×
End times: Scholars differ on possibilities
David Roach, Baptist Press
January 11, 2010
11 MIN READ TIME

End times: Scholars differ on possibilities

End times: Scholars differ on possibilities
David Roach, Baptist Press
January 11, 2010

When it comes to uncertainties about the end of time, at

least one thing is certain: Southern Baptists have a variety of opinions.

And according to theologians in Baptist seminaries, nearly

all of those opinions fall within the bounds of orthodoxy.

“On the whole Baptists have been model kingdom citizens when

agreeing on the essentials of a doctrine of last things without attempting to

press one another unrelentingly on the particular details,” wrote Paige

Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in the book

Baptist Faith and Message 2000: Critical Issues in America’s Largest Protestant

Denomination.

Beyond Christ’s return

Beyond basic, orthodox beliefs, Christians disagree

significantly.

Theologians have divided on such issues as what happens to

believers between their deaths and Christ’s second coming, the nature of the

resurrection body and the number of resurrections to occur.

“Frankly, I find some Christian eschatological

interpretations embarrassing,” guest lecturer Craig Evans of Acadia Divinity

School said during a discussion of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Midwestern Baptist

Theological Seminary.

“There are some pulpiteers, TV evangelists, and popular

writers who think they’ve got this all figured out.”

When asked his interpretation of Bible prophecy from

references to the armies of Belial, armies of Satan, and a mention of Magog,

Evans said, “I just say to be cautious about that because we don’t always know

what’s going on. Some of this is metaphorical, poetic and so forth, and to

bring a scientific precision to it and pigeonhole everything — I think that’s a

very questionable approach.”

The only views that qualify as unorthodox are those that

deny a future coming of Christ, Russell D. Moore, senior vice president for

academic administration and dean of the theology school at Southern Baptist

Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said.

“Any view that does not hold to a future day of what the

church has called ‘the resurrection of the flesh’ is outside the bounds of

Christian orthodoxy,” Moore said.

“Christians have and will continue to disagree about whether

some of the events of Matthew 25 or Mark 13 or the book of Revelation were

fulfilled at the fall of Jerusalem. That can be a disagreement among

brothers.

“We, of course, will continue to disagree about the meaning

of the millennium in Revelation 20, probably until the millennium itself.

“We cannot disagree, however, about the future bodily coming

of our Lord and the future resurrection of both the just and the unjust. This

is clearly and indisputably taught in the Scripture and is essential to the

Christian faith.”

The millennium

Among Southern Baptists, differences arise on the nature of

the millennium referenced in Revelation 20.

That passage describes a 1,000-year period during which

Satan is bound. Disagreement occurs regarding the timing of Christ’s return

relative to the millennium and whether the number 1,000 is literal or

symbolic.

stock.xchng graphic by xymonau

Premillennialists believe Christ will return prior to a

literal 1,000-year period.

Among premillennialists, opinions vary on whether Jesus will

remove Christians from the earth prior to a tribulation preceding His return.

Some, known as dispensational premillennialists or dispensationalists, believe

in such a rescue for Christians.

Others, known as historic premillennialists, believe

Christians will not be taken out of the world until Jesus returns. A minority

of premillennialists believe Christians will be raptured halfway through a

period of tribulation preceding Christ’s return.

Postmillennialists believe the 1,000-year period will occur

before Jesus returns. Adherents of this position generally believe the

millennium will be a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity under the

lordship of Christ.

Although postmillennialism has enjoyed proponents such as

Jonathan Edwards and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary founder B.H.

Carroll, the view faded from Baptist life in the last century.

Amillennialists believe the number 1,000 is figurative and

that we are currently in the millennium (some premillennialists and

postmillennialists also believe 1,000 is figurative).

They argue that Satan was bound by Christ through His

finished work at the cross and has limited power until Christ returns.

Thus, the millennium refers to the current era when Christ

reigns in the hearts of believers without Satan’s interference. Christ’s return

will mark the close of this era, amillennialists believe.

James Leo Garrett, distinguished professor of theology

emeritus at Southwestern Seminary, said these millennial positions have a long

history of interaction in the SBC. For the first half-century following the

convention’s founding in 1845, premillennialism and postmillennialism were the

two dominant viewpoints, he said.

Amillennialism’s origins often are traced to the

fifth-century North African bishop Augustine of Hippo, but the view rose to

prominence in the SBC between the 1930s and 1980s as postmillennialism died

out.

Many scholars date the decline of postmillennialism to World

War I, when it seemed evident that the universe would not gradually improve

leading up to a glorious millennial kingdom.

The late Oklahoma pastor and former SBC president Herschel

Hobbs helped popularize amillennialism along with seminary professors H.E.

Dana, Ray Summers, and Edward McDowell. At Southwestern Seminary,

amillennialism was the dominant position among the faculty from the 1930s until

the 1990s, Garrett said.

Dispensational premillennialism arose as the major

competitor to amillennialism in the 20th century. Initially developed by the

Brethren Movement in early 19th century Britain, C.I. Scofield popularized

dispensationalism by teaching it in the notes of his Scofield Reference Bible

first published in 1909.

Dispensationalism teaches that history is divided into

different periods or dispensations, in which God deals with humans differently.

While all evangelicals agree that God acted differently in

different periods of history, dispensationalists hold some distinctive views of

the dispensations which earned them their title.

Although dispensationalism likely is the most popular

eschatological position among Southern Baptists today, Garrett noted that it

was a new development in the 19th century with no antecedent in the Baptist

past.

“You had Graves, you had (Fort Worth pastor) J. Frank

Norris, and then you had W.A. Criswell espousing dispensationalism,” he said.

“But nobody back behind that period was at all inclined. And

I would argue the reason is because it didn’t come before … the 19th century

in Britain.”

‘Already’ and ‘Not Yet’

By the mid-20th century, dispensationalism and

amillennialism appeared to be hopelessly at odds in the SBC and the larger

evangelical world.

But a movement led by Baptist theologians Carl F.H. Henry

and George Eldon Ladd brought the two poles together.

Henry and Ladd argued that both groups got something wrong.

Dispensationalists, they said, viewed the Kingdom of God as entirely a future

reality to be established during the millennium.

On the other hand, amillennialists, who often fell in the

Reformed tradition of “covenant theology,” argued that the Kingdom was entirely

a present spiritual reality.

So Henry “combined the ‘already’ kingdom emphasis of the

covenant theologians with the ‘not yet’ kingdom expectancy of the

dispensationalists,” explains Moore in his book The Kingdom of Christ: The New

Evangelical Perspective.

The resulting view, known as inaugurated eschatology, argued

that the Kingdom is already present as Christ reigns spiritually in the hearts

of believers but is also a future reality in which He will reign over the

physical universe perfectly and eternally.

Because of Henry and Ladd, evangelicals who disagree on

minor details of eschatology now agree on the overall “already-not yet”

framework of God’s Kingdom, Moore writes.

One position to emerge from the new consensus developed by

Henry and Ladd is progressive dispensationalism.

Developed in the late 20th century, this position agrees

with older varieties of dispensationalism that God divided history into

different eras and that there will be a secret rapture of the church prior to a

period of tribulation on earth. However, progressive dispensationalists

disagree with classic dispensationalists’ assertion that God has different

plans of redemption for Israel on the one hand and the church on the other.

Patterson, himself a dispensationalist, told the TEXAN that

progressive dispensationalism brought valuable correction to older forms of

dispensationalism.

“The problem with ‘revised dispensationalism’ (an older

variety of the position) is that its advocates may actually hold that Israel

and the church are forever separated,” Patterson said.

“I see them instead as one people before God in the eternal

state. The key to this, to me, is the 24 elders who appear before the throne in

the Book of Revelation who seem to be representative of the 12 tribes of Israel

and the 12 apostles of the Lamb — hence, Israel and the church.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the distinction should be

made in God’s work through Israel in the Old Testament and then again in the

tribulation and the millennium, but there is also no question in my mind that

once the eternal state is inaugurated, the church and Israel will all be

together as the people of God.”

Profs’ views vary

SBC seminaries employ professors who hold a wide variety of

eschatological positions but agree on inaugurated eschatology and the 12 basic

beliefs cited earlier as a standard of orthodoxy.

The TEXAN polled the six seminaries regarding the positions

of their faculty and discovered that historic premillennialism may have

slightly more adherents than any other position.

Included in the survey’s findings:

  • Among Southwestern School of Theology faculty, 20 are

    historic premillennialists, 15 hold to premillennial and pretribulational

    views, three are amillennialists and two abstained.

  • Southern Seminary faculty members hold to historic

    premillennialism most often, although a small number hold to amillennialism or

    progressive dispensationalism.

  • New Orleans Seminary faculty members tend to be historic

    premillennialists.

  • Of the eight Midwestern Seminary faculty members who

    responded, all but one are premillennialists, two of them specifying historic

    premillennialism and another amillennialism._ь_ь

  • At Southeastern Seminary, premillennial, pretribulational

    faculty edged out historic premillennialists 12-6, while one professor is still

    undecided on his millennium commitment.

  • A survey of Golden Gate faculty was incomplete.

But President Jeff Iorg indicated that he holds to a

premillennial, pretribulational view while two faculty members identified

themselves as historic premillennialists.

The Middle East

Another area of disagreement is the extent to which

believers should look to current events in the Middle East as the fulfillment

of biblical prophecy.

Some dispensationalists see the state of Israel as playing a

central role in the end times while historic premillennialists and

amillennialists do not see God’s Kingdom as linked to a single political

state.

Jim Sibley, director of the Pasche Institute of Jewish

Studies and associate professor of Jewish ministry at Criswell, represents the

dispensationalist side of the argument.

Current events in the Middle East “are prompting

Christians to take a greater interest in eschatology,” Sibley said.

“I think the novels of Joel Rosenberg have helped that. I

think it’s fading now, but the influence of the ‘Left Behind’ series was

certainly huge. But the fact that Iran and its surrogates are encircling Israel

through Hamas and Hezbollah with the development of nuclear capability at the

same time is causing a lot of Christians to sit up and pay attention.”

Moore, a historic premillennialist, disagrees. In his book

The Kingdom of Christ, he argues, along with Reformed theologians and

progressive dispensationalists, that the modern state of Israel does not now

play a central role in God’s Kingdom.

“Developments toward a kingdom-oriented eschatology … do

not give such a blanket endorsement of the present Israeli state, at least not

on the basis of biblical prophecy,” Moore writes.

“This is because of the Christocentric nature of the

messianic kingdom, a theological contention covenant theologians have always

maintained in relation to any future for the state of Israel.”

Despite minor disagreements, Patterson urged Southern

Baptists to remain united on the beliefs articulated in the 2000 Baptist Faith

and Message.

He wrote in Baptist Faith and Message 2000: Critical Issues

in America’s Largest Protestant Denomination: “What may be seen as most

remarkable about the 2000 statement is that within a postmodern ethos, which

generally desires to skirt issues of judgment, the Southern Baptist Convention

has maintained the emphasis from former years on the certainty of the judgment

of God, associating that judgment with the return of the Lord, insisting that

there are two classes of people — the righteous and the unrighteous — and that

people will spend eternity in either heaven or hell.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Roach is a correspondent for the Southern

Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, where

an expanded version of this story first appeared.)

Related story

A generational gap in

end times

interest?