Posts Tagged ‘eschatology’

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.

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The Bible says this civil war will lead to war in Europe. What no? ahh… well the Antichrist will arise from the German Empire. They’re our allies now? Dammit. Well the rapture will occur now that 9/11 happened… I’m sure of it this time…

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.

This is not a poorly written thriller novel.

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.

Today, NPR reported that Pope Francis Called for a day of prayer regarding Syria.  The question is, what how we would pray today?  The issues concerning American imperialism, sympathy for Syrian Christians, and of course peace all came to mind.

The Book of Common Prayer proves helpful:

Collect 14: Unity of the Church

Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, as you and he are one:  Grant that your Church, being bound together in love and obedience to you, may be united in one body by the on Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom you have sent, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the Unity of the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever.  Amen.

Collect 17: For the Nation

Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect 18: For Peace

Almighty, God, kind, we pray, in every heart the true love of peace, and guide with your wisdom those who take counsel for the nations of the earth, that in tranquility your dominion may increase until the earth is filled with the knowledge of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever Amen.

 

I find that some topics are more interesting than others.  More specifically, people simply like some issues more than others and there’s a stronger Facebook, Twitter, and blog comments reaction to it.  That’s not to say that popularity is the only reason why I write.  It’s not the main reason to discuss “end times.”

Why stir the pot on this issue?  Honestly, it can be frustrating subject at times.  I don’t think of myself as a blogging crusader or church-leading lay person.  I am not a Dee Dee Warren on this issue by any means.  More recently, I read a nice a article on the Internet Monk that gave me a moment to think about the smashing of metaphorical* icons, which was a timely read, because I’ve been planning two more blogs on this issue for awhile.

But eschatology is important.  It’s tied up with ethics and how we treat other Christians.  Here’s how it goes.

Let’s begin with a hypothetical situation:  imagine a church that is incredibly involved in service to its neighbors and community.  God has given them a nice opportunity: a new series of homes has been recently developed in the city.  These homes are perfectly livable, but due to the housing crash many are unfinished when it comes to carpets, outside paint jobs, and even some electrical work.  Seeing this great need, the church leaders dispatch their members to fix up these homes and welcome the new neighbors.  Trucks and tools head out and eager volunteers.  The church leaders declare this a great outreach to unchurched members of the community.

On their way to fix up these homes, the volunteers drive by the houses of several families.  These houses are collapsed in rubble due to a recent tornado.  Some members learn that these families were all members of another Christian assembly whose worship center was in the next city over.  When the church members mentioned this to their leaders, the pastors gently explained that these families did not count as true Christians, because they refused to recognize the importance of welcoming new neighbors into a city by providing them with carpets, house paint, and electrical wiring.

If you think this sounds a little bit like the parable of the Good Samaritan, it’s because I’m doing it on purpose.

I write on end times for arab Christians like Munther Isaac, who represents the Palestinian Christian Church.  That is Christians in the middle east who are ignored by Christians in United States.   Even though American Christians profer unflinching financial support for Israel.  Why exactly does this happen?

Racism could be a reason.   A Palestinian Christian speaks with accent and has tan skin.  However, most of the readers of this blog aren’t racists.  It’s way too hard to live in Los Angeles and not be used to tan-skin, non-Americans, and accents.  Besides, very few American Church supports Christians in China, Korea, Africa and Latin America.  There are no doubt Christians out there who think that any pronounces the name “Isaac” with middle eastern accent is a Muslim.  But I figure people like that don’t know how to use the internet.

Also, we all know that part of the Gospel is seeing to people’s material needs.  Furthermore, all Christians understand that helping the poor and oppressed was part of Jesus’ ministry and therefore part of ours.  Anyone who disagrees with that is probably off acting silly, and not reading this blog.

So what is the issue?

Munther’s presentation is a half hour long, which is still shorter than many sermons.  His points speak to this question.  Here are the highlights:

  • When I read the New Testemant “Literally” it tells me that Christians are the heirs of Abraham.
  • God does not reject contemporary Israel.  God does not reject any nation.
  • Why do you demand that we must first acknowledge the sufferings of others, before we’re allowed to speak about our own suffering?
  • I am not anti-Semitic.  I actually *am* Semitic.
  • I am not a “replacement theologian” because I believe Israel was expanded not replaced.  “Replacement theology” is what Christians Zionists label people they disagree with.
  • Accepting Christian Zionism is not a test for orthodoxy.
  • I am very glad that Christian Zionists are here, and I apologize if I appear angry.

Why on earth does a Christian have to explain that he shouldn’t be ignored and maligned, by other Christians?  If we removed the terms “Palestine” and “Israel” and just said, “Middle Eastern Christians suffer at the hands of occupying military force” or “A minority group of Christians are unable to move freely in their own country” American Christianity would make magazine cover stories about it.  We’d invoke the parables of the sheep and goats, “I was hungry and you did not feed me… I was in prison and you did not visit me…”  We’d mobilize every non-profit and short term missions trip around that rallying point.

To bad, though, that the existence of Palestinian Christians doesn’t fit very well with dispensational futurism.  “Christian Zionism” is part of the dispensational futurist interpretation.  Yet, ignoring Christians like this wouldn’t make sense even if dispensational futurism was true.  How can there be no contradiction here?  How do you reconcile an eschatology that encourages compliance?  Aren’t there Bible verses that encourages us to care about other Christians?

So here again, are the practical consequences of an particular eschatology.  Our behavior and our ethics are (obviously) are informed by our interpretations scripture.  I have long expressed my frustrations with dispensationalism on this blog.  I guess “why I bother” is to hope that dispensationalists will re-think Christian Zionism.  It’s not that Israel should not exist, it’s that we Israel should be regarded as any other nation.  Why?  Because if we take Christian Zionism seriously we  have to pretend that Palestinian Christians don’t exist or don’t matter.  We would never endorse that policy for any other Christians anywhere else on the planet.  If we’re going to make such a radical exception, than we should at least listen to what they have to say.  After that, we better think long and hard about Christian Zionism.

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*(that’s a verbal cue, for those who read this blog the way Thomas Ice interprets the Bible.  I told you that should take it metaphorically, so now you know that you should. Please assign to the word “icon” whatever prophetic significance makes sense to you)

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.”

“I’m mashers.”

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.

An Example

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!

Hail Roman, Victory... or else

Hail Roman, Victory... or else

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.

Why bother?

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.