As I wrote last week, the “play-by-play” approach of end-times is not working for everybody. The speculative nature of dispensational theology is highly problematic even if its simplicity and relevance is very attractive. Attractiveness comes from the perception of connecting Scriptures with current events. The hearer is offered an interpretative paradigm from which he or she can make sense of the world around us. This is especially true, when the hearer already aligns with an Anglo-American conservative view of reality. It is also attractive because, on the surface it appears to be the most literal reading of Scripture, and therefore the “safest” way to read Scripture.
The more I think about this, the more I realize that to challenge the dispensational view requires a wholesale challenge to one of the central tenets of evangelical theology, namely, its approach to Biblical interpretation. I do not have the time or the intellectual energy to do at this point. Suffice it to say that popular evangelical approach to interpretation lacks a basic awareness of different literary genres in the Bible. This is well manifested in this end-times theology debate. Most of the passages used come from either the prophetic books of the OT and Revelation. Occasionally there is a use of some of Paul’s letters and the Gospels. The problem lies primarily in the use of the first group – the prophetic and apocalyptic books of the Bible. For these books, the plain sense or literal interpretation falls apart because they are filled with symbolic language. Instead, what is passed for literal reading tends to be highly speculative. Symbolic language is not meant to be read literal so we need to find other ways to approach it. What is missed is the fact that Revelation and the prophetic book was written in a time and meant to be understood about the hearers of that time, not a secret key to the future. Therefore, these texts are best treated with caution and historical awareness rather than coordinates for wars to come. It does not mean we ignore them but we approach them with humility and avoid speculation.
A better alternative would be to approach end-times starting with the gospel and the letters of Paul and Peter. The Olivet discourses found in the synoptic gospels (Mat, Mark and Luke) provide a general view of the topic without trying to give details. It then becomes a thematic approach that can be summarized in a few points:
– Jesus will return to Earth – It is hard to read the NT and not get the sense that this is a central belief of the Christian faith. It is also present in the early Creeds giving it a strong witness for its validity.
– We should be ready to meet him – The parable of the virgins is instructive here. The point is not whether we know when he comes but that we are ready to meet him, being through death or through eschaton.
– There will be judgment and wrongs will be put to rights – Here is a point that gets missed a lot. The whole point of Jesus return is to establish justice, to right the wrongs. This is where our eschatological thinking should run in parallel with kingdom of God thinking in the NT. We long for justice and we have the audacity to believe that our Lord will bring it to the Earth.
This is not a novel approach but one that continues to be espoused by mainline Christian denominations. Sure this is a lot less sensational and will not sell many books, yet it closer to mainstream Christian tradition than dispensational approach. Maybe it is time we in the neo-Pentecostal movement get off our prophetic hubris and start listening to our brothers and sisters from these denominations.
I add below a link of NT Wright speaking on the rapture providing a through explanation of the imagery there. This is worth considering when examining eschatological interpretations. To be fair, dispensational theology does not have to necessarily lead to political inaction as Wright is saying here. Unfortunately that is often the case well exemplified in how Anglo-American evangelicals refuse to deal with climate change.