Joel Rainey leads the Engagement Team for Evangelism and Missions at the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network. He is on the adjunct faculty of two seminaries,and the author of three books. He blogs at Themelios, where this was originally posted on Monday.
October 3, “Left Behind” will debut in theaters across America, and its release will prompt a fresh discussion among evangelicals about our view of the end times. Additionally, the movie will encourage general discussion about what happens after we die, who goes to heaven, and how they get there. These are very important subjects, and for that reason, I’m thankful followers of Jesus can use popular movies to talk to their non-Christian friends about the Gospel.
I just hope that’s what actually happens.
Full disclosure: The “Left Behind” movie is based on a particular view of the end times that I don’t personally share. I’m not a Dispensationalist, so while I believe the end of the age will include mass numbers of our Jewish friends coming to realize who their Messiah is, I don’t see a distinction in the text between Israel as a nation-state and the church. Consequently, I don’t believe in a pre-tribulational “rapture” of the church. So it would be easy for someone with my bias to simply dismiss films like this as a waste of time. But I know too many good and godly pastors whose eschatology matches that of the upcoming film–serious students of Scripture whose theology is far deeper than celluloid and who have a genuine heart for Jesus and the Gospel, and who will use films like this as opportunities to share their faith, and encourage others to do so.
Speculative theology isn’t wrong, so long as we realize and admit that it is speculative. But when it is used in the wrong way, the results can be detrimental to the Great Commission. For example, if I spend more time pontificating on who the “elect” are than I do calling them out of lostness and into the light of the Gospel, then I’ve allowed my speculation to devolve into outright disobedience.
This is a particularly dangerous prospect in our current world, where over the last year world events have been the catalyst for heightened discussions about the end of the age. When does the “rapture” take place? Who is “the beast” of Revelation 13? What is the nature of the millennium? All Scripture is inspired and profitable, which makes these questions valid and worth exploring. But when set against a 2000-year history that includes three different millennial views, four different interpretive approaches to Revelation, and at least two different perceptions of the prophetic significance of the nation of Israel, we should all hold our opinions loosely. Otherwise, we risk being driven by speculation rather than by Scripture. Deuteronomy 29:29 states that “the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and our children forever.” In short, explore the unclear, but not at the expense of disobeying the clear!
How should we strike that balance? I offer the following four principles.
1. Your Primary motivation should be making disciples. At the end of the day, if speculation about unclear doctrines is more important to you than making disciples of Jesus, you are in a very bad place. What good does it do to try and identify the antiChrist if you aren’t sharing the Gospel so people won’t follow him?
Where end times teaching is concerned, it is helpful to remember that these prophecies were originally given to a severely persecuted church as a tool of encouragement. When Paul writes to the Thessalonians, he speaks of the end when those who have passed away prior to the coming of Jesus will be called out of their graves, after which those in Christ who are still alive will join them in the air, being “caught up” (the phrase that translates the greek term from whence comes the Latin concept of the “rapture”) to meet the Lord Himself. He then concludes “therefore, comfort one another with these words.” I’ve quoted from that passage at innumerable gravesides for exactly that reason! Studying the Scriptures to discern whenthis event might take place (before or after the tribulation, for example) is to seek answers to a legitimate question. But ultimately, these words are given to suffering people for comfort, not speculation.
Eschatology, like any other Biblical subject, is given for the ultimate purpose of making followers of Jesus more like Jesus. And we don’t look very much like Jesus when we are drawing prophecy charts and fighting with each other.
2. You should have a Passion for all people to hear and respond to the Gospel. Since 1948, differences of opinion have existed between Bible-believing Christians as to whether the re-instatement of Israel is a prophetically significant event. I have many academic colleagues and fellow pastors who are convinced that this is the case. Count me among those who have our doubts about that assertion. But since 1830, dispensational and covenantal interpreters of Scripture have both faithfully proclaimed the Gospel and made disciples. The problems occur at the extremes of these views.
On the dispensational end of the spectrum, the problem is a kind of Zionism that presents a God who “plays favorites” where the Jews are concerned–to the extent that utter hatred is expressed toward any other Semitic peoples in the middle-east, including many of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who live in Gaza, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. On the Covenantal end, the problem is a move from seeing the promises of God in the Old Testament as fulfilled in both Jews and Gentiles, to a hermeneutic that sees Gentiles as fully replacing the Jews. The anti-Semitism that sometimes results from this view is quite frightening.
The bottom line is this: Both Testaments clearly state that God is not finished with ethnic Israel, and that there is coming a day when great numbers of them will recognize their true Messiah. I long for that day. But the same Bible that makes these promises to the sons and daughters of Isaac also clearly reveals a God who loves the sons of Ishmael (see Genesis 16!). I am for all groups finding Jesus.
3. You must maintain a conviction that all must respond to the Gospel. Here is where I”m going to speak candidly for a bit. If you listen to John Hagee, stop! There is only one label that can be given to a man who has publicly said that sharing the Gospel with our Jewish friends is a waste of time and has intimated that they do not need the Gospel to be saved–and that label is “false prophet.” And false-prophecy is always and exactly the result of allowing speculative teaching to overtake the clear teaching of Scripture.
I can work with any follower of Jesus who differs with me on the prophetic significance of Israel as a nation-state. But I can’t work with you if you talk more about Israel than you do Jesus. Neither ethnicity, or nationality gets you into heaven. Getting there takes bowing before the reality of a bloody cross and an empty tomb! Christians have disagreed for centuries about less perspicuous prophetic texts, but Acts 4:12 has never been in dispute!
4. You must remember that its all about Jesus. Personally, I am wary of any Bible teacher from any school of thought who is not actively sharing his faith with others. I’ve known men who spent inordinate amounts of time seeking to “fit” Communism within some prophetic scheme, but who have never crossed an ocean to actually engage someone of that mindset with the Gospel. I know men who say similar things about Islam, but have spent very little time actually getting to know Muslims. In the end, all my prophetic speculation does nothing to get those people any closer to Jesus, and the last time I read Matthew 28, this was my primary mandate. So as I explore Biblical prophecy, I need to do so with the realization that all those world events we speculate on have Jesus at the center. If you don’t get to the Gospel, your speculation isn’t just useless. Its sinful.
I don’t know exactly how history will end. But I do know the One who wrote out history before it began. I may be wrong about the rapture. Perhaps we will miss the tribulation, or maybe we will go through it. I don’t know. But I do know that no matter who is right, Jesus gives us the joy to be content regardless of our circumstances. I have no idea who the antiChrist is. But I know who Christ is! So sure, let’s have some serious conversations about unclear texts, but let’s be sure we don’t do it at the expense of our clear mission.