Saturday, January 8, 2011

How Not To Read The Apocalypse

I was asked recently if from the various hermeneutical approaches to the Apocalypse was there a certain one that I would simply stay away from as being manifestly incorrect. My answer was yes there is, namely Dispensational Futurism. This method of eschatological thinking in general and as a hermeneutic of the Apocalypse in particular has now been largely discredited by New Testament scholarship.1

What is more disturbing than a faulty approach to the Apocalypse (and in the meantime making a lot of money in the process, i.e., Left Behind Series) is when such a reading has impacts and consequences in the lives of people. This is especially obvious in the political realm. American Protestant Dispensationalists armed with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other have put together a sizable bloc in the US government and attempts to influence US foreign policy (especially in the Middle East) has become their number one priority. Tim Weber has been outspoken against such a failed marriage of bad hermeneutics and politics and a number of academic works chronicle the dismal attempts of these American Dispensationalists.2

The point is hermeneutics have consequences. Far from being a dry academic literary exercise that has little if anything to do with "real life" how you read the Bible counts. Millions of people around the world are still enraptured with Dispensationalism and how it relates to real life decisions.


1 Dispensational reading of the Apocalypse took a major blow in popular Evangelical circles when the "Bible Answer Man" Hank Hanegraaff recently published a work exposing the faulty exegetical underpinnings of this method, The Apocalypse Code. Find Out What the Bible Really Says About the End Times and Why it Matters Today (Nashville. Thomas Nelson, 2007). For more technical works that uncover the hermeneutical weakness of this system see for example, L. Festinger, H. W. Riecken and S. Schachter, When Prophecy Fails. A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World (New York. Harper & Row, 1964), Dwight Wilson, Armageddon Now! The Premillenarian Rresponse to Russia and Israel Since 1917 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), Arthur H. Lewis, The Dark Side of the Millennium: The Problem of Evil in Revelation 20: 1-10 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980); Kenneth E. Jones, "An Amillennial Reply to Peters: A Review Article," JETS 24 (1981): 333-341; Paul Boyer, When Time Shall be no More. prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1992), Michael R. Cosby, "The Tragedy of Prophecy Enthusiasm," The Covenant Quarterly 51 (1993): 37-45, Richard Abanes, End Time Visions. The Road to Armaggedon (1998), J. R. Stone ed., Expecting Armageddon. Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy (New York. Routledge, 2000), J. R. Hall, Apocalypse Observed. Religious Movements and Violence in North America, Europe, and Japan (London. Routledge, 2000), B. Witherington III, “What the Left Behind Series Left Out,” Bible Review 18 (2002) 10, 52, B. D. Forbes and J. H. Kilde, Rapture, Revelation and the End Times. Exploring the Left Behind Series (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), A. J. Frykholm, Rapture Culture. Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford University Press, 2004), B. R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed. The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Basic Books, 2005).

2 See for example Ernest L. Tuveson, Redeemer Nation. The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1968), Grace Halsell, Forcing God’s Hand. Why Millions Pray for a Quick Rapture and Destruction of Planet Earth (Amana Publications, 2002), Timothy P. Weber, On the Road to Armageddon. How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend (Baker Academic, 2004).

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