Over the last year I attended two series of Bible talks at a local church and found them really good; so when I heard the same speaker would be doing a series on “The Second Coming” I arranged to go. And sadly I’ve ended up disappointed. The talks turned out to be based on what I think of as the “Left Behind” version of Jesus’ return, so-called after a series of books a few years back which fictionalised that view.
The basics of the Second Coming are simple. History is not going to go on forever; when the time is right, or it could also be expressed as ‘ripe’, there will be a final divine intervention in human history. Jesus, now in heaven, will return, and this will be followed by the ‘Last Judgement’, the ultimate resurrection, and the remaking of the universe from its present form, marred by sin, to a perfect state for the eternal life of God’s people.
Superficially ‘Simples’ as the meerkat says. But during my teens I became aware of a view of the ‘Second Coming’ which is far more elaborate than the simple scheme outlined there. I found it frankly confusing, and I know I’m not the only one. At University I learned more about the whole business, and after a few years, I concluded that this more elaborate view is in fact deeply flawed.
In outline, the alternative view is that Jesus may literally return ‘at any minute’; but it won’t quite be the end. He returns initially for the purpose of taking his Church away from the Earth, and everyone else will be “left behind” whence the title of that book series. This event is known as the ‘Rapture’ of the Church, from the original meaning of that word as a ‘seizing away’. While the Church, as Bride of Christ, enjoys a wedding feast with Jesus, the world will undergo seven years of ‘Tribulation’ under the ‘Antichrist’ also known as the ‘Man of Lawlessness’.
Exact details of what happens during the Tribulation depend on whose interpretation you follow. It seems that the period will offer a last chance to repent and follow Jesus – and to be persecuted by the AntiChrist for it! In early versions it was expected that in the upheaval after the Rapture there would be a massive return of Jews to Israel, and a Restoration of the Temple – but also massive conversion of Jews to Christianity. Since 1948 the Jews have of course had a national state in Israel and that detailed expectation has been necessarily revised.
At the end of the seven years Jesus will return to the Earth again, bringing the Church with him, defeat the AntiChrist and establish an earthly kingdom for a thousand years – the “Millennium” – but apparently this, though all kinds of wonderful, is not yet a perfect kingdom and at the end of that time there will be a final revolt against Jesus’ rule, a truly final battle, and then at last the Judgement, the doom of the wicked, and the new heavens and earth…..
As I understand it, there have always been those who, inspired by chapter 20 of the book of Revelation, have expected a future earthly ‘Millennium’. Sometimes they see it as happening after Jesus’ return, a view known as ‘Pre-Millennialism’; sometimes as a golden age before Jesus’ return, a view known as ‘Post-Millenialism’. And although there’s some vagueness about it, I think that many took the Christianisation of the Roman Empire in the fourth century CE as in some way ‘ushering in’ the Millennium, and that some of the discontent that led to the Reformation was based on the fact that clearly if that had been supposed to be the Millennium then a thousand years later it hadn’t quite met expectations….
But the particular view described above, with the ‘Rapture’ and the seven-year ‘Tribulation’ before the Millennium – as far as I can find out, that is actually quite a recent novelty, unheard of before the early nineteenth century CE. It goes back only to a movement started by a Church of Scotland minister called Edward Irving, and one particular associate of his, John Nelson Darby, an early leader of the ‘Brethren’ denomination.
When Irving came along, the Second Coming was something of a neglected doctrine in the Church of Scotland; and that was because the predominant view there was ‘Post-Millennial’, the Millennium as an earthly golden age not yet begun or maybe only just beginning, culminating with the Second Coming which therefore wasn’t going to happen for about a thousand years. And Irving realised, I think rightly, that this just didn’t match the biblical presentation of constant lively expectation of Jesus’ return, and he began preaching instead in terms of Jesus possibly returning ‘any minute now’; and as his ideas developed he was introduced to ‘Pre-Millennialism’, particularly as found in a book by one ‘Rabbi ben-Ezra’ (in reality a Jesuit called Manuel Lacunza), which Irving translated.
The stir Irving created led to great interest in biblical prophecy and its interpretation with ‘prophetic conferences’ being held to discuss the matter (though don’t think of the conferences as huge public events – often it was a small group, for example the ‘Albury’ conferences held in the house of minor aristocrat Henry Drummond). And it was here, I believe, that a major misstep was made.
Irving, as I said, had been preaching the expectation of a very much ‘any minute now’ return of Jesus. But as the ‘prophetic students’ studied, they came up with prophecies which on the one hand had not been fulfilled, but which didn’t seem to belong in the expected Millennium after Jesus returned. It appeared that if these were to be fulfilled, then the Second Coming couldn’t be ‘any minute now’, some of these prophecies would literally take years to happen. And the group/movement were so hyped up I don’t think they gave much thought to the idea that they might change their expectation – they needed, or thought they needed, an interpretation that allowed the prophecies to be fulfilled but also allowed them to keep the exciting notion that Jesus’ return was only a breath away. The solution to which they kind of muddled through was this idea that Jesus initially would come simply to take the Church away, leaving everyone else behind for several years during which these otherwise – in their view anomalous – prophecies could be fulfilled.
AN ARTIFICIAL PROBLEM
As I see it, they had actually created themselves an artificial and unnecessary problem, and came up with an artificial and unnecessary solution which rapidly spiralled out of control.
The mistake they made is quite subtle. They confused the idea of always being ready for the return of Jesus with the idea that they must expect it literally any minute – and they were so determined on this point that they actually neglected Biblical indications that it was “not necessarily so”….
If they had calmed down and thought clearly they might have realised that they were in a situation much like that which had faced the Thessalonians during the New Testament era. There Paul had to write to a church which had gone a bit OTT on the Second Coming, even to the point they thought it might perhaps already have happened. And Paul’s response then was to tell them that there were in fact prophecies that still needed to happen before Jesus could/would come. You must first see the ‘man of lawlessness’ he tells them – til then, scale back to ‘amber alert’ so to speak. And so the Thessalonians would be in a position on the one hand of being aware and expectant about the Second Coming – but at the same time not actually expecting it any minute, knowing that ‘red alert’ was only needed if a figure appeared on the world stage who appeared to be possibly the ‘man of lawlessness’.
And the nineteenth century prophetic enthusiasts could in theory have taken a similar position on the unfulfilled prophecies they had found. That they would wait, and expectantly watch, for those prophecies to be fulfilled before the return of Jesus, while not expecting Jesus absolutely any minute. OK, they might also reasonably accept there was sufficient uncertainty both about their interpretation of prophecy and their interpretation of world events that they might say “If we’ve somehow misunderstood the situation Jesus may nevertheless return any minute, and we need to be ready in terms of ‘making our calling and election sure’ so that we will indeed be caught up to meet the Lord, we won’t turn out in the end to be faithless”. But the point is they wouldn’t need an interpretation that demanded expectation of an ‘any minute now Coming’ and forced them to find a special time and place for the unfulfilled prophecies to come to pass.
But they didn’t. Partly I feel sure simply because expecting the Coming at any minute had become such a strong belief they weren’t willing to give it up. But to be fair to them, also because some calculations they’d done from particularly the book of Daniel had led them to believe that the early nineteenth century would see Jesus’ return; I think it has to be said that looking back from two hundred years later, they definitely got that wrong! And as I pointed out above, at least one of their ‘post-Rapture’ predictions, Israel’s return to “the Land” has happened not only without the Rapture but as of now at least seventy years before that still awaited event. Contrary to the then expectation, there has in fact been plenty of time for all of those prophecies to be fulfilled – but to be blunt, they simply wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told them two centuries would pass and still no Rapture! To my mind this point alone calls for those early nineteenth century ideas to be reassessed….
I expect I’ll be coming back to this issue. But for now, apart from the problem of its its novelty just a few of many biblical points on why I think this nineteenth century idea was wrong.
The ‘Left Behind’ idea depends on reading the book of Revelation in a particular way; essentially reading it as a ‘chronologically continuous’ account of events. That is, after the introductory ‘Letters to the Seven Churches’ section, what John sees in his visions just follows in sequence – the events of the first vision are followed by the events of the second vision, then the third vision and so on….
During the talk I was of course looking up Bible texts as we went; and at one point I was looking up the Millennium passage, Revelation 20, and my eye caught a footnote in my version (the ‘Berkeley’ version). The footnote was commenting on Rev 20; 3, which reads
“(the angel) hurled (Satan) into the abyss, which he shut and sealed above him, so that he might lead astray the nations no more until the thousand years are completed….”
and the footnote said
“The nations had been destroyed just previously ([i]in Rev 19; SL[i]), if we are to take these events in chronological order; but that would be a serious mistake”.
And I have to agree. ‘Taking the events in chronological order’ produces nonsense. And I don’t believe John was talking nonsense. So interpreting in chronological order is a mistake, clearly indicated as such by the biblical data. But, to be blunt, ‘interpreting Revelation in chronological order’ is the only reason to believe in a future distinct Millennium, whether ‘pre’ or ‘post’ in relation to Jesus’ return. But in that case the whole early nineteenth century prophetic enterprise was based on a ‘serious mistake’ and we should at least treat it with extreme caution!!
Taking Revelation as a whole, I tend to a view similar to the American theologian William Hendriksen; that obviously John had his visions in a chronological sequence, but the visions are related in a different way, broadly what is sometimes referred to as ‘parallelism’. The visions refer in different ways from different angles to (approximately) the same period/thing. Whence the way ‘the nations’ can be destroyed in one chapter but back in the next!
Construed like that, Revelation 20, the Millennium chapter, is like the brief ‘recap’ of what was seen before, brief because this is the point at which the book moves on, beyond the age of the gospel and onwards to the new heavens and new earth and the final restoration of all things. On this basis the battle of Rev 20 is in fact the same battle as ‘Armageddon’ in the previous chapter.
Another thing I find biblically questionable is the way that Rapture enthusiasts portray a ‘second chance’ to those who are ‘left behind’. I Thessalonians 5 says
1 Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled.
1 Thess 5:1-6 (NIV)
I can’t see how Paul could be much more emphatic – the “Day of the Lord” will come suddenly on the unbelieving world, and they will not escape. The idea that Jesus will return and then there will be seven years’ worth of a ‘second chance’ just doesn’t seem to fit. Sometimes the ‘left behind’ people will try to tinker by saying, for example, that this refers to the return of Jesus after the Tribulation. But look at v4 – Paul is clearly talking about the same day for both believers who are caught up to be with the Lord and unbelievers who are not – ‘this day’ will not surprise the Thessalonian believers like a thief, if it happens in their time; but that means the believers must be there on that day, not removed seven years earlier by a Rapture. This is not a thing you can have both ways.
I entirely agree that IF there is to be a seven-year period after the Rapture, during which, for example, the Jews will receive Jesus at last, it is hardly reasonable that a loving God will refuse such conversion to others. But this is not really an argument from the Bible, it’s almost an argument against, denying the statement that the coming of Jesus is the last chance, the reckoning the ungodly cannot escape.
And for me, another major cause of concern is Israel. I think I’ll have to come back to this, but the two problems are
That the ‘Left Behind’ or ‘Dispensationalist’ scheme tends to treat “Israel/the Jews” and “The Church” as almost completely disconnected, sometimes with the church era almost presented as a ‘Plan B’. And I have to say that I just don’t see it like that. To me, right from the start with God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham it is a plan to save the world, Jew and Gentile both. To prepare for the revelation of salvation through Jesus, things were for a time focussed through Israel as Abraham’s physical descendants, but as I read it once Jesus has come those Gentiles who have faith become adopted into Abraham’s family and ‘the Church’ is continuous with ‘Israel’, one people of God not two separate peoples. Indeed in the Greek Septuagint OT the ‘congregation’ of Israel is called the ‘assembly/ekklesia’, the same word that is translated ‘church’ when it appears in the Greek NT. I believe Tyndale translated ‘ekklesia’ as ‘congregation’ in both Testaments; but the ‘King James Version’ preferred ‘Church’ in the NT as that better suited James’ idea of a ‘top-down’ authoritarian state church.
That the ‘Dispensationalist’ view finds it very important to their idea of prophetic fulfilment that Israel must once again be a nation in the ‘Promised Land’, and thus those of Dispensationalist persuasion support the modern nation of Israel. Which in turn means supporting the considerable warfare and mutual provocation in the Middle East. That worries me in lots of ways. One is that Christians who are concentrating on the politics of Israel aren’t concentrating on the arguably far more important job of leading Jews to Jesus. And the other is that I see a rather fundamental contradiction between Jesus’ message of ‘turning the other cheek’ and the necessary war and fighting and dominating others that is involved in creating and upholding the ‘kingdom of this world’ which is the 21st century Jewish homeland….
I’ll have to come back to this last point in future; this post is already too long….