Over at Scot McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed, there is a great discussion going on which was sparked by his continuing review of Michael Gorman’s, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation
The main question McKnight raises is, given the widespread nature of the “Left Behind” approach to reading Revelation (i.e. Premillennial Dispensationalism), how can evangelicals reclaim the historic readings of Revelation (as varied as they may be) which have been supplanted in the past 150 years by the invention within 19th century folk-theological circles of Rapture theology?
Why does it matter how people read Revelation? What are the problems that the “Left Behind” approach tends to generate? From McKnight’s review of Gorman’s thesis:
This approach is the most influential approach to Revelation in America. He finds three kinds of problems: hermeneutical, theological and political.Hermeneutical problems for Left Behind:
1. Not fiction simply but theology combined with an attempt to be almost like a documentary. Left Behind is like an advance DVD.
2. The Bible is a puzzle to be put into a futurist script. Hopscotch method.
3. It is selectively literal.
4. Misunderstands the nature and function of both prophetic and apocalyptic literature.
5. Finds a two-fold “coming” of Christ in Rapture and then Parousia.
6. Dispensationalism is a 19th Century approach.
7. We are on the brink of the Rapture and Tribulation … that’s what matters.
8. Misses the richest theological content: Alpha and Omega.
Theological and Spiritual Problems
1. End times is about the period between First and Second Coming.
2. To much about Rapture, and unhealthy concern with details that are unknowable.
3. Fear dominates.
4. Discipleship is reduced … in a number of ways.
6. It is inherently militaristic.
8. Fails to see the Church as the peaceful alternative.
1. Uncritically pro-American.
2. Privileges the modern State of Israel uncritically.
3. Suspicious of everything connected to United Nations.
4. Wars in the Middle East are justified and justifiable.
5. It is survivalist and crusader in approach.
He sees this as “thoroughly misguided.” It is dangerous theology. Killing for Jesus is justified.
As someone who teaches adults in local church settings I see the effects of “Left Behind” theology firsthand, particularly when teaching on Revelation or other Apocalyptic texts in Scripture.
I suggested in McKnight’s comments section discussion that Christians from a wide range of theological and denominational positions draft a document of some type spelling out why they reject Rapture theology as a recent teaching in church history, how it was not embraced by a single Christian before the mid-1800s, and why it should be rejected as a false teaching based on a faulty reading of Scripture.
If the majority of evangelical scholars, pastors and ministry leaders were to come together to stand in clear opposition to a theological position, the wider world would see that being a Christian does not entail acceptance of “Left Behind” scenarios or politics. This might serve as a powerful witness to a watching world and a much-needed correction to many faithful believers who have been misled by a method of reading Scripture which arose less than 200 years ago. Such a document would have to be unifying rather than dividing and would need to avoid the shrill nature which many current refutations of false teachings tend towards (often disguised as “discernment ministries” in some circles of evangelicalism!).
For instance, there is no need to question the salvation or Christian devotion of proponents of Rapture theology! They are brothers and sisters in Christ who have been mislead by a false teaching, but not necessarily from false motives (many Rapture adherents are wonderful Godly men and women who are the model of Christian devotion and love!). However, the same can be said for many who have embraced the other widespread folk-theological development in church history–the Prosperity Gospel.
Likewise, Rapture theology is not simply an area where Christians should “agree to disagree.” There are such disagreements among Christians, but the difference is that in other areas of theological disagreement (i.e. Calvinism/Arminianism, Women’s roles in ministry, Historic Premillennialism/Amillennialism, etc.) there are strong points that can be made from specific passages in Scripture without removing them entirely from their contexts–for Rapture theology there is not (though I’m sure in the comments section this may be challenged! And such challenge is always welcome here in the Dojo…that’s what we’re here for in the first place!)
Furthermore, issues and divisions such as those above have a centuries-long (or sometimes a millennia-long!) history of interpretation and representation which is widespread throughout the Body of Christ worldwide. This is not the case with Rapture theology. Rather, Rapture theology was developed within a small circle of individuals and spread through grassroots methods apart from theological outlets of the Church in general. This, of course, doesn’t mean that it’s wrong necessarily…but it should definitely raise red flags.
Here is a condensed history of where the “Left Behind” method of reading Revelation (and Scripture in general) came from:
So what is the answer? How can the widespread popularity of seeing Revelation as a roadmap of current events in the Middle-East and Europe be countered?
How can the ORIGINAL INSPIRED MEANING of the text be restored to the majority of Christians in the Church today?
I’m not sure I have the answer to that. All I can do is encourage readers to question everything they’ve heard or read or been taught about Revelation by EVERYONE (including myself!).
After spending years in translating, studying and teaching Revelation in local church settings I’m convinced that it is the most powerful, Jesus-focused, eye-opening and encouraging books in the entire New Testament (possibly in all of Scripture)! It has so much to say to us today–but NOT about wars in Israel, Russian-Chinese invasion armies, Papal Antichrists or credit card chip implants and the European Union! Christians such as C.I. Scofield, Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord, David Jeremiah, Pat Robertson, Jack Van Impe, John Hagee, Kay Arthur, Rod Parsley, Paul Crouch, Beth Moore, Rod Parsley, Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsay and Perry Stone have led MILLIONS of people to believe that their way of reading Revelation is the correct one (or at least a legitimate and Biblically-based one that has been around throughout the entire history of the Church) and have generated billions of dollars in the process. I want to make clear that I don’t lump them all in together, nor do I believe they are “false teachers” in the Biblical sense of the term. I believe most of them are sincere. However, I stand with the larger Body of Christ in concluding that they are sincerely in error.
It’s always dangerous whenever one names names in theological critique and I do so hesitantly. The only reason I even mention specific teachers is because their influence is so widespread, yet most Christians who follow their teachings are unaware that the position they are putting forth is a fringe position, historically speaking, and one with many hidden assumptions which the historic Christian faith as a whole has never embraced.
Of course, when it comes to interpreting Revelation, there will NEVER be full consensus among believers. That’s okay. Unity does not require uniformity. But given the inherent dangers of Rapture theology and the unbiblical origins of it as a system of interpretation, Christians from a wide spectrum of interpretation can stand together in recognizing it as an aberration from historic Christian eschatology and a distortion of the message of Revelation.
If you would like to study Revelation more for yourself I have put together a DVD course which walks through the book chapter by chapter and attempts to be as fair and even-handed as possible in presenting the variety of ways in which Christians have historically approached it. It’s called “Revelation: A Guided Tour of the Apocalypse” and is available right here in the Dojo for $50 (PDF workbook and handout materials included). I do not hide my rejection of Rapture theology, but I do attempt to approach the book from a perspective that Christians within a wide variety of traditions and interpretive methods can appreciate.
Regardless of whether or not you use my resource, I encourage you to READ Revelation for yourself (though not BY yourself! It was meant to be heard and studied in community with other believers!). Ask the Spirit who Inspired it to reveal Jesus to you through it and to give you a greater understanding of God’s redemptive purposes throughout all human history.
And more than anything else, be CHALLENGED and/or ENCOURAGED by Revelation! That’s why God gave it in the first place!
Blessings from the Dojo!
ps: As I’m sure this post will rub many of my fellow Christians the wrong way, feel free to leave comments, criticism or questions below. However, just as I have tried to be as respectful as possible of what believe to be an utterly false teaching held by utterly sincere brothers and sisters, please extend the same courtesy in your responses.