While the doctrine of Christ’s return is a grand and glorious biblical truth, there is some room to move on the particulars. One’s views on the end times can differ with that of others, but Christian fellowship can still be maintained. That is, eschatological options may well be secondary matters, and not something that determine one’s salvation.
There are various views on the millennium for example which I discuss in more detail here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/11/30/on-the-millennium-part-one/
And if you are into the pre-mil camp, it is only then that the further options of a possible tribulation, and a possible rapture out of it, arise. Let me offer a bit of background here: I was once a very strong rapture theory adherent. I taught it, I promoted it, and I evangelised for it. I even had all sorts of charts and diagrams made up to prove it.
But I am no longer so sure about all this. Indeed, you might now call me an end-times agnostic. There are all sorts of views about how things will end, and I am now much more willing to say there is room to move here. The various views may well have some things to commend them, but none has my total and utter allegiance.
Thus I will not die for any one eschatological option. I will not go to the wall for a pre-mil, pre-trib view, nor will I go to the wall for a post-mil view, etc. And I am rather conversant on all these matters, with a small library of books on all this filling up a number of shelves.
I raise this not so that those wishing to debate this to death can do so again. I raise it to mention another issue which I think deserves some serious attention. I refer to the issue of suffering. I have long argued that we need to develop a biblical theology of suffering.
We need to let Scripture speak to us here, instead of pretending we are somehow immune to suffering. I discuss this further elsewhere, eg: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/02/05/suffering-scripture-and-false-gospels/
A point I wish to make is this: I wonder how many Western believers cling to an eschatology which promises deliverance from tribulation (as in the rapture teaching) as much for the simple reason that they don’t want to face suffering as because it may be good theology.
The theological merits of this view I will not here enter into, so I urge my readers to do the same. I will save that for another time. It will take more than one article to properly assess and evaluate the rapture theory. Here I just want to look at the propensity of Western Christians to believe that they can as a matter of course escape hardship and suffering.
I suspect a main reason why so many Western believers love things like the rapture theory is because they hate suffering. Of course, I hate suffering too. But the biblical reality is this: suffering is always part and parcel of the believer’s life and experience.
The Bible everywhere speaks to this. Jesus suffered big time, so how can his disciples expect not to do the same? We are promised by Jesus and other biblical writers that suffering and tribulation and persecution will always be our lot. So these biblical truths need to be affirmed as we think about various end times scenarios.
Let me offer a few quotes from one of the great Christian heroes of last century – someone who knew first-hand about suffering more than most of us ever will. Her testimony is well worth hearing in this matter. I refer to Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch Christian who suffered so greatly under the Nazis. Here is part of something she wrote back in 1974:
There are some among us teaching there will be no tribulation, that the Christians will be able to escape all this…. Most of them have little knowledge of what is already going on across the world. I have been in countries where the saints are already suffering terrible persecution.
In China, the Christians were told, “Don’t worry, before the tribulation comes you will be translated – raptured.” Then came a terrible persecution. Millions of Christians were tortured to death. Later I heard a Bishop from China say, sadly,
“We have failed. We should have made the people strong for persecution, rather than telling them Jesus would come first. Tell the people how to be strong in times of persecution, how to stand when the tribulation comes, to stand and not faint.”
I feel I have a divine mandate to go and tell the people of this world that it is possible to be strong in the Lord Jesus Christ. We are in training for the tribulation, but more than sixty percent of the Body of Christ across the world has already entered into the tribulation. There is no way to escape it. We are next.
Since I have already gone through prison for Jesus’ sake, and since I met the Bishop in China, now every time I read a good Bible text I think, “Hey, I can use that in the time of tribulation.” Then I write it down and learn it by heart.
When I was in the concentration camp, a camp where only twenty percent of the women came out alive, we tried to cheer each other up by saying, “Nothing could be any worse than today.” But we would find the next day was even worse. During this time a Bible verse that I had committed to memory gave me great hope and joy.
If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. (1 Peter 4:14-15)
I found myself saying, “Hallelujah! Because I am suffering (for the name of Christ), Jesus is glorified!”
In America, the churches sing, “Let the congregation escape tribulation”, but in China and Africa the tribulation has already arrived. This last year alone more than two hundred thousand Christians were martyred in Africa. Now things like that never get into the newspapers because they cause bad political relations. But I know. I have been there. We need to think about that when we sit down in our nice houses with our nice clothes to eat our steak dinners. Many, many members of the Body of Christ are being tortured to death at this very moment, yet we continue right on as though we are all going to escape the tribulation.
Several years ago I was in Africa in a nation where a new government had come into power. The first night I was there some of the Christians were commanded to come to the police station to register. When they arrived they were arrested and that same night they were executed. The next day the same thing happened with other Christians. The third day it was the same. All the Christians in the district were being systematically murdered.
The fourth day I was to speak in a little church. The people came, but they were filled with fear and tension. All during the service they were looking at each other, their eyes asking, “Will this one I am sitting beside be the next one killed? Will I be the next one?”
The room was hot and stuffy with insects that came through the screenless windows and swirled around the naked bulbs over the bare wooden benches. I told them a story out of my childhood.
“When I was a little girl, I went to my father and said, “Daddy, I am afraid that I will never be strong enough to be a martyr for Jesus Christ.”
“Tell me,” said Father, “When you take a train trip to Amsterdam, when do I give you the money for the ticket? Three weeks before?”
“No, Daddy, you give me the money for the ticket just before we get on the train.”
“That is right,” my father said, “and so it is with God’s strength. Our Father in Heaven knows when you will need the strength to be a martyr for Jesus Christ. He will supply all you need, just in time.”
My African friends were nodding and smiling. Suddenly a spirit of joy descended upon that church and the people began singing, “In the sweet, by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.”
Later that week, half the congregation of that church was executed. I heard later that the other half was killed some months ago.
Do you believe in the rapture theory? Fine. I am not greatly bothered that you do. It is one of various options believers might run with, just as there are various millennial options one can champion. As I say, hopefully future articles will get into the pros and cons of the rapture issue.
So please do not bombard me here with all the reasons why you think one can only believe the rapture theory. As I say, I used to teach it myself and I am well aware of the arguments for it. Here I simply want us to think again about the biblical doctrine of suffering, and ask us to reconsider our stance on suffering.
What does bother me greatly is the mindset of so many Western Christians that they are somehow entitled to a suffering-free life, and that God promises to take them out of any and all hardship and tribulation. I beg to differ. And I too see the harm of this teaching when Christians in fact do face real suffering and tribulation.
How many will deny the faith because they were sold a theological bill of goods in this way? How many will capitulate in times of persecution because they were falsely taught that the Christian life is just a big party, and it is all about themselves? That is my big concern, as it was Corrie’s.
It may be time for a rethink here – a re-evaluation. As I said, I have changed my thinking on this. Eschatological views are not a matter of salvation. But some may be closer to other biblical teachings, such as the biblical view on suffering.