The subject of eschatology can often be very confusing, even intimidating for some people. Sometimes it can seem as if there are nearly as many different views as there are Bible scholars and teachers! And despite the fact that there are a seemingly endless number of resources (books, lectures, Bible conferences, etc.) available on the subject, we seem to be further and further away from any consensus. The result? Many sincere believers despair of ever grasping the basics of biblical eschatology.
That being the case, you might be surprised to learn that the eschatology of the early ecumenical creeds was rather simple. The Apostles’ Creed (circa 3rd century AD), for example, notes that the Lord Jesus Christ will return from heaven where He is presently seated at the right hand of God. It simply says “From there he will come to judge the living [or the “quick”] and the dead.” So the Creed clearly connects the return of Christ with the final judgment of all mankind.
The other aspects of eschatology that are found in the Apostles’ Creed are the resurrection of the dead and the eternal state (heaven and hell). The focus is clearly on how these two essential elements of eschatology relate to believers in particular. The creed simply speaks of “the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting” (which are, incidentally, the last two things mentioned in the creed).
So according to the Apostles’ Creed (and the Nicene Creed as well) there are only four (4) things that any truly biblical understanding of Christianity must necessarily include:
The Return of Christ
The Final Judgment of the Living and the Dead
The Eternal State (Heaven for Believers in Christ; Hell for the Wicked and Unbelieving)
That’s it. No mention of the millennium. No mention of the tribulation. No mention whatsoever of a rapture of the church as distinct and separate from Christ’s second coming. All that is to say that there is no other aspect of a proper, biblical eschatology (if the Apostles’ Creed is viewed as a summary of the Christian faith) that can be held as definitive or essential to any truly Christian view of eschatology.
That is not to say that those other things are unimportant, nor that we should not study, discuss, and even debate them. We should strive to the best of our ability to rightly understand and articulate whatever the Scriptures say about the last things. We can disagree on those things, but we should not divide or break fellowship over them if the four basic essentials listed above are sincerely agreed upon.
For example, Dispensationalism certainly adds things to the four (4) essentials of Christian eschatology. In addition to the Return of Christ, this school of thought holds to a separate “rapture” of the church (which amounts to a sort of partial return of Christ before the actual return of Christ). They would also add a 7-year tribulation before Christ’s return, and a literal 1,000 year earthly reign of Christ before the final judgment. But, having said all of that, they nevertheless still hold to the four (4) essentials listed above; they just differ in some measure regarding many of the other details.
To be sure, I believe that Dispensationalists are mistaken on a number of things regarding their views on eschatology. (And no doubt my Dispensationalist brothers would say that I am mistaken on a number of points as well!) But I will not break fellowship over such things. Why not? Because we both still hold to the four (4) essentials of what I term “Apostles’ Creed Eschatology.”