Have you ever wondered if passengers on the Titanic
stood around arguing over exactly how and when the boat would sink? Rather than getting others into lifeboats and lifejackets, did they bicker over whether the front, or back, would go down first? Squabble over whether the ship would split in two, or remain intact? Debate at length over precisely how long the process would take? I hope not. It's sad to imagine lives lost because people who should have been focused on rescue were sparring over relatively meaningless details.
Hope is nice, but, human nature is what it is, and I see a spiritual version of that scenario play out when people argue over interpretations of apocalyptic timelines. As expected, the most recent Left Behind movie
brought these discussions to the forefront yet again. Pre-trib vs. post-trib Rapture. Literal Rapture, vs non-literal Rapture vs no Rapture. Seven years' tribulation immediately after the Rapture, vs. some delay before Antichrist. Left Behind
vs. whatever else. As has been the case for years, my first thought when those arguments come up has always been the same:
Fellow Blogos contributor Jim Allen recently used a Titanic analogy
to describe reasons Christians sometimes fail to witness their faith to others. I chuckled at that, not at the subject matter, or his (excellent) handling of it, but because the words "lifeboat" and "Titanic" immediately bring end-times debates to my mind.
Using my application of the Titanic
analogy, if you aren't wearing a lifejacket and sitting in a lifeboat, minute details about how and when the boat sinks are irrelevant. You need to get in a boat, and in a lifejacket...now! If you're in a boat, and wearing a lifejacket, then...those particular details are still
irrelevant, because you're going to be fine, no matter how those details play out. With respect to the end times, the same thing is true. Prior to salvation, detailed knowledge of end-times events is not your primary concern: you need to be saved! After salvation, detailed knowledge of end-times events is not your primary concern: you need to lead others to salvation!
Don't get me wrong, eschatology is as valid a field of study as any other. And, like anything else, not all possible interpretations can be true: somebody is right, and somebody's wrong. I'm not suggesting there is no correct timeline for the end times, or that we can't know it, or that it has no impact whatsoever on our spiritual perspective. Extreme views, in particular, can be a problem. But I don't think eschatology — especially regarding earthly end-times events — is ever worth starting an argument, breaking a relationship, or hamstringing our evangelism over, for three major reasons.
First, there is an urgent need for every person to be saved through Christ, and soon, regardless of how imminent His return may be. Rapture or not, everyone on earth is a heartbeat away from standing face-to-face with God, and we never know when that time is (James 4:14). Human beings have been meeting the Lord suddenly and unexpectedly for millennia. That can happen by Rapture, car crash, stroke, act of terrorism, heart attack, and so on and so forth. People can be whisked out of this mortal life at any moment, for a plethora of reasons
, and they'd better be ready for it.
Second, Biblical prophecy is not as black-and-white as pop-culture Christianity sometimes makes it out to be. The failed prophecies of Jehovah's Witnesses and the origins of Seventh Day Adventism are two prominent examples of what happens when one tries to narrowly predict eschatological events
. Date-setting of that kind is not only unwise, but unbiblical (Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32). But arguments over lesser predictions can be just as corrosive. Well educated, Bible-believing scholars have varied opinions on how to construe Revelation
, and history shows an ebb and flow of various interpretations. Other than the bizarre outliers, most of those are reasonably compatible with conservative Christian theology.
I led our church's men's Bible study while covering Revelation, which I admit was not a planned occurrence. I've often said that discussing eschatology makes me want to sew my eyelids inside out. But being forced to discuss it in detail was a good exercise, and I came away more convinced than ever that hope and humility are absolutely necessary in order to apply that book to our Christian lives. It's far better to put forward a position, with reasons, but recognize it might be wrong, than to stake one's spiritual reputation on something that's not only ambiguous, but seems deliberately so. As I so often say, the "main things" are the "plain things", and there's little about end-times prophecy one could reasonably say is "plain".
Third, obsession over end-times details causes distraction, division, and confusion. It becomes its own form of tribalism, or denominationalism, when believers are divided over apocalyptic trivia. The lost are saved when they accept Christ, not when they memorize all the finer points of premillennial dispensationalism. Barring a radical or irrational view, one's stance on the end times indicates little about that person's faith, faithfulness, or Biblical knowledge. And hysteria over the doomsday du jour
is hardly beneficial for evangelism. The Blood Moon craze
, for example, is just a Christian flavor of the 2012 Mayan Doomsday phenomenon.
It's good for Christians to mind the signs of the times. If you asked me to put money on it, I'd say we're getting awfully close to "the beginning of the end", so to speak. Much of what's happening in the world today seems to fall along prophetic lines. I think there are excellent reasons to be looking up, and around, as other pieces fall into place. But I'm also aware we may be in no such position, and if you told me that, six hundred years from now, the earth would still be spinning, I wouldn't be shocked, or discouraged. You know why?
As the Titanic
went down, the most pressing need was to convince as many people as possible to don lifejackets and get into a life boat. Somebody, I'm sure, correctly read the signs
and knew the bow would sink first, the boat would break in half, and then the stern would sink. I'm also sure some people thought it would take an hour longer, or that it would go down in one piece, and were wrong. I'm just as sure that such knowledge — or error — made little difference to those safely in their boats, and even less to those who drowned. Such debates are for those safely rowing away, amongst each other, at best.
I'm not suggesting that we can't read the signs of the times, or that the end times should become a taboo topic. Nor am I a fan of milquetoast agnosticism: grow a spine, take a position that makes sense, and stick with it until you have good reasons to change your mind. I am, however, pleading for sanity and perspective. The call to evangelize, through faith in Christ, is not dependent on correct interpretations of Revelation. Unity and cooperation don't thrive if we aren't free to disagree on the finer points of future-looking prophecy. There are more important things to debate amongst ourselves than the exact itinerary for the Second Coming.
I'm sure some well-meaning people will read this, and attempt to convince me, not only that it's critically, desperately, amazingly important to hold "the right" view of the end times, but that their view is plain, obvious, and the only possible interpretation, down to the minute details. I appreciate the enthusiasm in advance. Just know that, for me, such appeals inspire almost nothing beyond an immediate, two-syllable, response from my internal monologue: