keeps this site and its author alive.
So I thought I'd offer my ideas in this area--not because I have the answer, or know what's happening, but because I think I know why there's so much disagreement; and if I'm right, then everybody's wrong. So here is my
To dispel any confusion at the outset, Sandy Becker was a children's television show host in the New York City area when I was the right age to be watching that sort of thing. I've never met him nor corresponded with him; he is no longer alive. He probably did not know (nor care) about my theories of eschatology, or that they bear his name. But when the eschatological problems finally came into focus for me, it was something I had seen on his show decades before which brought it all together and made it clear. I hope he knew that he had a positive influence on the thoughts of at least one of those for whom he appeared. But we will get back to him later.
When I was in college (were there people then?), I heard Dr. J. Edwin Orr tell of an occasion on which Corrie Ten Boom asked him, "What is this a-, pre-, post-millennium", and he replied, "Yes, Corrie, that's a- pre- post-erous question." (I later heard Miss Ten Boom repeat the same story, so I take it as authentic.) These are the three great divisions in end-time theology, so it's worth taking a moment to understand them.
Pre-millennialism is the popular theory in the mid to late twentieth century. According to this view, the world is inevitably getting worse, and there's no stopping it; eventually the Antichrist will come to power, bringing in the tribulation, as God's people (Jews and Christians) are violently persecuted. At the end of this, Jesus will return to deliver those still alive, and reign on earth for a thousand years. Popularizers of this position delight in trying to connect current events to Biblical prophecies. I've read books and papers which have tentatively identified the Antichrist as Adolph Hitler, Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Gates; and efforts to draw the connections stretch back generations. The emergence of Israel as an independent nation is cited as proof that the end is at hand (although prior to that, the establishment by the British of a Jewish homeland in Palestine under British rule was similarly identified as fulfillment of that same expectation). There are wonderful things which can be said about this view; and horrible things which can be said against it. Often their "proofs" prove circular. Some time back, we were told that a giant computer somewhere in Europe which controlled much of the credit card and banking industries had been named "the beast" by its programmers, potentially fulfilling the prophecy of the coming of the Beast. However, the individual who gave the system that nickname did so precisely because he believed the computer was the beast predicted in Revelation! This kind of prophecy fulfilled by believers blackens the eye of the church generally; it also doesn't help that several points predicted by advocates of this position have failed to come to pass (where is Hal Lindsey's Russian/Israeli war?), and their anticipated time frames have at the very least slipped, and may have gone terribly awry.
Post-millennialism has fallen out of favor in this age; however, it was very popular in the nineteenth century and earlier. It's difficult for Christians today to realize that during America's two Great Awakenings, the revival was so infectious that society was completely altered. In parts of the country, judges and policemen were retired for lack of work. Many social ills were cured, and there was hope for a glorious future. Post-millennialists believed that the world was going to get better and better through the influence of Christ through his Church, until ultimately Jesus would come back and rule on earth for a thousand years. As to the tribulation, that would come later, when Satan made his last-ditch effort to defeat God, ending the Kingdom on earth, while the faithful moved to the Kingdom in heaven. In our day, this seems an absurd view--the very idea that the world could get better leading to the return of Christ is, at the very least, to say He can't come now. (This is arguable; the fact is, the world is getting better through many influences. We've defeated many killer diseases, and are working on major problems such as overpopulation and famine, seeking ways to use the world's resources to solve its problems, and reaching for the stars as the high ground of our future. It is not impossible to hold post-millennial views in this day, but it's more a matter of your perspective on what matters.) But during the Great Awakenings, it would have been equally as difficult to believe the world was getting worse, and that the Antichrist would come when it had reached a low point. Again, it would be saying that Christ cannot come today.
Post-millennialists have had their share of problems, too. George Mueller may have single-handedly ended one of our great revivals by announcing the date of Christ's return. Many of the faithful sold all their belongings to await that moment, only to be disappointed (and unable to recover their farms at the price at which they sold them) when He didn't agree with George on the timing. Apart from this, it has been accused of putting too much faith in the nature of man (even in the regenerate nature of man), as it relies on a belief that we, guided by our faith, will be able to save the world, in some sense without Him.
Amillennialism is the most difficult to grasp. Some call it heretical, as it literally means "no thousand years", that is, no literal reign of Christ on earth. But the millennium as such is not a clearly stated point of the faith in the Bible or the early writings of the church, and this position does believe in a millennial concept involving the reign of Christ on earth; it's just not the type of concept accepted by the other two views.
To the amillennialist, numbers in apocalyptic literature are symbolic, not literal. No head count of the 144,000 saved Jews would yield that exact number--it is based on there being twelve groups (the thousands) from each of twelve groups (the tribes of Israel), where "twelve" is a number always associated with God's chosen people. (Find just twelve members of the House of Dan, and I'll be impressed.) To the amillennialist, Christ is reigning on the earth right now, over the Christians in his church. In a sense, everything which must be true about the Millennium is true right now, in that limited area. God is ruling over His people directly, living in and among them, working miracles (and even the most staunchly anti-Pentecostal fundamentalist would have to agree that salvation is a miracle) and delivering His people from evil. When, then, is the Tribulation? It is also now, and has been since the Resurrection. The concept of seven years is because seven is the perfect number, the number of completion, as the world was completed in seven days, and so much of the imagery of Revelation revolves around things which come in sevens, including the seven churches of God to whom the book is addressed. When the tribulation has been perfect, has perfected God's people as perfectly as it must, it will be over. Christ will return, this view teaches, as soon as both the millennium and the tribulation have ended.
It's not an easy theory to grasp; and that's probably the biggest objection to it. After all, the Gospel is supposed to be simple, not requiring great wisdom to understand. Of course, this begs the question, are the details of the return of Christ an essential part of the faith? It would appear not, since those details are not at all clear (as the disagreement demonstrates), and you would have to have some level of wisdom and intelligence to be able to discern any one of the theories. All that the Bible clearly teaches, and all that the earliest creeds mentioned, is that Jesus will return. Not everything about God and His plan is the simple Gospel; and it is not necessary to understand all of God to be saved.
Amillennialists have had their failed predictions as well, most notably at the end of the tenth century when many expected the return of Christ to come a literal thousand years after his departure. However, these believers have since learned not to make predictions, and regard most of the "end time signs" as just part of the tribulation which continues.
Of course, each of the factions breaks into factions, and the representation here will not necessarily describe the views of any one theologian or believer; but at least you have a feel for the problem. Each believer who has given the matter some thought has probably developed a few nuances of understanding which define his expectations of the end of all things. I'm sure you have your own specific theories on the end of the world; I have a few, too, although I've concluded that they don't much matter.
The Nature of Prophecy
Long ago I realized that with all the great minds studying all the detailed exegesis done over all those centuries, I had little hope of determining who was right. Then it occurred to me that quite possibly, none of us had it right. But the reason for this is related to the very nature of prophecy.
You've undoubtedly noticed that Jesus said "of that day or hour, no man knows"; He went so far as to say that He Himself didn't know. Only God knows. Yet countless serious and popular theologians have made guesses as to when the return of Christ would come. There have been many ways devised for excusing them from this passage; among the most creative are guessing the month or year, but not the day or hour (which really misses the point, doesn't it?), and suggesting that Jesus didn't know when He said that, but has since found out and passed the information on to John for us to understand. (This argument would have had a lot more impact, had it not been found in a pre-world war two leaflet which had almost entirely failed to come to pass.) Many people think they know much about the end times; but few agree.
I'm reminded of the time of Christ, that is, the days during which Jesus walked the earth. We look back fondly at that time, and delight in observing how each prophecy was fulfilled. At the same time, we denigrate the religious leaders of the day for failing to recognize what was happening right before their eyes. It's true--the scribes and Pharisees pored over the scriptures constantly, and were intimately familiar with the prophecies. The Pharisees especially focused on predictions of the Messiah; they studied these, and built their expectations around various theologies. And they were all wrong.
We suggest a lot of reasons why they were wrong. God blinded their eyes. They were serving their own agenda. They confused predictions of the second coming with those of the first. But none of these ideas are fair, or likely. When we suggest them, we overlook the fact that scripture tells us that the devil himself wanted to understand the Messianic prophecies. We can be sure that he is more intelligent than we are, that he has spent far more time on the prophecies than we ever could, and that he has availed himself of all of our theories and researches. Yet he did not see beforehand that which seems so obvious to us after the fact: we are told that had he known God would raise Christ from the grave, he never would have allowed Jesus to be crucified. How could he have missed that? We can see quite clearly how the pieces fit together. Yet no one knew what would happen before it did, not even the devil himself.
Apparently, knowing and studying the prophecies, even in prayerful meditation, is not sufficient to provide full knowledge of the key events to come.
The Sandy Becker Theory of Eschatology: Five Lines
We now return to Sandy Becker. I won't regale you with what little I remember of his skits and characters, as they are not important to this discussion. In addition to all he did, Mr. Becker was a chalk artist, and he entertained us by drawing pictures for us. But these were not just any pictures; they were the pictures which we, through our letters, requested.
Each day, when it came time to draw the picture, Mr. Becker would pull an envelope from a bin and open it. Within would be a letter and a child's drawing of five "lines". "Lines" were not limited by a mathematical definition of that concept; they could be simple shapes, curves, angles, or other simple images. The letter would tell Mr. Becker what to draw. He would carefully copy the five lines as they appeared in the drawing onto his easel, and then start a clock. As we watched, he would connect those lines, creating the picture named in the letter, as the clock ticked off a minute.
I watched this day in and day out, I could not say how many times; and I fancied myself a creative thinker. As the lines were revealed, I would examine them, and think about what the picture should look like, and how I could fit those lines into it. I don't think I ever managed to get all five lines incorporated in my mind; more to the point, Mr. Becker never once used a line the way I expected, and his drawing never looked like the one I envisioned. Yet it was indeed a far better picture of that named thing than I could have produced, even today.
I am convinced that God has done nothing more than given us five lines, and told us that he's going to draw a picture of the end of all things in which each of those lines is an integral part. I am further convinced that Satan will never be able to figure out what that picture will look like until it is too late to stop it. But since he knows probably more than I know, and has undoubtedly taken the time to read every work on the end of the world ever produced, no matter how minor (even, I suspect, this one), it must also be true that none of us will ever correctly predict the end of all things in any important detail.
The Point of Prophecy
So why do we have prophecy anyway, and what's the point of studying it? Given that we'll never know what it means, how will knowing what it says help us?
I'm about to say something which goes against every fiber of my thinking as a teacher; yet I'm convinced that it's true. The benefit of prophecy does not come from understanding it, but from hearing it. That is exactly what John was told in Revelation: Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy. There is no mention of comprehension, of understanding what it says.
But how can that be? What benefit can we gain from reading something we don't understand? Well, I've read reams of poetry, and there has been much of it that I did not understand from which I still benefited. The beauty of the imagery alone can be a great blessing, and the fact that blessing is promised to the readers and hearers suggests that it is more than that. If God says we are blessed by reading and hearing that which we do not understand, then let us not concern ourselves so much with how it works.
Yet the teacher within me would fathom that more deeply; there are benefits we receive without understanding.
In reading through Revelation, one thing which is obvious is the dichotomy between the control of God and the chaos in the world. Earth, from the perspective of earth, is assaulted with plagues, famines, wars, death, and curses of the worst sort imaginable or unimaginable. Rulers rise, and believers are persecuted. Holy places are desecrated, false religions lead many astray, and all hope is lost. Yet through it all, God is calmly sitting on His throne, in control of all that passes for chaos here below. None of it is outside His plan. That image of the glorious Kingdom of God will be realized somehow, and none of what happens before that is unexpected or has any chance of derailing the plan of God. As I read the prophecies, I do not know how they will be fulfilled; but I know that they will be fulfilled, and that God is still in control. This alone is of great value to us.
It is also the case that eventually these predictions will come to pass. As they do, it will be a great encouragement to us to know that our God knew what would happen before it did, and this will in turn lead to greater praise and glory to God. Certainly sometimes we will think we see them happening, only to discover that the end is not yet. Even so, once that final image is drawn and we see how the five lines we saw a minute before have become part of a picture which is both exactly what we were told it would be and completely unexpected by any of us, we will know once again how great our God is.
I trust this will be of some help to you in your studies and in your worship.