Late-night cable TV “Bible-prophecy” preacher Jack Van Impe died last week. He was 88. Daniel Silliman has written an appropriate obituary, “Jack Van Impe, Televangelist Who Saw Signs of End Times.”
As with every End Times preacher, Van Impe’s advancing age was a steadily strengthening refutation of his message. He was still there, preaching the imminent End of the World at age 80, and he and the world were still there at age 81, and still there at age 82, and 83, and 84. But if anything Jack Van Impe had told us all those years had been trustworthy, then he should never have had an 80th birthday. Or a 70th, or 60th, or 50th for that matter.
Jack Van Impe started his ministry 68 years ago, assuring his followers that the Rapture, Argmageddon, and the End of Time were poised to occur at any moment. At no moment in any of those 68 years did the Rapture occur.
If you’d sat down with Jack Van Impe in 1980, when the television aspect of his “ministry” was just beginning, and told him that he’d be preaching that same message for another 20 years, he wouldn’t have believed you. In 1980, he knew for sure — with certainty derived from his infallible reading of an infallible Bible — that the Rapture was sure to occur well before the year 2000. By the 1990s, he was just as certain that the Rapture was coming before 2012.
The book of Proverbs says “gray hair is the splendor of the old” and that “gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.” That may be true for some, but it’s never true for End Times enthusiasts. The longer they live, the wronger they are proved to be. And some of these guys lived a very long time, getting wronger and wronger year by year.
Tim LaHaye died unraptured at 90 years old. The fact that he — and the rest of the world — lived to see 2016 proved that nothing he told us about the imminence of the Rapture was trustworthy.
Billy Graham died unraptured at the age of 99. He spent the better part of a century telling us the Rapture was imminent and assuring us that none of us would still be here, as he eventually was, by 2018.
Donald W. Thompson died last year at the age of 91. He was still around to witness the 40th anniversary of his masterpiece, A Thief in the Night. If that movie had anything true to say, it would never have had a 40th anniversary.
Harold Camping lived to be 92, outliving his first predicted date for the Rapture by 19 years and outliving his back-up date by two.
John Walvoord also lived to be 92. He died in 2002 — a year that should never have arrived if anything in his 1974 book Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis had been valid. (Or even if the search-and-replace 1991 First Gulf War revision of that book — a best-seller — had been more than sheer fantasy.)
Hal Lindsey is 90 years old, still with us here on this old world, even though his 1981 best-seller The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon is no longer in print.
Not all Rapture preachers live to quite such gloriously infamous old age. Edgar C. Whisenant was only 69 when he died in 2001, only living another 14 years after publishing 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. C.I. Scofield was just 78 when he died in 1921. H.A. Ironside lived to be only 75, although even that was far longer than his elaborate End Times charts should have allowed. William Miller lived only to age 67 — spending his last five years in great disappointment.
John Hagee is 79 years old, still active and still preaching the same imminent-Rapture gospel he was preaching when he founded Cornerstone Church 33 years ago. If that gospel had been trustworthy, he wouldn’t still be around to be preaching it. Do you still remember Hagee’s “Blood Moon” prophecy from 2015? He hopes you don’t, because it’s no longer 2015, and that means his Blood Moon nonsense was wrong.
But Hagee is a paradoxically forward-thinking End Times preacher. He’s planning ahead by training his son, Matthew, to carry on his ministry, ensuring that his annually disproved and increasingly hard-to-sustain imminent-Rapture gospel will be preached for generations to come at Cornerstone.
We should be forward-thinking too. I’m already in my 50s, so I’m probably too old to do this, but I think if you’re only 40, or 30, or younger, it might be edifying and instructive to find some relatively young End Times “Bible-prophecy” preacher and make a formal wager.
It’s 2020 and they’re telling us that the signs of the times are clear, the Rapture is imminent, and The End is nigh. “Nigh” is a notoriously elastic term, but surely it cannot be stretched to mean 30 years. So make this a 30-year bet. If the year 2050 arrives and they’re still here, still unraptured, they owe you $100. And they have to pay you in public.
The tricky part of this bet is that if you lose you’ll be unable to pay them on account of their having been whisked off to Heaven in the twinkling of an eye. So your side of the wager can’t be monetary. Instead, you’ll pledge that, should a Rapture occur between now and 2050, you will publicly acknowledge that and to take the baton from the departed saints, preaching the gospel of premillennial dispensational rapturism to the rest of the damned left behind to face the escalating plagues of the Great Tribulation.*
That will be embarrassing, as it will require you to publicly admit that you were wrong and all those End Times preachers were right. But if that turns out to be the case, you may as well admit it. Any potential embarrassment will be the least of your problems what with the scorpion-locusts, the Wormwood, the flaming meteors, the seas turning to blood and whatnot.
It’s hard to know what to say when an End Times preacher dies. The Bible is a rich storehouse of wisdom about the inevitability and certainty of death and of what that means and does not mean for we, the living. But none of those passages is of any use for comfort or consolation after the death of a Rapture Christian because Rapture Christianity has repurposed and reinterpreted all of them to be about the supposed Rapture instead. That means that every passage asserting meaning or hope in the face of mortality is, for them, instead about a fantasy of escaping death.
“Can you imagine, Rafe? Jesus coming back to get us before we die?” Irene Steele says just before that happens and she gets raptured in the fictional novel Left Behind. Jack Van Impe was sure that would happen for him, too. But it didn’t. And so now his followers are forced to confront the possibility that they’ve been aggressively denying all this time — the possibility that they, too, might one day die without Jesus coming back just in time to stop it.
One will be taken, the other will be left. Be watchful and strengthen the things which remain.
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* I’ve got a half-thought-out and far more complicated variation of this wager that involves the creation of the Tribulation Trust, an endowment built by donations from End Times preachers and “Bible prophecy” scholars that will be used to fund the continuation of their preaching after they’ve all been raptured so that those left behind will have a chance to hear the gospel and refuse the Mark of the Beast before the Glorious Appearing. The bylaws of the Tribulation Trust would also state, however, that if some now-distant-seeming date arrives — say 2100 — then the trust will be dissolved and the funds would be used, instead, to support refugees displaced by climate change.