Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Introduction to Eschatology: The Rapture in Context

Let's start off by considering the eschatological and theological context of the Rapture.

For most of Church history, the big question was not, When does the Rapture occur? but What is the Millennium? There were three main answers:

Amillennialism. This view takes the Millennium figuratively, usually as a reference to the triumphal aspect of the Church Age. The counterbalance is the Tribulation, which represents the persecution during the Church Age. Note that most Christians throughout history and practically all scholars have been in this group, and it has no "pre-trib" position. The Rapture is what happens to Christians when Jesus returns at the end of the age. Typical amills are older denominations other than Reformed groups: Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, etc.

Postmillenialism. The Millenium is a golden age that will arise when the Church fulfills its mission to disciple all nations. During this time, evil will be restrained and the Gospel generally recognized as true. Postmills sometimes say that Jesus will come though the Church before he comes for the Church. The great evangelic and missionary movements of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries were usually postmill in origin. This view is seldom found outside Reformed denominations.

Premillenialism. This is the confusing one. Although all premills believe that Jesus' return to the earth (generally said to occur at the end of the Tribulation) ushers in a kind of golden age similar to that of postmills, but with Jesus and the resurrected Christians ruling the world, they differ on the timing and purpose of the Rapture. Premills are generally in newer, evangelical denominations, though the idea itself goes back quite a way. Baptists, Pentecostals, and some generic groups are typically premills, though there are several varieties of Baptist.

Note that only premills tend to talk about the Rapture at all: for amills and postmills, it's simply what happens at the return of Christ. And among premills, post-tribs would agree with this. And that gives us an important reality check: a number of great and godly Christians didn't believe in the idea, and they were still used by God. That should indicate that, whatever the truth about the Rapture, it is a comparatively minor doctrine. (The big doctrines are that Jesus will return to resurrect and judge all and sundry, leading to eternal reward or punishment.)

It also follows that disagreement about the Rapture is disagreement over trivia. There have been cases of people being treated as though they were dangerous heretics or purveyors of immorality simply because they held an unpopular view of the Rapture. That's unacceptable. I acknowledge the salvation and blessedness of a lot of people I disagree with, and sometimes on far weightier issues. I will not reject anyone based solely on his view of the Rapture.

But it's worth understanding other views. Next I'll explain the different ideas of the Rapture found among premills and why they matter.

Introduction to Eschatology: "They all...fell asleep"

To recap: prophecy isn't about figuring things out in advance; it's about recognizing the hand of God when he acts, or at least soon afterward.

But if that's so, why bother with prophecy?

The simple answer is that recognizing God at work can stabilize you in the midst of chaos. What is a horror to someone else is a sign to you, and that's especially useful if you're already under fire.

Have you ever considered the contrast, nearly the contradiction, between the wise virgins of Matt 25:1-13 and the frequent warning to watch (Matt 26:41, 1 Thess 5:4-8, etc.)? Matt 25:5 says "they all [wise virgins included] became drowsy and fell asleep." I think the contexts are different: when we are called on to stay awake in Matt 26, it's literal wakefulness to allow prayer; in Thessalonians, the idea is that we will fall asleep morally and become like the unsaved people around us, unprepared for the coming judgment.

And it's preparation that constitutes wisdom in the parable: all fell asleep, but only the wise were ready to act the moment they came to. The foolish strike me as being those people who claim they'll get serious about serving God when the Antichrist shows up. They won't, of course: if they can't be bothered to serve God in comparatively easy times, they certainly won't turn into super saints when the persecution starts. They're more likely to take the Mark.

(Personal nag: this is another reason I despise most books like the Left Behind series: they encourage the view that you can be a worldly "Christian" and still be saved in the end by transforming from couch potato to Olympic athlete under the pressure of the Tribulation. It doesn't work, and many may wind up in Hell because of such nonsense.)

So what's the use of studying prophecy? Well, if you really are studying prophecy itself--what God says, not what some expert says he says--the Holy Spirit will help you see the sign and recognize the encouragement. But if all you know is what someone says about the Bible, that won't get you anywhere. Knowing the Bible is more important than knowing about the Bible, just as knowing God is more important than knowing about God. But these days most Christians know prophecy second-hand at best.

Next time I'll look at a few problems the modern prophecy industry (for it certainly isn't a ministry) has created. We might as well start with the timing of the Rapture and why it should not be the big deal prophecy pundits say it is.

Introduction to Eschatology: Forewarned?

Last time I said that prophecy doesn't typically forewarn us. In fact, the goal of prophecy is not prospective but retrospective: you don't truly appreciate it until after the fact. Let's review a scripture from last time:

John 14:29 "I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe."

See the point? He doesn't forewarn them so they will prepare, much less to satisfy their curiosity. He tells them so that when it catches them napping and they finally wake up, they will be encouraged to believe.

This is also why Jesus predicted Peter's denial: not to forewarn him, because it was going to happen anyway, but to encourage him after the fact with the knowledge that Jesus had known about it all along. Let's get the context:

Luke 22:31-32 "Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you [all of you--the disciples] as wheat. But I have prayed for you [individually], Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers."

Then Peter says he won't fail Jesus and gets the denial prophecy. But the idea was that when he had failed, he could look back at this and realize that Jesus had known and prayed for him, so he could turn back and strengthen the others. This is the typical pattern.

I sometimes call Luke "the hidden Gospel" because it consistently presents the hiddenness of prophecy: prophecy usually is not meant to be understood beforehand. Thus, we may wonder why the disciples didn't understand about Jesus' death and resurrection when he kept predicting it, but Luke explains:

Luke 9:45 But they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it.

Luke 18:34 The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

Similarly, the disciples going to Emmaus met Jesus after his resurrection,

Luke 24:16 but they were kept from recognizing him.

And when the disciples helped blatantly fulfill prophecy, they didn't get it at the time. We read in John 12:16,

At first his disciples did not understand all this [=the triumphal entry]. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.

I've heard a lot of people claim that the disciples knew their actions in getting the donkey, etc., fulfilled prophecy. Untrue: you don't get prophecy in advance. This is why the modern End-times Prophecy industry is dead wrong. It hasn't happened yet, so we don't get it. God won't let us understand beforehand, just as he kept the disciples from figuring it out before the fact.

Bear in mind that the prophecy experts of Jesus' time knew all about the coming of the Messiah, and they still thought Jesus was a fake! Why? Because they already had all the answers, so they weren't really trusting God:

Proverbs 3:5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding...

Next time we'll look at why it's reasonable to study prophecy even though we know we won't get it in advance.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Introduction to Eschatology: What Prophecy Is

Warning: the point of this brief series isn't to tell you what's going to happen--how Biblical prophecies are going to play out. In fact, that's where we begin: the goal of Biblical prophecy is not simply to be a more accurate version of newspaper horoscopes. Prophecy has little predictive force from that standpoint. Rather, the goal of prophecy is to glorify God--and secondarily to encourage his people to believe. Let's begin by looking at those two in order.

Glorifying God. Prophecy is a way that God verifies his credentials. After all, he's omniscient, so he must be prescient as well. You'll find this idea a lot in the Old Testament prophets, but the clearest statement is probably in Isaiah.

41:22-23 "Bring in your idols to tell us what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods. Do something, whether good or bad, so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear."


41:26 "Who told of this from the beginning, so we could know, or beforehand, so we could say, 'He was right'? No one told of this, no one foretold it, no one heard any words from you."

This is echoed in Rev 19:10--At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, "Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." The spirit or essence of prophecy is witnessing to Jesus.

However, modern prophecy experts tend to focus on themselves and how clever they are to have figured out all the items on their amazing charts. But again, prediction as such isn't the goal. We glorify God when we realize that he knew all along what would happen, and we are comforted by his knowledge and power: God is in control.

Encouraging belief. This is the second goal. In John 14:29, Jesus said, "I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe." Note that this had nothing to do with satisfying curiosity, which apparently has little or no importance to God. But the modern approach to prophecy assumes that satisfying curiosity is a big concern, perhaps the biggest concern.

I'll revisit this verse next time to explore why prophecy has little or no predictive power in the modern sense of forewarning.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Double Standard?

A friend of mine showed me his magnum opus of the moment. He's a fairly new writer, and it has the marks of the newbie. For example, there's a place where a pastor is explaining Life, the Universe, and Everything to a genuine Seeker. Ignoring the fact that it's set up as a showcase for the writer's interest in apologetics, there is a spot that seemed a little extra over the top.

I begin to see that a lot of would-be writers (and even a few who've arrived) have trouble with logical sequencing. In this case, the arguments are presented in no particular order, and sometimes a remark will contradict something said elsewhere. (In fairness, a lot of this stems from hasty editing: it's easy to assume that you can change something at one point without introducing conflicts elsewhere, but that's not the way it usually turns out.)

So the pastor jumps into an argument against Evilution (not so spelled, but that's the idea) without any warning or cogency. I pointed out that the question was properly not Creation vs. Evolution, but Design vs. Chance. The writer proceeded to equate Evilution and Chance, which is often true but not logically necessary. Yet even that is only the tip of the iceberg.

The pastor simply claims that there is no evidence whatever for evolution, that the fossil record does not substantiate it at all, and so forth, even to the cliché about a tornado converting a junkyard into an airliner. And for some reason the Seeker, though supposedly intelligent and apparently somewhat skeptical at other points, simply believes him.

Now consider: if a scientist, such as Stephen Hawking, pontificates about theoretical physics, I'll give him the benefit of any doubt: it's his field, not mine. But when Hawking wanders into theological matters and starts expounding his views, as C. S. Lewis used to say, he's no longer speaking as a professional scientist but as an amateur theologian, and in that field my credentials are at least as good as his. I am not overawed.

But if it's arrogant nonsense for a scientist with no theological background to pronounce on theological matters, why is it acceptable (to many Christians, at least) for a pastor with no discernible scientific background to pronounce on scientific matters?

This is why I seldom bother with scientific refutations of evolution: they are out of my field, and it's not appropriate for me to use them. On the other hand, the people who originate them sometimes wander into my field (language, the Bible, etc.), and their performance there is generally poor enough not to inspire any trust elsewhere. We could use a bit more caution along those lines.

The people whom we tend to cite and whose ideas we accept uncritically are Christians, but that doesn't make them right. They may be mistaken or even misled by their own biases. And since I'm not in a position to assess their claims and ideas properly, I won't use them--especially since my audience almost certainly can't assess them properly either.

And that means I'm needn't give Hawking, Dawkins, et al. equal time to avoid being a hypocrite.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Is Christianity a Crutch?

I had a disagreement with a friend recently on this topic. He maintains that Christianity is not a crutch; it is a complete equipping for service. He also says that it's like a carpenter using a hammer: the hammer isn't a crutch but a tool.

For what it's worth, I disagree.

To begin with, "complete equipping" does not contradict the idea of a crutch. Someone who needs a crutch is not completely equipped without one. And a carpenter who truly didn't need the hammer as a crutch could simply drive a nail by hand as if it were a thumbtack.

But let's consider the idea of a crutch more specifically: why would we need a crutch? Well, because we're damaged. We sin. We need forgiveness and some inclination to resist temptation at least. But these things, though good, do not cure the problem: even if I resist temptation, the urge will still be there, and sometimes I may not resist. So I am a cripple, spiritually.

The cure comes when the evil goes: when my sinful nature disappears. It hasn't happened yet, and I don't expect it to until I either die or go in the Rapture. So until then, I'm a cripple in need of a crutch. And this is good to remember.

Paul eventually concluded that acknowledging weakness allowed God to introduce his strength (2 Cor 12:9-10). But that would require humility, which appears to be the bane of modern Christianity. More on that next.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Mohamed's Moon 3: Weak points and conclusion

So what are the weak points of Keith Clemons's Mohamed's Moon?

Layla. Just as Mohamed is the strong character, Layla is the weak one. As Mohamed and Matthew were squaring off, I was reminded of the old Popeye cartoons where Popeye and Bluto would get into a smackfest over a female who helped promote celibacy in everyone else who saw her. Layla's better looking, yes; but she makes a point early on of letting Matthew know she thinks he's been lying to her from the beginning (and she is terribly hurt, of course). He isn't lying, but she never considers an apology. There's a turn-on. She makes it clear she's in love with someone else (unless Matthew is lying, anyway). She's self-centered, manipulative, and shrewish. Run from such people, especially on a date. And remember that they aren't all women, either.

Sayyid. Sayyid is a bit obvious for a modern villain. I kept waiting for him to twirl his mustache and threaten to bisect his bride-to-be in his sawmill unless she gave him the deed to the ranch. Now, it's true that vice tends to uglify those who practice it, but this still seemed a bit overdone.

The ending. Specifically, the amazing dénouement and its aftermath. There's some goofy stuff about explosives that wouldn't really work and a dramatic deed that would actually make matters worse by practically ensuring the survival of some hostile witnesses. Also, remember that in spite of Hollywood physics, you can't outrun an explosion unless you're faster than a speeding bullet.

On the other hand, the business with Layla struck me as hopeful. If she had gone the other way, I probably wouldn't have liked the story.

Conclusion. I did like it, though, largely for the reasons mentioned yesterday. I think the ending would've been better if Matthew and Mohamed had downed some spinach and beaten up all the bad guys and kicked soccer balls toward Uncle Omar's Terrorist Academy so hard they would've leveled the place. But the modern world is too wimpy for Popeye Diplomacy, I guess.

Purchase Mohamed's Moon at Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

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Monday, September 7, 2009

Mohamed's Moon 2: Good points

Time for the good points of Keith Clemons's Mohamed's Moon.

Culture. Muslim culture, that is. Clemons does a good job explicating the Muslim viewpoint for Americans, and he's not altogether unsympathetic in some cases. American degeneracy is a major excuse for extremists, and though it's exaggerated in the media, Christians share the Muslims' concerns if not their solution.

Balance. I was bothered at first by the statistical improbability of all the Muslim terrorists: most Muslims are at most sympathetic to terrorists. Yet Clemons makes this point himself as the story progresses; if anything, his average Muslims are less supportive of terror than real-world models suggest. Still, it's helpful to counterbalance the "Muslim = terrorist" idea that Christians can pick up.

Mohamed. The would-be terrorist is a surprisingly sympathetic character, though initially somewhat odious, and his development pretty much is the story. Although Matthew and Layla do have their own sections, it's Mohamed who gets the larger and more memorable parts, which is as it should be: he's really the strongest character.

Reality check. One feature that I did not like but admit is likely true involves Christians in Muslim lands. Clemons doesn't portray them as super-saints; they flee a lot, and they may decide to hole up and save their own necks now and then instead of doing the heroic thing. I prefer giving role models, but Clemons's picture is quite probable, annoying as I find it.

Tune in tomorrow for the weak points of Mohamed's Moon.

Purchase Mohamed's Moon at Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

Check out these other member blogs this week for more info.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Mohamed's Moon 1: Intro

This month, CFRB presents Mohamed's Moon by Keith Clemons. The book is rather like A Tale of Two Cities, except where it isn't. (Don't expect spoilers here.)

Our story opens with a snookered schnook seeking entrance into Paradise the fast and anti-social way. Little does he know, well, much anything, really, being general-purpose ignorant, the kind of Renaissance Dolt extremely helpful to terrorists and other ne'er-do-wells.

But the important bit of ignorance has to do with his evil brother's designs on his wife. Currently Sayyid, the brother, just has her penciled in, but he means to go over it in ink and a steamroller. Take care of her for his about-to-be-late brother? Why, soit'n'y, as the Prophet said.

But wait! There's more! Incidentally, the widow/bride happens to be a Christian, which is Extremely Rude in that culture. She also doesn't like her prospective husband, and not just because of his looks. (He disproves the "you are what you eat" notion by eating kosher, so to speak, yet still looking like a two-ton porker in a turban.)

No, the problem is that he would be a bad influence on her curiously unnamed son, who isn't a Christian as yet. He does have a girlfriend of sorts, Layla, who is a Christian. Remember that. Anyway, Layla's about to flee with her family, and the widow and her son are about to follow suit.

Don't answer yet! Call now, and you'll get two... Twelve years later, Mohamed El Taher literally runs into his doppelganger, Matthew Mulberry, who inexplicably is not a Marvel superhero despite his name. Matthew is attempting to get engaged to a girl named Layla, who insists that she knew him before, back in Egypt. He denies it, she gets psychotic, and the stage is set for a charming apprentice terrorist to usher in a menagerie à trois as well as an apocalypse.

Yup, it's twins, all right, and it doesn't take much imagination to figure out which is the evil one. They're both time bombs, one medical and the other the old-fashioned kind, and we get to wonder who'll blow up first. Will Matthew survive? (That's the main question for him; he's kind of an underachiever.) Will Mohamed realize that Terrorism Isn't Nice? Will he get saved? Is he fated to expose his backside so the title will make sense? Will Layla drive one or both of them completely insane with her shrewish psychoses?

Tune in tomorrow for the good points of Mohamed's Moon.

Purchase Mohamed's Moon at Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

Operators are sitting on their enormous duffs; they're certainly not going to stand around waiting for you.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

An Approach to Bible-reading

I sometimes allude to my "famous two-step method for understanding the Bible":

1. Read the Bible through.
2. Do it again, and this time pay attention!

You need to read the Bible at least twice to begin to understand it: once for the general context, and again to use that context. (I'm not suggesting that you stop with two readings, of course.)

The first time through you should read in roughly chronological order--I say "roughly" because I've seen "chronological" Bibles, and they're often rather confusing. Thus I wouldn't recommend bouncing back and forth between Samuel and Kings on the one hand and Chronicles on the other, with side trips into Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other prophets. Not only would it be confusing, but it would muddle the styles and goals of the individual writers: for example, the Chronicler is more interested in immediate rewards and punishment for obedience and disobedience than the writer of Samuel/Kings is, and he also idealizes David and Solomon. He's also writing from a post-exilic standpoint with some theological differences.

Anyway, speed is useful the first time or so, as long as you have reasonable retention. Read as swiftly as you can without forgetting it all the next day. And the first time through, allow yourself to skim the genealogies and other challenging bits. Also have a separate time for devotional reading, perhaps with one of the many daily reading publications available. Reading for information and reading for growth are different things, especially at this stage.

Use a study Bible in a really easy-to-read translation. Later on, you should consider that "easy reading" tends to distance you from the text, so you should ditch it for something closer to the text on the second or third pass. Some good examples are the New International Version, the New American Standard Version, the English Standard Version, and the New King James. It's actually a good idea to have more than one more serious Bible and switch between them occasionally so you don't get locked into one version. Also, get in the habit of checking between translations. Each one has its own quirks, so if a particular reading only occurs in one of them, don't build a doctrine on it.

Once you've made your second or third pass, you might want to consider a method of Bible reading that will keep you current. At this point it can also have some devotional value, because you'll be reasonably familiar with the text.

I divide the Bible into six zones, and I read from each zone every day:

1. Old Testament History. Genesis through Exodus 19, then a jump to Joshua and on through Esther.

2. The Law. (Not the same territory as the Torah, of course, and not all rules and regs anyway.) Exodus 20 through Deuteronomy.

3. Wisdom Books. Job through Song of Solomon.

4. Prophecy. Isaiah through Malachi, plus the Revelation.

5. New Testament History. Matthew through Acts. I always go from Luke straight to Acts, then pick up John afterward.

6. New Testament Doctrine (a.k.a. the epistles). Romans through Jude.

One of the reasons I like this mix is the balance: I'm reading in both Old and New Testaments, and I have the Mosaic Law alongside the Gospel and epistles. And since the zones aren't the same length, you wind up with different combinations each time you read through. And there isn't an obvious end point: you don't finish the zones all at the same time, so it's easier to keep going.

In my own reading, since zones 1, 3, and 4 are longer, I read more than a chapter a day. (OT History in particular lends itself to this.) I find that 3, 2, 2 works well; if you bump prophecy to three chapters a day on weekends, it makes the zones fairly close in duration.

In any case, after you've read through the Bible a few times, you'll become extremely familiar with its contents. After a while, you'll nearly memorize it simply through repetition, and what's better, you'll be programming your brain with God's Word, which is a major bonus in itself.

Try it!
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