Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The "I just believe the Bible" sentiment as an excuse for not thinking

I believe the Bible provides infallible truth about Christ, through whom alone we can truly understand the one true God. And I believe that Scripture will never fail to reveal Christ to us and that the Spirit enables us to understand and love Him.

That said, one of the pet peeves I have about evangelicals of some stripes is that when presented with historical and exegetical arguments against a thoroughly dubious belief like pretribulational, premillenial speculation about the end times to the effect that this or that colored person is a potential antichrist (yes, I'm looking at you, people who forward stuff about Muslims or Obama being the antichrist) a person is apt to just dig in their heels and assume they are right because they trust Jesus. Well, I trust Jesus, too, so the argument goes both ways because ... hey, wait, it's simply an assertion and not an argument. As Internetmonk put it, saying "The Bible is true" doesn't end the discussion even if you want it to. Pulling "I believe the Bible" is a conversation ender, not a point from which to move forward to discuss how the truth revealed in Scripture corrects us, not just the people we want corrected.

I am particularly put off by dispensationalists lately becasue they are so apt to embrace truly assisine ideas that fit their pre-existing prejudices. I will be the first person to say I'm not particularly Democratic in my politics but after ten years the spam about how Clinton was going to enact martial law and suspend the Constitution to make himself ruler for life got pretty stupid. And now that Bush has been in office I hear the same stuff coming from the other side. If it's not that Clinton is going to hand the US to China it's that we're invading Iran tomorrow. Sure, these things are "possible" but how likely are they?

The thing that is depressing to consider is that if you look far enough to the right and left the results are the same, secretive international wealthy evil Jewish bankers are rsponsible for everything! Pat Robertson was predicting the New World Order and the Illuminati and the European Union were the big threats in the 1990s, the signs of the coming Antichrist and the one-world-religion. Clearly these people had not done any real research on how spectacularly inefficient the European Union has often been. I was in my late teens when the Berlin Wall came down and I grew up immersed in an eschatological context where the End Times were at hand. I despaired of doing anything meaningful in this life because Jesus was coming back so soon that I'd never have time to get married or have kids or establish a career because it was all going to Hell and getting handed over to the Evil One after the Secret Rapture anyway.

And this is why I appreciate a youth pastor from a decade or so ago that I knew who introduced me and his other kids to the existence of competing schools of thought in eschatology. It started my slow path toward amillenial partial preterism. :)

But I find that as an American who identifies as essentially Protestant and evangelical (whatever that word means would have to be another blog entry, really!) that if I mention this is my perspective it gets weird reactions from people. One of my friends said that he had to explain to a fellow that, no, I'm not a heretic because I embrace this view of eschatology. It's not typical for an AMERICAN evangelical but that if you read widely of European and older Christian thinkers even with Protestantism you find that it is not that weird or outlandish a position.

But after two or three generations get raised on junk like The Late Great Planet Earth or Tim LaHaye books they don't realize that the eschatology they've been sold (quite literally sold) doesn't add up. How many years ago should Jesus have come back if people weren't recalculating things? Why is it the one world religion shifts and transforms depending on the private paranoias of the Christians who thought that the one-world religion would be the New Age movement in the age of Clinton and now think it may be Islam in the age of Bush?

Does it ever occur to these people that the advantage of the historicist and preterist schools is that they allow us to consider that Scripture was not just a secret code book God slipped to us through the hands of the apostles but something given to the whole Church? The number of the Beast was something a person with wisdom could figure out in the apostle's lifetime. That Nero was commonly attested to fit the number means people DID figure out the number. But no, Christians of this stripe don't need to be confused with the facts of how Christians over the centuries have actually interpreted the Apocalypse, let alone be bothered to recognize that the revelation is singular, not plural. It's enough for them to simply suppose that the book is written specially for them to figure out and that maybe Islam will be the one-world religion.

Comparing the symbolic appropriations John makes from Daniel should be a big, big clue that Revelation is not necessarily literal but, again, some Christians won't be bothered by this because most dispensationalist/futurists hold that Revelation is symbolic of things that have not yet happened so that the locusts might refer to helicopters and the horsemen might refer to tanks. In any event, the events described in Revelation have to refer to something, anything that did not take place in the apostle's lifetime even though Jesus said through the apostle "his number IS 666". Now it's not hard to figure out what the problem is if you suppose the number must refer to, say, a Muslim antichrist. The problem is that ten years ago futurists were agreeing the antichrist would be Jewish. Ha ha ha! The great thing about dispensatioanlists is that they can do complete 180 turnarounds on how they interpret the same, unchanging passage in Scripture that reveals the truth and they just say they believe the Bible.

Nah, they believe their SYSTEM for interpreting the Bible and no matter how great or spectacular the contradictions and changes in how they interpret the Mark or the Beast or the one-world religion over time it's all justified by saying "I just believe what the Bible says" or "God in His wisdom could have planned it so people just knew." Never mind that there is no patristic evidence to suggest that the one-world religion that is coming (allegedly) is Islam or that, say, the antichrist will be Muslim and the false prophet Jewish or the other way around. There isn't any evidence that the earliest Christians took Revelation and Daniel together to refer to Muslims or New Agers. What would be more methodologically accurate is to find out what they WOULD have understood Revelation to be speaking of and find out what the equivalents might be in our day. Exegesis? What's that?

Propose the simple idea that in order for God to be truthful to every generation of the church and not a liar that the number had to mean something to the first recipients of the Apocalypse and the answer you're likely to get is "Doesn't this discount the wisdom of God?" No, it just discounts the stupidity of mortals who like to bring their own customized eschatology in through the back door while pretending to themselves and others that they are "just" interpreting what Scripture says. Fortunately there is a promise of Christ's return in Acts 1 so even if, by some historical happenstance, we didn't even have Revelation, we would have an indisputable canonical promise of Christ's return given to us by Luke.

If we're talking about the hope of Christ's return, I'm totally on board. But I haven't been on board for more than ten years if we're talking about Revelation being transformed into a code book to rationalize the fear of Democrats or people of color who we think will usher in a one-world government and one-world religion that is somehow secretly run by the Illuminati or something. Guess what? Liberals have returned the favor and some have talked about Bush 2 being the antichrist, in all seriousness. Right-wing Christians can't scoff at this if they sent spam about how Clinton would usher in martial law ten years ago. When the shoe was on the other foot they weren't batting an eyelash at suggesting that the American president might play the role of the antichrist.

So let's be consistent, what if America is the Beast and the United States approach to "democracy" as an export is the one-world religion? Don't we have the military might to ensure that those who oppose us will be punished?

... Or might it be more responsible a way of reading Scripture to set aside most of dispensationalism because it's not based on any exegesis at all? The more I saw just how crazy and paranoid most theories springing from dispensationalism actually were the more I realized that the promise of Christ's return is supposed to be a basis for our hope, not fuel for our own paranoia and resentment of our neighbor.


Anonymous said...

What a fantastic, skin-tingling, breath-taking blog that you have! You not only tell it like it is, but also like it should be. The fact that the popular, merchandising pretrib looniness is less than 200 years old and that neither any organized church nor any accepted system of theology before 1830 ever heard of it is reason enough to throw it in the trash can - even though some of its appealing-to-baser-instincts arguments seem rather comforting. Your readers might enjoy Googling "Pretrib Hypocrisy," "Pretrib Desperados," "Pretrib Rapture Diehards," and "Revisers of Pretrib Rapture History" for some rare behind-the-scenes observations of embarrassing dirty linen. Blessings, J. Edwards

Secret Rapture said...

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