Bible prophecy is an empirical discipline. It can be tested. Did a prophet’s prediction come to pass as stated? The Bible takes such predictions seriously. A false prediction is a reflection of a prophet’s authority and can have grave consequences:
But the prophet who speaks a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die” (Deut. 18:20).
When someone uses prophetic pronouncements as evidentiary support for the Bible’s authenticity, the Bible better deliver. If the Bible is wrong prophetically, then a case can be made for skepticism about everything else on which the Bible claims to be authoritative. So when well-meaning Christians claim for the Bible what it does not claim for itself, they are giving aid and comfort to the skeptics. Ray Comfort opens himself up to attack when he claims the following:
Jesus said to watch for when the Jews regained Jerusalem (see Luke 21:24). That happened in 1967, after 2,000 years of the Jews not having a homeland, [when] they stepped into Jerusalem, bringing into culmination all the signs of the times.
Luke 21:24 doesn’t say anything about the Jews regaining Jerusalem: “[A]nd they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” Since the Jews were living in Israel at the time Jesus made this prophetic pronouncement, the burden of proof is on the futurist to demonstrate that Luke 21:24 is referring to the regaining of Jerusalem. There isn’t one verse in the NT that attributes any significance to Jews returning to their land. In fact, nothing is said in the NT about Israel becoming a nation again. Those who appeal to the “fig tree” of Matthew 24:32 do so out of desperation. Even John F. Walvoord acknowledged that “while the fig tree could be an apt illustration of Israel, it is not so used in the Bible. A better interpretation is that Christ was using a natural illustration. Because the fig tree brings forth new leaves late in the spring, the budding of the leaves is evidence that summer is near. . . . The signs in this passage, accordingly, are not the revival of Israel, but the great tribulation.”1
During the time leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Jews were killed by the sword, they were led captive into all the nations, and Jerusalem was trampled underfoot by the Gentiles. Consider this brief commentary on “the times of the Gentiles” by Milton Terry, author of Biblical Hermeneutics and Biblical Apocalyptics:
“The statement of Luke xxi, 24, that ‘Jerusalem shall be trodden down by the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles be fulfilled,’ is supposed to involve events which did not take place in that generation. The ‘times of the Gentiles’ . . . are assumed to be the times of the opportunities of grace afforded to the Gentiles under the Gospel. . . . These kairoi [times] are manifestly times of judgment upon Jerusalem, not times of salvation to the Gentiles. The most natural and obvious parallel is Rev. xi. 2, where the outer court of the temple is said to be ‘given to the Gentiles,’ by whom the holy city shall be trodden down forty-two months, a period equivalent to the ‘time and times and half a time’ of Rev. xii, 14, and of Dan. vii, 25; xii, 7. . . . The ‘times of the Gentiles,’ therefore, are the three and a half times (approximating three and a half years) during which the Gentile armies besieged and trampled down Jerusalem.”2
Notice that Ray Comfort chose 1967 for the time “when the Jews regained Jerusalem.” Others before him had chosen 1917 and 1948. Henry M. Morris’ Defender’s Study Bible, which was first published in 1995, adopts the 1917 date: “[T]he generation which sees all these signs (probably starting with World War I) shall not have completely passed away until all these things have taken place” (1045). Of course, nothing in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:34; Mark 13; Luke 21) says or even implies any such thing. In the first edition of The Beginning of the End, which was published in 1972, Tim LaHaye wrote,
“Carefully putting all this together, we now recognize this strategic generation. It is the generation that ‘sees’ the four-part sign of verse 7 [in Matt. 24], or the people who saw the First World War. We must be careful here not to become dogmatic, but it would seem that these people are witnesses to the events, not necessarily participants in them. That would suggest they were at least old enough to understand the events of 1914–1918, not necessarily old enough to go to war.”3
A number of things changed in LaHaye’s 1991 revised edition of The Beginning of the End. The “strategic generation” had been modified. It’s no longer “the people who saw the First World War.”
“Carefully putting all this together, we now recognize this strategic generation. It is the generation that ‘sees’ the events of 1948. We must be careful here not to become dogmatic, but it would seem that these people are witnesses to the events, not necessarily participants in them.”
The change from 1917 to 1948 gave LaHaye some time before this new generation passed away.4 The problem for LaHaye and other date-changers was that 1991was too late. Others before him had picked 1988 as the end of the generation. The 1948–1988 connection was all the rage in the early 1970s, especially with the publication of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth (1970).
“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.”5
As it was getting close to 1988, Lindsey began to back away from his 1970 prediction about 1988 being the terminus ad quem for the fulfillment of the prophecy. In an interview published in the April 15, 1977 issue of Christianity Today, Ward Gasque asked Lindsey, “But what if you’re wrong?” Lindsey replied: “Well, there’s just a split second’s difference between a hero and a bum. I didn’t ask to be a hero, but I guess I have become one in the Christian community. So I accept it. But if I’m wrong about this, I guess I’ll become a bum.”6
Lindsey revised his thinking about the 1948–1988 connection and ventured that he felt “certain that it will take place before the year 2000.”7 In an article entitled “The Eschatology of Hal Lindsey,” published in 1975, Dale Moody wrote, “If the ‘Great Snatch,’ as Lindsey repeatedly calls the Rapture, does take place before the Tribulation and by 1981, I will beg forgiveness from Lindsey for doubting his infallibility as we meet in the air.”8 Can you see how a skeptic might doubt the Bible when these types of predictions come and go?
Chuck Smith, the late pastor of Calvary Chapel and founder of the worldwide Calvary Chapel system of churches, went a step further than Lindsey: “That generation that was living in May 1948 shall not pass away until the second coming of Jesus Christ takes place and the kingdom of God established upon the earth. How long is a generation? Forty years on average in the Bible. . . . Where does that put us? It puts us right out at the end. We’re coming down to the wire.”9 Ray Comfort has chosen the arbitrary date of 1967. But 1967 plus 40 years (the length of a generation according to Lindsey and others) passed away in 2007. Like clockwork, there were those who had suggested that the End would “occur in the year 2007, exactly forty years, or a ‘generation,’ after the 1967 Jewish occupation of Jerusalem.”10 To avoid the obvious 40-year generational problem, Comfort must extend the length of a generation. Like Lindsey and LaHaye, he has bought himself some time, but a well-informed skeptic will question the validity of the 1967 claim based on the 1917 and 1948 dates that were touted as sure indicators of a promised end.
Ray Comfort closes his short article with the following: “Don’t test God’s patience. You had better get right with Him today, before it’s too late.” What if someone offers the following in response?:
“You know, I’ve tested the prophetic system of date setting that you are using to call me to get right with God. I’ve noticed that the prophetic goal posts are moved each time a definitive prediction does not come to pass. First, it was 1917, then 1948, and now it’s 1967. How is it possible for me to be certain about what you claim God wants me to do based in part on a prophetic system that does not have a very good track record? My reading of the NT shows that Jesus claimed that He was going to return in some capacity before that present generation passed away. Other NT passes describe prophetic events that are said to take place ‘shortly’ because ‘the time is near.’ If these things did not take place as they are stated, then Jesus was mistaken. If He was mistaken on this issue, then it’s most likely that He was mistaken on other issues as well.”
Ray, it’s time that you consider taking a fresh look at the issue of Bible prophecy. I believe a reconsideration of the topic will enhance your ability to deal effectively with skeptics.
- John F. Walvoord, Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come (Chicago, IL: Moody,  1980), 191–192. [↩]
- Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, unabridged ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, n.d.), 445. [↩]
- Tim LaHaye, The Beginning of the End (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1972), 165, 168. Emphasis added. [↩]
- Tim LaHaye, The Beginning of the End, rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1991), 1993. Emphasis added. [↩]
- Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan,  1971), 53–54. [↩]
- W. Ward Gasque, “Future Fact? Future Fiction?” Christianity Today (15 April 1977), 40. [↩]
- Gasque, “Future Fact? Future Fiction?,” 40. [↩]
- Dale Moody, “The Eschatology of Hal Lindsey,” Review and Expositor (Summer 1975), 278. [↩]
- Chuck Smith, Snatched Away (Costa Mesa, CA: Maranatha Evangelical Association of Calvary Chapel, 1976), 21. [↩]
- Francis X. Gumerlock, The Day and the Hour: Christianity’s Perennial Fascination with Predicting the End of the World (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2000), 324. [↩]