We embrace God’s promise of a new heaven and new earth rather than adhering to pop theology’s escapist mentality.
The Church of the Nazarene has always avoided adopting a particular position concerning end-time events. It has consistently affirmed the basic belief in the second coming of Christ as the consummation of history. Like the Apostles’ Creed, which is the classically accepted summation of the essential elements of the Christian faith, it simply affirms the belief that Jesus Christ “ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.”
One major reason for this reticence is the often controversial character of end time speculations that tends to disrupt the unity of the body of Christ.
This has been the attitude of the holiness movement because they were plagued with “fanaticism” in the early years. The “fanaticism” focused theologically on the second coming and divine healing, both being very divisive at that time.
However, along with most evangelicals, many people in the early holiness movement generally held some form of millennialism, i.e., the belief based on Revelation 20:1-10, that there would be 1,000 years of universal peace in the future. Many early Nazarenes were “post-millennialist,” being optimistic that the preaching of scriptural holiness would eventually usher in this idyllic period, after which Christ would return. Others were pre-millennialist, feeling that the world will get progressively worse until Christ returns to bring about the 1,000 years of peace and justice. Eventually the course of world events muted the optimism and post-millennialism generally disappeared.
In the latter part of the 19th century, a novel interpretation of pre-millennialism emerged from a group of English dissidents known as the Plymouth Brethren whose views were primarily shaped by John Nelson Darby and popularized by the so-called Scofield Bible. While this new teaching was an aspect of a system of theology known as dispensationalism, its version of the end time became popular and widespread among evangelicals apart from its relation to the larger system. This teaching was the belief in a “secret rapture.” This idea was connected to the belief that the end times would involve a “great tribulation” of seven years. In the “rapture” the church would be removed from the earth prior to this time of great distress. Thus the terminology of a “pre-tribulation rapture” arose.
The term rapture was derived from the Latin translation of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 where the term “rapio” is used to translate what in English is “caught up.” This text was interpreted to mean that the church will escape the “great tribulation” by being spirited away so that only those “left behind” will experience it. This view has been so pervasive in popular thought that it has assumed the status of orthodoxy in the minds of many and any who would question it are viewed with suspicion and often antagonism. But dogmatism with regard to end-time matters is inappropriate. Nonetheless this recent innovation in eschatology needs to be considered in the light of the best interpretation of Scripture.
The main thing that should be emphasized here is that the systematic theology of which it is an element is highly suspect. Briefly described, it insists on a literal reading of prophetic passages in Scripture, especially of the Old Testament, which makes Israel, rather than the church, to be the primary object of all biblical prophecies.2 This is the basis for the rationale that the purpose of the “rapture” is to remove the church so that God’s primary plan for a Jewish kingdom can then take place. This is a devastating criticism since it overtly denies the central New Testament claim that the history of Israel reached its divinely intended culmination and fulfillment in the Christ event.
Furthermore, both the concept of the millennium and a specific period of tribulation are highly ambiguous. While the idea of “reigning with Christ” may appeal to many, the fact that, according to the text, those who reign are those who have been beheaded for their faith and are raised for this function—a fact that might temper one’s enthusiasm at the prospect. The same ambiguity attaches to the idea of a specific period of tribulation in a number of ways.
Not only had Jesus stated that those who follow Him will suffer persecution, but this has been fulfilled throughout Christian history and has intensified in the contemporary world.
This fact, coupled with the obvious fact that the Book of Revelation envisions the possibility of persecution of Christian believers over the issue of emperor worship, calls the whole escape mentality into question. The bottom line, I repeat, is that there is no place for dogmatism. Serious attention needs to be given to the biblical worldview that sees the consummation of history to involve the resurrection of the body to inhabit a new heaven and new earth, not an escape from this world.
The whole question of biblical interpretation also intrudes into the matter. Pop prophecy teachers and preachers tend to ignore the fact that the Scripture is historical in nature, speaking to contemporary situations. Treating such Scripture as abstract descriptions of the course of history is both taking it out of context and presuming a deterministic view of history that is in tension with the way the Scripture itself depicts the course of human (and divine) affairs.
H. Ray Dunning is professor emeritus of theology, Trevecca Nazarene University and theologian in residence at Trevecca Community Church of the Nazarene in Nashville.
1. Timothy Smith, Called Unto Holiness (K.C.: Nazarene Publishing House, 1962), 25, 35.
2. William Charles Miller, “The New Apocalypticism,” in The Second Coming, ed. H. Ray Dunning (Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1995), 223. For a full description of this teaching, see H. Ray Dunning, Grace, Faith and Holiness (Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1988), Appendix 2.