Bathwater and Babies, Diamonds in the Dirt

Monday, May 17, 2021

Bathwater & Babies – Audio Version

Thanks to Horrible Hal (Hal Lindsey, that is, whom I honestly do not regard as highly horrible) — thanks to Horrible Hal and other End-Times Enthusiasts, no one takes the idea of the Rapture seriously any more. Okay, yes, that is a wee bit of an overstatement. But as overstatements go, it holds true more often than not. Practically speaking, the rejection of the Rapture is a widespread reality that must serve as any theologian’s operational assumption within contemporary Anglo-American Christian Academia. And the same assumption also applies at most self-respecting, liturgically-formal churches. As a doctrinal and eschatological scenario, the Rapture is widely regarded as rather ridiculous, even embarrassing. Nowadays, the Rapture is usually held in derision by those who are convinced they know better.  

But I do believe in the Rapture. When Rapture-skeptics realize that I do in fact believe the Rapture will occur, they usually respond with comments like, “So… do you mean you seriously believe in the Rapture? As in, the sudden disappearance of all true Christians, past and present, from around the globe, upward from Planet Earth? Beam me up, Jesus! Seriously? You do know the word rapture doesn’t even appear in the Bible, right? You really ought to go read what N.T. Wright has to say about that.”

And yada, yada. The (usually polite) ridicule just featured is what the Rapture skeptics will often rehash.   

And as I quietly endure the skeptics’ very predictable, polite ridicule, babies jettisoned along with their bathwater come to mind, as do diamonds discarded with dirt. To the dismissive (and potentially smug) skeptics who still might be reading or listening to this, I want to request that you hear me out. Please consider the Rapture again, and try to set any knee-jerk prejudice aside. Please do not immediately reject what might in fact be a valuable interpretive insight just because it has been poorly packaged. Just because the Rapture has often been misrepresented over the last 50 years does not mean it should be rejected without careful scriptural study. I mean, as a kind of parallel, just because zombie movies often make the resurrection look like a freakish scenario does not mean that we should dispense with the doctrine of the resurrection. Similarly, just because the Rapture has been portrayed poorly in low-budget movies does not mean it ought to be discarded. The truly important thing to consider is whether Scripture teaches it will happen.

To repeat and rephrase somewhat, the really important issue is whether Scripture presents the Rapture as a future event that will occur. 

So please grab your Bibles, ye studious People of the Book. If you will, look up Revelation Chapter 15. Read it and re-read it. You might not recognize it at first as the thorough-going Rapture passage that it is.

1 Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished.

2 And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. 3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,

“Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty!

Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations!

4 Who will not fear you, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy.

All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

5 After this I looked, and the sanctuary of the tent of witness in heaven was opened, 6 and out of the sanctuary came the seven angels with the seven plagues, clothed in pure, bright linen, with golden sashes around their chests. 7 And one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever, 8 and the sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished.

Revelation 15:1-8 ESV

At the risk of being harsh, I have a few questions for you. When was the last time you heard a sermon about this passage? When was the last time you heard anything coherent taught about this particular passage? If you yourself were asked to interpret this passage in its narrative context, how would you do? Could you present it coherently, or would you and your listeners walk away completely confused? 

These probing questions I do ask because I am willing to bet that the vast majority of skeptics who ridicule the Rapture cannot make much sense of this passage in its broader context, that is, immediately after the events of Chapter Fourteen, and immediately before the Seven Bowls of Wrath are dispensed. However, please realize that these eight verses make perfect sense to those who take the Rapture of the Church seriously. With the Rapture in mind and in place, this passage is completely coherent within the overall contextual flow of the Book of Revelation. It is like a puzzle piece that fits exactly where it ought. And that clean, orderly coherence should give y’all pause, especially because alternate explanations are almost always messy and incoherent.

Please allow me to interpret and explain this passage.

Those who have conquered the Beast, and its image, and the number of its name — who are they, exactly? Most interpreters would agree that these conquerers are true Christians, Faithful Witnesses for Christ. And while that interpretation is not wrong, it is not precise enough. Yes, these are Christ’s Faithful Witnesses, true enough. But more exactly, they are all the Faithful Witnesses who have persevered and thus prevailed through to a particular point in Church History — to its final terminus, to the end of the present age or era. The Beast, its Image, and the Number of its Name (referred to hereafter as the Notorious BINN) will not appear in their final, ultimate, and most fearsome manifestations until the end of this era. Therefore, the Faithful Witnesses who persevere and who thereby manage to conquer the Notorious BINN must necessarily include all of those who live through (and perhaps die during) the very end of this current era. 

By the way, and very importantly, please do notice that I do not mean to exclude any of the Faithful Witnesses who died in the centuries and decades before the final days — not at all. Instead, I simply mean to include those who have lived through (and those who may die during) the final tumultuous period of time. The Faithful who prevail over the Notorious BINN include all the faithful throughout the entirety of the age. Chapter Fifteen depicts all the Faithful Saints, from the beginning to the utter end of the Church Age.      

Notice where these conquering Saints are said to be standing. They are standing beside the Sea of Glass, otherwise and alternatively known as the Crystal Sea. And where, pray tell, is the Crystal Sea? If I am not mistaken, the Crystal Sea is not on Earth, but is up there in Heaven. Yep, according to Revelation 4:6, the Crystal Sea is situated before the very Throne of God, up in Heaven. (This matters because those who deny the Rapture will often claim that after Christ’s Second Coming his Saints do not go to up heaven, but instead stay on Earth.) So, based on Revelation 15, is it safe to assume that all the conquering Saints have somehow made their way up to Heaven? Personally, I am altogether willing to assume just that. The Saints got there somehow. In Revelation 15:2 all the Faithful, Conquering Saints throughout the entire Church Age are seen standing beside the Sea of Crystal in Heaven. Rapture skeptics need to explain how this is true.

Okay then, exactly how did those conquering Saints get up there to Heaven? 

They either made it up to Heaven through Death or through the Rapture. As far as I can tell, the Bible offers human beings no alternative means of transport to Heaven. Death or Resurrected Rapture — those are the only two viable transit options to Heaven. And be very careful before you easily opt for Death as their sole means of transit. In 1 Thessalonians 4:17 Paul claims that some very blessed Christians will escape death altogether. Those Christians will be physically transformed in an instant (for that, see 1 Corinthians 15:51-52), and will meet the Lord Jesus in the air. I would like to suggest that from their meeting place in the air they will (or hopefully, we will) continue to ascend to Heaven, where they/we will find ourselves besides the Sea of Crystal, before the Throne of God. While we are there, absent from Earth, the Seven Bowls of Wrath will be poured out upon the unrepentant upon the Earth. And notice that exact sequential scenario follows the narrative flow of Revelation Chapters 14, 15, and 16, neatly, cleanly, and coherently. Uh huh, it really does.        

If this is the correct contextual interpretation of Revelation 15, then the Resurrected Rapture can and should be understood as one and the same as the Eschatological Exodus. That simply means that just as the Children of Israel were once delivered from Egypt by means of the Miraculous Parting of the Red Sea, so the the Church of God will be instantaneously delivered from out of the fiefdoms of this world by means of a miraculous Parting of the Time-Space Fabric. The Eschatological Exodus is the Resurrected Rapture of the Church; and its immediate aftermath is the scene presented in Revelation Chapter 15.

When the roll is called up yonder, will you be there? I do hope to see you beside the Sea of Crystal in Heaven someday, perhaps even someday soon.

Horrible Hal

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Horrible Hal – Audio Version

According to a well-positioned and entirely reliable informant, a popular theology instructor at a local educational institution once believed that Jesus Christ was likely to return to Earth before the end of 1988. Someone had convinced him that the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 meant that Jesus could return anytime, but likely no later than 1988. When he returned, Jesus was to take the worldwide Church upward from Earth in an event called the Rapture; and that astonishing event was supposed to transpire no later than the end of 1988. Yet while that year came to pass, the expected Rapture of the Church did not. And now the year 1988 recedes further and further into the past. In retrospect, that same popular theology instructor now looks to that unfulfilled date with both chagrin and wisened dismissiveness — chagrin that he was naïve enough to believe such a silly, errant “the-end-is-nigh” prediction, and wisened dismissiveness for anyone who would again presume to promote speculative eschatology. 

Nonetheless, in spite of repeated misses, the speculators and predictors continue to predict Jesus’ imminent return. And some of them even dare set hard deadlines. Who would be foolish enough to do such a thing? Who would presume to set dates for Jesus’ second coming and promote speculative end-time predictions? If and when the end-of-the-world date-setters are proven wrong — as they invariably are — they make themselves look immensely foolish. They set up themselves and their gullible followers for public ridicule and derisive scorn. And yet one doomsday predictor after another invariably steps forward. They just keep on coming along, predictably mis-predicting that the end is near because Jesus is once again about to return. 

Okay, zany apocalyptic preacher, exactly why should we believe yet another doomsday prediction? What makes you right, unlike everyone who came before you? Is the sky actually falling this time, Reverend Chicken Little? 

Somewhat surprisingly, one of the most famous or infamous of the doomsday-predicting preachers is still active in the ecclesiastical eschatology-speculation business, after fifty-one years of date-setting miscalculations and subsequent adjustments. Yes, although he is now in his early 90s, this particular predictive preacher is still actively at it. He is considered by many to be the very epitome of repetitive eschatological error. And exactly who is this man? At the pinnacle of the heap of nefarious doomsday preachers stands a mustachioed Oklahoman named Hal Lindsey. 

Here, though, is the twist and the kicker. It is something I should perhaps hesitate to admit: I kind of like Hal Lindsey, even respect him. When he speaks about the Bible (even about portions of the Book of Revelation), what he has to say is sound — at least what I have heard. Admittedly, I have only heard and read a little, and should listen to more of what he says. But what I did hear from Hal Lindsey demonstrated real depth of insight. I would even use the descriptive word profound for the recent sermon I watched online. He did not sound like the speculative, slick villain I had been expecting. Yet many Christians have nothing good to say about Hal Lindsey whatsoever.

Let me tell you why. Back in 1970 Hal Lindsey and a co-author wrote a best-selling book entitled The Late Great Planet Earth. It ranks as the 55th best-selling book of all time. And it was on basis of The Late Great Planet Earth that many prophecy-speculators began to believe that Jesus would probably (or definitely) return by 1988. However, this particular speculation fell flat. What Hal Lindsey suggested might someday happen did not happen, and seemingly cannot happen any longer, simply because the global political scene has changed so much since the 1970s. Over the last fifty years, Lindsey has consequently needed to make some adjustments to his prophetic political scenarios. And after a while, many have tired of such adjustments. 

Yet when he speaks on the Bible, Lindsey is learned, sound, and even profound. How can that possibly be? And what does someone do with that? Someone explains why it is so. In my estimation, the main reason Lindsey has gotten Revelation wrong through the years is because he insists on reading and interpreting Revelation too literally.

If you understand his determination to interpret Revelation as literally as possible, Lindsey makes understandable interpretive mistakes. I would argue that Lindsey makes forgivable interpretive mistakes. Lindsey takes Scripture very seriously, and has been doing his best to make sense of Scripture for over fifty years. But his best-selling book made some errant speculative predictions. In the minds of many, it now stands as a massive embarrassment within Christianity. By virtue of at least one major errant speculation, Lindsey (and his interpretive scions) have given end-times eschatology a bad name.    

That all said, at least some of what Lindsey wrote needs to be given re-consideration. If you understand why Lindsey suggested that Jesus might return by 1988, it actually makes a lot of sense. No, of course, Lindsey wasn’t right about it. And history has long since disproved his speculation. But his argument makes sense, nonetheless. Based on some of Jesus’ cryptic actions and explanations, Lindsey reasonably suggested that the generation that witnesses the re-establishment of the State of Israel must be the generation that sees the return of Christ. Since Israel was re-established in 1948, and since a biblical generation is 40 years (or so Lindsey once believed), Lindsey speculated in The Late Great Planet Earth that Jesus Christ would necessarily return by the end of 1988. To be fair, Lindsey was very careful to hedge his speculation about that particular date. But others after him were not as careful. If Lindsey had been writing in a sad old commentary somewhere, his errant speculation would be just a trivial curiosity. But to date, Lindsey’s book has sold well over 15 million copies. And it has even inspired a unique apocalyptic niche in literature and film. 

Sometimes people will say that Lindsey is a false prophet. In my estimation, that is much too harsh. Lindsey is instead a slightly misguided biblical interpreter. He made and continues to make an honest effort at interpreting some very difficult sections of Scripture. By defaulting to a literal approach in interpreting symbolic prophetic material he and like-minded interpreters continue to bend the scenes from the Book of Revelation to unfolding or expected political events. Sometimes such interpretations may in fact work. Alternatively, such speculative interpretations can be (and have been) disproven by ensuing historical events.

Finally and affirmatively, I must say that I side with Lindsey more than many other Revelation scholars, insofar as I do believe that the Book of Revelation actually does predict the future. It actually does give specific details about future characters and events, and especially those in the political realm. I just believe Lindsey is too intent on defaulting to a forced literal reading of Revelation, when a figurative, symbolic reading actually yields a more coherent message.