Here’s how the question was worded in our Sunday Question and Answer time.
The world today is so broken and events are aligning to set the stage for fulfillment of Bible prophecy. The next event is the rapture why are so many churches not responding with urgency to reach the lost?
I wanted to address this question because it has two parts to it that (1) depend on a specific doctrinal understanding and (2) result in specific behaviors among Christians.
In this question, the first particular thing is a doctrine about the end times, and the second particular thing is a doctrine about what it means to reach the lost, to reach unbelievers who haven’t responded to or don’t even know the message of the gospel.
Regarding the urgency of reaching the lost, I want to link to this other article I wrote on the matter.
But regarding the doctrine of the end times, I want to take a moment and address it here. However, bear with me. I need to take a detour into something else first.
The question made a reference to something called the “rapture,” and most modern theories about the rapture are based on a way of understanding the Bible called “Dispensationalism.” It’s a big and elaborate doctrine that I will summarize here and then show how it is the foundation of the question.
Dispensationalism says that God works differently with different groups of people through different ages of time.
- The Age of Works: From Adam through Noah to Abraham, each person was just supposed to be good.
- The Age of Covenant: With Abraham, God entered into a covenant relationship with the people of Israel based on faith, family, and obedience.
- The Age of Law: With Moses, God enriched and modified the covenant and instituted specific rules outlining what it means to be God’s holy people.
- The Age of Jesus: With Jesus, God began a new work, but Jesus himself was a bridge between the old work and the new work. Most of his ministry happened before the cross, and therefore, the 3 years of Jesus’ ministry form an age to itself.
- The Church Age: After the cross, through the teaching of Paul and the other Apostles, God took a detour away from Israel to build a brand new family called the church who would relate to him on the basis of grace alone by faith in death and resurrection of Jesus.
- The Rapture & Tribulation Age: Eventually, Jesus will partially return to the earth and remove his followers, the church, from the world so that God can get back to his relationship with Israel, but Israel will be opposed by the “Antichrist” and great trouble will come on the earth.
- The Millennial Age: At the end of the Tribulation, Jesus will fully return, imprison Satan, and establish an earthly kingdom for 1000 years.
- The Eternal Age: At the end of the Millennium, Satan will be released, there will be a final battle of God vs. Satan, God will win, there will be a final judgment, the righteous will go to eternity with God while the rest will join Satan in the Lake of Fire, and God will create a brand new heaven and earth establishing his own eternal kingdom.
You can probably see how a few points depend on and provide rationale to the doctrine of the rapture, but I’ll spell it out. Usually, when people talk about “the rapture” they are talking about an unknown, surprising moment when Jesus will partially come back to earth, miraculously whisk away his followers (both living and dead), to meet him in the air and return to heaven with him. The rationale for this event is that God must do the rapture to accomplish three purposes: (1) The church must be removed from the earth because God has unfinished business with Israel. There were promises in the Old Testament that haven’t been fulfilled yet (like the rebuilding of the Temple), and it doesn’t make sense for God to fulfill the promises to Israel while we are living in the Church age. Therefore, the church must be removed so God can get back to fulfilling his promises to Israel. (2) The church must also be removed because the church collectively is the current temple of the Holy Spirit on earth, and the Holy Spirit is currently “restraining” the evil in the world from reaching it’s fullest levels. The church must be removed so the Holy Spirit will be removed so that the time of the Antichrist and the Tribulation can begin. Finally, (3) the church must be removed to protect it from the time of Tribulation.
What is the Tribulation? Well, the Tribulation has five main components according to dispensationalist doctrine:
- God will renew his work with Israel, including the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem
- A man known as the Antichrist (or the Beast) will rise up and become the leader of the whole world
- The Antichrist will bring great persecution on the people of God throughout the world
- God will also pour out his wrath on unbelievers
- Everything will culminate in a great battle between heaven and hell at a place called Armageddon.
This understanding of the rapture and the doctrine of dispensationalism work hand in hand because each of them needs the other as an explanation. Most dispensationalists are also believers in a “pre-tribulation rapture.”
A side consequence of all this is that most believers in a pre-tribulation rapture are also deeply interested in the signs that the rapture is coming soon. They compare current events to the things described in Bible prophecies about the end times. This belief that Jesus will rapture his church away from the earth at any point in time combines with the belief that prophecies are being fulfilled and builds a sense of urgency in the believer to save the unbelievers. Once the rapture happens, this age of grace will be over and all the people left on the earth will then have to face all kinds of terrible consequences. It will be very much like hell on earth, and therefore, if you want to get someone saved, you have to do it before the rapture happens, and since the rapture is getting nearer and nearer, the urgency should be getting greater.
The whole point of view is internally consistent, and I don’t blame people who believe it for believing it. I myself used to be a die-hard believer in the whole thing too. However, there are a few problems with it:
- The doctrine of the rapture and the sequence of events known as the Tribulation is just one of many ways to understand the teaching about the end times from the Bible. In fact, this doctrine of the rapture and the Tribulation is not directly taught by any passage of Scripture and depends on a specific way of assembling unrelated passages together. From my perspective, a much better argument can be made for the rapture of the church happening after a time of Tribulation when Jesus returns to establish his kingdom.
- The argument that the rapture has to happen before the Tribulation so that God can get back to working with Israel is based on nothing in Scripture, but just the belief that the age of the church was a detour in God’s working with people. In other words, a pre-tribulation rapture only makes sense in the bigger context of dispensationalism, but that isn’t the only way to understand God’s working with his people. In fact, a much better argument can be made that all of the old promises to Israel are actually now fulfilled in the church. According to many passages in Paul’s writings, we should understand the church not as a detour from Israel but as the new Israel.
- Finally, our ability to connect Bible prophecy to modern day life is entirely colored by our own presuppositions of what we should look for. For two thousand years, Christians have been seeing “signs of the times” all around them, and for all that time, they have been making predictions about the return of Christ, but they have been wrong every time.
I want to key in on that third point right now for a moment. Consider this passage:
(3) He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. (4) Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. (5) But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
(6) We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (7) He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
(8) By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. (9) He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. (10) Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.
(11) After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied ; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. (12) Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. — Isaiah 53 NIV
This is an amazing description of the crucifixion of Christ, but it was written up to 600 years before Jesus was crucified! The people of Israel were sitting on this prophecy for 600 years and yet even then, they couldn’t connect the dots that the prophecy meant the Messiah would be pierced, killed for the sins of others, killed with criminals, will be buried in a borrowed tomb, and will rise again afterward! Those things seem obvious to us on this side of the crucifixion, but they were completely unknown by the best Jewish scholars at the time of Jesus!
This one truth leads me to believe there is no way we will be able to fully decipher the meaning of the end times prophecies until they actually come true, and our mandate to spread the good news of Jesus, and our willingness and urgency to do so have nothing to do with a sense that the end times are near and everything to do with the simple fact that Jesus told us to do it.
So, let’s put all this together in relation to the original question.
Are current events indicators that the end times are near? Yes because Christians of every generation have believed it about their generation, and we should too. Every day gets us closer to the end days. Paul wrote this in his letter to the Romans:
(11) And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. (12) The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. — Romans 13:11-12 NIV
Is the current brokenness of the world any special indicator that the end times are close? Yes and no. Yes, because of the previous passage, but no because they really aren’t that much more broken now than they were before. Part of our problem is that we are far more nostalgic of the past than we have a right to be and so we think of the current days as more broken than they actually are. Our world is broken, but it was broken in the days of Jesus too. Remember that the people of Corinth were dealing with sexual promiscuity and false religions that far surpasses our own. Remember that the earlier days of our own country were filled with the injustice of slavery and a deeply racist society. Our world is broken, but our brokenness today is not necessarily more than it has been before.
Is the next event in spiritual history the rapture of the church? Probably not. It is far more likely according to Scripture that we will slide right into the days of the antichrist and renewed persecution of the church and that the rapture won’t happen until the day Jesus finally returns to set up his eternal kingdom.
Why don’t churches respond to the doctrine of the rapture with more urgency? The reason most churches don’t respond to the doctrine of the rapture with more urgency is twofold. Most churches don’t believe this uniquely American understanding of the rapture, and the Bible never uses the rapture as motivation for urgency. Yes, we should be passionate to see the message of Jesus reach the ends of the earth, but our motivation for that should be the command of Christ and the goodness of our message rather than any sense of impending doom.