Graphic images of Christians being martyred in Libya are harrowing reminders that this world is constantly threatened by evil. With the power of social media, these acts gain a wide audience which was not possible in the past. Confronted with such realities, our tendency is to despair clinging to fear and paranoia. That is when we must be reminded of our Christian hope.
It is fitting that at this time I am taking a class on eschatology (the fancy word that means study of the last things). Honestly, this was not a topic I looked forward to. Growing up in an environment saturated by dispensational theology (Left Behind series – you get the picture), I have grown increasingly skeptical. There was a time I literally wished that Revelation was not in the Bible so I would NOT have to deal with the wacko stuff that gets passed as legitimate interpretations of the book. In the last weeks, I came to learn that this was not just a theological debate but deeply personal and something that evoked a number of emotions from passion, mistrust to anger (It was interesting to learn that I was not alone but the Luther himself had questions about Revelation’s place in the cannon). However, I have now gained a renewed appreciation for this topic and maybe formed some opinions that may be helpful to this discussion.
First of all, I continue to deplore the dominant dispensational approach this topic gets in evangelical circles. By this I mean the approach that tries to read Revelation literally as a “play-by-play” description of the events leading to the end times. I’ll spend the rest of this blog laying out my case:
1) It mostly leads to paranoia, fear and inaction – As I have seen this pattern a lot in the past, when you tend to emphasize this play-by-play view, a topic that should bring hope ends up bringing fear. I know that the intended message was to say: “these signs are pointing Jesus return.” This should bring us hope yet because the focus was so much on impending doom, that left little place for thinking of hope. It is also disheartening because it feels like there is nothing one can do about it. Some might say that this should be an incentive to evangelize and by doing so we are hastening the Lord’s coming. That is possible, yet when so much energy is focused on painting a picture of destruction, the evangelism part gets downplayed. We already have Fox News, CNN and radio talk implanting fear and paranoia in our society. Do we need the church to join the bandwagon?
2) It lacks historical reflection on the topic– How many times have I heard statements like: “this could be THE generation that sees the Lord’s coming” ? It is like we throw 2,000 years of church history and claim that the NT was all about 21st century world all along. It certainly sounds pretentious and self-serving. Even if the statement is correct, a bit of humility and historical reflection would do us a lot of good. We are NOT the first generation to think that. In fact, one could argue that even the apostles’ generation (and they had much more reasons than we do) thought they were it. Then you had a number of movements in Christian history that made the same assumption, all of them to be proven wrong. Is it really wise to walk in this line of thinking without at least entertaining the possibility that we are wrong?
3) It portrays itself as the only “biblical” approach– I suspect that some of you may even wonder about my eternal fate given my questioning of this topic. This is especially true in Neo-Pentecostal circles where the prophetic is overemphasized and end-times thinking is a regular staple of their preaching. Churches like IHOP and Morning Star tend to be big on the topic. Given their influence, and the prowess of the left-behind industrial complex (yes, the whole thing: books, DVDs, video games, etc.), one would think that is the only “biblical” approach to the topic. Well, I am glad to inform you that there are other ways of interpreting Revelation that are not “play-by-play” oriented. Certainly, the weight of church history is not on the side of dispensationalism but more on thematic approach (one that I will explore in a future blog).
4) It claims to provide a framework to understand news while it merely reflects a reactive Anglo-American right-wing political perspective of the world –This is probably one of my biggest realizations in recent years, namely how closely tied end-times thinking is with right wing (and even conspiration theory) thinking. They tend to share the same enemies. What is even more intriguing is how these “play-by-play” systems never quite know what to do with the United States. That is a bit ironic that the most powerful nation on the Earth would not have a role to play in Armageddon. If it does role a play, it is usually a positive, and one in which it stands for the truth of the Bible. Hmm, that sounds like civic religion to me. Sometimes I wonder whether end-times fixation is less about the end of the world and more about the end of the North American empire. Just some food for thought….
5) It is a questionable evangelism tool (in fact it may lead people away from the faith) – That people have come to Christ because of it, I have no doubt. The God of the Bible have spoken through a donkey, assassins, heathens, terrorist, liars and the list goes on. Also bad theology has saved many throughout the history of the church. That is not to the approach’s credit but to the ever-loving God who will use whatever means possible to reach the lost. Now, let us now take a “means-justify-the-ends” approach here and justify this approach in its effectiveness of bringing people to Christ. It should stand on its own. For every case of people that have come to Christ I can also tell of many who left the church because of it. I almost did. I suspect that to continue to emphasize this approach will most certainly lose the ear of the millennial generation.