An excerpt from How Close Are We?
The Blessed Hope
With Christ’s I will come again! still fresh in memories, the early Christians eagerly waited and watched for their Lord’s return. He had said that they were not of this world, but that He had chosen them out of it. Paul would soon write under His Lord’s inspiration: “For our conversation [citizenship] is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body” (Philippians:3:20,21). The world held little interest for these citizens of heaven. They were homesick for the Father’s house, longing to be with their Lord in that eternal haven of rest.
Hated, persecuted, and killed by Rome, the early church took comfort in the belief that Christ might return at any moment to rescue His followers from their trials. Paul called the anticipation of an imminent Rapture “that blessed hope” (Titus:2:13), and indeed it was for those early believers who went through “fiery trials” and “rejoiced at being partakers of Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter:4:12,13). How they longed to leave this world to be with Him!
As the weary weeks became years, however, and the years multiplied into decades, and finally centuries passed, the vast majority of those who claimed to be Christ’s followers gave less and less thought to that “blessed hope.” The promise of Christ’s return was first neglected and then forgotten. Finally it was lost in the maze of new interpretations and heresies which began to multiply. Attitudes and outlook changed. Citizenship in heaven had proved to be too nebulous a concept. Something more tangible was desired. Being despised on this earth, hated, persecuted, and killed, as their Lord had been, no longer seemed a necessary accompaniment of true Christianity. Perhaps this world had something to offer after all. Perhaps the church could even take the leadership in political affairs and transform the world, establishing the kingdom in Christ’s absence. A more accommodating attitude toward secular society might even make the unsaved more receptive to the gospel—especially if they realized that becoming a Christian needn’t mean persecution or even much of a change in one’s way of life.
The First “Vicar of Christ”
The steadily worsening apostasy took on a hitherto unimagined dimension with the ascent to power of a new Emperor in a.d. 313. He was a brilliant military strategist and general named Constantine. He also had a genius for political organization and realism. Constantine faced the fact that almost three centuries of persecuting Christians had not stamped out that strange sect. Instead it had only grown until nearly one out of every ten citizens in the empire was among that despised band.
Tertullian’s remark that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church, inexplicable though it might be, had proved to be true. People apparently wanted something more than pleasure and profit. Only firmly held convictions worth dying for could make life worth living. These “followers of the way,” as they were called in those early days of the church, even prayed for the Roman emperors and other magistrates and soldiers who persecuted and killed them! Why not take advantage of that exemplary loyalty to kings and kingdoms which seemed to be a part of this strange religion?
The Christians were conscientious, hard workers. They didn’t get drunk or rebel against the government. Insurrection was not in their natures. Then why not encourage them, give them full rights? Perhaps their philosophy of industry and fidelity would spread to other citizens. The empire would be much the better for it if the numbers of Christians multiplied. The new policy was a very pragmatic one.
To further this strategy, Constantine himself claimed to have become a Christian, though he continued, as Pontifex Maximus, to head the pagan priesthood and to preside over the pagan holiday ceremonies. Of course, that was his duty as emperor and it was excused in view of his encouragement of the building of Christian churches. A new day of tolerance had dawned.
Worshiped as God, the emperor was the head of the empire’s official religion. Now that Christianity was recognized along with the old paganism, Constantine assumed leadership of the Christian church. In doing so, he took the title Vicar of Christ. Posing as the church’s greatest friend and benefactor, and perhaps even doing so sincerely, Constantine became its destroyer.
Christ had refused Satan’s offer of the kingdoms of this world if He would but bow down to him. In a moment of weakness, a church weary of persecution accepted the same offer from Satan, this time presented through the Roman emperor. It was the beginning of centuries of what would be known as the church’s “Babylonian captivity.”
Augustine lamented that those who were now inside the church were “drunkards, misers, tricksters, gamblers, adulterers, fornicators, people wearing amulets, assiduous clients of sorcerers, astrologers... the same crowds that press into the churches on Christian festivals also fill the theatres on pagan holidays.” For many Christians, however, it was a welcome change to go from being despised, hated, hunted, and killed, to being popular and even leaders in the world.
Once it had meant almost certain persecution and possible death to heed the gospel. There had been little need to worry about false professions of faith under those circumstances. Now it was just the opposite. False professions were more the rule than the exception.
The Church Marries the World
In the new order of things under Constantine, it had become a great advantage to be a Christian. One had to attend the growing number of Christian churches to get anywhere in business, politics, and even in the military. Conversions of convenience multiplied as church attendance soared.
Corruption quickly reached to the top in the church. The empire’s best-paying jobs with the most worldly prestige and influence were in church leadership. Constantine encouraged the growth of an ecclesiastical system that he could use to his own ends. It attracted men whose ambitions were not to gain reward in the world to come but in the present one.
Many who rose to power within the church hierarchy were master politicians who knew how to use Christian terminology but knew not Christ. As Will Durant put it in The Story of Civilization, the paganism of Rome “passed like maternal blood into the new religion, and captive Rome captured her conqueror. While Christianity converted the world, the world converted Christianity.” What a tragic commentary! Such was the birth of Roman Catholicism, which would dominate the scene from that moment on.
The church that was supposed to be the bride of Christ, awaiting eagerly the return of her Bridegroom to take her to heaven, had tired of waiting for Him and married the world instead. Now occupied with building an earthly kingdom over which she could reign in an adulterous partnership with kings and emperors, the church lost its hope of heaven and began to look upon itself as the replacement for God’s earthly people, Israel. Forgotten were admonitions such as this from the Lord: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt and thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew:6:19-21).
In disobedience to her Lord, the church became the wealthiest institution on earth and gloried in her earthly treasures. Much of the wealth was acquired by selling salvation. Every sin had its price for “forgiveness.” The greater and more numerous the sins the wealthier the church of Rome became. Crosses and altars that supposedly depicted the sacrifice of Christ were gilded with gold. Bishops, cardinals, and popes, who claimed to be the successors of barefoot fishermen disciples, lived lifestyles that shamed even secular kings. The perversion of the church which began with Constantine continued to worsen through the centuries, giving us today’s Roman Catholicism....
Hope of the Rapture Is Lost
There was no longer any reason for Christ to return. Claiming that Constantine had given them his authority, the popes ruled with an iron hand over what they conceived to be “the kingdom of God” come to earth. To this day the popes proudly bear Constantine’s three religious titles: Pontifex Maximus, Vicar of Christ, and Bishop of Bishops....
The Rapture is unknown in today’s Roman Catholicism. In fact, it is specifically contradicted by the twin Catholic dogmas of purgatory and indulgences. Although down through the centuries there have been many relatively small groups of evangelical believers independent of and persecuted by Rome, they, too, for the most part lost the hope of the Rapture....
The Reformation did little to recover any hope in Christ’s promise, “I will come again and receive you unto myself.” The Rapture is generally denied or has little importance among Reformed groups such as Presbyterians and Lutherans. There seemed to be good reason to avoid that teaching due to past fanaticism surrounding it. The best proof that the hope of an imminent Rapture was not biblical was found in the fact that Christ had not yet come.
Unfortunately, when the “blessed hope” of Christ’s imminent return has been revived periodically in the last two centuries, the excitement created here and there has usually developed into date setting, causing the Rapture to become an object of derision. Voluntarily divested of their earthly possessions, cruelly deluded, white-robed zealots have more than once waited in vain on hilltop or rooftop while the promised hour came and went. Such fanatical anticipation has always subsided once again into disillusionment and forgetfulness....
In the wake of such excited anticipation and then disappointment, greater disillusionment than ever has now smothered the legitimate hope of Christ’s imminent return. The Rapture and Second Coming are now looked upon as topics to be avoided by the vast majority of Christians—and, it would seem, with good reason. The gospel, too, because it was clearly preached by these date setters, has come in for increasing mockery.
Bringing Heaven to Earth
A surprising number of today’s evangelicals are rejecting the Rapture in favor of remaining here to take over the world. There is an entire movement known as Manifest Sons which rejects the Rapture. It is up to Christians, according to this teaching, to “manifest” themselves as “sons of God” by attaining to sinless perfection and immortality. This, they say, will not happen at the return of Christ, but must be accomplished to bring Him back. Overcomers who manifest themselves as sons of God in this way are then, in that power, to take over the world. When the church has established the kingdom, Christ will return to earth, not to take anyone to heaven but to rule over the kingdom the overcomers present to Him.
This clearly unbiblical teaching originated in a Pentecostal revival in Canada around 1948....Though immediately condemned as heresy by the Assemblies of God, and confined to a fanatical fringe for years, this teaching [has become “gospel”] among many Pentecostals and charismatics. In complete disregard for Christ’s promise to take us to heaven and for other Scriptures we have already cited, one of the leaders in the movement, writes: “You can study books about going to heaven in a so-called ‘rapture’ if that turns you on. We want to study the Bible to learn to live and to love and to bring heaven to earth.”
The consequences are rather severe for those who embrace this deception. The Scripture plainly declares that Christ is going to catch us up to meet Him in the air and take us to heaven. Therefore all those who meet a “Christ” with their feet planted on this earth—a “Christ” who hasn’t come to take them to heaven but to reign over the kingdom they’ve established for him—have been working for Antichrist!
It is often argued that belief in a pre-trib Rapture leaves one unprepared to face Antichrist and susceptible to deception. The facts are just the opposite. It is those who deny the Rapture who have set themselves up for the most horrible deception. Antichrist will pretend to be the very “Christ” whom they expect to come to earth to reign. He will congratulate them on the good work they’ve done in preparing the world for his rule. Hundreds of millions of those who call themselves Christians will be completely deceived.
Strong Delusion from God
Antichrist will do exactly what the Bible foretells. For example, as a means of stabilizing world economies, he’ll set up a worldwide system for buying and selling which will employ the number 666 in some way....Those who don’t obey him will not be allowed to buy or sell. He will set up his image in the temple—an image which all will be forced to worship on threat of death. How could one witness such events, all prophesied in Scripture and attributed to the Antichrist, and imagine that Christ was doing them?
Paul warns that God Himself will send a strong delusion to those who, prior to the Rapture, refused to receive the love of the truth. Those who reject the clear teaching of Scripture concerning the Rapture and opt instead to take over the world have already demonstrated their rejection of God’s truth. They will be completely convinced that Antichrist is Christ and will follow him enthusiastically. He will fulfill all the expectations they had concerning Christ’s return.
Won’t the disappearance of scores of millions of Christians prove to the hundreds of millions of professing Christians who are left behind that the Rapture has indeed taken place? No. There will be explanations to prove that what occurred was not the Rapture. For example, part of the Manifest Sons teaching is that those who refuse to accept their doctrine and do not become overcomers will be instantly removed to judgment. This is their interpretation of “Then shall be two in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left” (Matthew:24:40,41).
That those who embrace the Manifest Sons teaching have been left behind will not trouble them at all. Indeed, it will prove that they are the faithful ones. It is the missing, so they will believe, who have been taken away to judgment and who are thus to be mourned. What a setup for Antichrist!