that someday he will appear and transform us into his likeness can and should affect our lives now. The fact is that the study of future prophecy equips us to be more effective for Christ in the present, because it allows us to rise above our nearsighted view of life and see things from a different perspective—God’s perspective. As John said, the impact on our present life will be nothing less than revolutionary.

4) The study of the future, sometimes referred to as “eschatology” (Gr. eschatos “last {things}” + logos “a word,” i.e., “a word about last things”), is interrelated to other Bible truths in such a way that if we fail to understand one, it affects our understanding of the other. It’s like getting a few pieces of a puzzle out of place; it can’t help but affect the rest of the picture. What the Bible says about the future is important in understanding salvation, the nature of the Church, the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, the nature of God, and many other truths. Ignorance of Bible prophecy leaves a void in many areas of our understanding of God and what he is doing. Just think how our faith would be affected if we knew nothing of Heaven or Hell, yet we forget that they too are prophetic truths.

5) The study of Bible prophecy serves as a reality check. The fact that so many Christians view prophecy as something surreal only serves to underscore how badly this reality check is needed.

6) Paul listed “hope” as one of the three principal qualities that every Christian ought to possess (1Cor. 13:13). Hope is inseparably linked to our perception of the future; without hope, we are defeated. God has told us things about the future in order to encourage and motivate us. Those who throw open the windows and allow the winds of biblical prophecy to blow across their lives will find renewed vision, a challenge for personal purity, and a deeper understanding of all God’s truth—prophetic and otherwise.

Areas of Agreement Concerning the Future

Since we are going to be comparing viewpoints for a moment, we need to define whose views we are including. For our purpose here we will limit ourselves to the segment of Christianity that accepts the full verbal-inspiration of the Scripture; there’s not much point in talking about the prophetic views of those who do not accept inspiration, since many do not believe in predictive prophecy at all. Among those that do accept the full verbal inspiration of the Bible there is great diversity of opinion on how future prophecy is to be understood. Nevertheless, we are not without a consensus on some basic issues. The following are areas where there is general agreement.

1) Man possesses an immortal soul, meaning that the human soul will exist somewhere forever.

2) Regarding the intermediate state between death and the resurrection, it is generally held to be a conscious existence in the presence of Christ, free from pain and suffering for the redeemed, but a temporary state of suffering for the unredeemed, to be followed by judgment and eternal damnation.

3) There will be future bodily resurrections for both the righteous and the unrighteous dead.

4) There will be a future judgment, or judgments, for both the saved and the lost.

5) Christ will return bodily to this earth to bring about a consummation of his program—though beliefs concerning the details differ widely.

6) There is to be an eternal state for both saved and lost, with the saved inheriting Heaven and the lost inheriting the Lake of Fire.

These are fairly basic truths, and for those who assign any degree of literality to the teachings of the Bible these truths seem beyond dispute. However, there is great difference of opinion as to how all this fits together in the final scheme of things.

Areas of Disagreement Concerning Future Prophecy

Even among those who accept the full verbal inspiration of the Bible there are areas of disagreement concerning the meaning of future prophecy. For the most part those disagreements fall along the following areas. Further along we will discuss why these disagreements exist. For now, don’t let the differences and any unfamiliar terminology confuse you; all of this will be explained as we cover each subject in detail.

The nature of the millennium

In the history of the church there has been considerable disagreement over the nature of the millennial kingdom. Historically, there have been three major views. Amillennialism states that the kingdom of God is essentially spiritual. Consequently, amillennialists do not anticipate a literal reign of Christ upon the earth. Rather, they understand the prophecies of the millennium to be an allegorical representation of Christ’s present spiritual rule from Heaven. Accordingly, amillennialists believe the kingdom of God is now in progress (i.e., it has already been inaugurated), and that Christ will conclude the present millennial age at his second coming when he will return to usher in the eternal phase of the kingdom. Postmillennialism, which takes a slightly more literal view of the millennium, holds the view that the kingdom of God on earth will be brought about through the spread of the gospel, and that Christ will appear at its conclusion to receive his kingdom and bring in its eternal phase. Premillennialism recognizes that the millennial prophecies of the Bible can only be fulfilled by a literal earthly reign of Christ, which would require the millennium to be a future event since it has neither been fulfilled in the past, nor is it occurring at present. (The term “premillennial” refers to the belief that the second coming of Christ will occur before the millennium begins.)

The nature of the tribulation

Both the Old and New Testaments speak of a period of great hardship and divine judgment preceding the second coming of the Lord. This period is often referred to as “the tribulation.” Not surprisingly, there are differences of opinion regarding the nature and timing of this period. Amillennialists generally view the tribulation prophecies as having been fulfilled in the past, perhaps through the Roman persecutions or general trials through the course of the Church age. Of course, such a view requires a less-than-normal/objective interpretation of the tribulation prophecies. Premillennialists, who view these prophecies more literally, regard them as describing events that will take place in the future, immediately prior to the second coming of Christ. Premillennialists disagree over just how literally the tribulation prophecies should be interpreted. Dispensational premillennialists tend to interpret the tribulation prophecies at face value according to normal/objective interpretation, whereas covenant premillennialists tend to view the prophecies less literally. One form of covenant premillennialism, known as “imminent posttribulationism,” claims that the Church could be in the tribulation now.

The timing of the rapture

The rapture refers to Christ’s return for his Church. There are several views regarding the nature and timing of this event. Generally, covenantalists view the rapture and the second coming as the same event. Dispensationalists, while making a distinction between the rapture and the second coming, are not agreed on the timing of the rapture. Almost all dispensationalists place the rapture prior to the second coming, and most place it prior to the beginning of the tribulation, while others place it at various points within the tribulation. Of course, all of these differences make for a considerable amount of confusion to the beginning student of prophecy, and to make matters worse, some of these differences are less about prophecy than about other theological matters.

The nature of the Church

In this volume the word “Church” is capitalized whenever it refers to the Body of Christ—as opposed to the visible, or local church). The nature of the Church is of critical importance in the study of future prophecy. The reason is simple: the rapture is a promise to the Church, and one’s view of when the rapture might occur, in relation to other future events, is largely dependent on one’s concept of the Church. Covenantalists believe the Church is composed of all the redeemed that have ever, or will ever live. If one defines the Church that way, they would naturally view the Church as being present during the entire tribulation period, since there will be redeemed people on earth throughout the tribulation period, and thus, they would tend to view the rapture and the second coming as the same event. Dispensationalists view the Church as only the redeemed living between Pentecost (A.D. 33) and the rapture. Thus, dispensationalists view Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament as distinct entities. Dispensationalists believe the Bible teaches that Christ will return for his Church before God’s wrath is poured out at the day of the LORD, though they disagree as to exactly when during the tribulation the day of the LORD begins.

The definition one applies to the Church is undoubtedly the single most important factor in the interpretation of future prophecy. Covenantalists believe the Church is a continuation of, or replacement for Israel, hence the term “replacement theology.” Generally, covenantalists see the promises of God made to Israel as being fulfilled spiritually to the Church. Such a view has broad ramifications not only in the interpretation of prophecy, but for general biblical interpretation as well. Dispensationalists view the Church and Israel as recipients of unique but interrelated prophetic programs, such that each group has promises made specifically to it that should not be confused with promises made to the other, though both are certainly parts of a larger unified program. Returning to the analogy of the ship, Israel and the Church could be represented as two major beams attached to the same keel. Just as the ship has but one keel, so there is one plan for history, but many components comprising that plan.

The timing of the resurrections and judgments

You’ve probably guessed this already, but one’s view of the timing of the resurrections and judgments is interwoven with what one believes regarding the nature of the Church, the rapture, the tribulation, and the millennium. Dispensationalists believe the resurrection of the righteous will occur in connection with the rapture and the second coming; this two-phase resurrection is necessary due to the fact that at the rapture only Church-age believers will be resurrected, so there must be an additional opportunity for the Old Testament saints and those saved after the rapture to be resurrected. Covenant premillennialists believe that all of the dead saints, including the Old Testament saints, will be resurrected together at the second coming, which is where they place the rapture. Both of these groups generally place the judgment of believers immediately after the resurrection, whenever it occurs, and both place the resurrection of the unrighteous after the close of the millennium. Amillennialists and postmillennialists see only a general resurrection of both the righteous and unrighteous dead after the millennium, with one general judgment for both groups. They usually view Matthew 25:31-46 as describing that judgment, whereas premillennialists view this passage as describing the judgment occurring after the second coming to determine who will enter the millennial kingdom from the tribulation. While these differences may seem perplexing at first, there are some simple patterns that serve as the underlying framework for each of these views, and we will explore those patterns in subsequent articles.

Logical versus chronological study of future prophecy

It is important to note that the major topics covered in this series are not presented in the chronological order in which they will unfold—rapture/tribulation, millennium, eternity, but rather in biblical and logical order—millennium, tribulation, rapture, eternity. There are two reasons for studying the events of future prophecy in logical, rather than chronological order: 1) This is the order in which God revealed these truths to man. 2) It is necessary to study future prophecy in logical sequence so we can develop the theological basis for understanding each successive truth. Obviously, what one believes about the tribulation is greatly affected by what he or she believes about the millennium, and what one believes about the rapture is largely based on what he or she believes about the tribulation and the day of the LORD. Discussing the particulars of future prophecy in their revealed sequence allows us to build a foundation for the understanding of each successive truth.

To jump to the next article in this series tap or click here.

(Adapted in 2017 from What the Bible Says About the Future, by Sam A. Smith. Click or tap for the print edition, [350 pages] or the e-book edition [233 pages-abridged], both illustrated. Unless otherwise indicated all scripture is taken from the New International Version of the Bible.)

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