The Rapture and the Fig Tree

The Rapture and the Fig Tree September 8, 2008

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.

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