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"Pre-tribulation," "post-tribulation," "millennial," and "dispensationalist" are all terms that I've heard used to describe certain eschatological beliefs held by groups of mainstream Evangelicals (among other denominations). The problem is, I don't know what most of these terms mean, or how those who name, develop, or study them categorize these different beliefs about the end-times.

What is an overview of common ways in which eschatological beliefs are distinguished within the Evangelical churches?

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You've placed a tall order, to be sure!

Having grown up in Evangelicalism, I am more than a little familiar with the various eschatological schemes embraced and taught by more-conservative Evangelicals. When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, Dispensational theology was taken for granted among the Plymouth Brethren, a movement of anti-Church-of-England Christians in the British Isles in the early 19th century. (The Plymouth Brethren, by the way, is the "non-denominational" denomination with which I identify.)

A Bit of History

One of the early leaders of my denomination was John Nelson Darby. He is credited with making Dispensationalism the go-to eschatology of the Plymouth Brethren. I guess you could say that dispensational theology birthed a renewed interest in eschatology in the last 200 years and made such terms as rapture, millennium, the Great Tribulation, pre-trib, post-trib (even mid-trib!) and the Day of the Lord important buzzwords in any discussion of eschatology in many conservative Evangelical churches around the world.

Darby, by the way, was a summa cum laude graduate (actually a "Classical Medalist") of Trinity College in Dublin at the age of 18. According to Larry V. Crutchfield,

Brilliant, gifted, and with all the right connections, Darby had been groomed for and was practically assured a successful career in law. But a deep spiritual struggle gripped the budding young barrister in his eighteenth year and caused him to abandon that profession after only one year of practice between 1822 and 1823. Darby's spiritual odyssey lasted until 1825 when he received ordination as deacon in the Church of England. The following year, he was elevated to the priesthood and assigned a curacy in remote County Wicklow, Ireland.

Darby was a brilliant linguist, and his eponymous version of the Bible (viz., The Darby Translation) is universally respected to this day (the complete Bible being published in 1890, eight years after his death). Darby also was a respected leader and pastor who planted churches in Germany and France. He influenced the theology of many American churchmen, whose names are perhaps more familiar to Evangelicals than Darby! Men such as James Hall Brookes, Adoniram Judson Gordon (namesake of Gordon College and Gordon Conwell Seminary) Arno C. Gaebelein, William E. Blackstone, Cyrus I. Scofield (to whom Blackstone introduced dispensational theology shortly after Scofield was converted). Scofield, of course, is remembered fondly by millions of Christians as the editor of the Scofield Reference Bible. I suggest that virtually every study Bible published ever since Scofield's first came on the scene in 1909 (published by Oxford University Press--citation) owes a debt of gratitude to C. I. Scofield!

Although Darby is credited with being "the father of Dispensationalism," the concept of biblical dispensations (or ages, or eras, or differing economies in the outworking of God's plans and purposes for Planet Earth), goes back to the writings and teachings of some of the early Church Fathers, such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Turtullian (citation). Moreover, according to Charles C. Ryrie, author of Dispensationalism Today and emeritus professor of theology at a bastion of dispensational thought, Dallas Theological Seminary, in the approximately 150 years before Darby came on the scene,

an increasing number of theologians were articulating dispensational schemes of Biblical history (pp.71-74; cited here by Dr. Thomas Ice).

The key terms pre-tribulation, post-tribulation, rapture, millennium, pre-mil, post-mil, not to mention the names for the seven dispensations into which salvation history is divided within the dispensational scheme (e.g., Innocence, Conscience, Human Government, and Law) and the interpretation (often labeled pejoratively--and unfairly--"literal" interpretation) of the Bible's doctrine of eschatology (i.e., the study of future things, such as the return of Christ, both "in the air" and "to the earth") are part and parcel of the dispensational mode of "rightly dividing [or accurately handling] the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15).

What's Wrong With This Picture?

Let's pause here to address a heart-felt concern of mine and--I hope--many other believers worldwide. Some Christians today ridicule the dispensational approach to Scripture. They find the notion of a "secret rapture" risible, and they slough it off as if it came from a fairy tale. I find this sort of behavior troubling and inappropriate. Just because some of our brothers and sisters in Christ happen not to espouse all the tenets of covenant theology and of the Reformed Christian faith does not automatically make them dummkopfs. I've read articles online, written by Christians, which could fairly be labeled invective. These diatribes include strident railing against such defenders of the faith as C. I. Scofield! Clearly, these things ought not to be! Since when are ad hominem arguments and cheap shots appropriate when discussing other Christians' heartfelt beliefs or comparing their beliefs to yours?

While there are undoubtedly and inappropriately vociferous critics on both sides of the aisle, eschatologically speaking, my concern is that some Christians seem to have become unwilling and/orunable to agree to disagree agreeably with their fellow Christians? If so, then I believe we fail to show love and to demonstrate grace to our fellow believers whose interpretations of Scripture (particularly regarding eschatology) just happen to be different from ours.

It's not as though the two camps are at odds vis a vis the "Big Five": the deity of Christ, his miraculous conception and virgin birth, his resurrection and promised return, and the sufficiency of Christ's atonement as the basis for salvation by God's grace alone through faith alone.

If, then, we are agreed on the major, essential doctrines of Scripture, I suggest that eschatology, which in my opinion is not even in the "Big Ten," allows for a good bit of wiggle room and can tolerate at least a soupçon of compromise. The only aspect of eschatology on which I am not willing to compromise is the promised return of Jesus Christ (John 14:1-4). I have a feeling most Christians feel similarly.

In short, I believe that sincere Christians of every stripe and tradition are all interested in "rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). No Christians worthy of the name set out deliberately to botch their task of being unashamed workers in the way they construct their heuristic devices, schemas, and paradigms in order to interpret the Scriptures. This is not to say that every interpretation is just as good as any other interpretation. Nevertheless, for some Christians to engage in character assassination simply because some other Christians do not agree with them on doctrinal issues which are not even in the top five, or ten, or twenty. Enough said.

A Quick Overview of Evangelical Eschatology

What follows is a quick and dirty overview of some of the high points of eschatology from the perspective of a somewhat typical, middle-of-the-road dispensationalist.

  • The default method of interpretation in Dispensationalism is a literal reading of the biblical text. This is not a wooden literalism which ignores figures of speech, poetic language, symbols, types, and anti-types, but a literalism which assumes, for example, that three-and-a-half years is literally three-and-a-half years in duration. The prophetic book of Daniel includes such segments of time within its unique eschatology.

  • Dispensationalists believe there is a difference between God’s plan for the church universal and his plan for Israel. This may sound glib, but I imagine that Christians of the Reformed faith think the church universal started in Abraham’s tent, whereas dispensationalists believe the church started on the day of Pentecost. Notice I did not just say “the church universal started on the day of Pentecost.” I draw your attention to the omission of the word universal because dispensationalists believe that God’s saints who lived and died prior to Jesus Christ’s atoning death at Calvary are just that: saints of God. They are as much children of God as are those folks who receive and believe in Jesus Christ on this side of Calvary.

  • As for the two different plans—one for Israel and one for the Church, the basis for this belief, in part, is Israel’s having rejected Jesus as their Messiah. (And no, the Jews didn't kill Jesus, any more than the Romans did. Jesus laid down his life on his own accord and with the approval of his Father in accordance with the Scripture.) John tells us in Chapter One of his Gospel, that Jesus "came unto that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (v.11). The central question in the minds of many non-dispensationalists at this point might be, "Just how serious was Jesus in his proclamation of the Kingdom of God (or Heaven) to 'the lost sheep of the house of Israel'?" Another question might be, "Had his people largely embraced Jesus' offer of a kingdom here on earth, would he have set up his kingdom on earth then and there in first century Palestine?" Interestingly, even after Jesus' resurrection his disciples expected him to restore the kingdom to Israel (see Acts 1:6). How did Jesus answer their inquiry? He said, "It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority, but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you . . .." Even at that point, the disciples were thinking of the power associated with an earthly kingdom. Jesus assured them of a different kind of power, however, a power which resulted in his disciples turning the world upside down through a kingdom of the Spirit in the hearts of people worldwide!

  • The term rapture, which captures in a single word the phrase "caught up together" as found in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, signals to dispensationalists the end of the "church era." The rapture features the Lord Jesus descending from heaven, the dead in Christ rising from their graves, and the living saints being caught up together with the resurrected saints "in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so [, Paul concluded,] we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words"

  • Following the rapture, the world will for a time be without the leavening influence of the church universal (leavening in the sense of a diverse and enlivening influence of the saints in the world, whom Jesus called both "salt" and "light"). Without the sanctifying presence of the people of God and the Spirit of God, the world will begin to experience a time of great tribulation, lasting perhaps seven years. This time of unprecedented distress among the peoples of the world, to which Daniel referred in Daniel Chapter 12, and to which Jesus referred in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21, surpasses by far the tribulation which Jesus and others in the New Testament promised to those believers who lived godly lives in an ungodly world (see, for example, Jesus' words in John 16:33, and Paul's words in 2 Timothy 3:12). Persecution, in general, is a given during the church age, and it has been a part of the history of the church from the very beginning. The Great Tribulation, however, is worldwide and catastrophic on an unheard of scale. In John's Revelation of Jesus Christ, we read of God's bowls of judgments being poured out on the unbelieving world, and they beggar description in their scope and severity.

  • The "Day of the Lord" is another way of describing the time when God pours out his judgments on humanity during the Great Tribulation. That oft-repeated phrase in the prophetic books of the Old Testament, as in Zechariah 12-14, indicates whose day it is and to whom the Day belongs: the Lord God. In dispensational thought, the Day of the Lord extends from the beginning of the Great Tribulation to the Battle of Armageddon (Revelation 20:7-10) and beyond. The Day of the Lord ends with the great white throne judgment of Revelation 20:11-15, which is the Last Great Judgment, or assize, after which God ushers in "a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth [have] passed away . . . " (Revelation 21:1).

  • The Millennium is a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, which precedes Satan's last gasp at the Plain of Megiddo in Israel as he battles the forces of God in the battle to end all battles (Revelation 16:14 and 16). During the Millennium, however, with Christ on his throne in Jerusalem, the the world will experience a time of unprecedented peace, in large part because during Christ's thousand-year reign, Satan will have been bound and cast in the abyss, or "bottomless pit." After ten centuries of unrivaled peace, Satan will have been loosed from the pit and evidently will lead an insurrection against the King of kings, the Lord Jesus. Satan and all those who join with him in his revolt will be defeated once and for all. Like the people who remain on earth after the plagues described in the earlier chapters of Revelation, who refused to "repent of the works of their hands" (9:20 ff.) despite the horrors they have witnessed and survived, those who align themselves with Satan during his last gasp will also refuse to repent and will suffer the consequences; namely, being thrown, along with death and Hades, into the lake of fire, where they will be in torment forever (Revelation 20:7-10, 14, and 15).

  • Time will not permit me to get into the finer points of dispensational eschatology, such as the differences between a "pre-trib" rapture and a "post-trib" rapture; the reasons why dispensationalists believe in a literal, thousand-year reign of Christ on earth whereas "amillennialists" do not; how to characterize the various resurrections spoken of in Revelation alone; the difference between Christ's coming in the clouds, on the one hand, and coming to earth a second time, on the other hand; and finally, how Christians can wade through the often symbolic language of the descriptions of the end times, differentiating between what is symbolic and what is literal, and yet do so in a hermeneutically and exegetically responsible, consistent way.

Concluding Thought

In conclusion, about the only thing all Christians can agree upon is that Jesus Christ has promised to return to take his children to his Father's house, which he promised to prepare (John 14:1 ff.). All that is involved in that return, the stages in which it will unfold, and the details of each stage are subject to interpretation. Every interpretation, however, will inevitably be informed by presuppositions, schemas, and paradigms which once embraced by their adherents, can and often do become points of contention among Christians.

I think I am safe in saying that even wildly divergent theories of how the end times will play out should not make a scintilla of difference in how Christians are to live their lives in the present church-age, or "time of the Gentiles" (Luke 21:24). A unifying theme is, and should be, that Christ is coming again, and in light of his imminent return we all should be striving to keep the main thing the main thing; namely, living holy lives before God, living as salt and light before a watching world, and being fruitful in the work of the Lord by seeking to advance his kingdom and the expansion, both numerically and qualitatively, of the church universal, which despite our doctrinal differences the Holy Spirit unites into one body, the body of Christ.

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    Thank you for your informative answer. I was disappointed to read "Time will not permit me to get into ... the differences between a "pre-trib" rapture and a "post-trib" rapture..." because that's more what I asked, and because you spent so much time answering questions I didn't ask. In fact, I'm not looking for how those viewpoints differ, exactly, but simply that are differentiated, i.e. "one way eschatological beliefs are distinguished is by when the rapture will occur with respect to the tribulation- before, half-way, or after". – Andrew Apr 10 '16 at 12:33
  • @Andrew: You're welcome, I'm sure. I'll think about editing my answer in line with your suggestions. Yes, there's a good deal of extraneous information, but I included some of it to give some credibility to Dispensational thought, which really goes hand in hand with end-time phenomena such as the millennium, the rapture, the great tribulation, and a whole lot more. Just for now, however, I will say that a pre-trib rapture is still widely accepted by Evangelicals in general and dispensationalists in particular. Some Christians, however believe in a post-trib return of Christ, and even fewer – rhetorician Apr 10 '16 at 22:57
  • subscribe to the notion of a mid-trib reprieve for Christians. As to whether or not the folks who subscribe to that theory also believe in a secret rapture of the saints who have managed to survive the first half of the great tribulation, I can't really say without further research. If/when I revise my answer, I'll let you know. Don – rhetorician Apr 10 '16 at 23:02

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