(Important side note before we get started: how you approach a couple of key passages tends to make a big difference in where you land. If you approach apocalyptic literature in the same way that you do a narrative passage — like narrative, but future tense — you’ll probably land in one of the first two views. If you approach it more like you would the Bible’s wisdom literature or even prophecy — filled with imagery and metaphorical language — you’re much more likely to end up in one of the latter two categories.)
OK, so let’s just do a quick overview of the four main views, in very broad strokes (and for all of these, I’m indebted to this site and particularly this one, which includes some outstanding simplified outlines of these views — if you’re a visual learner like me, you’ll want to click through to see them):
1. Dispensational pre-millennialism. This fairly recently-developed view is based on the idea that Daniel 9 and Revelation 20 are to be read as strictly chronological accounts of entirely future events. Things on Earth will grow increasingly dire, then God’s people will be raptured just before a time of great persecution when a human ruler, the Anti-Christ, will have control over the whole Earth. Jesus will return and reign from Jerusalem for a thousand chronological years, after which the Judgment will take place and all God’s people will be then taken together into glory. People who hold to this view tend to be very watchful for Christ’s imminent return as well as world events that line up with prophetic or apocalyptic passages of Scripture.
2. Historic pre-millennialism. While this view shares some of the chronology of the first view, it tends to see some of the events described in Revelation as unfolding in history, not necessarily in a way that obviously links them to the impending return of Christ. People who hold to this position believe that the return of Christ may be in the very-distant future, and hold that the millennium may or may not constitute one thousand actual years. It’s called “historic” because it has been held in some form since the late second and early third centuries, whereas the Dispensationalist version has only been around since the 19th century.
3. Post-millennialism. Post-millennialists believe that the millennium is best understood as a future period (not a literal thousand years, but a long time) of Christ’s special reign over the earth from heaven, marked by a steady increase of the influence of the Gospel until the entire world has been Christianized. When the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of God through Christ, Jesus will return in glory to judge and to bring all of God’s people into glory with him. This view particularly focuses on the prophecies given to Abraham about all nations being blessed through him, and the passages throughout the Old Testament that refer to the growing and spreading of the knowledge of the Lord in the last days. Daniel and Revelation are seen in light of their original audience (the Exiles and the first-century Christians, respectively), and most, if not all, of the events of the apocalyptic passages of Scripture are thought to have already taken place — i.e. that they are immediately applicable to their hearers and are meant to encourage us by extension, rather than give us a timeline of future events.
4. Amillennialism. Amillenialists believe that Christ ushered in the millennium at his ascension into Heaven, and that we are now living in it. They tend to focus on the tension in the New Testament between “the Kingdom is at hand/among you” and “now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face,” as well as the narrative of the constant expansion of the Gospel to all nations, beginning in Acts. They differ with Post-millennialists on the role of the Church in this “already/not yet” age: where Post-mills see a time when the Church is completely triumphant on Earth before the return of Christ, Amills believe that the Church will continue to be persecuted and suffer until Christ’s return, though there may be times of greater or lesser success as the Gospel continues to go forth to the nations.
Now. That’s a lot. I never realized that there were other views besides the first two until fairly recently, and though I don’t think the first two are untenable, per se, in studying the Scriptures I found myself leaning toward a pretty settled Amillennial position… though with occasional jaunts into Postmillennialism depending on how much Douglas Wilson I happen to be reading and how much the sun is shining and how well things tend to be going in my own life. Personally, I am automatically… not suspicious perhaps, but not really excited to latch onto any view on any Christian doctrine that 1800 years’ worth of really smart believers never thought of, but I don’t think this issue is important enough to argue about too much, so even if you’re firmly committed to the first view, that’s fine. Christians can know absolutely nothing about this issue except to say, “Yup, I believe Jesus is coming back,” and they will be A-OK, and they can disagree with each other about it without breaking fellowship. (I mean honestly, imagine Jesus standing in the room next to you right now: is he cool with you being cold or dismissive or, God forbid, divisive toward your brothers and sisters over the timing of his return? I’m guessing not.)
The bottom line with all this is, the passages of Scripture that talk about persecution or that address eschatology are almost always followed up with an exhortation to the reader to do a couple of things: 1) cling to Jesus, and 2) get off your toches and tell people about Jesus. So whether you think that the Bible teaches that Christ’s return is just around the corner or many thousands of years into the future, whether you see in its pages a literal and eventual thousand-year reign or a time we’re already in, your mission, Christian, is clear: teach your children, your neighbors, your friends, your family about the Gospel. Live it out in your relationships. Don’t spend your time searching charts or pooh-poohing them. Act like you really, truly have been radically transformed by a Victorious and Conquering King who will one day return, on whatever timeline the Father in his good wisdom chooses.