Hey there my dear friend: I know this can be a divisive and scary topic, and there are plenty of smarter people than me who have written tons of books about it and could probably argue any other point I try to make.
The truth is: It’s hard to know exactly what to believe about this, and certain differences in our view of the End Times will absolutely NOT determine whether we are “truly Christian.” Also, since it’s one of those things that we can’t fully know (like Heaven or predestination or what Jesus looks like), then mostly it’s speculation and guesswork.
Maybe someone will blast me for saying that, but I mean: I think we’re all thinking it. I won’t pretend to be confident about something that I can’t know. As it is, I’m just trying to believe the Gospel by a shred of faith, and I refuse to be pressured by a doctrine-nerd to presume some secondary doctrine the “right way.” I’m simply asking that we all be humble about this, because we could all be wrong.
Usually when someone asks me an unknown doctrinal question with conflicting views, I try to say, “At least this much must be true.”
So here’s what we know about the End Times:
1) Jesus is coming back, this time a King instead of a servant.
2) There will be a global, catastrophic, awe-inducing judgment on the world.
3) There is a “rapture,” in which Christian believers will either be taken to Heaven, set aside from judgment, or be given their heavenly bodies. Some would say all three.
4) The earth will be transformed somehow by both total devastation and restoration.
5) Jesus will reign on the earth.
Here’s what we don’t know:
1) It’s not immediately clear that “signs” will indicate when Jesus is coming back. The Bible says we don’t know when it’ll happen and it’s a sin to make claims.
2) The judgment is often coupled with a period called the “tribulation,” in which people “left behind” will have a time to decide if they want to believe. The tribulation will be marked with wars, disease, disasters, and political conflicts. What scholars disagree on is how long, whether believers will or will not experience it, or if it has already happened.
3) Jesus will institute a thousand year reign of peace where Satan is locked away. Unbelievers will continue to grow because of sinful hearts. Satan will be released one last time for one last judgment, and then finally an Eternal Kingdom will reign. Some scholars say this is all metaphorical.
4) Most of the symbols — the dragon, the mark of the beast, the birthing woman, the humanoid locusts, the seven bowls, seals, trumpets, scrolls — are open for debate. Many read Revelation as literally as possible, while others recognize poetic structures and allegories. Some say Revelation is chronological, while others say it is mostly flashbacks and flashforwards.
Apostle John wrote about 2000 years ago that he was living in the last hour. But both Moses and Peter said that in the mind of God, a day is a thousand years and vice versa. I believe we may be living in the last few minutes of that last hour, but I make no special claims. We can only be ready and stand guard, just like Jesus said. And when he does return: well, it will be awesome.