Christian prophecy belief is a fascinating subject, but it can be very confusing for the average reader. A major source of this confusion is the fact that there are an astonishing number of different end-of-the-world scenarios amongst Christian sects. These range from complete denial (amillenialism) to any-day-now (premillenialism) to been-there-done-that (preterism).
Christians cannot be faulted for this confusion, however. The major problem is that the Bible itself is extremely vague on the subject of the Final Days, which means that just about any scenario can be supported with appropriate proof-texts.
The most interesting eschatological view is the one that concerns us here. This may be called conservative premillenialism, and is a feature generally of independent, fundamentalist Christian groups. A fairly recent phenomenon, this particular end-of-the-worldview is based largely on two books of the Bible: the Old Testament book of Daniel, and the New Testament book of Revelation. A number of prophecy writers also refer to the Old Testament books of Isaiah and Ezekiel. The general screenplay for the Apocalypse runs something like this:
The word rapture is derived from a Latin word meaning "caught away", and is based on a few verses from the New Testament book of I Thessalonians:
I Thessalonians 4:15-17 (NIV) According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
This, then, is the belief that the Christian Church will be suddenly taken away from the earth. As strange as it may seem, this belief is very prevalent amongst fundamentalist Christians. A thriving trade exists in bumper-stickers which read something along the lines of "In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned".
Following the Rapture (or preceding it, depending on the particular flavor of eschatology) will be a period of seven years of chaos and mayhem. War will reign supreme, and the population of the earth will be decimated. This belief is based on a number of verses, in particular a statement of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew:
Matthew 24:21 (NIV) For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now--and never to be equaled again.
The book of Revelation, depending on how one views it, predicts terrible things for this period: plagues of locusts, diseases of the skin, scorching heat, mountains falling from the sky, rivers of blood, etc. etc. All in all, a thoroughly nasty time to be alive.
Some of the characters that will grace this period include:
The Beast A strange character from the book of Revelation, the beast appears to be a world leader who will orchestrate the rebellion against God. Also known as the antichrist (based on I John 2:18, although there is no connection between the epistle of First John, and the book of Revelation), he has a number of remarkable qualities. Among these are an apparent resurrection from the dead, following a mortal blow to the head. The beast will require that all humans receive a mark in the forehead, or on the right hand. The book of Revelation also includes the enigmatic statement that the "number of the Beast" is 666, thus providing an endless source of amusement for the numerically inclined.
The False Prophet Apparently some sort of religious leader, who will goad the world into worship of the beast.
A word that has entered popular culture, this refers to the final battle between Good and Evil. The book of Revelation predicts that this confrontation will take place in a small valley in Israel, the valley of Meggido:
Revelation 16:16 Then they gathered the kings together to
the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.
Revelation 19:19-21 Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war against the rider on the horse and his army. But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped his image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. The rest of them were killed with the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.
(Those who have some knowledge of Palestinian geography will be aware that the valley of Megiddo is barely large enough for a spirited mud-wrestling contest, let alone a conflagration of epic proportions. Perhaps the armies of Darkness and Light will take turns to hurl insults at each other.) In most eschatological scenarios, the battle of Armageddon marks the end of the Great Tribulation, and is immediately followed by...
The Second Coming
The pinnacle of Christian Eschatology, this phrase refers to the belief that Christ will return to earth a second time, this time to rule and reign as King. Again, the book of Revelation supports this view:
Revelation 19:11-14 (NIV) I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean.
Christ appears in person to engage Satan in the battle of Armageddon. Following his victory, the world enters a new age, known as...
A thousand-year period, marked by the imprisonment of Satan, and the earthly rule of Christ.
Revelation 20:4-6 I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.
Following the Millenium, and the final rebellion of Satan, we have...
The Final Judgement
The beginning of the end: all humans, dead and alive, are presented before the throne of God to receive their final assignments. The righteous are granted a place in Heaven: the unrighteous are consigned to That Other Place.
Revelation 20:11-15 (NIV) Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
The sequence outlined above is more or less common among fundamentalist groups. There are a number of popular variations on this theme, however, generally distinguished by the order in which the different events are placed.
Pre-tribulation The belief that the Rapture will occur before the start of the Great Tribulation, thus sparing the Church from the horrors to follow.
Post-tribulation The belief that the Rapture follows the Great Tribulation. This means that the Christian Church will have to suffer along with the rest of us.
Mid-tribulation As the name implies, the belief that the Rapture takes place sometime in the middle of the Tribulation, thus being something of a compromise between the previous two views.
As with most Christian doctrines, adherents to one view will often exchange heated words with adherents of another view. This is nothing, however, compared to the venom that fundamentalist Christians appear to reserve for those unfortunate bretheren who ditch the whole shebang outlined above, and instead hold to one of the more mundane views of eschatology.
Postmillenialism (Also known as Reconstructionism). In contrast to the Premillenial view outlined above, this is the general belief that we are already living in the Millenium, a symbolic term for the Age of the Church. Conditions on earth will generally improve, until Christianity controls all of the world, resulting in the allegorical return of Christ. (Those who are versed in the history of medieval Europe might view this prospect with something less than enthusiasm).
Preterism Closely allied with Postmillenialism, this is the belief that the Book of Revelation, and other prophecies of Jesus Christ have already been fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Thus, the Book of Revelation is seen as a history, rather than a foretelling.
The more cynical among us might follow a fourth alternative: skepticism. This is the raining-on-the-parade view that the Bible clearly indicates that Christ and the Apostles expected the end of all things within their lifetimes:
Matthew 24:34 I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
Since the generation here spoken of is now dead and buried two thousand years ago, the possibilty that the remaining prophecies might come true is not good.