The Rapture and the Fig Tree

The formation of the state of Israel in 1948 was a tremendous excitement to apocalypse-cheerleading Christians. For the end times to occur as described in the Bible, Israel must exist, so it’s no surprise that its establishment following World War II convinced many believers that the end times were on the way:

There is little doubt among Bible scholars that the establishment of the State of Israel, on May 14, 1948, is the fulfillment of the prophecy of the fig tree… Most agree that this says that the generation of people who witness the fig tree bearing leaves (Israel becoming a nation) will not pass away until the Son of Man returns.

In the Bible, the length of a generation is given as forty years. Thus, many prominent Christians singled out 1988 as the year it would all happen – including Hal Lindsey, who made this argument in The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, and Edgar Whisenant, who wrote another book titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988. Paul and Jan Crouch of the Trinity Broadcast Network famously altered their programming on Rosh Hashanah 1988 to show prerecorded tapes giving advice to those who had been left behind in the rapture. Of course, 1988 came and went and the world remained steadfastly unended.

Any ordinary person would have had the decency to feel embarrassed by their advocacy of this nonsense, but fundamentalist Christians have refused to give up. Clinging to their belief that the formation of Israel was the beginning of the end, they’re now revising their chronology yet again, going back to the Bible to discover “proof” that the real length of a biblical generation is 80 years. This will get them to 2028, which will no doubt see another burst of apocalyptic excitement. When that date too comes and goes, the true believers will almost certainly return to their Bibles, dredge up some more obscure passages, and use them to fuel a whole new round of date-setting.

This has been a pastime of Christians since the beginning. Doubtless, when the believers who are currently “on fire for Christ” are old and gray and still unraptured, the next generation of born-agains will take up the torch just as eagerly. Their belief is an only slightly more drawn-out version of those who repeatedly predict the end in the imminent future.

What these believers overlook is that the conditions for the end-times still are not met. For one thing, the Bible clearly requires not just the existence of Israel, but of a rebuilt Jewish Temple. This poses something of a difficulty, since the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam, currently occupies that spot. In the Left Behind series, LaHaye and Jenkins’ Antichrist deals with this difficulty in the space of a paragraph:

“Our Muslim brothers have agreed to move not only the shrine but also the sacred section of the rock to New Babylon, freeing the Jews to rebuild their temple on what they believe is the original site.”

This passage shows an incredible naivete about Islam – which, I grant, is not surprising coming from someone who believes that every non-Christian on the planet will give up their religion and join a syncretistic one-world faith just because the Antichrist tells them to. To Muslims, it’s not the mosque itself that’s sacred but the location it’s built on, this supposedly being the place from which Mohammed ascended to Heaven. Believing that Muslims would consent to move it is like believing that Christians would agree to move the Church of the Nativity.

This tendency of end-times believers to always be looking to the past, always getting excited by the recreation of ancient nations and the rebuilding of old temples, illuminates the basis of their theology. The book of Revelation and other apocalyptic literature was written for people alive at that time, and was founded on the belief that the end would arrive within the lifetime of the author and the first generation of readers. But in every case, the apocalypse failed to come, and the world changed and moved on. To see these events once again looming in the present day literally requires believing that the past will come again – that the world will reconstitute itself as it once was, so that the signs and portents of former days will be present once again. When believers claim to see the apocalypse in the near future, they are in reality gazing into the past, spellbound by the imaginings of a long-gone era. Whether Israel exists another hundred years or a thousand, the rapture will never happen, the end of days will never come. The deadlines have long since lapsed, and they should face up to reality and accept that fact.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://eatingfish.wordpress.com Greymalkin

    Ronald Weinland is running a Christian apocolyptic cult and thinks the end of time is very near.
    For more information about this nutjob, visit his website: http://ronaldweinland.com/

    I’m looking into writing a blog about his particular kind of insanity on my website, but I’m still wrestling through his dribblings for the post.

  • mikespeir

    …and the world remained steadfastly unended.

    LOL!

    I’m pretty sure I heard Benny Hinn saying a generation is 100 years. I’m also pretty sure I won’t be around in 2048 to snicker. Conveniently, neither will he.

  • Beavis

    I find it interesting that the author acknowledges that Muslims will never give up their faith and submit to a one-world religion, but exhorts Christians to give up theirs, not for one-world religion, but just because he doesn’t think it’s legitimate. What else would you carve on tablets of stone for us to obey?

  • Pi Guy

    Was it you, Ebon, who wrote a post about how one of the gospels tells the story of the dead walking the Earth as Jesus was resurrected and how, for some reason, no reputable historical account of the event is in evidence? I’ve been trying to find that story for my mother and mother-in-law to demonstrate that, according to the Bible, the Apocalypse has already occurred but have not been able to find it in the Bible nor in any of yours or of my other favorite atheist bloggers archives. For some reason, I seem to recall that it’s from Luke but have simply been unable to track it down.

    If it was you, could you please provide again for me the chapter and verse of that passage?. Thanks.

  • Stephen

    Pi Guy: I guess you are thinking of Matthew 27.51-53:

    And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
    And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
    And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

  • Stephen

    By the way, there is a fine collection of end-of-the-world predictions on the site
    A Brief History of the Apocalypse.

  • http://www.yunshui.wordpress.com yunshui

    There’s a brief but interesting article here from the BBC, musing on how the LHC has prompted further doomsday panic amongst the less scientifically minded…

  • Polly

    going back to the Bible to discover “proof” that the real length of a biblical generation is 80 years.

    I’m guessing it’s the reference to a lifespan, “if one is strong” in, I think, Ecclesiastes.
    Just last weekend my mother was once again going on about Israel and the whole “THIS generation shall not pass” thing. When I brought up the fact that it’s been 60 years, she simply said “it’s closer than ever!” because, you know, people don’t live that long. Uggghh. She used to say 40 years back in the early 80′s, too.

    I remember one “Messianic” Jew on TBN who narrowed the day down to 3 days – around a Jewish holiday, probably the Passover IIRC.

    My mother gets very excited about The End. She watches TBN and has donated money (probably 1,000s) over the years to Paul & Jan(of the makeup trowel) Crouch. I think it’s disgusting.

    I actually used to watch a show (for a stint) hosted by Peter & Paul Lalonde. They would take current news stories about politics and technology and show how the Mark of the Beast would be introduced with chip implants and Armageddon would begin soon. The show became extremely repetitive with each new episode sounding so much like the last one. How many times can someone watch dogs getting chips implanted under their fury hides?!?

    Back in the 80s, of course, the EU was supposed to be the Beast with 10 heads. But, now there are more than 10 member nations. The new threat is China which represents the large army that’s supposed to invade Israel marching from the east. It used to be Russia that was supposed to invade Israel…from the North.

    Biblical prophecy will probably never end. 10,000 years from now, I’d bet there will still be xians clinging to the hope that “any day now, Jesus is coming back.”

  • Mobius 118

    I’ve been subjecting myself to some of those end-timers, and a small few are saying that 60 years is a generation, and that 2008 is the start of the time of tribulation. What I get from all this, is that they want it to be right so badly, that they’ll sacrifice reason for faith, and gladly pass off this world, as a cruel joke.

    I can’t wait, honestly, for nothing to happen. Then I can ask if they’ll readjust their timetable, to make up for their error.

    It never ends.

  • Joffan

    I’m always surprised that the second coming of Christ gets off so lightly with regard to its timing, and I’m fairly surprised that a statement on its timing got into the Bible at all, really, given the likely dates on the gospels.

    It seems clear that his second coming should occur within a lifespan of Christ’s death. But that timespan would only include the gospel writers by dint of careful selection of those people who were children at the time of the crucifixion and who lived a long life; and then it would be imminent. By the time of the first ecumenical councils, any hope of that second coming should have been long gone – and yet it still thrives today.

  • Leum

    Christianity: Announcing Jesus’ imminent return since 33 AD.

    I remember in 1999 Muse (Smithsonian for kids) had a great article on hundreds of end of the world prophecies. Basically it pointed out that the attempts had been going on since Zoroaster and that not one had been right so far.

    It scares me how compelling people find these prophecies, which I suppose are the dark side of Heaven. When you say 1)Heaven is utterly wonderful and nothing is better than being there, 2)Living on Earth sucks and dieing is the best thing that can happen to you after you’re saved, and 3)If you commit suicide you’ll go to Hell, it’s not surprising that people want the world to end. It might be sinful to want to die, and most forms of dieing are horrific and painful, but the end of the world promises a swift death (or a rapture which bypasses death completely) followed by unending bliss. The failure of the prophecies doesn’t make you abandon them under this mindset, it just disappoints you that your attempt to know God’s inscrutable plan has failed and that you are still alive.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    I love co-incidence; Almost makes me believe in fate. I cited a quote from Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All a little while ago. Actually the whole novel is a brilliant satire on the rapture Vs dome of the rock theme of Ebon’s post.

  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport

    According to Ray Kurzweil, we are of the ‘generations’ that just may live [speaking figuratively] forever, which would give the christians all the time they needed to theorize the end of the world.

  • Christopher

    I really don’t give a damn if the world ends tommarrow or a billion years from now – if tommarrow, I simnply take a seat and enjoy the show whilst balsting death metal until I die with everyone else; if a billion years or more from now, I won’t be around to see it and will just have to miss the chance of a multitude of lifetimes.

    I see no point in attempting to prognosticate the end – it will happen whenever it’s predisposed towards happening…

  • Brad

    Why would you want it to end tomorrow? Why not during your lifetime, but late in life?

    And if you care about others, I’d rather the children around me not have to die prematurely. That’d be sad.

  • bestonnet

    Beavis:

    I find it interesting that the author acknowledges that Muslims will never give up their faith and submit to a one-world religion, but exhorts Christians to give up theirs, not for one-world religion, but just because he doesn’t think it’s legitimate. What else would you carve on tablets of stone for us to obey?

    There are a lot of ex-Muslims in the world, just as there are a lot of ex-Christians so it is possible for them to give up their faith.

    It’s just that it is only a minority in each generation that will actually do it and Islam is behind Christianity in the process of secularisation (most of them also won’t just join another religion because they are told to and that is what was stated, or maybe you just lack basic reading comprehension).

    People, Christian, Muslim or whatever, shouldn’t just give up their religion because those in the reality based community say so but because they understand why it is wrong.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Beavis,

    I find it interesting that the author acknowledges that Muslims will never give up their faith and submit to a one-world religion, but exhorts Christians to give up theirs, not for one-world religion, but just because he doesn’t think it’s legitimate.

    Actually, I expect the author exhorts Muslims to give up their religion too. I also expect that he doesn’t see Islam as legitimate either. What’s your point?

  • Christopher

    Brad,

    “Why would you want it to end tomorrow? Why not during your lifetime, but late in life?”

    You missed the point – I don’t *want* the world to end (in fact, my desires concerning the end are irrelevent: it will happen whenever it’s predisposed towards happening)), but rather I’m not afraid of the end coming. Thus the whole “apocalypse fever” doesn’t have much effect on me.

    Also Brad,

    “And if you care about others, I’d rather the children around me not have to die prematurely. That’d be sad.”

    The fact of the matter is that all are going to die sooner or later – if everyone died at once there would be no “sadness” asd there would be no one left around to mourn the passing of the human species. All the end of the world would do is speed of process of death – while I’m in no hurry to meet death, the the idea of everyone on earth dying around the same time doesn’t intimidate me in the least…

  • Thumpalumpacus

    It always amazes me that these founts of wisdom have never heeded the chestnut proverb: “The watched pot never boils.”

  • mikespeir

    It always amazes me that these founts of wisdom have never heeded the chestnut proverb: “The watched pot never boils.”

    It’s all clear now! Jesus was just messing with the disciples when he told them to “watch” (e.g. Luke 21:36). That way he’d never have to come back!

  • http://badnewsbible.blogspot.com XanderG

    Just for fun, Exit Mundi has a great collection of all the different ways the world could end. The rapture doesn’t really sound as interesting as the world disappearing due to strange matter gobbling up all the atoms in the universe or bring choked to death by an intergalactic cloud of space dust.

  • bestonnet

    You can also check this to see if the world still exists (hopefully the crackpots don’t know that it doesn’t get to full power until next month).

    Exit Mundi is a pretty good web site though. Geocide is also interesting and who could go past this?

    The realistic (or semi-realistic) methods are more interesting than any of the religious doomsday crap.


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