That Jesus will come back is pretty much settled for most Protestant pastors (and most Christians in general). However, as a recent survey by LifeWay Research of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors demonstrates, how Christ will come back, whether or not we’ll still be here when he does, and what the world will look like when all of that happens is another story.
Take the rapture, for example. Roughly a third of America’s Protestant pastors believe that Christians will be raptured before things really start to get crazy (the Left Behind scenario). Just over twenty percent believe that it will happen during or after the tribulation and one in four argue that the rapture isn’t literal in the first place, typically citing the fact that it does not appear in Revelation but rather is taken from 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17 and Matthew 24:29–31. Roughly twelve percent either don’t agree with any of the standard views or aren’t sure what will happen.
Those numbers can be further divided along denominational and educational lines. Thirty-six percent of mainline Protestant pastors—especially high among Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterian/Reformed pastors—argue that the rapture isn’t literal, while only six percent of Baptists and less than one percent of Pentecostal pastors share their belief. Thirty-three percent of those with a master’s degree and twenty-nine percent of those with a doctorate also argue in favor of a figurative interpretation.
Other end times issues, such as those revolving around the Antichrist and millennialism, can be broken down along similar lines (you can see the detailed breakdown here). However, as Scott McConnell, the vice president of LifeWay Research, notes, “The big picture of Revelation is clear . . . With the rest of the details, there is room for disagreement.” It’s not a bad thing for faithful, devout Christians to have different views on subjects about which the Bible is less than explicit (and most of the end times discussion centers on subjects that fit that description). The key is to be able to have that discussion in a way that still honors God, and that starts with our approach to Scripture.
Revelation is a book that we, as Christians, can and should read. It’s just as much God’s word as the Gospels, the Psalms, and every other passage of Scripture divinely inspired by our heavenly Father. However, if we aren’t careful, it can become consuming. Its mysteries are difficult, if not impossible, to fully unravel this side of heaven, and far too often we forget that its original purpose and relevance was for the persecuted believers living at the end of the first century. It still has purpose and relevance for us as well, but, as Jim Denison has often said, Scripture can never mean what it never meant.
If we approach Revelation, and the end times discussion in general, looking primarily for clues as to when Jesus is coming back or for what it will look like when he does, then we risk missing the larger picture it was intended to paint—Christians can have hope in any circumstance because Christ’s ultimate victory is assured and God’s fulfilled kingdom will be established.
Revelation was written to help a hurting community understand that their God was bigger than the false gods they were persecuted for not worshiping. Revelation was written to give every believer in the centuries following the assurance that their faith is not misplaced. And Revelation was written so that each one of us could ultimately serve God better today because we know that tomorrow, whatever it may bring, rests firmly in his hands.
If studying the end times does not make us more faithful and obedient today, then we’re doing it wrong. Without that present purpose, any theology on the rapture, second coming, and the host of other issues related to our study of Revelation is misguided and meaningless. It’s not wrong to ponder those topics, but the Kingdom they describe can’t afford for them to divide us or lead us to become so caught up with the future that we lose sight of the more pressing concerns God has for us today.
As Stan Guthrie once said, “The key question regarding the second coming is not when it will happen but what you will be doing when it does.” If studying the end times doesn’t improve your answer to that question, then perhaps you need to take some time today to ask God to help you find a better approach. The good news is that he’s always ready to do just that. Will you let him?