Readers of this column are overly aware of my recent visit to a local mega-church to see one “Dr.” Jack Van Impe deliver one of his trademarked sermons on the End Times (a.k.a. “now”). A half-dozen of us Reformed-minded young Christians were initially planning to go. But, through the evil machinations of the European Union, only me, my wife, and my buddy Bryan were able to attend. Oh, and my son Calvin. He was geeked about it.
So, for those of you who couldn't make it, we now join my comments already in progress:
The event starts at six. Doors open at five. As such, we're all crammed into the outer ring of the doughnut-shaped building. Part of me is a little disappointed that I won't be able to brag about waiting in line out in the cold to see Jack Van Impe. Oh well.
The place is absolutely mobbed with people. I'm guessing they're well beyond capacity and probably beyond the fire marshall's limit for the building. I spy “overflow rooms” set up where the slow and the tardy can watch the unfoldings on a TV screen. (The event is being broadcast nationwide, so if you're going to watch it on TV, why not do it from the comfort of your own couch?)
The crowd is surprisingly young, surprisingly diverse, and surprisingly normal compared to what I expected a JVI event to draw. This could be the audience at a hockey game or PG movie. My Bible is the only one I see. I'm guessing that most of these people are members of the church, as they all seem at home, but a quick look at the parking lot confirms that quite a few vans and buses made the trip here, some at great length, to see JVI in action.
I actually like this church quite a bit, as far as mega-churches are concerned. They do good work and emphasize evangelism like crazy (and, yes, sometimes it is, like, crazy). But for all the cheesiness and over-production, I appreciate their passion and don't doubt their sincerity.
I'm getting a headache now from the overwhelming odor of old-lady perfume, mixed in with a little B.O. Calvin is getting annoyed with the situation. Maybe it's just the light-headedness, but I'm pretty sure I just saw Jack Chick's The Crusaders (age adjusted) in all their homo-erotic glory. Should I ask for their autographs?
Score! We were escorted to the “VIP infant room” by an usher who suggested we “might be more comfortable there.” Translation: we don't want your baby in the sanctuary. No problem. As far as I'm concerned, this only means one thing: box seats! We have a decent view of the stage and mounted TVs provide close-ups. The sound is nice and loud, which should compensate for the dull roar of infant and toddler chatter.
Another sighting: I could swear I just saw Pat Robertson handing out bulletins.
What the world??? Five sheriff's deputies just came into this room, looked around for a while, and then gave each other the “all-clear” nod and left. What's the fuzz doing here? Has there been a threat on JVI's life? Either way, there's nothing to worry about. It says in the Bible that if people try to hurt JVI, fire will come out of his mouth and consume them. Still, what's with all the cops?! I also noticed several police cars by each exit. Does the church keep them on retainer? Or are they just regular cops who happen to be part of JVI's crew, a la Operation Chaos?
The “pre-show” is in full swing. That means some videos (produced in-house), skits, and music. The first skit, about two guys stuck in an elevator, seems to be making fun of my church and others like it. Hymns and bulletins and ties—what squares. Makes me feel a little better about this blog entry in general.
I'm at a weird angle to the stage, but Bryan points out that the background is a giant clock, with the time at about two minutes before midnight. We both keep thinking that the minute hand is moving. But it's not.
Now a video promo for the church is playing. It's a parody of a http://www.freecreditreport.com/ commercial and it's bashing denominations and “doctrine.” We're encouraged to come here to worship, so we can avoid both. Ugh.
The pastor is on stage now, thanking and recognizing long lists of Very Prophetic People that are present today.
One name sticks out to me: Carl Baugh. He's apparently on JVI's board of directors. The pastor calls him one of the “leading archaeologists in the world.” Actually, he's one of the most scoffed-at amateur “archaeologists” in the world, a man whose claims to have found human footprints intermingled with dinosaur footprints have drawn jeers from both secular and Christian academia...a man whose “Creation Evidence Museum” (housed in a double-wide trailer) purportedly misidentifies crocodile teeth as dinosaur claws and features a diorama of a dinosaur wearing a saddle. Bryan leans over and reminds me that it's a racing saddle. Heh.
Ten minutes have passed and names are still being dropped. Chuck Ohman's is accompanied by the comment, “the church has to be in heaven during the tribulation because somebody has to blow that trumpet. And I can think of no one better than Mr. Ohman!” What?!
Oh boy, this is bigger than I thought. It's a “worldwide telecast” and there are buses here from Canadian churches!
The pastor is now announcing that they have a free gift for pastors in the audience. I'm kind of relieved that I'm in the “infant VIP area,” so I won't have the moral quandary of whether to accept one. Never mind, a guy came in here with a stack of gifts and asked if there were any pastors here. I accepted the gift-wrapped package. Turns out to be a book by the pastor and a book by Jack Van Impe. I have to admit that it's a nice gesture.
This place is completely packed. A trip to the bathroom (the long way around the whole doughnut) confirms that even the overflow rooms are overflowing. It makes me sad to think that Kim Riddlebarger's eschatology conferences will probably never be this well-attended.
The program kicks off with an impressively animated opening credit sequence, identifying the program as a “60 Year Celebration Event,” entitled, “Are We the Generation?” (Spoiler alert: we are.)
The pastor of the church is back on stage, getting a standing ovation and informing us that it is now “midnight in Israel.”
Those of us who were hoping that the countdown would end with JVI's appearance are disappointed. A very bouncy “worship team” is now leading songs.
The “worship team” is dragging on and on, leading me to wonder if JVI's chopper was delayed.
The pastor steps back to the mic and introduces a fifteen-minute video retrospective celebrating Jack Van Impe's life and accomplishments during “sixty years of effective ministry.” I was totally unaware of the milestone aspect of this evening's event.
I learn that JVI was instrumental in fighting racial segregation and discrimination in the church. That's pretty cool. Apparently, he did so with his book Heart Disease in Christ’s Body. I'm already familiar with the book, as it is the same volume that got JVI blacklisted by his former-fellow-fundies. Ironically, Van Impe was just pushing for a “Five Fundamentals” approach to identifying who is a Christian (a definition that would include Orthodox and Roman Catholics). My hat is off to him in this!
Throughout the video and now through even more comments and praise from the pastor, JVI is continually just referred to as “Doctor.” This is ironic, since, while he continually reminds the world that he has doctorates from “seventeen seminaries” (always left unnamed), as far as I know, they're all honorary. The guy just has a certificate from a Bible College. Certainly no legitimate higher degrees from accredited institutions. Why not just call him “Jack?”
Jack and Rexella are on the stage (greeted by thunderous applause and another standing ovation), but we're still in the midst of continued intro. People are being thanked and recognized all over the place. When is this program actually going to start?
Jack's wife Rexella steps to the microphone. Or, sorry, I mean Doctor Rexella. She recently secured a doctorate in theology from Pacific International University, a school with no campus, no on-site classes, and no accreditation, where degrees are given out for lump-sum payments and a little correspondence work. Their friend, the aforementioned Carl Baugh, is the president of PIU, which is also on many, many lists of diploma mills to be avoided.
Even Rexella is calling Jack “Doctor.” Not “Dr. Van Impe” or even “the Doctor.” Just Doctor. Like, “I asked Doctor where in the Bible the rapture could be found...” Weird.
Jack has joined Rexella and the pastor at the microphone. I'm glad to see he’s back to sporting the Pompadour, instead of that Macauly Caulkin 'do he's worn of late.
Doctor addresses the pastor simply as Pastor. Doctor and Pastor take light-hearted pot-shots at each other for a while, followed by quite a bit of mutual back-slapping.
Then Pastor sits down and Jack and Rexella take some humorous shots at each other. It feels like a good old Jack Chick-style Haw Haw Haw would be the appropriate response. He jokes about Rexella's many cosmetic surgeries. Then about his own double-knee replacement, which causes his knees to click as he walks. JVI quips: “Now that I can catch her, she hears me coming!” An unwelcome mental picture of the chase flashes across my mind. I grimmace and die a little inside.
Jack returns to his seat on the stage, allowing Rexella to sing his praises ad nauseum. We're predictably reminded that Jack has 15,000 verses memorized! I used to watch Jack Van Impe Presents religiously when I was about eleven. That was twenty years ago and he had 15,000 verses memorized back then. Although, to be fair, I suppose just maintaining that number of verses in memory would be very time-consuming. I know I couldn't do it.
Rexella makes the dubious claim that their program “goes into every single country every single day.” She declares that “Jack has a message for this mess age” and proclaims that there is “no one alive today more qualified to explain prophetic events in the order that they will happen.” Ummm, I beg to differ.
JVI apparently didn't know that all this stuff was going to be happening (the 60th Anniversery video, etc.) and seems a little bit embarrassed by it.
JVI finally takes the stage to preach. He is pissed about the mic situation. Doctor tells Pastor that he's not used to handheld mics and would much prefer a hands-free model. This exchange happens with the mic held down at waste level, but we all hear it anyway. Jack recovers, explaining that, he'll preach with the handheld wireless mic, but won't be able to “lift my Bible up as much.”
We've now been warned to prepare for a “prophetic journey,” but JVI's still thanking people, going through lists of individuals without whom he “wouldn't be where he is today.” In the midst of this, he says of a particular preacher: “This black brother can preach up a storm, but he still has the habit of saying, ax you a question.” I cringe. I might be the only one who does.
JVI is finally preaching his sermon! He proclaims with absolute certainty that “we are the generation of Christ's return!” If Jack's generation is the one, then Jesus better hurry up. The guy is 77 (whoa, that's a good eschatological age to be). How much longer will “his generation” be around? He answers my question: Jesus will return by 2012! He's certain of that as well. Incan prophecies, the Mayan calender, and Nostradamus seem to play a larger role in this certainty than Scripture plays. Of course, Jack has set dates before. But no one ever held him (or any of the other hysteria hacks) accountable after their Y2K predictions proved absolutely false
Jack now lays out the order of end times events:
- The rapture is first (which should not be confused with the Second Coming). As evidence of the “rapture,” JVI recites 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-52. Of course, neither of these say anything about a “secret rapture” that pre-dates the Second Coming by seven years, but that doesn't phase Jack. When one of your presuppositions is that you have no presuppositions apart from the Bible, well then hey...you're bulletproof.
- During the seven years after the “rapture,” twenty-one judgments will be poured out on the world. (Someone needs to help JVI understand the progressive parallelism present in Revelation). These twenty-one judgments won't touch us. We know this because Jesus told the Church in Philadelphia that he would “keep them from the hour of trial” (Rev 3:10). Yep. And that means we'll all be “raptured.” Since we're all part of the First Century church in Philadelphia. And the only way to keep people from the “hour of trial" is to beam them up out of the world.
- What horrible things will happen once the church is “raptured?” JVI suggests that the north and south poles might switch, causing a huge (unspecified) disaster. He also goes on for a while about NASA's plans for the year 2012 and the Large Hadron Collider. I can't tell if he knows that the collider has already been fired up. He follows all this up with several long and dizzying chains of unrelated verse segments by way of proof-texting, providing his own interpretations in place of context.
- Seven years after the rapture comes the real Second Coming. And we'll be coming with Jesus then. After seven years in heaven, we “come back to get our bodies.” We won't have needed them “to have a good time in heaven.” But we will need them so that the “billions of people living on earth” will be able to see us when we reign with Christ for 1,000 years on this planet (which, I guess wasn't destroyed by the particle collider after all). So, while no one knows the day or hour of the “rapture,” anyone can know the day of the Second Coming. Just count seven years from the Rapture. Ta DA!
“After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said,Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter.” (KJV)
So, because John was caught up into heaven to see a vision, we'll all be called up into heaven seven years before the Second Coming of Jesus? Yeah, that follows!
The Seven Signs
The rest of the sermon was dedicated to the seven signs that must precede the Second Coming. This list requires one to add at least three dispensational presuppositions for every verse of Scripture in the mix. Most of these signs will apparently happen after we've all been raptured, so I'm not so sure why he devotes such a large chunk of time to laying it out.
- 1. Israel must be a nation: This happened in 1948, so “that generation” cannot die before Christ comes back. It used to be taught that a generation was twenty years, so Jesus must come back before 1968. Then they increased it to forty years. Now Jack seems to mean that the people who were born in 1948 can't all die before Jesus comes back. Certainly a safe claim to make, since Jack was born before 1948. As long as he's still alive, he hasn't been proven wrong!
- 2. The Jews take possession of Jerusalem: In 1967, the modern nation of Israel did this. That's good enough for Jack. He doesn't give Scriptural proof for this “sign,” but he doesn't need to. It comes from reading the Bible backwards, the Old Testament interpreting the New.
- 3. The European Union: Yep. It's in the Bible! For some reason, he makes a big deal about Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg being the first nations (in 1981). Then it had ten nations for a brief time, which must be the ten nations of Rev 13:1 (since no numbers in Revelation are symbolic!) But the union now has way more than ten members. Jack's answer to that? It has become the Empire predicted in the Book of Revelation. But exactly how long did it have ten members? It had three longer than ten. And I'm pretty sure it had sixteen longer than it had ten. So why would the Bible prophesy about the brief period when it had ten?
- 4. The Mark of the Beast: JVI lowers his voice and looks this way and that before assuring us that “Sarkozy of France is trying to get the European Union, along with the US and Canada, to make everyone get a '666 ID number.'” He explains that the 666 part may just be a prefix. (Why would everyone have the same prefix? Is it part of some larger intergalactic numbering system?) Apparently, we were supposed to have the 666 system in place on May 12, 2008, but enough of us called our senators to get it postponed a year. Take that, Jesus with your so-called “sovereign plan!” The do-nothing Congress has foiled you!
- 5. A Powerful Russia: Here JVI realizes that his worldwide telecast is almost out of time and then spends a bunch of his precious remaining time lamenting about how he wishes he had more time. Here's a crazy idea: you could have taken an extra hour from the huge JVI-attaboy-fest that preceded the sermon. He quickly makes the usual claims about the Hebrew word Rosh, making it clear that Jack don't know Jack about Hebrew. Ezekiel 38:8-17 supposedly predicts Russia invading Israel.
- 6. A Powerful China: Jack pretty much skims over this one.
- 7. A Powerful Iran: Apparently, Jesus wants to come back right now, but he's waiting on Ahmadinejad to try and blow up Israel first.
What Else Did JVI Say?
Here are a few more gems:
- “Jesus only mentioned his church three times. He mentions his coming Kingdom 129 times! A ratio of 43:1! The church is not the important thing; it's only intermediary.” Yikes. This is everything that's wrong with dispensationalism. How did we get here?!
- “We [the church] will live in the holy city above.” He doesn't say it outright, but I'm pretty sure JVI is of the standard school of pop dispensationalism that believes the Jews will live below the heavenly city, on the new earth (as they're his “earthly people.”) Eternal racial segregation... And amillennials are supposedly the anti-semitic ones?!
- With a completely straight face, JVI tells us that the “kings of the European Union” are mentioned explicitly in Scripture. He's referring to Daniel 2:41-44. This is what happens when you try to interpret the New Testament via the Old, rather then letting Jesus and the Apostles (and the Holy Spirit) unseal and reveal the true meaning of the Old Testament texts.
- “Throw that nonsense of no millennium out of your church! Thank God your pastor preaches the truth!” Uh, yeah. Thank God.
- Jack uses Ecclesiastes 1:4 as a proof text that “this world will last forever.” Hermeneutics? What's that?! What good are 15,000 memory verses if you have no clue about genre and context?
- We're told that anyone who says we're living in the millennium now “has a loop hole between his two ears.” I'm not sure if I should be offended, since I don't think the insult really makes any sense. A loop hole? Really?
- “Replacement theology is the greatest disgrace in the history of the church.” Okay, first of all, I don't know anyone who actually holds to “replacement theology.” Also, don't you think the inaction of the German Christian church during the Holocaust might have been a greater disgrace? Or the Spanish Inquisition? Or the rise of Modern Liberalism?
- To hear JVI tell it, the Early Church Fathers all taught classical dispensationalism until “Origen, Ambrose, and Augustine” got together and purposely invented new doctrines, motivated, of course, by their anti-semitism. By following Jesus and the Apostles in their understanding of the terms “Jerusalem” and “Israel” in the New Testament, they “manipulated 3,600 verses of the Bible.” I can't contain my laughter. Several people glare at me.
- JVI tells us how “sick he is” of people who quote the verse, “No one knows the day and hour, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” He smugly tells us that the most reliable Greek manuscripts don't have the phrase “nor the son.” A quick look at Metzger's textual commentary on my Palm confirms that, while there are quite a few copies of Matthew lacking this phrase, Mark (who probably wrote first) certainly included it from the beginning. So it's in Scripture either way. JVI either doesn’t know how to do textual criticism or he’s intentionally misleading people.
We bugged out early, wanting to avoid the crush of cars waiting to get out of the parking lot (been through that before at this church). As we round the doughnut on the way out, I again hear a reference to the Mayan calendar and the year 2012. That's the saddest thing to me. The Bible, Nostradamus, some History Channel show about the “end of days,” and pre-Christian Jewish rabbis are all basically given equal authority.
I do have to give JVI credit for always presenting the Gospel and doing it with urgency. But when the source of that urgency is the fact that the Rapture will have happened by 2012...well, what happens to those new converts in 2013? I'll tell you what: they say, “Man, I feel dumb that the TV preacher with the slick hair and clicking knees duped me into all this Jesus stuff. Won't fall for that again.”
As the doors close behind me on the way out to the car, the last words I hear from JVI are, “We've got to be careful who we listen to!”
I couldn't agree more.