CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Suffering and Eschatology

Jul 12, 2015

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: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/11/30/on-the-millennium-part-one/
billmuehlenberg.com/2010/11/29/on-the-millennium-part-two/

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: 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.

ten boomThe 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.

Conclusion

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.

partnersinprayer.org.au/corrie-ten-boon-prepare-for-persecution/

[1737 words]

17 Responses to Suffering and Eschatology

  • Thank you Bill.

    I would say that Christ has first and foremost suffered and continues to suffer because of His suffering body, the Church. If this is the case one might ask why does he not obliterate His enemies? His mercy for them gives them every opportunity to repent in this life, but at the same time He rewards His faithful children who suffer at the hands of His enemies with an eternal reward. That is, the generation of evil ones is bringing about the glory of the eternal generation of the righteous and faithful in Christ.

    “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed. (Rev. 6:10-11)

  • Throughout the Bible God has shown a propensity to accomplish His will in a manner which is completely unexpected by His followers. No better example than His Messiah. Whilst I do enjoy a passing interest in many things eschatological, I’m also constantly aware of this historical fact. I tend to think that He will (as always) do exactly as He says, but in a manner which I would least expect. Therefore, I set my mind on being found doing the Master’s work when He returns – however He might do that.

  • Thanks Steve. Yes one of the great truths about the Lord’s return is divine vindication and his just judgments. Something to look forward to, as I write here:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/03/16/there-is-nothing-wrong-with-payback/

  • Well put Bill.

    I agree most end-times teaching avoids the costs of discipleship and is lacking in Christendom today. It is as absent as the teaching that repentance and conversion are synonymous (Acts 3:19).

    Bob

  • Dear Bill and Friends

    We need to believe our Holy Bibles …

    MT 5:10 BLESSED are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: FOR THEIRS IS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.

    MT 5:11 Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

    MT 5:12 REJOICE AND BE EXCEEDING GLAD: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

    Also Open Doors has a very helpful daily devotional produced for the persecuted, which I have received for over a year now, it is very encouraging and strengthening. Go to …

    http://www.christianity.com/devotionals/standing-strong-through-the-storm/standing-strong-through-the-storm-july-12.html

    Today’s message is ‘Training – Singing in Prison’. I commend this site to all who are serious about standing strong.

    Blessings
    Naomi

  • Off-topic (although there is a theme of suffering). A reminder on the Victorian end-of-life-choices inquiry. Last day to send submissions is 31st July.
    http://noeuthanasia.org.au/documents/Victoria/Call-for-Submissions-Victorian-Inquiry-2015.pdf

  • Hi Bill. Thanks for your comments on eschatology. the article. You say above, “It may be time for a rethink here – a re-evaluation.”
    I agree. Its good to see that you are open minded on the whole subject and are willing to re-evaluate your previously held views. I think that should be true for all of us, and the last subject which should generate entrenched views must surely be that of eschatology !
    I read your two previous articles, but noted that of all the authors you cite who take various positions on the millennium and/or ‘the last days’, the name of Adrio Konig does not appear for some reason.
    It was his book entitled ‘The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology’, sub titled Towards a Christ-centered approach which finally clinched it for me.

    This is because he has rightly IMO grasped the centrality of Christ as supremely important in any discussion and this is the theme of his book. I cannot recommend it too highly, (incidentally I know you have it, because I sent it to you!)

    The book is indeed ground-breaking in that he posits the one central issue which is so often ignored by many commentators, namely that the person of Christ must be central and pivotal in any discussion.
    I have quoted him before but his remarks bear repetition:

    “In this book, Jesus Christ occupies a central place. If the gospel is about him, so too is its message about the end. If he is the one around whom the whole of the New Testament revolves, then he is the one, too around whom God’s plans for the world revolve… indeed, the criterion for any book on eschatology should be: what place do the person and message of Jesus Christ have in it?”

    He does of course comment on the various ‘millennium’ views, but, rightly in my view, considers them largely a distraction and unnecessary for a balanced biblical view of end time matters. He continues:

    “The eschatology offered here is not primarily concerned about “last things” … instead this book is first and foremost about the last One, he whom the NT calls the End and the Last One. Eschatology must be about him, because he himself is the realisation of God’s purpose in creating the world. One dare not overlook the fact that the NT forges a direct link between Jesus and the last days”
    The book changed my whole approach to the subject – and so may this recommendation whet your appetite for further light and truth as the author places Christ at the centre.

  • Well I look at it like this:
    I am either going to die, get killed/murdered, tortured, possibly raptured, or resurrected or translated.

    None of that really matters, to me, what matters is how I chose to live in whatever time I have. I can either:
    Live so that I can be welcome by Christ or:
    live so that I will be ashamed to kneel in front of God.

  • Quite simply, there is nothing in the NT that suggests Christians will avoid suffering and persecution. Not sure where this rapture stuff comes from, but as Bill says, it’s probably based on the sub-conscious desire of us moderns to escape any kind of pain.

  • Hello Bill,
    Great article and let me say i do agree we need to develop our theology on suffering a bit better. I only have one points to mention don’t know your take on it.

    1- 1 Peter 4:1 tells us that just as Christ suffered for us in the flesh we should arm ourselves with the same mentality,. In other words, we should have a mind to suffer for the Gospel just as Jesus did and gave us an example.

    The other end is people who welcome and embrace all manner of suffering as some type of accomplishment. Kinda im a sinner and i deserve no answer from God, i deserve this struggle im in, i deserve this pain, etc.. In the New Testament and even in the Old, the predominate suffering of believers was persecution—- Even EliHu (only one of Jobs friends not rebuked by God ) told Job – that in the midst of his suffering if he turns to God, God will direct and correct him and hell spend his days in blessing/propserity (Job 36:8-11 &16-17). which eventually happened and this is consistent throughout Scripture- in times of trouble, people called on God and were delivered. The exception being persecution for righteousness.

  • Thanks Dency. When I write or speak about suffering I of course usually mention that we are not to seek suffering or make it into some virtuous work in itself.

    And one can discuss how much suffering is just persecution, or other things as well, as I seek to do here:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/09/30/suffering-in-the-new-testament-part-one/

  • Bill,

    Thank you for the great article. My journey of understanding is similar to yours in that I was once a very strong rapture theory proponent, but had recently had more of an “agnostic” approach to the rapture and the millennium.

    There is one more book I suggest you read – “The Gospel of Christ Crucified” by John Harrigan – http://danieltrainingnetwork.org/the-gospel-of-christ-crucified-book/ . It is an eschatology book that deals with neither the rapture or the millennium. Instead it lays out the “suffering before glory” pattern found in Scripture – the pattern Jesus followed, the pattern the church follows, and the very pattern of “this age” verses “the age to come”.

    Thanks again for all your work and thinking. May God continue to bless you.

    Jay

  • For those who are perhaps not quite so au fait with the major views on the end times, may I recommend:

    “The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views”
    – Robert G Clouse

    … as a good place to start. Clouse takes one proponent of each of the 4 main viewpoints, allows each one in turn to put his case then allows the other 3 to critique this stance. It is left to the reader to then decide. Very well presented for those wishing to have a clear, concise explanation.

  • Thank you Neil, that is very good.

  • Thank you Bill, this writing really makes one think as to how it will all pan out? On the matter of “pre- a- or post-millennium” believe, I agree with you and our pastor whom firmly assured us at one of our home group nights, we should all just wait and see how it all pans out. We must be ready, and Corrie’s writing gives us reason to believe that we cannot expect to go scot free from persecution. Keep on giving us this spiritual nourishment, we need it. Just you lay low, will you please.

    Bill Heggers, Bridgetown W.A.

  • I’m currently reading another good book on all things ‘end times’ – simply called “Biblical Eschatology” by Jonathan Menn.
    I agree very much with Corrie Ten Boom’s words in regard to the persecuted church. If Christians were to visit any countries already experiencing persecution on a massive scale and tried to tell them that the tribulation was yet to come it, they might rightly wonder if we were serious.
    As I read the scriptures it seems that there is so much written to help, guide and sustain believers through tribulation and suffering that you’d have to be blind to miss it. Much of Revelation is about overcoming and endurance on the part of the saints and it seems clear to me that it is speaking of overcoming during tribulation and trial. How can we overcome and endure anything if we’re spared from going through it?
    The words of Jesus in John 17:15 as he prays for his disciples are also very telling in regard to this – ‘My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.’

  • “entitled” The spirit of entitlement, you have uncovered a deep well here, it is prevalent in the church in “protected nations” and it is deadly.

Leave a Reply