“God is our refuge and strength,
~ Psalm 46:1-3, 6, 7
It is good to begin a discussion of eschatology with some words of hope: no matter what we may face on this earth, if we belong to God, He is always with us. We know that even if our life should end, we have an indescribable eternity awaiting us, where we will be in the presence of God forever!
Eschatology means the study of last things. In relation to the Bible, we generally think of the following future events, to name just a few: end times, end of the world, tribulation, Armageddon, second coming of Christ. Most mainline Christian churches believe that Jesus Christ is coming again to gather His people, judge the world, establish His kingdom, and usher in eternity.
There is not full agreement, however, on how we should interpret many of these things. Concerning the book of Revelation, for example, interpretation generally falls into four groups:
Preterists: understand the book exclusively in terms of its first-century setting, claiming that most of its events have already taken place.
Historicists: take it as describing the long chain of events from Patmos [the island to which the author, John, was exiled] to the end of history.
Futurists: place the book primarily in the end times.
Idealists: view it as symbolic pictures of such timeless truths as the victory of good over evil.
The title “Revelation” comes from the Greek word apocalypse, which means “unveiling” or “disclosure.” Revelation 1:3 says, “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” By its own admission, this book is a prophecy of things to come. Jerusalem’s destruction in AD 70 could not have been the focus of the book of Revelation, because it was written about AD 95 while John was in exile.
I believe the Historicist and Futurist positions combined is the best way to understand the pages of Revelation. The reference “last days” can legitimately apply to the whole period between the resurrection of Christ and His second coming (see Acts 2:16-17; 2 Timothy 3:1). This is also called the “Church age” and the “Messianic era.” The “last days” can also apply to those final days shortly before the return of Christ; we must discern which is in view by the context of the surrounding passage. In 2 Peter 3:3-4 we read, “First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come . . . . They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised?’” Then Peter explains:
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. (2 Peter 3:8-13)
This lengthy passage was quoted for two reasons. First, it uses “the last days,” “the day of the Lord,” “the day of God,” and the “coming” of Christ, all in the same context. Second, God’s judgment is described in common sense, regular speech—not in symbolic references as are found in the apocalyptic literary style. 2 Peter is a letter that was circulated for the purpose of teaching and encouraging the Church. It is written in common narrative speech.
The writers of the Holy Bible used various literary styles to communicate their messages. This fact must be taken into account for valid interpretation to take place. The apocalyptic literary style is found in Revelation, Daniel (chapters 7-12), parts of Zechariah, and in other books of the Bible. Apocalyptic (revelatory) material “may be defined as symbolic, visionary, prophetic literature, usually composed during oppressive conditions and being chiefly eschatological in theological content.” It is “primarily a literature of encouragement to the people of God,” to give them strength to endure their circumstances and hope beyond the grave. This literary style was used many times in the accounts of visions of the future that God gave His prophets. Though there is much symbolism involved, some of the unusual descriptions could be the result of the tremendous differences between ancient and modern culture and technology. For example, how would a man from AD 95 describe a vision of 20th century warfare? The vision may have been as realistic as you or I would see it today, but look completely foreign to the ancient observer.
Frequently, the key to the interpretation of a passage is found somewhere within the context. For example, in Revelation 1:19-20, Jesus Christ explains to John the meaning of the introductory prophecies:
Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
Also, it is wise to bear in mind that prophecy has an interesting characteristic: the closer we get to its fulfillment, the more it begins to make sense. Sometimes it is only in retrospect that we can confidently confirm that a prophecy came true. Psalm 22 is a “Messianic Psalm,” and is the most quoted Psalm in the New Testament. We read here about the insults hurled at Christ, the piercing of His hands and feet, the casting of lots for His clothing, and much more. There are so many details of the crucifixion contained in its verses, that we can only marvel!
There is a general “rule of thumb” we were taught in seminary: “If the common sense makes sense, seek no other sense.” In other words, we need to avoid the extreme of symbolizing every prophecy we encounter. One other important point to consider: God does not offer His people warnings and encouragement based on myth or falsehood. Whichever way we decide to interpret these end time prophecies, we must remember that they represent the truth!
The Signs of the End of the Age
Turning to the consideration of prophecies connected with the second coming of Christ and the “end of the age,” we look at Jesus’ words in Matthew 24. His disciples had just come to Him and asked, “Tell us, when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3) Christ’s answer reveals a series of events that will precede His coming back to earth again. The main points are found in verses 4-35. It is apparent that Jesus is describing a chronological progression of events, some of which may be coinciding and/or overlapping. Please note the chronological transitions are rendered in blue:
4Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. 6You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.8All these are the beginning of birth pains.
So ends the progression of events to the end of this age. Jesus offers some final words to help those living in the final days:
Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. (Matthew 24:32-25)
Prophecies concerning many of the same events that Jesus revealed to His disciples that day are also found in Scripture in other places. The focus may be narrower or broader, and the descriptions may be more or less detailed, but Jesus gives us the general framework in which to understand these things.
Revelation is written in the apocalyptic literary style, as already discussed. This book also uses a literary device by which the author switches between heavenly scenes and earthly scenes as the prophecy unfolds. Understanding this phenomenon will help in the interpretation of the Revelation.
The Wars of Revelation
In Matthew 24, Jesus indicates there will be “wars and rumors of wars” leading up to His second coming. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these things are the beginning of birth pains” (vs. 6-8).
There appear to be several references to wars leading to mass destruction in the book of Revelation. With the opening of the second seal (Revelation 6:4), a fiery red horse is released and “its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other.” This becomes the general atmosphere of unrest which exists and grows worse until the final battle of Armageddon and Christ returns to the earth.
Revelation 6:7-8 records what will happen when the fourth seal is opened. A pale horse emerges and its rider’s name is Death. “They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.” This does not specifically indicate that one-fourth of the earth’s population is killed; rather, it could mean that one fourth of the earth’s area, geographically speaking, will be affected by Death. That would be the size of one-half of a hemisphere! One can only make educated guesses about the cause of such wide spread devastation—perhaps biological or chemical warfare. Whatever the cause, a large number of the earth’s people will perish at this time.
Death comes to many more people during this time. Some are martyred for their faith and more die from ecological disasters that come upon the earth. The planet is now reaping the consequences of many of years of abuse by humankind; and the people of the earth are reaping the consequences of thousands of years of sin, hatred and strife against one another and against God.
The next specific reference to war is found in Revelation 9:13-21—and tremendous loss of life is involved. The sixth trumpet sounds and “the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates” are released to kill one-third of mankind. These could be demonic fallen angels who are now allowed to influence one or more countries to go into battle. The Euphrates is the longest river in western Asia, about 1700 miles long, and is the historic boundary between Israel and her enemies. This passage does not indicate who the aggressors are or what their target is, but we are given the specific number of troops in the army: two-hundred million! The author, John, made a point of saying, “I heard their number.” At the present time in earth’s history, there are probably only one or two countries that can muster such a huge army—one being China, and the other possibly India. It is also possible that the army is multi-national, such as through the United Nations.
Perhaps some clues can be found in the verses describing the army and its weaponry. Verses 17-19 read:
The horses and riders I saw in my vision looked like this: Their breastplates were fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulfur. The heads of the horses resembled the heads of lions, and out of their mouths came fire, smoke and sulfur. A third of mankind was killed by the three plagues of fire, smoke and sulfur that came out of their mouths. The power of the horses was in their mouths and in their tails; for their tails were like snakes, having heads with which they inflict injury.
Could the “breastplate” be a banner or flag of sorts? Could the “horses” be a first-century prophet’s description of a twentieth-century armored tank with its guns pointing both forward and to the rear? Could the “three plagues of fire, smoke and sulfur” refer to the type of weapons being used (e.g., biological, chemical, or nuclear)? What type of weaponry could cause such massive destruction of life?
The earth’s population today is almost six billion people. One-third would be two billion—an almost unfathomable loss of life! Undoubtedly, the population of the earth will have been significantly reduced by the time this war begins, so it is possible that only one-half or less of today’s population still remains by the end of this war. It is sobering when we consider that a major focus of the world’s tension and conflict today exists in the very region where this battle will be waged. And there is still more to come!
Like a woman in labor, her pains get closer and closer together and more intense as the time of birth draws near. This analogy is used to describe the upheavals the earth and its people will go through before the final battle of Armageddon and the second coming of Christ. Many more people die during this time of great tribulation when God’s judgment is poured out upon the earth.
In Revelation 16:12-16, with the “sixth bowl of God’s wrath,” the great river Euphrates is “dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East.” Then three evil spirits coming from the dragon (Satan), the beast (Antichrist), and the false prophet emerge: “They are spirits of demons performing miraculous signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty.” Then Christ says, “Behold, I come like a thief!” and admonishes His people to stay alert and be ready. Next the Scripture says the demonic spirits “gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.” This is believed to stand for “Har Mageddon,” meaning “the mountain of Megiddo.” There is a large valley in this region which could easily be the staging ground for a military buildup.
There is a break in the narrative here, while God deals with the judgment of Babylon the Great (most likely Rome). The second coming of Christ and battle of Armageddon continue in Revelation 19:11-21. John writes, “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. … The armies of heaven were following him …” This is the glorious return of Christ! John continues, “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 … The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur.” The rest of the armies of the earth who were gathered at Armageddon were killed by Christ Himself. And so begins the earthly reign of Jesus Christ.
We will remember that in Matthew 24:3 the disciples had asked Jesus what would be the “sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” The book of Revelation has now brought us to this point—the second coming of Christ and the destruction of His enemies. Matthew 24:30-31 speaks of this time, as well:
At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.
There are other passages that speak of this pivotal point in God’s salvation history. See, for example: 1 Corinthians 15:50-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:13 – 5:11; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, 2:1-12 (Antichrist); 2 Peter 3:1-13.
Revelation 20 reveals that there is still one more battle yet to come. After Christ’s second coming, the Scripture indicates that He will reign on the earth with those who have believed in Him for salvation. They (we!) will rule the nations with justice, and there appears to be some form of judgment taking place at this time. This reign will be for one thousand years—called the Millennium—during which time the dragon (Satan) is bound and thrown into the Abyss. At the end of the thousand years, Satan is released and the final showdown takes place:
Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. (Revelation 20:7-10)
At this time, the Great White Throne Judgment takes place—the final judgment of humankind. “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). After this time, there will be no more war!
Eternity in View
Now that sin and death have been forever conquered, we are given a glimpse into the future prepared for those who have placed their trust in God and in Jesus Christ our Savior. Revelation chapters 21 – 22 describe this beautiful eternity with its new heaven and new earth; the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God; the glorious temple and the river of life. God’s ultimate purpose for human beings, the greatest mystery of all, comes clearly into focus:
Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Revelation 21:3-4)
It has been several years since this article was originally written, and the prophecies in the book of Revelation have more clarity now than at any other time in history! Have we prepared ourselves for Christ’s return?
© 1999, 2003, 2019 by Cindy A. Harris, MA Theological Studies. All rights reserved.