Monthly Archives: September 2011

Eschatological Thieves in the Night

Undergirding my childhood eschatology was Charles Anderson’s now-famous painting, which was commissioned in 1973 by Leon and Ruth Bates of the Bible Believers’ Evangelistic Association. “The Rapture” depicts a glorified Jesus hovering over a city skyline. White-robed Christians are painted in mid-rapture*, which results in empty graves (presumably verified to be empty upon inspection by unsaved family members) and vehicular carnage as Christian drivers and pilots are whisked away to meet their Savior in the sky.  When “other-worldly” images such as these – or, alternatively, bad Christian novels adapted into bad Christian movies staring Kirk Cameron – pervade the Evangelical church, it is quite easy to see why so many Evangelicals retain the premillennial, pretribulational eschatology with which they were first fed.  The visually-striking mind-pictures conjured up by this eschatological paradigm can be extremely powerful, so much so that any competing eschatology is dismissed immediately as unbiblical.

Like the entire creation/evolution debate, eschatology was not heavily stressed in my home.  Perhaps it was because my father was somewhat agnostic at the time as to the timing of the Rapture in relation to the Great Tribulation.  (Later on, in my still-pretrib college years, he surprised me with a paper he wrote for one of his seminary classes that argued for a midtribulational rapture.)  Nevertheless, none of the churches which I attended as a boy did anything to provide me with a more comprehensive understanding of various End Times scenarios.  From Winnetka Bible Church in the Chicago suburbs to Bloomington, Indiana’s Evangelical Community Church to South Church (formerly South Baptist Church) of Lansing, Michigan, never once did I ever encounter a discussion during the weekly sermon or Sunday school class that treated me to an objective look at eschatological systems that competed with their belief in the premillennial return of Jesus.  (I can certainly understand why, for such a study would consume a massive amount of time – time better served protecting flocks against theological paradigms that their spiritual shepherds believe are incorrect and spiritually damaging.)

Aside from various mentions in Sunday school of Jesus’ imminent return at Winnetka Bible Church, my first detailed exposure to eschatological occurred at the age of eight while attending Sunday school in Bloomington.  I remember very distinctly one of my childhood friends giggling uncontrollably while pointing out various mentions of women’s breasts in the Song of Solomon.  What a find!  However, he also pointed out something even more exciting than biblical mammary glands:  a detailed description in Revelation 13 of a seven-headed, ten-horned Satan!  Although I know now that my friend was incorrect in identifying who (or what) was being spoken of in this passage, it was a very formative moment – one that underscores the extreme influence passages removed from their cultural and canonical contexts can have on young, formative minds.  (For that matter, I certainly never forgot where those sacred boobies were located.)

It wasn’t until a year later – after our move to Michigan, and about the time my father piqued my interest in biblical studies by presenting me with Henry Morris’ commentary on Genesis, The Genesis Record – that I was exposed to more systematic approaches to the End Times.  In addition to borrowing a copy of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth from a friend, Morris’ commentary on Genesis also provided me with a healthy (?) dose of premillennialism in its attempt to intimately tie its young-earth creationist treatment of Genesis with the book of Revelation.  Further immersing me into premillennial eschatology were the occasional viewings at my church of the 1972 film A Thief in the Night and its three sequels: A Distant Thunder (1978), Image of the Beast (1980), and The Prodigal Planet (1983).  Despite the cheesy production standards, the series’ writer, Russell S. Doughten, did a phenomenal job impacting a generation of believers by weaving scattered and unrelated eschatological passages into a horrific, violent narrative that potentially exists just over history’s horizon.  Enhanced by a significant amount of imaginative material designed to fill in the “blanks” that exist in premillennial eschatology – well, those images became seared permanently into my eschatological psyche.  Even today, there is still something inside of me that is allured by such grandiose storytelling.

I have a question for my readers who have rejected and moved beyond premillennial eschatology as I have:  Do you also find yourself strangely attracted to such End Times scenarios despite your intellectual and spiritual aversion to them?

* Rapture is a term derived from the Latin verb rapere, which translates the Koine Greek verb ἁρπάζω (harpazo), which means “to snatch away, to seize hastily.”  First Thessalonians 4:17, the verse that inspired Anderson’s painting, uses the verb form ρπαγησόμεθα (harpagēsometha).

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The Beginning of Rethinking the End

Early depiction of IguanodonSome of my earliest memories are of reading books about dinosaurs. Perhaps it is because, to a child, dinosaurs are “other-worldly” creatures that invoke a considerable measure of awe and fascination. They cannot be seen in zoos or found in the wild, for all that is left of these creatures are their fossilized remains. So when a child sees pictures of dino-bones and the artist’s accompanying illustrations of what it may have looked like in real life (to varying degrees of accuracy), dinosaurs take on an entirely new dimension. What I find interesting is that when one compares artistic renditions of dinosaurs throughout the last 150 years, beginning with Benjamin Waterhouse Watkins’ 19th-century illustration in which the bipedal Iguanodon’s thumb spike ended up on the snout of a quadruped Iguanodon, our modern depictions of dinosaurs don’t even come close. Gone are the illustrations of “Ford Model T” dinosaurs – those sprawling, sluggish, tail-dragging reptiles with which we grew up. Instead, continued study over the last 50 years has refined our perception of how these mysterious creatures lived and breathed, resulting in a contrast so stark that the fast warm-blooded, feather-laden, therapods of today’s dinosaur-loving generation look like Lamborghinis by comparison.

As new Christians, armed with only the Bible from which to draw our mind-pictures, certain eschatological passages regarding the so-called “Second Coming” of Jesus Christ – upon a cursory glance – can invoke a similar reaction to that which those original dino-artists experienced. Our tendency as modern, 21st-century readers, informed by a woodenly literal hermeneutic, is to ignore the original “environment” in which those bones scriptures were originally buried written. That cursory glance, without the aid of deeper study and respect for certain literary genres, can produce “other-worldly” End Times scenarios and expectations that invoke just as much (if not more) awe and fascination as dinosaur bones do for children. The result of this is, I think, a vastly different picture of how and Christ’s Second Coming was originally understood and experienced. For most, it will take a significant amount of patient study – both biblical and extra-biblical – in order to shed the old paradigm in exchange for a new one. Ironically, it is our scientific mindset, bereft of any ancient Near Eastern paradigms or sensitivities to the concept of “audience relevance,” that has produced within the Christian community an eschatology that fails to recognize how, when, and why Christ returned. (No, my use of the past tense is not a mistake.) What may be even more shocking is that this scientific mindset existed within the Church from the very beginning, producing eschatological error almost from the outset.

It is because of similar (if not identical) errors that a overwhelming majority of today’s Evangelicals fails to claim explicit biblical promises meant for the here and now. Instead, we wait. And wait. And wait for those promises to be fulfilled. If the eschatology I began embracing nearly a decade ago is the correct one, then the catastrophic events that those in my worship community believe will precede the receipt of those aforementioned biblical promises will never come to pass. And we will continue to wait. To be sure, many find themselves heartsick as they approach the end of their mortal lives, having failed to witness the Day that they believed – with every fiber of their being – would surely come to pass before they tasted death (see Proverbs 13:12a). Without radical reformation of the current eschatological paradigm in which Evangelicalism finds itself, the Evangelical portion of the Body of Christ will always fail to live up to its full potential.

Just as I hope that my journey in “rethinking the αlpha” will help bring my fellow Christians to terms with evolution and propel them into a healthy respect for man’s scientific endeavors and a deeper love for the Creator, it is my sincere hope that my journey in “rethinking the Ωmega” will help bring my brothers and sisters in Christ to terms with the past and pave the way to a more prosperous future, both materially and spiritually.

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