Friday, February 4, 2011

The Perils of Millennialism

I believe the Bible.

It seems a simple statement of fact, and I fully subscribe to it, but it doesn’t say anything about the way in which I believe the Bible. The different ways in which we can believe the Bible, or understand what it is saying, was highlighted this week in an on-line exchange with someone whom was promoting an eschatology that I disagree with. Here’s my response;


Where do I start?

Perhaps the greatest difficulty I have with millennialism is that it attempts to visualize a message that is essentially verbal. The apocalyptic language of Revelations, or Daniel, Ezekiel and elsewhere in the Bible is highly metaphorical and figurative. However, though it is picture-language, it is not necessarily used to describe a picture. If this is the case, we have to ask exactly what it describes, but I’ll return to that later.

A prime example is found in the opening passage of the Book of Revelation, when John first describes his encounter with the Alpha and Omega
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
(Revelation 1:12-16, NIV).

There are all sorts of difficulties in trying to visualize this description, which John cues with his pithy statement “I turned around to see the voice…” If that’s not enough, he then needs this divine vision to interpret itself to him, just as we do today. We find that the seven lampstands are the angels of the seven churches and the seven stars are the churches (Revelation 1:20). Here, the visualization technique fails us, because Christ both walks among the churches and he holds them in his right hand. It defies any sane attempt at visualization, but when we begin to understand it in the context of the figurative language of John’s Apocalypse, it becomes clear. Walking through a property is what the owner does to signify his ownership of it (see Genesis 3:8, another instance of “seeing a voice”), and holding something in one’s right hand signifies the value of that thing and the care and protection one gives it (the words for “hand” and “remembrance” are usually closely associated in scripture, see Psalm 137:5).

So, what this passage describes is not a scene that can be visualized, but the attributes of Christ and the basis of His relationship with His Church, and it is worth noting that the descriptions of these descriptions are not always mutually consistent. The whole book is, after all, a revelation of Jesus Christ, just as it says in Revelation 1:1. Any attempt to interpret it as an opening of God’s diary must therefore be treated with extreme caution, notwithstanding the explicit warnings of Matthew 24:36.

Moving through the book, we are presented with a series of strange and terrifying scenarios. Given the figurative nature of apocalyptic language, we have to do away with the presumption that these are intended to represent actual events that are related in chronological order. It is equally likely, or perhaps more plausible, that they are intended to describe the dynamics of the interaction between the heavenly and earthly realms.

Consider the abolition of the “sea” in Revelation 21:1. I do not see how the marine environment and the life it supports (which was created as a “good” thing in Genesis 1:9-10) can be banished, except in the context of the renewal of the whole of creation. But why, then, does the text talk about the renewal of “heaven” and “earth”, but not the “sea”?

Surely the answer must be that the “sea” of Revelation 21:1 is a metaphor, and it is surprisingly common. It represents the dark forces of chaos that seek to undermine God. Jonah got overwhelmed by them (Jonah 2:2-9), and Jesus followed Jonah in this (Matthew 12:39-41). The people of Israel got led out to their redemption through the sea. This metaphorical “sea” even makes an appearance in Genesis 1:2, before the creation of its physical counterpart. So, the banishment of the “sea” in Revelation 21:1 is not about robbing us of our favorite fishing spot in a waterless heaven; it’s about God vanquishing the dark, chaotic forces of hell that seek to dethrone Him and rob us of the refuge of our rock and redeemer (see Isaiah 44:8).

Thus it is that we can understand the vision of the angel with one foot on the land and one on the sea in Revelation 10:1-2. Here is one who has authority over earth and hell, and he announces the sovereignty of God. I don’t think that we will ever physically see this sight (I could be wrong), but what we can take from this is that when we proclaim the sovereignty of God in every corner of the cosmos (even those corners that are hostile to Him), we have some mighty backup. Christians should also note from this that there is no circumstance or place where it is inappropriate to proclaim the sovereignty of God and the reign of His Christ, not even in the “sea” of life’s chaos.

The timelines of Revelation 20 are, I acknowledge, more problematic. However, I will note that numbers are frequently used to denote completeness rather than an accurate count. Like so much else with apocalyptic language, we have to dispense with the presupposition that it is an identifiable unit of time. That may be the destination we come to, but it should not be the start of our understanding of it.

Revelation 20 deals with the “Thousand Years”, but identifying when this block of time occurs is problematic. An angel seizes Satan and imprisons him for the millennium and at the same time, the martyrs are brought to life to reign with Christ. Then, Satan gets released and all hell breaks loose until God intervenes in judgment, opening the books and even throwing death and Hades into the lake of fire.

Post-Millennialists say that the Millenium has passed, noting that Satan is very much present on the earth (see 1 Thessalonians 2:18) and that Christians have already taken up their position as kings and priests with Christ (compare Revelation 20:6 with 1 Peter 2:9). However, if the Millennium has been and gone, when did it happen? If it was before the creation of the world, then what are the nations that Satan deceived in Revelation 20:3? It may even have started with the Cross of Christ (see John 12:31), but what happened a thousand years later (about 1030 AD) to signify Satan’s release from his entombment?

Pre-Millennialists say that the Millennium is yet to come, and it will start with the Rapture, when all true believers are taken up to heaven. I have to question the theology here. Will God really leave himself without a witness on earth for a thousand years (see Isaiah 43:10-12)? This does not fit with any ecclesiology that I recognize in the Biblical texts.

In both cases, we should ask what difference the absence of Satan will make to the inhabitants of the earth (whether in the period from 30 to 1030 or in some future period)? Their heavenly accuser might be imprisoned, but they are still sinners who are still not entitled to have access to God. So, if their status is not affected by the presence or otherwise of Satan, what difference does it make if he is locked up or not?

Most distressingly, Pre-Millennialism can lead to the kind of escapism that goes in the opposite direction of the Christian Gospel. It can say that Christians should hunker down until Christ appears to rescue them from the storm. It can command Christians to contract into their own communities. In contrast, Christ commands his church to “go out into the world” as witnesses of Him (Matthew 28:19 etc.); to be the salt and light of the world (Matthew 5:13-14); the place that discharges the river of life into the desert (Revelation 22:1-2); the place that gives light to the nations (Revelation 21:24).

It is worth pausing to note here that the attributes of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 and 22 all fit the present age, not the age to come. Furthermore, rapturistic pre-millenialism has the Church ascending into heaven, in the very opposite direction to Revelation 21:10. We should respond by noting that Christ himself leads the way, coming down from the unseen realm into the dirt and dust of our world (Philippians 2:5-11), and we must not claim to be greater than our master in this respect (John 13:16). Christ sends us into the world to love it and serve it in His Name, but rapturistic pre-millennialism promises to remove us from it, which, to me, entices believers into dangerous theological territory.

On the subject of dangerous theological territory, you confidently asserted that the Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem. Why should it? In the context of the Christian Gospel, the Temple was the old wineskin (Matthew 9:17, Mark 2:22, Luke 5:37), and the true Temple has now replaced it (Hebrews 12:18-28), which is Christ himself (Revelation 21:22). Everything that the Temple did has been fulfilled and brought to a conclusion in Christ, including all the worship and sacrifice of the Old Testament (Romans 10:4). Are you suggesting that the work of Christ was somehow insufficient, such that God has to open a “back door” into his presence, contrary to John 14:6. Practically speaking, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem is likely to precipitate World War 3, as long as one quarter of the world’s population is Muslim, and I sincerely pray that Christians would do everything they can to prevent it. God is not interested in which pile of rocks we worship Him on, provided we worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-24).

As far as the Rapture is concerned, I believe N T Wright brings a perspective to it that is more empathetic to Paul’s writings than the 19th Century North American interpretations that I have heard. This is a subject entire of itself, but I understand that the vision of Christians being taken from earth has only gained popularity since the printing of the Scofield Bible in 1909.

Amillennialists deserve a mention here. They view Revelation and other apocalyptic scripture as aspirational goals. In other words, it’s up to us to make the Millennium happen, and we can do so through social action. Whereas the call to social engagement is commendable, the reluctance to acknowledge God is not. If there is an over-riding message in Revelation, it is that Jesus Christ is the Lord of History, and he over-rides the tumult of all else that happens, even when super-human forces that are hostile to Him initiate it.

So, what does Revelation and the other Apocalyptic Biblical scripture tell us? My view, which is also my view on the corpus of Biblical texts, is that it is primarily a revelation of God. That means that it is not primarily a revelation of religion, nor of God’s diary. I would accept that it is a revelation of the human soul, but so is other literature. The difference with Biblical literature is that the human souls who wrote it have been inspired to interpret what they see as God incarnated in the human experience.

Maintaining this focus on God prevents us from taking the scriptures into a landscape that is alien to them. For example, dispensationalists appear to expend too much energy trying to find a “fit” between the various scenarios in Revelation and current western world events. If they did manage to find a “fit” (which has not happened yet with satisfactory results), what difference would it make? Would they then dig a bunker in their back yard, fill it with food and ammunition and wait for the rapture? I am not objecting here to preparing for, or avoiding trouble, but I have to question the values of self-preservation that underpin such a mentality, contrary to Jesus’ command in Matthew 16:24. Christians are at their most Christ-like when they abandon their efforts to save themselves and turn to help neighbors in distress, not when they are the first to take to the lifeboats.

The question of what difference it makes is more important than it might appear at first. It exposes the whole issue of why God would give us the Bible in the first place. In coming to terms with this question, I have learned to be content with an ambiguity here; the ambiguity between reality and myth.

There is no doubt in my mind that many of the events and characters in the Bible are, or were, real events and real people. This connection to the “real” is important, because it tells me that I’m not just dealing with a theoretical and esoteric God, but one who actively interacts with my world. Such a view sits well with the ultimate expression of God in the person of Jesus Christ who, as Christians have persistently maintained, is both fully and wholly God and fully and wholly human. He is the "word made flesh" - the verbal made visual. I believe that Christ is the intersection between heaven and earth, and it is important to know that the “earth” in this equation is our earth, not some intellectual construct.

However, not all events and characters are “real”, as my thoroughly inadequate survey of apocalyptic literature shows. The division between reality and myth in the Biblical stories is by no means self-evident, though some texts exhibit more clues than others. The book of Job, for example, reads very much like a Greek Drama, and I would be confident in concluding that that is what it is, rather than a blow-by-blow account of “real” conversations about Job’s misfortunes (seriously, have you ever heard someone monologue like that, because I haven’t).

If they are not “real”, then they must be mythological. Unfortunately, the term “myth” has plenty of negative connotations, which we need to ignore, but there seems to be no better English word to describe them, though “parable” comes close. To describe how this works, I need to borrow a quote from a sermon that I have been unable to source, which is that the myth (parable) is intended to provide a house in which we are invited to live. I like this metaphor. It speaks to me of the “strong tower” that is the Name of God (see Proverbs 18:10). To put it simply, if we live within the God-inspired story, then God will protect us and things will turn out according to His will.

This, I believe, is the key to understanding Apocalyptic literature. It is intended to give us a narrative, or script, in which we should live out our lives. The Book of Revelation, for example, tells us over and over that if we are faithful to God, He will rescue us, overcoming our enemies, ultimately bringing us to Himself where we joyfully love and worship Him. Placed side by side with the corpus of Biblical literature, this theme is expanded and replayed, such that we can face the future with confidence, knowing that whatever terrifying scenarios we may face, God will ultimately triumph, and justice, truth and mercy will prevail.

In this context, it’s an interesting waste of time to attempt to predict exactly how this will happen, but one thing is sure; we don’t have to focus our efforts on our self-preservation and we certainly don't need to rescue God. We don’t even have to correctly understand all the details, provided we keep our sights set on Jesus Christ, who is the pioneer and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2).

I believe the Bible. I believe it encompasses real history. I believe that it is the house within which I should live. This useful little metaphor tells me the way in which I should believe it, and it shows the way in which I should understand it, in particular it's apocalyptic literature.


  1. Over the time that I read things you wrote on answeringlds, I kind of suspected you were clueless about the Bible. Now you fully confirmed that you have no clue.

    Jesus made it clear that He will return as a thief in the Night and take us from the earth, The Rapture. The Bible is clear, we are Children of God, but some people are Children of Satan, God tells us we His children are not appointed to wrath. So why would we be here to see the wrath of God?

    Do you believe God flooded the entire earth and destroyed all but 8 people? If You believe that, Then if you believe that, then why is it so hard to believe He will destroy the earth with Fire as He said.

    You asked about the devil being locked up for a 1,000 years, God will lock him up so this way people cannot say, The devil made me do it. We will not be influenced by the devil at all.

    You say the temple will not be re-built. Over in Israel right now to this day, they have whats called the temple mount institute. I am going to Israel for two weeks this coming November and will get to tour the place and ask questions.

    When you read the Book of Revelation, it says the WHOLE WORLD will see the temple defiled, 50 years ago the whole world could not see this happen, but today with all the high tech video cameras and cell phones and the internet we will be able to see it happen.

    What about the 2 witness in the Book of revelation, you think they are myths? They have no come yet, and you believe as you said some things in the Bible, Like Job are myths.

    The Devil wants us to believe the Bible is a myth. Your a false prophet and are clueless. You can say what you want about me and believe what you want, but I'm not wasting my time debating you over these subjects. My calling by God is the Mormons. But also on my time I debate atheists a wife and 3 kids am working 2 jobs and am a full time student in school.

    I dont have time to be distracted by the devil debating a false prophet like you.

  2. I re-read what I wrote, I know you or others will be a little confused by what I said, so let me clear things up.

    during the 1000 year reign of Christ, the devil will be tossed into the bottomless pit, this way people cannot claim the devil made them do anything. They will have Jesus ruling over them and if they sin, then it will be apparent it was their choice, not the devil.

    You said the Book of Job was a myth, well if you believe that book is a myth, then how can you be sure other books of the bible are not myths. According to the Book of Job, God said lots of things, so you mean God never said that stuff? How could He if the Book is a myth.

    You dont feel the Book of revelation is really going to happen, well if this stuff will not happen, how do you explain the 2 witnesses? It speaks in such a way that they will really be here doing what they said they would. Then as far as the temple mount institute I was speaking about, they exist today over in Israel, and they have everything ready to re-build the temple, they say it can be-rebuilt in 3 months or less from the time they get the go ahead.

    They are waiting for the messiah to return and give them the go ahead, but the messiah they are waiting for will really be the anti-christ. If you choose to reject the rapture then thats your choice, I believe we will be taken out of here and I do not hold your view that I/we must hunker down and do nothing till Jesus returns.

    I believe we must share Christ with people till He takes us out of here. If I understand you correctly, your though/view is we must simply try and bring about the kingdom ourselves by the good we do in society. If thats correct, that you believe that then good luck, it's more and more wicked and evil everyday, not, it's getting better and better everyday. Hope that help clarify what I believe.

  3. I'm stating this as my Opinion, I believe you posted all of this on answeringlds because you are trying to get people to side with you against me. Also I believe more people than you care to think believe the same as I do, The rapture is true, Job is True and not a myth, a temple will be built Etc.

    But people from MC are not talking because they either do not want to rebuke you for your false ideas, or if they believe I am wrong and you are not they they choose not to say anything to me.

    I have stated before on MC, That way to many christians are not really willing to say the hard stuff that needs to be said because they care more about what man thinks of them than they care about what God said. Then people like you come along and say things like, You cannot act like that or say that.

    You implied that because of my moniker and tried quoting to me from Isaiah saying that about me when it was Jesus that that verse was speaking about. Then all you believers seem to for get the Bible tells us, Jesus said, You error in scripture, your liars in scripture, Your a false prophet. Paul said the same, as did Jude, John and others.

    Jesus said these things and his disciples said the same, as we believers can tell people they are wrong and use scripture to support why we say what we do. Yet to many believers are scared and more worried that someone will be offended. I would rather speak the truth and if your offended by the truth, then that tells me you do not know or care about the truth.

  4. Rick,

    Whatever else you think about me, please believe me when I say to you that I have not attempted to get anyone to "side with me" against you, especially the people at (MC). No doubt, they hold their own views, but if they express them, it will not be by my prompting.

  5. I believe you if you say so. I simply said that since you seemed to go out of your way to try and get people to come here. And even if everyone from MC believed as you do, I still do not and I believe it is you who cherry pick verse to support your veiw.

    Thier is tons of referances stating we will be taken out of here, IE the rapture. Then if the Book of Job is a myth, how can you prove that? and Why are not other books myths as well? How can you really truth the Bible. Hard core orthdox Jews believe the book of Job is real and not a myth. These problems are just the tip of the iceberg. Sadly more and more so called christians are rejecting Gods word for fairy tales and simply following what othermen say and not God, Sort of like the LDS.

  6. Rick,

    It seems you don't understand what I mean when I use the word "myth". As I posted above, the term has plenty of negative connotations that we need to ignore. "Parable" might be a better word, but it has a specific application in relation to Jesus' stories.

    What I mean by "myth" is a story that we are meant to "live in". It may be based on "real" events, and it may not. Jesus' parables are "myths" in the sense that they are based on a realistic scenarios, not actual events. The story of Jesus' life is a "myth" in the sense that it is a "real" story that relates to a "real" person, but it's a story with a purpose. A "myth" is a story that's told to get a reaction.

    This changes the question somewhat; from "is this a story about real events?" to "what kind of reaction does it want from me?"

    Consider the Book of Jonah and the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Both stories end with a question which begs their Jewish audiences to question their relationship with their Gentile neighbours. Jonah brings us to sit under the gourd with him, and Jesus places his audience in the shoes of the older (non-prodigal) brother. Whether these stories are "real" or not does not change the nature of the situation they force us to confront.

    The challenge we face is whether we have the faith to act out the truth that the story confronts us with. Consider the story of the resurrection of Christ. Am I willing to lay down my life, believing that God will raise me from the dead? I hope so, but the faith required to "live out" such a story is truly daunting. Even so, that is what the Bible calls us to (see Philippians 2:6-11, a "story" that is told for reasons that are given explicitly in Philippians 2:5).

    You have your own "myth". It's a story of how the Temple will be built in Jerusalem, and you are willing to do your part to "live it out" by contributing to the enterprise with a future visit to the city. Unfortunately, I believe your "myth" is founded on a faulty reading of the Bible.

    I would not object, if it were not for the very real threat of bloodshed should you succeed. If you don't know what I mean, then you should consider the ancient history of the sacking of the Jerusalem Temples in 587BC and again in AD70, or a more recent example in Ayodhya.

    As I noted above, the forced removal of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock (Islam's 3rd most important shrine) is likely to end in WW3, and that is no exaggeration. If you build a Temple on the Temple Mount you've got to 1) remove the buildings that are there already and 2) defend it by force sooner or later. It's really hard to justify such a pointless waste of human life on the basis of a dodgy theology.

    Again, I ask what is it that you need a Temple for, when all the functions and purposes of the earthly Temple in Jerusalem have been perfectly fulfilled and satisfied in the person, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? In the context of the Christian Gospel, the Temple is redundant. Indeed, it is an act of anti-faith in the Gospel of Grace because it says that we need to contribute something to get God to react favourably to us.

    Please reconsider the foundational basis of your "myth"; particularly the kind of reaction it wants from you. The One who said "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matt 5:9) will come to judge us both.

  7. No Offence but you really are clueless arn't you?

    You seem to think we Christians, and me included are out to build a temple. It really ahs nothing to do with me or any Christian. It is the Jews that are not believers in Jesus, but the Jews that believe in the OT only and reject Jesus that want a temple built.

    Where do you get the idea I am part of building the temple? Also I am not going over to Israel to help build a temple or even support doing it, I am going over to tour Israel and will vistit the place that is looking to build the temple.

    Also Building the temple will not result in ww3 if you really believe the Bible and the Book of Revealtion, which it seems you do not.

    The Bible tells us, the Jews are looking for the return of the messiah, The believe He will return and allow them to rebuild their temple. According to the Book of Revelation, The temple will be rebuilt and it will be the Anti-christ who comes onto the scene after the rapture and the Church is removed.

    The Bible is clear, The man of Sin (Anti-Christ) Will be reveled after the restraing force is removed. That restraing force is us the Church.

    then as a result of rebuilding the Temple It willbe built with out removing any building as you imply. Then people will think they have peace upon the earth and many will follow this guy and take the mark of the beast.

    Then after 3 1/2 years The anti-christ will break this treaty and defile the temple and will demand everyone and all religions worship Him. Then God will pour out His wrath upon the earth. The Final 3 1/2 years. And yes again you dont understand but people will still be saved.

    But iof you reject the rapture then when we are all taken out of here, you will stick around and tell everyone that the rapture happened and it was not aliens or mother earth getting rid of us or whatever lies are promated to dismiss the rapture.

  8. Dear reader,

    If you have read this far, then I commend you for your patience.

    If you have been observant, then I trust that you have seen that the substance of my exchange with Rick concerns the sequence of events leading up to Christ's return and the final judgment, not the ultimate outcome.

    When I mentioned this discussion to a Christian friend of mine, he declared himself to be a "pan-millenialist", meaning that it will "pan out" in the end. I like this view. It's not theologically lazy; rather it acknowledges that none of us know exactly what the future holds, even if we know that God will triumph in the end.

    As I said to Rick on the board that prompted this discussion; I refuse to be too dogmatic on this subject. I don't expect everyone to agree with me, but I had sincerely hoped for a robust, respectful and knowledgeable discussion. I am willing to be persuaded, but you've got to show me the evidence. It's not just the evidence in the case presented, it's in the person presenting it, and in Rick's case, it is sadly lacking.

    In any case, that's how I interpret the imperative in 1 Peter 3:15-16.

    But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.