Following his Big Conversation with cosmologist Roger Penrose,...
Following the death of Left Behind author Tim LaHaye, John Tancock assesses the influence of the man's theology on the global Church
Tim LaHaye was one of the modern pioneers of the revival of ‘dispensationalism’ or ‘rapture theology’. He, alongside Hal Lindsey of Late Great Planet Earth fame, helped popularise the theology alongside the Jesus movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
It is a theology I embraced myself into my late 20s. But I eventually left it behind and, with the passing of Tim LaHaye, perhaps this is the time for the church at large to move on from an unhelpful and ultimately untenable view of the End Times.
The rise of Dispensationalism
Dispensationalism appeared in the 1830s, so when looked at within the context of Church history, it hasn't been around long. It is characterised by a theology that talks of a secret ‘Rapture’ or 'snatching away' of the Church at any moment, followed by seven years of ‘tribulation’ - the last three and a half years being ‘The Great Tribulation’. Then comes Armageddon, the return of Jesus and his one thousand year reign on the earth, followed by eternity.
Many adherents of this theology view the return of the Jews to the land of Israel as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. They also expect to see a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem in the coming years. Bit parts in the story are played by Russia, China and even the EU and USA.
In the 19th Century, liberal theology was habitually downgrading the Bible as scholars dismissed anything miraculous. The exponents of Dispensationalism, despite their faults, were all firm believers in the Bible as God's Word. As the liberal threat continued many people embraced the whole theological package as 'believing the Bible' became synonymous with 'holding to Dispensationalism'.
The central place of Israel and the Jews within this theology was given a boost following the events around World War One and the Balfour Declaration. The foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the return of Jerusalem into Jewish hands following the Six Day War in 1967 was viewed as evidence in favour of a Dispensationalist view of the End Times.
With eloquent writers such as Hal Lindsey backing this viewpoint, talk of the Rapture became very popular in the late 1970s. However the expansion of these ideas went through a lull in the 1980s as a rediscovered ‘Kingdom’ emphasis took hold. Then in 1995, LaHaye published the first book in his Left Behind series. This was probably the biggest boost to the dispensationalist movement since the arrival of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909 (which effectively served as the manual for Dispensationalim through the 20th Century).
Critiquing the theology
I was a dispensationalist from the age of 13 to 27. I had my own end times charts and commentary on Revelation. I even thought I'd missed the rapture at one point (it’s a long story)!
I remember how Tim LaHaye's 1972 book The Beginning of the End predicted that people who had been alive since 1914 would experience the Rapture. The book didn’t do that well and it was quietly forgotten. The 1914 prediction never reappeared in his writing or speaking. But when looking at LaHaye’s Rapture theology it's worth considering not just his writings, but two of the key Bible passages he used to support Dispensationalism.
Matthew 24:36-41 is often quoted and referred to in the Left Behind films and books as a proof text for the Rapture. The passage says ‘one shall be taken and the other left’ - and Lahaye believed this refers to the Church being snatched away into heaven. However, since Jesus links this event with the days of Noah, those taken away are actually those ‘taken away in judgment’ not those taken away to be rescued. During Noah’s flood it is said ‘they were taken away to be judged’. Those who are left are the righteous.
Another central passage is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 which talks about believers being 'caught up' to meet Jesus 'in the air'. The interpretation of this passage is that this ‘Rapture’ is a silent and stealthy affair as Jesus comes to collect his people and goes back to heaven. There are a number of problems with this view. Firstly the passage is probably the noisiest in the Bible! There are trumpets, shouting archangels and absolutely no mention of us returning with Jesus to heaven.
For Rapture theology to work you have to ‘read in’ the meaning into the passage being studied. Assumptions have to be made in advance of reading the text of Scripture. The very precise interpretation of the 70 weeks prophecy in Daniel 9 plus Matthew 24 and huge chunks of Revelation must line up or the whole system collapses.
A better way
So if (as I contend) there are good reasons for leaving Rapture theology behind, what are the other options for understanding the End Times?
Plenty. Once you start to read Biblical scholars or go to Bible college, you soon discover that an awful lot of people don’t believe in all this Rapture stuff. For me in my late teens, discovering that some of my heroes such as Michael Green, John Stott and FF Bruce opposed Rapture theology was a revelation (if you'll forgive the pun!).
The Church has always prayed ‘your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’. Yet Rapture theology says that Jesus is coming back not to redeem the earth but to take us away and destroy it. Thankfully, in Surprised by Hope, Tom Wright puts forward the idea that God wants to redeem the earth, not vacate it to destruction. His ideas have gained prominence among many evangelicals in recent years.
So will Lahaye's death signal the beginning of the end for Dispensationalism and Rapture theology?
I don’t think so, although it's possible. It took me three years to work through the issues and eventually leave Rapture theology behind. So if there is a decline, it may take a while. There are plenty of Rapture theology adherents such as John Hagee (of Blood Moon infamy) who will carry on flying the Rapture flag. The films will probably carry on circulating as their ‘Sci-Fi’-esque premise will continue to fascinate!
Tim LaHaye was recognised as one of the top 25 Christian leaders throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s. His Left Behind series is not his greatest contribution to the Church or his best writing. That honour, in my view, belongs to his 1976 book The Act of Marriage. It's a remarkable book about sex. It was ahead of its time, detailed, frank and even included diagrams! I think it should be read by all engaged and married couples.
As we say goodbye to Tim LaHaye, we must be honest in admitting that we don't know for sure whether his Left Behind series bears any relation to what the future holds. I personally think that good biblical scholarship shows he was wrong. But until his ideas are either ultimately confirmed or denounced, let us ‘look forward to the day of God and speed its coming’ (2 Peter 3:12).
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