Eschatology and Interpreting the Present and the Future

        Author: Rev Loh Soon Choy


It would be appropriate, as the NECF Research Commission on Eschatology, (Greek 'eschata' or 'last things') that we begin from the beginning: first the idea in historical, doctrinal and intellectual perspective, then some absolutely basic 'ground-rules' or landmarks in approaching the subject. Such a procedure is realistic and pastoral.

It gives us a 'larger picture' from which we can get a better idea of the true nature, significance, urgency and difficulties of a potentially fascinating-distracting subject. The purpose is that we might be balanced and focussed yet passionate and Christ-centred in our living and on all eschatological explorations that surely will be urged upon us pastorally these "last days" when many will be seduced (1 Tim 2:1; 2 Tim 3:1, etc.).

Various detailed 'pictures' (studies) can be provided by others in this and subsequent issues of this FORUM. Such studies unfortunately have been rather narrowly-confined to such topics as the following:

The Day of the Lord and the Kingdom (Rule) of God in both the Old and New Testaments, the Millenium (the 1,000 years in Rev. 20), the 'parousia' (Greek: 'presence' or 'coming') and Second Coming of Christ, various prophetic and 'apocalyptic' writings such as Daniel, Revelation, Mark 13 and parallels, times of the Gentiles, Tribulation, Seventy Weeks, various beasts, horns, King of Tyre, anti-Christ, 666, scarlet woman, Babylon, Israel, a new heaven and a new earth, not to mention terrible plagues, huge angels and rivers of bloods!


A leading evangelical scholar, Prof. Millard J. Erickson, has pointed out that different periods of Christian history have emphasised different areas of Christian doctrine.1 Dr James Orr, a renown British scholar, lecturing at the end of the 19th Century, had summarised the matter thus - if we may so tabulate his summary: 2

2nd Century


Apologetics (defending fundamental of Christian beliefs)

3rd & 4th Century


Doctrine of God (including the Trinity)

Early 5th Century


Doctrine of Man and Sin

5th - 7th Century


Doctrine of the Person of Christ

8th - 10th Century


Dr Orr did not characterise this period. We can identify it with the rise of the papacy and the neglect of biblical studies of more earthly pursuits generally (sometimes called the 'Dark Ages')

11th -16th Century


The Atonement (Death of Christ)

16th Century


Application of above (Doctrine of Justification)

Orr passed over the 17th and 18th Centuries. We can mark them by the Puritan and Prestic Movements and the Great Evangelical Awakening (stressing Revival and subsequently Missions) on the one hand. On the other hand, this period birthed the so-called Age of Reason and the intellectual movement of thought called the "Enlightenment" that did some good but also much harm to the Church.

The 19th Century did discussed the doctrine of Eschatology but not in a major way. It is the 20th Century that Eschatology became prominent, following the attention given to, successively, the doctrines of Revelation (the Bible), the Church, and the Holy Spirit.

From the above, we may venture the following conclusions:

  1. God seems to have His times and seasons even in matters of doctrinal emphases;
  2. The Church must respond to wrong teachings. In part, these are then 'unpaid debts' - failure to live and teach the Truth adequately;
  3. God may want His Church and Bride to know Him - and the foundational doctrines - first before she may safely "study" the end-times, content that she lived expectantly in the "Blessed Hope" of the Bridegroom's soon return (Titus 2:13).


Dr. Stephen Travis, a Cambridge scholar in Eschatology, reminds us of the "many reasons for the current interest in the subject inside and outside of scholarly circles.3 Such reasons include the time when a society senses its 'centre' is falling apart or it is at an end of an era when it experiences various severe cultural, socio-economic, political, religious and environmental crises, disasters, catastrophes and tribulations. Hence, the perennial doomsday prophets, oracles, fortune-tellers and soothsayers with their intellectual and literary or artistic counterparts ranging from Nostradamus to H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and many others (not excluding the proponents of the "Bible Code"!). Even the Biblical term 'apocalypse' (Greek 'apo-kalypsis in Rev 1:1) is now popularised by Hollywood. It means an 'uncovering' or 'unveiling' or revelation into the future. Often this is done in awful, sometimes nightmarish, scenarios so that Eugene Peterson says,

"Apocalypse is arson - it secretly sets a fire in the imagination that boils the fat out of an obese culture-religion and renders a clear gospel-love, a pure gospel-hope and a purged gospel-faith"4

However, even without severe crises, life itself is plagued by individual and collective disappointments, shattered dreams, dashed hopes and fears of death or a holocaust and the after-life. Reason and Science cannot be concerned only with the Beginning of things but also the End.

The subject is therefore divided into Individual and World Eschatology. It is more with the latter that we are concerned. Even the irreligious have their secular utopia and doomsday 'eschatologies' (Marxism, Fascism, Secular Humanism) or 'futurologies'(Alvin Toffler, Herman Khan and Anthony Weiner, Ronald Higgins, various "think-tanks and commissions such as the Club of Rome notable for its Limits to Growth, 1972, and many others including the recent Samuel Huttington's Clash of Civilisations.

As if that were not enough, many liberal interpreters add (or delimit the subject to) another dimension - that of the 'existential' and 'mythical' as a sort of philosophical-religious and moral statement about human life and situation now (Albert Schweitzer, C.H. Dodd, R. Bultmann).

The bottom-line for us is: (a) be careful of an all-too-natural "overdose" and (b) do not explore the subject alone or only using one (or one type of) source(s)!


Whether due to being biblically ill-informed, or to a mistaken desire to be 'normal and sensible' in reaction to "end-time lunatics and junkies", many Christians tragically ignore or 'soft-pedal' this great and urgent subject - even if they are not exactly 'scoffers' (2 Pet. 3:3,4)

If I may paraphrase D.W.B. Robinson5, a former Vice-Principal of the premier Moore Theological College, Australia, Christians are always to live and serve expectantly that "the end of all things is at hand" (1 Pet. 4:7; 2 Pet. 3:11; 2 Cor. 5:10). Our baptisms assure us that we are "sealed unto the day of redemption" (Eph. 4:30), i.e. our very 'bodies' would be set free from the power of sin. The Holy Communion itself is always "till He Comes" (1 Cor. 11:26; Matt. 26:29; Luke 14:15, 22, 30). Our prayers are premised and centred, implicitly or explicitly, on 'Thy Kingdom come'. Early Church worship featured the triumphant (not triumphalistic) 'Maranatha!' ("Our Lord, Come!": 1 Cor. 16:22; Rev. 22:20).

The 2nd Coming of Jesus is mentioned 318 times in the 260 chapters of the New Testament. This teaching occupies one in every 25 verses from Matthew to Revelation, according to Rev. Dr. Robert Lamont. He also adds:

"No wonder that Dr. James Denny, speaking out of a lifetime of scholarship,declared that we cannot call in question what stands so plainly in the pagesof the New Testament, what filled so exclusively the minds of the first Christians - the idea of a personal return of Christ at the end of the age. If we are to retain any relation to the New Testament at all, we must assert the personal return of Christ as Judge of all."6

Let our new students and teachers of the subject not think that only they and their disciples are faithful to the biblical doctrine of the centrality, urgency and certainty of Christ's personal, visible, bodily and glorious return as King and Judge of all. Let there be no name-calling ("false theologians", "false-teachers", etc) just because their good-brethren-in-Christ do not agree on certain physical and chronological details of His Return. But let also the slumbering Christians wake up, be watchful, prayerful and expectant about the Bridegroom's Return (Luke 21: 36; Mk 13:5, 9, 23, etc) and "speed His coming" (2 Pet. 3:12; Rev. 22: 20), stirring up one another in that "Blessed Hope" (Titus 2:13) - and not pay 'lip-service' only to the precious doctrine, rightly provoking the ire of our zealous end-time brothers!


We have slipped into the specific and central issue of Christ's Second Coming from some general end-time issues. This leads us to another absolutely basic landmark ("Christ in all the Scriptures") in all doctrinal studies: to be Christ-centred in both attitude and content. As seen in all the above sections (including among good Christians) there is danger of the 'Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology'. This has been impressively demonstrated in a seminal work by that title by Professor Adrio König, one of South Africa's leading theologians.7

We can side-track into controversial and unedifying details and become irrelevant, irresponsible and even ridiculous over ultimately things supra-historical, supra-rational and supernatural: "what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him (1 Cor. 2:9). For He has revealed only what is sufficient and necessary for our salvation, sanctification and mission (John 21:25).

Dr. König attempts to show where most of current biblical and theological scholarship on the subject falls short of a radical Christocentric eschatology. Ray S. Anderson of Fuller Theological Seminary says of König:

"His biblical and historical approach - stays close to the pulse of the divine heart which we encounter in the Christ for us, in us and with us. Eschatology has to do not (just) with the last things but with the person of Christ, who is the first and the last One"8

May our posture and the content of our eschatological studies be likewise.


This refers to a sense of history and perspective - another landmark in all studies, hardly mentioned in Church! To grasp the future, we have to understand the past and the present. The biblical prophets knew their past and their contemporary times for their own and the other nations - their collective socio-economic, political and cultural experiences. Their "sense of history", to use the words of Selwyn Hughes, was a prank of being "a people prepared". He says,

"Many pastors tell me of their concern about what is being read by the peopleof God today. Most Christian readings focus on the present or the future, forinstance, how to handle problems, or will the Church go through the Tribulation? Is it wrong to read this kind of material? Of course not. But we need to have a retrospective look as well as a prospective one if we are to be "a people prepared."9

Selwyn regrets that many Christians today, young or old, are disinterested in the great events of the past. "Everyone", said a professor whom Selwyn quoted, "wants to know where we are going; few want to know where we come from."

A sense of history and of the 'Big Picture' would save us from making sweeping, dogmatic statements, irresponsible assertions and speculations posing as biblical teaching. It would have saved many from unwitting and collective deception, which has sometimes proven to be fatal. Such tragedies spawn the scandal of Christian extremism, disunity, and lack of credibility, wisdom and humility.

Like Jesus' seamless garment, or the 'law of God' in James 2:10, or God's world and ecosystems, there is "something" about the unity, integrity and sanctity of all truth wherever it is found. There is also a parallel "something" about the structure of the mind and the complementarity and "co-inherence" or inter-relationship of all knowledge that is genuine that cannot be broken. This is why we cannot choose to be ignorant or unfairly selective in our evidence, or refuse to check or test our views with as many different reputable authorities as possible. Such are the obligations of any honest, serious student and teacher (Jas 3:1; Prov. 27:17, 24:6, 11:14, 15:22; Phil. 4:8). That is why doctrinal or any responsible study has to be done in community (the Church at large, involving past and present authorities and a "diversity-in-unity" of views).

Indeed, such a challenge towards a sense of history and the largest possible perspective (before struggling with the details), calls us together to "redeem or repossess the spoils of Egypt," i.e. the resources of the world: intellectual, economic, cultural, technological, etc., for His service (Ex. 3:22; 12:36, and the parallel "spoils of the enemies"/"spoils of war" in Jos. 22:8, etc). For in the first place, these riches and "spoils" belonged to God, though "hijacked" by sinful men or the devil for the world's use.10

All this is part of being a good steward in these last days of the 'manifold grace of God' (1 Pet. 4:7-10).

Jesus Himself said,

"Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old." (Matt. 14:52).

For Eschatology embraces the Past and the Present too, with many dimensions of human and even demonic and planetary life and activity though centred on Christ and the text of Scripture. We need to exegete (expound) both the Scripture text and the human socio-historical context in perspective, learning from one another under the authority of Scripture and the Holy Spirit. Selwyn Hughes, a fortnight later, in his devotional readings affirmed such a responsibility for the use of the mind in the service of God (Matt. 22:37) and that "this is not the time for ignorant piety."


The above landmark about the sanctity and unity of all truth wherever it is found is, of course, particularly true of God's Revelation ('the Scripture cannot be broken,' John 10:35) which embraces the doctrines of Creation, the Fall, the calling out of a covenant people, Israel, the Exodus & Redemption, the Law and the Rule or Kingdom of God, Jesus' Birth, Death and Resurrection. All of these, and other scriptures too, must be allowed to relate or inter-face with the purpose and doctrine of Jesus' Second Coming and the Last Things!

Yet, in this last respect, this is often not done. Preachers and Sunday School teachers steeped in the works of Hal Lindsey and Salem Kirban, for example, could spend decades talking about the end-times and not relate them to Creation, Fall, or Redemption. This is the important difference between responsible and irresponsible, sensationalist apocalypticists.

As Rodney Clapp says in an issue of "CHRISTIANITY TODAY",

"......sensational apocalypticists concentrate solely on the future, disconnecting the Second Coming from the rest of the biblical story. Responsible apocalypticists recognise that, in Jesus, the future has already invaded the present and (in the sense of fulfilling creation) the past...... At the very beginning of his mission, Jesus declared that the Kingdom of God had come (Mk 1:15). Likewise......Paul saw himself among these "on whom the end of the ages has come" (1 Cor. 10:11). Thus, the key-event of the Christian story is not ahead of us. Jesus with his life and his work on the cross has brought creation to its fulfilment, reversed the effects of the Fall, and enabled reconciliation... Responsible apocalypticism ...... focuses on the future; but its future crucially encompasses the past and the present."11

For the responsible apocalypticist, life will not be out of balance. He could appreciate, even if he did not personally agree, why Martin Luther said, "If I knew the Lord was returning tomorrow, I would plant a tree today." His is no escapist eschatology. He looks forward not so much to a destroyed earth but a new earth where things of God (including the "tree") have some kind of "continuity" into a final glorious fruition - like all the good things done for God. In Rev. 21:24, repeated in v. 26, "the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour (v. 26 adds "of the nations") into it." The evil world systems will be consumed but God's good things will be transferred anew.


(Matt 24 & 25)

The vexatious question "When shall these things be?" is as natural and as ancient as from the lips of Jesus' disciples on the Mount of Olives (Matt 24:3; Mk. 13:4; Luke 21:7)! To answer them, the Lord did announce an 'agenda' or 'scheme' in board outline; namely the various signs of His coming. An agenda, scheme and signs do not exactly make a program or schedule where you can identify times and dates. The Lord's answer filled 2 long chapters totalling 97 verses in Matt 24 & 25.

It merely characterises or "describes" (i) the spiritual development or course of this age (24:4-14); (ii) the great tribulation (24:15-26) and (iii) His glorious Second Coming proper (24:27-31). Most significant for us to note today is that the rest of His discourse (1½ chapters) is practical! BUT, there are no further specific programmatic details of dates, historical events and personages such as would permit us to draw up a schedule, a time-table or a precise chronological chart and actual "countdown"!

Instead, the very large "practical section" of Jesus' discourse emphasises his repeated commands to us to be watchful "for ye know not what hour your Lord will come." (24:42; 25:13; etc) The urgency was illustrated qualitatively in a variety of ways: (i) the parable of the fig-tree (vv. 32-33); (ii) the days of Noah (vv. 37-39); (iii) two men in the field (v. 40) and two women at the mill (v. 41); (iv) the alert houseowner (vv. 43-44); (v) the faithful and wise servant (vv. 45-47) and the evil servant (vv. 48-51); (vi) the Ten Virgins (25:1-13); (vii) the parable of the Talents (25:14-30); and (viii) the sheep and goats and the "practical Christianity" or "social concern" test towards the poor, deprived and marginalised (25:31-46) - i.e. our present responsibilities, discipleship and mission, not our preoccupation with the future and the exact date and year of His return! Surely there is no higher authority than the Lord Jesus!11


Teaching cannot be separated from language. We need not enter into the very extensive amount of apostolic and New Testament teaching that follows the Lord's restrained teaching and silence as regards the actual time His coming and that of His Kingdom or Rule. The time has been traditionally summarised as 'imminent' (anytime soon, for example, Matt 24:33), "it is near, even at the door", and may other passages that reflect this "eschatological tension" or overlap. This "nearness" (elsewhere "soon) - "even-at-the door" teaching need to be treated more fully later, as the matter has been a hot issue. It is something most easy to popularise and sensationalise, especially coupled with the nature of religious and, in particular, apocalyptic language with its fiery symbolism and imagery drawn from the ancient world of the Old Testament and strictly to be first interpreted in that context. Akin to what Eugene Peterson said above (Sect. 2), Rodney Clapp says,

"Apocalyptic imagination, like dynamite, is always dangerous. Dynamite is especially dangerous in the hands of someone who does not understand it... But kept in its place ... dynamite can be responsibly owned and used."12

So characteristic is the use of strange symbolism in apocalyptic that the godly and renown scholar, Dr. Leon Morris, cites an even higher authority on the subject, E. Schürer:

"The peculiarity of this later 'apocalyptic' medium as distinguished from the older genuine prophecy is this, that it imparts its revelations not in clear and plain language, but in a mysterious enigmatical form. The thing intended to be communicated is veiled under parables and symbols, the meaning of which can only be guessed at."13

Many authorities who have given their lives to biblical studies confirm that such "guessing" can be done with some accuracy sometimes when there are sufficient clues. But on the whole, apocalyptic symbolism can be a "happy, hunting ground" for unprincipled interpreters who do not care to follow the landmarks.

Seventh Adventism, Jehovah's Witnesses and others including well meaning Christians down through the centuries have confidently set dates for the Second Coming of Christ. Even the learned New Testament textual scholar and commentator Bengel produced the following table with regard to his commentary on Revelation 17:-

    "AD1143: The forty-two months begins

    AD1810: The forth-two months end

    AD1832: The Beast ascends out of the bottomless pit

    AD1863: The Beast finally overthrown"!14

Today, not a few have "calculated" that Jesus will return in the year 2000AD or 2006AD while not a few others have survived disappointments with many an earlier date! These folks argue that while Jesus said we may not know "the day nor the hour" (Matt 25:13), we may know the actual year! They misunderstand the function of language - here, that of metaphor and idiom for "time" that cannot be taken literally in terms of the year, day and hour. Wise is the godly and still renown Purita Bible commentator, Matthew Henry, who says, "Many things God wants us to know clearly and plainly….. We do not need to pry into things he keeps as mystery."


We could not fully discuss the "principles of interpretation" in eschatology and prophecy. To attempt to do so in a few pages would grossly over-simplify a complex subject that has accumulated to itself a lot of contemporary as well as historical data such as were not available in earlier eras to scholars. Such data may confuse or may help a would-be interpreter. They seem to cry out for attention as they appear to outdate our traditional textbooks in temper and mood, and certainly outdo the latter in sensationalism and excitement! But these things can be said below, by way of conclusion:

First, however interesting and intimidating they may seem to be, in so far as we have sought to track, compile and discuss them together in our Commission and with others who have the best credentials to do so, the issue is not so much, finally, "when shall these things be" (Jesus has already answered that in the imminent sense of "any time soon"!). The issue is more "How then shall we live?" Biblically, this has also been answered briefly above. It needs no repetition here but a further "teaser" (or provocative illustration) would help. When a famous Christian contemplative, Thomas Merton, was asked why a group of radical apocalyptics (known as Shakers) could produce such wonderful furniture, …..he replied, "When you expect the world to end at any moment, you know there is no need to hurry, you take your time, you do your work well."15 Merton's response is a reminder, at least, that if you know Christ as your Saviour, there is no need to be (paradoxically!) panicky and hasty "because Jesus is coming" - or the Titanic is sinking (remember the brave musical band?).

Second, it would appear to our shame, that while heresies may be the "unpaid debts of the church," they may be "god-flies" that sting or bite us (or many of us) out of our complacency about His Second Coming! So we need continuos restatement and teaching on Eschatology today along with other doctrines and issues as indicated above. Certainly, much more than so many "motivational" talks and seminars!

Third, the hearts of many today, more than ever before, are insecure and fearful despite their appearances. The very technology, knowledge-explosion, medical, biological and financial wizardry they vaunted as progress have become more and more like their doom and nightmares. It is not the lack of God's good, earthly bounties which is the problem, but the human greed and selfishness and lack of moral and spiritual resources. Thoughtful people know the problems are insoluble. Because of this, they seek 'salvation' and escape in a variety of ways. This is where a prayerful, expectant, godly and united church can offer the "Blessed Hope" and the soon-returning Christ Who alone can set all things right. In the meantime, 'till He comes', as John Stott says, "the eschatological vision of the new world of righteousness and peace, which Christ will usher in, shows us what kind of society pleases God, and therefore gives us a strong incentive to seek at least an approximation to it"16

May "Your will be done, on earth (now) as it is in heaven," as the 'Lord's prayer' reminds us!




Millard J. Erickson, CONTEMPORARY OPTIONS IN ESCHATOLOGY, Baker Book House, 1977 p. 11-12.


James Orr, THE PROGRESS OF DOGMA, Hodder & Stoughton, 1901, pp. 29-30, cited by above, p.11.


Stephen Travis, CHRISTIAN HOPE & THE FUTURE OF MAN, Inter-varsity Press, 1980, p. 11-12.


Paul Stevens, END TIMES: Practical Heavenly Mindedness - 13 studies for Individuals and Groups, IVP, 1994, p. 18


D.W.B. Robson, THE HOPE OF CHRIST'S COMING, Falcon Booklet, Church Pastoral - Aid Society, London, p. 3


Robert J. Lamont, THE BIBLICAL CERTAINTY OF CHRIST'S RETURN, First Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, USA, n.d., p. 3


Andrio König, THE ECLIPSE OF CHRIST IN ESCHATOLOGY, W. Perdmans Puh. Company, & Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1989


Ibid, Backcover Page


Selwyn Hughes, EVERYDAY WITH JESUS, 11th Feb. 1999 Reading


Loh Soon Choy, IN SEARCH OF A RESPONSIBLE SOCIETY, Malaysia Bible Seminary, 1990


CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Oct 28, 1991, p. 28


Ibid., p. 28- See also David W.F. Wong, WATCH! The Watchword of the End Times, Grace Communications, Singapore, 1993, 1995 (Based on an original dissertation on Mark 13 at the University of Aberdeen.)


Leon Morris, APOCALYPTIC, W. Ferdmans & IVP, 1972, 1973, p. 36 - See also Stephen Travis, CHRISTIAN HOPE….., for his excellent exposition, pp. 25-61 (Chapters 2 - 4)


A. Morgan Derham, SHALL THESE THINGS BE? Tyndale, 1962, p. 25


CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Oct 28, 1991, p. 29


In "EVANGELISM & SOCIAL RESPONSIBLE, AN EVANGELICAL COMMITMENT", a joint report of an international consultation by the World Evangelical Fellowship and the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelisation, (Paternester Press, 1982)




Bavinck, Herman, THE LAST THINGS, Paternoster Press (Eng. Translation, n.d.)

Derham. A. Morgan, SHALL THESE THINGS BE?, Tyndale Press, London, 1962


Grenz, Stanley J., MILLENIAL MAZE - Sorting out Evangelical Options, Inter. Varsity Press,

Hoekema, A.A., THE BIBLE & THE FUTURE, Paternoster Press

Hughes, Philip Edgcumbe, INTERPRETING PROPHECY, Wm. Eerdmans, 1977

Jeffrey, Grant R., ARMAGEDDON : APPOINTMENT WITH DESTINY, Frontier Research Pub. Inc, Toronto, 1997 (Revd.)

König, Adrio, THE ECLIPSE OF CHRIST IN ESCHATOLOGY, Wm. Eerdmans Pub. Cc. & Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1989

Ladd, George Eldon, THE BLESSED HOPE, W.M. Eermans, 1975

Morris, Leong, APOCALYPTIC, Tyndale Press/IVP, 1972

Robinson, D.W.B., THE HOPE OF CHRIST'S COMING, Church Pastoral-Aid Society, 1962

Stevens, Paul, END-TIMES : Practical Heavenly Mindedness - 13 studies for Individual & Groups, A Lifeguide Bible Study, 1994.


Vines, Jerry, "I SHALL RETURN" - JESUS, Victor Books, 1981

Wong, David .W.E., WATCH! THE WATCHWORD OF THE END TIMES, Grace Communications, Singapore, 1995



Burgess, Stanley M. & McGee, Gary B (edd.), DICTIONARY OF CHRISTIANITY - from the viewpoint of Pentecostal & Charismatic Christianity.



Tan, Paul Lee, A PICTORIAL GUIDE TO BIBLE PROPHECY, Bible Communications, Inc, 1991, USA


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