Review: Israel, Rapture, Tribulation: How to Sort Biblical Fact from Theological Fiction
By Michael Earl Riemer (Authorhouse, Bloomington, IN: 2021)
Book Review by Lee Duigon
How will the Kingdom of God be established here on earth? When will that happen, and what events will lead up to it? Will Jesus Christ be physically present as its ruler? Who among us will be there to see it?
“Eschatology” is the study of “last things.” Synonyms include End Times, the Second Coming, the end of the world, the final destination of all that live, and so on.
Eschatology seeks to answer those questions asked above, and a good many others, too. It has been searching for those answers for going on 2,000 years.
Michael Earl Riemer is a layman who has devoted a great deal of time and effort to this study and has written a book about it in which he comes to certain conclusions. It’s a challenging book; but eschatology is a challenging subject.
And first let’s dismiss the idea that this study is only for the scholars. After centuries of labor, all they’ve produced is a plethora of schools of thought. I thought I’d better bone up on eschatology as I read this book and tried to prepare to review it. But the more I read, the less certain I became about any aspect of eschatology. How was I to decide which scholars are right, or almost right, and which are wrong?
Michael Riemer makes arguments that are worth examining. Some of them I find persuasive, firmly rooted in common sense—and in the Scriptures. Others elude my understanding. But two things have to be said.
Eschatology is important, or it wouldn’t be in the Bible. It looms especially large in the New Testament.
And whether we agree or disagree with any point made by the author, how can we fail to gain by devoting serious thought to this? How can we fail to broaden and deepen our understanding of these matters—regardless of whether we’re satisfied with the end result or not? It may not bring us to an end of the journey, but may surely be a starting-point.
The Destruction of Jerusalem
In AD 70 the Roman general Titus laid siege to Jerusalem and finally broke in. Even as the Romans burst through the defenses, rival Jewish factions continued to fight each other to the death. Someone, somehow, set fire to the Temple and it was utterly destroyed. Thousands perished: maybe as many as a million. Thousands were sold into slavery. It was a catastrophe.
Were these events the fulfillment of prophecy made by Jesus in Matthew 24, “the Olivet Discourse”?
“See ye not all these things? Verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Matt. 24:2).
And this, Matthew 16:28: “[T]here be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in His Kingdom.”
Some, including Riemer, say yes, of course—what else could they be? And as Martin Selbrede reminds us, in Revelation 11:1-2, John speaks of the Temple as if it were still standing—although Gentiles (Romans?) would “tread it under foot.” But first “there was given me a reed… Rise, and measure the Temple of God, and the altar, and those that worship therein” [Martin Selbrede, “The Book of Revelation and Its Challenges,” Arise and Build, March 2023]. He couldn’t measure the Temple after it had been destroyed.
I find it overly hard to interpret those verses as anything but an accurate prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem in the listeners’ own lifetimes. But another school of thought says “no”—the verses describe something that hasn’t happened yet… two thousand years later.
I have not the scholarship to analyze and judge the various schools of thought pertaining to Matthew 24. Michael Riemer takes on that task. It’s a prodigious job of work on a subject that many Christians find confusing. People choose sides and defend their positions. I am not here to say who’s right or wrong.
Did the Son of man “come” or “return” in AD 70? This pulls us into competing interpretations of Greek words in the text. The Bible, insists Mr. Riemer, never uses the term “Second Coming” (pp. 159-160). What we find is a Greek word, Parousia, meaning “presence” but not necessarily a physical presence.
Riemer: “Christ’s coming can only be perceived as a past historical event for it to have been soon to those First Century Christians” (p. 30).
Is it so or not? I find the argument persuasive, but not completely so. Was Christ’s presence, a spiritual presence, at Jerusalem when the Temple was destroyed? If so, then a later return to earth would be a Third Coming, not a Second. [Throws up his hands in a fit of indecision.]
The major theme of this book is to refute the Dispensational interpretation of the Scriptures: which is, “It’s all going to happen sometime in the future.” Many Dispensational writers and preachers have gone so far as to assign an actual date to Christ’s return and the End Times.
One after another they have all been proved wrong, so far. Riemer dissects their failures, which are many.
The Bible is not easy on false prophets. “When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him” (Deut. 18:22). Verse 20 recommends a penalty: “even that prophet shall die.”
Worse than simply being wrong, again and again, Dispensationalism, says Riemer, has saddled the Church in America with apathy and defeatism. Why do anything, if the Antichrist is going to take over the world, all true believers will be raptured out of it, the world as we know it will end, and Christ will return to rule a new heaven and a new earth? Somehow this teaching picked up steam early in the 20th century and became mainstream. Non-Christians and anti-Christians took over America’s institutions, rushing in to fill the vacuum created by the Dispensationalists’ retreat—education, popular culture, business, government… with what result, we can see today. Dispensational defeatism, based on their take on Revelation and other prophecies, turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And so the bulk of Riemer’s argument is to refute the Dispensationalists—which I think it does. Riemer himself used to believe in their doctrine, and taught it in Bible study classes. He doesn’t anymore.
It must be clearly said that there are Christians who adhere to belief in a future fulfillment of the prophecies—how far into the future, they can’t say for sure—but who nevertheless obey Christ’s injunction to “occupy until I come” (Luke 19:13), and work busily to advance the Kingdom of God—even as Riemer did, and continues to do. Some of them belong to the spiritual community that’s grown up on my own blog, http://leeduigon.com/. They don’t strike me as defeatists. They’re certainly not hiding in the pews, waiting for the Antichrist to take over the world and then the Tribulation and the Rapture, etc. They do seem to believe we’re drifting into the End Times, but they work for Christ’s Kingdom regardless. The dullness and pessimism of the churches (not all of them, of course!), fostered by Dispensational doctrine, can’t be blamed on them.
A Plea for More Gentleness
Besides getting confused in the mass of eschatological theories and teachings, I can’t approve of some of the language which Riemer’s zeal moved him to use. It’s always difficult to review a book written by a friend, but it would be dishonest of me to pretend I wasn’t put off by some of the words he applies to Jews and Catholics.
The destruction of Jerusalem, he says, was God’s vengeance on Israel for rejecting the Messiah—and then disregarding Jesus’ vivid warnings of what would happen to the city and the nation in the not too distant future. Christians believed those warnings and fled Jerusalem before getting caught up in her calamities.
St. Paul passionately looked forward to his people, the Jews, being grafted back on to the olive tree that is the Church (Romans 11). He does this gently and compassionately. Riemer does realize this, but it’s not until Page 305, in an appendix, that he cites Romans and declares “the one people of God, comprises Jew and Gentile.” It might have been said much sooner. If he’s hoping to persuade Jewish readers, he won’t find many who have not been vexed by his language.
Catholics also come in for harsh criticism here—but what denomination of the Church has never earned it? When has the Church ever achieved the harmonious brotherhood that Paul prayed for?
In spite of these faults, I can recommend this book, at least to readers who can tolerate some bumps and potholes on the way. It will certainly make you think and rethink the whole subject of the End Times
Even if, at the end, you disagree.