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
Beyond Christ’s return
Beyond basic, orthodox beliefs, Christians disagree
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
“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
‘Already’ and ‘Not Yet’
By the mid-20th century, dispensationalism and
amillennialism appeared to be hopelessly at odds in the SBC and the larger
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
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
“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
- New Orleans Seminary faculty members tend to be historic
- Of the eight Midwestern Seminary faculty members who
responded, all but one are premillennialists, two of them specifying historic
premillennialism and another amillennialism._ÑŒ_ÑŒ
- 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
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
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.)