How Signs of the Times Relate to the Rapture and the Second Coming
by Thomas Ice
How do current events relate to Bible prophecy? It depends upon the Bible’s view of the timing of prophecy. Interpreters of prophecy often differ widely in their interpretation and application of prophecy. Hal Lindsey recently said, “No, I am not a prophet. But I have studied the prophets. And I am certain that all of what they predict for mankind up to and including the Second Advent will occur in the next few years-probably in your lifetime.”1 On the other hand, future prophecy nay-sayer Gary DeMar complains that “many Christians take prophecies that have been fulfilled . . . and view them as still unfulfilled. They then manipulate these fulfilled prophecies and apply them to contemporary events. Their speculations are wrong because they are applying fulfilled prophecies to current events.”2
FOUR APPROACHES TO PROPHECY
There are four possible views relating to the timing of when an interpreter sees prophecy being fulfilled in history. These views are simple because they reflect the only possibilities in relation to time-past, present, future, and timeless.
The preterist (past) believes that most, if not all, prophecy has already been fulfilled, usually in relation to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The historicist (present) sees much of the current church age as equal to the tribulation period. Thus, prophecy has been and will be fulfilled during the current church age. Futurists (future) believe that virtually all prophetic events will not occur in the current church age, but will be fulfilled through events that will occur in the future seven-year tribulation, Second Coming, or millennium. The idealist (timeless) does not believe either that the Bible indicates the timing of events or that we can know before they mysteriously happen. Therefore, idealists think that prophetic passages mainly teach great ideas or principles about God’s general dealings with mankind and are to be applied to anyone, in any era regardless of timing.
Advocates of two of these approaches, in principle, do not think that current events can ever apply to Bible prophecy since they believe either, that the prophecies have already been fulfilled (preterist), or that the time of fulfillment is unknowable (idealist). Of the remaining two views, the historicist certainly believes that current events relate to prophecy. Since they do not distinguish between God’s plan for Israel and for the church, many have taught that the last 1600-1700 years have seen a fulfillment of most of the events of the tribulation, which futurists believe will be a literal, seven-year event in the future. Historicists are primarily awaiting Armageddon and the Second Advent. Futurism, the view which I share with the majority of Evangelicals, believes that most of the prophetic events lie before us and will begin to be fulfilled after the current church age ends with the Rapture. Every prophetic viewpoint produces speculation that flows from its theology. The real task is to understand a viewpoint and to consistently apply its teachings and principles. How then should a consistent futurist understand current events?
FUTURIST APPROACHES TO PROPHECY
First, I must point out that all forms of pretribulational futurism should oppose any attempt at the exact date-setting of the timing of the Rapture. The Bible teaches that the Rapture is an event which has no signs preceding it. Anyone suggesting that the Rapture will occur on a specific date can only make such a prediction based upon speculative elements derived from outside the Bible or upon a misinterpretation of Scripture.
Among those who are pretribulational futurists, I observe three basic approaches taken in interpreting current events. The three classifications are in terms of how one relates prophecy for Israel to the church age. I am suggesting a spectrum of 1) loose, 2) moderate, and 3) strict.
The loose view is characterized by those who claim to be pretribulational futurists but often take prophecy written for Israel and suggest that it is being fulfilled today–during the church age. This viewpoint holds that sometimes prophecy relating to the tribulation is being or has already been fulfilled in the current church age. This is a weak, inconsistent application of futurism, since it commingles God’s plan for Israel with His plan for the church at specific points of prophetic fulfillment. This view is not in keeping with the dispensational tradition of separating Israel and the church.
An example of this kind of interpretation would be any pretribulational futurists who date-set or see a current event from today fulfilling prophecy related to the yet future tribulation or millennium. I recall a prophecy teacher saying in the early 1980s that Isaiah 19 predicted the assassination of Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat. This is impossible since Isaiah 19 refers to events that will take place in the tribulation and millennium. This is an improper mixing of God’s prophecy for Israel with the church age, and is really indicative of historicism and not pretribulational futurism. Some within this group have also tried to set a date for the Rapture. When a futurist follows such an approach, he is inconsistent with the pretribulational futurism that he claims to follow.
I will take the third viewpoint next, so that the second view can be compared to the first and third. Strict pretribulational futurists are airtight in maintaining a distinction between God’s prophetic plan for Israel and His plan for the church. They tend to say that current events have virtually no significance to today, since the only event a true church age believer is looking for is the Rapture of the church.
The strict view holds that the Jewish return to the land of Israel may or may not be the beginning of that which was prophesied for the last days. They tend to reason that we really cannot know about the significance of these things until after the Rapture. Thus, current events do not really indicate “signs of the times” in any significant way. Often this view says that Israel could be kicked out of the land and it would not impact prophecy, since we cannot really confirm whether contemporary events are leading up to biblical fulfillment.
This view is very nonspeculative about how current events relate to prophecy, and often speaks strongly against those who try to make a correlation between the Bible and current events. Strict interpreters have a significant following within the academic circles of dispensationalism, likely over a concern that improper speculation be avoided.
A third classification of how prophecy relates to Israel and the church is the moderate view. I place myself within this group. Moderates clearly maintain a distinction between God’s plan for Israel and God’s plan for the church. The current church age is prophetically pictured only by general trends and characteristics, not by specific fulfillment of events, as will be true of prophecy relating to Israel after the Rapture. Therefore, there are no signs or current events which indicate the nearness of the Rapture, which is an imminent, any-moment possibility at any time during the church age.
Moderates do not date-set or think that a current event fulfills prophecy relating to the tribulation or millennium. However, they do tend to think that it is valid to lay out a model or scenario of how things will be after the Rapture, since Scripture gives a clear and detailed picture of the tribulation period. Based upon such a model, we can see preparation and stage-setting for those events increasingly fitting together through current events. Since these are not signs for the Rapture, but rather stage-setting for events leading up to the Second Coming, our anticipation of the Rapture is quickened. The positioning of players and events related to God’s plan for the world during the future tribulation is increasingly casting shadows upon the current church age, thus intensifying anticipation of the any-moment Rapture which must take place before events of the tribulation can unfold.
THE MODERATE MODEL
Moderates are consistent with pretribulational futurism by maintaining a proper distinction between God’s plan for Israel from that of the church. This maintains the basis for the any-moment possibility of the Rapture as an event that is not related to signs and current events. On the other hand, a moderate can also see significance in current events that may be setting the stage for end-time events. This approach is consistent with pretribulational futurism because it does not see current events relating to the church but to Israel. Most of the things happening today are not fulfillments, per se, but are either the beginning of fulfillment which will be completed after the Rapture or stage-setting for events yet to be fulfilled in the future.
Another point to keep in mind is that just as there was a transition in the early church away from God dealing with Israel as a nation, so it appears that there will be a transition at the end of the church age as God sets the stage to resume His unfinished plan with Israel after the Rapture. The church age clearly began on the Day of Pentecost, but about 40 years later in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 a specific prophecy relating to God’s plan for Israel was historically fulfilled. This was the final fulfillment relating to the transition from Israel to the church. During the last 100 years we have seen events occur which are setting the stage for the players to be in place when the Rapture brings to an end the church age and God resumes His plan for Israel during the tribulation.
In addition, there are general predictions about the course of the church age such as a trend toward apostasy (1 Tim. 4:1-16; 2 Tim. 3:1-17). But these do not relate to the timing of the Rapture, instead they are general trends about the church age. It is important to realize that when speaking of a general characteristic like apostasy, no matter how bad something may be it can always get a little worse or progress a little further. Thus, it is tenuous to cite general characteristics, apart from clear historical indicators, as signs of the last days because no matter how much our own time may look like it fits that trend, we can never be certain that there is not more development yet to come.
ISRAEL’S REGATHERING AND THE CHURCH AGE
How does the current return of Jews to Israel and Jerusalem relate to the dispensational view of distinction between Israel and the church? I think that we have to say that Israel’s presence in the land and continuing return from the Diaspora is the beginning of fulfillment of passages like Ezekiel 37. Ezekiel 37 clearly indicates that Israel will return to the land in unbelief and in stages, which fits the contemporary experience. The stage is set for their mass conversion during the tribulation.
We should not say that these Old Testament passages have been fulfilled in a final sense, but that they are in the process of being fulfilled and will not be totally fulfilled until after the Rapture. On the other hand, to say that none of today’s events relating to Israel are necessarily connected to biblical prophecy is a wrong application of the Israel/church distinction.
Some pretribulational futurists understand Matthew 24:3-8 as referring to the end of the church age leading up to the tribulation (Matt. 14:9-28). They see contemporary significance to recent world wars, famines, and earthquakes (Matt. 24:7-8). Other pretribulational futurists interpret Matthew 24:3-8 as descriptive of events that will take place during the first half of the tribulation and thus do not see contemporary significance to wars, famines, and earthquakes. However, this is a legitimate difference in interpretation, not application.
I think it is consistent with the moderate model to develop a scenario of players and events which will be in place when God’s plan for Israel resumes after the Rapture. This scenario views current events as increasingly setting the stage for end-time events, even though they cannot commence during the current church age. The moderate model allows a pretribulational futurist to see the Rapture as imminent, but at the same time believe that we could be the last generation of the church age. John Walvoord, Chancellor of Dallas Seminary, has noted:
In the present world scene there are many indications pointing to the conclusion that the end of the age may soon be upon us. These prophecies relating to Israel’s coming day of suffering and ultimate restoration may be destined for fulfillment in the present generation. Never before in the history of the world has there been a confluence of major evidences of preparation for the end.3
Some stage-setting developments casting a shadow in our day include religious apostasy, preparation for a revived Roman Empire in Europe, Israel’s return to their land, revival of Israel’s ancient enemies such as Iraq as Babylon, and the rise of Russia as a military power (Gog and Magog invasion), all preparing the way for tribulation events. But before the curtain rises, the church will rise into the air at the Rapture.
1 Hal Lindsey, Planet Earth-2000 A.D.: Will Mankind Survive? (Palos Verdes, Calif.: Western Front, Ltd., 1994), p. 3.
2 Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church (Atlanta: American Vision, Inc., 1994), p. 27.
3 John F. Walvoord, Israel in Prophecy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962), p. 129