(In light of the "rapture" not taking place this past Saturday, I am re-posting a piece that I wrote back in November of 2009.)
I thought Hal Lindsey was dead, but I discovered he is quite alive when I ran into him on TV the other night. But not only is he very much alive, the end-times prophecy that forms the basis of his theological and political perspective on the world is also very much alive.
While Lindsey is a senior figure of this movement, perhaps the most prolific prophet of end-time theology is John Hagee. Hagee is a master at using charts and graphs to offer exactly how things are going to happen in the end.
But by reaching many more people than what Lindsey and Hagee could ever reach, the Left Behind Series has done more to popularize end-time theology. This series of books has contributed greatly to the growing fascination that many Christians have with the end-times.
The basic teaching of end-time theology has several key points that are important to understand. First, those who preach this message believe that a person known as the anti-Christ will rise up and rule the world. The problem is that for decades now, many have pointed to various historical figures as the anti-Christ.
Second, there is the idea of a rapture, which will take place at a point in time in which Christians will somehow disappear from earth, apparently teleporting to heaven much like a scene out of Star Trek. The idea is that Christians will be taken from earth before things get really bad.
Third, Israel plays a significant role in Christian end-time theology. Indeed, these prophets equate ancient Israel directly with the State of Israel. They preach that America must support Israel’s desire to hold on to confiscated land in order to be on God’s side, despite the atrocities the Israeli government may carry out against the Palestinians.
But the most egregious theological error these prophets preach is that the world will end in an apocalyptic battle in the Middle East, when Muslim nations will attack Israel and the world will erupt in a cataclysmic war to end all wars. Indeed, many of them express joy as they salivate over the prospects of an end-time war.
What are we to make of these teachings that are not just harmless ramblings from crazy street preachers? How are we to understand their messages, and better yet, critique them in light of the gospel of peace that Jesus proclaimed?
A starting point for us might be to look at what Jesus says in Mark 13, where we hear him speak about one of the most catastrophic events to take place in Jerusalem during the first century; the destruction of the temple.
As Mark 13 begins, we find Jesus and his disciples coming out of the temple. As they come out, one of the disciples points to the temple saying, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!"
Did Jesus not know that the temple was large and magnificent? Had this fact escaped him? No, Jesus knew very well how large and magnificent the temple was; everyone did. Thus, a reasonable explanation as to why the disciple draws Jesus’ attention to the magnitude of the building is to remind Jesus of the significance of the temple for the faithful in and around Jerusalem.
Indeed, for the Jews, and for Jewish followers of Jesus who continued to frequent the temple, the temple was a constant reminder of God’s presence among them despite the oppression of Roman rule. The temple was the one sure foundation in the religious life of the people. This is perhaps why the disciple points out the large stones to Jesus. But this is also why Jesus takes this moment to talk about the temple’s destruction.
But the response of the four disciples to Jesus’ words about the temple is very revealing. “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?"
Notice the emphasis of their query. When will this happen? What will be the sign that this is about to happen? These followers of Jesus sound much like Hal Lindsey, John Hagee, and the rest of the false prophets of end-time doom. Focused on the signs of the end, they try to see these signs in significant historical events. But Jesus uses this as a teaching moment to warn them, and to warn them particularly against false prophets who come in his name.
In his warning about the false prophets, Jesus says to these sign-seeking disciples that the events we interpret as signs of the end are always happening and will continue to happen. They are not signs that the end is here, and if some are preaching this, they are false prophets who will lead us astray.
The message that these false prophets have is that the world is ending, so let’s not only look for the signs, let’s also hurry things along. Let’s forget about seeking good in the world, making peace in the world, and improving our world. Let’s instead focus our attention on how quickly we can get to the end.
Jesus is not unaware that catastrophic events like natural disasters, famines, and wars cause us to think things are getting worse in the world. But he is not calling us to see them as signs that the end is near. Jesus is telling us that these events should call us to action as his followers; they should move us to live the gospel more faithfully until the end.
Living the gospel faithfully expresses a lasting hope that does not need to look for signs of what is to come. The events that unfold in our world that cause those false prophets to preach their doomsday gospel about the end, are really the events that ought to continually shake us into action as Christ’s ambassadors who are called to live and proclaim the good news, not the bad news.