Is End Times Prophecy Being Fulfilled?

The study of the fulfillment of end times prophecy can lead to fanciful fanaticism and fear or to firm faith founded on sound biblical interpretation and common sense.

David Pawson

British Bible teacher J. David Pawson identifies three broad approaches to the futurology (i.e. the study of the future):

The superstitious approach consults psychics and mediums, crystals and Ouija boards, tarot cards and tea-leaves. Experience indicates that these channels have never been found to be accurate. Nevertheless, those willing or wanting to be deceived forget the errors and focus on the few fulfillments.

The scientific approach studies present trends and then projects those trends in to the future. Pawson claims the average accuracy has so far been around 25%. The short-term forecasts are predictably more accurate than the long-term.

The scriptural approach contends that the declaration about future events is a major feature of the Bible. It claims that God is the only person who is in a position to “make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come” (Isa. 46:10).

J. Barton Payne

J. Barton Payne (1922-1979), a theologian and apologist who taught at Wheaton College and Covenant Theological Seminary and was on the committee of translators for the New American Standard Bible and the New International Version identifies 737 separate predictions in the Bible. Of these, he contends 594 (over 80%) have already been fulfilled. Furthermore, those that have not are all concerned with the end of the world, which has not happened yet; therefore, to date, Payne insists the Bible has achieved 100% accuracy.

Four Scriptural Approaches to End Times Prophecy in the New Testament

There are four broad approaches to interpreting end times prophecy, which determine how you view the question of fulfillment. The wise Bible student will critically evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each interpretive approach and then apply each method cautiously and judiciously the study of end times prophecy.

Preterist or Contemporary Historical Approach

This is the prevailing approach in critical and scholarly circles. It holds that so-called "end times prophecy" belongs to a distinct genre of Judeo-Christian apocalyptic literature. The visions of apocalyptic writings like the Book of Revelation or passages like the Olivet Discourse (Matt.24-25, Mark 13, and Luke 21) primarily refer to the first century.

Revelation is regarded as a “tract for hard times,” expressing the hopes of the early Christians that they were about to be delivered from the persecution instituted by the “beast,” usually understood to be Nero or Domitian, and which was perpetuated by the Roman government, depicted as “the great city” of Babylon, sitting on “seven hills” of Rome (Rev. 17:9).

As the fledgling church is threatened with virtual extinction, John writes to confirm the faith of believers that in the face of impending persecution, God would intervene, Jesus would return, Rome would be overthrown, and the everlasting kingdom of God would be established.

Although most of the Book of Revelation is therefore “past” to us, that does not mean it is of limited value. We may learn lessons from all the historical narrative in

the Bible. We can draw inspiration and instruction from what has gone before.

The strength of this view is that all Bible study should begin with the original historical context of the writers and readers. The student must ask: “What did this mean to them?” Both what the writer intended and what the readers would understand in their situation are essential steps towards an accurate interpretation and application.

William Hendriksen

New Testament scholar and Christian Reformed minister William Hendriksen (1900-1982) wisely advises that "a sound interpretation of the Apocalypse must take as its starting-point the position that the book was intended for believers living in John’s day and age. The book owes its origin, at least in part, to contemporary conditions. It is God’s answer to the prayers and tears of severely persecuted Christians scattered about in the cities of Asia Minor.”

Critics of the preterist school point out, rightly, that Christ did not return, Rome was not destroyed and the kingdom of God was not established in the first century.

However, prophetic prediction was never a major element in the genre of apocalyptic writing. If the purpose of the end times prophecy was to strengthen and encourage first-century believers, then it fulfilled that agenda. Thereafter it would have lost its direct relevance and really have very little to say to the later church. The preterist view on its own is clearly inadequate.

Continuous Historical Approach

This approach views end times prophecy as a symbolic preview of the entire history of the church down to the end of the age and the return of Christ. The extensive symbolism of the Book of Revelation depicts various major historical movements, primarily in the western world and in the church.

The historicist sees the collapse of Rome from successive waves of Barbarian invasion, the rise of Islam, the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, the World Wars etc. contained within the prophecies of the New Testament. The “beast” has frequently been identified as the Roman papacy (other candidates include Mohammed or Napoleon), and the false prophet as the Roman Catholic church.

This view was so widely held for so long that it became known as the “Protestant” view. One scholar even produced a cross-referenced index between every section of the Book of Revelation and the many volumes of the Cambridge Ancient and Modern History. It is generally held that we are living somewhere in chapter 16 or 17.

This elaborate attempt to find the fulfillment of the numerous prophecies of Revelation in the chronology of European political history has little to commend it, for then the New Testament would have little to say to the first century churches, to which it was addressed. However, the broad concept of the historical approach has merit in underscoring the dynamic truth that historical events and world movements have repeatedly illustrated the spiritual truths declared in the Bible.

This may also be called linear historicism, because it proposes that the central thread of end times prophecy goes in one straight line of events from the first to the second advent of Christ.

There is another type of historicism, which may be called cyclical. This proposes that Revelation covers the whole of church history more than once, constantly returning to the beginning and recapitulating the events from a different perspective. Hendricksen identified seven such cycles, each covering the whole church age. The weakness of this cyclical approach is that it may lead to interpreters placing the “millennium” (in ch. 20) before the second coming (ch. 19) and therefore suggest a post-millennial viewpoint.

Pawson argues that this “‘progressive parallelism’, as it is called, seems to be forced onto the text, rather than found within it.”

Idealist of Symbolic Approach

This approach avoids the problem of trying to find any historical fulfillment in the symbols of apocalyptic prophecy by removing all specific time references and discouraging correlation with particular events. Instead it finds in end times prophecy a presentation of great spiritual principles intended to comfort and guide believers in all generations and in all geographical locations.

Below: “Saint John on Patmos” Folio 17r from Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1413-1416)

John on Patmos

The successive symbolic visions portray the cosmic spiritual conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. The “beast” represents satanic evil wherever and whenever it manifests itself to oppress the Church. However, God is revealed as the Sovereign Ruler over the whole cosmos and the living Lord Jesus Christ is victorious over all satanic evil. Those who are Christ's, in spite of present opposition, are destined to fully share in His triumph as history moves towards “a new heaven and a new earth.”

There is considerable merit in this method of interpretation, because the message of the book becomes directly relevant to all who read it. They are in the struggle that is described and are assured that “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). It is thus possible to be “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37).

Pawson points out the weakness of this view, which can treat end times prophecy as “myth.” He argues that to the idealist it is spiritually true, but not historically true. “These are fictional events, but the stories contain truths,” which must be “dug out of the narrative before being applied.” He concludes that the cost of this “demythologizing” process is “to jettison a great deal of material, dismissing it as poetic license which belongs to the package rather than the content.”

It is a fact that Revelation is an apocalyptic book, and apocalyptic symbolism is primarily concerned with the events in history that lead to the end of the age and the coming of God's kingdom. Thus, the idealist view is of value, but limited.

Futurist Approach

This approach interprets New Testament prophecy principally as a prophecy of future events depicted in symbolic terms, which lead up to and accompany the close of the age and the establishing of the kingdom of God. It is therefore still future to us today. It concerns the climax of evil control in the world, which will be the “Great Tribulation" for the people of God (Rev. 7:14; also referred to by Jesus in Matt. 24:12-22).

Since the events are still future, the predictions tend to be taken more literally, as an accurate description of what will happen. There is no longer any need to force them to fit past history. However, most of the Book of Revelation would only be relevant to the very last generation of believers. What, then, is the message for the church through the ages?

A further weakness of the futurist interpretation identified by Pawson is that it tends to treat end times prophecy as an “almanac‘ which leads to “an excessive interest in charts” and “schedules of the future.”

Coming Soon!

There are two forms of futurism: moderate futurist, and extreme futurist or dispensationalist, which are discussed in our article "Is Dispensationalism Biblical?"

Which Approach is the Right One?

All of them and none of them!

In over thirty years of studying end time prophecy I began as a preterist with only a mild conviction, then became a committed Idealist, after which I embraced a distinct dispensational position. Having swung like a pendulum I have now come to adopt an eclectic approach embracing a blend of the preterist, moderate futurist and idealist schools.

For example...

The “beast” is both Rome (preterist) and the eschatological Antichrist (futurist) - whilst at the same time it represents any demonic power which the Church must contend with in her entire history (idealist); or

The Great Tribulation is clearly an eschatological event (futurist), but it includes all tribulation which the church might experience (idealist), whether by first-century Rome (preterist) or by later satanic powers.

What is the Purpose of End Times Prophecy?

I conclude by pointing to the primary purpose of predictive end times prophecy, which is not to appeal to man's tendency to sensationalism and an approach to the Christian life in which believers hold their Bibles in one hand and the newspaper in their other hand speculating as to whether “this” particular news item is a fulfillment of “these three words” in Zephaniah!

The purpose of prophecy as declared three times by Jesus:

“I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am He.” (John 13:19)

“I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe.” (John 14:29)

“I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you. I did not tell you this at first because I was with you.” (John 16:4)

God’s primary purpose in end times prophecy is that He might reveal His omniscience and thereby underscore our total dependence on Him.

To learn more about how to interpret end times prophecy and related eschatological themes, order my eBook Developing a Sound Eschatology, revised edition.

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For a more thorough understanding of the major interpretive approaches to understanding "last things" and the strengths and limitations of each, order my eBook Developing a Sound Eschatology, revised edition.

You may purchase the .pdf eBook for $15.00 through our secure PayPal service. You will be asked to supply an email delivery address to which we can email your .pdf eBook.

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NOTE: We can normally email .pdf eBooks within 24 hours of receiving the order. However, when we are traveling, especially overseas, we are not always able to check our website and emails every day. Please be patient if delivery is delayed for this reason as we do not have a home office staff. THANK YOU!

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