Monday, March 26, 2007

Biblical snake oil...on both sides

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, eschatology, polemics

When I saw the book's title, The New Brothers Grimm and their Left Behind Fairy Tales, I thought at first the subject was literary and historical, perhaps something to do with lost or lesser known tales by the Grimms. Then I saw the cover illustration, a cut from "Horsemen of the Apocalypse" by Dürer.

David T. Morgan, a retired professor of history with a religious bent, is the latest to take on the Left Behind mythology of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. For any who don't know, the series is a fictional portrayal of the last seven years of this age, based on "premillenial dispensationalism", the belief system that this age (this "dispensation") will end with a 7-year period of terrible judgments, followed by a thousand-year earthly kingdom under Christ (the "millenium").

There is pretty good support in the Bible for this as a general view, but the details are rather fuzzy. Dr. Morgan takes the view that the theological system itself, and the specific predictions made on that basis, are "spiritual snake oil". He is at least partly right.

I wish he were a better expositor. He is a good historian, but less adept as a theologian. Dispensational theology is clearly the best way to understand the Bible, but there are numerous versions, and many overdo the point. For example, the Scofield system, with seven "dispensations", is useful but overly-detailed. One must stretch to make one's point. The simplest way to divide up history is based on Romans 5:14a and 17b: "Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life".

Focus on "death reigned from Adam to Moses" and "those [with] grace...reign in life". The first phrase refers to the time before the Law, the second to the time since the Cross, which brought in Grace. There is thus a third period of time, from Moses until Christ. We can call these the Age before Law, the Age of Law, and the Age of Grace. If the promise of a thousand-year kingdom is literal, that is a fourth age, the Age of the Kingdom. Thus, four time periods.

The term "dispensation" is one way to translate a Greek word usually translated "economy". It refers to the definition of the word: "to dispense scarce resources". Dispensing of resources. That is Economy. The roots of the word mean "law of the home" or "...of the household", so God's economy is how God runs his "house".

What is God's house today? It is the church. What was it from Moses' time to the coming of Christ? The nation of Israel, focused on the temple. What was it prior to Moses? It was those people who desired to serve God, such as Adam, Noah, and Abraham. God spent four hundred years producing a corporate "people of God" from the descendants of Abraham's grandson Jacob/Israel, but prior to their production of the tabernacle, God's house was Moses' tent.

Such a view helps one when choosing how to apply the Bible, and how to understand how it applies to today's people of God, both Jews and Christians.

Dr. Morgan clearly thinks any sort of dispensational view is hogwash. He appears to follow Protestant theology, which makes no useful distinction between Old and New Testament truth. I guess he's never read Hebrews, for that is its primary subject. He also frequently protests against God's judgments, often in very disparaging language. I agree that the authors of Left Behind are much too bloodthirsty, but we must remember, when God is loving, He is very loving, but when He is severe, He is very severe. Morgan's view of God is based on unmingled sentimentality.

The book is marred throughout by a sarcastic, derisive tone. Harsh irony seems to be the gentlest weapon in the authors's arsenal. He exposes many clear errors made by "the New Brothers Grimm" as he calls LaHaye and Jenkins. He is right that the books are more fantasy than anything else. However, I am embarrassed by him as an purported expositor of Christian faith.

It is a pity. We need clear analysis of Left Behind and its errors, both theological, historical, and moral. Dr. Morgan's diatribe doesn't cut it.

Coda: A few things come to mind, as I consider Left Behind series, which I've read in its entirety.

  • The "taking away", too often called "the Rapture", and wrongly so, must be understood according to Jesus's word, "I come as a thief." Couple this with God's righteousness: there will be no "unmanned vehicles", no pilotless aircraft, no surgeons snatched from the operating table. Christ will gather His precious ones in secret. I expect Him to take his time, stealing His lovers away like an elopement, not some magical vanishing act. There is no manifested, visible "coming of the Lord" until much later. And as to timing, it will occur primarily "at the last trump", the seventh trumpet near the end of the "tribulation" period, however that transpires. Some are promised to be "taken from the hour of trial." This most likely refers to an early "taking".
  • Subpoint: harvesting in biblical times was in stages; firstfruits, general harvest, and gleaning. The Revelation uses harvesting terms, so it is logical that the taking away occurs in stages. Certainly the two witnesses that die in Jerusalem, lie rotting for three days, then arise and ascend, are taken away at a different time from others.
  • The word Rapture comes from Latin raptus, meaning theft or kidnapping (it was used for both). Its meaning has been mightily changes since the early Brethren coined the term in the 1820s. By the way, the leading expositors were JN Darby and BW Newton; both were part right, part wrong. The two disagreed, and excommunicated one another, but a proper understanding is a synthesis of both their teachings.
  • The Beast of Revelation is nowhere called Antichrist. Those who teach that Jesus is not divine, or that he is inferior to God, are called antichrists, but only by John in his Epistles. You'd think, if he wanted to use that word for the Beast, he'd have done so, since he coined the word. That Beast is some kind of Caesar, and is probably the one called "the man of sin" by Paul, writing to the Thessalonians.
  • The frequent use of 216 in Left Behind books is never explained by their authors, nor by Morgan. It is the cube of six, that is, 6x6x6. Clever, but too clever by half.
  • The Left Behind books contain much too much derring-do, more than I could stomach. God doesn't need this kind of trashy behavior from His children.
  • The "kingdom of the Beast" is described in a way that points to Europe, or Europe plus Palestine and North Africa, as the limits of its sovereignty. It is never stated that the Beast rules the whole earth. Rather, he pursues continual warfare with nations that remain outside his kingdom.
  • It is a very difficult puzzle to determine which prophetic passages in Daniel, Zechariah, and other Old Testament books refer to events found in Revelation. In particular, which verses might refer to the Beast, such as whether he is also the "little horn"; and which refer to Antiochus IV; which to Titus, who destroyed Jerusalem and was later Titus Caesar; and which to other wicked kings God addresses with symbolic language. It is likely that all commentators have at least a few mistaken attributions.
  • Is there anyone out there willing to allow God the right to surprise you? It was Darby who first wrote clearly that "prophecy is given, not so that we may prophesy, but that we may recognize events prophesied when they transpire, and act according to their warnings." (My paraphrase; I don't recall the exact quote.)
  • Do you think you have it right, cover to cover? I regard doctrinal fixity to be a deadly disease. God pity us!

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