A NASA engineer predicts the rapture in 1988. A career eschatologist declares that Christians should plan to be off the earth by the year 2000. A chorus of bloggers and ministry leaders ascribe a prophetic connection between the book of Isaiah and the violence in Syria. What separates the final group of speculators from the rest? Only that time has not yet proven them wrong. (That, and they probably have not collected their full share of publishing royalties) All speculate about news events. All look at real life, far away, violence as if it was exciting action movie. All are as committed to Christian Zionism as fish are to water.
Christian Zionism, broadly termed here, is the belief that events in the middle east have prophetic significance. This leads to speculation about future events. The Bible is used as if it were a crystal ball.. Why should anyone take the alleged prophecies about Syria in 2013 any more seriously than the now false prophecies about the Soviet Union or the rapture in the 1980s? It is easy for Christian Zionists to invoke 2 Peter 3:3-4. Yet this is little more than self-affirming circular reasoning. It begs the question, “what do these prophecies even mean?” While many Christian Zionists believe their method of interpretation is self-evidently true, conservative, and literal, I submit that it is none of these. More practically, the political consequences of their teachings are destructive.
On a message board years ago, a Christian Zionist once explained their methods this way: Just as Jesus’ generation was meant to watch for signs of his first coming, so must contemporary Christians must watch for his second. Specifically, any current event will help us make sense the prophecies. So when a news event (Syria) seems to match something in the Bible (Isaiah 17) than that is enough reason to believe that prophecy is being fulfilled. Of course, they are often clever enough to not nail down exact dates, but their speculations nevertheless reflect what they think the Bible teaches.
The problem with this method is that any event in history can look like a fulfillment of prophecy. The commercial success of the literature mentioned earlier proves this. Considering the list of failed predictions (and there have been a lot of failed predictions!) maybe it is a good idea to re-evaluate the method before deciding that preventible armed conflict is per-determined by God.
Many others explain that their methods are conservative because it reads the Bible literally whenever possible. This way they avoid (as LaHaye famously put it) confusing metaphors. But are they consistent? Many Zionists interpret the seven churches addressed in the opening of Revelation as seven symbolic church ages even though the letter itself gives us no reason to do so. This is only one example of the inconsistency of “literal whenever possible.”
If anyone is going to understand the Bible, especially the apocalyptic visions, we need a deeper examination. Consider the following questions when applied to Isaiah or books like Ezekial, Revelation or Daniel. What is the literary context of this verse, passage, and book? When was it written? What was the political situation of the original audience? What is the genre of this or that passage? How would someone living at that time interpret that genre? What kinds of idioms, metaphors, hyperbole, etc would these ancient people be intuitively familiar with, but are not used (and not known) in our culture? How does it compare to similar, non-canonical literature of the same genre? None of these questions can be adequately addressed in a single twitter post, a news article, a Sunday sermon, or podcast. In fact, if anyone makes you feel that understanding Isaiah 17 (or anything else apocalyptic) is intuitive and easy, they are oversimplifying. If anyone cannot answer these kinds of questions, then their interpretation is not worth your attention, time, or money.
There is more at stake than mere theological disagreement. Crystal ball gazing and Christian Zionism have serious, concrete consequences. Right now, the public overwhelmingly opposes United States military action in Syria. Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, already upped the ante when he unambiguously stated that he his country would provide further support to Syria if the United States intervenes. Furthermore, there are allegations that the gas attacks came from the rebels not from the Syrian government, despite what the Whitehouse administrations says. At the time of this writing, things are smoother over via diplomacy, but the two super powers are still cold warrioring it. While Christian Zionists may look at this as an exciting, inevitable, new chapter in prophetic progress, it looks to everyone else like a conflict that can be prevented. Indeed, it is a conflict that should be prevented.
I spent my high school years in a denomination that taught the crystal ball gazing approach to scripture. I happily left it behind, especially when I learned of alternative views. The crystal ball approach makes Christians look foolish when the prophecies do not come around. We look even more silly when we revise our interpretations, rather than admit that something is wrong. Its methods of reading scripture are intellectually troubled. At best, it helps American Christians ignore the plight of Christians in the middle east. At worst, it inspires a nearly fetishistic fascination with violence in far away countries. Most notably, now, with the conflict in Syria.
To close, I’d like to ask all Christian Zionists to do the rest of Christendom a favor: please just stop. The crystal ball gazing isn’t helping anyone.