An excerpt from Whatever Happened to Heaven?
In the early 1970s the rapture was the most-talked-about topic in the church. [Hal Lindsey’s bestselling book, The Late Great Planet Earth], had captured the attention and imagination of his generation. Pastors preached about heaven and Christians eagerly anticipated being caught up at any moment to meet their Lord in the air. Even the secular world became familiar with the concept. There were movies, such as The Omen, about the end times. Radio and television mentioned the Second Coming frequently, and cartoons and bumper stickers also took up the theme. One of the latter solemnly warned: “I’m leaving in the rapture, ride at your own risk!’’
All of that has changed. The bumper stickers have worn off, the movies have lost their appeal, and the sermons have gone on to currently popular themes....
The Late Great Planet Earth had only suggested that Christ’s statement concerning “this generation’’ might possibly indicate a fulfillment within 40 years from Israel’s rebirth. Yet that possibility had metamorphosed (though not so intended by Hal Lindsey) into necessity in the thinking of so many Christians that when 1981 came and went without the rapture there was considerable disillusionment with the pretribulation position. Doubts had already been mounting as that key date had approached. In fact, by the late 1970s the posttribulation view had gained a substantial following even in denominations and institutions that had long been bastions of the (until then) dominant pretribulation position.
Needless to say, January 1, 1982, saw the defection of large numbers from the pretrib position. At that point, however, the posttrib theory looked no better, because the Great Tribulation obviously had not arrived on schedule. To many it seemed that the only option remaining was the postmillennial view, a minority belief that had all but died out among evangelicals. After being generally written off, however, as Gary North admits, and in spite of the apparent unreasonableness of the AD 70 scenario, the postmillennial view is once again staging a dramatic comeback.
The New Issue: Rapture or No Rapture
Now that 1988 has become history without the appearance of the Great Tribulation or the Antichrist—and with the prospects of Armageddon fading into the future...the controversy is no longer between a pre-, mid-, or posttrib rapture as it has been for so long. The issue has become “rapture or no rapture.’’ And the latter view is gaining strength so rapidly that it promises to become the predominant belief in the near future. While most postmillennialists believe in a rapture, as we have already noted, it is so far in the future as to have little practical effect upon an individual’s life and offers none of the purifying and motivating hope normally associated with the expectancy of the imminent return of Christ.
Most Christians no longer know what they believe about prophecy and now realize that their previously held opinions must be given an honest and careful review. Many who were once excited about the prospects of being caught up to heaven at any moment have become confused and disillusioned by the apparent failure of a generally accepted biblical interpretation they once relied upon. Those who believed in the rapture because it was popular are, of course, abandoning it now that it has become unpopular. They never had a good reason for what they believed based upon their own carefully weighed convictions. It is sad that so few Christians know the Bible for themselves.
The church is now ripe for the developing views of history and prophecy that either downplay or eliminate the rapture and put the emphasis upon “Christianizing’’ (in contrast to “converting’’) the world. A new genre of books espousing the idea that “victory in Christ’’ means a Christian takeover of this world is coming off the presses and selling well. Such ideas are being successfully taken into mainstream evangelical churches [which] represents a major theological shift in the church....
Being taken to heaven in the rapture has been to a large extent replaced by the rapidly growing new hope that the church is destined to take over the world and establish the kingdom of God. The focus has turned from winning souls for citizenship in heaven to political and social action aimed at cleaning up society. Scarcely a sermon is being preached about the world to come. Attention is focused instead upon achieving success in this one. If we have a big enough march on Washington and vote in enough of our candidates, then we can make this world a beautiful, safe, moral, and satisfying “Christian’’ place for our grandchildren. This is a very enticing scenario....
Whatever Happened to Heaven?
The expectancy of the Lord’s soon return which was so evident in the 1970s at the peak of the popularity of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth has all but vanished from the church. Today there is scarcely a favorable reference to the rapture from most pulpits. And the hymns that once expressed the church’s longing for heaven are now heard only at funerals.
There has developed a surprising and growing antagonism against eagerly watching and waiting for Christ’s return, which surely was the attitude of the early church. The pendulum is swinging to an outright rejection of not only the pretrib but also the premillennium rapture....
We could cite the current struggle going on in the Southern Baptist Church as one example. It is the largest Protestant denomination, but is presently losing members at a surprising and growing rate to independent churches that deny the rapture, deny any place for national Israel in prophecy, and believe that an elite group of “overcomers’’ will soon manifest immortality in their bodies without the resurrection or the Second Coming, and take over the world for Christ. Only then will Christ return—not to take His bride home to heaven as the Bible clearly teaches, however, but to reign over the kingdom that she established for Him here on this earth. One of the leaders in this 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.
Is this issue even worth discussing? After all, what does it matter when Christ comes or when or how the kingdom is established? Is eschatological debate of any significance? A partial answer would lie in the fact that “last days’’ prophecy is a subject that takes up about one-fourth of the Bible. How could we dare to suggest that the Holy Spirit would give such importance to something that in the final analysis really doesn’t matter? Based only upon the amount of attention given to it in the Bible, when and how and why Christ returns must be of great importance both to God and to us. We need to seek to understand why.
One reason for the significance of this issue should be quite obvious. Paul tells us that Christ is going to catch His bride away from this earth to meet Him in the air— “and so shall we ever be with the Lord’’ (1 Thessalonians:4:17). Consequently, those who expect to meet Christ with their feet still planted on earth—a “Christ’’ who has arrived to take over the kingdom they have established in His name—will have been badly deceived. In fact, they could have been working to build the earthly kingdom for the Antichrist. Yet this teaching that we must take over the world and set up the kingdom for Christ has become the fastest-growing movement within the church today.
Changing Attitude toward Israel
One of the key doctrines of this movement is the claim that the church is now Israel, heir to all of her promises, and that national Israel has been cut off from God and has no further place in the prophetic scheme. This new focus on an earthly inheritance for the church has further turned the hope of being taken to heaven in the rapture into an object of ridicule. It has also produced a drastic change in attitude and a serious reduction in the evangelical church’s traditional support of Israel, an about-face that is being viewed with alarm by that tiny nation. Bill Hamon’s The Eternal Church is one of the popular books promoting the theory that the church is Israel and that Christians are now establishing the kingdom of God. Hamon reports that Kenneth Hagin’s Rhema Bible Training Center uses his book as a textbook and that it has been found to be a “valuable and indispensable tool’’ by: “Kenneth Copeland, Earl Paulk, Jerry Savelle, Gary Greenwald, John Gimenez, Ken Sumrall...and many other classical Pentecostal and Charismatic leaders.’’
Speaking at Edmond near Oklahoma City on April 11, 1988, Rick Godwin, a long-time associate of James Robison and popular speaker on Christian media, delivered the type of anti-Israel rhetoric that is becoming so typical in charismatic circles: “They [national Israel] are not chosen, they are cursed! They are not blessed, they are cursed!... Yes, and you hear Jerry Falwell and everybody else say the reason America’s great is because America’s blessed Israel. They sure have. Which Israel? The Israel—the church.... That’s the Israel of God, not that garlic one over on the Mediterranean Sea!" Earl Paulk’s criticism of national Israel and those who look favorably upon her includes the ultimate accusation:
The hour has come for us to know . . . that the spirit of the antichrist is now at work in the world . . . [through] so-called Holy Spirit-filled teachers who say, “If you bless national Israel, God will bless you.’’
Not only is this blatantly deceptive, it is not part of the new covenant at all!
Currents of change are sweeping through the world and the church. In the crucial days ahead, the evangelical church could well suffer a division over the rapture and the related issue of Israel comparable to that experienced by the Catholic Church as a result of the Reformation in the 1500s. Nor would it be surprising if, in the cause of “unity,’’ the larger faction in Protestantism moved much closer to ecumenical union with Catholicism, which has been traditionally anti-Semitic and discarded the rapture about 1600 years ago....
The Real “Inconvenient Truth”?
We must beware that in our zeal to “change the world for Christ’’ we do not become so wedded to an ongoing earthly process stretching into the indeterminate future that we lose our vision of heaven. We cannot be truly faithful to the totality of what Scripture says unless we are sufficiently disengaged from this world to be ready to leave it behind at a moment’s notice.
There is cause to be concerned that the Reconstructionists and the Coalition on Revival as well as other kingdom/dominion advocates could be fostering a false conception of our earthly ministry—a conception which we must guard against lest we subtly fall into an attitude like that of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. For him, Christ’s return to earth represented an interference with the mission of the church. He has Christ thrown into prison, where he visits him to complain:
There is no need for Thee to come now at all. Thou must not meddle for the time, at least. . . . fortunately, departing Thou didst hand on the work to us.
Thou has promised, Thou hast established by Thy word, Thou has given to us the right to bind and to unbind, and now, of course, Thou canst not think of taking it away. Why, then, hast Thou come to hinder us?
All human beings are tempted to be more at home in this world than they should be. Christians are not exempt from this temptation, and when they succumb it often leads to an effort to reinterpret Scripture accordingly. Reconstructionists exemplify this temptation. Christ’s return before they have taken over the world would be as inconvenient to the Reconstructionists and others in the kingdom/dominion movement as it was to the Grand Inquisitor, and for the same reasons.
Our hope is not in taking over this world but in being taken to heaven by our Lord to be married to Him in glory and then to return with Him as part of the armies of heaven to rescue Israel, destroy His enemies, and participate in His millennial reign. Yet those of us who claim to believe this too often hold the belief in theory only, while denying it with our lives....
It seems ironic that the possibility of the rapture, which ought to bring great comfort, has caused great controversy as well. We dare not, however, in the name of unity and the avoidance of controversy, abandon the hope given to us in [the] Scriptures:
Behold, I show you a mystery: We shall not all sleep [die], but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed [all, dead and living, in one instant].
For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. (1 Corinthians:15:51-53)
For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air, and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians:4:16-18)