Monday, February 26, 2007

Doesn't soon mean soon?

As part of our church's youth group, I meet every other week or so with a small group of high school guys, typically five or six. For some time we've been going over Revelation—partly because, when given the choice of what book of the bible to study, surveys show that a group of teenage boys will choose Revelation 71% of the time . (I made that up. The actual number is probably higher.)

I've been trying to present just two of the views on Revelation.

On is the preterist view: Revelation was prophecy, as written by John around AD 65-68, and describes events that would occur just a few years later, in AD 70 with the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem by Roman legions—effectively ending Judaism proper (at least the practice thereof) since the sacrificial system ended. Though prophecy as written, the preterist view argues that the events of Revelation (most, anyway) occurred in the past as far we're concerned, hence the name preterist.

The other view is the classic dispensational view, or the futurist view, also know as the "left behind" view and the pre-mil, pre-trib view: the prophecy of Revelation has not yet been fulfilled, and will not be until the onset of the end-times is ushered in by the famous Rapture of the church. It also argues the conventional view that Revelation was written well after AD 70 and so cannot possibly be a prophecy of the destruction of the temple. Indeed, if Revelation was written after AD 70, the preterist view is dead in the water.

For a brief blog post into the question of when Revelation was written, look here.

I let the students know that while I'd do my best to be fair, but I was strongly biased toward the preterist view.

I'm always struck by the fact that the dispensational view is said to be the "literal" view. That is unarguably true, but not as clear-cut as a simple label indicates. There are many times when the dispensational view abandons its literalistic hermeneutic. In fact, the difference between the preterist and dispensationalist views could be characterized this way:

The preterist view takes times references (this generation, soon to pass, etc.) literally, but apocalyptic language (descriptions of astronomical calamities, etc.) figuratively, while the dispensational view does exactly the opposite. Given that Revelation contains so much apocalyptic language, it certainly means that in any quantitative sense the dispensational, "left-behind" view is more literal.

For an example, and in my opinion a fatal example, of where the "left behind" view is not literal, we don't have to look very far into the book, just the first half of the first verse:
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. (Rev. 1.1a)
Just a bit later, John offers another time reference:
Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. (Rev. 1:3)
These are clear time references (there are quite a few more in Revelation), and here the preterist, not the dispensationalist, is the literalists. The preterist view is: yes indeed the events described would soon take place, within a few short years of John's vision.

A dispensationalist explanation for these and other times references often centers around the fact that a thousand years to God is like a day (2 Pet. 3-8) (Except, of course, for the famous thousand years of Rev. 20:2. That particular thousand years is like, well, a thousand years.)

The explanation that John is speaking of "God's reckoning of time" when he writes must soon take place and the time is near makes no sense. Why would God inspire the apostle to write that these events would occur quickly in God's sense of time? The bible is instruction for us, from God, not by us, for God. Such a view renders all time references anywhere in the bible as meaningless. Revelation is meant as a prophecy for contemporary, living people—John's introduction is immediately followed by letters to historic churches that existed in John's time—if the events of Revelation are future events the letters to the churches are a rather inexplicable interjection of dire warnings to churches that won't exist when the tribulation of which they are warned actually occurs.

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