2012: Doomsday All Over Again

Progress or Regress

It is the end of the world again. The world was predicted to end at least eight times in the past 30 years, from the Jupiter Effect in 1982 to what became a common punch line, “88 reasons why the rapture will happen in 1988.” Then there was the granddaddy of all false apocalyptic prophecies: the millennium bug of 2000, when it was widely held that all computers would fail at the turn of the millennium. Let’s not forget the two failed predictions of the end in 2011. Now the world faces yet another prediction of the end with the Mayan calendar prophecy of 2012. In an age of super–science, computers, space travel and accelerating progress, why are people fascinated with the end of the world?

We have all heard the phrase “What goes up must come down.” This captures the  popular attitude towards progress and regress. Americans believe strongly in human perfectibility and the inevitability of technological progress. This idea states that as technology moves society from its primitive state to an advanced condition it will eventually improve, bringing a better tomorrow. The world is getting better and better. Faith in progress provides the engine for all the accelerating technological changes from space exploration, media, computers, to science and medicine. Historian Robert Nisbet noted the essential role of progress in our belief system when he said that progress does not represent one aspect of modern life, but in fact provides the keystone idea and context for the entire modern worldview, including democracy, equality, social justice and, of course, science and technology.{1} The modern world does not exist without the belief in progress. Technological improvement makes no sense without the larger telos, or purpose of history, guiding it. Simply put, all of this innovation leads to a utopian future.

So we are left with the question, If America is so progressive why is it so obsessed with the end of the world or apocalypticism, a belief that is not progressive, but regressive? This view of history does not move toward a utopian society of universal peace, ease and convenience, but rather toward calamity. Progress and regress share the same view of history. Any belief in progress necessarily has a regressive interpretation. They each look at the same circumstances and data and draw complementary conclusions. One sees the dawn of a great society, the other sees the end of the world. They represent complementary ideas in the same way life and death complement each other. What lives eventually dies, so what progresses will also necessarily regress.

All people intuitively know that they will die one day; so then society, the collective “person,” knows it too must one day die. If progress takes place we know that its opposite, regress, will also happen. Regressive thought states that the progress we take for granted potentially has a downside and in fact will result in something catastrophic. Our society will one day come to an end. It cannot live forever any more than an individual can live forever in a mortal body. We know that what goes up must come down. The current obsession over the end of the world in movies, such as 2012, Melancholia and Contagion or wildly popular novels such as the Left Behind series, the predictions of popular preachers or the Mayan prophecy all cater to our regressive and pessimistic side. This is not as bad as it first sounds. Death creates the foundation of all religion, philosophy and culture as attempts to provide answers for our questions and solace in times of doubt and need. The reality of death causes people to look for the meaning of life. Christians need to harness the regressive side of culture because it warns of imminent danger and offers the opportunity to introduce people to Jesus Christ. Regressive thinking, like the knowledge of our own death, makes us all aware of our need for God and the Savior. Believers must take advantage of this primal consciousness of the end to tell people about what the Bible says concerning the end of the world and the return of Christ. But in order to do this successfully we must first establish guidelines on how to identify false prophecy.

What the Bible Says

Today people are searching for the meaning of life in the wrong places, such as the prophecies of Nostradamus, astrology and, again, the Mayan prophecy of 2012. It is a sign of the end times when there are many false prophets talking about the end of the world (Matthew 24:11). The false prophet shows that people are aware that the end is near.

There are two rules in Scripture that will help believers identify false prophets, which should be followed without exception. First, prophecy must never set a date regarding when the world will end. Jesus spoke clearly about the signs of His return and the end of the world when He said,  “But of the day and the hour no one knows” (Matthew 24:36). Anyone who comes to you with a firm date as to when the world will end such as December 21, 2012 should be avoided. Cultists continually violate this cardinal rule. For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have predicted the end of the world eight times between 1914 and 1975. Popular radio preacher Harold Camping predicted the end in 1994 and twice in 2011. The speculation surrounding the year 2000 was much like it is today over 2012. Scientific evidence was proffered predicting that all computers would fail at the turn of the last millennium. This warning was taken very seriously by most people who made preparations for the potential disaster, demonstrating the pervasive sentiment of impending of doom.

However, many Bible-believing Christians also fall prey to the error of date–setting, even if this practice is often veiled in vague language and logic. For example, when prophecy experts identify leading political figures as the Antichrist, such as Hitler, Mussolini or Saddam Hussein, they engage in false prophecy. This approach will invariably get us into trouble because it starts the clock ticking. If Saddam Hussein were the Antichrist, then logically Christ should have returned before the end of his life, since the Antichrist is the precursor to the coming of Christ (Rev. 6:2; 2 Thess. 2:3). However, we know that did not happen. In this way, identification of the Antichrist with any leading figure becomes false prophecy.

How much better it would have been to say Hussein was like the Antichrist or prefigured the Antichrist, rather than identify him as the Antichrist. This simple switch in focus spares us the humiliation of false prophecy, but retains all the power of moral denunciation that apocalyptic thinking offers.

This leads to the second rule of indentifying false prophecy: all prophecy must have a moral imperative. This means people should not engage in speculation and prognostication for the fun of it. A biblical approach to prophecy gives a warning about future judgment and a chance to repent: “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near” (Rev. 1:3; see also 2 Thess. 2:1, 5-10). Prophecy engages in denouncing moral outrage, which is why it couches things in the strongest possible language. To say that the world is coming to an end or that someone is the Antichrist gets a lot of attention, but requires a moral cause to justify its claims.

If the prophecy gives a date and it lacks the moral imperative, then the prophecy reveals itself to be false and sensationalistic. The Mayan 2012 prophecy fails on both counts. Although it causes us to contemplate the end, it sets a date and offers no reason for why the world should end. It is simply doomsday all over again!

Notes

1. Robert Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 9, 171.

© 2012 Probe Ministries

 

See Also:

2012: Is the Sky Really Falling?

 




A Preterist Responds to ‘Four Views of Revelation’

I have just read Pat Zukeran’s article “Four Views of Revelation.” I believe he has done a rather good job in presenting the four different views as they are regarded by most scholars today. I do know that Probe is a general apologetics ministry and as such does not take an official stance on end time prophecy. However, as a former Probe intern and preterist who has done a great deal of research over the last several years on the first century fulfillment of end time prophecy, I am excited to share some of what I have learned by addressing some of these common objections to the preterist perspective raised by Pat in his article. It is my intention to use the objections raised in this article to illustrate just how formidable the preterist perspective perspective, when properly understood, can be in answering what is seen by C.S. Lewis and many other Christians as the greatest challenge to Christianity: the delay of the second coming of Christ.{1}

There are half a dozen verses in the Bible in which Jesus seems to explicitly promise to return within the lifetime of his generation. One such example is Matthew 24:34. In this chapter, Jesus promises that the temple will be destroyed, the abomination that causes desolation will be set up, and He will return on the clouds of heaven within that generation. The temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. at the same time that the abomination that causes desolation was set up on the wing of the temple. But did Jesus return as he had promised? There are four major interpretations for the Book of Revelation. This is because there really seem to be only four conceivable ways to interpret this text. If that is true and the Bible and the Book of Revelation are entirely correct, then some variation of one of these views must be true.

Most Christian preterists, like myself, started out as dispensationalists or futurists because this default perspective requires the least amount of background knowledge and as such is by far the most popular view. Most people are simply not sufficiently interested in end time prophecy to research alternative perspectives. There is an immense amount of research and historical knowledge necessary in order to understand the Book of Revelation from a preterist perspective, and I believe this fact alone accounts for its undeserved obscurity as well as the great deal of diversity of interpretations of various verses in the Book of Revelation. This diversity of interpretations should not be construed as evidence against preterism as Mounce and others suggest since similar divergence in opinions is found in all other views of this book. Because of the wealth of historical sources that must be perused, preterist apologists each seem to grasp different aspects of Revelation better than others and as such there are a number of differing opinions on different verses; thus, many false and tenuous views and interpretations have been put forth throughout the last two thousand years. I believe the more one learns about first century Roman history, the more difficult this perspective is to deny while remaining intellectually honest. I would like to try to illustrate this belief by addressing some of the common objections to preterism raised by this article. I will begin with Matthew 24:27:

“[A]s lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:27).

I would agree with Pat that tying this event to the advancement of Rome is a stretch and if true, a major weakness to the preterist view. In this verse, Jesus likens His return to a lightning bolt that is visible from great distances. Perhaps Jesus is describing a literal event linked with His return? After all, lightning often appears to originate from dark storm clouds and Jesus did say he was to come on the clouds of heaven at His second coming. The fullness of the miracle that is the second coming of Christ can be found in the writings of three different first century historians: Tacitus, Suetonius and Josephus. When most people think of the second coming they get an image of Jesus riding on the clouds of heaven. A detailed description of the second coming can be found in Revelation 19. Here Jesus is seen in the sky riding a white horse at the head of the armies of heaven. This event is actually recorded in the writings of both Josephus and Tacitus. Here a specter is witnessed in the sky over Israel which marked the start of the Jewish revolt in AD 66. In his history of the Jewish War, Josephus writes:

On the one and twentieth day of the month Artemisius, [Jyar,] a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared: I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities.{2}

In the above verse, an army is witnessed in the clouds over Israel. It is not a stretch to imagine Jesus at the head of this phantom army as God often appears to men in the presence of the heavenly host. According to the New Testament, Jesus was expected to return in the presence of the holy angels. This fact is made clear in Mark 8:38 though this is certainly not the only verse.{3} In Deuteronomy 33:2, Moses revealed to the people that when God descended on Mount Sinai and Mount Paran he came with a myriad of his holy ones. Christ’s return is modeled after this prestige. Like his father before him when he had descended on Mount Sinai, Christ also came on a cloud in the company of the heavenly host.

I believe the second coming of Jesus is described in a couple different verses in Revelation since the prophecies of Revelation frequently repeat themselves.{4} I believe the second coming is described again in Revelation 12:7. Here this angelic army is described fighting the armies of Satan. This war in heaven fits the chronology of the second coming nicely and is recorded in the writings of a first century secular historian, Tacitus:

In the sky appeared a vision of armies in conflict, of glittering armour. A sudden lightning flash from the clouds lit up the Temple. The doors of the holy place abruptly opened, a superhuman voice was heard to declare that gods were leaving it, and in the same instant came the rushing tumult of their departure.{5}

In this event one can see the literal fulfillment of Matthew 24:27: “For just as lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be.” Possibly linked with the appearance of the heavenly host in the sky, Tacitus records a flash of lightening striking the temple followed by what may be the departure of the seven angels from the temple with the seven trumpets and bowls. The subsequent fulfillment of these plagues spans the next several years, culminating with the seventh plague resulting in the fall of Jerusalem, the whore of Babylon.

The next objection concerns the abomination that causes desolation initiated by Titus:

Second, General Titus did not set up an “abomination of desolation” (Mt. 24:15) in the Jerusalem Temple. Rather, he destroyed the Temple and burned it to the ground. Thus, it appears the preterist is required to allegorize or stretch the metaphors and symbols in order to find fulfillment of the prophecies in the fall of Jerusalem.

The abomination that causes desolation mentioned in Matthew 24:15 refers back to Daniel 9:27:

He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing of the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.

Fitting the context of this chapter, the seven mentioned in the above verse refers to a seven year period. The Jewish War stretched across seven years and six months from the arrival of the Roman army in A.D. 66 to its conclusion at the fall of Masada. Between three and a half and four years after the start of the war, “in the middle of the seven,” Titus set up the abomination that causes desolation. This event is recorded in The Wars of the Jews:

Upon the burning of the holy house itself, and of all the building roundabout it, [the Roman army] brought their ensigns to the temple, and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them, and there did they make Titus imperator, with great acclamations of joy.{6}

The Roman ensigns were symbolic images of Caesar and Rome, the beast of Revelation. Upon these ensigns were often hung a cast image of the reigning Caesar.{7} Therefore it is likely that the ensigns worshipped on the eastern wing of the temple contained an image of Caesar Vespasian, the beast whose wound had been healed.{8} These ensigns were objects of the cult and were often worshipped by the Roman army. This is one such example. In an outward display of worship, the Roman army offered blasphemous sacrifices to these images of the beast on the wing of the temple, specifically its eastern gate. The fact that it was on the eastern gate is highly significant since the Messiah was to enter this gate in fulfillment of Ezekiel 44:2-3. As a side note, the entrance of a supernatural entity through this gate is recorded in Wars 6.5.3.293.{9} After this abominable act, the Romans destroyed the temple and went on a mass killing spree, hence Jesus’ warning to flee in the following verses.{10} With the temple destroyed, all sacrifices and grain offerings had permanently come to an end in fulfillment of Daniel 9:27.

The third objection is about the identity of the 144,000:

Another example of allegorical interpretation by preterists is their interpretation of Revelation 7:4. John identifies a special group of prophets: the 144,000 from the “tribes of Israel.” Preterist Hanegraaff states that this group represents the true bride of Christ and is referred to in Rev. 7:9 as the “great multitude that no one could count from every nation, tribe, people, and language.” In other words, the 144,000 in verse 4, and the great multitude in verse 9 are the same people. This appears to go against the context of the chapter for several reasons. First, throughout the Bible the phrase “tribes of Israel” refers to literal Jews. Second, John says there are 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. This is a strange way to describe the multitude of believers from all nations. Finally, the context shows John is speaking of two different groups: one on the earth (the 144,000 referenced in 7:1-3), and the great multitude in heaven before the throne (7:9). Here Hanegraaff appears to be allegorizing the text.

I agree that Hank Hanagraaf is putting a square peg in a round hole by equating the 144,000 with the innumerable multitude from every nation, tribe and language before the heavenly throne. The 144,000 are Jewish Christians. In my opinion, the 144,000 where the Jewish Christians referred to by Eusebius that fled to Pella before the war.{11} These Christians seem to fit the 144,000 well because they were preserved from the ravages of Israel’s war with Rome. These saints then returned to Israel after the war with Rome.

The fourth criticism of preterism has to do with a perceived lack of victory of good over evil:

Robert Mounce states,

The major problem with the preterist position is that the decisive victory portrayed in the latter chapters of the Apocalypse was never achieved. It is difficult to believe that John envisioned anything less than the complete overthrow of Satan, the final destruction of evil, and the eternal reign on God. If this is not to be, then either the Seer was essentially wrong in the major thrust of his message or his work was so helplessly ambiguous that its first recipients were all led astray.

I absolutely agree with Mounce, the overthrow of Satan and the eternal reign of the Messiah is certainly presented in the seer’s vision. However, this is primarily a heavenly event because God and his messiah rule earth from heaven since earth is merely God’s footstool. Christ was not to reign eternally on earth, his throne, like that of his Father, is and was in heaven. Paul writes, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”{12}The final casting out of Satan and his forces of evil from heaven is a consequence of the war in heaven mentioned in Revelation 12:7. Interestingly, this war was seen in the skies over Israel as mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus, whom I have quoted above.{13} This war resulted in the destruction of heaven prophesied in the Bible. One clear example of the anticipated destruction of heaven is found in 2 Peter 3:12: “That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire…” The prophet Isaiah looked ahead to the aftermath of this destruction in Isaiah 65:17: “See I will create a new heaven and a new earth.” The new Jerusalem mentioned in Revelation 21 and 22 is the new heaven and the new earth. The earthly Jerusalem had been destroyed after the war with Rome in the same way that the heavenly Jerusalem had been destroyed as a result of the war between Christ and His rival, Satan. The last two chapters of Revelation describe the rebuilding of the Jerusalem on earth in such a way as to mirror the Jerusalem that is in heaven after it was destroyed with all its grandeur and glory. The destruction of both the Jerusalem on earth and the Jerusalem in heaven would seem to be concurrent events evidenced by the war seen in the skies over Israel at the start of Israel’s war with Rome as well as the frequency in which these two events are linked in prophecy.

This great victory in heaven also has an earthly shadow. In the same way that the wicked angels were cast out of heaven at the return of Christ, the earthly victory attained at the end of the Jewish War resulted in the expulsion of the wicked out of Israel. Jerusalem with its temple on earth was to represent heaven symbolically and thus the inhabitants of this nation were expected to be righteous. In Deuteronomy 28, God promised to destroy and expel the inhabitants of Israel if they ever rejected him and his law. God made good on this promise a couple times throughout the Old Testament and the final culmination of this curse took place amidst the Jewish War with Rome and the subsequent Bar Kochba rebellion. Each and every curse mentioned in Deuteronomy 28, even as far as the return to slavery in Egypt, is recorded to have been fulfilled throughout the course of these two wars most of them several times over. The Bible is clear that the nation of Israel, especially its leadership, had become hopelessly corrupt. This is why Jesus was perpetually angry at the scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the Law.

One of many prominent examples of Jesus’ feelings about the Jewish leadership can be found in Matthew 23. But it was not just the Jewish leadership that had fallen away, a great percentage of the common people had rejected God as well. In Luke 11:29 Jesus laments, “This generation is a wicked generation.” Jesus was not the only Jew to note the wickedness of his first century contemporaries. The author of The Wars of the Jews which outlines the fulfillment of much of the events detailed in the Book of Revelation, was also a first century Jew. The outstanding wickedness of first century Israelites is a recurrent theme throughout Josephus’ account of the Jewish War. In this text, Josephus writes concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and the perceived wickedness of its occupants, “Neither did any other city ever suffer such miseries, nor did any age ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness that this was, from the beginning of the world.”{14} Over the next 1000 years, until the first Crusade, Gentile Christians had migrated into Israel until Jerusalem had become 95% Christian. Christians were an overwhelming majority during this millennium–even after the Muslim conquest. During this 1000 year period, Israel had experienced unprecedented peace–much more so than any other time period in all of Israel’s history. Few people know much about events in Israel during the first thousand years of the Common Era, and there is a good reason: virtually nothing bad ever happened.{15} The great victory achieved at the end of Revelation is the destruction and exile of the wicked people of Israel, the whore of Babylon, to make way for the new Jerusalem, a Jerusalem occupied by the faithful of God. This earthly victory of the saints is a shadow of the final victory illustrated at the end of Revelation which ultimately points to the aftermath of the destruction of heaven and the establishment of the New Jerusalem therein. There is a lot that can be said about this heavenly and earthly victory and everything else I have mentioned thus far. The rest of which is far beyond my original intentions in writing this essay.

The last argument against preterism has to do with the fact that the majority of scholars believe that Revelation was written during Domitian’s reign. This of course presents a problem to this view as virtually all predictions detailed in Revelation are believed to have already occurred before Domitian had become emperor. A detailed and compelling rebuttal of this commonly held view can be found in Before Jerusalem Fell by Kenneth Gentry. In this book, Dr. Gentry presents the multifaceted internal and external evidence in favor of an earlier date of composition: specifically during Nero’s reign.

Reading through the works of Eusebius, Josephus, Tacitus, Cassius Dio and Suetonius one can find a multitude of recorded natural and supernatural events that fit the vast array of Biblical predictions concerning the end time like a glove. There are few instances in which the fulfillment of end time events is not recorded somewhere in the writings of the above mentioned historians and thus when properly informed there is really no need to “excessively allegorize.”

My intention in commenting on the objections raised to the preterist perspective mentioned in this article was to illustrate the fact that there are compelling answers to perhaps any question that can be raised concerning the end of the age. I strongly believe the more one studies the Bible alongside first century Roman history, the more amazed one will be upon finding just how remarkably well the information found in these sources matches up with the detailed predictions concerning the end time. Because many of the predictions concerning the end of the age found in the Bible were written hundreds of years before their fulfillment, I see preterism as one of the greatest tools an informed Christian can use to defend the divine inspiration of the Bible. The delay of the second coming is seen by many as Christianity’s Achilles heel. The fact that there are not just answers to this dilemma, but extremely compelling ones is a testimony to the infallibility of the word of God, and it is my hope that someday in my lifetime good answers from the preterist perspective will be in every great apologetic tool kit.

Notes

1. www.preteristarchive.com/StudyArchive/t/theory_parousia-delay.html

2. Josephus, The Wars of the Jews 6.5.3.

3. Luke 9:26; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; Jude 1:14; Revelation 19:11-14.

4. One example of this repetition is the seven trumpets and the seven plagues. When read side by side, these seven plagues and trumpets seem similar enough to suggest the possibility that they are actually describing the same tragedies. This view is solidified much further when examining their historical fulfillment over the latter half of the first century.

5. Tacitus, The Histories 5.13.

6. Wars 6.6.1.

7. Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars 3.48, 4.14; Tacitus, The Histories 4.62,1.41.

8. The beast of Revelation is a metaphor to describe an empire in the same way that the four beasts in Daniel 7 symbolized four great empires. The fourth beast was Rome. In Revelation 13, Rome is described in greater detail as a seven-headed dragon also known as a leviathan. The leviathan was a mythical seven-headed sea monster of ancient Canaanite lore. It is believed by some scholars that the myth of the leviathan may have given rise to the Greek myth of the hydra with its ability to grow back wounded heads. The seven heads of the leviathan represent seven Caesars. The sixth Caesar, Nero, killed himself in the middle of the Jewish War with Rome by stabbing himself in the neck; thus, Nero represents the wounded head of the beast in Revelation 13:3. At his death, Nero had not named his successor which left a power vacuum that pitted the Roman elite against each other in an epic succession struggle that seemed almost certain to topple the empire. During the year after Nero’s death, Rome was in the middle of two wars in addition to a three-way civil war which had left three dead Caesars in its wake. Ultimately control of the empire rested on Caesar Vespasian, the lead general of the Roman army during the Jewish War. Shortly after Vespasian rose to power, Jerusalem fell and peace resumed throughout the empire. Rome miraculously had not fallen and was seemingly stronger than ever; therefore, Vespasian represents the healing of the sixth head of the beast.

9. The eastern gate of the temple was to remain shut at all times. The only time it was to be opened was when the prince would enter it to offer sacrifices in the temple. According to Wars, the gate of the temple was seen to have opened on its own accord during Passover. Josephus suggests that at the sixth hour of the night, the eastern gate of the temple opened on its own and at the ninth hour a light shone round the altar and the temple. So bright was this light that it appeared to be daytime in the city of Jerusalem. There are several interesting things to note about this miracle: First, Passover was the holiday in which Jesus was crucified. Furthermore, according to Matthew 27:45, during the crucifixion darkness was over the land from the sixth hour to the ninth hour of the day. Here thirty-three years later on the anniversary of Jesus’ crucifixion, the opposite occurs: the eastern gate of the temple opened on the sixth hour of the night and at the ninth hour Jerusalem was bathed in a mysterious light so bright that it appeared to be daytime in the middle of the night. In this miracle, we find the literal fulfillment of Zechariah 14:7.

10. Matt 24:16-22.

11. Eusebius, The History of the Church 3.5.

12. Ephesians 6:12.

13 Tacitus, The Histories 5.13.

14. Josephus, The Wars of the Jews 5.10.5, 6.8.5.

15. Other than the Bar Kochba rebellion, a couple instances of Roman persecution of Christians, and one or two brief skirmishes, Israel was peaceful and prosperous. Israel and especially Jerusalem was very wealthy and the standard of living was exceedingly good.

© 2011 Probe Ministries




Four Views of Revelation

Dr. Patrick Zukeran presents a summary of four of the major approaches to interpreting the book of Revelation and its meaning for the end times: the idealist, the preterist, the historicist, and the futurist views. For each, he presents the basic approach, strengths of the approach and weaknesses of the approach. Recognizing that God is the central mover in all of these, he encourages us to keep these questions from dividing Christians in our mission of sharing Christ with the world.

The Debate

download-podcastOne of the most intriguing books of the Bible is the book of Revelation. The imagery of the cosmic battle in heaven and on earth makes it a fascinating book to study. However, much debate surrounds the proper interpretation of this apocalyptic work. Is this book a prophecy of future events yet to take place, or have the prophecies of this book been fulfilled?

Two popular authors highlight the debate that continues in our present time. In his hit series Left Behind, Tim LaHaye writes a fictional account based on his theological position that the events of Revelation will occur in the future. Popular radio talk show host Hank Hanegraaff responded by attacking the theology of LaHaye. In his book The Apocalypse Code, Hanegraaff asserts that the events of Revelation were largely fulfilled in AD 70 with the fall of the Jerusalem Temple. He criticizes theologians like LaHaye for taking a hyper-literal approach to Revelation.{1} The debate has raised some confusion among Christians as to why there is such a debate and how we should interpret the book of Revelation.

The issues at the core of the debate between Hanegraaff and LaHaye are not new. Throughout church history, there have been four different views regarding the book of Revelation: idealist, preterist, historicist, and futurist. The idealist view teaches that Revelation describes in symbolic language the battle throughout the ages between God and Satan and good against evil. The preterist view teaches that the events recorded in the book of Revelation were largely fulfilled in AD 70 with the fall of the Jerusalem Temple. The historicist view teaches that the book of Revelation is a symbolic presentation of church history beginning in the first century AD through the end of age. The prophecies of Revelation are fulfilled in various historic events such as the fall of the Roman Empire, the Protestant Reformation, and the French Revolution. The futurist view teaches that Revelation prophesies events that will take place in the future. These events include the rapture of the church, seven years of tribulation, and a millennial rule of Christ upon the earth.

Each view attempts to interpret Revelation according to the laws of hermeneutics, the art and science of interpretation. This is central to the debate about how we should approach and interpret Revelation. The idealist approach believes that apocalyptic literature like Revelation should be interpreted allegorically. The preterist and historicist views are similar in some ways to the allegorical method, but it is more accurate to say preterists and historicists view Revelation as symbolic history. The preterist views Revelation as a symbolic presentation of events that occurred in AD 70, while the historicist school views the events as symbolic of all Western church history. The futurist school believes Revelation should be interpreted literally. In other words, the events of Revelation are to occur at a future time.

The goal of this work is to present a brief overview of the four views of Revelation and present the strengths of each view as well as its weaknesses. It is my hope that the reader will gain a basic understanding and be able to understand the debate among theologians today.

The Idealist View

The first view of Revelation is the idealist view, or the spiritual view. This view uses the allegorical method to interpret the Book of Revelation. The allegorical approach to Revelation was introduced by ancient church father Origen (AD 185-254) and made prominent by Augustine (AD 354-420). According to this view, the events of Revelation are not tied to specific historical events. The imagery of the book symbolically presents the ongoing struggle throughout the ages of God against Satan and good against evil. In this struggle, the saints are persecuted and martyred by the forces of evil but will one day receive their vindication. In the end, God is victorious, and His sovereignty is displayed throughout ages. Robert Mounce summarizes the idealist view stating, “Revelation is a theological poem presenting the ageless struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. It is a philosophy of history wherein Christian forces are continuously meeting and conquering the demonic forces of evil.”{2}

In his commentary on Revelation, late nineteenth century scholar William Milligan stated, “While the Apocalypse thus embraces the whole period of the Christian dispensation, it sets before us within this period the action of great principles and not special incidents; we are not to look in the Apocalypse for special events, both for the exhibition of the principles which govern the history of both the world and the Church.”{3}

The symbols in Revelation are not tied to specific events but point to themes throughout church history. The battles in Revelation are viewed as spiritual warfare manifested in the persecution of Christians or wars in general that have occurred in history. The beast from the sea may be identified as the satanically-inspired political opposition to the church in any age. The beast from the land represents pagan, or corrupt, religion to Christianity. The harlot represents the compromised church, or the seduction of the world in general. Each seal, trumpet, or bowl represents natural disasters, wars, famines, and the like which occur as God works out His plan in history. Catastrophes represent God’s displeasure with sinful man; however, sinful mankind goes through these catastrophes while still refusing to turn and repent. God ultimately triumphs in the end.

The strength of this view is that it avoids the problem of harmonizing passages with events in history. It also makes the book of Revelation applicable and relevant for all periods of church history.{4}

However, there are several weaknesses of this view. First, this view denies the book of Revelation any specific historical fulfillment. The symbols portray the ever-present conflict but no necessary consummation of the historical process.{5} Rev.1:1 states that the events will come to pass shortly, giving the impression that John is prophesying future historical events.

Second, reading spiritual meanings into the text could lead to arbitrary interpretations. Followers of this approach have often allowed the cultural and socio-political factors of their time to influence their interpretation rather than seeking the author’s intended meaning.{6} Merrill Tenney states,

The idealist view . . . assumes a “spiritual” interpretation, and allows no concrete significance whatever to figures that it employs. According to this viewpoint they are not merely symbolic of events and persons, as the historicist view contends; they are only abstract symbols of good and evil. They may be attached to any time or place, but like the characters of Pilgrim’s Progress, represent qualities or trends. In interpretation, the Apocalypse may thus mean anything or nothing according to the whim of the interpreter.{7}

Unless interpreters are grounded in the grammatical, historical, and contextual method of hermeneutics, they leave themselves open to alternate interpretations that may even contradict the author’s intended meaning.

The Preterist View

The second view is called the preterist view. Preter, which means “past,” is derived from the Latin. There are two major views among preterists: full preterism and partial preterism. Both views believe that the prophecies of the Olivet discourse of Matthew 24 and Revelation were fulfilled in the first century with the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. Chapters 1-3 describe the conditions in the seven churches of Asia Minor prior to the Jewish war (AD 66-70). The remaining chapters of Revelation and Jesus’ Olivet Discourse describe the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans.

Full preterists believe that all the prophecies found in Revelation were fulfilled in AD 70 and that we are now living in the eternal state, or the new heavens and the new earth. Partial preterists believe that most of the prophecies of Revelation were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem but that chapters 20-22 point to future events such as a future resurrection of believers and return of Christ to the earth. Partial preterists view full preterism as heretical since it denies the second coming of Christ and teaches an unorthodox view of the resurrection.

Church historians trace the roots of preterism to Jesuit priest Luis de Alcazar (1554-1613).{8} Alcazar’s interpretation is considered a response to the Protestant historicist interpretation of Revelation that identified the Pope as the Anti-Christ. However, some preterists contend that preterist teachings are found in the writings of the early church as early as the fourth century AD.{9}

Crucial to the preterist view is the date of Revelation. Since it is a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, preterists hold to a pre-AD 70 date of writing. According to this view, John was writing specifically to the church of his day and had only its situation in mind. This letter was written to encourage the saints to persevere under the persecution of the Roman Empire.

Preterists point to several reasons to support their view. First, Jesus stated at the end of the Olivet Discourse, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Mt. 24:34). A generation usually refers to forty years. The fall of Jerusalem would then fit the time Jesus predicted. Second, Josephus’ detailed record of the fall of Jerusalem appears in several ways to match the symbolism of Revelation. Finally, this view would be directly relevant to John’s readers of his day.

There are several criticisms of this view. First, the events described in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse and in Revelation 4-19 differ in several ways from the fall of Jerusalem.

One example is that Christ described his return to Jerusalem this way: “[A]s lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Mt. 24:27). Preterists believe this refers to the Roman army’s advance on Jerusalem. However, the Roman army advanced on Jerusalem from west to east, and their assault was not as a quick lightning strike. The Jewish war lasted for several years before Jerusalem was besieged, and the city fell after a lengthy siege.{10} Second, General Titus did not set up an “abomination of desolation” (Mt. 24:15) in the Jerusalem Temple. Rather, he destroyed the Temple and burned it to the ground. Thus, it appears the preterist is required to allegorize or stretch the metaphors and symbols in order to find fulfillment of the prophecies in the fall of Jerusalem.

Another example of allegorical interpretation by preterists is their interpretation of Revelation 7:4. John identifies a special group of prophets: the 144,000 from the “tribes of Israel.” Preterist Hanegraaff states that this group represents the true bride of Christ and is referred to in Rev. 7:9 as the “great multitude that no one could count from every nation, tribe, people, and language.” In other words, the 144,000 in verse 4, and the great multitude in verse 9 are the same people.{11} This appears to go against the context of the chapter for several reasons. First, throughout the Bible the phrase “tribes of Israel” refers to literal Jews. Second, John says there are 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. This is a strange way to describe the multitude of believers from all nations. Finally, the context shows John is speaking of two different groups: one on the earth (the 144,000 referenced in 7:1-3), and the great multitude in heaven before the throne (7:9). Here Hanegraaff appears to be allegorizing the text.

Robert Mounce states,

The major problem with the preterist position is that the decisive victory portrayed in the latter chapters of the Apocalypse was never achieved. It is difficult to believe that John envisioned anything less than the complete overthrow of Satan, the final destruction of evil, and the eternal reign on God. If this is not to be, then either the Seer was essentially wrong in the major thrust of his message or his work was so helplessly ambiguous that its first recipients were all led astray.{12}

Mounce and other New Testament scholars believe the preterists’ interpretations are not consistent and utilize allegorical interpretations to make passages fit their theological view.

Second, the preterist position rests on a pre-AD 70 date of writing. However, most New Testament scholars date the writing of the book to AD 95. If John had written Revelation after AD 70, the book could not have been a prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem. This presents a significant argument against the preterist position.

Preterists point to several lines of evidence for a pre-AD 70 date of writing. First, John does not mention the fall of the Jerusalem Temple. If he had been writing two decades after the event, it seems strange that he never mentioned this catastrophic event. Second, John does not refer to either Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple (Mt. 24, Mk. 13, Lk. 21) or the fulfillment of this prophecy. Third, in Revelation 11:1, John is told to “measure the temple of God and the altar, and count the worshipers there.” Preterist argue that this indicates that the Temple is still standing during the writing of Revelation.{13}

The preterist view, particularly the partial preterist view, is a prominent position held by such notable scholars as R. C. Sproul, Hank Hanegraaff, Kenneth Gentry, and the late David Chilton (who later converted to full preterism after the publishing of his books).

The Historicist View

The third view is called the historicist approach. This view teaches that Revelation is a symbolic representation that presents the course of history from the apostle’s life through the end of the age. The symbols in the apocalypse correspond to events in the history of Western Europe, including various popes, the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, and rulers such as Charlemagne. Most interpreters place the events of their day in the later chapters of Revelation.

Many adherents of this position view chapters 1-3 as seven periods in church history. The breaking of the seals in chapters 4-7 symbolizes the fall of the Roman Empire. The Trumpet judgments in chapters 8-10 represent the invasions of the Roman Empire by the Vandals, Huns, Saracens, and Turks. Among Protestant historicists of the Reformation, the antichrist in Revelation was believed to be the papacy. Chapters 11-13 in Revelation represent the true church in its struggle against Roman Catholicism. The bowl judgments of Revelation 14-16 represent God’s judgment on the Catholic Church, culminating in the future overthrow of Catholicism depicted in chapters 17-19.{14}

There are several criticisms of this approach. First, this approach allows for a wide variety of interpretations. Adherents have a tendency to interpret the text through the context of their period. Thus, many saw the climax of the book happening in their generation. John Walvoord points out the lack of agreement among historicists. He states, “As many as fifty different interpretations of the book of Revelation therefore evolve, depending on the time and circumstances of the expositor.”{15} Moses Stuart echoed the same concern in his writings over a century ago. He wrote, “Hithertho, scarcely any two original and independent expositors have agreed, in respect to some points very important in their bearing upon the interpretation of the book.”{16}

Second, this view focuses mostly on the events of the church in Western Europe and says very little about the church in the East. Thus, its narrow scope fails to account for God’s activity throughout Asia and the rest of the world. Finally, this view would have little significance for the church of the first century whom John was addressing. It is unlikely they would have been able to interpret Revelation as the historical approach suggests.

Prominent scholars who held this view include John Wycliffe, John Knox, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles Finney, C. H. Spurgeon, and Matthew Henry. This view rose to popularity during the Protestant Reformation because of its identification of the pope and the papacy with the beasts of Revelation 13. However, since the beginning of the twentieth century, it has declined in popularity and influence.

The Futurist View

The fourth view is the futurist view. This view teaches that the events of the Olivet Discourse and Revelation chapters 4-22 will occur in the future. Futurist divide the book of Revelation into three sections as indicated in 1:19: “what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.” Chapter 1 describes the past (“what you have seen”), chapters 2-3 describe the present (“what is now”), and the rest of the book describes future events (“what will take place later”).

Futurists apply a literal approach to interpreting Revelation. Chapters 4-19 refer to a period known as the seven-year tribulation (Dan. 9:27). During this time, God’s judgments are actually poured out upon mankind as they are revealed in the seals, trumpets, and bowls. Chapter 13 describes a literal future world empire headed by a political and religious leader represented by the two beasts. Chapter 17 pictures a harlot who represents the church in apostasy. Chapter 19 refers to Christ’s second coming and the battle of Armageddon followed by a literal thousand-year rule of Christ upon the earth in chapter 20. Chapters 21-22 are events that follow the millennium: the creation of a new heaven and a new earth and the arrival of the heavenly city upon the earth.

Futurists argue that a consistently literal or plain interpretation is to be applied in understanding the book of Revelation. Literal interpretation of the Bible means to explain the original sense, or meaning, of the Bible according to the normal customary usage of its language. This means applying the rules of grammar, staying consistent with the historical framework, and the context of the writing. Literal interpretation does not discount figurative or symbolic language. Futurists teach that prophecies using symbolic language are also to be normally interpreted according to the laws of language. J. P. Lange stated,

The literalist (so called) is not one who denies that figurative language, that symbols, are used in prophecy, nor does he deny that great spiritual truths are set forth therein; his position is, simply, that the prophecies are to be normally interpreted (i.e., according to the received laws of language) as any other utterances are interpreted – that which is manifestly figurative being so regarded.{17}

Charles Ryrie also states,

Symbols, figures of speech and types are all interpreted plainly in this method, and they are in no way contrary to literal interpretation. After all, the very existence of any meaning for a figure of speech depends on the reality of the literal meaning of the terms involved. Figures often make the meaning plainer, but it is the literal, normal, or plain meaning that they convey to the reader.{18}

Futurists acknowledge the use of figures and symbols. When figurative language is used, one must look at the context to find the meaning. However, figurative language does not justify allegorical interpretation.

Futurists contend that the literal interpretation of Revelation finds its roots in the ancient church fathers. Elements of this teaching, such as a future millennial kingdom, are found in the writings of Clement of Rome (AD 96), Justin Martyr (AD 100-165), Irenaeus (AD 115-202), Tertullian (AD 150-225) and others. Futurists hold that the church fathers taught a literal interpretation of Revelation until Origen (AD 185-254) introduced allegorical interpretation. This then became the popular form of interpretation when taught by Augustine (AD 354-430).{19} Literal interpretation of Revelation remained throughout the history of the church and rose again to prominence in the modern era.

The futurist view is widely popular among evangelical Christians today. One of the most popular versions on futurist teaching is dispensational theology, promoted by schools such as Dallas Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute. Theologians such as Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord, and Dwight Pentecost are noted scholars of this position. Tim LaHaye made this theology popular in the culture with his end times series of novels.

Unfortunately, there have been and continue to be popular preachers who mistakenly apply the futurist approach to connect current events to the symbols in Revelation. Some have even been involved in setting dates of Christ’s return. Although their writings have been popular, they do not represent a Biblical futurist view.

Critics of this view argue that the futurist view renders the book irrelevant to the original readers of the first century. Another criticism is that Revelation is apocalyptic literature and thus meant to be interpreted allegorically or symbolically rather than literally. Hank Hanegraaff states, “Thus, when a Biblical writer uses a symbol or an allegory, we do violence to his intentions if we interpret it in a strictly literal manner.”{20}

One of the key elements in the debate, particularly between preterists and futurists, is the date of writing for Revelation. Preterists argue for a pre-AD 70 date while futurists hold to a date of AD 95. There are several reasons for the later date. First, Irenaeus, in his work Against Heresies, states that John wrote Revelation at the end of Emperor Domitian’s reign, which ended in AD 96. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John. He thus had a connection with a contemporary of the Apostle John.

Second, the conditions of the seven churches in Revelation appear to describe a second-generation church setting rather than that of a first-generation. For example, the Church of Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7) is charged with abandoning their first love and warned of the Nicolaitan heresy. If John had written Revelation in AD 65, it would have overlapped with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and Timothy. However, Paul makes no mention of either the loss of first love or the threat of the Nicolaitans. Ephesus was Paul’s headquarters for three years, and Apollos served there along with Aquila and Priscilla. The church of Smyrna did not exist during Paul’s ministry (AD 60-64) as recorded by Polycarp, the first bishop of the city. Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22) is rebuked for being wealthy and lukewarm. However, in his letter to the Colossians, Paul commends the church three times (2:2, 4:13, 16). It would likely take more than three years for the church to decline to the point that chapter 3 would state there to be no commendable aspect about it. Also, an earthquake in AD 61 left the city in ruins for many years. Thus, it is unlikely that in a ruined condition John would describe them as rich.

Preterists who favor the AD 70 date pose the question, “Why doesn’t John mention the fall of the Temple which occurred in AD 70?” Futurists respond that John wrote about future events, and the destruction of the temple was twenty-five years in the past. He also wrote to a Gentile audience in Asia Minor which was far removed from Jerusalem. Preterists also point to the fact that the Temple is mentioned in chapter eleven. Futurists respond that although John mentions a temple in Revelation 11:1-2, this does not mean it exists at the time of his writing. In Daniel 9:26-27 and Ezekiel 40-48, both prophets describe the temple, but it was not in existence when they described a future temple in their writings.

What did Jesus mean in Matthew 24:34 when He said, “[T]his generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened”? The common futurist response is that Jesus was stating that the future generation about which he was speaking would not pass away once “these things” had begun. In other words, the generation living amid the time of the events He predicted will not pass away until all is fulfilled.

Conclusion

The book of Revelation is a fascinating book, and the debate regarding its interpretation will continue. Despite our various views, there are some common threads upon which Christians agree.{21} All views believe that God is sovereign and in charge of all that occurs in history and its ultimate conclusion. Except for full preterism and some forms of idealism, all believe in the physical second coming of Christ. All views believe in the resurrection from the dead. All believe there will be a future judgment. All believe in an eternal state in which believers will be with God, and unbelievers will be separated from Him. All agree upon the importance of the study of prophecy and its edification for the body of Christ.

Unfortunately, the debate among Christians has often been harsh and hostile. It is my hope that the debate would continue in a cordial, respectful manner which will challenge every believer to accurately study and interpret the Word. We all await the return of our Lord and together with the saints of all ages say, “Amen, come Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20)

Notes

1. Hank Hanegraaff, The Apocalypse Code (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 20.

2. Robert Mounce, The New International Commentary of the New Testament: The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 43.

3. William Milligan, The Book of Revelation (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1889), 153-4.

4. Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Revelation (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 20.

5. Robert Mounce, 43.

6. Robert Thomas, Revelation: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), 31-2.

7. Merrill Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957), 146.

8. Steven Gregg, 39.

9. Ibid., 39.

10. Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, ed., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR.: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 377.

11. Hanegraaff, 125.

12. Robert Mounce, The New International Commentary of the New Testament: The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 42.

13. Evidence for the AD 95 date of writing will be presented in the futurist section.

14. Steven Gregg, Four Views of Revelation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997), 31, 217, 309, & 399).

15. John Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), 19.

16. Moses Stuart, A Commentary on the Apocalypse (Edinburgh: Maclachlan, Stewart & Co., 1847), 35.

17. J. P. Lange, Commentary of the Holy Scriptures: Revelation (New York: Scribner’s, 1872), 98, quoted in Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2007), 91.

18. Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2007), 91.

20. Hanegraaff, 14.

21. Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes, Conviction Without Compromise (Eugene, OR.: Harvest House Publishers, 2008), 333.

© 2009 Probe Ministries




End Time Anxieties

End Time Concerns

This past January, the Wall Street Journal published a special edition that at first glance anticipated the arrival of the next millennium. However, on closer inspection it quickly became apparent that this edition was a spoof– the year on the masthead was the year 1000. Still, what was interesting was how similar many stories were to their modern counterparts–there was even an account of a sex scandal in high political circles. The underlying message from the Journal would appear to be that just as the transition to the year 1000 went off without a hitch, so too life will go on as we enter a new millennium.

However, it would be naïve to ignore the many threats that currently exist to civilization. Recent news reports indicate that North Korea has the capability to hit any part of the United States with nuclear warheads. China too has become increasingly aggressive militarily and has seriously eroded American technical superiority through espionage. And Russia appears headed to a return to totalitarian government; recently, the lower house of the Russian Duma voted to resurrect the forty-foot statue of the founder of the Soviet Secret Police which had been toppled by pro-democracy marchers in 1991. Two years ago, the same house of the Duma had voted to resurrect the Soviet Union itself! On top of all this, there is an increasing awareness that the Y2K computer crisis may be much more problematic than anticipated; even the entire National Guard was mobilized for exercises in May 1999 to prepare for any disruptions the millennial bug may cause. Some fear a declaration of martial law should the problem get out of hand. Perhaps the advent of the 21st century will not be as painless as that of the 11th century after all.

Questions concerning the future are of special relevance to Christians. Contrary to other worldviews that see history as cyclical, the Bible teaches that history as we know it will come to an end with the dramatic return of the Lord Jesus Christ. Since the Bible has much to say of the end times, Christians have been exposed to a variety of end time scenarios which spell out in exacting detail the chronology of the last days. In this respect, we share much in common with those who faced the transition to the year 1000. The anxiety that many westerners experienced as the year 1000 approached was due in part to a theological concept popularized by the great Christian thinker, Augustine. According to Augustine, the millennial reign of Christ began at His first coming. Since the book of Revelation teaches of a 1000 year period in which Christ reigns over all the earth, Augustine allegorized this concept by teaching that Christ had bound Satan through His earthly ministry. This made complete sense to Augustine, since it would account for the tremendous growth of the church from a tiny band of first century Jews to the favored religion of the empire in Augustine’s day. But when Christ did not return anytime in the 11th century, this interpretation was significantly altered.{1} History triumphed over exegesis.

As we approach the year 2000, some Christians are proclaiming that Christ’s return is sure to occur within a few short years. One well-known Christian leader recently suggested that the Antichrist is probably living today and that the second coming of Christ should occur in the next ten years.{2} In the current climate, it is necessary that we examine the end time anxieties that are prevalent today.

Adventism Old and New

With the approach of the third millennium, there has been a noticeable increase of fervor among many sincere believers that Christ’s return should be expected in the near future. As an example of this expectation, consider the success of the Left Behind book series, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. This series, detailing the coming rapture of the saints, the horrible tribulation period, and other aspects of biblical eschatology, has sold over 3.5 million copies since 1995.{3} While it is possible that such a work would find a ready audience at any other time, it is probably not coincidental that such success would be attained as the new millennium approaches.

The increased emphasis by many Christians on the probability that the return of Christ is imminent can be attributed to an understanding of prophecy that has become especially popular in the last 160 years. This form of interpretation, which had been sporadically utilized throughout church history, is known as Adventism, the belief that Christ’s second coming could happen at any moment and will inaugurate the millennial kingdom and the end of the age.{4} The early church lived in high expectation of Christ’s imminent return, but by the third century that view became a minority. Throughout history, Adventism has appealed to religious bodies with highly rigorous ethical codes, since an “any moment” return would easily distinguish the lukewarm Christian from the true Christian. Adventists in history comprise a wide spectrum, from the heretical Montanists of the second century, to those groups associated with the Radical Reformation of the 16th century. And although Adventism was considered a minority position throughout most of church history, today it is the predominant position among evangelical Christians, especially in the United States.

This change in interpretation came about though an innovative understanding of Scripture developed by John Darby, a 19th century pastor whose disillusionment with the spiritual condition of most Christians led him to conclude that the contemporary church was in apostasy. He therefore developed a philosophy of history, known as dispensationalism, which attempted to demonstrate how God’s plan of redemption has unfolded under differing circumstances throughout time. It was Darby’s interpretation that as the return of Christ draws near, the corruption and apostasy of the church would be increasingly obvious. It is through dispensationalism that the letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 have been seen as symbolic of different periods of church history.{5}

Especially significant was Darby’s idea that Christ’s return would occur in two stages. Initially, Christ would secretly come for the saints just prior to the great Tribulation, to separate the true believers from the apostates and the unbelievers. Then, at the conclusion of the Tribulation period, Christ will come with the saints, in power and great glory, to establish His millennial reign.{6} The concept of a pretribulation rapture has become the dominant position among conservative Christians in the U.S., and at one time was a test of orthodoxy for many. However, this was primarily a reaction against liberalism’s denial of Christ’s personal return. Today, many Christians have agreed to disagree on this issue, as conservative biblical scholars have shown that both the midtribulation rapture and the posttribulation rapture are viable interpretations. While all three positions agree that Christ will personally return, the quandary is when. But as we shall see, attempts to determine the timing of Christ’s return have invariably ended in failure.

Words of Caution

In January 1999 a cult group from Denver was expelled from Israel after Israeli authorities determined that they had gone to Israel in the hope that their radical activities would actually provoke the second coming of Christ. Their leader had predicted that he was to die on the streets of Jerusalem, only to be resurrected three days later.{7} Of course, Revelation chapter 11 speaks of a similar occurrence when the Beast will kill God’s two witnesses in Jerusalem. And although this cult group was certainly not composed of orthodox Christians, it is becoming increasingly evident that even many Christians are attaching special significance to the third millennium for the end times. Is there a biblical basis for doing so? Let’s examine that question.

While the church has always looked for the second coming of Christ, it was the dispensational theology of the modern period that seemed to unlock many difficulties associated with prophetic fulfillment. Dispensationalism makes a distinction between Israel and the church, and anticipates the imminent return of Christ after Isreal’s restoration as a nation. Consequently with the re- establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, many biblical interpreters became convinced that the end was drawing near. Still, it was not until the 1970’s, with the publication of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, that an easy to understand approach to biblical prophecy became available. This book seemed to unlock the many mysteries of the book of Revelation, and went on to sell millions of copies. Lindsey’s work has remained popular, perhaps due to his attempt to show how the events in the book of Revelation are consistent with the contemporary world. For instance, the Kings of the East with the army of 200 million is said to be Communist China, while the King of the North is Soviet Russia. Written like a Tom Clancy novel, it convinced many Christians that we were truly living in the “last days.” This type of interpretation led many to believe that the peace negotiations which began in 1975 between Israel and Egypt was the very same peace agreement that the Antichrist is said to break in Daniel 9:27. But once again, history has disproved that theory as well.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from this is that precise interpretation of biblical prophecy is risky business. Just as those who advocate a hidden code in the Bible only discover “predicted” events after the fact, so too Christians need to demonstrate humility when attempting to interpret apocalyptic images. A key to interpreting the book of Revelation is understanding the purpose of the book. The apostle John was writing to Christians who were suffering persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, he wanted Christians to understand that severe persecution could not prevent God’s victory over satanic forces. The Revelation was not written to satisfy our curiosity about future events, but to assure believers that God’s redemptive program will go forward.

Numerous times throughout church history, sincere people have attempted to discern the details of prophetic Scripture only to have their interpretation disproved by historical events. This often brings discredit to the cause of Christ. Even Augustine, perhaps the greatest theologian in the history of the church, misunderstood the details of biblical prophecy. Like countless others, he failed to acknowledge the difference between the clear teaching of Scripture and end time speculations. Consequently, when interpreting prophetic Scripture we should acknowledge the distinction between the text and our own inferences, remembering to place primary emphasis on the general aspects of the text.{8}

Signs of the Times?

As we are considering the possibility that the personal return of Jesus Christ is somehow connected to the year 2000, it is important to recognize that in fact many attempts have been made to determine the approximate date of the Lord’s return throughout church history. Jonathan Edwards, considered by many to be the most eminent American theologian, believed the 1,260 days of Revelation chapter 12 were actually years. Assuming that the start of the 1,260 years began in 606 a.d., Edwards concluded that Christ would return in 1866. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed that the Pope was the Antichrist and would be overthrown in 1836.{9} This goes to show once again that even the most brilliant minds have been unable to correctly predict the chronology of the end times.

One of the main problems when making predictions of Christ’s return has been the emphasis placed on signs of the times. Typically, predictions are based on signs that are assumed to reflect events predicted in Scripture. But when the disciples asked Jesus for the sign of His coming and of the end of the age, Jesus replied in very general terms. He spoke of wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, apostasy, and the preaching of the gospel in all the world. Scholars still debate whether Jesus is speaking of the Tribulation period here, or of the years leading up to the Tribulation. But it would appear that these signs that Jesus gave are fairly common events throughout church history. Only the proclamation of the gospel in all the world remains to be fulfilled.

Another aspect of interpreting biblical prophecy is maintaining the balance between the imminence and the delay of Christ’s return. While many interpreters emphasize the “any moment” return of Christ, especially those who hold to a pretribulation rapture, it is clear that Christ warned His followers not to be disappointed if He failed to come when they expected Him. The Parable of the Ten Maidens (Matt. 25:1-13) and the Parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Servant (Matt. 24:45-51) both emphasize the importance of remaining faithful, since the bridegroom and the master might not come when expected. Along with Christ’s warning that only His Heavenly Father knows the time of His return, it should be obvious why it is impossible to come up with a date for Christ’s return.

Also, when we consider the fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies, we see that their fulfillment is not what many of us would call literal interpretation. For instance, the prophecy of Malachi 4:5 that Elijah would return was fulfilled in John the Baptist. In Acts 15:16-18, James quoted Amos 9:11-12 to conclude that the Old Testament prophecy of David’s restored tabernacle was fulfilled by the Gentiles’ acceptance of the gospel. And who would have ever thought that Hosea 11:1, which refers in the original context to God bringing Israel out of their Egyptian captivity, would by applied by Matthew to refer to Jesus’ brief sojourn in Egypt to escape the persecution of Herod (Matt. 2:14-15)?

While this is not to suggest that we shouldn’t diligently search the Scriptures for understanding God’s plan for history, it is at the same time a reminder that the details of biblical prophecy are often difficult to ascertain. Acts 1:11 is one of many verses that affirms that Jesus Christ will personally return, but in Acts 1:7 Jesus Himself tells the disciples that instead of focusing on times and dates, they were to focus on the proclamation of the gospel. Those are good words for us today as well.

Our Prophetic Ministry

As we conclude this discussion on the interpretation of the prophetic Scriptures, perhaps it would be valuable to consider the purpose of prophecy. We frequently assume that prophecy is only concerned with the distant future when in fact many Old Testament prophecies were warnings by the prophet to his own contemporaries about the consequences of disobedience. Similarly, the prophet was often called upon to deliver words of comfort from the Lord. Ultimately, it was the responsibility of the prophet to proclaim the Word of the Lord. Today, the primary responsibility of the church is to proclaim God’s Word, the Scriptures. What we have attempted to show in this discussion is that, when interpreting prophecy, we must make a distinction between the explicit teaching of Scripture and inferences based on signs or current events.

Some teachers today seem to be suggesting that the Y2K computer bug will act as a trigger for a worldwide catastrophe that will signal the end times. While we do not want to suggest that any difficulties predicted for the Y2K computer bug should be easily dismissed, we would do well to place Y2K in proper perspective. Due to the prosperity enjoyed in much of the Western world, it is easy to forget the horrific suffering that Christians in other countries have experienced this century. It has been stated that more Christians have been martyred for their faith in the twentieth century than in all previous centuries combined. It would be myopic for Western Christians to interpret a downturn in the economy as a signal for the second coming when our brothers and sisters in Christ in other countries have been experiencing the type of oppression and suffering most of us cannot even imagine.

However, this is not to discount the possibility that the year 2000 may bring with it a period of relative discomfort. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Y2K computer bug will probably have a significant impact. Some news reports indicate that many smaller nations have failed to even begin addressing the problem. And the United States is certainly not immune from any computer failures either. When we consider how important international trade has become to our economy, there is probably going to be some kind of disruption in our lifestyles; many say we should prepare for the worst.

While this may sound frightening to some, it also points to a tremendous opportunity for the Christian to demonstrate the love of Christ to the world. There will be many people who will be caught unprepared for any disruption in society. Even now there are ministries like Joseph Project 2000 that are gearing up to meet the needs of Christians and non-Christians alike should the situation arise. It is unfortunately true that personal prosperity can often lead to a rejection of God’s provision. Christians need to be willing to share their resources and God’s love with others if in fact there is a breakdown in society. It would appear that the Christian church has a golden opportunity right now to exercise its prophetic ministry of proclaiming God’s Word for this generation. All too often we seem to be waiting for a future cataclysm where God Himself will act in a most direct way, rather than acknowledging our responsibility to act as His ambassadors to our contemporaries. This is why we must keep in perspective both the imminence and the delay of Christ’s return. Any delay in the Lord’s return is a reminder of God’s great mercy and patience, who desires that none should perish (2 Pet. 3:9).

Notes


1. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 1206-07.

2. CNN.com, “Falwell says Antichrist probably is on Earth now,” January 15, 1999.

3. Steve Rabey, “Apocalyptic Sales Out of This World.” Christianity Today (March 1, 1999), 19.

4. M. E. Dieter, “Adventism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 15-16.

5. J. Dwight Pentecost, Things To Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), 150-153.

6. W. A. Hoffecker, “Darby, John Nelson,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 292-293.

7. The Go2Net Network, January 9, 1999.

8. Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible For All It’s Worth (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1982), 211 (See the entire chapter on ‘The Revelation’ for very helpful guidelines for the interpretation of apocalyptic literature.)

9. G. E. Ladd, The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 33-34.

© 1999 Probe Ministries International




Israel’s History Written in Advance

According to an old story, the powerful Prussian King Frederick the Great had a chaplain who was a Bible-believer, though Frederick himself was a rationalist. One day, Frederick challenged his chaplain, “In a word, give me a good argument for the God of the Bible.” His chaplain, a knowledgeable man, responded, “The Jew, your majesty!” To unpack the chaplain’s concise remark is the purpose of this essay.

Neglected Evidence for the God of the Bible

The history of the Jews is a demonstration of God at work, sometimes miraculously, sometimes providentially, in the affairs of men and nations. The particular significance of the Jews–in contrast to other nations–is that God called Israel His special people and made covenants with them through Abraham, Moses, and David. In addition, the Old Testament predicts what God planned to do with His people. We’ll look at three rather wide-ranging prophecies about the nation Israel and see how they have come to pass. These involve first, the covenant curses; second, an acted parable of the marital relations between God and Israel; and finally, a prediction of Israel’s return to her own land.

The first area of prophecy involves what God promised to do to the nation of Israel if they did not keep the laws Moses had given them from Mt. Sinai.

When the Israelites were rescued from slavery in Egypt about 1,400 B.C., God made a contract or covenant with Moses to define Israel’s relationship to Him as His own special people. This covenant reminded them of what God had already done for them and what He promised to do in the future. God had saved them from slavery, brought them safely through the desert, was about to bring them into possession of the land of Canaan, and would protect them from all disasters if they would be faithful to Him. To test their faithfulness, God gave them an elaborate set of laws–some moral, some civil, some ceremonial–which also set them apart from the nations around them. God showed His reality through the lifestyle that He had designed for Israel. In Deuteronomy 4:5-8 Moses explained it:

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about these decrees and say, `Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’

Moses goes on to say only Israel has a God who is near when they pray, and only His people have such righteous laws to guide them.

In the 28th chapter of Deuteronomy and the 26th chapter of Leviticus, the provisions of the covenant are set out in the form of blessings and curses–blessings if Israel would obey God’s commands and curses if they disobeyed. Through these sanctions, Israel would be reminded of how they were doing in obeying God, and their neighbors would see an objective demonstration of God’s judgment in history.

Israel as a History Lesson

Israel’s history demonstrates that when they broke the laws God gave them, they experienced exactly the results God predicted would happen if they were unfaithful. No other nation has prophesied its own downfall with such accuracy. Thus history demonstrates how accurately God predicted what would happen to Israel if they disobeyed His laws. And what did God predict? To summarize nearly a hundred verses, Israel’s disobedience brought wasted effort in labors; natural disasters such as drought, blight, and locusts to their crops; and disease and death to their animals and themselves.

Their enemies would defeat them in battle and besiege their cities, resulting in plague, famine, cannibalism, and starvation. They would be scattered to foreign countries. There some would die; others would live in constant fear of both real and imagined disasters, or turn to other gods. They would be sold as slaves. Their numbers would decline greatly, as they suffered from fearful plagues, prolonged disasters, and lingering illnesses. What an amazing list of disasters!

Not only are these curses severe, but the Bible predicts them in some detail. In Deuteronomy, fourteen verses describe the blessings and fifty-four the curses. In Leviticus, eleven verses are blessings and thirty-two are curses. Altogether, over 75 percent of the verses concern curses for disobedience. God- predicted disasters will be a major part of Israel’s future.

This proportion is very unusual. Other religious people might concede that their own history had been three-fourths disaster, but who would admit it had been three-fourths disobedient? And this proportion is borne out not only by the history of Israel recorded in the Bible, where one might claim the biblical history writers either molded the narrative to match the prophecy or adjusted the prophecy to match the history. It is also demonstrated in the long history of disaster experienced by the Jews after the Bible was written.

No other national group has experienced such disaster as the Jews. Most nations have not survived long enough to experience so much disaster! Yet Israel has experienced disaster at every point sketched in the long lists of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. They have, unfortunately, been persecuted again and again for over two thousand years. For most of that time they were without a national homeland, having been driven out of Palestine. They have faced decimation and sometimes genocide from nearly every group they have lived among: Greeks, Romans, Christians, Muslims, Nazis, and Communists. Even now the recently re-established nation of Israel faces continual harassment and threats of annihilation from hostile forces all around her.

In the midst of these curses, however, comes a promise that Israel will not be totally destroyed.

Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely, breaking my covenant with them. I am the LORD their God (Lev. 26:44).

But as predicted, the Jews still exist as a people today. “Of course!” you say. “If Israel had been destroyed, we would never have heard of them.” Not true — unless they had been destroyed before the coming of Jesus. With the rise of Christianity, the Old Testament was preserved by non-Jews and would have survived whether the Jews survived or not. In fact, many of the threats the Jews have faced came in the past two thousand years. Yet Israel, unlike most oppressed nations of antiquity, has survived as a distinct people.

Thus the evidence from Israel’s predicted covenant curses points to God’s activity in history, keeping His words of both judgment and promise.

Israel’s Harlotry

It’s easy to miss the book of Hosea in the Old Testament. But it describes an amazing parable that would picture Israel’s situation for some two thousand years. The prophet Hosea was divinely directed to live out a powerful parable depicting God’s relationship with Israel.

In chapter 1, Hosea is instructed to marry a harlot, Gomer, and have children. He obeys, thereby picturing God’s choice of the nation Israel for a personal relationship with Him, even though Abraham was an idolater when God called him and the Israelites were idolaters when they were called out of slavery in Egypt.

In chapter 2, Gomer runs off with her lovers. In the same way, Israel abandoned God for the more sexually exciting worship of the Canaanites, even though God had brought the people safely into the promised land. Finally Gomer winds up in slavery, as Israel would later be taken captive to Assyria and Babylon.

In chapter 3, Hosea is directed to go and buy her back. But she is to have no relations with Hosea or with her lovers. This last event in Hosea’s living parable is a prediction of the status of Israel for a long time to come:

For the sons of Israel will remain for many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred pillar, and without ephod or household idols. Afterward the sons of Israel will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king . . . in the last days (Hos. 3:4-5).

Hosea predicted that Israel for “many days” will lack a king, even though God had promised that Israel would never lack a descendant to sit on the throne if the nation was obedient to God.

In fact, the prediction states that Israel will lack even a prince. Since in Hebrew, “prince” means a government official, not the son of the king, Israel would lack both government and king.

Hosea also predicts that sacrifice, pillar, ephod, household idols will be lacking. Two are associated with the sacrificial system and two with idolatry. Sacrifice was an integral part of Israel’s covenant and worship. The ephod, a sort of vest, was one of the most important of the ceremonial garments worn by Israel’s high priest. Although some pillars had orthodox uses, the most common reference is to those used in Canaanite worship. Israel was to lose both true worship and the false religion which had been such a problem since it entered Canaan.

This has happened exactly! Since A.D. 44 (the death of Herod Agrippa I), Israel has had no native king to this day. For 1,878 years, from the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 to the formation of the modern nation in 1948, Israel had no government of its own either. Thus the predictions regarding Israel’s governmental status were fulfilled in detail.

With the loss of the Temple and the priestly garments came the end of the sacrificial system. Israel has not had a high priest to this day. So Hosea’s prophecy about the loss of sacrificial worship has also proved true.

From A.D. 70 to 1948, the “sons of Israel” lacked all six items predicted in Hosea 3:4. Now they have a government, but five are still lacking. Hosea 3:4 has been literally fulfilled.

A Regathering of Israel?

In our own generation we may also be seeing the fulfillment of Hosea 3:5. Many Jews have physically returned to Palestine in this century. If their seeking of “God and David their king” is understood as a turning to Jesus as the true Messiah, we can point to the growing Messianic Jewish movement which has flourished in the past two decades. But we are still too close to these events to be sure.

Whether or not Hosea 3:5 refers to Israel’s return to the promised land, a number of other Old Testament passages do. Let’s look at one such passage, Isaiah 11:11-16. Verse 11 reads:

Then it will happen on that day that the LORD will again recover the second time with His hand the remnant of His people, who will remain, from Assyria, Egypt, Pathros, Cush, Elam, Shinar, Hamath, and from the islands of the sea.

Sometime after Isaiah wrote these words, Israel was to be regathered to its homeland. The reference to a “second time” as well as the places from which they would return suggests that this is not the return from the Babylonian exile.

According to the whole passage, several significant features will characterize this return. First, verse 13 suggests that Israel will no longer be two nations as it was after Solomon’s time, but a single unified country . Second, Israel will fight the surrounding nations (the Philistines, the Edomites, The Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Egyptians) as a part of this return (vv. 14-15). Third, something spectacular will happen to dry up the “tongue of the sea of Egypt” and the “River,” presumably the Euphrates (v.15). Fourth, the places from which the return will take place are explicitly named, except for the general phrase “islands [or ‘coastlands’] of the sea” (v.11).

Of these four items, three have already occurred in the return of Jews to Israel in our own generation; only the third has not yet taken place.

The return of Jews to Palestine and the formation of a state of their own is amazing in itself, given that just a century ago the territory was controlled by the Muslim Turks who hated the Jews. Yet a world Zionist movement was formed; the land came under the control of Britain at the end of World War I; Britain allowed the Jews to have a homeland; the Nazi holocaust drove Jews to Palestine who otherwise would have stayed in Europe; the United Nations agreed to partition Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state; and the Jews were able to defeat a coalition of Arab states bent on their destruction.

The Jewish state formed in 1948 in Palestine included persons descended from both the northern and southern tribes. The enmity of the divided kingdoms that existed at Isaiah’s time has, in fact, been healed.

Israel has already fought with all the surrounding nations, in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. Though the Philistines, Edomites, and such are no longer identifiable as separate peoples, the Arab nations occupying their lands (and most likely including some of their descendants) are Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, and Syria. These were the nations Israel fought and dispossessed to regain its territory.

Once again, the prophecies of the Bible about the Jews show the God of the Bible to be true.

In this essay we have examined three significant passages in the Bible that predict the history of Israel. We have shown that numerous prophecies from the Old Testament regarding Israel have been fulfilled. We have made the following observations:

1. The Jews would have fierce and repeated persecution and disaster. This has been characteristic of the nation for two thousand years.

2. In spite of such disasters, the Jews would continue to exist as a recognizable people group, in spite of treatment which has destroyed other such people groups.

3. Israel would be without a king for a long period of time. Israel has been without a king for nearly two thousand years, though a Davidic royal dynasty was an important part of the Old Testament revelation.

4. Israel would lack government officials for a long time. Now, after almost 1,850 years, the Jews have them again.

5. Israel would lack sacrifice and ephod, both associated with God’s commands at Mt. Sinai. This has been true for nearly two thousand years and is quite surprising in view of how important sacrifice and the priesthood were in the Old Testament.

6. Israel would lack pillar and idols. This seems obvious today, because the Jews so adamantly worship one God, but the situation was rather different when Hosea made the prediction about 800 B.C.

7. Israel would return to its land as a single united nation. A century ago, such an event would have seemed almost impossible. Palestine was controlled by a Muslim government which had no interest in providing a homeland, much less an independent state, for the Jews. Yet it has come to pass!

8. The countries explicitly named in Isaiah 11 have been nearly emptied of Jews in this return to Palestine.

9. The Jews have fought successfully with the surrounding nations in establishing and maintaining the new state of Israel.

Sadly, some elements of the Christian church have ignored or participated in the persecution of God’s special covenantal people, the Jews. Yet Romans 9-11 exhorts Christians never to rejoice in the misfortunes of the Jews. To do so brings shame to the church and to our Lord.

As we look at God’s hand in the history of Israel it may seem fierce to us, for at least two reasons: first, we regularly ignore the biblical teaching that there is a life beyond this one, and that in the last judgment with its rewards and punishments everything will be made right, and no one will get less than he or she deserves; and second we regularly minimize our own sin, blaming our actions on circumstances and environment. Whatever may be the faults of our parents, teachers, or society, God will apportion to them (and us!) exactly what we deserve–unless we accept the offer of God’s forgiveness through believing on Christ as our personal Savior.

Are all the predictions we have listed trivial? Did they just happen by chance? Or is the God of the Bible indeed the One who controls history and who announces the end from the beginning? The decision is yours.

© 1994 Probe Ministries.