Monday, April 02, 2007

The unrevealing of Revelation

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

Just a week ago I reviewed a book specifically confronting the theology and eschatology of the Left Behind books. Here I consider a work with a broader scope: A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization by Jonathan Kirsch. While Kirsch takes issue with the Left Behind books, his target is the apocalyptic phenomenon in general.

The author makes it clear he is not a Bible believer, at least not in any way similar to those who would call themselves "Bible believers." In other words, he is no literalist, and in whatever way he may use the Bible spiritually, he feels free to pick and choose what to trust and what to attribute to human error. Today's Fundamentalists do certainly take their literalism too far, but we must consider that God actually has had a hand in the writing, preservation, collecting, and distribution of the 66 (and perhaps 72) books considered to be the "word of God" by millions worldwide.

The thesis is this: Revelation is failed prophecy. It uses metaphorical language to describe current events and the writer's less-than-pious revenge fantasies. Now, since generation after generation has passed away and the world has "failed to end on time," Bible believing Christians, particularly literalists, must cope with this: either admit that its predictions are false, spiritualize all meaning out of them, or devise an eschatological theory that lets time be very, very flexible in God's hands.

There is actually strong support for the idea that certain periods of time "don't count" on God's calendar. The clearest example is the statement in 1 Kings 6:1, that the period from the Exodus to the Kingdom was 480 years. If you add up all the times in the historical books that go before, you find 612 years, and this is the period Josephus also used. However, during the time of the Judges, if you add up the times that the Midianites and others ruled over the Israelites, you get 132 years. 612-132=480. Many conclude that God's clock doesn't run when Israel is subject to others. It seems the most logical explanation. Such considerations are ignored by Kirsch, and maybe he knows nothing of them.

The chapters of the book outline the history of Revelation, from the time of its writing to the present day. He bases much on Augustine's dichotomy: Some read Revelation "carnally", some "spiritually". The writer, probably John the son of Zebedee (though Kirsch strongly disputes this), announced at the outset that Jesus "made it known by signs" (in KJV, "signified it"). Kirsch rightly emphasizes this term. I recall one speaker saying, "Let's not be too busy about counting heads or toes (the latter referring to Nebuchadnezzar's dream), but about how we are to live."

Like many others, the author expresses surprise and disgust at a book about God's vengeance. Nearly every other part of the New Testament emphasizes God's goodness, love, and caring. Yet this same God said in Deuteronomy 32:35 "Vengeance is mine and so is retribution", which Paul quoted when he wrote in Romans 12:19. Without Revelation and a few shorter passages in Daniel and Zechariah, we gain no insight into when and how He will avenge. When God is love, He is really loving, and when He is severe, He is really severe! Let us realize that, just as we are complex, God is more complex and has ranges of emotion we cannot imagine.

The bulk History of the End is a detailed survey of the various foibles of people who have read Revelation "carnally". The modern focus that most exercises the author is the popularity of the "Left Behind" series of books, and the recent elevation to office of four "born again" Presidents in succession, at least three of whom clearly declared their belief that we are living in "the end times."

Revelation seems to have become a peculiarly American phenomenon. While European christendom was being lulled to sleep, spiritually, in the 19th and 20th Centuries, American Christians have increasingly focused popular theology in the horror stories that result from a too-literal reading. Two groups emerged by the late 19th Century. Many people, millennialist and fundamentalist, took an almost passive stance toward society except for their duty to "preach salvation to a doomed world." They saw no value in social "improvement".

Others, considering the millennium to refer to an earthly condition God's people might bring about, agitated against slavery and for humane social works. Up until 1914, they thought they were making good progress, but the "war to end all wars" disabused them of that notion, and the second great War less than a generation later pretty much killed that idea off...for a time. We actually see a revived "social gospel" these days, in spite of the threat from resurgent Islam; these people think they can reason with the insane.

What do I think? I am of the flexible-timeline persuasion. Those parts of Revelation that seem most amenable to literal interpretation, wedded with parts of Daniel, certain things Paul and the Evangelists wrote, and the last part of Zechariah, produce this rough outline:

  • The first four seals have likely been opened.
  • The world gets worse and worse. Finally, God is ready to reply to the martyrs' call for vengeance.
  • A major European or Euro-African coalition arises.
  • Its leader makes a treaty with Israel, with a 7-year duration. Perhaps it includes permission to erect a Temple. This leader, whether a person or a coalition, we can call the Beast (nowhere is Antichrist used in Revelation).
  • It is most likely that the Beast is a person, a man, whose origin is somewhere in the Macedonia-Bulgaria region. He is not a Jew.
  • Natural disasters are supplemented, then replaced, by disasters that beggar the imagination. The worst ones, though, do not exceed "one third", which could have various meanings.
  • Eventually, the Beast breaks the treaty and attempts to subjugate Israel and their religion. Three and a half years have passed.
  • The first "taking away" (AKA rapture) of "those who are ready" occurs. The timing is uncertain, whether this is before the prior item, or even if they are simultaneous.
  • There may be two literal prophets speaking in Jerusalem from this point on. About this time, an angel preaches "the eternal gospel." It is according to this gospel that the people remaining alive at the end are judged.
  • Disasters now take on a supernatural element, and spread to worldwide scope. One is a long drought. Euphrates dries up.
  • Mongolia is the only possible source of 200 million horsemen, if these are indeed a literal cavalry. Their progress toward Palestine takes about 13 months (a day, a week, a month, and a year).
  • Other armies also gather to attack. It is not clear whether their target is the Jewish people or the Beast.
  • The two prophets are killed, to arise and ascend 3.5 days later. Their ascension should be just after the second "taking away" of the rest of the believers, the one that occurs "at the last trumpet".
  • The final battle follows. Christ intervenes. I don't think the horse or the sword-tongue are literal, but God can do anything...
  • Supposing the 1260 days refers to the period just ended, the 1290 and 1335 days mentioned by Daniel probably indicate that cleaning up the mess from the battle takes thirty days in Jerusalem and 75 days elsewhere. Then the thousand-year kingdom begins.
  • Just before the cleaning-up period, Christ will judge those who didn't participate in the battle (all the soldiers are condemned), according to the "eternal gospel." This is the "sheep and goats" judgment referred to in Matthew 25. Many, the sheep, will have secretly defied the Beast and helped the persecuted Christians and Jews during the last three-plus years. For the persecuted ones, this period was their chance to finish "getting ready". Most Christians hate this idea...they don't want to chance being there.

It may be that every one of these points has a spiritual applicaition only. That is OK, it is God's responsibility only. But in the light of God's evident desire to destroy "the destroyers of the earth" at least some of these events are probably literal.

It is instructive to see how the eschatology I've been taught is viewed by various "outsiders". These are things we must not insist on. Eschatological doctrine is the most divisive kind. Let us remember that in Jesus' longest prayer (John 17), he prayed three times "that they all may be one." Until that is fulfilled, the rest is moot.

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