Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The End Is Near - Again

“And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars: and on earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the seas and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them from fear and expectation of those things that are coming on the earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Luke 21:25-26)

"And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth." (Revelation 12:1-2)


These verses are suddenly front and center on social media. Why? For the passage in Luke, it's because the eclipse was on the 21st, Hurricane Harvey began on the 25th, and the flooding hit on the 26th (there's the numbers from the chapter and verses). There's more, however.  According to
"Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane, made landfall exactly 4 days after the Great American Eclipse and 4 weeks before the Feast of Trumpets, or, on the Jewish calendar, exactly 4 weeks before the Revelation 12 Sign featuring a woman with 12 stars on her head who symbolizes the 12 tribes of Israel.  The storm was the most powerful hurricane to make landfall in 12 years and brought with it 12-foot storm surges."
This isn't the first time Luke 21 has been referenced in relation to natural disasters. Charisma magazine wondered last year if Hurricane Matthew was perhaps the referent. It wasn't, apparently.

The verses in Revelation are being cited because on September 23, 2017, the sun will be in the constellation Virgo (the virgin), the moon will be near Virgo’s feet, Jupiter will be in Virgo, and Venus, Mars, and Mercury will be in the constellation Leo. There are nine stars from the constellation Leo; the other three are found in the conjunction in Leo of Venus, Mars, and Mercury. Some are claiming that this is a fulfillment of a sign in the Revelation 12 passage cited above.

* * * * *

I want to be clear about something before I offer some observations.

Christians are meant to be comforted and encouraged by the reality of the eventual return of Jesus. For Christians, looking ahead to eternal life fully in the present of Jesus is meant to bring hope. Perhaps this will happen when we drop dead from a heart attack; perhaps it will be when God wraps up the history of the world. So I want to be clear that I affirm this teaching in the Bible, and I do indeed find great hope and encouragement in it.

Having said that, I am more than a little discouraged when I see situations that I believe detract from this message. This is why I feel compelled to offer some observations about the recent focus on Luke 21 and Revelation 12.

We have to be careful with our claims about prophetic passages in Scripture, especially in the New Testament. 

First, much of what was written was filtered through Roman scrutiny, and as a result was heavily coded and carefully phrased. Second, much of what we now study was written as apocalyptic literature, which is worth understanding a little better.

Antiochas Epiphanies, who lived around 170 BC,  dedicated himself to ending Judaism. He butchered pigs on Solomon’s altar. He outlawed the reading of the Law. If a Jewish male infant was circumcised, the entire family and the officiating priest were slaughtered. It was in this atmosphere of persecution that apocalyptic literature (seen primarily in Daniel and Revelation) really took off. Some of the characteristics that are common in apocalyptic literature include:

1. The hero often takes a journey, accompanied by a celestial tour guide
2. Information is often communicated through visions with strange symbolism.
3. The visions often are pessimistic with regard to the possibility that human intervention will help, but they usually end with God ending the present unhappy state of affairs and establishing a better situation.

It is important, when we read books like Revelation, to remember that the main point of the book is a message of hope and reassurance in spite of the calamities life throws our way. It is not primarily a message of gloom and doom about future events, and the crazy symbolism makes clear it's meant to be understood figuratively. It's also meant to send a reassuring message: God wins in the end. I think John might be puzzled (if he were here today) about how much time we spend trying to figure out just how bad it is going to get, and when, and how. Our hope is found in the fact the Jesus is returning, not in knowing precisely how it will play out. If anything, Jesus tells us what to expect so we don't have to wonder.

Third, we have to acknowledge there is disagreement within the Christian community about how we are to properly read and understand prophetic/apocalyptic passages. Is all of Luke 21 about the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, or does it branch off halfway through and begin to talk about the end of the world? "These last days" or "the age to come" could simply be a reference to the end of the Old Testament/Old Covenant era and the ushering in of the New.  Is Revelation about Rome, and thus meant just for the persecuted Christian audience of the time, or does it apply to end times? Can it do both? We have to be careful to hold our opinions with an open hand here. We might be wrong.

There is no good reason to believe these events are biblical omens.

The recent total solar eclipse (for the entire U.S) was the first in 100 years, but not the first ever; the next total solar eclipse of the U.S. will be in 2024. The way stars and planets are aligning now has happened before, and the way some of the details are being presented, such as the star count, is dishonest. Hurricanes and floods have been around for all of history. If they were meant to be understood as omens, I would think God would use them in a way that could not be so easily confused with arguments made by climate change advocates. For every article I see about how weather patterns (or wildfires) are a fulfillment of prophecy, I see one that says they are yet another sign that climate change is real and it is messing with us. A strong, scientifically inexplicable hurricane out of season? A wildfire that burns through a rain-saturated plain? That would be far more in line with a burning bush and seas that part down the middle.

I see no good biblical reason to think that the events this year are any different. Frankly, I fear that we are diving into something that feels uneasily close to what the Bible calls divination ("The practice of making decisions or foretelling the future by means of reading signs and omens”). The prophet Jeremiah warned against those who offer "a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds” (Jeremiah 14:14). Let's bring some serious Old Testament lumber to this: if the predictions or omen reading don't come true, it's a lie, it's worthless, and people were deceived by their own minds. So far, this has happened every time someone has predicted specific dates. That ought to give us pause as we see new speculation. It also gives us good reason to ignore anyone who has gotten it wrong before. 

This kind of speculation does not add anything significant to the testimony of the Bible.

I am reminded of the the exchange between the rich man and Abraham as recorded in Luke 16. The rich man who died asks Abraham to resurrect a poor, godly man named Lazarus and send him to warn his brothers of their impending doom. Abraham says, "They already have Moses and the prophets." The rich man responds, "But they are ignoring them. They will surely listen to a man brought back from the dead." Moses' response: "If they aren't listening now, they won't listen then." In other words, the Bible is sufficient. If someone is not listening to that already, signs and wonders probably won't make a difference. 2 Peter offers this advice:

"The day of the Lord will come unexpectedly like a thief in the night; and on that day, the sky will vanish with a roar, the elements will melt with intense heat, and the earth and all the works done on it will be seen as they truly are. Knowing that one day all this will come to pass, think what sort of people you ought to be—how you should be living faithful and godly lives..."

Knowing this day will come, what are we to do? Focus a lot of time and energy on trying to figure out all the details? No. We are to think about what kind of people we are to be: people who live faithful and godly lives. Bob Deffinbaugh has written: 
"The disciples of our Lord...were preoccupied with the wrong things with respect to prophecy. In the first place they were preoccupied with the timing of God's program. Over and over they asked him when these things would take place (Matthew 24:3; Acts 1:6). How and when the kingdom would be established was almost a fetish for the disciples. Jesus consistently avoided answering their questions on "the time," focusing instead on how they ought to live in the light of His return (cf. Matthew 24-25; Acts 1:6-8). 
The disciples also had an unhealthy interest in their role in the kingdom. They thought about the future in terms of their prestige, their power, and their position, an attitude which Jesus sought to correct (cf. Mark 10:35-45). Is it any wonder that American Christians are so interested in where America fits into God's prophetic scheme? 
Common sport among Christians is to play the game of "Who's who in prophecy." Is the antichrist Saddam Hussein? Is a powerful computer in Europe a part of the satanic program... we are not often profited by speculation. The same could be said for date setting. This practice has only served to make Christians a laughing stock.

This kind of speculation unintentionally undermines the validity of the Bible

We as Christians believe that the Bible is God's inspired, truthful revelation to humanity. When we speculate on end times - and get it wrong time after time - what response do we expect from those who are already critical of the veracity of the Bible? If the Bible is wrong on this, why would they not assume it's wrong on other important things as well? For that matter, don't we set up the possibility that those in the church will begin to wonder the same thing?

Jesus himself insisted that we won't know when God chooses to wrap up human history. Not even angels are privy to this information. Why, then, do we spend so much time trying to figure it out? The harbinger hype was wrong; the blood moon hype was wrong. They were just the latest in a long and publicly embarrassing line of false exegesis of the Bible in an area that ought to the one we tiptoe into with the greatest humility.

* * * * *

I've been asked before why I despise prophecy. I don't. Prophecy is  a crucial part of the Old Testament, and the role of a prophet continued in the New Testament church. When the biblical writers remind us of the return of Jesus to usher in the New Heaven and New Earth, it is meant to bring us hope as we focus on the 'author and finisher of our faith.' To whatever degree God wants to reveal Himself or His plan for the world, I want to know about it.  I will let J. Lee Grady have the final world about wit we should not be overly focused on end times issues (and I am excerpting for the sake of space):*

1. It's distracting. Nowhere does the Bible give us permission to speculate about when Jesus will return or when the world will end. He gave us one major focus: To reach everybody with the gospel. Evangelism should be our obsession. The healthiest churches I know are those that are winning the lost, discipling new converts and investing their people and money in reaching nations. Churches that become consumed with eschatology drift into weirdness, and they eventually lose sight of the Great Commission.  

2. It's depressing. I don't go to church to hear one person's opinions about Islamic terrorists, why weather patterns are changing, or how European bankers plan to manipulate the world economy. Why focus on the negative? Do we believe in the lordship of Christ, or not? Churches that only talk about blood moons, wars in the Middle East, the Antichrist or the date for America's demise leave no room for the joy of the Lord or the hope of His ultimate triumph...  People who focus on doomsday theology are killjoys who derive morbid pleasure from spreading fear and anxiety. A gospel without hope is not the gospel! 

3. It's deceptive. A group known as the Adventists predicted that Jesus would return to earth in 1874. When this didn't happen, the group's leaders covered their error by suggesting that Jesus appeared "invisibly" on that date. A theology developed around these ideas that is still accepted by Seventh-day Adventists. In the 1970s, when Americans were so worried about gas shortages and war in Israel, author Hal Lindsey sold millions of copies of his book The Late, Great Planet Earth—and he predicted the world would end in a few years. Many other Christians have made similar predictions—such as the Y2K scare in 1999 or Harold Camping's infamous warning that the world would end on May 21, 2011. We have no business setting dates for the end of the world. God alone sets His timetable.

* I don't mean for this to be read as a blanket endorsement of Charisma magazine. I cite Grady's article because Charisma is the largest Christian magazine that focuses a lot on this issue, so it's worth noting that it sees the potential dangers that accompany this kind of focus. As much as I appreciate Grady's thoughts here, the magazine's editorial policy apparently allows for endless speculation about end times. I wish the content of the magazine aligned with the content of this particular editorial. 

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