As I write this, there is an epic lunar eclipse and blood moon appearing over my house. Based on this, a prosperity preacher and prophecy guru at a local McMegachurch has predicted that the end of the ages has come upon us (conveniently after his Sunday collection was taken this morning!). With this auspicious sign, I thought it might be worthwhile to publish a primer on prophecy that I created in 2008 for a college group I was pastoring. While some of the material here is in rough shape and not as well explained as I might want, I hope to give the reader a life-giving alternative to understanding Biblical prophecy beyond the crazy end-times fads that constantly sweep across American Christianity.
The view put forward here is roughly "Amillennial" if you are up on your prophecy jargon (if not, read on). However, in addition to being Amillennial, my current view on the end of the ages is more "open" because I think the Scriptures intentionally allow us to read about the future in a pessimistic way (things will get worse and worse until the end) or in an optimistic way (the Gospel will progress and grow and heal until the end). Both pessimism and optimism are legitimate readings of Scripture, and in these readings, God gives us the choice about which way we will direct history. Will we direct it toward fulfillment in Christ, or to self-destruction that has to be rescued by Christ? It is our decision.
Prophetic Hope for the Fulfillment of Everything
What happens when we reach the end of Scripture's Story, the focus of our Hope, and the fulfillment of the Plot, where we all "live happily ever after"? This fulfillment is the convergence of all that is good, true, and beautiful in our individual and collective lives across history. We have three sources for having such optimism about the future, despite the inevitable certainty of the death of ourselves, our culture, and our entire universe. First, nearly all of the great stories and myths of the world (even the cyclical ones) point toward a final eternal age where "all will be well". Second, the physical, historical, verifiable resurrection of Christ (and subsequent outpouring of his Spirit) is both the foretaste and model of what the final fulfillment will be like. Third, God has revealed this perfected future through a series of predictions and visions in Scripture.
Scripture paints a picture of the Trinity standing at the end of time, beckoning and drawing us into ultimate fulfillment in His eternal Kingdom. While these visions are often symbolic, mystical, and somewhat ambiguous, enough can be gleaned from them to get a general outline of what the future will hold for the world. All Christians agree there are five basic things that will happen at the end of this Age, summed up in the Creed: (1) Christ will come again in glory. (2) He will judge the living and the dead. (3) His Kingdom will have no end. (4) There will be a resurrection of all people. (5) There will be a life in the Age to come. What the various Christian views disagree on is how these five things fit together and what order they will happen.
Much of Biblical prophecy uses poetic, symbolic language: things and persons are used to point to events and principals in our world. Yet, it is hard to know what the symbols meant in their culture, and we must be careful to pay attention to how such symbols are used in history and in the rest of Scripture. Also, sometimes prophecy speaks literally of future events. But, just imagine if a first century man was given a vision of a 21st century battle tank, a nuclear bomb, or a 25th century spaceship. They might sound a lot like the author of like Revelation (though I doubt Revelation talks about tanks, bombs, or spaceships). And finally, sometimes prophets try to literally describe what they saw in spiritual reality. But, imagine that a two-dimensional "flat person" was allowed to see our three-dimensional world. How would they describe our trees or cars or animals with their "flat language"? What they described would sound really strange to other "flat people" who had not seen our world! In the same way, when Bible prophets describe things in the "God-dimension", they lack the words, and what they say sounds really strange.
Future prophecy also uses a "telescopic perspective" to look at future events. When we look at mountains or skyscrapers through a telescope, they often seem like they are right next to each other, when they are actually miles apart. In the same way, when we see future events in Scripture, they may seem right next to each to each other, and yet actually be years or centuries apart. For example, in the early Church, many thought Jesus would return in their lifetime to bring about an end of history, but it only appeared that way from their vantage point.
In addition to this, most prophecies have several partial fulfillments leading up to the ultimate fulfillment in Christ. For instance, the Bible tells us that in the end, both the Antichrist will rise and Jesus Christ will come back. History has shown us that there have been many partial fulfillments of the Antichrist in lesser "antichrists" such as Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein. There have been many partial fulfillments of Christ as well, in lesser "saviors" like Moses, King David, and Martin Luther King. These partial fulfillments remind us of their ultimate fulfillment at the end of the world.
Three ways of interpreting Biblical prophecy
So, the question now is how the end of this Age will get here, and what the "Age to come" will be like. Scripture speaks more like a symphony than a unity on this issue, and we find several "harmonic" perspectives which tell us about the end of this Age and the beginning of the next. The first perspective is that of the Hebrew prophets in the Old Testament. Although their message grew and developed over time, when they are all taken together, they present us with a symbolic vision of Israel's ultimate redemption and the everlasting Kingdom of the Messiah. This is followed by both Jesus and Paul, who give us very literal descriptions of the end of the Age. The last viewpoint we will look at is that of the book of Revelation. We will spend most of our time here, because it is this book that seems to generate the most confusion and questions about the end of the world.
There are three basic ways to interpret these "end of the world" passages, including those of the book of Revelation. I know that within each of these major views there are several sub-variants, and all of these variants have their own specialized terms (usually derived from Greek and Latin) to lend them specificity and validity. But, for the sake of presenting the concepts with clarity and simplicity, I will simplify these views to the following three typologies:
1. The Futurist View:
Some take these passages to be fulfilled in the future: They refer (mainly literally) to events which WILL happen in the future. Here the "end of the world" refers mainly to the end of the space-time Universe. Thus, many readers take Revelation to be a book of "future history" in which all of the events are sequential and follow one another. It is a kind of "road map" of the future.
But, this view falls apart in several ways. In a general way, one of the only sure-fire, 100%-wrong-every-time activities in human history has been the practice of predicting the end of the world based on a futurist road-map reading of the Bible. Not only does Jesus seem to directly warn against such speculation (cf. Mark 13.32), but the sheer fact of the 100% error record for all of the myriads of times this has been attempted would indicate it is an exercise in missing the point.
In regard to the book of Revelation in particular, this view falls apart because one has to explain why there are several "second comings" of Christ, multiple resurrections, many destructions of the world, and numerous times God wins the final victory over evil, all in the same book! This is especially true since the rest of Scripture teaches only one second coming, one resurrection of humanity, one destruction of the world, and one final victory over evil.
2. The Preterist View (from the Latin word for "past"):
Some take these passages to be fulfilled in the past: They refer (symbolically) to events which DID happen in the past (mainly during Nero's persecution of the Church in the 60's CE and Domitian's persecution of the Church in the 90's CE). Here the "end of the world" refers primarily to the end of the Roman World in the first century of the Church.
This view often is joined together with what is called the "Historicist" view, in which the prophecies, especially those of revelation, did foretell the future for a few centuries after the writing of Revelation, but then stopped at a certain point. Thus, for the Preterist view, Revelation was fulfilled in the 90's CE when it was written, during the persecution of Emperor Domitian. For the historicist view, Revelation was not fulfilled until the Roman Empire became Christian in the 300's, or perhaps until the time of the Reformation. In both cases, the prophecies refer primarily to events that are completed in our past, and not to future events.
The problem with this is that the "end times" passages do not seem to be clearly fulfilled and finished. In fact, these passages often seem to be describing events of a cosmic significance, which will only be fully realized after the end of human life, or even at the end of cosmic history. For instance, in Revelation 21-22 it describes a time when every tear will be wiped away, and the personal and immediate presence of God will heal all of Creation and every person in it. Clearly, this has not happened in history yet. It seems to point to a pattern that is fulfilled beyond history.
3. The Idealist View:
Some take these passages to be a PATTERN that continually happens in history, over and over, until we reach the end of history. They are not primarily about events that did happen, or literally about events that will happen. Sometimes they do refer to past events (such as the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE or the persecution of Domitian in the 90's CE). And sometimes they do refer to experiences that can only be fulfilled beyond history in the future (such as Revelation 21-22). But these past and future referents are used mainly as symbols for patterns that DO happen over and over in our lives and in history.
Here the "end of the world" is primarily existential, and could refer to the end of a personal life, or the end of a cultural way of life, or the end of the cosmos as a whole. This is called "Idealist" because it presents an ideal pattern that is fulfilled over and over. But I prefer to use the term "existential" because it sees Scripture as using events as symbols to point to experiences we will all encounter in this life and beyond. With that said, I generally tend to view the "end time" passages of the Bible in the third existential sense. I think the literal end of the universe will happen according to science, with the heat-death of space, time, matter and energy.
The End of the World from Ten Perspectives
Revelation, it seems to me, is not just one perspective on the end of the world, but a set of seven highly symbolic overlapping viewpoints on the same Story. Each re-tells history in a different perspective from the time of Christ until the end of our Age, and includes a series of judgments and trials which get worse until Christ has final victory. Each vision usually has scenes of saints and angels in heaven rejoicing over this victory. Revelation gives a symbolic pattern of events that applies to every Christian at all times, because it tells us in its prologue and epilogue (1:1-9, 22:6-21) that it is showing us events "that must soon happen" to us all.
It is best to use more literal passages about the end of the world to interpret more symbolic passages. We should use the more literal teachings of Jesus and Paul about the end of the world to interpret the more symbolic visions of the Hebrew Prophets and the Book of Revelation. So, we will look at the end of this Age from the perspective of (I) Jesus, (II) Paul; (III) the Hebrew Prophets; and (IV-X) the Book of Revelation:
I. Jesus (see Mat. 13, 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 21).
At the end of this Age there will be a "great tribulation" of wars, famines, plagues, earthquakes and ecological destruction. In religion, many false messiahs will come, many will abandon Christ, and his followers will be persecuted and killed. Yet, the Church will spread the Gospel to all nations and be very successful like yeast that works its way through an entire batch of dough, or like a seed that grows into a large tree. A final "abomination of desolation" will happen in Jerusalem, and armies will gather to destroy her. This will lead to the second coming of Christ in power and glory to gather all his followers (living and dead) to himself in the sky. At that time, the stars will fall, the sun will darken, the earth will be destroyed, and all will be judged. Everything that causes sin will be cast into eternal fire, and all of the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom. No one knows the time of this second coming but the Father, and we should not predict it.
II. Paul (see 1Cor. 15; Rom 1, 8; 1Thes. 4-5; 2Thes. 1-2; 1Tim. 3).
In the "last days", which we are living in, society will go bad from worse in immorality, injustice, and vice. Creation itself will grown under the pollution of sin. The "lawless man, doomed to destruction" will arise, claim to be God, lead a rebellion against Christ, and do miracles to deceive the wicked. But, at the last moment, with a loud cry and the last trumpet call, Jesus will appear to destroy this man. In an instant, the living believers will be "snatched up" or "raptured" to Jesus in the sky, where they will meet with the resurrected saints. At that time we will be "like him" in glorified resurrection bodies that are the perfection of our earthly bodies. Jesus will judge the wicked and destroy all evil forever by his presence. The children of God will be fully revealed, and creation itself will be set free from bondage to corruption. At that time God will reconcile everything in creation to himself through Christ, and everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth will bow to Christ and praise him as Lord of all. This will all happen "like a thief in the night", but we should not be surprised, because we can tell the signs.
III. The Hebrew Prophets (see Dan. 7-9, 11-12; Isa. 1-5, 14, 65; Eze. 16, 40-48; Zech. 14).
IV. The Embattled Church (Rev. 1:10-4:11).
The writer uses historic churches to represent the various trials and judgments that happen to all church bodies through our age. Churches have to struggle through loosing love for God (2:1-7), persecution (2:8-11), mixing Christ with other religions (2:12-17), false prophets (2:18-29), spiritual deadness (3:1-6), lack of strength (3:7-13), and being lukewarm (3:14-22). But, if we stay faithful, he will give us victory and bring us to his throne in heaven (4:1-11).
V. The Destruction of the Nations (Rev. 5:1-8:1).
The dead and resurrected Lamb (who is Christ) is given the power to open the scroll of judgment upon the world (ch. 5). This scroll has seven seals, which represents the destruction of the political systems of the Earth by war, famine, death, and destruction (ch. 6). This leads to a vision of the victorious saints and martyrs in heaven (ch. 7), and the final seal of total victory (8:1).
VI. The Demonic Plague (Rev. 8:2-11:19).
This begins with the fire of the Spirit at Pentecost hurled down from heaven onto the Earth (8:2-5). Then six trumpets are blown which release beings falling from the sky, or coming up from the Abyss (8:6-9:21). These beings poison, plague, and kill those on earth. We then see a vision of a victorious angel (ch. 10), followed by the "two witnesses" that stand against the forces of evil (ch. 11). These witnesses are God's covenant peoples, Israel and the Church. Finally, the seventh (last) trumpet is blown and there is total victory over demonic evil (11:15-19).
VII. The Anti-Trinity (Rev. 12:1-14:20).
Here we find the "masterminds" behind the world rebellion, the Red Dragon (Satan), the Beast from the Sea (the Anti-Christ), and the Beast from the Land (false religion) who are a mockery of the Trinity. Satan tries to destroy "the woman clothed with the sun" (representing both the Virgin Mary, and later the Church) and her child (Jesus), but is defeated and cast out of heaven (12:1-11). So, Satan makes war against the Church "because he knows his time is short" (12:12-13:1). To do this, Satan raises up the first beast (the Anti-Christ) who is a world ruler that rules with an iron fist and persecutes the Church (13:2-10). Along with this, he raises up a second beast (false religion) that seeks to make everyone worship the first beast and take his "mark" on them so they can buy and sell in society (13:11-18). Then we see the saints who were saved from the beasts, and we see how Christ defeats the two beasts, casts them into eternal fire, and harvests the earth (ch. 14).
VIII. God's Last Wake Up Call (Rev. 15:1-16:21).
This vision begins again with worship by the saints in heaven, giving glory to God because his wrath is almost over (ch. 15). After this, the angels pour out God's wrath in seven bowls on unrepentant humans (ch 16). This represents the final discipline that God gives the un-repentant to turn them away from evil. The seventh bowl ends with the final battle at Armageddon where Christ finally defeats evil forever, and destroys the current heavens and earth.
IX. The Destruction of Consumerism (Rev. 17:1-19:21).
This depicts the rise of an evil consumer system, called "Babylon", that is a "whore" which will sell anything for the sake of money, power, and pleasure. This social system is designed and empowered by "the beast" to treat persons like things, and things like persons (ch. 17-18). Yet, God utterly destroys this economic system (ch. 18), leading to worship in heaven (19:1-10), then the second coming of Christ (19:11-18), who defeats the beasts and the kings of the earth at the final battle, and casts the beasts into eternal fire (19:19-21).
X. The Panoramic View (Rev. 20:1-22:6).
This is the "big picture" summary of all the viewpoints. At Christ's first coming he totally defeats Satan by his resurrection, casts him out of heaven, and binds Satan in the Abyss for "1000 years", which is the current Church Age (20:1-3). During this time, Satan's upper limit is Earth, and he cannot plague heaven at all. So, those who die as believers in this Age experience the "first resurrection" as their soul goes to be with Christ in heaven. There they reign with Christ for "1000 years", until history is done on Earth. They do not have to fear the "second death" which is the judgment and total destruction of the world (20:4-6). "1000 years" is symbolic for 10 (the number of fulfillment) to the power of 3 (the perfect number), which means the perfectly fulfilled amount of time until the right moment for Christ's second coming. After the "1000 years" are over, Satan is fully released to make war against the Church with the hordes of hell. But, Jesus comes back and casts them into eternal fire and destroys the current earth (20:7-11). After this, all are raised from the dead and judged. Those written in the book of life are saved, and those who aren't are thrown into the eternal fire where the devil, his beasts, death, and hell are thrown (20:12-15). Finally, we have the grand finale: everything is restored and re-created as heaven "comes to earth" in the New Creation, where we will live eternally (21:1-22:6).
Three Views on the "Already / Not-Yet" Kingdom
Now the question becomes, what "symphony" is God conducting with all of these diverse viewpoints? How do these perspectives show us God's Kingdom in its fullness? Three basic perspectives have emerged in Christian tradition seeking to explain the coming of God's Kingdom. In evaluating them, we must keep in mind the following things: (1) How probable is their explanation for the data we find in Scripture? (2) How well do they deal with the tension between the Kingdom being "already" here in the lives of those who follow Christ, versus "not-yet" being here in complete fullness? (3) How well do they balance the optimism that the Church will be successful in reaching the world, with the pessimism that the world will get worse before Christ comes back? (4) How well do they deal with the Kingdom coming as a process of gradual growth, versus a crisis where God directly intervenes in history?
Although each of these three views also has many sub-types, I will summarize the basic understanding, benefits, and flaws of each. Many times in American Christianity, these basic viewpoints are labelled in reference to the "Millennium", which is another term for the "1000 year reign of Christ" found in Revelation 20. The first view is often called "Postmillennial" because it sees us living in or during the spiritual reign of Christ, after (post) Christ's first earthly advent. This view might better be termed simply "Millennial", since it views us as currently living in, or progressively actualizing, the spiritual reign of Christ in history. I think a better way of looking at it is as a "Single-Age" process of unfolding God's Kingdom in history.
The "Single-Age Process" view of God's Kingdom basically pictures Christ ruling right now through his Church as we progressively spread the Gospel and Social Justice across the world. In this view, there will be struggles, but the Church will be victorious without Christ's personal intervention before the end of History. Once the Church sets up the perfected Kingdom on Earth, Christ will then come back and take us into eternity. I applaud this optimism that the Church will be successful in the process of transforming the world, because it motivates us to go and do something for Christ. Yet, it clearly does not account for the Scriptural fact that the world will get more wicked and violent until Christ has to save his people by a final crisis.
The next view is often called "Premillennial" since it sees us as living in history prior to the literal, physical Millennial reign of Christ. I prefer looking at it as a "Three-Age" view of how God's Kingdom is realized in history. The first Age is the historical time we are living in now. At the end of the first age is a great tribulation, which ushers in the next Age, in which Jesus rules the Earth physically for a literal 1000 years. And then at the end of that second age is another tribulation, which ushers in the final eternal Age beyond history.
The "Three-Age" view of God's Kingdom basically views this Age in history as a time when Christ only rules in individuals on earth. As a result, in the first Age, society at large is doomed to go to "hell in a handbasket". When society gets bad enough, Christ will come back to usher in the second Age. During this Age, Christ will "rapture" his followers, resurrect those dead in Christ, defeat evil, and judge the Earth. Then Christ will reign as King on Earth with his saints, governing those mortals who survived the first Age. At the end of the second Age, Satan will be released for a final battle which Christ will win. At that time, Jesus will destroy the world, raise everyone to life at the second resurrection, and judge them all. This will usher in the third Age, the Eternal Age, where death will be no more and we will live forever in bliss.
One of the primary areas of disagreement between Premillennial camps is over when the "rapture" will happen in relation to the "tribulation" of wars, persecutions and natural disasters. The rapture, in case you do not know, is the idea that those left alive at the coming of Christ will be snatched up to appear with him in the air, along with the dead who are raised in Christ (one way of reading texts such as Mat 24.31; 2Co 12.2-4; 1 Th 4.17; Jude 1.23; Rev 12.5). Thus, some groups favor a "rapture" before the tribulation happens (often called "Pre-tribulation" or "Pretrib"). Other groups favor Mid-tribulation or Post-tribulation positions for reasons obvious to their names.
I applaud this view because it keeps alive the hope that Christ will come to rescue us, and it spurs us on to tell others about him. Yet, I find it needlessly pessimistic because it does not do justice to the optimism of the Church making a difference in the world. Furthermore, it needlessly multiplies the Biblical teachings and becomes confusing, because all passages except Revelation 20 point to one resurrection, one second coming, one final victory, and one judgment.
In addition, it seems to me to be an adventure in missing the point for the reasons I raised when I discussed the Futurist method of interpreting Biblical prophecy. It is an attempt to systematize and specify material that I think was left vague and open for a reason. And that reason is that God has given us a largely open future, and shown us patterns that occur in history as a result of our free choices. God does guarantee that his Love, revealed in Christ, will be victorious in the end, and that all of Creation will eventually be raised to new and unending life in him. But God leaves it open as to HOW that will be accomplished, and shows us the patterns of behavior we can follow. We can either follow the way of compassion and obedience, and spread Christ's Love to the ends of the Earth, resulting in a progressive realization of God's abundant life in History until the End. Or we can follow the way of selfishness and sin, and allow God's Kingdom to be realized only after our self-destruction. Either choice is open to us, and neither can be fully systematized.
And this leads us to our final view, which is often called "Amillennial" because it does not posit a literal physical Millennial reign of Christ, but rather a spiritual reign which is only fully realized beyond History. Again, I prefer calling it a "Two-Age" view, because it posits that the Age we live in is one of being limited, finite, and partial, but it leads to the final age which is eternal, infinite fulfillment in the presence of God. For me, this "Two-Age" view makes better sense of the data we have. In the first Age, Christ rules now in heaven with the saints (and in the Church). At the right time in history, Christ will come again to bring the second Age. He will raise the dead, judge the world, and re-create everything forever. It is this view we will explore now:
The Ongoing Tribulation across History
One of the recurring motifs in Scripture is the juxtaposition between "this age" and "the age to come". And this raises the perennial question: When will this "Age to come" come, and how will we know it is coming? In regards to when it will come, Jesus himself says no one knows, or can know (cf. Mark 13.32). Regarding how we know it is coming, the prophecies outlines above give a list of symptoms which indicate that the next Age is coming, such as political instability, religious persecution, societal self-destruction, and ecological disaster. But since these things are always present in greater and lesser degrees, this seems like yet another way to say that "no one knows the day or the hour".
In fact, rather than seeing the "tribulation" as a period of intense violence, destruction and persecution that is limited to only a few years, perhaps it would be much better to see it as the entire timeframe of history. The truth is that the pattern described in Scripture happens over and over and over. As I write this, Christians (and others) are suffering horrible persecution, warfare, famine and death in Iraq and Syria (and other places). To deny that their horrible ordeal is truly "tribulation" is just NOT accurate or honest (and this also goes for the horrible ordeals faced by Christians through the centuries, or faced by Jews in the holocaust, or faced by Muslims during the crusades, or faced by other people groups in other times).
So we are living in a continual period of tribulation, and this is not merely limited to a handful of years at the end of history. At all times and in all places, we live amidst the constant threat of tribulation, and the constant hope of meeting Jesus personally beyond tribulation. This is not just a one time event at some point in history, but a pattern that occurs at every time in every life, throughout history.
In fact, one of the most interesting things about the end-times prophecies may be how the Gospel writer Luke deals with these themes in the book of Acts. For Luke, it appears that the "coming of Christ" and the "End of the World" is constantly occurring anytime someone personally encounters God. For instance, read through the events of Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit in Acts chapters 1-2. If you read carefully, you will notice that Luke quotes Old Testament prophecies to the effect that the falling of the sun and stars, and the coming of the Day of the Lord, happened on THAT day when the Spirit came! Or, look at the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7.54-60:
 When [the Jewish leaders] heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.  But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” ...  While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
Notice that Luke deliberately uses "end of the world" language-- notably the coming of Jesus on clouds and in glory-- to describe the moment of Stephen's death and spiritual ascension to be with Christ. This was Stephen's "rapture": His encounter with death, and stepping into the presence of God "face to face". And so, its seems that in the few times we can verify how the Apostles actually understood and applied these end-times passages, we find the pattern that they are fulfilled at the moment of a significant encounter with God, whether in the Holy Spirit or at the time of death.
Dramatic Climax: The Current Age ends in Epic Struggle
Now, with all of that said, it seems that Scripture does predict a certain level of intensification of tribulation as history goes on. In fact, it seems that the success of the Church in her mission to be Christ to the lost world will have a great deal to do with it. Scripture tells us that the Church will be so effective it will "hasten the coming of the day of God" by forcefully invading the kingdom of darkness. The enemies of God will rage "because they know their time is short", and they will "make war against" the Church in a last ditch effort to stop the spread of God's Kingdom. The brightness of the God's light will reveal the depths of hell's darkness, and as the Church spreads heaven on earth, all hell will break loose and rage against her.
Just as Christ suffered the passion and crucifixion at the height of his success, so also the Body of Christ, the Church, will be crucified by the world. Yet, just as Christ was raised, so also will his Church. As a result, Satan will be literally "unleashed" on the Earth by using the Anti-Christ world government, the coercion of false religion, and the soul-destroying power of Babylon's consumerism, to wage all-out war on the Church.
This will set up the final battle of Christ and his Church against all that is anti-Christ. The tribulation will be great. The prospects will look bleak. It will seem as if darkness is about to shut out the light forever. And at just the right moment Christ will come in power and glory with myriads of heavenly hosts to rescue and resurrect his people. This cataclysmic, cosmic struggle will utterly destroy forces of darkness and establish the God's Kingdom in its fullness on Earth.
Again, how we get to this point seems to me to be somewhat open. Perhaps after this dramatic climax, we bring about a era of abundance and peace on Earth, as we evolve spiritually and morally into Christ's image, and move beyond the cycles selfishness and violence that have characterized our history thus far. There is room in Scripture for views such as this, particularly in Isaiah where knowledge of God covers the Earth, swords are beaten into plowshares, and peace and abundance reign.
But, there is also room in Scripture for the pessimistic vision of the entire planet destroyed by warfare, earthquakes, cosmic collisions, and consuming fire. Certainly this could just be a description of what we know will happen when our Sun goes supernova in billions of years. But it could also be a description of the effects of our own cultural death wish or a natural disaster of cosmic proportions. Again, I think the ambiguity of these optimistic and pessimistic patterns in Scripture indicates that God has actually given us a choice as a species. We can choose which route to follow as we make our way to the final fulfillment that comes in the Age beyond History.
Happily Ever After: The Setup for a Sequel?
After the Earth is destroyed (pessimistically) or transformed (optimistically), everything seems to be "turned inside out", as the spiritual and physical realities are fused into one glorious re-unification. All the dead will be resurrected, and brought before the great white Throne of Christ for the final judgment. Christ will judge them with the "Book of Life" and the other books. The Book of Life records those who share in Christ's love, and condemns those who deny Christ by their evil deeds, and sentences them to the lake of fire forever. This lake of fire seems to be the purifying flame of God's love, who alone is pictured in Scripture as the eternal consuming fire. Nothing else but God can burn "into the ages of ages".
Yet, while the Bible explicitly pictures myriads upon myriads of saints and angels in heaven worshipping God, it only explicitly shows a few things actually thrown into the lake of fire. And furthermore, these are all things, not people, such as death and hades (places that hold the dead), the "devil" (the power of condemnation), the "beast" (the coercive power of government), and the "false prophet" (false religious systems). It is not clear whether any actual persons are thrown in the lake of fire at all. The "other books" record our works and our sufferings, and these determine our level of reward or punishment. When everyone is rewarded according to their deeds and brought into the fullness of God's love in Christ, then everything including death will be put under Christ's feet, and he will hand the Kingdom over to the Father. At that point all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth will be reconciled to God through Christ so that God may finally be "all in all".
Finally, everything will be re-created, and we will have perfected, glorious bodies that are both continuations of our earthly bodies, yet also gloriously different, following the pattern of Christ's resurrection body. These bodies will be able to perfectly love and serve God forever, and never tempt us through bodily weakness or addiction. Christ's holy ones will rule with him in this New Earth, being rewarded for their good works by governing with him forever. While this will be "eternity", time will still exist in a new mode. We will still be "embodied" in a state where the physical and spiritual are merged, so that we can enjoy God and each other in "eternal time", which will be similar to, yet surpass, our experience of time right now.
Heaven will literally come to Earth as the "New Jerusalem", which will be the ruling center of the eternal Kingdom. Christ will fulfill all of the hopes of the Hebrew prophets by being the Messiah who rules the whole world from the Temple at Jerusalem. His Kingdom will be a golden age on the New Earth filled with peace, justice, prosperity, and eternal life. Israel will be restored as a people, and all nations will worship in the New Temple, as the knowledge of God fills all of creation.
This New Creation is the final eternal state of joy, happiness, and peace in the presence of Christ. It is described in radiant symbols as streets of gold and crystal rivers, and never ending light shining forth from Christ. In the New Creation God will dwell with man face to face, just as creation was originally meant to be. We will be His people and He will be our God, and there will never be any more crying, pain, or suffering. The Church will be Christ's beautiful bride, and God will be her husband. We will live together forever in total fulfillment as we share perfect fellowship with each other in the Triune God of love.
One may wonder if this will be the end of the Story, or if after this Story is fulfilled, God does not start another Story where perhaps we spread His love beyond this planet across the Universe. Perhaps there will be a "sequel", and perhaps not. We have no evidence to answer that question. One thing is for sure. The New Creation is the ultimate consummation of all the great hopes, dreams, myths, and stories across History. It is the fulfillment of the cosmic love story, heroic epic, and mystery tale that God has written, and all creation has been aiming for and growing toward. For, as the Christmas song tells us, "the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Christ this night". Amen+