Friday, October 2, 2009

The Proper Role of Prophecy

The annoying thing about prophecy is that it's generally all or nothing. Either you get practically no real teaching or you get way too much--and in the latter case, it's generally over-hyped and under-researched. It's a popcorn or even cotton-candy topic, and I can understand why less entertainment-driven churches shy away from it. But I think we can learn something really important by considering something basic and unifying that history has to teach us.

Have you noticed that there is generally an eschatological thrust to revivals and waves of evangelism? Seriously, look at the Bible, especially in Acts: how often is evangelism rooted in the idea of the Last Judgment? Pretty much always, at least when the gist of the message is presented. Was it an accident that Jonathan Edwards was best known for "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"? (And yes, that's eschatological in focus.)

So eschatology matters.

But consider this: when eschatology is used for evangelism, it is what we may call "Common Eschatology"--the eschatology that is common to all truly Christian denominations. There's no reference to the Rapture or the Antichrist or the Millennium. The reference is simply to the Last Judgment: someday, whether we miss the Tribulation through Rapture or just death, or even if we go through it, we shall all stand before God and give account for our lives and deeds. The graveyards of the world are full of people who never encountered a literal Antichrist or Tribulation period, and it may be that we will be there ourselves someday without facing any of them. Comparatively few will come to the brink of the Tribulation, but everyone who has not turned to God shall die--and most Christians, too. So it's reasonable to pitch our sermons to the certainties of death and judgment.

What about the more Hollywood doctrines--the sort that go into making books and movies of the Left Behind variety? Well, I'd say it's more important to know God and the Scriptures than the doctrine. That won't happen, of course, and neither will the respectable alternative: just say that your denomination holds such-and-such a view, while others hold other views. If you have the guts and godliness, explain the other views without putting them down. (Yes, maybe you're right and they're wrong, but even then it's worth understanding them. And who knows? Maybe you're wrong after all!)

It's also worth noting that while prophecy of this sort was clearly taught to new believers, it doesn't seem to have been used in evangelism--only the Judgment was. The modern business of scaring people with the Rapture or Tribulation cannot be found in Scripture, and if you read the early Christian writers, they tended to reserve it for those already saved, not for evangelizing the unsaved. Coincidence?

Let's be honest: we like certain topics because they're titillating and sensational, not because they do any actual good. Discussions of prophecy should be limited to Christians, and they should be dealt with briefly (yet thoroughly), so we can spend more time on the more important issues, such as loving others and living holy lives.

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