Tag Archives: end times

Are the “End Times” About the Future…. Or Partially About the Past?

As yet another major Christian denomination, the Evangelical Free Church of America, changes it doctrinal statement, to back away from its historic commitment to premillennialism, it bears reflecting upon how much Christians are rethinking the “End Times,” in the 21st century.

Dick Woodward, the late pastor emeritus of my church, and founder of the Mini Bible College, always described himself as a “pan-millennialist,” when it came to the “End Times.” When asked, what is a “pan-millennialist?,” Dick would always say that he believed that everything would simply “pan-out” in the end.

That made for a very humorous joke, but it cut across the grain of what passed for the so-called biblically “inerrant,” premillennialist view of the “End Times,” that dominated American evangelical theology, in the latter half of the 20th century. Today, many core doctrines of the Christian faith are under attack, by the surrounding culture. Surely, Christians are compelled to defend the faith, against the onslaught of these attacks. So, is the doctrine of premillennialism, one of those core doctrines?

The main problem with asserting premillennialism as a core doctrine, is historical. Premillennialism, the belief that Jesus’ Second Coming will occur prior to establishing a 1,000 year millennial kingdom on earth, has reigned supreme in many American evangelical church circles, despite being historically a minority position, within the 2,000 year tradition of the Christian church as a whole. When pressed, my pastor, Dick Woodward, would describe himself as a progressive dispensational premillennialist, but he was never dogmatic about it. But was there any other genuine alternative, that took the Bible seriously?

When I was a young Christian, any mention of the “End Times” brought up ideas about the Rapture, a 7-year Great Tribulation, the nation of Israel, the Antichrist, and, of course, the Book of Revelation. In short, the “End Times” were all about events yet to happen in the future. But what if some of, if not most of, what we read in the Book of Revelation, is about events that have already happened in the past?

Such a question might make some Christians ill at ease. After all, many Christians still hold firmly to futuristic view of prophecy, that includes premillennialism. But a recent book I read, by Christian film maker Brian Godawa, suggests that there might be a better way to read the Bible, when it comes to biblical prophecy.

Filmwriter and author Brian Godawa encourages Christians to rethink biblical prophecy, by…. get this…. actually reading and studying the Bible.

Brian Godawa is perhaps best known from writing the screenplay for To End All Wars, a movie about life as a prisoner of war, under the Japanese during World War II. Based on a true story about Ernest Gordon, a Scottish soldier, this prisoner moved from being an agnostic to becoming a Christian, in the midst of the horrific trials he faced. After the war, Gordon became a Presbyterian chaplain at Princeton University.

But Godawa is also a book writer, and I listened to the audiobook version of End Times Bible Prophecy: It’s Not What They Told You. Godawa grew up in a Christian home, where he was taught the idea of a pre-tribulational “Rapture” of the church, followed by a 7-year Great Tribulation, to be then followed by Jesus’ Second Coming.

The problem was that Godawa was confused by all of the various speculations about the End Times, and how he was frustrated by the fact that all of the supposed prophecy predictions would continually fail.

I was reminded of the confusion that Godawa addresses by a recent statement made by Anne Graham Lotz, a daughter of the late evangelist Billy Graham, who believes that Jesus will return within her lifetime (listen at the 8:25 time mark). In keeping with Scripture, as she interprets it, Anne Graham Lots believes that her generation; that is, “this generation” will be the generation that sees the return of Jesus Christ. As she explained to the Christian Broadcasting Network, ” Israel was born in a day, May 14, 1948….Jesus said the generation that sees that take place is the generation that will be the last. And for me it’s meaningful. I was born May 21, 1948 so I believe it’s my generation.”

Now, I have always had great respect for Billy Graham, and his family. But what Anne Graham Lotz says here bothers me: Have not other Christians made the same type of predictions of Jesus’ expected return, only to be disappointed when such predictions fail to pan out? In other words, is Anne Graham Lotz’ view strictly based on firm biblical teaching, or is it simply speculation?

Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of the late evangelist Billy Graham, believes that her generation will live to see the Rapture of the Church. As her generation is entering their twilight years, is her speculation on the timing, cutting it rather close?

After doing years of research, Brian Godawa adopted what most theologians call a partial preterist view of the End Times. His view is “preterist,” in the sense that the word “preterist” means “past,” believing that many prophecies have already been fulfilled in the past, namely in the first century of the church. Yet his view is “partial,” in that Godawa believes that at least some of the End Times prophecies are still yet to happen in the future, such as the Second Coming of Jesus and the Resurrection of the Dead.

One of the top things that changed Godawa’s mind was that verse quoted by Anne Graham Lotz, in Matthew 24:34, where Jesus says to his listeners, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” The standard futurist way of interpreting this verse is to say that “this generation” actually applies to events at least 2,000 years into the future.

Many Christians accept this interpretation as valid, but the vast majority of scholars, and many other curious non-specialists in the Bible, are not so convinced. After all, if Jesus was speaking to his contemporaries, in the 1st century, why would he refer to “this generation,” if he really was talking about Anne Graham Lotz’ generation, some 2,000 years later? I continually meet skeptics, and other critics of the Bible, who are convinced that Jesus was predicting the end of the world, within the period of the first century, and that Jesus was simply wrong.

A partial preterist view of the End Times, on the other hand, addresses the skeptics’ criticisms, while still affirming the trustworthiness of Jesus and the Scriptures, informed by evangelical biblical scholarship. In other words, Jesus, in Matthew 24, is indeed predicting something, that historically did come to pass, in the 1st century of the Christian era, thus adding confirmation to the New Testament claim, that Jesus truly was and is the Son of God. If Jesus did acccurately predict future events, that can be confirmed historically, then this would be consistent with the biblical claim that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. Brian Godwa argues that many Christians have failed to see this as being taught in the Bible, so they are unable to effectively defend the Bible, when the critics press upon the Bible-believing Christian.

Strictly futurist views of the End Times are deeply ingrained in the minds of many Christians, so Godawa goes to great lengths, even in this popular level book, to substantiate his argument. Godawa goes through the Bible, building his case that many of the biblical prophecies are actually metaphorical in nature, and that they should be not be taken in a non-metaphorical way. Concepts such as the “Day of the Lord,” “all the nations,” and cosmic catastrophes, such as “Blood Moons,” are explained within their original context, as the original biblical writer intended.

Christians who are reticent to believe that God would make heavy use of metaphorical language, to describe prophetic events, will probably be skeptical of Godawa’s book. Yet every Christian believes that there is at least some metaphorical language in the Bible; such as, Jesus’ description that you must “hate” your family, in order to be a disciple, or that the “sign of Jonah” refers to “three days and three nights,” in the belly of a great fish, as an idiomatic expression corresponding to the three days and two nights Jesus was dead, between his Crucifixion and Resurrection. Most Christians even agree that there are at least some metaphorical elements found in the Creation story in Genesis.

The key is to evaluate the contextual evidence, found within the text itself, from the perspective of the original writers of Scripture, in order to determine the correct interpretation of any particular passage of Scripture. Only in this manner can we responsibly understand what is metaphorical and what is non-metaphorical in the Bible.

What is the point of application of Godawa’s view? While we still await Jesus’ future Second Coming, looking at the original context of a great deal of biblical prophecy, including much of the Book of Revelation, the Bible was still addressing the situation of persecution, for that first generation of believers in the first century church. For Christians living in a world today, where persecution is more prevalent than ever, the example of first century Christians under stress can provide great comfort to believers undergoing current trials for their faith.

Has Brian Godawa made his case convincingly? At this point, I am not sure. The jury is still out, in my view.

What I am sure about is that Brian Godawa has made his case, in a very thorough manner, citing Scripture all the way through his book, and illustrating where the original context, that the biblical authors had in mind, actually makes a big difference in how biblical prophecy should be interpreted. Godawa still has a healthy measure of hermeneutical humility, acknowledging that he could be wrong in a number of the details of interpretation, that he presents. Nevertheless, he does find partial preterism to be convincing. Otherwise, he would not have written a book about it.

Many Christians have grown up, like Godawa, being taught about a pre-tribulational Rapture of the church, as an event separate from the Second Coming of Jesus, for example, with a central role for national Israel being within that divine plan. I can not categorically rule out that scenario as a possibility. Many of my dear Christian friends strongly hold to a futurist type of view. So if Anne Graham Lotz’ prediction comes true, then God will still get the glory, no matter what!

On the other side, Brian Godawa’s case for partial preterism is certainly within the range of acceptable bounds of theological orthodoxy. Is it the best and most accurate way to interpret difficult passages in the Bible? Well, the curious reader will need to pick up a copy of Brian Godawa’s book to find out.

Godawa’s book stands as a perfect complement to something like the late R.C. Sproul’s book The Last Days According to Jesus, reviewed a year ago here at Veracity. Sproul’s argument is mainly about the apologetic concerns, that partial preterism addresses forcefully, in which more futurist approaches to Bible prophecy, tend to wobble on. Godawa’s book digs more into the exegetical details, addressing particular interpretation issues found in difficult prophecy passages.

In addition to premillennial futurism and partial preterism, there are other views about the “End Times,” that Christians throughout church history have thoughtfully considered (See these prior posts at Veracity regarding amillennialism, the most well-known view taught within Christianity, promoted by the 5th. century, Saint Augustine, and historic premillenialism, defended recently by popular prophecy blogger, Joel Richardson). Christians should not be dogmatic about timing issues, concerning the Rapture or other specific End Time chronologies. Our ultimate landing point, is that Jesus is truly coming back. The other details will sort themselves out, over time.

Granted, the establishment of the modern state of Israel, is a strong point of evidence, in favor of a futurist perspective on biblical prophecy. Nevertheless, the delay of the Rapture, now some 71 years after the founding of the Middle Eastern Jewish state, leaves many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, wondering. I can not claim absolute confidence here, but if I had to pick a particular viewpoint, that is easier to defend with a non-believer, then the partial preterism view advocated by Brian Godwa carries with it the best overall argument.


The Last Days … According to Jesus

R.C. Sproul (1939-2017), on camera, recording one his many Ligonier conference sessions, back in 1985.

R.C. Sproul, who died in 2017, was one of the world’s most beloved Bible teachers. What a lot of people do not know, is that he held to a rather unconventional view of the “End Times.”

Most evangelical Christians today, at least in America, hold to some form of futurism, when it comes to prophecy regarding the “last days,” as taught in the New Testament, particularly with respect to the Book of Revelation. Futurism is the view that most of the prophecies regarding the “last days” have yet to be fulfilled. For example, events like the so-called “Rapture” of the church, the coming of “Antichrist,” and the “Great Tribulation” are events that will happen sometime in the future, along with the Second Coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.

When I was growing up, in the 1970s and 1980s, futurism got a major boost from blockbuster books, like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. Young people today have found out about futurism through Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind book series and movies.

R. C. Sproul, on the other hand, offered what he called a “minority report,” with respect to the “last days.” Sproul favored a view known as preterism, which simply means “past.” A preterist is simply someone who believes that most of the prophecies for the “last days” have already been fulfilled, mainly in the first century.

However, some people get confused as to what preterism really means. In his book and audio class, The Last Days According to Jesus, R. C. Sproul makes a distinction between what is called partial preterism and full preterism. Sproul adopts the particular view of partial preterism, which teaches that nearly all of the “last days” prophecies were already fulfilled in the first century on the church, EXCEPT for primarily the Second Coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead, which are still off in the future.

This is contrast with the idea of full preterism, or what some call hyperpreterism, which bizarrely teaches that even the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead already happened, in the first century of the church. Uh…. how did we miss that? Well, this erroneous idea is why full preterism is considered to be a heresy, rejected by all orthodox-believing Christians.

So, why does R. C. Sproul believe that more Christians should reconsider partial preterism as a legitimate view of the “last days?” The main reason is concerning Christian apologetics.

Prominent skeptics and critics of Christianity, from the famous British mathematician, Bertrand Russell, to the UNC Chapel Hill evangelical-turned-skeptic religion professor, Bart Ehrman, have believed that the New Testament predicted that the “end of the world” would come within the lifetime of the apostles. But, of course, as we all know, that did not happen. Therefore, these critics of Christianity therefore claim the Christian faith to be false. Critics, like Russell and Ehrman, have shaken the faith of many, less-than-grounded Christians for well over one hundred years.

Where do they get this idea? The charge comes from examining the very words of Jesus, as found in Matthew 24. In this passage, Jesus is giving a sermon on the Mount of Olives, commonly called the “Olivett Discourse,” whereby he describes events that many say have the sense of predicting the end of the world. “You will hear wars and rumors of wars” (v. 6), “there will be famines and earthquakes in various places“(v.7), “lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold” (v.12), and “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” (v. 30).

With the yet-future exception of the Son of Man coming on the clouds, these sound like the conditions we experience almost on a daily basis in post-modern America, and across the globe, and countless sermons I have listened to link these signs with an expectation of Christ’s near return.

But the controversial verse is found just before the end of the sermon:

” Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.“(Matthew 24:34 ESV)

So, if Jesus is teaching that everything will be fulfilled in “this generation,” would it not make sense that everything should take place within the lifetime of Jesus’ first disciples? Is not this the most literal and straight forward reading of the text? Bertrand Russell and Bart Ehrman certainly think so.

Therefore, since the end of the world did not happen in the first century, Jesus must be dead wrong.

If Jesus was wrong about the “last days,” then why trust Jesus with anything?

Ah, this is where a study of Christian apologetics might prove to be very useful, and why R. C. Sproul offers his “minority report.”

Most futurists answer the charges of the critics by proposing some creative alternatives to the straight-forward interpretation of “this generation.” Perhaps “this generation” is another way of describing the church, as a movement, that is still continuing to this day. Others suggest that “this generation” is actually referring to the “generation” sometime in the future, whether it be our own, or a future generation, when Jesus will return. My old copy of the 1984 New International Version translation of the Bible contained an italicized note, equating “generation” with “race.” In other words, Jesus might have simply said “this [human???] race will not pass away until all these things take place.” Others say this “race” is the Jewish race, in terms of the continued ethnic identity of Jews throughout history.

Perhaps.

While many Christians find such alternative interpretations convincing, R. C. Sproul finds these arguments to be weak. They tend to play right into the hands of skeptics and critics who believe that such Christians, who believe these alternative interpretations, are simply trying to wiggle themselves out of the blatantly obvious.

But what if much of the prophecies given in Matthew 24 were actually fulfilled in the first century, just as Jesus literally said? Other particular aspects of the prophecies, that do not strictly fall under the purview of Matthew 24:34, are still yet to be fulfilled, sometime in the future. One clue comes from the beginning of the sermon:

Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”“(Matthew 24:1-2 ESV)

The destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD — a painting by David Roberts (1796-1849). Is this what Matthew 24 is talking about? Or is it the “end times,” or perhaps, somehow, both???

Here, Jesus is most probably referring to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. One of the most well attested historical events, in antiquity, was the destruction of the Temple, in the year A.D. 70.  If the connection can be made, it would seem obvious that Jesus was really predicting an event that literally happened within the lifetime of many of his first disciples!

R. C. Sproul argues that this line of prophetic evidence could be one of the most powerful proofs for defending the integrity of Jesus and the validity of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, R. C. Sproul realizes that his “minority report” is a position he takes, without requiring dogmatic assent by other Christians, as most other evangelical Christians are more familiar with prophecy interpretations offered by futurist Bible teachers.

I only offer a brief overview of partial preterism in this blog post, as there are other pieces to the New Testament prophecy “puzzle” that need to be put together before the whole argument of partial preterism makes sense. I would highly recommend R. C. Sproul’s book or the audio/visual teaching class on the same topic, The Last Days According to Jesus, available at Ligonier Ministries.

After listening to the audio of the class myself, I walked away with two key ideas:

  • First, we as Christians should keep an open mind as to how we think about the “End Times,” and how everything fits with Jesus’ Second Coming, and not rush off with excitement every time we hear about so-called “Blood Moon” prophecies or the exotic “Mysteries of the Shemitah,” that supposedly signal the “last days.”
  • Secondly, we should extend some sympathy to the skeptical non-believer, who has probably heard more than their fair share of “Jesus-is-coming-back-this-year!” stories that have never, ever materialized. So, when a friend tends to roll their eyes, whenever someone talks about Jesus’ return, we might want to think about a different approach to our friend’s skepticism (You could try this out, as an example: Apologist Michael Licona offers a disarming conversational model as to how to approach this topic with a non-believer).

Whether you agree with R. C. Sproul or not, you will find him to be a very engaging and learned teacher of the Bible.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Are you looking for a fairly short, readable summary of how partial preterism might make more sense? Go to British Bible scholar, Ian Paul’s website to gain a better understanding of how Matthew 24 might be best interpreted. For a look at the parallel passage in Mark 13, Ian Paul has another fairly short, helpful essay. For a different look at what it means to be “Left Behind,” Ian Paul has a  group of blog posts that explores the topic in more detail. For a general overview of the Book of Revelation, read this previous Veracity post.

What are best arguments against preterism? James M. Rochford at the Evidence Unseen apologetics blog has a very good set of articles on the topic. Are you interested in trying to figure out the myriad of dispensationalist views of Matthew 24?  Here is a very helpful website resource page, by Leonardo Costa. For a review of the theologian N.T. Wright, and his provocative views of Matthew 24, I recommend the essay by Dr. J. Richard Middleton. For a “teaser,” here is the first lecture from R. C. Sproul’s class, as you find it on YouTube:

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Left Behind: A Good Thing or A Bad Thing?

Long before the popular Left Behind books and films by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, a Christian filmaker, Russell S. Doughten, in 1972 produced the classic (though some say a bit cheesy) A Thief in the Night, a visual experience that haunted a great many youth groups in dispensationalist churches throughout the 1970s.

Long before the popular Left Behind books and films by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, a Christian filmaker, Russell S. Doughten, in 1972 produced the classic (though some say a bit cheesy) A Thief in the Night, a visual experience that haunted a great many youth groups in dispensationalist churches throughout the 1970s.

Growing up in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, things were not looking very good. The Cold War with the U.S.S.R., the Islamic Revolution in Iran with American embassy staff held as hostages, and runaway inflation were on everyone’s mind. So when I first heard Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” I really resonated with the message:

life was filled with guns and war
and everyone got trampled on the floor
i wish we’d all been ready

children died the days grew cold
a piece of bread could buy a bag of gold
i wish we’d all been ready

there’s no time to change your mind
the son has come and you’ve been left behind
a man and wife asleep in bed
she hears a noise and turns her head
he’s gone
i wish we’d all been ready

two men walking up a hill
one disappears and one’s left standing still
i wish we’d all been ready

Based on Matthew 24:36-44, Larry Norman was singing about the coming Rapture, where all living Christians would be taken up into the air to escape the approaching seven years of the Great Tribulation, prior to the Second Coming where Jesus Christ sits in judgment as the righteous King and to rule the earth for a one thousand year millennium (previous Veracity post). While most of my Christian friends were hesitant to guess any particular dates, the general sense was that Jesus would definitely come within my lifetime. I was so taken in by this message that for the first few working years out of college, I never bothered to participate in my company’s 401K plan to save for the future. Why should I plan for the future when Jesus is definitely coming back so soon?

Years later, I now wish I had given greater thought to how my view of the EndTimes had impacted my life as a young person. Even more so, I wish I had learned that the Rapture theology narrative I had so readily embraced as being identical with the very Word of God is actually a bit more complicated. Let us dig a little deeper into what the Bible teaches on the subject. Continue reading


Replacing Replacement Theology?

Clarence Larken (1850-1924) was an American Baptist pastor who developed charts like these that depict a dispensationalist view of the End Times. If you click on the image to expand the detail, you will see how Larkin divided the church on the left from Israel on the right. Contemporary followers of Larkin accuse "replacement theology" of wiping out Israel's place in Biblical prophecy.

Clarence Larkin (1850-1924) was an American Baptist pastor who developed charts like these that depict a dispensationalist view of the End Times, as popularized in the immensely influential Scofield Reference Bible. If you click on the image to expand the detail, you will see how Larkin divided the church on the left from Israel on the right. Contemporary followers of Larkin sometimes accuse “replacement theology” of wiping out Israel’s essential place in Biblical prophecy.

What is “replacement theology?”

About twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Holy Land. I looked out over the Sea of Galilee. I climbed part of the great mountain fortress of Masada. I witnessed orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall. I walked the streets of Jerusalem down the Via Dolorosa, the Israeli flag flying high and proudly over several of these streets. It was a breathtaking experience.

However, the exhilaration was soberly offset by a conversation I had with the bus driver for our tour group. Like many other Palestinian Christians, his family had lived in the land for centuries with their Jewish and Muslim neighbors, mostly at peace. However, the events of the past 60+ years between the Israelis and their Arab neighbors have resulted in persecution for his family. He never went into the details, but I was always puzzled by what he meant by that.

Later on in the tour, when our group came to a stone gate in East Jerusalem, our bus driver nervously pointed out the bullet holes where Israeli and Jordanian fighters clashed with one another during the electrifying 1967 Six Day War. On the one hand, I felt then the thrill of the Israeli victory and reclamation of the ancient city that was discussed in this previous Veracity post.

But I had become also deeply troubled: what side was our Christian bus driver’s family on during that bitter conflict, or were they simply caught in the middle of the violence (like in this recent piece of news)? As I am writing this in July, 2014, Israel and Gaza’s Hamas have for weeks been involved in a deadly exchange, and Christians like this Baptist church in Gaza are vulnerable to the crossfire.

What is a Christian to think about the prophetic promises regarding national Israel, while also considering the challenges faced by Palestinian Christians living in the contested land in Middle East today, like my bus driver? What does the Bible have to say?

The study of Bible prophecy is a complicated subject and passions run very, very deep when people talk about “Israel.” Most evangelical Christians believe that “Israel” has a special place in God’s future plans, but there is a growing widespread confusion as to what this really means. So I must admit that I get conflicted when some Christians begin to talk about  the errors of “replacement theology.”  What is being meant when people speak of “replacement theology?” Granted, some criticisms are indeed valid, but a quick survey of what you find on YouTube can be rather troubling. Here is the ever colorful television personality Jack Van Impe:

Well,… uh, ok… now… what in the world is this guy talking about??????????
Continue reading


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