At the bottom of the day’s mail was a challenge from a promoter of the pretribulational approach that reportedly could earn me an easy $10,000.

IT boldly proclaimed itself unique: pay the subscription price, the newsletter said, and I would have in my hands all I needed to keep up to date on the way current events, in rapid-fire order, were fulfilling biblical prophecy. As soon as the event occurred, I was assured, the newsletter would show its proper connection to Scripture.

If that were not fast enough for me, I could avail myself of an additional service (at no extra charge): a hot line. I could simply pick up my phone, dial a toll-free number, and learn of daily fulfillments. Imagine scanning the paper over breakfast, and then dialing the 800 number for instant biblical analysis of, say, Anwar Sadat’s assassination!

I was urged to see that only such a combination of hot line and newsletter could keep me on top of our world’s roller-coaster rush toward the pretribulational Rapture and second coming of Christ.

Hard on the heels of this offer came another in the following day’s mail. It offered cassettes in addition to a newsletter and hot line. Unfortunately, this system took a divergent view on how to interpret the events of the day, though it offered its analysis with a confidence at least equal to the previous day’s approach. At the bottom of that day’s mail was a challenge from a third organization: its pretribulational approach to prophecy could pick up an easy $10,000.

Another day brought the offer of a dynamic new Second Coming New Testament, complete with the latest prophetic charts. For simplicity, the flyer said, these were not buried in an appendix, but printed cheek by jowl with the Scripture text. Further, each prophetic text was marked with an appropriate color so that the reader could instantly place it in its proper dispensational period.

Not to be outdone, television is making its own offers. One program noted that the 1980s are surely the threshold of Armageddon; a handy cassette would update me. On another channel, a speaker was reading from newspapers and secular magazines while outlining a prophetic scheme to prove that the world was ready for the Antichrist. At the conclusion, he requested greater contributions to keep him on the air longer.

These Bibles, hot lines, newsletters, cassettes and what not have enjoyed a bursting popularity since World War II. They cover everything from the Mount Saint Helens eruption to the most recent earthquake, change in weather patterns, or political event. Will the mark of the Beast appear on 1984 social security checks? Are prefabricated materials for the to-be-rebuilt Jewish temple really stored in a warehouse in New York? Prophecy is easily the hottest item in evangelical circles.

Article continues below
The Dating Game

The average Christian may wonder how to deal with all these current ideas, publications, and broadcast programs. There are ways to decipher the mass of prophetic material.

First, we can be sure that the Bible unequivocally teaches that Jesus Christ is returning. He himself promised this (John 14:1–3).

Second, we must avoid several things, one of which is the date-setting game. Biblical statements regarding the last days and the Second Coming do reflect specific events, but it is treacherous speculation to assign them dates. Past attempts have all met with humiliating failure. The biblical statement that only the Father knows the time of Christ’s return surely prohibits speculation (see Acts 1:7).

Here is an example from interpretations of Matthew 24:32–34. Numerous books, newsletters, and speakers are predicting the Rapture during the 1980s, naming 1988. The formula used to justify this date identifies Israel as the fig tree Jesus refers to in verse 32, and its blossoming as Israel’s nationhood in 1948. Add the biblical generation of 40 years to 1948 (the “this generation” of verse 34) and the result is 1988.

One problem with this scenario is that the exact meaning of “generation” is not precisely portrayed in Scripture. Further, 1948 may not be the correct year from which to calculate. Historically, Jews were in Palestine in growing numbers during the 1880s. Could not the founding of Zionism by Theodor Herzl in 1897 (which culminated in the Jewish state) be the fulfillment? On the other hand, Tel Aviv was established as a distinctly Jewish city in 1909. And certainly the Balfour Declaration by the British in 1917, the 1967 capture of Old Jerusalem by Israel, or the recent move of Israeli government offices to Old Jerusalem could all present possibilities.

In fact, no historically dated event at all may be the correct answer, because the biblical word “generation” can mean a particular “race” of people, or even simply “people.” Jesus did not intend to provide a means of establishing the date of his return; he strictly forbade this in Matthew 24:36. What he did intend was an answer to the disciples’ question about the date of the temple’s destruction (Matt. 24:3). That occurred in A.D. 70.

Article continues below

A mania for date setting has always harmed the very purpose of prophecy.

What This Means

We must also exercise caution when linking the symbols of the Book of Revelation to modern events with similar features. This has been termed “event substitution” (Douglas Ezell, Revelations on Revelation, Word, 1977). By applying modern events, the interpreter can make the biblical language suggest almost anything. The books using this process usually suggest that the final destructive time of this age is upon us, then offer only a pessimistic outlook for the future of this world.

Consider how over the last 60 years some have used this approach to name Antichrist. He was the German Kaiser of World War I, of course! Or Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, communism, or most recently, a prominent American diplomat. The method simply leads to chaos.

Rather than allowing the biblical author’s sources to guide us to understand the meaning of the symbols in Revelation, hot-line prophecy buffs substitute a modern event. This makes the Book of Revelation irrelevant to anyone living before today. People living before 1900 could not, for instance, understand atomic bombs, Communist China and Russia, the Common Market, and the oil crises. Such a view limits the interpreter to his generation and a narrow frame of reference.

Revelation must rather be interpreted by its source: the Old Testament, apocalyptic literature, and, of course, John’s visions as inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Israel And The Church

Finally, we must understand Israel and the church in God’s plan of election. God chose Israel to be his people and receive all the covenantal benefits of divine election. However, the apostle Paul makes clear in Galatians 3:16–29 that the church is also heir to God’s promises. To be sure, we find in Romans 9 that God has not finished with the Jews and still has something in store for them. But that will be through Jesus Christ and his gospel, since reversion to Old Testament systems and faith would be to reject the revelation of the New Testament.

The church is God’s divine institution; it is a living testimony to God’s grace. It is not just a grand “parenthesis” until God decides to reinstate the Jew, nor a mere dispensational phenomenon. It is the body of Christ through which the gospel is proclaimed. Anyone saved, Jew or Gentile, will be saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ as presented through his church.

In sum, biblically we are not to focus on the event of Christ’s coming. Rather, we are to concentrate on the Person who is coming, and the ethical implications of living in readiness.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.