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.


Emmett Secrest said...

Very enjoyable read and not long at all.

Harry J. Monroe, Jr. said...

Thanks, Emmett!