As evangelical theologians we are called to secure for our Christian congregation the urgently needed eschatological orientation within the growing confusion, which in itself is one of the apocalyptical signs indicated in the Bible. The way of the Church resembles the journey of a ship at night. On the voyage to our port of destination we are sailing through dangerous narrows and are passing near insidious reefs. To avoid shipwreck we have to observe carefully the beacons that mark the safe course.
The biblical prophecies constitute quite a number of such beacons, signs, for the eschatological stage of our journey. Not all of them are equally obvious. But I think all evangelical theologians will agree on the following three, which I will mention in reversed order.
3. The greatest and final event we are heading for is the appearance of the sign of the Son of man. It will be an ultimate signal given in the darkness of the greatest tribulation—probably in the shape of a cross flashing in the sky—by which believers and non-believers will know that Christ’s coming is imminent.
Christ’s return is the real goal of present world history. It will mean, first, the gathering and rapture of the true Church to be united with its Head; second, the revenge over the ungodly nations; and third, the establishment of the messianic kingdom in power. This threefold eschatological event is the ultimate point toward which the behavior of man, Christian and non-Christian, church and nation, is to be directed.
The creedal confession “from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead,” therefore, is the presentation of the most important of all beacons, by which we daily have to adjust our course. Any attempt to extinguish this beacon by way of demythologization or reinterpretation, therefore, is an assault against the one relevant hope of the world.
2. But there is another assault against the message of Christ’s parousia that is equally disastrous and is sometimes committed even by evangelical preachers. This assault consists of emphasizing the return of Christ without taking notice of the beacon that signalizes the most crucial eschatological event before his coming: the revealing of “the man of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:3–12). His name, Antichrist, means he not only is the rebellious enemy of God and the persecutor of the Church but for some time will successfully occupy the place of Christ himself as Lord of the visible church and the world.
The Christian Church on earth is not going to be united with its Head before it has passed the final, almost superhuman test of being confronted with the apocalyptical temptation by Antichrist. Therefore the widespread teaching of a rapture that dodges this serious reality must be refuted as a dangerous distortion of New Testament eschatology.
Moreover, the biblical prediction of the coming of such a self-styled Christ induces evangelical theology to watch carefully over the authenticity of all contemporary presentations of Christ in preaching, arts, and personal imitation. Any misrepresentation of his genuine biblical image for the sake of adaptation to modern fads plays the game of Antichrist.
1. The flashes of the penultimate light can already be seen in many symptoms of a rapid antichristian transformation of church and society. Still the clearly apocalyptical character of our present epoch becomes more evident by the appearance of one beacon that for preceding generations was still hidden. This is the return of the Jews from their two-thousand-year dispersion, and the national rebirth of Israel in the country that God had assigned to its fathers.
When the enlightened King Frederick II of Prussia asked the Danish diplomate Count Reventlow for one proof of God’s existence that had not yet been refuted, Reventlow replied: “The Jews, Your Majesty.” Today a Christian needs to be totally blind to ignore the events around Israel as a clearly predicted eschatological sign. It is too unusual in history to be explained as a random event.
But even the sign of Israel needs to receive theological attention. We need, for example, to rediscover the interrelation between the restoration of Jerusalem and world mission (cf. Luke 21:24). This would inject more biblical realism into some enthusiastic evangelistic programs.
And we should carefully distinguish between the two stages of Israel’s physical and spiritual restoration according to Ezekiel 37. This prevents us from stating too directly the soteriological significance of present-day development in Israel. And it also refutes the fatal misinterpretation of Joel 3 as a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Christian Church. The historic event of Pentecost is as unrepeatable as the events of Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter. But what we may rightfully hope for is the outpouring of a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, “so that when they look at him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for his only child” (Zech. 12:10–14; cf. Ezek. 39:29, Isa. 44:3).
These three most important eschatological events need a thorough biblical reexamination if evangelical preachers are to interpret the signs of the time. Each of these events stands as a link in a whole chain of other eschatological events that ought to be carefully considered. But we should refrain from constructing too detailed apocalyptic timetables. The eschatological signs are given to us not for the sake of systematic completeness but to give us orientation in the crucial hour, when without them we would perish in confusion and despair. “Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is near” (Luke 21:28).
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