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I never thought I would ever say that I agree with atheists about the way some Christians interpret the Bible. But on the subject of Bible prophecy, these atheists are partially right. The group American Atheists is planning a “Rapture Party” on May 21–22 for “heathens and skeptics.” They’re advertising the event on a billboard. Here’s the message:
“The Rapture: You KNOW it’s Nonsense. 2000 Years of ‘Any Day Now.’ Learn the Truth at our Rapture Party, May 21–22.”
A lot of Christians will dismiss this stunt as just more atheist-mocking that only confirms that we are living in the last days because of what Peter writes in 2 Peter 3:3–4 (see article here). The mocking of these first-century skeptics concerned Jesus’ prediction that He would return to destroy Jerusalem in fiery judgment (Matt. 22:7) before that first-century generation passed away (24:34). The prediction of an event that was said to be so “near” that it would come upon that generation and has not taken place after nearly 2000 years have passed deserves to be mocked.
The atheist billboard is in response to the claim that the end once again “is near,” so near that it’s all going to culminate in the “rapture” on May 21, 2011. So says Harold Camping, president of Family Radio and perennial date setter. He predicted a similar end in 1994. He was wrong then, and he’ll be wrong on May 22, and you don’t need to be a prophet to know this. It’s no accident that American Vision is holding its National Prophecy Conference June 1–4.
These atheists do understand that prophetic speculation has a long history. Someone in every generation has predicted the end was near. Crying prophetic wolf has not helped the cause of Christ. These atheists do not understand the Bible’s very clear message on prophetic matters because they have been reading popular prophecy writers rather than the Bible. The only way to answer these skeptics is to take Jesus and the New Testament writers at their word. “Near,” “soon,” “shortly,” “at hand,” and “this generation” don’t mean “any moment” throughout 2000 years of history. “Near” means near, and “shortly” means shortly. Near and shortly for whom? It’s obvious to any first-time reader of the New Testament that near and shortly meant near and shortly for those who first read the gospels and epistles (e.g., James 5:7–9; Rev. 1:1, 3; 22:10). Jesus’ coming was near. He came in judgment against Jerusalem within a generation. The temple was destroyed, just like Jesus said it would be (Matt. 24:1–3).
It’s true that most of today’s prophecy writers do not make specific date-setting claims. But they all argue that Jesus’ coming is “near,” that all the signs are in place for the “soon rapture” of the church or the Second Coming. (They are not the same event in popular prophecy circles.) These types of books sell millions of copies. When the first Gulf War was waged, the late John F. Walvoord dusted off a book he wrote in 1974, Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis, revised it, and republished it in 1990. It sold nearly two million copies. He claimed, “Since the stage is set for this dramatic climax of the age, it must mean that Christ’s coming for his own is very near.”  That was 21 years ago. The book’s been revised by Walvoord’s son and Mark Hitchcock, and the new authors still maintain the end is near. The title has changed to fit the times. Now it’s Armageddon, Oil, and Terror. If this was a book about prophecy when it was first published in 1974, then why wasn’t it about terror then?
For nearly two centuries, prophecy writers have been predicting the near end based on certain prophetic passages. They all use the same passages! The only things that change are world events and newspaper headlines. We only have to go back to 1970 to Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth to see how popular date-setting has been. Readers were told that Israel becoming a nation again in 1948 was prophetically significant. The prophetic countdown began based on Lindsey’s claim that a “rapture” of the church would take place within 40 years (the length of a biblical generation) and the fulfillment of Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:34: “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” The Late Great Planet Earth has sold around 35 million copies. We are more than 23 years past the 1988 cut-off date set by Lindsey and other prophecy writers.
Chuck Smith, founder of Calvary Chapel, made a similar prediction. “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.”  On December 31, 1979, Smith told those who had gathered at Calvary Chapel that the rapture would take place before the end of 1981 based on the fact that Israel had become a nation again in 1948, and a generation of 40 years would not pass away before the “rapture” took place. He went on to say that because of ozone depletion Revelation 16:8 would be fulfilled during the tribulation period: “And the fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun; and it was given to it to scorch men with fire.”
Smith stated that Halley’s Comet would pass near earth in 1986 and would wreak havoc on those left behind as debris from its million-mile-long tail pummeled the planet.  Here’s how Smith explained the prophetic scenario in his book Future Survival which is nearly identical to what appears on the taped message: “The Lord said that towards the end of the Tribulation period the sun would scorch men who dwell upon the face of the earth (Rev. 16). The year 1986 would fit just about right! We’re getting close to the Tribulation and the return of Christ in glory. All the pieces of the puzzle are coming together.” 
Anyone familiar with the history of prophetic speculation since 1970 knows all of this. The atheists certainly know it. Harold Camping is an extreme example of date setting, but his methodology is no more excessive than that of Lindsey, LaHaye, Smith, and dozens of others. They all take words like “near” and “shortly” and project them into the distant future when contextually the prophecies were given to describe events that were on the near horizon for the Bible’s first readers. An article on the Christian Post website gets it right when it states, “Still, many evangelical Christians don’t deny that the last days are near.” That word “near” is very important. At the top of one of Harold Camping’s billboards you’ll find the words, “THE LORD’S RETURN IS NEAR.” How many times have you heard prophecy teachers say the same thing? “Jesus is coming soon. . . . The rapture is near. . . . Clearly these are signs of the times.”
These atheists aren’t the first to notice the problem with these types of predictions since the use of “near” is found in the New Testament. Anti-theist Christopher Hitchens, in his debate with Christian minister Douglas Wilson titled Collision, raised the issue, claiming Jesus was wrong when He said “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”  Wilson easily rebutted Hitchens’ charge by stating that Jesus was not wrong since He was predicting His coming in judgment against Jerusalem, an event that took place in A.D. 70. In his most recent book Divinity of Doubt Vincent Bugliosi centers on the Bible’s claim that Jesus is coming “soon.” “How soon did Jesus mean?,” Bugliosi asks. “Very soon.”  But that was nearly 2000 years ago! There is no answer to Bugliosi’s argument unless you take the Bible at its word. This particular New Testament coming is neither a “rapture” nor the Second Coming. It’s a judgment coming. It was near for to whom the gospels and epistles were written.
Bart Ehrman, once an evangelical Christians and now a constant critic of anything Christian and biblical, began to question the authority of the Bible over the issue of prophecy. His best-selling book Misquoting Jesus begins by describing how he struggled to reconcile what he believed to be errors in the Bible.  His pilgrimage from Moody Bible Institute to Princeton changed him forever. His skeptical trek down the road of skepticism begins with what he describes as “one of the most popular books on campus” at the time, Hal “Lindsay’s [sic] apocalyptic blueprint for our future, The Late Great Planet Earth.” Ehrman’s story is not unusual.
The well-known atheist Bertrand Russell seized on what he perceived to be untrustworthy testimony by Jesus and concluded that the Bible was not what theologians and the Bible itself claims to be. He wrote the following in Why I Am Not a Christian:
I am concerned with Christ as he appears in the Gospel narrative as it stands, and there one does find some things that do not seem to be very wise. For one thing, He certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that and there are a lot of places where it is quite clear that He believed that His coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living. That was the belief of His earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of His moral teaching. 
Writing for the Skeptical Inquirer, Gerald A. Larue takes a position similar to that of Russell, Hitchens, Bugliosi, and Ehrman concluding that the Bible cannot be trusted because Jesus was wrong about the timing of His coming:
Although apocalyptic mythology is found throughout the New Testament and is portrayed in its most organized form in Revelation, the gospel writers gave authority for the idea to John the Baptizer, who introduced the theme in the gospels, and to Jesus, who explained signs of the end of the age and promised his disciples that the new kingdom of God would be ushered in during their lifetime (Matt. 16:28). Jesus was wrong. Indeed, during the second century CE, some Christians asked, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.” (2 Peter 3:4). All we can say is that from that time on, every prophetic pronouncement of the ending of time has been wrong. 
If Jesus was wrong, then critics like Russell and Larue can rightly conclude that we cannot trust anything He said. In addition, if Jesus, being the Son of God, was wrong, then how can we trust the writers of the New Testament, who claimed to be nothing more than finite and fallible sinners?
Evangelicals have done a poor job in reconciling these time texts with other parts of the Bible and with the history of the time. Their argument goes something like this: “It seems that Jesus was predicting that He would return before the last disciple died (Matt. 16:27–28; John 21:18–25), but He didn’t really mean to leave that impression.” This is hardly a convincing argument, and it has led to the shipwreck of the faith of many former believers who can follow a logical argument from Scripture and get less than compelling arguments from prophecy writers.
The atheists have a legitimate charge against modern-day prophecy writers, but they don’t have a charge against the Bible. Jesus and the rest of the New Testament predicted that He would return in judgment within a generation, and He did. The New Testament writers clearly state that the time was near for this event. There is no other way to read the New Testament. So let’s stop giving atheists ammunition.
For a detailed response to this particular issue and related prophetic topics see the following books and DVD series by Gary DeMar, all available at www.AmericanVision.com