How Not to Interpret the Bible. Part Six– Bad Eschatology

How Not to Interpret the Bible. Part Six– Bad Eschatology August 8, 2022

Eschatology is by definition the study of the final or end things, but the term itself has been coupled with the term apocalyptic to refer to a specific kind of eschatology, dealing with a specific kind of prophecy— namely visionary prophecy like one finds in Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, the book of Revelation, and various early Jewish books like 1 Enoch or even 4 Ezra.

A word of caution is in order. The last place to start reading and interpreting the Bible is with apocalyptic eschatology. It is some of the most complex, highly imagaic literature in the canon and therefore some of the easiest to misread and misinterpret especially if you are not studying that literature in its original historical contexts.  These visions are not specifically about late 20th and early 21rst century crises, despite the Left Behind series.  They were the Word of God and meaningful to God’s people already in OT times and in the time of John of Patmos when he wrote Revelation.  He would be more than a little surprised to hear that Armageddon is some kind of modern battle between Russia and the West, or Iran and the West etc.  In fact, a close reading of Rev. 20-21 makes clear that in the end there is no battle. The hostile nations assemble, fire falls from heaven, and they are toast. It’s a divine execution not a battle between modern super powers.

The visionary prophecy is referential, it does refer to events in space and time. But it talks about them in highly metaphorical and imagaic language.  We have beasts who represent empire with their heads representing rulers. The language is seldom literal but always referential.  It is not an allegory about mere ideas or eschatological dreams.  It is indeed about eschatological events— preliminary judgments of Christ from heaven, the return of Christ, the final judgment, the new heaven and the new earth and more.   What this material is not about is two second comings, an invisible one and a visible one.  It is not about a rapture, whether pre or mid-tribulation to rescue believers from the ‘Great Tribulation’. Indeed, the book of Revelation is intended to prepare Christians to be persecuted, prosecuted, even martyred, not beamed up into heaven to avoid all that nastiness.  This is not the place to deal with the escapist Dispensationalism in detail, which is a modern Protestant theology that basically did not exist before the 17th or 18th century and does not represent the historical interpretation of those eschatological passages, not even 1 Thess. 4 which is about Christ’s final visible return, with the saints on earth meeting and greeting him in the air (not in heaven) and returning to reign with him on earth as Rev. 20 and other texts make clear.  See the two chapters in the 2nd edition of my book The Problem with Evangelical Theology. 

My advice is that one should carefully study eschatology, and perhaps read through my mid-level commentary for Cambridge on Revelation. Another good though dated resource is John Collins The Apocalyptic Imagination.

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