Tim LaHaye died at the age of 90. He believed in a pre-tribulation rapture, an event that he claimed was “near.” It was the basis of his end-time prophetic system even though there is not a single verse in the Bible that teaches it. LaHaye himself admits that this is true:
“One objection to the pre-Tribulation Rapture is that not one passage of Scripture teaches the two aspects of His Second Coming separated by the Tribulation. This is true. But then, no one passage teaches a post-trib or mid-trib Rapture, either.”1
“No single verse specifically states, ‘Christ will come before the Tribulation.’ On the other hand, no single passage teaches He will not come before the Tribulation, or that He will come in the middle or at the end of the Tribulation. Any such explicit declaration would end the debate immediately.”2
The basis of LaHaye’s end-time prophetic system, a system he promoted in numerous books during his long writing career, is not founded on any direct biblical evidence. The indirect evidence is scant and requires a great deal of exegetical elasticity and a very big imagination. It also requires an audience that does not “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1) or check a writer’s claims (Acts 17:11).
LaHaye was not above revising his prophetic views without telling his readers when time and events made them null and void. For example, in his book The Beginning of the End, which was published in 1972, LaHaye wrote that the generation that Jesus was referring to in Matthew 24:34 consisted of “people who saw the First World War.”3
In LaHaye’s 1991 revised edition, it was no longer “the people who saw the First World War” but “the generation that ‘sees’ the events of 1948”4 even though there is nothing in the New Testament that would lead anyone to this conclusion since it does not say anything about the need for Israel to become a nation again in order to fulfill Bible prophecy.
LaHaye was using the fig tree illustration in Matthew 24:32 to support his position. “[W]hen a fig tree is used symbolically in Scripture, it usually refers to the nation Israel. If that is a valid assumption (and we believe it is), then when Israel officially became a nation in 1948, that was the ‘sign’ of Matthew 24:1-8, the beginning ‘birth pangs’ — it meant that the ‘end of the age’ is ‘near.’”5
Read related article: “Is This It?: Are We in the Last Days?“
The editors of LaHaye’s own Prophecy Study Bible state that “the fig tree is not symbolic of the nation of Israel.”6 Most dispensationalists have abandoned the fig tree equals Israel claim (e.g., John F. Walvoord and Mark Hitchcock).
As you can see from the above examples, I’ve been critical of much of Tim LaHaye’s prophetic views but have never made it personal. I met Tim LaHaye several times. On one occasion, we had a very enjoyable conversion at a Christian Booksellers Convention. After our brief meeting, he said to me, “Gary, you’re really a nice guy?” My response was, “Why would you think otherwise?” Just because I was critical of his prophetic views did not mean I did not consider Tim LaHaye a brother in Christ.
In 2001, Michael Hyatt of Thomas Nelson Publishing Co. asked me if I would write a book evaluating the multi-volume Left Behind series. It was titled (unfortunately) End Times Fiction. I was willing to do it, but I told Mike that I did not believe it would be a big seller. Why would bookstores offer a book where they would make a profit of around $4.00 when they were making thousands of dollars on the ever-expanding number of Left Behind books, graphic novels, films, games, etc. that were being published? The series was a multimillion dollar industry.
As it turned out, I wrote the critique, R.C. Sproul graciously supplied an informative Foreword, and it sold reasonably well. It was not the blockbuster I knew it wouldn’t be. It didn’t help that the book had a lame title and was released about the time the Twin Towers were hit. For months, the news was dominated by the tragedy and probably lent credence to some of Left Behind’s prophetic claims.
Read related article: “Are We Living in the Last Days?”
The book has since been republished as Left Behind: Separating Fact from Fiction, a title that describes what the book is actually about.
Tim LaHaye wrote the following to me in a March 13, 1998, letter.
“It is very exciting what God is doing with our Left Behind Series. Just yesterday, while in Canada on an open mike show out of Buffalo, we had a mother call to say that her 14-year old son was so transformed that he led his unsaved father to Christ by warning him, >when the rapture occurs, Mom and I will be taken and you will be left behind.= Very honestly, that is why we write these books and why we are hoping it is made into a movie in 1999.”7
In interviews, LaHaye always mentions the evangelistic impact of Left Behind. His sincerity on this point cannot be questioned.
But there’s another side to the story. In his best-selling book Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman, an ardent critic of the full authority and reliability of the Bible who serves as Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, describes how he struggled to reconcile views promoted by people like Hal Lindsey and LaHaye with what the Bible states.
Ehrman’s trek down the road toward skepticism and unbelief began with what he describes as “one of the most popular books on campus” that was being read while he was a student at Moody Bible Institute in the 1970s, Hal Lindsey’s apocalyptic blueprint for the future, The Late Great Planet Earth.8 Ehrman writes that he “was particularly struck by the ‘when’” of Lindsey’s prophetic claims about Matthew 24:34.
Lindsey and LaHaye taught that Jesus was not describing what would happen to the generation of His day but one that was not yet born. In addition to Lindsey, Ehrman mentioned LaHaye’s Left Behind series as another example of someone trying to get around what Jesus explicitly says in Matthew 24:34 that He would return before the generation then living passed away.
LaHaye’s prophetic system has no answer for Ehrman. The only position that makes biblical sense is to take God’s Word at its word. Jesus said He would return in judgment before that generation passed away, and He did. See my books Is Jesus Coming Soon? and Last Days Madness.
When anti-theist Christopher Hitchens raised the same argument as Ehrman in his debate with Douglas Wilson, Wilson explained that Jesus was referencing His present audience’s generation, and in fact, Jesus did return as He said He would in a way that was typical of judgment comings in the Old Testament (e.g., Isa. 19:1). The answer silenced Hitchens. You can see the exchange in the film Collision.
It’s no wonder that LaHaye never wanted to engage in a public debate on the subject. In 1993, American Vision asked LaHaye if he would agree to a debate. He passed on the offer and suggested that I contact Thomas Ice who was “willing to debate.” Thomas and I debated nine times.
Tim had this to say about debating:
“You are right when you say that ‘The Christian community deserves to hear the various views so that they can each come to a decision about which view is biblically correct.’ That is why I write books.
“If people want to know which view is best. They can read and study the Bible in light of my books and the books of others who have written on these issues. This way they can go back and study and reread what has been said.”
I agree, and that’s why I’ve written books on the subject. It was never personal. On one occasion, however, Tim told me that he did not want to debate me because it would give legitimacy to my position. You see, I was the unknown young whippersnapper who at the time had no publishing credentials. Going up against Tim LaHaye would have given me a great deal of credibility.
In the end, the prophetic views of Tim LaHaye contributed to the neutralization of Christians when it came to culture. The “rapture” was always near, Jesus could come at any moment, and world conditions would only get worse. LaHaye was not the first person to make these claims, but he was one of the most popular and prolific. I believe his end-time views had a direct result on how millions of Christians saw their world – one of inevitable collapse.
Dr. Gary North offers a succinct summary of the prophetic mindset of many of today’s Christians who are focused on the end times:
“How can you motivate people to get out and work for a political cause if you also tell them that they cannot be successful in their efforts? How can you expect to win if you don’t expect to win? How can you get men elected if you tell the voters that their votes cannot possibly reverse society’s downward drift into Satan’s kingdom? What successful political movement was ever based on expectations of inevitable external defeat?”9
Tim LaHaye was double-minded when it came to social activism. He was all for it, His wife’s organization Concerned Women of America promoted it, but his end-times views canceled out the energy and actions that were necessary to bring about long-term social change. As fellow end-time advocate, J. Vernon McGee said, “Do you polish brass on a sinking ship,” or as other’s described the futility of it all, “Why rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic?”
Tim LaHaye, No Fear of the Storm: Why Christians Will Escape All the Tribulation (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1992), 69. This book was later republished as Rapture Under Attack. ↩
LaHaye, No Fear of the Storm, 188. ↩
Tim LaHaye, The Beginning of the End (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1972), 165, 168. ↩
Tim LaHaye, The Beginning of the End, rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1991), 1993. ↩
Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Are We Living in the End Times?: Current Events Foretold in Scripture . . . And What They Mean (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1999), 57. ↩
Prophecy Study Bible, 1040, note on Matthew 24:32-3. ↩
The film came out late in 2000. ↩
Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 12. ↩