My blogging has been lax the last few months because of time. Also it has been lax because of lack of inspiration. Yet I read a book recently on eschatology that inspired me. Tensions with Iran have inspired this as well, but I’ll explain why at the end.
Before reading on, this article assumes that you are a Christian. You may or may not have strong opinions about eschatology, but I assume that you have read the Gospels. Thus, you probably agree that peace is preferable to war, that Jesus disapproved of economic/military oppression, and that Jesus started something called the Kingdom of God. If this is new to you, then re-read the either Matthew, Mark, or Luke with this in mind: Rome was an occupying military power. Many of the Pharisees were complicit with that fact, even if they hated Rome. Simon the Zealot, one of Jesus disciples, was to the Romans what a terrorist is to the United States.
Now on to Dispensational Futurism and why we can do a lot better.
Literally whenever Possible?
Dispensational futurism is hermenutically challenged, in other words, the method of interpretation is not that great. Dispensationalism claims that it “reads the Bible literally whenever possible.” If, and only if, there is an obvious poetic queue, should you read the Bible metaphorically. This is a frequent refrain from LaHaye, Thomas Ice, and anyone who is familiar with Dispensationalism.
Are futurist themselves consistent with this rule? Frequently, Dispensationalists refer to the seven churches at the beginning of revelation as seven metaphorical church ages. So where is the poetic queue that lets us know that the churches are of church ages? I see none. “Literally whenever possible” seems to lead us to believe that those are seven literal churches that existed at the time Revelation was written. The messages begin with phrases like “to the Angel of the Church in Ephesus.” It is really no different than when Paul opens his Epistles with a quick “hello” to the Romans, Corinthians, or Galatians.
That aside, “literal whenever possible” is problematic for two reasons. First, it assumes that the language of the Bible is either “literal” or “metaphorical” -just two ways to write. It completely ignores the possibility of hyperbole, idiom, or even a pun. There are more ways to speak than “literally” or “metaphorically.” Secondly, just because something can be read “literally” does not mean it should be taken that way. It is as if we have flawless intuition i.e. whatever appears literal to us, must have been intended that way. Can we understand a book written in another time, place, and culture that intuitively?
Think about the phrase, “I’m full.” What does that mean? Well, it means that the speaker has had enough eat. It couldn’t possibly mean anything else, because we take that to what it literally means. There is no queue to let us know its metaphorical. Now what if the speaker was a French woman, and said the literal French translation of “I’m full” (Je suis pleine)? We would intuitively think that she means she’s had enough to eat …and we would be wrong. Je suis pleine is a French idiom. It is a way of saying, “I am pregnant.” Once we have that background information, we understand Je suis pleine easily. This is an example of the flaws in our intuition, and “literally whenever possible.”
Here’s another example: “the sleeping giant awoke after Pearl harbor.” Every American knows what that means. But what if you translated it, and said it to a hermit in Tibet? It would be possible for him to take it literally. He’d ask why the giant was sleeping. He’d probably also ask who Pearl Harbor is why he awoke before the giant did. Did Pearl Harbor leave a window open, so that he awoke when the sun rose? Was the giant sleeping in cave? Maybe the giant was really tired or Pearl Harbor had a bit more energy. You get the idea. “Literal whenever possible” doesn’t work here because the Tibetan hermit lacks background information. Once that Tibetan hermit -who knew nothing about American History- is given the right background information, he’ll understand the statement just fine.
Here are few more phrases. Some are translated from other languages.
“Shake the Spot.”
“Are you holding a grudge against somebody?”
“We need more boots on the ground.”
“Why do you withhold your breathe from me?”
“May the force be with you.”
If even one of those phrases you did not understand intuitively, then you do not have flawless intuition. You cannot trust “literal whenever possible” because what seemed literal to you, was not meant to be literal by the speaker. Is this the speaker’s fault? Should the speaker given us a clearer poetic queue? Yes, but only if the speaker addresses us. In the case of Revelation, we’re not the original audience. We’re not the original audience of any book in the Bible. No book of the Bible the addresses us!
Now, I am not saying that we can’t understand the Bible, or that we can’t understand Revelation, Daniel etc just because it was written to another people, at another time, in another place and in a different language. Of course we can understand it. We can understand just like Americans can understand Je suis pleine or that Tibetan hermit could understand “the sleeping giant awoke after pearl harbor.”
What we need though, is background information about the speaker or writer as well as the original audience. Specifically, we need to know their history, political situation, religious customs, idioms and so forth. We need to know enough about them to understand the Bible’s passages as they understood them. We need to know what was appeared literal (or metaphorical, idiomatic, hyperbolic etc) to them rather than what appears “literal” to us.
This is something that many dispensationalists -from Scofield to LaHaye, just. Fucking. Ignore. They therefore unconsciously read it as if it was written for modern Americans. This is absolutely wrong. If we’re going to read Revelation, we need to put aside our political, cultural, national, and even religious concerns. To do otherwise is to make the Bible in our image.
Here’s a short passage that is worth interpreting:
And I saw another angel flying in midheaven, having an eternal gospel to preach to those who live on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; 7and he said with a loud voice, “Fear God, and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come; worship Him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of waters.”
8 And another angel, a second one, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who has made all the nations drink of the wine of the passion of her immorality.” (Revelation 14:6-8 NASB)
Dispensationalist Thomas Ice asserts pretty strongly that, “The biblical text in Revelation says Babylon and to take it to refer to anything other than what it says is not consistent with literal interpretation. If it refers to Babylon, then it has to be a future reference.” That is then, the “literal whenever possible” interpretation. Of course, I’d have to ask Dr. Ice why it must necessarily refers to a future event. After all, Babylon is literally already long gone and “fallen” is a past-participle. I’d expect the future perfect tense (will have fallen) if this was reference to a future Babylon. I digress however.
Now, let’s erase from the mind’s eye any contemporary political, religious, cultural concerns including (for the moment) that Revelation is a road map for future events. Let’s instead replace them relevant facts about the first century, in Jerusalem and its vicinity. Here I am summarizing from the “Rapture Exposed” by Barbara Rossing.
Rome worshiped the goddess Victory (Nike in Greek), which was a winged flying goddess that streaked over a battlefield announcing the victor for a battle. They put images of this goddess on their sculptures, statues, and so forth. They would even put images of this flying goddess on top of depictions of the people they conquered -just in case those people forget who the winner was. Her image as ubiquitous as a Starbucks logo and as sacred as American flag. I emphasize that this was more than a symbol for the Romans; they believed that this goddess was on their side. Their military victories justified their brutal control over their empire, including Jerusalem. Rome always wins. Do you get the message? Good. Now pay the tribute!
Now many of the Isrealites did not like Rome. Many violently opposed Rome. Others, like the Pharisees shrugged their shoulders and paid their taxes. Still others decided that God had either abandoned them or went over to the Romans. They responded with a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude. This is not unlike Israel’s forbidden alliances with foreign powers, which is described allegorically as prostitution/whoring.
Why is Babylon mentioned here? By the time Revelation was written, Babylon was long gone. However, its memory in the mind of first century Jewish world was not. They remembered what Babylon was and what it symbolized to them. They remembered Babylon like Atlanta Georgia remembers General Sherman, or like the Lakota remember Wounded Knee. Babylon reminded them of oppression, exile, and subservience. Now which nation was cause of such duress during time of Revelation?
Given all this it is perfectly reasonable to believe that the flying angel was a direct challenge to the flying goddess. The oppressed audience was reminded that Rome, like Babylon before it, would fall. Rome doesn’t always win. This message was treason. No wonder the Romans were so eager to kill Christians!
Now is this interpretation open for debate? It wouldn’t be on a blog if it wasn’t. But here’s the critical difference between Barbara Rossing’s interpretation and Thomas Ice’s: Rossing is not relying on manifestly flawed intuition to tell her when to interpret something “literally” or metaphorically. She realizes that the Bible isn’t always going to give a verbal, poetic, queue that is obvious to modern readers. She is putting aside our contemporary mindset, finding the right background information, and letting that inform her interpretation of Revelation 14:6-8. Thomas Ice’s article, by contrast, makes no reference to the historical context of Revelation. Neither, in this article, does he explain why the literal past tense in Revelation 14:8 refers to a future Babylon. Rather, he insists that because “Babylon” referred to a literal city in the historical books of the Bible, that it cannot possibly be used symbolically in arguably the most symbolic book of the entire Bible!
The main point then, is that the books of the Bible weren’t written in vacuums and we, contemporary readers, aren’t reading it with a blank, mental slate. We have to do the extra work of getting into the mindset of the original audience, otherwise we’re bound to misunderstand it just like that Tibetan hermit will misunderstand a reference to the sleeping giant. “Literal whenever possible” is insufficient and not even consistently applied by the very people who endorse it.
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that political tensions with Iran are part of what motivated this post. If you google “Iran” and “revelation” you are going to see a lot of interpretation from a dispensationlist perspective. Why does this matter? Well because a lot of people make their political decisions -such as when we should go to war, antagonize a middle eastern nation, or provide military support to another etc- based on their interpretations of Revelation. War is serious stuff. As we all know people die, homes are wrecked, veterans are emotionally and physically scarred, sometimes for dubious pretenses. Furthermore, the aftermath of military conflict can ripple out for decades and even centuries.
If we’re going to attach that much political power to an interpretation of the Bible, we had better be damn sure we’re getting it right.