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Monday, September 21, 2009

Cautions on interpreting what the Bible says about end times

I believe that you can get a larger version of the graphic below, by right-clicking on it. You may feel free to use the graphic, as long as you do not use it for any commercial purpose -- it must remain free for all to use.

I don't have a lot of answers on end times. Some people seem to have answers, and they may be right. The above graphic illustrates reasons for caution. The Bible is not as clear about the end times as some people seem to believe that it is.

"Rapture" is not a word used in the Bible. The presentation of the idea of a rapture, a sudden removal of Christians from the world, that is most familiar to me is based on 1 Thessalonians 4:17. However, as you may learn from the comments on this post, below, that familiar presentation is probably mistaken, and a misinterpretation of scripture. (This paragraph was amended on September 28, 2009)

There are other reasons for caution. The Bible says this:
Matthew 24:36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. (All scripture from the ESV. See here for information on the ESV policy on on-line usage.)
Matthew 24:44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

A serious warning, widely ignored, occurs in Revelation: 22:18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

Connie Willis, an author of fantastic literature, put it this way, probably a little too cynically, and, perhaps, even violating the warning above -- but she has a point -- in a short story:
The radio evangelists made it sound like the story of the Second Coming was a single narrative, but it was actually a hodgepodge of isolated scriptures -- Matthew 24 and sections of Isaiah and Daniel, verses out of Second Thessalonians and Joel, stray ravings from Revelation and Jeremiah, all thrown together by the evangelists as if the authors were writing at the same time. If they were even writing about the same thing. Connie Willis, "Epiphany," pp. 653-700, in The Winds of Marble Arch and Other Stories -- Burton, MI: Subterranean Press, 2007 -- p. 671. For similar thoughts, from an expert in Biblical interpretation, see here. (The expert doesn't call Revelation "ravings.") The expert, Kenneth Schenck, of Indiana Wesleyan University, is referring to the Dispensationalist view of end times, in particular the idea that there will be a seven year tribulation, and he points out that that view has, at best, very weak support in the Bible.
Thanks for reading. The Bible is clear on one idea about the end times: He is returning! We don't know when.

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Added August 3, 2011: Here is a post, by me, on the first four prophecies mentioned by Matthew as being fulfilled by the coming, and early life, of Christ, and how difficult it must have been for those who first heard these prophecies, or even spoke and wrote them, to understand them as being about what actually happened.

Since these prophecies were difficult to interpret -- in some cases, impossible to interpret correctly until after the prediction came about -- why should we expect easy interpretations of prophecies about end times?

Added March 13, 2010:

David Heddle, of the He Lives blog, has recently posted on a particular word that occurs sometimes in prophecy, namely soon, and also this generation. He points out that some who claim to be interpreting the Bible very literally ignore, for example, part of the very first verse of Revelation, which says that Jesus told John that He was going to show him what would happen soon. Heddle doesn't seem to have a solution to how to deal with soon. I don't either. But, as I said in the title, it's best to be cautious, very cautious, about interpreting end times. Some people aren't very careful.

Added September 18, 2010:
Heddle has also posted on Armageddon, making a case for the idea that the Battle of Armageddon has already occurred.


Anonymous said...

I've become convinced that the rapture actually isn't a biblical concept at all. In 1 Thess 4 when Paul speaks of meeting Jesus "in the air," I think he intends to evoke the common custom of meeting the emperor outside the city gates to greet him and welcome him into his province to rule, and, in N. T. Wright's words, "to give the colony its fully dignity, to rescue it if need be, to subdue local enemies and put everything to rights."

Moreover, the biblical salvation-history, I have come to think, is clear that earth--as opposed to some place in the sky--indeed is our home. After all, the Bible begins and ends in Eden. And the idea of redemption of what God created to be "good" (Gen 1) is, to me, so much richer than the notion of being snatched away from earth to dwell somewhere in the clouds.

A brief article about this by N. T. Wright is viewable here:

Also, at the risk of undeserved self-promotion, I have written a post on this at the Theophilux web site, here:

Sorry about the long comment!

George said...

Interesting thinking, benjiovercash. I would counter that although the idea of redeeming a fallen creation is rich, it has not always been God's modus operandi (i.e. the flood narrative, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc.).

N.T. Wright's article that you cited was interesting as well. However, speaking as a Christian American, I think he is painting with too wide a brush to assign the Left Behind theology to all Americans. I find his views too dependent on one single section in I Thess. His argument is unconvincing to me in light of Matt. 24, where Jesus said that one will be taken and another left. I am under the impression that a physical return of Jesus Christ to take His followers to heaven (out and away from the present creation) is the orthodox viewpoint of the Christian faith. Am I wrong in this?

I enjoyed reading your blog.

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you both, gentlemen.

I'm just a simple retired science teacher, and when we start talking about N. T. Wright, I'm lost -- I guess I could read him.

I'll try to get to your material, benjiovercash.

I agree that all Americans don't agree with Left Behind theology, George. I have serious reservations on it, myself, as indicated in my post, for the reasons given there, and also from the general notion that if a lot of people believe something, they must be wrong. Ken Schenck doesn't buy it, either, although, if I understand him, he says that it can't be ruled out, either.

To quote from one version of the Nicene Creed: "We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen." I don't know if they were thinking of a physical return, or not.

Thanks to both of you.

Anonymous said...

George, I don't want to hijack Dr. LaBar's blog, but I would like to quickly say that a careful reading of Matt 24 makes quite clear, I think, that those "taken" are in fact the ones being judged and not the ones left behind (cf. the analogy to the flood a few verses earlier). Also, you're right that a physical return of Jesus is an historic tenet of the Christian faith--but insofar as I can tell, the earliest Christians weren't expecting to be taken away. The expectation is not redemption from creation, but the redemption of creation.

Whatever the case, the important thing is that we're going to be with Jesus in eternity!

Dr. LaBar, I hope I haven't imposed too much here. I just get excited about these things!

Martin LaBar said...

No. Keep going.

Jeff said...

Thanks Martin,

I have been troubled by this for some time and have found no reference in scripture to support the rapture.

I am still uncertain if I believe in the rapture. Some things must be taken by faith but I do not think this is one of them. There just is not any scriptural evidence.

George said...

Thanks for your comments, Benji. I can't agree that this world is destined to be redeemed- actually, people will, but I'm convinced the world will not. In Revelation 21:1, the new city came down from God out of heaven, because the old heaven and earth had disappeared, and the sea was gone. In 2 Peter 3:10, the heavens will pass away, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire (NLT wording). To me, that does not suggest redemption, but recreation. Also, if the ones left in Matthew 24 are the righteous and not the wicked, then who are the ones being punished on the earth by the seals, trumpets, and bowls in Revelation?

It's likely that we are coming at this from different directions, and I very much enjoy reading your thoughts. We are in complete agreement, however, about what is most important- that we're going to be with Jesus in eternity.

Thanks, Dr. L., for allowing me to meet a new friend through your blog.

Anonymous said...

Hi, George. As I said earlier, I really don't want to hijack Dr. LaBar's blog, but if you'd like to continue this discussion feel free to email me at benji[dot]overcash[at]gmail[dot]com. Or you can comment on my post about rapture theology at and we can continue that way.

God's Peace,

Martin LaBar said...

Go to it, guys!

That's part of what blogging is about.

Jeff, thanks for your comment. There is at least one verse that seems to teach the concept of a rapture, namely 1 Thessalonians 4:17. But the term is not in the Bible.

Martin LaBar said...

I looked at the references you suggested, benjiovercash. Interesting, for sure.


BruceA said...

I agree with Benji that the rapture is not scriptural.

1 Thessalonians 4:17 is talking about the second coming, not a secret rapture. The key is in the phrase "meet him in the air," in which the word translated "meet" is an unusual Greek term. Bible scholar Barbara Rossing explains it this way:

"Paul's description of 'meeting' the Lord in the air employs a very specific Greek word for greeting a visiting dignitary in ancient times: apantesis, a practice by which people went outside the city to greet the dignitary and then accompanied him into their city. The same word is used in Matthew 25:6 to describe the bridesmaids who go out to 'meet' the bridegroom and then accompany him into the feast, and also in Acts 28:15 to describe the Romans who go out to 'meet' Paul as he arrives in their city."

So this passage is not talking about believers being taken away from Earth in a secret rapture, but about believers escorting Jesus to Earth during the second coming.

At the risk of seeming self-serving, I'll give you a link to a two part blog I wrote about this a couple years ago.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks a lot, BruceA.

I'm having enough doubts about the rapture, as so often presented, that I'm going to edit the original post a bit.

I'm so sorry, but I can't see reading anything else right now! Maybe later.

JMS said...

Well said, Martin. I'm encouraged to read your blog (and surprised at how much we have in common!).

May I invite you and your readers to check out some of my posts on End-Times issues?

James-Michael Smith
Methodist Examiner

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, James-Michael Smith.

I looked at the material on your blog, which, no doubt, is good material, but I'm afraid that I don't have available time to do it justice at the moment.

Thanks again.