I read Hal Lindsey, read Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye and even started their Left Behind series, and read and listened to John MacArthur take a “whirlwind tour through Revelation.” I believed that what was written in Revelation was going to come true almost word for word.
I no longer believe that. It no longer makes any sense.
Before going further, I want it understood that I am NOT questioning anyone’s faith. Instead, I am questioning the methodology used and conclusions reached. I believe that Christ will come again and there will be final judgment. It just won’t happen as so many preach today, because scripture itself says no such thing.
WHAT IS SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN?
According to the dispensational theology, first introduced about 1830, here’s what’s supposed to happen:
One. There will be a rapture of all believers in Christ. They’ll just disappear from the earth to be “caught up” in the air to meet the returning Christ. (The trouble is, Christ will reverse course in this secret second coming and return to heaven, taking all believers with Him. This makes no sense, but we’ll get into that in a subsequent part.)
Second. The Antichrist rises in the wake of the disappearance of all real Christians and begins to take over the world, while those “left behind” must make a choice: take the opportunity to follow Christ or follow the god-like Antichrist.
Third. Meanwhile, Antichrist makes peace with Israel and the temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem. But Antichrist breaks his peace and sets himself up as god in the temple. This is supposed to be “the abomination of desolation.”
Fourth. The great tribulation occurs – hell is unleashed – where all who are left behind on earth are subjected to terrible things: earthquakes, fires from heaven, plagues, demon armies (according to some). Believers are spared from God’s wrath but are killed by Antichrist’s forces.
Fifth. The great tribulation is cut short when Christ returns in all His glory. He binds Satan and casts him in the pit for a 1,000 years, while Christ rules in the new Jerusalem, which has the sacrificial system reinstated (again, this makes no sense).
Six. At the end of the 1,000 years, Satan is released one final time and the battle of Armageddon occurs. Satan is ultimately defeated.
Seven. Final judgment occurs for all the living and the dead. The end.
I left out a few things, but that’s the basic story line. Unfortunately, it’s no more true than LaHaye and Jenkins’ Left Behind fiction—not if you read the Bible for all that it is worth and have the “song” of the Old Testament in your ears as you read the New Testament, that is.
THE DISPENSATIONAL/LEFT BEHIND THEOLOGY IS NEW, NOT OLD
It’s crucial to help understand this because many Christians base their faith on the belief that the end times are literally around the corner. Many Christians (usually on the political right) are caught up in the end times teaching and thinking, and it colors their perceptions of the world differently than the Biblical worldview as called for in the New Testament.
In the mid-1800s, a former English priest named John Nelson Darby began teaching the notion of 7 “dispensations” of time, of which there would be a one-thousand year reign of Christ on earth. A fellow believer also influenced Darby on the notion of a “rapture” of believers. This “Dispensationalism” included a key role for a reconstituted nation of Israel. Darby may not have been the absolute first to teach such notions, but he gave it real life. Like Darwin and his evolutionary “natural selection,” Darby’s dispensational eschatology spread like wildfire.
“Darby contended that God had two distinct people with two distinct plans and two distinct destinies,” writes Hank Hanegraaff in The Apocalypse Code on page 41. “Only one of those peoples – the Jews – would suffer tribulation. The other – the church – would be removed from the world in a secret coming seven years prior to the second coming of Christ. Darby’s distinctive twist on scripture would shortly come to be known as dispensational eschatology.”
At century’s end, the notes in the widely read Scofield Reference Bible (King James Version) expanded upon Darby’s teaching and interpreted many passages to be referring to events that had yet to happen—events that had not been fulfilled in Biblical times (other than the return of Christ, that is). For instance: Ezekiel 34:13 was taken to refer to a far-future gathering of Israel. When Israel actually became a state again in 1948, many of the prophesies from the Old and New Testaments were looked at again in a brand new light, such as Isaiah 35:1-2, where it speaks of blossoming in the desert—which has happened with Israeli farming techniques. Israeli military prowess seemed heaven-blessed, and the renewed nation captured the city of David in 1967. Also, writes Don Matzat:
“Those … also taught, from Scripture, that before the end of all things, there would be a tribulation period of seven years according to the prophecies of Daniel. Rev. 7:14 speaks of the Great Tribulation. During those seven years, the anti-Christ would arise. He would be a political figure and, according to Dan. 7:24-25, he would be given authority by ten kings. Since the European Common market was forming and nearly ten nations had already come together, the time of the anti-Christ was soon upon us.”Then came Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth, THE publishing phenomenon of the 1970s. This incredible best-seller laid out exactly what was supposed to happen in the next few years, the rise of the anti-Christ, the rapture of believers, the Great Tribulation, the return of Jesus Christ, the establishment of His 1000-year kingdom on earth, the final battle of Armageddon and victory of Satan, and final judgment. The Soviet Union was to be heavily involved in the story by launching a massive attack against Israel which would easily—divinely—defeat the “Gog/Magog” of the far north.
It was all supposed to happen, starting with the rapture, on May 14, 1988. Obviously, it didn’t. Why in the world Hal Lindsey has not been denounced as a false prophet and banished from all Christian circles I have no idea.
Many others have also predicted the coming rapture and Armageddon, in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s. For example, Harold Camping predicted the rapture coming in 1994. Well, we’re still here. Some believed that the start of the Gulf War in 1991 was the beginning of the end. People like John Hagee preached that Yitsak Rabin’s murder in 1996 was the sign of impending Armageddon.
Christians who adhere to the dispensational theology (which I use interchangeably with “Left Behind theology”), such as John Hagee, are Christian Zionists, which means that they believe that the modern state of Israel is no different than the Biblical Israel and is under God’s special protection even today. Hagee even once said that “Anyone who makes the life of Jewish people difficult or grievous, as did the Pharaoh, as did Hitler, will be cursed by God.” (Source: keynote address to AIPAC, March 12, 2007.)
Some preachers—many prominent ones—went nuts with millennial madness in the late 1990s and led their flocks astray by insisting the end times were nigh when the calendar changed from Dec. 31, 1999, to Jan. 1, 2000.
The end times phenomenon continues today, but without the dates, and sometimes with a new cast of characters. It gained new currency in the late 1990s and early 2000s with LaHaye and Jenkins’ phenomenal Left Behind series, which is essentially a fictional version of Lindsey’s book. (The Left Behind series has sold more books than the Harry Potter series!)
And on and on and on… End times madness, or as author Gary DeMar puts it, Last Days Madness in his highly critical book, has gripped the church, but not in a good way.
THE BIG PROBLEMS
The Darby/Lindsey/LaHaye end times thinking has lead some Christians to look at current events through a skewed lens. Everything concerning the Middle East is interpreted to have some meaning relevant to Biblical prophesy. Many Christians base their support of the modern state of Israel on their interpretation of the Bible. Hank Hanegraaff calls this newspaper eschatology (others call it newspaper exegesis), which means using the headlines to interpret the Bible (which I agree with Hank is a serious and critical error). Scripture should be read in light of scripture, not in light of today’s news and recent history. (I support Israel, but it has nothing to do with the Bible.)
What does it matter what you believe about the end times? A majority of evangelicals believe it, so why is the dispensational theology a major problem?
There have been hundreds of end times and last days predictions in the last 50 years alone that have been proven wrong time and time again by the mere passage of time. Instead of these false prophets being rebuked, cast down and forgotten, they’re still lauded as great prophesy teachers!
What does that say about the Christian faith, and our—your—Christian witness when people like Lindsey, LaHaye, Hagee, Benny Hinn, etc., makes these breathless last days predictions based on bad theology that repeatedly fail to come true?
How many souls have been lost and have turned away from Christianity because false prophets have made a mockery of the Bible through their false claims that have failed to come true?
The dispensational theology is thoroughly and completely unbiblical. I am convinced of this.
Until the mid-1800s, dispensationalism and a rapture, a secret second coming for the church, a separate punishment for the Jews, etc. has never been part of Christian teaching. Neither John, Paul, Peter, James or Jude, or their immediate followers such as Clement, Polycarp and Ignatius taught it. Nor did the Lord Himself.
Only through misinterpretation and some fantastic grammatical gymnastics do we arrive at the conclusions of Darby, Lindsey, LaHaye, etc.
Dispensational theology sets up a separate salvation for Christians and Jews that neither Jesus Christ nor the New Testament writers ever called for. Believe it or not, dispensational theology actually proscribes that Jews MUST and WILL face a holocaust far greater than the Nazi holocaust as part of the great tribulation. If they're supposed to still be God's chosen people -- even though Christ proclaimed the gospel for all -- why would untold numbers of them be returned to the promised land only to face a horrible slaughter? It's a facet of evangelical support for Israel that rarely gets discussed.
This is the worst thing of all: the dispensational theology totally negates Christ’s completed work on the cross by claiming there will be a return to the types and shadows of Old Testament worship (e.g., the reconstructed “Third Temple” in Jerusalem and the “Fourth Temple” in the 1,000 years, where animal sacrifices are performed). Christ Himself is the new temple, not some new construct to be built during the last days, and we are the church. Remeber what He told the Samaratan woman at the well? No more temples!
In subsequent parts, I will examine the rapture, Jesus’ predictions as recorded in Matthew 23 and 24, the real identity of the antichrist/beast (yes, they’re one in the same), the real timeframe for a great tribulation and the real dating of the writing of Revelation, what the end of the age really meant (why there will be no new temple) and the role of modern-day Israel. This won't cover everything, but it will be enough.
Again, please understand I am NOT questioning anyone’s faith. I am, however, questioning the interpretation of, and expectations for, impending end times according to the dispensational understanding. This also doesn’t mean that Christ isn’t returning. He is—but according to God’s schedule. When He’s ready, and not when supposed “signs” say that He’s ready, Jesus will come to transform all of us instantly, depose Satan and judge the living and the dead, and reign forever and ever.
Dispensational – the belief that there will be a rapture, “the” Antichrist, a seven-year great tribulation, a millennial kingdom on earth ruled by Christ, a final battle at the end of the 1,000 years between Jesus and Satan, and then the final judgment.
Pre-millennial – the belief that a secret rapture of all believers—dead and living—will occur before the great tribulation.
Preterits – the belief that all prophesy has been fulfilled by the close of scripture, including the Second Coming.
Exegesis – means “explanation”
Eschatology – it means concerned with final events
(I’ll repeat these in every post):
I have read all of these books:
Gary DeMar, End Times Fiction and Last Days Madness
Hank Hanegraaff, The Apocalypse Code
Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Are We Living in the End Times?
Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth