Note: I have placed a number of links to descriptions of the terminology in the first couple paragraphs just in case this terminology is new to you. Sorry for getting nerdy so quickly in this post. Don’t feel too compelled to understand the intricacies perfectly.
I began walking this Christian path in 1980. It was a critical year, and in fact, a potent one for the ever tense relationship between evangelism and eschatology. At twenty-one years old, I was born late into this world of church life and the world’s fastest growing Christian network of charismatics and Pentecostals. Being part of the semi-charismatic 1980s Calvary Chapel circles, I was thrown headfirst into an apocalyptic world of things like antichrists, and satanic conspiracies hidden in rock-and-roll, and the European Union. Something didn’t sit right with me then about these wild theories of Christ’s Second Coming that seemed to be rising out of the smudgy ink on the morning newspaper. But, in the first few years of my Christian life, I was surrounded by nothing but semi-Calvinist, Charismatic, Pre-Trib Christians. And, from the beginning, I was not a good fit. I was born a black sheep.
I know that the combination of Calvinism, Pentecostal-light theology, and Dispensational Premillennial/Pretribulational eschatology sounds like a strange fit, and it is a bit of a Frankenstein monster, but that is what was around me.
Calvary Chapel threw itself headlong into Hal Lindsey’s popular end times declarations that Jesus was returning in 1981 to rapture true believers away, and the event would begin the Great seven-year Tribulation that was to come upon the earth before Christ came again with judgment.
Okay, I know you are already confused, because this sounds like Jesus was going to come again, and then come again-again seven years later, and yeah, that’s exactly what this theology believes. He returns two times when he returns for the second time, and yet its all one thing called the Second Coming. I didn’t fall for it, and initially, my reason was nothing theological. My reason was missional, and deeply evangelical to the core.
Let me break this all down for you.
I was told that Jesus was coming again. Okay, cool. That is what he said, so I was good with that.
I was told that Jesus would return in the clouds. No problem there. I mean, jeepers, this is God. He can ride on a white horse, step on a mountain and squish it, or do whatever he likes. It certainly fit Jesus’ words in Acts 1. (Acts 1:9-10)
I was told that this was imminent. It could happen any second, and we would be totally surprised by trumpets, and that would be it. Uhm, this was problematic for someone in music school, there were trumpets sounding all the time, but I just wasn’t convinced by this point initially, and would be less so as I began to read the scriptures. But, that was the insinuation of the words, “no man knows the day or hour”, and “he comes as a thief in the night.” Of course, we all had to watch the super cheesy movie Thief in the Night, and try and scare our friends into getting right with God before the Antichrist came and stamped their forehead with an indelible 666. (Matthew 24:42-44, 1 Thess. 5:2)
I was told that when he came, Jesus would suddenly rapture the church. This rapture thing is like suddenly being filled with helium and shooting up into the sky like a flying inflatable doll. It was the resurrection of your body while you were driving through the fast food line at McDonald’s. Although, I guess we were going to be leaving our clothes behind, which seems rather embarrassing, and not exactly made for TV. Now, this was all rather strange sounding, but it was supported by a few scriptures in 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, and so, I thought, well I can take that at face value for now, but there certainly seemed easier ways to interpret these difficult passages. (1 Cor. 15:51-52; 1 Thess. 4:15-17)
Then came the kicker; this was immediately and conclusively the reason I rejected pretribulational eschatology: I was told that people who were not true Christians would be left behind to experience seven years of hell on earth. There would be plagues, and wars, and natural disasters like the world has never seen, and to top it all off, the ruler of the world would be some cruel satanically inspired Damien character. That was it for me. The day I first heard this fantastic theology, I thought this must be what all Christians believed. In response, I did something that could potentially be unique within Christendom. I’ve never heard anyone else say they’ve prayed like this. I sat down in the courtyard at Palomar College Music Department where I was studying, and cried. I prayed as I cried, and I said, “If this is true, leave me behind.”
Yes, that’s right, I wanted to be left behind during the rapture to stay with the suffering people on earth to help and offer hope through the gospel.
I could not fathom the idea, that God would allow such tribulation in the world and not leave a witness behind to offer the beautiful hope I had found in Christ.
That day was the beginning of my realization that I was a black sheep in the flock, and it was the beginning of the slowly emerging Wild Theology of my heart. My theology was to be forged in the crazy combination of my ecstatic experiences with the Divine, my passion for mission, and a struggle with some of the incongruous theologies of Evangelicalism. I was trapped between the end of the world and a missiology of compassion.
Shortly after this season, I ran into another stream of Christianity. And this was way more unique than the post-hippie, dabbling with Calvinism, Charismatic-light, Jesus-is-Coming-in-1981 Calvary Chapel. Uncle John was a traveling Plymouth Brethren preacher at the end of his long life, and he was an anomaly in his own circles. He was Pentecostal. If you know anything about the Plymouth Brethren, you know that Pentecostal is certainly one thing most of them are not. Pentecostals were heretics among the Plymouth Brethren, but Uncle John Landis, and a handful of people like him that I would meet over the years, were different types of Brethren.
So here I was in a world of people who thought radically different than I did, and they had all been doing this Christian thing way longer than me. Uncle John thought that a person was a heretic if they weren’t Calvinist, and did not believe in the pretribulational rapture of the church. When he asked me outright what I believed, I somehow tiptoed around it, and fortunately, he didn’t try to exorcize me. At Calvary Chapel they were less strident about it, but if you weren’t into the rapture stuff, you didn’t quite fit in the flock.
I was in Costa Mesa in 1981, and Calvary Chapel pastor Chuck Smith told the congregation on a Wednesday night service, “This is the year Jesus is returning!” They all cheered. I moaned, and mumbled under my breath that he was wrong. To me, this was beyond silly, if not outright dangerous to the reputation of the church.
Now, I tried really hard for a short time to believe in this pretribulation rapture. I read a couple of the popular books and listened to a few of the popular pastors on the subject. In Calvary Chapel circles this was primarily Chuck Smith and Greg Laurie. But, I quickly migrated my way to more robust thinkers like H.A. Ironside, J.N. Darby, and of course, Dallas Theological Seminary’s John Walvoord, and his seminal work, Daniel: the Key to Revelation. After still not being able to square what I read in the Bible with these theologians and Bible teachers, I foraged through the spectrum of eschatalogical theologies available in those days, and sat back and watched the developing show.
Jesus did not return to take us away in ’81. He didn’t return in ’87, when it was prophesied again, and people passed out flyers in front of the grocery stores. Nor did all the billboards around the world catch Christ’s attention in 2011, when Harold Camping told us that Christ would return on May 21st of that year. Each time, I told my friends, and later, the people in the church I pastored, that these prophecies were not going to come true. Each time, some of them challenged me with the warning that I could be fighting against God’s plan. But, each time, I was correct, and on May 22nd, 2011, my friends and I took it to another level. We threw a Left Behind Party. I wrote a song for it. A few friends around the US joined in and threw their own parties, and it made the newspaper in Salem, MA.
Now, in retelling this long story, I am not trying to convince you that the eschatalogical teaching of the pretribulational rapture is heresy. Nor, am I attempting to persuade you that it is a dangerous theology. There are people who believe it is this bad, but I am not one of those people. I would simply like to make some observations about this theology and then apply similar critiques to the developing theologies of our current time.
Every theology, apart from whether it is true or false, has a set of strengths and a set of weaknesses. Sometimes even the strengths become weaknesses, which of course, is one of the major problems with sin in the first place. It is not that such theologies are inherently good or bad, but rather that the foibles, struggles, and sins of humanity twist church theologies and take advantage of them for personal – sometimes even dark purposes.
One strength of the pretribulational rapture theology was that it caused Evangelical Christians to be concerned for friends and family and their eternal destiny. They wanted to share Jesus, because he could arrive any moment. I was born into Christianity during this frenzy, despite the fact that I thought the eschatology was wacked.
The weakness of the pretribulational rapture theology was that it caused Evangelical Christians to begin to develop an escapist mentality. Caring for the earth was no big deal, because it was all going to burn soon, and be recreated by God anyway. For those who struggled with life, and could not wait to get past this fallen world’s corruptions, it became a false hope, and their expectations were dashed on the rocks of reality. The storm came and their faith foundation was sunk in the moving sands. The times I was living through re-popularized the famous quote attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., “Some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.”
Today, we have quickly developing eschatologies, mostly rising from popular Christianity, and a handful of dead theologians. These theologies are not as clean as the well developed, albeit fantastic pretribulational rapture theory, but they appear to have greater influence in the halls of political power, and with the decision making processes of the average Christian who follows these teachings.
In part two of this article, I will begin to introduce you to Dominionist Theology with its variations in Kingdom Now Theology, Christian Reconstructionism, the New Apostolic Reformation, and the Seven Mountains Mandate. As will be seen, these movements and theological perspectives do not necessarily all carry the same end-times theology, but they heavily influence Christian thinking about how we occupy our time on earth as we await the coming of Christ. Just like the pretrib rapture theology had it’s strengths and weaknesses, which affected our view of Christianity and Christian mission, today’s theologies are doing the same thing, but I am convinced that these are not so benign, and the weaknesses may be significantly more egregious.