When my kids were learning to drive, I felt it essential for them to learn all the rules of safe driving. This included teaching them about specific things to avoid. For example, when driving, one should avoid speeding, driving while fatigued, diverting attention from the road to adjust the radio, trying to navigate treacherous icy roads, and attempting to compose text messages on a smartphone.
In the study of Bible prophecy, it is crucial to not only acquire the correct methods of interpretation but also to be aware of certain pitfalls to avoid. Drawing from years of experience, I have identified five such pitfalls that are of particular importance.
1. Avoid Prophetic Agnosticism
Agnosticism is a term often employed by professors in seminaries, but it’s easy to understand. Its origin can be traced back to two Greek words: a, which signifies “no” or “without,” and gnosis, which means “knowledge.” Agnosticism simply means “no knowledge” or “without knowledge.”
Strictly speaking, an agnostic is an individual who asserts their uncertainty or lack of knowledge regarding spiritual matters, particularly the existence of God. Agnosticism is a widespread belief system that is adopted by approximately 16 percent of the global population.
A prophetic agnostic is an individual who expresses uncertainty regarding Bible prophecy. This person harbors doubts regarding the validity of such prophecies.
Some people become prophetic agnostics because they think Bible prophecy is too difficult or complicated to understand. Others point to failed date predictions of prophecies set forth by well-intentioned but misguided Christians. Because of these dashed hopes, many people conclude it is impossible to have certainty about what the future holds.
I urge you to resist succumbing to this mindset. Keep in mind that over one-fourth of the Bible was prophetic when originally written. This is a significant portion of the Bible to be uncertain about.
2. Avoid Prophetic Sensationalism
Sensationalism refers to the practice of utilizing thrilling or startling narratives or language, often at the cost of precision, in order to generate public interest or excitement in something. Prophetic sensationalism consists of using captivating and sometimes shocking stories or language about prophecy, sacrificing accuracy, with the intention of evoking public interest or excitement specifically in the realm of prophecy.
A well-known example of such sensationalism is the “drill to hell” scam that emerged in the 1990s. According to reports, a geological team operating in Siberia claimed to have drilled a hole that extended nine miles deep into the ground. Supposedly, when they lowered a microphone down the hole, they purportedly heard the anguished screams of individuals suffering in hell. It is no surprise that this sensational claim quickly captured the public’s interest, garnering worldwide attention and making headlines. But is there any evidence for it? Not even a shred!
We must avoid such sensationalism when studying Bible prophecy—including prophecies relating to a future hell for the unredeemed. Christ urges His followers to live in a serious and vigilant manner as they await His return. In Mark 13:33, Jesus specifically discusses His second coming and encourages His followers to “be on guard! Stay alert!” First Peter 4:7 tells us that “the end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded” (emphasis added).
Such verses indicate that when considering prophetic events, we should refrain from sensationalism and instead maintain a state of vigilance. It is crucial to remain alert, composed, and rational, exercising self-restraint and sound judgment.
3. Avoid Newspaper Exegesis
Newspaper exegesis is a practice that involves juxtaposing a newspaper with the Bible, where headlines from the newspaper are forced into prophecies in the Bible. For instance, during Barack Obama’s presidency, some Christians interpreted newspaper headlines about Obama as fitting into prophecies about the antichrist, leading them to claim that he was the antichrist.
Christians ought never to practice such newspaper exegesis. Instead, they should begin by studying the Scriptures to understand what God has revealed about the future. By comparing current events to biblical prophecies, Christians can thoughtfully consider whether there is a valid connection (refer to Matthew 16:1-3; Luke 21:29-33). Forcing newspaper headlines into prophetic Scripture should always be avoided. We must view current events through the lens of the Bible, rather than the opposite approach.
4. Avoid Setting Dates for Prophetic Events
Throughout history, numerous Christians have attempted to assign exact dates to prophetic occurrences. A classic example is when Edgar C. Whisenant predicted that the rapture would occur on September 11, 12, or 13, 1988. Dare I state the obvious? It didn’t happen!
There are good reasons Christians should avoid setting dates for prophetic events.
- First, over the past two thousand years, the track record of those who have set specific dates for prophetic events have been 100 percent wrong. The history of date-predictions is little more than a history of dashed expectations.
- Second, a Christian who tries to predict specific dates for future events may end up making detrimental decisions that could negatively impact his or her life. This could include selling their possessions and moving to remote areas, joining extremist groups focused on survivalism, spending large sums of money to purchase bomb shelters, discontinuing education, failing to save for retirement, choosing not to purchase health or life insurance, and severing ties with family and friends.
- Third, Christians who fall into the trap of fixating on specific dates for prophetic events risk damaging their faith when these expectations are not met.
- Fourth, if one loses confidence in the prophetic portions of Scripture because of a failed prophetic date, then biblical prophecy may cease to be a motivation for personal purity and holiness in daily life (see Titus 2:12-14; 2 Peter 3:11; 1 John 3:2-3).
- Fifth, date-setting has a detrimental impact on the reputation of Christianity. Non-believers and skeptics take pleasure in mocking Christians who believe in end-time prophecies, especially when specific dates are mentioned. They conclude that Christians are naïve and gullible.
- Finally, the specific timing of end-time events is solely under God’s control, and He has chosen not to reveal the exact details to us. Jesus made it clear to His disciples that only the Father has the authority to set dates and times, emphasizing that knowledge of the exact timing is not meant for us to possess (Acts 1:7).
That said, I think it’s great for Christians to be excited that we are living in days in which prophecies are being fulfilled (such as the rebirth of Israel and the return of the Jews to the land from all the countries of the world—Ezekiel 37). As well, we witness the stage being set for multiple prophecies to be fulfilled during the tribulation period. It is thus legitimate to infer that the rapture may be very near. But still, let’s not set dates!
Here is my best advice on the matter:
Let’s live our lives as if the Lord could come for us today at the rapture but plan our lives as if we will be here our entire life expectancy. That way, we are prepared for both time and eternity.
5. Avoid Confusing Israel and the Church
This is a controversial subject! Some Christians—those who allegorize Bible prophecy—believe that prophetic promises made to Israel in Old Testament times are somehow spiritually fulfilled in the church. Other Christians—those who take a literal approach to Bible prophecy (like yours truly)—believe that Israel and the church are distinct, and that God has specific prophetic plans for each.
Here is how I see it:
First, Israel and the church are similar in some ways:
- Both are part of God’s people.
- Both are part of the spiritual kingdom of God.
- Both share in the spiritual blessings of the Abrahamic and new covenants.
Without minimizing the importance of such similarities, Scripture also portrays Israel and the church as distinct from each other:
- The roots of Israel predate the time of Moses in Old Testament times. The church began on the day of Pentecost in New Testament times (Acts 1:5; 1 Corinthians 12:13).
- Israel is an earthly political entity (Exodus 19:5-6). The universal church is the invisible spiritual body of Christ (Ephesians 1:3).
- One becomes a Jew by physical birth. One becomes a member of the church via a spiritual birth (or rebirth—being “born again”) through personal faith in Jesus Christ (John 3:3,16).
- While Israel is made up of Jews, the church is made up of both redeemed Jews and Gentiles (see Ephesians 2:15).
Prophetic Scripture reveals that God still has a plan for national Israel. This plan includes allowing Israel (unlike the church) to go through the tribulation period, during which God will purge Israel to bring the nation to repent of its rejection of Jesus (Zechariah 13:8-9). At the very end of the tribulation period, a remnant of Jews will, in fact, repent and turn to Jesus for salvation (Romans 9–11). After the second coming, these redeemed Jews will be invited into Christ’s millennial kingdom (Ezekiel 20:34-38). God will then fulfill the promises He made to Israel. God will give Israel the land promised in the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:18-21; 17:21; 35:10-12). He will also fulfill the throne promise in the Davidic covenant, as Christ reigns on the throne of David throughout the millennial kingdom (2 Samuel 7:5-17).
Meanwhile, it is not God’s purpose for the church to go through the tribulation period. God has promised to deliver the church from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10; 5:9; see also Romans 5:9). The church will be raptured from the earth before the tribulation begins (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Revelation 3:10).
We are wise to:
- avoid prophetic agnosticism,
- avoid prophetic sensationalism,
- avoid newspaper exegesis,
- avoid setting dates for prophetic events,
- and avoid confusing Israel and the church.
For more on all this, see my book Basic Bible Prophecy (Harvest House Publishers).