I still remember the kitchen table debates, with charts spread out, Bibles open, and concordances on hand. Would the rapture happen before the tribulation, or during it, or after it? What role would the United States play in the end times? What area of the world would the antichrist be from? Could he possibly be already around – who? These answers to these questions seemed pressing, crucial, important, though in retrospect I’m not entirely sure why.
Now if there’s anything Christians disagree on, it’s how the world will end. There are so many different views that denominations and churches have split over the issue. The problem is that knowledge of the end times is largely based on some Old Testament prophets, some things Jesus said, and the book of Revelation. Let’s just say that when taken together, those sources are anything but clear. It’s really no wonder Christians have so many different views on it!
In this brief overview, we’ll start with the Millenium and move on to the Tribulation and the Rapture.
Essentially all Christians believe that at some point in the future Christ will return again (the “second coming”), and that there will be a judgement of some sort, and that eventually this earth will end and all believers will be in heaven. The devil, however, is in the details.
First off, there’s this thing called the Millennium. The Millennium is the 1,000 year golden age on earth, either ruled by Christ himself or at least by Christian ethics and Christian governments, at the end of which will be the final judgement. It is sometimes referred to as the “millennial kingdom.”
However, Christians disagree on exactly when the Millenium will occur and what it will be like. They are divided into three main groups on this issue: Premillennialism, Amillennialism, and Postmillennialism. Premillenialists believe that Christ’s second coming will occur before the millennium. Postmillennialists believe that Christ’s second coming will come after the millennium. Finally, Amillennialists believe that the millennium is figurative and that we are already living in it. Here is a graph to illustrate the differences (ignore the fact that the graph mentions two kinds of Premillennialism):
One big division here is over the “Tribulation.” Premillennialists believe that the world will get worse and worse until the Tribulation comes, after which the Millenium, in which Christ will literally rule on earth, will occur. Postmillennialists believe that Christians are supposed to make the world better and better, converting more and more souls and improving morality and society in general, until they bring on the millennium, a golden age of Christian ethics, after which Christ will return. Amillennialists believe that we are already living in the (figurative) millennium, which is already (figuratively) ruled by Christ from heaven.
This doesn’t automatically mean that Postmillennialists and Amillennialists don’t believe in the existence of a Tribulation – many are preterists, meaning that they believe the Tribulation occurred the time of Nero and when the temple was destroyed. It does mean that only Premillennialists see a Tribulation coming in the future.
By way of definition, the Tribulation, which I will explain in more detail in a later post, is a time of horrible persecution of Christians and judgments on humankind, including disease, famine, war, and natural disasters. The Tribulation is dominated by the rule of the Antichrist, who is indwelt by Satan himself.
I was personally raised a Premillennialist. I didn’t even realize there were Postmillennialists or Amillennialists until I reached high school and ran into some through some different homeschooling functions. I had honestly thought that all Christians were Premillennialist. One person I met was a preterist, which threw me for a loop because I had never heard of such a thing.
The Tribulation and Rapture
The main divide within Premillennialists is over the timing of the rapture. In the rapture, all Christians will suddenly disappear from earth and be transported instantly to heaven. Their bodies will disappear but their clothes will be left behind; any cars they are driving will crash, and so on. The raptured believers will not experience any of this chaos, though, for they will be taken straight up to heaven in an instant.
There are three camps on the timing of the rapture: Pretribulation, Midtribulation, and Postribulation. As you might guess, the question is whether believers will be raptured before, during, or after the tribulation. Here’s a graph:
I was raised to believe in a Pretribulation rapture. When I found out that some people who believed in a Midtribulationist or Postribulationist rapture, I was appalled. The idea that believers would have to live through the Tribulation horrified me. I was very glad that, as I firmly believed, I would be raptured before the Tribulation.
The first big question when ascertaining Christians’ belief about the end times, then, is whether they are Premillennialist, Postmillennialist, or Amillennialist. If they are Premillennialist, the next question is whether they believe in a Pretribulation rapture, a Midtribulation rapture, or a Postribulation rapture. And at the very least, you now have at least some understanding of what these terms mean.
Note: Feel free to add to this, mentioning ideas I may have missed or whatnot based on your own experiences and knowledge. This whole eschatology thing is complex I don’t think anyone can have it all figured out, least of all me! (This is the kind of thing Christian theologians spend their entire lives arguing about, after all!)
So there you have it. The Millennium, Tribulation, and Rapture. That’s Part I. Here is the series in total: