Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Not "Left Behind" -- Again

It behooves any Christian addressing questions related to the return of Christ and the end of the age to do so with humility. Even a cursory reading of Christian history reveals that earnest believers adhering to a high view of scripture have held to varied views on this subject, which for the most part does not rise to the level of raising questions of orthodoxy versus heterodoxy. Thus, one should be cautious about expressing certainties in terms that would suggest that anyone who believes otherwise is guilty of rejecting the Bible. Too many Christians eschew such caution.

Nonetheless, in an effort to approach this subject both transparently and humbly, I will begin by stating that at an earlier point in my life I held passionately to views that I now consider to be the worst (meaning, the least likely to be correct) of the various mainstream views -- that is, the theology expressed in the soon to be released Nicholas Cage movie based on the "Left Behind" novels by Tim LaHaye. This view, known to the theologically oriented as "premillenial dispensationalism," is arguably the most widely held position of all American Christians and almost certainly the majority view of American evangelicals. Given its widespread support, many would be surprised to learn of the short history and scant biblical support for the view.

During my teen years, I not only believed these views to be true, but I was passionate in my belief. I read everything I could get a hold of on this subject of biblical prophecy, and before I was 20 I had consumed not only Hal Lindsey's wildly popular Late Great Planet Earth, but other books elaborating on similar themes by authors such as John Walvoord, Harold Wilmington, Tim Lahaye, and Jack van Impe. Back then, my church held a week of revival meetings twice a year, and most of the time when those meetings were held, one night would be devoted to the subject of the return of Christ. I always looked forward to those as an opportunity to hear new insights on how the Bible actually predicted things taking place in the Cold War era that would soon end with the triumphant return of the Lord. And, I loved sharing my detailed knowledge of these things with my friends. As such, I knew that the 10 nations (at that time) of the European Common Market were the 10 horns in Revelation that would eventually be ruled by anti-Christ. I knew that the anti-Christ would require his mark (666) to be placed on every person. I knew that the Soviet Union was prophesied in Ezekiel 38 and 39 to launch an attack on Israel that would end in spectacular defeat. I knew that the Book of Daniel and Jesus' Olivet Discourse spoke of a temple in Jerusalem that would be rebuilt.  And, I knew that prior to all of those things, that Christians would be delivered out of the world by a secret but calamitous event referred to as the Rapture.

In short, I knew lots of things that I now think are untrue. Some would read this in shock and claim that I have turned from the Bible. To the contrary, I think that I have now rejected bad theology and embraced a more biblical understanding.

Under my old view, to say that one was reading the Bible next to his newspaper was a statement of faith, as it revealed one's belief that in the Bible God revealed things that otherwise could not have been known so far in advance. While well intentioned, I now believe that this approach dishonors the Bible. All of the Bible's contents, including the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelation, were written by particular authors, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to particular recipients. In some portions of the Bible, the author and recipients are not clearly identified, but in Revelation, they actually are. According to the opening three chapters, Revelation was written by the Apostle John to a group of seven churches in Asia Minor.

To take John seriously as an author of Scripture, and his addressed readers as recipients, one must attempt to read the text as John and his original readers would have understood it. Of course, Christians also believe that these writings have been preserved in our Bibles because they have ongoing relevance to the church in all ages, but that ongoing relevance is rooted in its original meaning. Another way of saying this is to say that before we can know what the Bible means for us, we must know what it meant for its original audience. God revealed himself in his word in real space and time. The Bible is not a mystical book floating in the ether, but it is grounded in real historical contexts. Understanding those contexts is part of what we do in order to understand what it means to us today.

However, the view of Scripture taken by the "Left Behind" view seeks to pull the Bible out of the ether. If Revelation were written to describe in detail modern nations, weaponry, and geopolitical events, then not only did it have no real meaning for John and his original recipients, but it was completely meaningless to readers for the next 1,700 years or more following the time when John wrote it. The Left Behind view is not just that all of those people got it wrong: it was in fact impossible that they could have understood it at all. This is bad Bible interpretation.

Proponents of the view take the position that they are interpreting the Bible literally -- primarily because they see passages in the Bible talking about the Messiah sitting on a throne in Jerusalem as awaiting literal fulfillment -- but sadly many of their views mean that all of the readers prior to the modern age could have had no understanding of much of the Bible, literal or otherwise. In addition, though they claim to be literalists, they are quite selective about what should be understood literally. Thus, in the latter part of Revelation 13, they take the mark of the beast as being literal, but the beast coming out of the sea earlier in the same chapter is figurative. Many will claim that biblically described locusts will actually be helicopters, even while they also claim that the presence of horses described at Armageddon in the final battle are literal.

Even more problematic, they hold to other positions that are nowhere found in Scripture. Most notably, on the basis of passages such as I Thessalonians 4:13-18, they describe a secret "rapture" through which living believers will be transformed and ferreted to heaven, even as the unbelievers left behind are bewildered by the sudden and mysterious disappearance of millions of people. However, that very passage describes the event of Christ's return as something that is so conspicuous that everyone will know what is going on: the Lord will descend with a mighty shout, the voice of the archangel, and God's trumpet.  This hardly seems to be a way of launching a secretive event.

Most premillenial dispensationalists argue that this event launches a seven year period of tribulation. While there is no Scripture that talks about a seven year tribulation, the reasoning that produced this view is fairly clear from those who write about it, and it is important to walk through that reasoning, as it reveals more, far reaching, mistakes that are a part of this view. The notion of a final seven years in world history comes from Daniel 9, a remarkable prophecy in which Daniel explains that the completion of several events, including the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the "cutting off" of "the anointed one," will be accomplished in a period of 70 "weeks." It is not disputed that each week is a period of seven years; however, dispensationalists believe that the completion of the first 69 weeks ended with God hitting the pause button, and that history has now been on hold now for nearly 2,000 years. That final seven years will not occur until God again starts the clock at the time of the Rapture.

Why do they think God stopped the clock?

Their view is that the Jewish rejection of Jesus as Israel's Messiah was an unexpected event. It was so unexpected that none of the Old Testament contemplates the possibility. Thus, that rejection resulted in an interruption of history -- the church age -- in which the message of Christ goes out to the Gentiles. Once this time is completed, God will return to the original plan that concludes with the establishment of a Jewish Kingdom through which Jesus, the Son of David, literally rules on earth at the seat of government in Jerusalem.

It is not surprising that this view is a novel one -- no one believed it until the mid-1800's. While it would require too much space in an already long post to refute all of this, much of it seems questionable even in the description. Biblical support for this understanding is exceptionally weak.

What are the alternatives?

Sadly, many Christians have been taught that there are no alternatives. To reject the above view is to reject the Bible. This is not supported by either theology or history. There have been three primary alternative views that have waxed and waned throughout the Christian era.  These three views are referred to as historical premillenialism, postmillenialism, and amillenialism.

The word "millenium" (the root word contained in each of those names) means "1,000 years." Revelation 20 describes a reign of Christ of that period of time. That is the only passage that mentions this time frame; however, how one understands that reign of Christ will define which of the views one holds to. Of course, there are ranges of understanding within each of those views, and the interpreter of Bible prophecy will need to look to additional Bible passages in order to arrive at his/her understanding. At a minimum, a person seeking to understand Bible prophecy will have to decide on interpretations of Revelation, the Olivet Discourse (Mt. 24), and numerous Old Testament prophecies.

Briefly, following is a quick summary of the major positions. To reiterate, all of these views find support from Christians holding to a high view of Scripture.

Historical Premillenialism. Like dispensational premillenialists described above, this view holds that Jesus will literally reign on earth for a period of 1,000 years following his return, though it doesn't carry much of the interpretive and sensationalist baggage of the dispensational view. This position, which had wide support among the early church fathers, takes literally Old Testament prophecies suggesting that the Son of David will reign from Jerusalem. While that literal understanding might seem like an advantage, it is important to note that New Testament writers sometimes obviously do not read the prophecies in this way. Christ's Kingdom finds description in the New Testament as both already here and not yet, and premillenial views fail to account adequately for that tension. In addition, the premillenial vision of a kingdom in which glorified saints live alongside the living, both converted and unconverted, in a period that will end with a revolt against Christ is problematic, at best.The rationale for a rebuilding of a temple at which sacrifices will be offered is also inconsistent with the New Testament understanding that the need for sacrifice ceased with the accomplishment of Christ, the temple which God raised after three days.

Postmillenialism. According to postmillenialists, the millenium, which is generally regarded as long period of time (not a literal 1,000 years) is a golden age of the church, which results from an eventual nearly universal acceptance of the Gospel that is accompanied by God's gifts of common grace in generally raising human living standards, for which people ascribe to God glory. Christ comes back at the end of this millenial period. It should be noted that there are many Bible passages that describe a widespread faith in God -- "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters that cover the sea" (Hab. 2:14) -- though whether this can be pressed into service as proof of a universal redemptive reign of Christ is more questionable. In addition, it would seem that postmillenialists, sometimes in reaction to premillenialists, have an over realized eschatology in which they move into human history glories that await our eternal future. Finally, postmillenialism is generally too vague to provide an idea as to when the millenium begins.

Amillenialism.  For those keeping score at home, this is the view of this author. In one sense, this is a different variety of postmillenialism, as amillenialists also believe that Christ comes back after the millenium. However, amillenialists are much less optimistic that the Bible promises that the advance of the Gospel will lead to a golden age in human history. In fact, there is considerable evidence that both faith and unbelief will wax and wane until the very end of the age. Those who hold this view note that many Old Testament prophecies and promises are applied spiritually to events that occurred in the aftermath of the coming of Jesus, and we understand that the "millenium" is the undefined but long period of time between Christ's first and second advents. Those promises of an eternal or more blissful state should be applied to the time following Christ's return.

While some do not like what they call "spiritualizing" of the biblical text (some even, ridiculously, accuse amillenialists of being liberals because of our nonliteral reading of some passages) this overlooks the fact that it is not wrong to give a spiritual or nonliteral or metaphorical meaning to a text that is intended to be interpreted that way. When Jesus called himself the door, no one was expected to take that literally. Before one criticizes those who understand a scripture in a nonliteral sense, that critic needs to wrestle with the possibility that the intention of the text was not a literal one.

This is a long blog post, but a brief consideration of a complex topic. For those wanting more information, I would recommend this book, which contains essays and responses by writers of all four views discussed above. In the meantime, I will leave it up to readers to decide whether the Nicholas Cage flick is a thriller that will make for a fun evening at the movie. However, please don't think that it expresses the Christian view of end times.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Ordinary People

I have noted that on occasion the President of the United States will say that he is "outraged" about something that has been said or done, and whenever he says that I feel a sense of relief that he is probably dissimulating for public consumption. Of course, some people get upset when a President is being less than truthful, but in this instance it is better that what he is saying is untrue. For serious matters, the President requires sound judgment, and the notion that he is "outraged," or emotionally out of control, is a more unsettling thought than the idea that he may have exaggerated about the state of his emotions.

Yet, I have also noted that the President is hardly the only one to use over the top speech about his emotional state in order to establish the bona fides of his personal authenticity. Christian leaders -- or the consultants who advise them -- seem to like this, too. Thus, one leader seeks to impress by informing his audience that he is "obsessed" with his particular mission. Another urges his followers to join him in being "radical."

These are being held forth as worthy qualifications for leadership. When did being unbalanced become a virtue, not a vice? Why is it thought that Christians and others want leaders who talk as though their primary credential is the need for mental health treatment?

The church needs leaders who pray, know their Bibles, meet the criteria for leadership in a church -- and that are more or less normal. It would behoove the evangelical world to become less obsessive about the obsessed.

Monday, September 01, 2014

There are no hidden meanings in the Bible

Many well meaning Christians will dispute the title of this post. In fact, many will claim that the discovery of such hidden meanings results from the Spirit's work, which leads to the accusation that someone who claims that there are no such meanings must be unspiritual or even opposed to the Spirit's work. Even so, it is the contention of this post that recognizing that such hidden, supposedly spiritual meanings do not exist is an essential aspect of a healthy Christian life and that the quest for deeper spiritual and hidden meanings in the biblical text is spiritually harmful and even dangerous.

The reason that it is potentially dangerous is that the person who unmoors Scripture from its historical context and proper reading can as a result make the Bible out to mean anything that comes to mind. Without objective criteria for proper interpretation, there really are no mechanisms for determining whether one's claims for finding a meaning are accurate. At worst, this can become self-delusion, as a person reads his own desires, interests, or pet peeves into Scripture. Using Scripture in this way is also ultimately idolatrous, as the practice in essence leads its practitioners to claim as the Word of God what really are their own thoughts.

Thus, the reader of the Bible should approach its teaching in a straightforward manner -- and when he does so, he finds two things that on the surface seem contradictory. The Bible is a clear book that anyone can read and understand.  The Bible is a hard book to read.

The Bible is clear in that an ordinary person can read and understand it. Scholars are not required, though it should be noted that saying that they are not required is not the same thing as saying that they can't be useful. It is hubris, not spiritual maturity, that leads some to claim that they don't want to use teachers. Those who have a hunger for understanding the Bible should enjoy the work of those who have a more thorough knowledge of its contents.

But while the Bible is a clear book, it is also a hard book to read. In order to understand why this is true, it is important to briefly review the factors that make it hard.  The Bible is 1) a very large book 2) containing a collection of works of different genres 3) written in different languages 4) to people from a different age and culture 5) sometimes in response to concerns that aren't clearly stated.

That the Bible is a large book makes it difficult to master all of the contents in a way that allows us to see how all of the parts fit together. For example, there are hundreds of references to the Old Testament in the New. Many readers have no idea that is the case; yet, understanding why the New Testament writers borrowed Old Testament language can be essential to understanding their meaning.

That the Bible contains various types of literary genres will make understanding difficult for someone who doesn't realize that history must be read differently than a proverb or a Psalm differently than a letter. Each of these require looking at the text in different ways.

That the Bible was originally written in other languages means that there may be issues of translation that most readers lack expertise to evaluate. While the popular English translations are good, the typically minor differences do create some uncertainty about meaning to readers. Idioms cannot always be translated clearly, and sometimes words or phrases from one language have no clear parallel in another.

That the Bible was written to a different age and culture means that it sometimes addresses questions in a way that is not immediately applicable to modern life. Finding the original meaning prior to determining proper application can become a difficult task. Cultural mores might be a complete mystery to the reader.

That the Bible was sometimes written in response to unstated concerns means that sometimes the reader is only getting half the conversation. For example, the reader finds Paul's solutions to problems, but there is no statement as to what the problems were that required solving. In I Corinthians, Paul clearly indicates that he is responding to questions in a letter that had been delivered to him, but the full contents of the letter are not provided. Without knowing the questions, it is possible to misconstrue the significance of the answers.

While each of these items creates some difficulty, that difficulty is not resolved by some sort of "spiritual" reading of the text. Rather, these difficulties point us to the value of good books and teachers that address them. Looking for hidden meanings in the text only adds a layer of confusion on to the difficulty.

How, then, should the reader approach the Bible? The short answer is that the reader should approach the Bible by looking for its plain meaning. In other words, the texts of Scripture should be read 1) in their historical context; 2) using the ordinary rules of grammar and word meaning; and 3) recognizing the distinct literary form. One should also read the Scripture with a view toward its unifying themes, which might be described as redemptive or covenantal (ultimately, the Bible is a book about Christ).As indicated before, all of this is not intended to require the reader to be an intellectual. Anyone can benefit by looking at resources that help one understand things like context or how words were used. However, the emphasis here is on reading the text for its plain meaning.

While that might be a hard concept for one to get used to if he/she has been taught to look for hidden spiritual meanings in a text, it is ultimately liberating. There is no comfort to be found in the need to look for hyperspiritual meanings that can't be found by ordinary eyes. It is a joy to realize that the Bible, with the help of good teachers, is a book that is not out of reach. To find the Word of God, as Romans 10 explains it, one needs neither to ascend to the heavens nor descend to the depths. Rather, God's Word is near.

While this process is liberating, at first it may seem hard, as it removes one's ability to "claim" verses as one's own in ways that have nothing to do with what they actually mean. This means recognizing that "I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength" has nothing to do with prevailing at the football game on Friday night -- it has to do with contentment, even when facing, as in the Apostle Paul's case, the ravages of prison. That Jesus' command to "judge not" comes only a few verses before another command not to "cast your pearls before swine" might give one pause before asserting the popular view of the former mandate.

When it comes to the subject of end times prophecy, the self-proclaimed spiritual interpretations get even stranger. The subject of events related to the return of Christ is a complex one that divides even responsible interpreters. Sadly, many of those who write on such subjects do so in ways that are irresponsible. While it would take more than a blog post to resolve and respond to all of those sorts of craziness, one can at least say that the above principles of historical/grammatical/literary interpretation apply even to prophesy and apocalyptic literature, which must be understood in its historical and literary context.

Recent decades have seen huge numbers of people follow after prophecy teachers that claim to find secret codes and messages, as well as odd numerological sequences. These kinds of teachers should be avoided like the plague. Spiritual illumination does not refer to secret meanings that the enlightened uncover. Instead of seeking that sort of gnostic illumination, read the Bible for its plain meaning and look for the Spirit's illumination in applying the truths that are found to life.