May 14, 2018, was the 70th anniversary of the political creation of the State of Israel.
This fact is crucial for American fundamentalists because most of them believe in something their pastors call “the clock of prophecy”. It started ticking on May 14, 1948, or so they have been told by a generation of pastors and authors. But there is a problem — it was not supposed to keep ticking any longer than 70 years — the normal lifespan of one generation.
Before I explain all this, I want you to understand that American fundamentalists are almost all dispensationalists. This is called pre-tribulation dispensationalism, and at least 99% of dispensationalists are pre-tribulation dispensationalists. They believe that Christians will be pulled out of history prior to the horror known as the Great Tribulation, which will come mainly upon Jews living in the State of Israel after the Rapture.
American fundamentalism’s 70-year unwavering political support for the State of Israel has been based on the doctrine of the Rapture.
The Rapture is the term that fundamentalists use to describe the supernatural transfer of residency of all living Christians from earth to heaven without death as the gate of passage. This essence of belief can be summarized by a variation of the famous “go directly to jail” card in the board game, Monopoly: “Go directly to heaven. Do not pass death.” Christians would thereby cheat the collectors, mortgage lenders, credit card debt, and even college debt. Above all, their heirs would evade morticians.
The Rapture was to have taken place no later than 2011, according to popular dispensationalism’s interpretation of Bible prophecy. All Christians were to have been pulled out of history into heaven. The Great Tribulation for Jews in Palestine was to have begun then, in 2011. Jesus and His angels should have returned yesterday to set up a one-world Christian government run by immortal Christians accompanying Jesus.
It didn’t happen. Popular dispensationalism now has a major theological problem to answer. It is also a practical problem. It is also a psychological problem. For the last 70 years, the popular interpretation of Bible prophecy among dispensationalists has been this: the clock of prophecy began ticking again on May 14, 1948. It had 70 years to run. The clock has stopped.
The Clock of Prophecy
What is the clock of prophecy? It is a metaphor. The Bible does not speak of such a clock. The idea was invented by dispensational theologians about a century ago. It has to do with the prophecy by Jesus in Matthew Chapter 24 regarding grim things that He described as taking place in Judaea before He returns to judge the world.
When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:) Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains: Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house: Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes. And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day: For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened (Matthew 24:15-22, King James Version).
This, He said, would take place in what He said was “this generation.”
Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled (verses 32-34).
It is obvious that this did not take place literally during the lifetimes of those people who were listening to Him. Beginning in the second century A.D., church theologians explain this seeming delay in terms of a non-literal fulfillment. A common explanation was that it was fulfilled with the Roman army’s destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70. I published David Chilton’s cogent little book on this, The Great Tribulation, in 1987. You can download it for free here.
Dispensational theologians say that Bible prophecies must be interpreted literally. Therefore, they reject the church’s ancient interpretation that Jesus’ prophecy referred to the fall of Jerusalem, which did occur in the lifetimes of some of those who heard His words. Dispensational theologians have argued that the prophecy of the Great Tribulation was not meant for those listening to Him. This warning applied to a future generation. It applied to the generation that would be alive when the literal events had to take place. So, they argued that the clock of prophecy stopped ticking sometime before the end of the first century A.D. But because of dispensationalism’s self-proclaimed literalism, the clock would have to start ticking again in order to allow for a literal fulfillment of Jesus’ warning. The generation of Jews alive when the clock starts ticking will be “this generation” of Jews whom Jesus was warning.
After May 14, 1948, a growing number of dispensational preachers and authors began to identify that date as the date when Jesus intended His prophecy to begin to apply literally. They began to use the phrase “the clock of prophecy.” It was said to have begun ticking with the advent of the State of Israel.
Pop Dispensationalism’s warning to Jews in Israel
This interpretation of the clock of prophecy was so common prior to 1988, when the 40 years associated with one generation ran out, that it sold millions of books. Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late, Great Planet Earth(1970) sold over 35 million copies. He and his long-term ghost writer Carole C. Carlson were quite explicit.
A generation in the Bible is something like forty years. If this is a correct deduction, then within forty years or so of 1948, all these things could take place. Many scholars who have studied Bible prophecy all their lives believe that this is so.
The most important sign in Matthew has to be the restoration of the Jews to the land in the rebirth of Israel. Even the figure of speech “fig tree” has been a historic symbol of national Israel. When the Jewish people, after nearly 2,000 years of exile, under relentless persecution, became a nation again on 14 May 1948 the “fig tree” put forth its first leaves.
Jesus said that this would indicate that He was “at the door,” ready to return. Then He said, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matthew 24:34, NASB).
What generation? Obviously, in context, the generation that would see the signs—chief among them the rebirth of Israel. A generation in the Bible is something like forty years. If this is a correct deduction, then within forty years or so of 1948, all these things could take place. Many scholars who have studied Bible prophecy all their lives believe that this is so (pp. 53-54).
He reinforced this with his book, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon (1980), which sold 20 million copies. On page 8, he wrote: “the decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.” The next year, he and Carlson wrote Hope for the Terminal Generation.
He hedged his bets with the evasive “could be,” but his books did not sell over 60 million copies based on “could be.” The readers understood what he was saying by tying the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy to May 14, 1948. They read “will be.”
Chuck Smith, pastor of the megachurch Calvary Chapel in Southern California, began his ministry in the same era that Lindsey began his a few miles away: the early 1960’s. He was a major promoter of the May 14, 1948 date marker. He wrote a book six years after Late, Great Planet Earth. His book was titled The Soon to be Revealed Antichrist. He was insistent that “we are living in the last generation which began with the rebirth of Israel in 1948 (see Matt. 24:32–34).” Two years later, he said it again in his book End Times:
If I understand Scripture correctly, Jesus taught us that the generation which sees the ‘budding of the fig tree,’ the birth of the nation of Israel, will be the generation that sees the Lord’s return. I believe that the generation of 1948 is the last generation. Since a generation of judgment is forty years and the Tribulation period lasts seven years, I believe the Lord could come back for His Church any time before the Tribulation starts, which would mean any time before 1981. (1948 + 40 – 7 = 1981) (p. 35)
After 1988, the 40th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel, the pop-dispensationalists’ definition of the generation became vague. The Rapture should have taken place in 1981. Lindsey has tried in recent years to wiggle out of what he and Carleson clearly wrote. A 2009 example of his wiggling is here. But he dared not abandon his view. Donations would dry up. He ended his wiggling article with this:
In summary, just as the first leaves of the fig tree indicate that the general time Summer is near, even so, the appearance of all the predicted signs in concert within one time period appear, it indicates that the general time of Christ’s coming is near. And we are all commanded to “recognize” that His coming is near by the imperative mood verb of this Scripture.
I believe the signs I wrote about in the Late Great Planet Earth are still valid. In fact, more so now than ever.
Ed: Some people believe that the Rebirth of Israel refers to the Rebirth The United States of America (unincorporated) that is happening in America today (2018)!