One of the most debatable things in Christian history has been eschatology--or end-times theology. Generally this is a topic I have stayed away from (with one notable exception), because I have found little in this debate which is "essential" and quite a bit on which good Christians can disagree without affecting their commitment to Christ.
Almost since the very beginning of Christianity, there have been multiple interpretations of end-times scenarios. There are many ways to debate the topic and I do not wish to spend time on it here. One of the most heated debates of the early Christian church--and which continues today--is about the 1,000-year reign of Christ prophesied in Rev 20:1-6.
Premillennialists are those who believe that this is a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth, after which the new heaven and earth would be created. This comes in two varieties:
- Historic/Jewish Premillennialism - held by many of the early Christians, this version saw Christianity as "fulfilled Judaism" rather than something separate. This view sees the Christian rapture occurring at the end of the great tribulations, with the resurrected Christians meeting Jesus in the air to escort Him down to earth.
- Dispensational Premillennialism - the dominant view of today, it sees Christianity as a separate dispensation than Judaism, and generally sees Christ returning for a rapture, then a seven year period of tribulation, then another return to Earth to begin the thousand year reign. This view started with Darby in the 19th century.
So the two agree on the millennium question, but disagree over whether theology is fundamentally changed between the Jewish and Christian systems.
Postmillennialists are those who see Christ returning after a Golden Age of Christianity, and generally (though not always) see the 1,000 years as a non-literal period of time. They see Christianity as slowly influencing the world for the better before Jesus returns. This has always seemingly been the minority view, as most tend either toward pre- or a-millennialism.
Amillennialists are those who see the thousand-year reign as metaphorical, and is a "perfect" number (10x10x10) to refer to a long age. Generally they see this age as starting with the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and continuing until the second return. So the "millennial kingdom" is Christ's Church on earth, which will reign spiritually until the Second Coming.
These debates were often quite hot in the early Christian world, and can still be hot today. Which is why it is so refreshing to read the words of Justin Martyr (who was an "Historic/Jewish Premillennialist" mindset):
"I and many others are of this opinion [premillennialism], and believe that such will take place, as you assuredly are aware; but, on the other hand, I signified to you that many who belong to pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise." --Justin Martyr (100-165 AD)
May we all follow his great leadership in such matters. Feel free to debate and make your case for non-essential theologies. But never forget that they are non-essential, and if a pure, pious, and true Christian can disagree, make sure and proclaim this often and loudly.
It is only by going out of our way that we will maintain unity in Christ's body, the Church. It won't happen by accident--and it won't happen by trying to slice your theology as thinly fine as possible. Keep the essentials, essential. On all else, give loving grace.