Adjusting Popular Misconceptions
Over the past twenty years, Fundamentalists have grown more sensitive to community opportunities and responsibilities. To some, this is a negative development, a distraction from our prime directive as believers in a lost world. But it need not be. Rather, it ought to be an extension of our ministry, a fulfillment of another facet of our calling. In short, Christians are returning to a more broadly defined responsibility to be salt in a corrupt society, to be light in a dark world, and to occupy till Christ returns. A starting point for all believers must be this: God possesses the power and reserves the right to work as gloriously as He chooses in any given generation to save souls and grant victory to His children. But two popular doctrinal misconceptions have historically hindered the practical outworking of this conviction.
Defining Imminence Biblically
Some have criticized pretribulational premillennialism for its doctrine of an imminent Rapture. Critics complain that this doctrine breeds a smug, uninvolved, irresponsible self complacency in those who hold this view: “If Jesus is coming back any time now, why bother getting involved and trying to change things? It’s all going to be destroyed anyway, so who cares?”
While the critics exaggerate this effect, Fundamentalists must concede that some degree of this mentality has existed in our circles. The fault, however, does not lie with the doctrine of imminence; rather, it lies with those who have perpetuated a false understanding of the doctrine, as well as with those who have been Biblically careless accomplices of that misunderstanding. This popularized misconception of the doctrine of imminence must be corrected if we are to avoid its misdirection of our mentality as members of the community in which God has placed us.
Perhaps you have seen a bumper sticker or church billboard confidently proclaim, “Jesus is coming soon! Are you ready?” While the spirit is admirable, the wording of such messages is Biblically inaccurate and can have an injurious effect on believers and unbelievers alike. The Biblical view of the imminent Rapture is not that Jesus is coming soon, but that He could come at any time. As similar as those two may sound, there is a world of difference between them. Jesus may indeed come soon. However, we have to admit honestly, whatever our opinion of the times may be, that we do not know when He is coming. If we pretend to know, we make Jesus Himself a liar (Acts 1:6, 7).
Whatever we may think about the condition of the world in our age, we distort a Biblical doctrine and twist it to conform to our personal opinions when we claim Bible authority for a soon return of Christ; and we unnecessarily supply ammunition to those who already disbelieve the doctrine. The Bible teaches the imminent return of Christ in the Rapture, not the soon return. Some have exploited this confusion of imminence with “soon-ness” for purposes of sensationalism (cf. 2 Thess. 2:1, 2). For others, this misconception of imminence as “soon-ness” is apt to breed irresponsibility (cf. 2 Thess. 3:10, 11). The Biblical emphasis of imminence is on suddenness and unpredictability, engendering faithful occupation (Luke 19:13; also 2 Thess. 3:12 in context) and personal purification (1 John 2:28–3:3).
This distinction is equally clear in the parables of Matthew 24–25, which illustrate the principle of imminence. The point of these parables is not watchfulness for an immediate or soon return, but watchfulness for a certain, sudden, chronologically unpredictable return. Paul underscores the same point in the classic Rapture passage in 1 Thessalonians. After concluding his description of this event, he reminds his readers that they already know, not when, but how this event will come: as a thief in the night—not necessarily soon, but suddenly, unpredictably, and without warning or announcement. Jesus could come before you finish reading this article. Jesus could come next week or next year. On the other hand, there is nothing Biblical to prevent Jesus from tarrying until the next century.
The designed effect of this doctrine is lost on those who neglect their Biblical responsibilities in the name of “waiting for Jesus.” Remember the words of the angel: “Why stand ye gazing up into heaven?” (Acts 1:11). Christ exhorts us to be busily engaged (to “occupy”)—to utilize every opportunity we have to act as salt and light in the world around us—so that when that sudden event comes, it will find us not only watching and waiting, but working. 1 We do not know how long He will tarry. We should make the most of every opportunity to arrest the spread of corruption (salt) and to be an influential beacon of righteousness (light) to all those around us—through our witness, through our stand, through our politics, through our activity within the community, through every avenue of opportunity God opens to us.2 God gives to His children different gifts, different burdens, and different opportunities.3 For each of us, as Dr. Bob Jones Sr. said, “the measure of your opportunity is the measure of your responsibility.”
Defining the Last Days Biblically
But some will protest, “Does not the Bible predict that in the latter days things will get worse and worse? Look how rotten things are in society now! What, then, is the point of trying to be a force for righteousness in what are surely the ‘last days’? Are we not fighting against God’s own prophecy?” This objection reveals another area in which we would do well to reassess the Biblical basis for a virtual withdrawal from society. Is acting as salt and light in the moral, political, educational, and social arenas within our communities merely “polishing brass on a sinking ship”?
In the first place, a prophecy that things will grow worse does not excuse us from fulfilling our duty in the face of mounting odds. Along with his divine call to prophesy, Jeremiah received a very pessimistic prognosis for the “success” of his ministry (Jer. 1). So did Ezekiel (Ezek. 3). That, however, did not excuse them from fulfilling their ministry with all their heart in prayerful hope and obedience. Does Jesus’ indication that “few” will respond positively to the gospel (Matt. 7:13, 14) absolve us from His commission to “preach the gospel to every creature”? Obviously not. Likewise, any apparent indication of increasing ungodliness does not excuse us from obeying our Master’s commands to occupy as salt and light till He comes.4
However, we must also ask in the second place, does the Bible enunciate such a prophecy? This introduces a twofold question: (1) Does the Bible clearly teach the progressive moral degeneration of mankind in the last days? and (2) What and when, exactly, are the last days? Let’s address these questions in reverse order.
Second Timothy 3:1–9 is an often cited key text. Many assume that when Paul refers to the “last days” he must be talking about the very end of the church age immediately before the Rapture. Furthermore, his description sounds alarmingly like the days in which we are living right now. The search for a Biblical definition of the “last days,” however, leads us to Hebrews 1:1, 2. There the writer contrasts God’s revelatory activity in “times past” with God’s revelation of Himself through His Son in “these last days.” According to this passage the “last days” began with the Incarnation. The “last days” to which the New Testament refers, then, are not the end of the church age. The “last days” are the church age. This present era is the last stage of God’s redemptive activity prior to His direct intervention through the Rapture, the tribulation, and the Second Coming.
Back in 2 Timothy 3, then, Paul is not looking ahead to some specific period of time in the distant future. If that were the case, why should he warn Timothy so personally and urgently about something that he would never face? Rather, he is warning Timothy that in this final era, these “last days” known as the church age, Christians will face seasons of peculiarly fierce evil and resistance. The Greek word for “times” is one that indicates seasons, periods, or specific segments of time. These “last days” which are the church age, Paul warns, will be punctuated with notoriously perilous periods of time. He is not describing a progressive moral degeneration that views humanity as an unbroken downhill slide throughout history; rather, he is describing what Christians, in retrospect, have always had to face in varying degrees through out church history.
Other passages that are often cited include the references to the days of Noah in Matthew 24:37–39 and Luke 17:26–30. But these verses and their contexts do not mention sinful activities at all. We have too often read into those verses implications that are simply not stated in the text itself. Their express emphasis is on the issue of imminence— the suddenness with which God will intervene in the daily routine of life just as He did in the days of Noah. The passages with the strongest exegetical implications of moral degeneration at the end of the age are Matthew 24:12, Luke 18:8, and 2 Thessalonians 2:3. Many argue even here, however, that these verses actually refer to the Tribulation period prior to the Second Coming rather than to the church age immediately prior to the Rapture.
In the face of admittedly troubling social and political developments, some have cultivated an extremely shortsighted view of history by assuming that the degeneration of a mere generation must surely mark the end of the church age. We may be at the end of the last days; but then again, we may not. We must watch faithfully as though we will be leaving this world at any moment, but live responsibly as though we will be dying here.
Whatever our personal convictions on these issues may be, we must not allow those convictions to limit our faith in God’s capacity, nor to obstruct His intention to glorify Himself to whatever extent He chooses in our day. The future is as bright as the promises of God! May God help us not to be pessimistic impediments to what He desires to accomplish through us in our days, but to be obedient stewards, investing in every opportunity He entrusts to us to be salt, to shed light, and to occupy till His return.
Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.
(Originally published in FrontLine • January / February 2004. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)