But what does the Bible really teach about it?
Want to be depressed and thrilled at the same time? If so, study Bible prophecy about the end times. Thrilling? Yes, of course. The core truth is that Jesus will return "with power and great glory" (Matthew 24:30, Mark 13:26 and Luke 21:27).
Paul calls this "the blessed hope" (Titus 2:14). He writes that "the Lord Himself will come down from heaven. … The dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever (1 Thessalonians 4:16–19).
While the wonder of Jesus’ return can’t be erased, some depressing realities can tarnish our view of it – especially how often Christians have made false predictions about the timing. One website lists 272 miscalculations by Protestant and Catholic leaders through the ages.
It would be nice if we could say false prophecies don’t happen as much today because we are more enlightened than our ancestors. In fact, nothing can match the prophecy whoppers of the last two centuries.
William Miller dated the end to 1844. Charles Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, put it at 1914, and then later Witness leaders spouted, "Make do till ’72, stay alive till ’75." Edgar Whisenant wrote 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988, and Ronald Weinland dated the end to 2008.
However, the biggest blunders go to Harold Camping. First, he announced the apocalypse for September 1994. Not learning from that error, his 6,000 billboards and $100 million campaign pushed it to May 21, 2011. Yes, $100 million.
Date setters should take to heart the words of Jesus. "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but my Father only" (Matthew 24:36).
What about the most famous prophecy watchers like Hal Lindsey (b. 1929), author of The Late Great Planet Earth (Zondervan, 1970), and Tim LaHaye (1926–2016), coauthor of the Left Behind series?
We shouldn’t ignore them because their reach has been astounding. Lindsey’s book was second only to the Bible in sales through the 1970s. The Left Behindbooks have sold over 80 million copies.
Thankfully Lindsey, LaHaye and other prophecy pundits (for example, Jack and Rexella Van Impe and the late Grant Jeffrey, a Canadian) seldom set specific dates.
What we can do is encourage caution, and frankly admit prominent Christians have engaged in sensationalism and offered changing interpretations of the same Bible passages, depending on the decade, event or person in the news.
While we may critique their excesses, we should also remember they have helped millions know the main truth that Jesus will return.
Thankfully, virtually all eschatology scholars agree on big picture items: Jesus will return, the reality of God’s judgment of sin and the promise of heaven.
But it’s hard to ignore that careful Bible scholars disagree on the details. Will there be a literal Millennium (1,000-year reign of Jesus)? Will there be a rapture of Christians? If so, when? Will there be an Antichrist figure? Is Israel in God’s plan for the end times? What is the Mark of the Beast and 666 all about?
Given this lack of unity, not to mention false prophecies, careless and changing views, how should we approach Bible prophecy?
Stick to the clear teachings of Scripture. Avoid speculation. For example, the new view that Donald Trump’s presidency is foretold in Scripture. See James Warden’s Bible Prophecy & Trump (2017).
Read the best Christian scholars. Here are my recommendations on the four major eschatology views: (a) Postmillennialism (Christ will return after the Millennium): Kenneth Gentry, Doug Wilson; (b) Amillennialism (no literal 1,000-year reign of Christ): Jonathan Menn, Sam Storms; (c) historic Premillennialism (Jesus will return after the Tribulation): Millard Erickson, George Eldon Ladd; and (d) dispensational Premillennialism (the rapture will happen before the Tribulation): Charles Ryrie, H. Wayne House.
Focus on the beauty and promise of the Second Coming, and don’t let the various details get in the way.
Jonathan Menn’s excellent book Biblical Eschatology, already in a second edition (Resource Publications, 2018), ends with a plea for all Christians to ponder the importance of the return of Jesus. The Second Coming offers hope to Christians who experience suffering, pain and persecution; assurance that evil and death will come to an end; and the promise of a heavenly home.
These tremendous truths will hit home when we see our Lord and Saviour, Jesus. No wonder Paul states in 1 Thessalonians, "Therefore encourage one another with these words."
James Beverley is professor of Christian thought and ethics at Tyndale Seminary. He is old enough to remember past prophecy frenzies about the Cuban Missile Crisis, Henry Kissinger, Y2K and more. Read more of his columns at www.FaithToday.ca/ReligionWatch.