In December I added a link to a news article about how a Christian radio network was buying advertizing space to declare that the end of the world as we know it will be May 21st, 2011. They are claiming that this is the day the church will be “raptured” and a series of disasters will begin to take place. I had no idea that the post would receive so many visits. Much to my chagrin, it is quickly becoming one of the most read post in this blog’s short six month history. The post where I talked about the way some have connected Zephaniah 1:1-3 with the dead birds in Arkansas has received even more.
I am frequently asked what I think of the “predictions” in Revelation and other associated Bible prophecies. So I though perhaps I might explain why I am not worried about May 21st. My reasoning is predicated on how I read the Bible and understand the nature of Bible prophecy.
The major source used to predict end time events is the New Testament book known as Revelation. The reason Revelation is often used to predict end times events is because this is what it seems to do. But that is an oversimplification. Revelation represents a genre of literature found in antiquity intended to encourage those who were oppressed both politically and socially. The book of Revelation was written to a group of Christians suffering persecution under Rome and looking for a day when God would turn the tables on Rome and the evil in the world. This literature was intended more to give hope to people in their current situation rather than to serve as a 2000 year old road map to the end of the world.
The book of Revelation is an historical document written to a particular group of people at a particular time in history. Moreover, we have a number of examples of this literature from antiquity demonstrating that Revelation is not unique. It is also a religious document that belongs to a certain genre of literature just as epistles belong to the genre of letter writing and gospels to the genre of biography. Since Revelation is particular type of literature, I interpret the symbolism according to that genre. Thus stars falling out of the sky, dragons, conquering armies, plagues and armies of demons or angels are all part of the world of apocalyptic literature. Just as a person going to a horror movie would expect certain elements to occur in the movie (blood, screams, scary monster etc), so to a reader of apocalyptic literature would expect these elements to be present. Therefore, I interpret none of it as predicting actual events, but as symbolic descriptions of how the ancients perceived God working in the world. Apocalyptic literature was a way to deliver a message of hope that God would one day act on their behalf.
So is Revelation prophecy? Yes, the author identifies it as such. But the label “prophecy” is not necessarily synonymous with predicting the future. In the Jewish and Christian tradition prophecy had more to do with what God was doing in the present age. Prophecy was more a critique of the people of God than a promise to annihilate their enemies. Even when future events were predicted, it was more about the imminent rather than distant future. Revelation fits this definition. Besides giving hope to persecuted Christians, Revelation is also a social critique intended to warn Christians not to become enamored with the Empire. It opens with letters listing the problems among some churches that seem to reflect their comfort level of living within the Roman social and political system. Revelation reminds the Church that the only true king is God not the Emperor. In the end, whenever that may be, one has to answer to God and not the Emperor.
So what does this mean for the modern world? We should not be watching in expectation for the end of the world by trying to connect the dots between Revelation and modern events. To do so is to betray a lack of appreciation for the kind of literature Revelation represents. I am uncomfortable with Christians who are quietly celebrating the humanitarian crises as the fulfillment of God’s end time plan. I think we would be better served if we focused more on critique of the church and its interaction in and with the world. We should be thinking of ways to show the world love rather than looking forward to a secret escape.