Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A Note on Eschatology

This was originally posted on my Xanga blog on August 2nd, having been prompted by a Newsweek interview with Tim LaHaye (co-author of the Left Behind series) that I read during the recent Israel-Lebanon conflict.


Y'know, I used to be an enormous fan of the Left Behind books. But then two things happened. First, the series got way over-long and got a little too, shall we say, market-driven (it really ticked me off when the message boards on their website started requiring a paid subscription). Second, I went to seminary. Now, again, maybe I've just become the jaded academic - the seminary grad your pastor warned you about. But frankly, when I look at the linguistic and theological and exegetical training I had at Asbury, and set that next to the entire dispensational framework ("premillenial dispensationalism" is the formal term for the theological school of which the Left Behind books are a popular exemplar), my first reaction is, "You can't do that!!"

For example, take the rapture. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the doctrine of the rapture holds that at some point (opinions differ as to what point precisely) during the seven years immediately preceding Jesus' return, all Christians will be removed from the earth and taken directly to heaven. Now, first of all, it should be noted that the first clear example of someone teaching this particular idea was sometime in (if memory serves) the mid-19th century. A.D. That's important. Also, 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is often cited in support of this doctrine. This is a problem.

Taken in isolation, the verse seems very much to support the doctrine of the rapture: "Then we who remain alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; thus we will be with the Lord always." There are two main problems, though. The first is context. The immediate context of verse 17 is verses 13-18. Paul is not, in this passage, primarily discussing the return of Christ. He mentions it here in the context of a discussion about those Christians who have already died at the time of the writing of the letter. His audience is concerned about those Christians who die before Jesus' return (exactly what concerns they may have expressed is uncertain - we must remember when reading Paul's letters that we usually have only half of a conversation). Paul, then, is here exhorting his readers not to worry: God raised Jesus, He will raise those who die in Christ before Jesus comes back (v.14). In fact, he says, when Jesus does return, those who have died and those who yet live will meet Him at the same time. Neither will precede the other (v.15). In fact, when the Lord returns, we will all - sleepers and those who still live - meet Him at the same time (v.17). Thus what we have here is less a prediction of the rapture than an explanation (and an offer of comfort) regarding those Christians who have died before seeing Jesus return.

The second problem with citing this verse in support of the rapture is rather more obscure. It involves a bit of Greek vocabulary in its historical context. At the crucial point of the verse we have the following "we will be caught up... to meet the Lord." Now, I've translated this phrase in pretty much the same way as everyone else, "to meet." The problem is, it's not a terribly clear translation, as it lends the impression that the underlying Greek is a verb, rather than a noun. In fact, a more wooden translation would be "to (or for) a meeting of the Lord." Of course, that makes less sense in English, hence the polishing done in my translation (and everyone else's, too). The thing is, the noun for "meeting" here (apantesis, if you want to know) is something of a technical term. It refers, in fact, to the Roman practice of the triumphal parade, where a general (or the emperor) fresh from winning a battle, would march into a city (whether Rome or somewhere else) with a parade consisting of his troops and of the spoils of war - exotic animals, captured slaves, enemy kings/leaders, etc. As the triumphator approached the city with his army and his spoils, the people of the city would go out to meet him and escort him into the walls. The word for this meeting is the same as is used here in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 - apantesis (ah-PAHN-tay-sis). The same word appears twice more in the New Testament: in Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15, and both usages are consistent with this meaning. So whatever one does with 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and rapture theology, this has to be taken into account.

I'll close off with a couple of quotes from the article above, and be done...

Newsweek: "[M]y understanding is that current biblical scholarship reads some of the apocalyptic scenes in the Bible as metaphorically addressing events that were taking place as the Bible was being written."
Tim LaHaye: "
These are usually liberal theologians that don’t believe the Bible literally."

Newsweek: "So the Revelation should not be interpreted, for example, as a polemic against Rome?"
Tim LaHaye: "
That’s what they say. We believe that the Bible should be understood literally whenever possible."

There's a seriously problematic false dichotomy in play here. LaHaye is basically asserting that not believing the Bible literally=being a liberal theologian. Well, I cry foul. I, frankly, don't believe "the Bible should be understood literally whenever possible." I believe the Bible should be understood literally whenever the text intends to be understood literally. It may not seem like a big difference, but it is, in fact, a huge difference. Often the text of Scripture narrates supernatural events with the full expectation that the reader accept those events as actually, literally having happened - the miracles of Jesus, up to and including the resurrection, are an example. But sometimes the text narrates events with the understanding that the audience not take them literally. The parables of Jesus are an example. No one believed that there really had been a man with two sons, one of whom took his inheritance early and ran off to squander it (Luke 15). God is perfectly capable and (if the preaching of Jesus is any indication) perfectly willing to express certain spiritual and theological truths using symbol, type, and metaphor. If we insist on taking the symbology and the metaphor as literal, we miss what the text is trying to say. With all due respect to Dr. LaHaye, he seems never to have asked whether or not Revelation is meant to be taken as a literal description the end of time. I happen to believe that it isn't. What it is meant to do is a different post for a different day. Suffice it to say that I think those who draw up timelines of the tribulation and ask where America fits into end-times prophecy are missing the point rather badly and forcing the text to answer questions it was never meant to answer.

(Oh, and I may have said this before, but I find myself often thanking God that there are no references to donkeys or elephants in Revelation - "See! The Antichrist is a Democrat!!!!")

Addendum 1
It's worth noting that when Dr. LaHaye says we should take the Bible literally whenever possible, he makes certain glaring exceptions. An example is the letters to the seven churches in the first three chapters of Revelation. A "literally whenever possible" approach ought, I think, to take these letters at face value - as letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) to whom the book was written. Cover letters, if you will. That's how the text of Revelation presents them. Dr. LaHaye, however, (and most dispensational theologians with him) interprets them metaphorically as referring to the seven ages of the history of the church, beginning with the time immediately following Pentecost (Acts 1-2), and running up through modern times. Ignoring the fact that church history does not match up all that well with this schema, there is absolutely nothing in the text of Revelation which demands - or even suggests - that these letters be taken as other than what they are: letters to seven churches in Asia Minor, the contents of which are available for application and appropriation by other readers as well (hence the "let he who has ears hear" refrain throughout the letters).

Addendum 2 (For Clarification)
It occurs to me that some of what I wrote in the above could bear some clarifying. It's important to note both what I said, and what I did not say.

I did not say that there is no long-term predictive prophecy in the Bible, nor did I say that the Bible tells us nothing about the return of Jesus or of the events immediately preceding it. I do say that the Bible doesn't tell us all that much about these events - and certainly far less than dispensational theology in general and Tim LaHaye in particular would have us believe. I believe this is intentional, as God has other things He would rather we be doing than watching the skies. I also did not say that there will be no rapture. 1 Thessalonians 4:17 does say that those who are alive when Jesus returns will be caught up to meet Him. I do not, however, believe that that reference alone can bear the theological weight that is often placed upon it.

What I most vehemently challenge is Dr. LaHaye's assertion, in essence, that those who take the Bible seriously take it literally, and therefore agree with him, while those who take positions other than his are liberal theologians who fail to take the Bible seriously.

I am, by most definitions, a conservative theologian. However, my primary allegiance is to the text of Scripture, and to the God who speaks through that text. If that requires me to take theological position that could be labeled either "liberal" or "conservative," then so be it. I care not one bit for such labels. The fact of the matter is that it is entirely possible to interpret the book of Revelation (and the creation accounts of Genesis) in a manner that is theologically orthodox, academically and exegetically responsible, and yet not "literal." And it is possible, in so doing, to avoid certain distinct exegetically fallacious and theologically dubious errors that may often attend the "literal" interpretation of such a text.