John E. “Jay” Phelan Jr. taught at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago for 25 years. He is the author of “Essential Eschatology” and co-author of the forthcoming “Separated Siblings: An Evangelical Understanding of Jews and Judaism.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of BCNN1.
Karl Barth once famously remarked that a theologian should work with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. It’s doubtful that Barth had Jack Van Impe in mind when he said it, but that’s exactly what Van Impe did.
For decades Van Impe, who died Jan. 18, and his wife, Rexella, would begin their weekly TV program, “Jack Van Impe Presents,” by scanning the headlines of the week. Jack Van Impe would then read these headlines through the lens of his dispensationalist theology, the approach to Bible prophecy that gave us the rapture. Van Impe’s reading of current events — from the creation of the European Union to Western governments’ and various Christian leaders’ welcome to Islam — gave Christian believers hope that there was a plan amid the chaos of the headlines.
Dispensationalism originated in 19th century Britain and found its foremost proponent in a former Church of Ireland priest named John Nelson Darby, who believed a secret “rapture” of the church would take believers into heaven ahead of the coming “great tribulation.”
Darby’s views were popularized, especially in the United States, by C.I. Scofield’s Reference Edition of the Bible, which laid out how God worked with his people under different divine covenants at various specific periods of time, which he called dispensations. The current age was a great parenthesis brought about by the failure of Israel to respond to the message of Jesus and accept him as Messiah. The eschatological clock had stopped with the resurrection of Jesus; it would resume at the rapture, when the age of the church would end and the great tribulation would begin.
The characters and plot of the tribulation have by now entered mainstream culture: a political leader, called the “Beast” in Revelation 13, will team up with a religious leader (the “False Prophet”) to produce a single world government and religious order.
Van Impe predicted that this regime would promote a merged Christianity and Islam, Chrislam. His popularity, like that of other prophecy teachers, rested on his ability to tap into the anxiety of their faithful. Hard times are coming. The world is a dangerous place. But Jesus will rescue you from the worst of it. Van Impe resented being called a prophet of doom. He thought his was a message of hope — but only, of course, for those who follow Jesus!
There is a strain of apocalyptic doom in all of Christianity. Both Old and New Testaments encourage readers to pay attention to the world around them and to be alert for signs of divine activity, especially for the time of God’s coming judgment. The Apostle Paul warned that “the Lord will come like a thief in the night” and that Christians must be “alert and sober.” While expressly forbidding his disciples to wait on the end times, Jesus, in his great eschatological discourse in the Gospel of Mark, told his disciples: “Be on guard. Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.” Throughout both Jewish and Christian history, reading the signs of the times and attempting to predict the coming (or second coming) of the Messiah has been a cottage industry.
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Source: Religion News Service