Over time I have turned into a plodder. It is now my characteristic to plod along taking care of one thing at a time, attempting to be faithful, and not worrying too much about what God has reserved for Himself [the fruit] (I Corinthians 3:6-7). Therefore, when I was asked by more than one person to evaluate the literature coming out purporting to have "the" answer to the question regarding the timing of the Rapture of the Church, my inclination was to refuse because it is an arduous task and I'm not very interested in crossing swords with folks about this particular issue. However, because the request has come again recently, and, perhaps in a weak moment, I agreed, I have decided to wade into the task and plod my way through to the end.
Because all of us who write often reveal far more of our thinking regarding our theological positions by what we write than we even realize, and because many times a position is taken because of some underlying personality quirks rather than the given meaning of a text, I have decided to simply take what Robert Van Kampen has written, a page at a time, and attempt to interact with what he has written. This is the long and tedious way around the barn, but it will probably lay a better long-term foundation for understanding than the quicker, and less verbose, way. In the hopes that I may be able to shorten the effort to some degree by simply passing over the things in which I am in substantial agreement with him, I am not going to spend a lot of time dealing with what I would normally call his "strengths" (which is just a subtle figure of speech that means I agree with him, or perhaps that he agrees with me). Be aware that this will result in an overall impression that I find nothing good about his arguments; but that is not the case. I am simply going to skip what I find "good" (again, the things in which we are in agreement). I am simply going to spend the vast majority of my effort addressing the areas in which we are in disagreement. This doesn't mean I give a stamp of approval to anything I don't mention, but it does mean that I am only going to tie myself to the issues that seem to me to be most necessary in terms of the errors I think I see.
So, you have been warned. This is going to be both a long and predominantly contrastive study of two different points of view.
Another thing of which you might need to be aware. Both Van Kampen, and Marvin J. Rosenthal, who penned The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church, have not been bashful at all in claiming two things: 1) that there are a host of men in the ministry "out there" who really hold the pre-wrath position but cannot announce it because they are too caught up in what their losses might be if their constituents found out they were secret Pre-Wrath-ers; and 2) that many who defend a pre-seventieth week Rapture must be doing it to either save face or position. I have little sympathy with those kinds of carnality. If a man will cave at the possibility of loss of ministry and perks, how much more quickly would he cave if he was going to lose something really important? And if a man will argue a position just to save face, he is as carnal as the other. There may even be some carnality in those who think they can identify the motives of their fellow-believers, but I won't get any further into that! Many will wear the mark of the Beast because of such carnal fears. I mention this simply to tell you that I have no position to defend in order to preserve my status within any given theological circles or any given ministry. I have never been "anybody", I have no aspirations to be "somebody", I know very few "evangelical wheels" and I have little interest in getting to know any. I am currently pastoring a small, elderly congregation who love me and whom I love, and they know full well that if I see something as true to the Scriptures, I will tell them exactly what, and why, I believe it to be as I see it. I have nothing to lose that I want to hang onto by accepting the pre-wrath Rapture position and proclaiming it loudly and with conviction -- if I saw it as true. But I don't.
And now I am going to tell you why.
Van Kampen opens his book with the claim that he authored another book (a veritable tome entitled The Sign) which has sold approximately 100,000 copies in several languages and instigated the founding of a new ministry. I could easily be jealous of this as I have never published any books and have not found many who would read them even if I did, but I'm not. What I am is...curious. Why does Van Kampen think this is pertinent? It has nothing to do with the accuracy of his widely disseminated positions regarding prophecy, but it certainly does have something to do with the personality of the author and may at least partially explain why he sees certain texts the way he does according to the principle I mentioned above regarding personality quirks.
Second, on page 14 he wrote, "Paul explains to Titus that those who are saved, should be 'looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus' (Titus 2:13; cf. 2 Peter 3:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:4-6)". He then proceeds to say, "That would be difficult to do if the Word of God didn't tell us specifically what to look for [How about "the appearing of the glory"?], or if His instructions concerning His second coming were so confusing that any attempt to understand 'when' would be met with such heated debate that the true child of God would prefer to be ignorant on the issue rather than face the consequences". What Paul said, being inspired, is true; but what Van Kampen concludes seems to me to run completely counter to what Jesus Himself said on more than one occasion.
In Acts 1:6 the disciples are recorded as asking Jesus specifically the "when" question as though they thought it was necessary for their task of faithful living. This is apparently something Van Kampen would also have done if he had been there because he thinks it would be "difficult" to look for the blessed hope unless we understand the answers to the "when" questions. But, if you care to look at the next verse, Jesus pointedly told the curious, not the needy, that they did not need to know the times and the seasons. He said, in effect, you don't need that knowledge to do what I have commissioned you to do. In fact, a case could be made that the desire to know the "when" is rooted in nothing more than curiosity and a strange lack of satisfaction with simply looking for Him.
And, again, in Matthew 24:44-51 Jesus is clearly teaching that the knowledge of "when" is destructive to the faithfulness of the servant. In that text, Jesus says that a part of the motivation for faithfulness is to not know "when" and part of the temptation to unfaithfulness is to have some reason to think it might not be "now". Van Kampen clearly does not agree with Jesus here because he thinks it is best to know that Jesus isn't coming until sometime after the middle of the seventieth week of Daniel. Somehow Van Kampen has missed the reality that the ambiguity is deliberate by divine design because God knows just how easily led into unfaithfulness all of His servants are. God thinks that we are fortified against our own depravity by eagerly looking for the Coming Son without being able to tell ourselves, "My Lord is delaying His coming...." Van Kampen apparently thinks our depravity is not a problem and that it is actually better to know that Jesus isn't coming any time very soon. Even if the seventieth week of Daniel was to begin today, according to Van Kampen we could not look for Jesus for at least four to six years down the road. That has more of a dampening spirit to the eager looking than does the ambiguity that is present by divine design. Rosenthal and Van Kampen both try to compensate for this weakness by drumming on the thesis that the times are ripe for the beginning of the seventieth week, but there are three problems with that.
The first, and most obvious, is that the Van Kampen/Rosenthal viewpoint is like telling a child he is going to get an all-day sucker of his favorite flavor after he gets back from getting his perfectly healthy legs cut off by the doctor. Only a masochist would look forward to something that was only going to come after such an horrendously painful, and unnecessary, event. Much better to give up hope for the sucker and stay as far away from the doctor as possible--especially since your legs are perfectly healthy! Anyone who knows what living under the dominion of the Man of Sin is going to be like is not going to be eagerly looking for the things that are coming afterwards unless he is already under that dominion. Rather, he is going to be hoping he can get through this life before that time dawns on the world! Except for those of our number who actively look for ways to "suffer for Jesus" (the martyr-complex types), most of us think it would be much better to be a dead believer awaiting the resurrection of the body after a life of service to Christ in a fallen world that hasn't reached its apex of depravity than to be a living believer during the persecution of the Antichrist just so you can live on the adrenalin high of trying to outwit the searchers until Jesus comes! Van Kampen and Rosenthal's view has probably actually caused more believers to quit eagerly looking for the Coming Son than to start because any believer who knows anything about what the tribulation is going to be like is not going to eagerly look forward to anything that puts him right in the midst of it. Admittedly, there is a selfishness in those who aren't willing to suffer for Jesus if fidelity to Him calls for it, but there is something just as crooked in those who think that suffering persecution is preferable to not suffering. Actually, in every case of promise about the Coming Son, the viewpoint is that the people who are encouraged to look eagerly for Him are already in desperate troubles and are looking for deliverance. Jesus knows we most eagerly await those events that bring hope to our hearts; Van Kampen thinks he will best help the Church by telling it to batten down the hatches because Hell on earth is coming!
The second is that we all know that Van Kampen and Rosenthal don't know when the seventieth week is going to start, so they cannot tell us to be "ready" with any real sincerity because both scoff at the psychological importance of imminence, knowing that if there is anything at all to it their entire scenario goes down the drain.
The third is that even if they are correct in their drumming that the seventieth week is just around the corner (a terribly elastic concept meaning maybe tomorrow and maybe 5 years from now), they are only proving what they have denied repeatedly: people need to have a sense of urgency through imminence. Without it, there is a slow slide into unfaithfulness; but with it, there is a daily renewal of commitment. The "plain and simple" (I use this phrase with reluctant sarcasm) truth is that if Jesus isn't coming anytime soon, there is a huge temptation to think "I have tomorrow and the next day to get with the program." But, if Jesus actually could come today, I may not have tomorrow at all and eternity for me will dawn with whatever faithfulness I have exercised to this date. Scoff at imminence if you like, but be aware that you scoff at Jesus when you do because in Matthew 24:44-51 He taught its necessity and the consequences when it does not exist.
"But," someone is liable to say, "Darrel, Matthew 24:44-51 is in a context that is after Jesus' own teaching that the Son of Man is not coming until after the fulfillment of certain events -- the abomination of desolation being a primary one. Does this not mean that Jesus' concept of imminence is rather elastic? that it is enough to be aware that the seventieth week is imminent because that will bring some level of urgency to believers in respect to the coming of the Lord?" The answer to that is this: it depends upon two things. First, how do we understand Jesus' indisputable statement that the servant who tells himself that his Lord tarries will go into carnality? And, second, how do we understand the statement within the context of the previous prophecies?
The answer to the first question is that Jesus taught a powerful need for a sense of immediacy of possibility that the Lord will come. Without it, servants get slack.
The answer to the second question is a bit more involved. What most folks do not realize is that when Jesus gave the Olivet Discourse, he was not speaking to His disciples as the men they were. Rather, He was addressing them as archetypical of the disciples who would be alive during the seventieth week of Daniel. What I mean is this: Jesus demonstrably spoke to them as if they would be those disciples who would see the abomination of desolation (Matthew 24:15). Since that is a mid-seventieth week event, we have three options before us.
Our first is that we might say that Jesus was teaching Peter, James, John and company that they would see the abomination, and, thus, that they were personally and individually of the terminal generation for the appearance of the Kingdom. But, they were not, as history shows, so this option is not a real one.
Second, we can say that Jesus was addressing Peter, James, John and company, not as the men they were individually, but as representatives of that general group of people who will be alive when the seventieth week commences, and, thus, that, though they might be of that terminal generation, they just as likely might not be. This is historically credible since at least at the beginning those very men considered that they might be of that generation, but, as it turned out, were not.
Third, we can pull the parameters in a bit closer and opt to say that Jesus was addressing his disciples as archetypical Jewish disciples who would not only be alive during the seventieth week, but would be living in Jerusalem, and would be looking for the coming of the Kingdom of God in power and reality. This is also a credible possibility since the men were Jewish, they were the ones to whom He made the promise that they would rule over the twelve tribes, they were of those whose focus upon Jerusalem lent credence to the idea that they might be in the city when the abomination took place so that they might see it (24:15), they were specifically of Daniel's people who were the original recipients of the prophecies, and they were eagerly looking for the establishment of the Kingdom of God. This third option is the most likely as it fits the context of Jesus' teaching better than any other. And, though I can hear the complaint already that this option prejudices the issue too highly in favor of a pre-seventieth week Rapture, it fits the scenario of an absent Church and a resumed focus upon the nation of Israel as the elect of God (which is precisely what the prophecy of the seventy weeks establishes -- all seventy weeks were "determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city" [Daniel 9:24], i.e., Jews and Jerusalem.)
Be that as it may be, what we have, when we look at Jesus' words in their context of disciples who are assumed to be able to see the abomination when it occurs, is a teaching that puts the hearers within the latter half of the seventieth week who are subject to strong temptation to become unfaithful by reason of the thinking that "my Lord tarries" in tandem with the realities of the cost of being faithful, and who need the powerful doctrine of imminence to motivate their faithfulness in the face of the frightful cost.
And then, finally, Jesus again taught the importance of imminence in Luke 12:16-20. In that text Jesus told of a rich man who had accumulated much wealth. His mistake was in thinking he had much wealth and a long time to enjoy it. Because he did not think in terms of the imminency of his own death, he lapsed into the same carnality that Jesus mentioned in Matthew 24: he refused to be rich toward God. Thus, even apart from the issues of the Rapture and its timing, Jesus clearly taught that a person is fair game for the temptation to goof off if he does not have a healthy realization that "curtain time" could be anytime. Thus, Jesus had a pervasive general concept of imminency in His teaching that is indubitable.
And, finally, Van Kampen writes (again page 14) "The truth of the matter is, Scripture could not be clearer on this issue...." That's interesting. Especially in light of the fact that the tome titled The Sign, couldn't make it sufficiently clear that another book needed to be written specifically to make it clear how clear the Bible is about these issues. Generally it needs to be understood that "clarity" is in the eyes of the beholder, but that "clarity" doesn't guarantee accuracy of understanding. It only means that a dismissal of everything that might fog the picture has taken place. If we dismiss enough, we can make anything crystal clear. But, if we dismiss too much, the clarity will only be ours; it will not be the possession of those who can see how much has been blithely overlooked in order for that clarity to become a reality.