I started to write a clever post today on eschatology, with a setup piece of fiction about a U-Boat sinking a merchant marine ship in WWII and the merchant marine ship’s first mate running around deck yelling, “I’m going to be rescued now, I’ll get a new ship, and I’ll be made captain!” but I just ran out of steam. Perhaps I’m weary from the mentality a good chunk of the modern American Church displays on the End Times. (A decent PDF chart of the major eschatological views.)
The prevailing view of The End among most Christians in the United States is dispensationalism. If you’re familiar with the Left Behind series of books, movies, and licensed products, you know dispensationalism. You may also have heard of it through the book The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey, which popularized the view. (And let me add, that if you have read LGPE, you’re probably a geezer, just like yours truly.)
The key pieces of dispensationalism: two distinct histories for the Church and Israel, including post-Second Advent of Christ; a removal of the Church from the earth (the Rapture—see 1 Thessalonians 4) before seven years of horrific tribulation; the Second Advent and 1,000-year Reign of Christ; the Revolt of the Nations; and the Final Judgment.
I wrote a paper in college debunking dispensationalism, but of all the things that bothered me about that view, two stick out: its youth and its presumption.
Dispensationalism as a formal Christian eschatology had no real traction until the 19th century, and it was then popularized by one man. A Christian theology that doesn’t appear until the 19th century pretty much insist that everyone who lived before that era was a moron when it came to understanding The End. This includes the folks who built the early Church, because they didn’t hold to a dispensationalist view. Nor did the great Protestant Reformers.
And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, when an idea starts with one man and no one else, it’s worth scrutinizing, since individuals have a strong penchant to get things wrong. And if we’re going to rejigger how the entire Church views The End, getting it wrong isn’t an option.
Part of that presumption that sticks most in my craw is the idea that the Church will be removed from the earth before the real craziness starts. Most eschatological views support the idea that the Church will be “caught up” to meet Jesus. When is the big distinction between theories, with How being secondary.
When I read the Bible, it seems clear to me that in all of human history, God never removed those who believe in Him from pain, persecution, and the fallout of a fallen world. Lot endured Sodom. Joseph lived through the famine. Joshua wandered the desert with his people. The righteous Jews went into captivity in Babylon. The faithful disciples and apostles were martyred. Time and again, the faithful went through the mess everyone else did.
Where they differed from the rest was in how they dealt with it. Faithfully. And with longsuffering.
And yet one of the hallmarks of dispensationalism is the idea that all the Christians will be removed from the planet before the real End Times suffering comes. That seems out of character with everything the Bible shows us about patient endurance in hard times.
Some Christians who follow a preterist eschatology will argue the genuine nastiness envisioned in the Bible happened in AD 70 already, and all this talk of future tribulation is a waste of time.
Regardless, dispensationalism is the predominant eschatology in today’s American Church, and it drives much of how we live.
We base our Christian theology on it.
We base our American politics on it.
We base our American foreign policy on it.
We base our American economy on it.
We base our American environmental policy on it.
We base our American lifestyles on it.
We base our Christian practice on it.
And the major mentality we espouse when we hold to a dispensational view of The End is…
It’s all going to burn,
And I’m out of here anyway.
When I look around at today’s Church in America, I see that mindset. There’s a sense that there’s no need to try to fix the Church and its problems because, hey, “It’s all going to burn, and I’m out of here anyway.”
Doesn’t matter what the issue is. Why steward the earth if God’s going to burn it up anyway? Why prepare our churches to help meet the needs of those caught up in persecution and tribulation if Christians won’t be here to do it? Why do anything that requires bold effort and genuine sacrifice if you’re just floating along before Jesus comes by with His Gospel Ship and you sail away together?
There’s a nihilism there. Can you see it? When we resign ourselves to checking out before the actual checkout, we miss whatever it is that happens before then. We forgo the opportunity to be useful.
As long as Christians have mentally checked out of the world as it is today, I think the Church will be ineffective with whatever time we have left. And it may be that instead of the 10 years some may think we have, we’re due for another 1,000 yet. How long doesn’t matter. A Church that has its Rapture bags already packed is just waiting around, killing time.
I don’t see how any of that is Biblical or even remotely Christian, though.
22 thoughts on “How Being Rapture-Minded Made the American Church No Earthly Good”
Whether or not Christians are going to be here for the tribulation, this seems to me to be a problem of love, not theology. The logical worldly conclusion of “I’m not going to be here anyway,” may be to not care, but the law of love dictates that we care about all those who suffer regardless of whether or not we will be here to suffer alongside them. We share the Gospel and plead with people to be saved because we care about their eternal soul. We can take care of God’s earth because we value the worth of His creation. We don’t check-out and wait to be pulled out before the trouble starts. We do what God has called us to do now, ministering as long as we remain here. We do that regardless of when we will be raptured. We can do that regardless of our position on dispensationalism or covenant theology.
Thoughts and ideas have consequences. Theology too. Far too many Christians today are not following their theology to its logical consequences. This is a HUGE problem, and we can’t excuse it anymore.
Whatever complaints you have about the perceived practical effects of dispensationalism matter not one iota if it’s true. If folks act unchristian-like because they’re sitting idly by waiting to get beamed up, the problem is with them, not with the doctrine. Matthew 24:46 still reads the same whether you have correct eschatology or are non-dispensational.
The 19th century should be known as the Century of Crackpot Eschatology. The number of end-time cults that sprang up in that era was astonishing. Some still exist.
Dispensationalism doesn’t have good company. That doesn’t make it wrong, but given the spirit of that age, it definitely warrants further scrutiny, PARTICULARLY since it was sufficiently different from anything the Church had believed for 1,800 years.
OK, I can go along with some of this, but please explain how the mental “check out” squares with the Religious Right, much of which was dispensational. The dispensational churches I’ve been most familiar with (Independent Baptist) have also been some of the most patriotic, capitalistic, anti-Communist, pro-life, pro-military, foreign policy hawkish and socially conservative Christians around. Now, I’ll grant that they didn’t do much with soup-kitchens and inner-city restoration and other works of civic compassion, but to say that they’re just waiting around killing time seems a little simplistic. It may be that they’ve not poured their efforts into the particular kinds of causes that non-dispies have, but most of them still tend to be pretty concerned with the current state of their neighborhoods. It may be that their ideas of community-involvement are more pietistic than non-dispies, but is this a result of their dispensational theology? It seems a little too simplistic to consign them all away to apathy. I’d appreciate any clarity you can give on this matter!
Off-message is off-message. It’s a checkout, just of a different variety. This is how we got the phrase “fiddling while Rome burns.”
I’ve talked before about the Culture Wars and about the American Civil Religion. Get right down to it, that’s the majority chunk of what passes for godliness in Evangelicalism today.
Excellent post as usual, Dan. Fortunately, today so many younger Christians are rejecting the dispensational view of the last days as well as the it’s negation of the Spiritual gifts.
You’ve missed a few things such as dispensational views go back to the church fathers, not as a laid out system as we see coming into being in the late 19th century, but pieces of it are there. Second, most of dispensational churches that I am aware of over the 39 years I’ve been a Christian have hardly packed their bags and sat around waiting. While the rapture could occur at any moment, we have His business to do until He comes. I’m sure there are some out there that are as you say but let’s not broad brush the issue.
Hi Mr. Edelen,
My first encounter with church as a 28 year old was with an independent pentecostal/charismatic style church. The view of this church was mid- to post-tribulation teaching. In my own life I rarely think about the rapture. I don’t know where it falls on the timeline of God, so to speak. This ‘rapture’ is not what drives my Christian life and hope. What drives my life is ‘pleasing God’. My love for God and my desire to be faithful and truthful to Him.
As far as fixing the church, we don’t have the power to do this. It will be the work of the Holy Spirit. I was just reading a website the last couple of days that recommends that Christians gather and live together in isolation somewhere on some remote farm in Canada. If you can believe that. I may not have the answers, but I’m pretty sceptical of this type of action as a solution to the problems in our world and in the church. This sounds like Jim Jones or David Carresh.
If church leaders are having great difficulty leading in righteousness and truth the question seems to be should believers keep supporting and following them? Is loving these leaders the solution? I don’t think so. When or how is truth to be taught and spoken in these circumstances. How are believers to increase their faith? I don’t think they can, unless they are getting what they need somewhere else. And then the question is, why continue to attend their church if they’re not being fed there.
There is danger in my mind if people remain in something that is essentially false. They will be led into falseness. that’s the principle. What to do and where to go? That is the question of the hour I think.
We are perhaps entering the days spoken of in the scriptures that state that people are running here and there looking for Christ. The Bible says ‘do not go when someone says ‘here is Christ’, or ‘there is Christ’ because Christ will come so that all eyes will behold Him. We have a crisis in North America of having lost God. We don’t know wher to find him. There are so many voices calling and teaching falseness. How do we know this? Because of the state we see the church is in now. We look at the fruit, at the evidence. Good and correct teaching and sheperding does not create the kind of crisis that we currently have in the church and also in the world.
Does the church look good? yes it often does. But it can also be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The devil brings his destruction as an angel of light first. It all looks good and sounds good and reasonable. This is the danger to believers.
An example of this is the current way that homosexuality is looked upon. After years of indoctrination into the ‘politically correct’ way to think about this lifestyle, it is now widely accepted as a natural and healthy way of sexuality. The only thing that counters this is the Word of God. So, we know for sure that believers must be reading their Bibles, and believing that the scriptures are God’s truth.
Dispensationalism is a Christian outgrowth of the scientific positivism of the late-19th century in the West. The wall chart dispensationalist craves the same certainty found in the periodic table of elements (another wall chart). There’s a palpable envy of the confidence and certainty that accrued around the modern sciences from that era to now.
You hit the nail on the head with “gonna burn anyway.” The manifestation of antichrist changes to suit the moment (communists, the US Govt, Muslim terrorists) but somehow the best way to fight it is always to go shopping. And tax cuts. Lotsa tax cuts.
I’ve long been fascinated (and horrified) by rapture theology as it relates to how Christians approach environmental issues. Interesting how it gained popularity after the industrial revolution when the environment began to take such a huge hit…instead of addressing that, Christians gave up on all aspirations of creation care, because we don’t belong in the world, anyway. Won’t it be a surprise when Jesus comes back…and stays here. Great post, it’s interesting to read all the other ways in which rapture theology affects our actions and thinking. I’ve found that many in my generation (20-somethings) don’t believe in the rapture, and the difference in our worldview and that of our parents’ is pretty incredible.
Thanks for writing. Is it a case that your generation doesn’t believe in the Rapture at all? Or that it doesn’t believe in the dispensational version of it?
I believe in some sort of Rapture, but I believe that it will happen more toward the middle or early end of the tribulation (in line with Jesus’ “unless those days were cut short” comment). I don’t believe the Church will experience the full wrath of God, but neither will we escape the persecution that will come. That we’re not preparing for that persecution in any way is what bothers me, and I think that is because we have this belief that we’ll be Raptured before any of that could affect us. I think our Pollyanna-ish thinking here will not help us endure to the end and will make it harder on us because of our lack of preparation. We have no underground economy readied (or even discussed), no network of skilled professionals noted, no influencers in place, nothing. That’s short-sighted. Even if none of us experience tribulation OR a pretrib Rapture does occur, it behooves us to be wise and to help our cause by having these things noted on a local basis. But we are not doing this, and I think that is remarkably shortsighted.
I personally don’t believe in an idea of a rapture at all–rather, I believe that heaven will meet earth and that God will restore this creation. I don’t know if there’s a fancy name for that, but I’ve met plenty of people in my age range who believe the same. I came to this conclusion after a lot of studying the entirety of Scripture. I could go into a whole lot more detail, but the bottom line is, you’re right that believing in a “pre-trib” rapture is naive at best, and at worst, I believe it’s caused a lot of harm. What will actually happen in reality? Who knows. It’s not the point of being a Christian, and I find the recent obsession with the end of the world to be pretty frustrating.
Talk about unsubstantiated bomb-throwing. Couldn’t you have used your college paper and made some sort of actual argument, or provided one real-life example to support your list of things “based on it”? This whole piece sounds like people who say Calvinists are against evangelism because their theology says God chooses anyway. It’s called a straw man. You’ve filled a field with such men. well, at least they’ll keep the crows away.
When I run into people who espouse the “let it all burn, I’m out of here anyway” mentality, a quick check reveals a uniform truth: They are dispensationalists. Not amillennialists, postmills, or even historic premills. Dispensationalists.
Now if dispies would like to go against that oft-repeated flow, great. Fix the fact that it’s dispies reflecting that mentality and my “straw man” will disappear.
Dire Dan: “it’s dispies reflecting that mentality”
Hey, wait a minute, Dan. There are lots of Dispensationalists who think the Catching Away (aka “Rapture”) occurs at the end of the Seven Year Tribulation. This includes lots of people I personally know. They think we’re going to be on the receiving end of plenty of persecution and suffering before it’s over. It would be completely unfair of you to suggest they all have some kind of “it’s all gonna burn but I don’t care since I am out here anyhow” attitude.
Besides, I still think it’s unfair. I went to a church for many years where a “Pre-tribulation” catching away was very much insisted upon. I didn’t see any kind of nonchalant “let it burn” attitude there either. If anything, the total opposite.
You must have a different kind of dispensationalist in your neck of the woods. I know no post-trib dispies, nor can I recall meeting any anywhere.
Not saying they don’t exist. Just never met any. Seems a curious breed!
I can see what your saying. I myself have in my earlier years have said those exact words. “I’m outta here anyway.” Really those who would say such things are very immature or carnal believers.
The picture you posted looks like Archie and Veronica and all their friends get to go in the rapture.
I’m sure it’s the same artist. Archie comics were done by a Christian publisher.