I grew up at a time and place in American history that lent itself to a fascination with the Apocalypse. This end time madness was on full display in my small Pentecostal church in Arkansas. Many of the sermons that I heard delivered were crafted to scare children like me into piety. And for the most part it worked. I can distinctly remember one Wednesday night youth service that was produced to elicit a memorable experience of fear and dread of the things that “must soon come to pass.” On Wednesday nights the youth were given the opportunity to take the lead in the service, and the horror they imagined on this particular Wednesday night would haunt me for years. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven at the time, if that old. I remember that the auditorium looked different than it did on Sundays. The pulpit was removed and there were props strategically placed on the platform beckoning a spectacle more akin to a theatrical production than a bible study. The innovative youth of our church had creatively combined the two, and the study this frightful night would be centered in the book of Revelation. Specifically, what was believed to follow the Rapture of the church, which included imaginative and horrific scenes of people suffering all kinds of hell on earth in the forms of extreme heat, massive hail, rivers turning to blood and the revealing of the Antichrist himself. This Antichrist would require all who were left behind to take his mark in the forehead or palm, and the fearful calculation of his mark was “666.” And those who refused this mark would be summarily beheaded. This understanding informed our weekly gathering when we contemplated escaping the tribulation that was to come. We could never be sure if we were good enough to make the rapture, we could only hope that we were. Somehow this was meant to bring us comfort. It never did. It only added to my religious fervency, continual guilt, and increased angst. And on this Wednesday night it would be acted out in living color.
The apocalyptic play opened with a radio broadcast. The announcers interrupted their regularly scheduled program with cataclysmic reports from around the world. Earthquakes, plagues, and news of Russia invading Israel. The dramatic presentation was interrupted when simultaneously all the lights went out in the auditorium and the piercing bellow of a badly blown trumpet was the only sound heard. The lights came back on. But people had disappeared from the church. People to my right and left were gone. I remained on the pew. Alone. Traumatized.
The scene returned to the radio announcers sharing the news that people from all over the world had mysteriously vanished. And that if we were hearing this broadcast, we were the ones left behind to now endure all of the wrath of God poured out on the world in the coming days. This is but one service of many indelibly etched in my memory. The years that followed produced many traumatic moments of finding my parents or loved ones missing and fearing that indeed I had been left behind. This fear followed me into early adulthood. I was never informed that there were other possibilities, and in fact, what we believed about the end times was a relatively novel interpretation, if albeit an effectively scary one. As oneness Pentecostals we were taught that the word “Trinity” never appeared in the bible and so we shouldn’t take this understanding of God seriously. Never mind that the word “Rapture” doesn’t appear in the bible either, but we should take this idea seriously. Deadly serious. Eternally so.
What we were taught about bible prophecy, end time events, and the return of Jesus was closely tied to what happened in the Middle East, especially in Israel. But yet even much of what we were taught about this wasn’t exactly true as I would later discover. The entire systematic approach of bible understanding was based in Dispensationalism. Dispensationalism is a systematic theology that came into vogue in the mid 19th century, popularized by Plymouth Brethren preacher, John Nelson Darby, the Scofield Study Bible, and more recently by Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series of books. This view is widely accepted today and continues to influence Evangelicals and American foreign policy. But viewing Scripture and policy through this lens is problematic for several reasons, but chiefly because it excites a religious/political base that embraces apocalyptic views that are not helpful either to the Middle East peace process or to the spreading of the gospel of Christ.
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122.6) is an often-repeated verse that is closely tied to America’s unrelenting support for the nation of Israel. And although I am in agreement that it is important for America to remain firmly supportive of the nation of Israel in order to maintain a strategic balance of power in the Middle East, my support does not give Israel a free pass on atrocities committed against Palestinians, nor do I condone any acts of terrorism against the State of Israel.
Consider this. First of all, although the Old Testament does give commands and promises to the Nation of Israel, we are not Old Testament Jews, but New Testament Christians. As such we must view all of the Old Testament through the light of the New, that teaches those promises have been fulfilled in Christ and as such pertain to the one people of God who make up the Church. Observe what Paul articulates in Romans 1-3. Both Gentile pagans and Jewish believers are in need of the gospel of Christ, even though Jewish people have an advantage because they are starting at a point of an understanding of God that pagans did not possess. (Romans 3:1) But this advantage, in no way, qualifies them for special privileges once Christ has come. Even Jesus laments over the fact that Jerusalem did not recognize “the timing” of The Christ coming to them. (Luke 19:44)
Next, Dispensationalism teaches two distinct plans for two distinct people, The Jewish State and The Christian Church, whereas a careful examination of Scripture reveals one people of God throughout history comprised of both Jew and Gentile that is fulfilled in the Church. Again, Paul is helpful here in Ephesians 2:11-22 teaching that both Jews and Gentiles are part of this one people called the Church. Jesus also teaches in John 15 that there is but one “True vine” and Paul expands on this Romans 11:11-31, teaching that pagan Gentiles have been grafted into the one vine. It is important to remember that even in the Old Testament God worked through many Gentiles, Rahab, Naaman (Jesus references this in his hometown and they tried to kill him for it. See Luke 4:24-28) to name a couple. The Jewish Nation served as a testimony and means for God to deliver the gospel to all the world, but wasn’t reduced to the Jewish Nation alone, even in the Old Testament. And Jeremiah 3:8 God issued Israel a decree of divorce because of their continual rejection of Him, “I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery.”
Finally, recently President Trump made the decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem? Many interpret this as a “Sign of End Time prophecy being fulfilled,” yet this is specific to only one view of biblical interpretation.
The argument is often made that “the land belongs to Israel” but if this is still the case which borders should America support? The original boarders as promised to Abraham or the current national boarders of the State of Israel? Hank Hanegraaff observes in The Apocalypse Code, “According to Bible teacher Arnold Fruchtenbaum, for example, the geographical extent of… Israel is nonnegotiable and covers everything from Egypt to Iraq: “At no point in Jewish history have the Jews ever possessed all of the land from the Euphrates in the north to the River of Egypt in the south. Since God cannot lie, these things must yet come to pass.” Such reasoning ignores the way the Old Testament writers themselves understood the promises made to Abraham. The writer of the book of Joshua, for example, makes clear that the covenant promises already had been fulfilled by his generation (Josh. 21:43–45).” If as Christian Pastor and teacher John Hagee suggests that “God has given Jerusalem only to the Jews”, does this mean that the displacement of Arabs, many of whom are Christian brothers and sisters is justified? I think not.
The recent change in the Embassy status for Israel, along with a worldwide pandemic and speculations about a vaccine, continue to fan the flames of “End Time” fear mongering, which I believe serves as a detriment to the propagation of the gospel. It does so because it takes the focus off the gospel of Christ and places it on events used as “scare tactics” in order to prod people into the Kingdom of God through the means of fear. And further it will disrupt the peace process because of Palestine’s claim to East Jerusalem as their capitol.
I don’t believe events in the Middle East or any of the current events that have been described as “The dumpster fire” that is 2020 is of significant concern in terms of biblical eschatology, but is of significance in discerning the motives of an embattled President who serves a political base who very much thinks that it is of biblical significance. As Christians, our salvation is in Christ, and our hope is in His return, not in the machinations of human governments and politicians, especially one whose character remains suspect.
The gospel liberated me from childhood fears meant to scare me into the Kingdom. May the gospel continue to liberate me from the fears of our present moment, trusting that God is big enough to love us into his presence and welcome all those who are in need of his grace. That includes all of us.