No generation has edged as close as ours to the end of the age. Who can deny that the world is looking more and more like the Bible’s description of the last days. Even secular thinkers are aware of Armageddon-like possibilities. And now, at this late date, I’m having second thoughts about how we’ve handled our views on the future. ¶ I’m not doubting that prediction of the future is a major emphasis of the Bible. One-third of the Scriptures are prophetic in nature. Jesus Himself emphasized the importance of prophecy when He said, “Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44).
Yet, almost 2,000 years later, the church is deeply divided over what Jesus meant by the time of His return. Many have read and embraced the popular “Left Behind” series, which describes fictional scenarios on earth following the return of Christ for His church. Others believe that the prophetic view of this series is more fiction than fact.
In an unavoidable way, I have inherited a place in the prophetic fray. My grandfather, Dr. M. R. De Haan, founder of RBC Ministries, was known for his impassioned teaching of the premillennial, pretribulational return of Christ. He considered a knowledge of the prophetic Scriptures to be a powerful incentive for his listeners and readers to get ready for the any-moment “rapture” of the church.
There were reasons for my grandfather’s passion. He believed that the Bible’s predictions about the last days will come to pass just as literally as those prophecies of Scripture that have already been fulfilled. He saw the 1948 restoration of Israel as evidence that prophecy must be taken at face value. Because he saw a restored nation of Israel as part of the Bible’s description of the last days, he was convinced that Christ would return within his lifetime (1891-1965). He lived by the motto “Perhaps Today.”
Almost 40 years have passed since my grandfather’s home-going. Since his death, failed expectations together with intense disagreements over scenarios of the future have divided the church. All of this has prompted me to take yet another look at how we hold our prophetic views.
The Dangers of Prophetic Study
1. Using prophetic convictions as a test of faith. In line with the legacy of my grandfather, I remain convinced that Christ could return at any moment. I believe His return will come in two phases: first as Head and Savior of the church, then at least 7 years later as the King and Savior of Israel. But at this late moment in time, I’ve become even more sure that I need to respect those who have come to different conclusions about the last days.
I’ve grown increasingly certain that it is wrong to doubt the faith or the faithfulness of those who believe that the church will pass through all or part of the tribulation; that the church has permanently replaced the nation of Israel in God’s plans for the future; or that Christ’s return will not result in a literal 1,000-year reign on earth.
2. Using current events to tell “prophetic time.” I have little doubt that the rebirth of Israel and the trends toward globalization are setting the stage for the return of Christ. But in the middle of such anticipation I am equally convinced that we need to avoid the temptation to connect current events with the fulfillment of specific prophecies.
Few actions have contributed more to the demise of prophetic teaching than the exaggerations or miscalculations of those who assumed they understood the prophetic countdown.
The Importance of Prophetic Study
1. Using prophecy to keep the faith. Prophecy reminds us that God is great enough to allow genuine human freedom while remaining in control of the outcome. No one knows how He does it—but, at the very minimum, God is like a Great Chess-master who allows the moves of human choice while remaining in control of the board. He will finish what He started. God’s final moves have already been determined. We may break His heart, but no one will break His will or frustrate His plan.
2. Using prophecy to keep hope alive. In the past, people like Simeon and Anna found that enduring hope in the promises of God were a source of great joy even if they died before the future resurrection (Luke 2:34,36).
The prophecies of the Bible continue to give hope to those who believe them. The predictions of Scripture remind us that history is on schedule. We are not all passengers on a runaway bus. Through resurrection or “translation” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17) we will all arrive at our chosen destination.
Our challenge is to keep hope alive without being foolish or presumptuous. Wisdom will teach us to say of Christ’s return, “Maybe today. Maybe not.” We need to be ready to go with Jesus now, or to stay here awhile longer. We need to teach our children to join us in looking for Christ’s return while also preparing for the possibility of a long and full life on earth.
3. Using prophecy to help us love one another. In writing to those who had entrusted themselves to Christ, the apostle Paul praised them for working hard as they waited for the return of Christ. He affirmed not only their “work of faith” and “patience of hope,” but also their “labor of love” (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10). Paul’s logic is understandable. Just as anticipation of an “imminent” visit from the corporate office puts workers on their best behavior, so a healthy expectation of Christ’s “any-moment” return teaches His people to reflect the values and virtues of their Lord.
Father, please forgive us for acting as if the present will never end. Too often we have sacrificed our future on the altar of impulse. Sometimes we’ve been willfully ignorant of what You want us to know. Sometimes we’ve been stubbornly proud of the little bit we’ve learned. Please help us to love one another in the light of all that You’ve said will happen in your time—not ours. —Mart De Haan