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.