June 29, 2006

The Apocalyptic Worldview: Part 2

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 1:04 pm

In my last post, I argued that while apocalyptic belief gives hope to those whose life seems hopeless, it also is a very tempting worldview for those who feel culturally oppressed because they find themselves powerless to prevent changes occurring in the world around them. But the important question isn’t about worldview, but about truth: what does Scripture say about the end-times?

First, let me say that I’m not questioning a belief in the second coming of Christ. As a Lutheran, every Sunday in church I affirm this belief as I recite these words from the Apostles Creed:

On the third day [Jesus] rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Instead, I’m addressing the pre-trib pre-millenial belief that we are currently in the end-times, that Jesus’ return will happen in our lifetimes, and that the Bible describes events happening in our world today. Is this belief based on exegesis (letting the Bible speak its own truth to us through the action of the Holy Spirit) or is it based on eisegesis (looking for evidence in the Bible for beliefs that we already hold)?

I wanted to take a look at the Scriptural evidence myself to see whether it really says what so many assume it says. I found myself falling in a rabbit hole for the past week, and finally gave up before I reached the bottom of it. All I can say is that the Bible is not at all clear on the end-times. It’s confusing. Let me give you some examples.

I started with Matthew 24, which I had always thought was an unambiguous description of Jesus’ second coming. But even here, I found it’s not clear what Jesus is telling his disciples. He begins talking about what sounds like the tribulation, which flows straight into a description of the destruction of Jerusalem (which happened in 70 A.D.), which then flows into a description of Jesus’ return. I turned to my Eerdmans Commentary, one of the most respected Bible commentaries in print, where it says (p. 1051):

Commentators disagree about which predictions and warnings refer to what. [… A] precise chronology is doubtful. The end of ch. 23 and beginning of ch. 24 already merge the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world into a single, complex topic.

Part of our confusion comes from one word at the end of verse 3. Here are the various translations I have in front of me:

NRSV and NIV: “…what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
King James: “…what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?”
Living Bible: “What events will signal your return, and the end of the world?”
The Message: “What will be the sign of your coming, that the time‘s up?”

The greek word aeon, as in “the end of the aeon“, is translated variously as age, time or world. These different translations give very different meanings: is Jesus talking about the end of a certain period in history (i.e. the era of the Second Temple in Jerusalem), or the end of all history? Big difference.

Matthew 24 refers to the “the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel.” So next I was off to the Book of Daniel. The first half or so of Daniel is very clear — he’s talking about his present. But as I got into chapters 8 on it gets more and more, um, unclear. Again, I turned to Eerdmans for enlightenment. From its introduction to Daniel (p. 665):

The book has remained a vibrant source of comfort and hope…whether in the broad sweep of its message or in its rather more dubious employment as source material for the construction of a detailed timetable of the “events of the end times.”

Then I dove into Eerdmans’ detailed verse by verse commentary, particularly about the second half of Daniel (pp. 672-675.) Besides getting lost in the intricacies of 5th century B.C. middle east history, it struck me how, shall we say, humble the commentary is.

Yet it is unclear in the Hebrew that…

This latter passage is difficult because of uncertainties…

This last point, however, is not clear…

This would perhaps then be…Alternatively…

It is exceedingly difficult to understand…

At this point, before even thinking of moving on to Revelation, I realized that understanding the apocalyptic books of the Bible is not a task for the layperson. So I then began to survey some of what the academic theologians throughout Christendom have to say on the topic, since they have devoted their lives to understanding the whole of Scripture and its historical context.

Which I will get into in my next post.

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