Did you ever read or watch the “Left Behind” story? As a young Christian, I was raised on “dispensationalism”, a term which comes from the Bible referring to God’s timing and how He works differently at different times. We had it all figured out, just like the Jews of Jesus’ day. (But wait, they missed it! Are we?) According to what is known in theological circles as “literal Israel dispensationalism”, evil will increase until the end of the age when a seven year “great tribulation” will occur where a man possessed by Satan and known as the anti-Christ will come to power. This view is based upon scripture passages in 1Thessalonians, Jesus’ Olivet discourse in Matthew 24 and upon Old Testament prophesies in Jeremiah and Daniel. I Thessalonians chapter 4 relates how believers in Jesus will meet the Lord in the air as He descends from heaven at the end of the age. This event is referred to as the rapture. Some dispensationalists believe that the Church will be raptured before the start of the Great Tribulation spoken of by Jeremiah and Jesus. According to this view, before this time, Christians will be secretly raptured up to heaven and escape this time of tribulation which they believe to be appointed for the Jews as fulfillment of Daniel’s 70th week or Jacob’s trouble from Jeremiah.
The “Left Behind” series is based upon this scenario. According to the “literal Israel dispensation” view, the Jews in Israel will reestablish temple worship and sacrifices in a rebuilt temple in accordance with a pact with the anti-Christ who will break that pact after three and one-half years. In the “Left Behind” scenario, many people, including many Jews, will turn to Christ during this great tribulation and suffer great persecution including martyrdom. Strangely, those who advocate this view teach that the restraining influence of the Holy Spirit, in-dwelling believers, is what presently prevents the anti-Christ of Revelation from coming to power and that the Holy Spirit’s ministry through believers will leave this world at the rapture. But, the Bible teaches that it is the Holy Spirit who leads people to Christ. The obvious question arises: how will Jews be drawn to Christ during the tribulation if the Holy Spirit is absent?
Theologians who subscribe to this view interpret the Book of Revelation as a chronological account of the great tribulation. They see the Church age or age of grace since Calvary as the times of Gentiles. They believe that the Old Testament is the account of God’s dealings with the Jews, but believe that this dispensation is yet unfinished, and that a seven year tribulation remains for the Jews. This dispensational view is a relatively new doctrine. Its earliest roots can be traced to post reformation Catholic theologians who developed this theology in order to oppose the teaching of the reformers, including Luther, Calvin and Knox, who associated the institution of the papacy with the anti-Christ of scripture. Dispensational doctrine did not gain acceptance among Protestants until after 1830 as a result of a prophecy by a woman named Margaret McDonald who spoke of a secret coming of Christ for His church before the tribulation. The doctrine was spread by Charles Darby of the Plymouth Brethren.
Interestingly, the oldest or classical interpretation of Christ’s second coming teaches that the resurrection of the dead in Christ and the catching up of all believers to meet Him in the air will be immediately followed by His return to earth to rule for a millenium. (see W. Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 1111)
Jesus promised that we would have tribulation in this life (John 16:33). In that sense, this entire age can be considered a time of tribulation. Tribulation, trials and persecution have always been the experience of God’s people. History proves that early Christians experienced persecution and martyrdom in the 2nd and 3rd c. AD. Today, Christians are dying for their faith in Indonesia, Sudan, N. Korea, Vietnam, and China. Jesus’ prayer was not that we would be taken out of world but that we would be kept from evil (Jn 17:15)
We need to be careful not to be deceived about some secret coming of Christ. We should not be fixed on a preconceived idea of the future and Christ’s return; no one knows the day when He will return, but we should be prepared at all times. We should not be deceived to think that we will never go through persecution or tribulation, great or small. We need to prepare our hearts that we might be faithful regardless of what cup God gives us to drink We can take great faith that Christ can miraculously deliver us or empower us to go through any persecution or tribulation. We’ll know it’s Him because we know Him and His word [we’ll meet Him in the air] not because he fulfills a predetermined set of circumstances.
Jesus spoke of the “Great Tribulation” in the Olivet discourse and He referenced Daniel the prophet. Many have correctly interpreted this tribulation to be a fulfillment of another prophecy by Jeremiah of a time known as “Jacob’s trouble” in which the people of Jacob (Jews?) would experience great tribulation. In Daniel chapter 9 we have the record of an interpretation of a vision that Daniel received. He is told that the vision applies to “his people.” Obviously, that would be the Jews. But, if this time of great tribulation that Jesus was speaking of is for Jews, when did it or will it occur? That is the key question. Is the Great Tribulation for the future, or is it fulfilled or is it continually unfolding even now?
Jesus spoke of His return in the Olivet discourse recorded in Mt. 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. Jesus begins by issuing a warning: “don’t be deceived.” His disciples, along with most everyone of the time, were. They had assumed that the destruction of the temple that Jesus had just prophesied would occur in conjunction with the end of the age and the commencement of His earthly rule. They could not have been more deceived! The temple would be destroyed along with Jerusalem in 70 AD. Was the destruction Jesus spoke of the only time that Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed? We don’t know, but the prophesies of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel may speak of an end time destruction of a new temple that we have yet to see. We still await the end of the age and Christ’s return. Jesus gave a specific sign that the destruction of Jerusalem was about to take place. He called it the “abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel” (Mt. 24:14). In Luke 21:20, Jesus clearly predicted the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near.” He was referring to a prophecy in Daniel 9 that is interpreted differently by dispensationalists, amilennialists and preterists. “Seventy weeks are decreed as to your people and as to your holy city, to finish the transgression and to make an end of sins, and to make atonement for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Most Holy. Know therefore and understand, that from the going out of the command to restore and to build Jerusalem, to Messiah the Prince, shall be seven weeks, and sixty-two weeks. The street shall be built again, and the wall, even in times of affliction. And after sixty-two weeks Messiah shall be cut off, but not for Himself. And the people of the ruler who shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. And the end of it shall be with the flood, and ruins are determined, until the end shall be war. And he shall confirm a covenant with many for one week. And in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the offering to cease, and on a corner of the altar desolating abominations, even until the end. And that which was decreed shall be poured on the desolator.” (Dan 9:24-27)
We must understand that one of the major rules of biblical interpretation is that the New Testament interprets the Old. So if the New Testament explains what Jesus meant when He used the term “abomination of desolation,” then that has to be the meaning of the term in Daniel. But Jesus only used that term in Matthew’s account. Matthew 24:6 and 14 record that Jesus was discussing signs of the end of the age. We know that the end of the age did not happen in 70 AD. Jesus makes it clear that the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel would occur at the end of the age shortly before His return. “Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place (whoever reads, let him understand). Then let those in Judea flee into the mountains. Let him on the housetop not come down to take anything out of his house; nor let him in the field turn back to take his clothes. And woe to those who are with child, and to those who give suck in those days! But pray that your flight is not in the winter, nor on the sabbath day; for then shall be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world to this time; no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days should be shortened, no flesh would be saved. But for the elect’s sake, those days shall be shortened. Then if any man shall say to you, Lo, here is Christ! Or, There! Do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders; so much so that, if it were possible, they would deceive even the elect. Behold, I have told you beforehand. Therefore if they shall say to you, Behold, He is in the desert! Do not go out. Behold, He is in the secret rooms! Do not believe it. For as the lightning comes out of the east and shines even to the west, so also will be the coming of the Son of Man. For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered. And immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun shall be darkened and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from the heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man shall appear in the heavens. And then all the tribes of the earth shall mourn, and they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of the heaven with power and great glory.” (Mat 24:15-30)
In Luke 21:20 Jesus makes it clear that armies would surround Jerusalem and it would be destroyed. Jesus was answering questions about the destruction of Jerusalem. So Luke sees in Jesus’ message an accurate prediction of the destruction in 70 AD and perhaps also at the end of the age.
Be assured that if the Jews rebuild the temple prior to the return of Christ, it won’t be God’s temple. Believers in Christ are God’s temple today and forever. A rebuilt temple and animal sacrifices will be an abomination to God. Christ said, “it is finished.” The book of Hebrews makes it clear that “there no longer remains any sacrifice for sin.” (He 10:18) But, perhaps such an act of disobedience might be exactly why God permits the anti-christ to persecute the Jews. “And an army was given to him (anti-christ) against the daily sacrifice because of transgression, and it cast the truth to the ground. And it worked and succeeded.” (Dan 8:12) This might be the loving discipline of God, using evil as a tool to draw His people back to Himself.
All Christian theologians/historians agree that the first 69 weeks of Daniel’s prophecy were fulfilled up to the time of Christ. Dispensationalists put a 2000-year gap between the 69th and the 70th week. Jerusalem was restored. The streets were rebuilt in troubled times, the resistance mentioned by Ezra and Nehemiah. The Most Holy was anointed. Some translations are written as “Most Holy Place” in Daniel 9:24 and the Hebrew supports that. So the reference may be to the Holy of Holies and not a person.
Daniel 9:24 refers to a period of 490 years. Six things would be accomplished: “to finish the transgression and to make an end of sins, and to make atonement for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Most Holy (place).” Jesus sacrifice provides the means for these six promises to be accomplished, but, as George Ladd has said, “We live in the here and not yet.” The Kingdom of God is not yet fulfilled on the earth as it is in heaven. Sin and iniquity still happen. Everlasting righteousness will only come when Jesus returns.
Jesus first coming exactly fulfilled Daniel 9:25. From the decree to rebuild Jerusalem recorded in Nehemiah chapter 2 to 33 AD was 483 years. Daniel 9:26 records that Messiah would be cut off after 69 weeks. That means He had to be killed in the 70th week if one believes that the prophesy refers to one continuous period, or that He was crucified after the 69 weeks but not during the 70th week which is yet to occur if one accepts the dispensationalist view. Daniel says, “And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week.” Dispensationalists say that “he” refers to the anti-Christ and is a reference to the “prince to come.”
The classical, most prevalent, teaching of the church has been that believers will endure a time of tribulation when the anti-Christ persecutes the church. At the end of this time, Christ will return to rule on earth. As He returns, the dead in Christ will be raised first and then those of us who remain will be transformed and we shall all meet Him in the air. We shall immediately descend to earth with Him to conquer His enemies and rule for a thousand years.
Dispensationalists see the tribulation as a fulfillment of Dan 9:24-27 with a 2,000 year gap between the 69th and 70th week. Romans chapter 11 discusses God’s plan to graft the natural branches back into the vine of Christ. God is not done with the Jews. The promises of His covenant with Abraham and with Moses include dwelling in an eternal kingdom in the land of Israel. The prophesy of Daniel 9 remains to be finished.
The notion of a pre-tribulation rapture is easily refuted by scripture. 1Thessalonians 4:15 makes it clear that the dead in Christ will be raised or caught up before those who remain alive at Christ’s return. Rev 20:4-5 refers to the “first resurrection” [rapture] as including those who had been martyred during the “great tribulation”. “I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.” (Rev. 20:4-6) How could this be, if the rapture precedes the “great tribulation.” 1Thessalonians 4:17, referring to the resurrection of the dead who are in Christ, refutes a secret rapture in referring to “a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God.” A trumpet call is not a secret thing. In biblical culture, the trumpet call was sounded to proclaim a public feast, to sound the alarm for battle or to announce the coming of the King, all of which are done publicly and openly, not secretly. In fact, Jesus warned us not to believe any reports that He had come in secret. “At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it.” (Mark 13:21) The Bible says, “every eye will see Him.” (Revelation 1:7)
One of the dangers of this pre-tribulation view is that we indulge ourselves in escapism. This theology is really only popular in America, where escaping from problems is a way of life. How will people who have been indoctrinated into this theology respond if they are faced with persecution? Will they lose faith? There is also a danger of losing our focus on the great commission and preparing the earth to receive her King. If our focus is on how we are going to escape tribulation, we may ignore the call to evangelism, especially if it becomes costly.
If the pre-tribulation rapture doesn’t pan out it could set people up for disappointment. Many might fall away in disillusionment. The Bible warns of such an occurrence at the end of the age, before Christ’s return: “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;” (2Thess. 2:2-3). The scripture is referring to the day of Christ’s return and Paul is writing to tell them that they haven’t missed it.
Jesus promised that in this life we would endure tribulation. This age is the tribulation! The scripture is certain that the day of Christ’s coming will not occur until we see the “man of sin”. Paul clearly said that the anti-Christ would come before the resurrection and Christ’s return. Christians in this country are being massively deceived! They are being led to believe that they will be secretly raptured away before tribulation. What happens when they are disappointed? Then we shall see the massive falling away that the Bible warns of! We shouldn’t attempt to put God in a box of our own making. We could end up disappointed like the Jews of Jesus’ day.
I believe that this pre-tribulation rapture theory is the biggest mass deception foisted upon believers in all of history! The Bible never teaches any “secret” coming of Jesus for His people who happen to be Gentiles while the other part of His bride must endure tribulation. Jesus is not a polygamist. There will be no wedding feast until the whole Bride is in attendance. Jesus warned us not to believe anyone who proclaimed His coming in secret. Just the reverse, the scripture is very clear that at His second coming, “every eye shall see Him”. We shall all face Him in judgement.