L.B.: Fizzbinsationalism

L.B.: Fizzbinsationalism November 1, 2015

(Originally posted March 24, 2006. This got lost in the migration from TypePad to WordPress, recovered and reposted for the archives here thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.)

Left Behind, pp. 208-210

Rayford Steele is disappointed that he couldn’t convince his daughter, Chloe, to watch the In-Case-of-Rapture video with him:

Rayford gave up. He would deal with his own soul and pray for his daughter, but clearly there would be no badgering her into the faith.

Note that he gives up on “badgering her into the faith” only for strategic, pragmatic reasons, not for ethical or theological reasons. For Rayford, as for LaHaye and Jenkins, badgering someone into the faith is a perfectly legitimate approach. In this case, however, it doesn’t seem to be working, so Rayford settles for a tactical retreat and decides to watch the tape by himself.

The tape begins and Rayford is greeted by New Hope’s departed pastor, Vernon Billings. In Billings’ introduction we learn for the first time where we are, or at least where New Hope Village Church is — Mount Prospect, Illinois. Here’s Billings:

As you watch this tape, I can only imagine the fear and despair you face, for this is being recorded for viewing only after the disappearance of God’s people from the earth.

That you are watching indicates you have been left behind. You are no doubt stunned, shocked, afraid and remorseful …

Let me show you from the Bible exactly what has happened. You won’t need this proof by now, because you will have experienced the most shocking event of history. But as this tape was made beforehand and I am confident that I will be gone, ask yourself, how did he know? Here’s how, from 1 Corinthians 15:51-57.

At this point Rayford hits the pause button and runs off to grab his wife’s Bible to look up the passage for himself. I reached for a Bible too, even though, like all good graduates of evangelical Sunday school, I had a pretty good idea of what that passage said. 1 Corinthians 15 is St. Paul’s famous sermon on resurrection.

The entire chapter is a single, sustained argument and it’s a bit odd to jump in, as Billings does, at the very end of that argument. Paul begins by repeating the message he says is “of first importance: that Christ died for our sins … that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day …” (3-4). Really dead, really buried, really raised again — that’s Paul’s argument.

This is vitally important, Paul argues, because:

… if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. … For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. …

He goes on like this for quite a while, even saying:

If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

Feel free to disagree with Paul’s argument here. (I personally find the kind of Nietzchean implications of his hyperbole here difficult to square with his own respectful engagement with Stoic ideas elsewhere, such as his Mars Hill address.) It’s perfectly fair to disagree with that argument, but it’s not fair to claim that his argument is something other than what it is.

“If the dead are not raised,” Paul says, “then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.” We’re all going to die. No exceptions. We will die and we will be buried, and if that’s all there is then our only destiny is a long dirt nap.

But, says Paul, that’s not all there is: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” His whole argument, the entire chapter, leads up to this — the ending passage that Vernon Billings recites:

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. … then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“The dead will be raised,” Paul says. The dirt nap is not the final word. Your faith is not futile.

You don’t have to agree with Paul’s argument to appreciate why Christians have long referred to 1 Corinthians 15 as “The Resurrection Chapter.” Or to recognize the aptness of the New International Version’s subheadings for this chapter: “The Resurrection of Christ,” “The Resurrection of the Dead,” “The Resurrection Body.”

But for Vernon Billings — and for LaHaye and Jenkins — those subheadings are all wrong. They don’t think this chapter has anything to do with resurrection. For them, it’s all about the Rapture.

Pastor Billings continued, “Let me paraphrase some of that so you’ll understand it clearly. When Paul says we shall not all sleep, he means that we shall not all die.”

Billings doesn’t care about the resurrection of the dead. He’s hoping for something he thinks would be even better — not dying at all. Thus where the majority of Christians for 2,000 years read Paul as saying “We shall not all SLEEP, but we will all be CHANGED,” Billings and L&J read Paul as saying “We shall not ALL sleep, but WE will all be changed.”

That’s a doozy of a novel interpretation. You can see why Billings had to ignore the first 50 verses of this chapter — such context makes his novel interpretation extremely difficult to sustain. He has to pretend all that discussion doesn’t exist — all of that stuff about “if the dead be/be not raised” and “if Christ be/be not raised” and of Christ as “firstfruits” of those who have died and been raised again.

“Of course, the cards on Beta Antares Four are different …”

The context of the chapter simply doesn’t allow Billings’ interpretation to make any sense. But set that aside for a moment and consider what it would mean to accept Billings’ and L&J’s interpretation as true. This is a passage from Paul’s letter to the first-century church in Corinth, but if it means what Billings says it does, then it wasn’t true for Paul (he died) or for any of the Christians he was writing to (they’re all dead).

L&J’s interpretation would mean, in fact, that this passage was meaningless nonsense for all first-century Christians. And all second-century Christians. And third-, fourth-, fifth-, and 19th-century Christians. And for a growing number of 20th- and 21st-century Christians as well.

This would mean that all those times that Tim LaHaye’s mother — or my mother — read this passage as part of their devotions, they were unknowingly reading something that wasn’t really Scripture for them. This passage would have meaning, would be true only for those select few Christians who, like Vernon Billings and Irene Steele, had the good timing and good fortune to read it shortly before being themselves “Raptured.” Only those select, timely few could include themselves among the “we” that Billings says “shall not all die.”

This is hermeneutical Fizzbin. The text means one thing for one set of readers but not for others. It means one thing for the dealer but something entirely different for the reader to the dealer’s right, except on Tuesdays, or after dark.

This hermeneutic is irrational and arbitrary. And it has a name. It’s called “dispensationalism.”

Not only does this approach allow one to say, as Billings does, that the “Resurrection Chapter” isn’t about resurrection, but it also lets one avoid other passages that one would prefer not to have to deal with. The Sermon on the Mount? Don’t worry about it — that refers to the the Millennial dispensation, not to us. Ditto for the parables and, oh, pretty much everything else Jesus had to say in the Gospels.

That’s what Fizzbin is for, after all, to provide a distraction so you can make your escape.

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