For most of my life, I’ve been a huge fan of the book of Revelation.
Just a few years after I was born, Hal Lindsey wrote “The Late Great Planet Earth,” which seemed to ignite a firestorm of prophetic interpretation of the end times. I guess that to some extent, it had been ongoing for many years, especially since the nation of Israel was reconstituted in 1948, and it probably was ramped up by Jerusalem’s recognition as the capital of Israel in 1967. I suspect that the events of 1967 triggered him to write the book which was released in 1970. But his bestseller certainly lit a fire under many evangelical Christians.
All the churches I attended were fairly steeped in the general theology that was promoted by Lindsey’s book and many others like it. Whether or not these were all explicitly taught, there was a general acceptance of some key ideas:
- the events of Revelation should generally be interpreted literally
- there was definitely a Rapture coming
- and it was coming soon
- nobody knew the day or hour, but we had a pretty good idea it would be within our lifetimes
- there would be a literal thousand-year millennium reign of Jesus
- after that, Satan would have a few years to terrorize the world
- then Jesus would cast Satan and the demons into hell
- and we’d be personally individually judged in front of a literal throne
- and go to heaven or hell forever, depending on whether or not we believed and trusted Jesus before we died
All of these concepts tickled my sense of being on the inside track to heaven, since obviously I believed Revelation and trusted in Jesus as my personal savior. So to ensure I didn’t miss the Rapture – because of course I trusted Jesus’ parable about the ten virgins from Matthew 25:1-13 – I studied everything I could find about the End Times. I spent countless hours discussing Dwight Pentecost’s 1958 book “Things to Come” with my close friends, trying to figure out how the Gulf War and the Soviet Union’s collapse played into the End Times and Biblical prophecy. Back in the “dark ages” before the internet, most of that content came from my local Christian bookstore and my parents’ and church’s library full of Bible teaching books.
Add to this my personal tendency to see the world in very black and white terms, and you might get a picture of a young man who saw the world as an epic battle between good and evil, between Christ seated on a white stallion with a sword from His mouth slaying not only the demons but also all the people who opposed His Holy Kingdom.
And I wasn’t alone. In fact, I think that imagery pervades a large portion of the Western church today. It’s us against “them,” with “them” usually referring to anyone who dares approach life or the Gospel differently than us. And it’s not just “against” – it’s “need to violently suppress so that they don’t corrupt our children and send them to hell.”
Over the years, countless words in thousands of books have been written, and countless words spoken from thousands of pulpits, that offer verse after verse to support this view of the spirit realm and our future. I was utterly convinced that this view of “things to come” was totally supported and unquestionable. Despite the presence of plenty of competing views (pre-millenial, post-millenial, or a-millenial; pre-Tribulation, mid-Tribulation, or post-Tribulation; Dispensationalism), it seemed to me that anyone who disagreed that Revelation was fairly literal and must be the bedrock of our theology was an apostate and likely already condemned to hell themselves, and thus whatever view they held that disagreed with mine was automatically suspect, if not flat-out wrong.
What I grew up believing – from that list above – would probably be best described as Dispensational Premillenial Pretribulation Rapture Theology: that we live in a specific final dispensation or era of the church, that we’ll be raptured out before the tribulation, and that sometime in the near future there will be a literal thousand-year reign of Jesus.
I do realize that my experience isn’t universal, and there are plenty of churches that don’t take those views. Some American denominations actually insist dispensationalism is heretical. But I think this view is generally pretty widespread among evangelical Christians. Some surveys estimate that about half of all Baptist churches take these general views. And somehow, I only ended up attending such churches.
So as I grew up, with this tendency towards believing I was utterly right and had plenty of proof for it, and that other views were inherently dangerous, I tended to instantly reject any opposing information, and in particular, I refused to review any books or writing that presented different views. I really didn’t want to be corrupted, you see.
But now I find myself in a season of life that requires me to reconsider all my tightly-held doctrines. What will happen in some ill-defined future time frame has not been near the top of my list of alligators close to my boat, so to speak, but I’m discovering that the matter of eschatology actually has wide-ranging impacts on my life. So maybe it needs attention now.
One of my key guiding principles in Bible interpretation is what I call “theological humility” – the idea that if a given view is not universally held, if thousands of intelligent, faithful, diligent believers have come to different conclusions than each other over the centuries, then I have to tread lightly when asserting that my view is necessarily correct.
With this in mind, I find that I must begin my review of my doctrines by accepting that I’m probably not right. I may be partly right, but I’m certainly not completely right.
Also with that view in mind, I have to accept that there are going to be a great many matters where I won’t be able to point to a universally-accepted conclusion as the only possible right answer. And eschatology is absolutely one of those matters. There’s just too many different views.
So how do I choose? In fact, do I even NEED to choose?
What’s the Fruit?
In the absence of utter scriptural clarity, which is vanishingly rare, I’ve decided that the best metric I can bring to the decision is looking at the fruit of a doctrine. As Jesus said in Luke 6:43-45, “For there is no good tree which produces bad fruit, nor, on the other hand, a bad tree which produces good fruit. For each tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they pick grapes from a bramble bush. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil. For his mouth speaks from the abundance of his heart.“
In addition to what is in one’s heart, I think that this saying from Jesus also speaks to one’s personal doctrine: the treasure of one’s mind. Whatever is hidden away in our belief structure will bear very tangible fruit in our lives.
And beyond the fruit in one individual’s life, I think the same is absolutely also true of the fruit of corporate life. The doctrine hidden in the heart of a church will result in very tangible fruit in the life of that church. Its works will reveal that doctrine. So far beyond a simple matter of hearing what a church says it believes, we can look at what the church actually does, to determine whether the tree itself is good or evil.
The Fruits of Eschatology
So let’s consider the fruits of the doctrines I grew up believing. I’m going to consider several keys of this theological structure:
- going to heaven or hell depending on your beliefs
- the literal Rapture out of the world before things get really bad
- the good people spending eternity in heaven with God
- individual judgement in front of fellow believers
- a literal reading of Revelation
I really do recognize – based on 45 years of subscribing to this theology – that there are plenty of verses that can be used to support these positions. I’m keenly aware of all of them. I’m not going to really try defend anything I say here; I’m just discussing the fruit I see based on the positions.
1) Our eternal destiny based on our beliefs
First, consider the doctrine that we go to heaven or hell depending on our beliefs. There are actually two parts to this: One, that some people end up in hell for eternity. Two, that our destiny depends on an intellectual position.
As to hell, I wrote about this topic in “For Two Billion Years.” Here’s the fruit about believing in an unending literal hell: because what happens to us in eternity is determined by what happens here on earth, our focus becomes on eternity, not on this earthly life. That focus has had some really, seriously bad fruit across the history of the church. Specifically, it was used to justify slavery: because enslaved peoples were being preached to by their enslavers, it was a net good for their eternal soul for their bodies to be enslaved on earth. It was used to justify the Crusades, slaughtering many thousands of Jews and Muslims for the eternal sake of the Kingdom. Today it’s being used to justify all manner of harm against LGBTQ people, because their eternal souls are more important than their comfort and safety in their earthly bodies.
As to our destiny being determined by our beliefs (our faith), not our actions (our works), it’s interesting to note the dichotomy between James 2:14-26 which discusses faith without works, and other verses such as Romans 4:2–3 which discuss the importance of faith instead of works. So there is support for both points of view, and in reality, I think faith without works is dead, just as works without faith is dead. But the fruit of the idea that our beliefs rule our destiny is an extreme focus on what we believe – instead of the things Jesus spent so much time talking about, which were all focused on how we treat people in their earthly lives. In fact, Jesus made it pretty clear in Matt 25:31-46 that how we care for the poor and needy and oppressed has an extraordinarily large impact on our eternal reward.
It’s interesting to note that we Christians typically refer to our community as “believers,” not “followers of Christ.” In our very language we emphasize the importance of belief over works.
What about believing in a literal Rapture out of the world before things get really bad? This really does sound like a great deal for Christians: say the name of Jesus, avoid the pain.
Here’s the fruit that comes with that:
a) Verse after verse tells us that we should expect suffering and persecution in our lives, that it’s part of God’s approach to maturing us and developing our faith. But a Rapture theology focuses on allowing us to avoid pain and suffering. In doing so, we reject the very thing that God uses for our growth and His glory.
b) We focus on the eternal glory of heaven, instead of the hard but valuable process of ministering Jesus’ love to those who still need His touch and His Spirit living in them. If we do focus on such things, it seems to be mostly a tactic to ensure that we get raptured out with the other faithful.
In other words, a Rapture theology is fundamentally selfish.
Heaven sounds great. Streets paved with gold, mansions built just for us, eternal bliss around the throne. I could point out a ton of problems with those ideas, but the biggest one is this: Revelation describes Christ establishing His eternal rule here on earth, not in heaven. Being called up to meet Him in the air sounds to me like welcoming Him down to the earth, not being carried away. But if I’m wrong, and we DO get to go to heaven at some rapture, it’s temporary at best. Instead, we should be expecting to rule and reign with Him here on earth, in a situation described in Rev 21:25-26 and Rev 22:2 and Rev 22:14-15 as always open to more and more people coming into the Holy City, which implies that there will (for a long long time at least) be unredeemed people who need our governance and ministry. It’s simply not going to be all fun and games: ruling and reigning is hard work to do well.
So like the rapture, the doctrine of spending eternity in heaven, so called “going to heaven when we die,” lets us be fundamentally selfish, thinking of our destiny as eternal reward, instead of eternal service (although it will be rewarding).
4) The Great White Throne Judgement
One of the more enduring images from Revelation, in this case Rev 20:11-12 (as strengthened perhaps by Matt 25:31-32) is the idea of individual judgement in front of fellow believers.
(By the way, let’s not miss that Rev 4:4 and Rev 20:4 describe the righteous being seated on thrones and given the responsibility of judging the unrighteous.)
I have no doubt that God has some place of rule from which He determines the righteousness of His people. But consider the fruit of believing that each one of us will stand in the presence of every other human and hear an excruciatingly detailed list of our deeds: shame and fear. Rather than a focus on how to please the Lord, and to listen to His quiet voice to order our lives, we’re taught that we need to behave so that someday others won’t be scandalized by how we behaved.
In particular, it puts the focus for our behavior in some future eternity – when every single person will be equally ashamed to have missed the mark so badly – rather than as Jesus said in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven,” so that the focus of our lives is on glorifying God so that our fellow mankind will be drawn to a relationship with Him here and now.
Honestly, what good will it do for this supposed final judgement? I don’t believe for an instant that, once we’re standing directly in the presence of pure holiness that we won’t instantly understand that we truly don’t deserve anything good from God. There’s not going to be any need to recite all our deeds one by one. At the very first sinful deed that’s recounted, our hope of perfection is dashed. Why recite every deed throughout our lifetime?
It puts us on notice that, just like Santa Claus, Jesus is watching and recording our every deed so someday He can list them one by one to shame us, and then prove His great love by welcoming us into heaven anyway.
That just doesn’t sound like the God that describes Himself as loving and forgiving and forgetting. It’s just not describing a God that fully accepts us despite knowing every one of our deeds from before we were even born.
So the only fruit I can see from a focus on the great Judgement is behavior modification, not heart change and maturation.
5) Literal Readings of an Apocalyptic Book
I also want to address the fruit of a literal reading of Revelation. Much can be said about the type of apocalyptic literature that is the Book of “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him” (Rev 1:1). When your belief structure insists that Revelation is literal, it becomes necessary to search out our temporal position in that Book, so that we can identify what’s about to happen, and to position ourselves to respond to it. So when, for example, Israel is reborn in 1948, or Jerusalem is recovered in 1967, or Iraq invades Kuwait in 1990, or the Soviet Union collapses in 1991, or Barack Hussein Obama is elected in 2008, or Donald Trump is elected in 2016, we scramble to identify which exact verse is in play.
The problem is that we’re always wrong. Without fail.
I can think of dozens of incredibly specific “prophetic” words from Revelation literalists over just my own lifetime, for example 88 reasons why Jesus would return in 1988, or how the oil well fires in Kuwait in 1991 were proof that the Tribulation had started. There are literally hundreds of carefully-documented claims, yet none of them has ever panned out. This shouldn’t surprise us: Jesus said that even He didn’t know the details (Matthew 24:36), and so we shouldn’t expect to know them either.
The bad fruit is this: there is a ton of very useful symbology in Revelation. In particular, it’s strongly focused on Babylon as the antagonist – which across the entire Bible, from Babel in Genesis 10:10 and Genesis 11:1–9 through to Revelation, holds a special symbolic place of opposition to the good and holy things of the Kingdom of God. When we’re part of the inside crowd – the good guys so to speak – and we’re reading scripture as if we’re the good guys, and looking for proof of the end times drawing near to take us to heaven, it’s really easy to miss the things that Revelation is saying about the general humble and servant-focused and Spirit-trusting posture we need to take before God, and the dangers of failing to do that. If we are always looking to current events to identify some Babylon other than ourselves, are we missing ways in which we have unwittingly adopted Babylon into our own hearts and practices? Revelation was intended to reveal the true nature of the eternal conflict to us. Babylon is here now, and always has been. It’s important to not miss our own culpability in what we read in Revelation, and unfortunately a literalist reading is really good at hiding that from us.
In particular, I’d maintain that the American church today is clearly missing many ways in which it is fulfilling the role of Babylon today. It’s so focused on others as the problem that it’s missing the very things about itself that Revelation was written to bring to its attention.
Furthermore, when we’re constantly trying to figure out who is the Antichrist, and who is Babylon, and who is the Beast, it puts us in a constant mindset of defensiveness, and seeing any form of opposition as demonic forces to be battled – instead of recognizing that, very often, the opposition is simply because we’re being foolish or ungodly, and God Himself is bringing things into our lives to refine and mature us – as is promised in the Bible on many different occasions.
As a result, another fruit of this literalism is that we tend to “other” those around us who don’t hold our exact theology, and more than that, to “other” those who desperately need us to be Jesus with skin on, instead of shunning or harming them.
In the End…
If I had to summarize all of this, it seems to me that this Dispensational Premillenial Pretribulation Rapture Theology bears a lot of really bad fruit. It puts our focus on escaping pain instead of maturing through suffering. It puts our focus on personal reward instead of the hard work of serving Christ. It puts our focus on our own individual eternal destiny instead of on doing the work of Jesus to benefit those around us on the earth. And it puts our focus on looking for enemies, instead of looking for the Jesus in others around us.
So when I look at the fruit that I see coming out of this doctrinal position, I have to conclude that, even were all other things equal, even if either doctrinal position was equally supported, I’d have to conclude that this literalist premillennial rapture position was not the right one, because I conclude it causes more harm than good.
I’m sure much more could be said about this. I haven’t attempted to fully justify my positions from Scripture here; that would make this unbearably long, and besides, as I started by pointing out, thousands of books have already been written about these matters. I don’t see any point in repeating them.
My main point is to get us all thinking more clearly about how we approach end-times prophecy, so that we don’t miss what God wants for His people here and now.
Finally, I’ll leave you with this thought: this is not just a matter for Revelation and eschatology. How we address any particular doctrine can be considered in this light: if the fruit of a doctrine is more evil than good, then the only appropriate conclusion is that there’s something wrong with the very roots of that theology, and we ought to be willing to reconsider anything that bears bad fruit, instead of just clinging to it out of a misguided sense of faith.