Relating Current Events to End–Time Prophecy
The headline reads, "Jewish Activists Urge Knesset to Rebuild Temple!" Hmmm. Doesn’t the Bible say something about a temple during the Tribulation? Could this be it? Does this mean the Rapture is right around the corner?
Some Bible teachers have focused their careers on interpreting headlines to demonstrate the soon return of Christ. Some of the leading examples are Hal Lindsey, who authored the highly influential book The Late Great Planet Earth in 1970; Tim LaHaye, co–author of the even more influential Left Behind series since 1996; and Jack Van Impe, an evangelist who, despite his increasing theological inclusiveness, has maintained his emphasis on prophetic matters in his preaching.
Many Bible teachers went nearly berserk when the old European Common Market reached a membership of ten nations. "This must be the ten–horned beast of Revelation! It’s all coming together! Let’s go ahead and put the church over its head in debt because we’ll get raptured and won’t have to pay it off anyway!" Unfortunately, the European Union now consists of 25 member nations, with four more holding candidate status. Jumped the gun again!
It’s easy to understand why such writing and preaching is popular; it’s "breaking news," and we’re a culture that thrives on being up–to–the–minute in a whirlwind of current events.
But teachers, even teachers of current events, need to put their subjects into perspective. Teachers should help their students gain some distance and oversight that young people, by virtue of the fact that their lives are, well, short, typically cannot provide for themselves. While it’s a very good thing to integrate the Scripture into all classroom subjects, it’s also important to do so rightly—not to twist the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:16) but to use them as the authors (and the Author) intended.
There have been numerous examples of well–meaning Bible students who predicted this or that date for the return of Christ. William Miller, founder of the Seventh–Day Adventists, predicted that it would be in 1844. Edgar Whisenant predicted 1988 (and gave 88 reasons for that date). Obviously these and similar shenanigans reduce the credibility of the Christian message. Christ Himself not only refused to give the date of His return but also observed that, at least at that time, He didn’t know it Himself (Mark 13:32).
How to Read Prophecy
The Bible consists of several literary forms, or genres, the most common being history, or narrative (including gospel), poetry, epistle, and several types of prophecy, including apocalypse. Theological conservatives usually argue strongly for a "literal hermeneutic" in interpreting Scripture: that is, the reader should interpret the statements of Scripture as literally as is literarily indicated. The use of the word literal is generally agreed to be a problem since it doesn’t really describe this method accurately. We don’t take everything in the Bible literally; when Isaiah says that at the return of Christ "the trees of the field shall clap their hands" (Isaiah 55:12), nobody believes that they’ll have actual hands and clap them (shades of The Wizard of Oz!) or even that they’ll slap their leaves together in the wind. Clapping is a human indication of joy or receptiveness, and we all realize that the prophet is using a figure of speech—personification—to say that creation will rejoice as it finds itself delivered from the bondage of sin (Romans 8:21). We do that sort of interpretation in everything we read, and we rarely even think about it.
So, when we read any portion of the Bible, we read it as literally as the text itself indicates it should be read. But is this approach best for all genres? What about prophecy, much of which is filled with unusual images—beasts with ten horns but only seven heads (Revelation 12:3), for example? Should we read it even more symbolically than we read, say, historical narrative? Good people, all of whom agree to the inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of the Scripture, disagree on this question. This disagreement has resulted in several views of the Bible’s prophetic picture.
By far the most popular position in the last century or so has been Premillennialism, popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible and by the faculty of Dallas Theological Seminary most notably (as well as the men listed at the beginning of this article). The keystone to this view is that prophecy should be read just as literally as the rest of Scripture—that we shouldn’t change hermeneutical horses in midstream, so to speak. Perhaps the standard work setting forth this view in detail is Dwight Pentecost’s Things to Come. Premillennialists take prophetic statements at face value. Basing their view particularly on Revelation 20:1–10, they hold that there will be a resurrection of believers, followed by a 1,000–year kingdom of Christ on earth, followed by a resurrection and judgment of unbelievers. (Premillennialists differ among themselves on the relationship between the resurrection of believers—the Rapture—and the Tribulation period.)
The most popular position for the larger span of church history has been Amillennialism, which interprets prophecy much less literally. The kingdom is not a literal rule on earth; it is Christ’s reign in the hearts of His people (for He taught, "the Kingdom of God is within you" [Luke 17:21]). Thus, we are now living in the Millennium, and in God’s timing all the dead will be raised together and judged (Daniel 12:1–3).
A third position is Postmillennialism, which was severely challenged by the gruesomeness of World War I but has made a comeback in the latter half of the twentieth century. This view teaches that the church is God’s means of bringing in the kingdom. When the church has slowly but surely taken control of the world’s system and implemented God’s Law into the world (Matthew 13:31–33), then Christ will return to receive His kingdom from the church. (This is a significant part of the motivating force behind the Religious Right.) Postmillennialists argue that the world is indeed coming under the increasing control of the church. This is one of the points of greatest disagreement with the premillennialists, who argue that we should expect times to get worse and worse before the end (2 Timothy 3:13).
For more lengthy summaries of these positions, see Loraine Boettner’s The Millennium (Boettner is a postmillennialist), Darrell Bock’s Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond, or George Eldon Ladd’s The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views.
The Nature of Prophesy
Why all of the disagreement? Well, much of it springs from the hermeneutical question discussed above: how literally do we take these passages? But there’s more to it than that. Prophecy as a genre has a very important characteristic: it is designed to be difficult to understand until the time of its fulfillment.
Many students of Scripture are surprised to discover that certain biblical authors apparently didn’t understand what they were writing. Peter tells us that the Old Testament writers who described the coming Messiah were puzzled by the very things they were writing (1 Peter 1:11). Daniel is instructed by an angel to write down a message (Daniel 12:4), and his first question is, "What does it mean?" (v. 8). He is told, in essence, that it’s not time yet for an explanation (v. 9).
There are numerous biblical examples of people who misunderstood prophecies. Some of these were unbelievers, such as the Pharisees who didn’t recognize their own Messiah when He came (John 5:39; 7:52). But others were believers; they needed authoritative explanation at the point of fulfillment (Luke 24:25–27).
So What Do We Do Now?
Is it any wonder, then, that good people disagree today about the details of prophetic fulfillment? Some wag once observed that he was "a panmillennialist: it’ll all pan out in the end." Although it’s true that we need to maintain a healthy humility about the details of the end times, it is most certainly not true that we should just ignore the whole question. We are told to "occupy till [He] come[s]" (Luke 19:13), but we’re also told to observe the times (Matthew 16:3) and to be alert for the end (1 Thessalonians. 5:1–10).
In interpreting the headlines, then, we can set down some broad strokes. If you’re a premillennialist like me, you’ll note that during the Tribulation Israel will exist as a nation, and there will be a temple (2 Thessalonians 2:4). So it makes sense that premillennialists would get excited about Israel’s return to the land in 1948 and about activists in Israel today who want to rebuild the Temple. But even if the Temple is rebuilt, that won’t prove that the Rapture will be the next day.
We can put the ever–changing headlines into perspective for our students by emphasizing a few unchanging truths from the Scripture:
- God is in charge. He rules in the affairs of men, and His will will be done (Daniel 2:28; 4:17; Matthew 6:10).
- Christ is coming again (Acts 1:11).
- God is not bound by time. What appears as delay should not be taken as a sign of weakness (Matthew 24:48–51; 2 Peter 3:3–14).
- We must not try to second–guess God on the timing of Christ’s return (Mark 13:32).
- We must maintain a balance between watchful expectation—what the Scripture calls "hope" (1 Thessalonians 5:1–10)—and diligent labor in the meantime (Matthew 25:14–30).
- Among many other things, this diligent labor must include
- the evangelization and disciplining of the lost (Matthew 28:19–20)
- the edification of God’s people (Ephesians 4:11–16)
- the care of our families (1 Timothy 5:8)
- personal pursuit of Christ–likeness (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18)
- the glorification of God (1 Corinthians 10:31)
So are you inclined to live your life around the ever–changing headlines? There is a better and more stable way.
Occupy. Till He comes.