Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Why I am not worried about May 21, 2011: Reading the Bible and Predicting the End of the World.

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The book of Revelation is an historical document written to a particular group of people at a particular time in history.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.


  1. I think we would be better served if we focused more on critique 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.

    Isn't that the truth!

  2. Good post.
    What do you think this church will do on May 22?
    How do you recover from that?
    "Ooooppps. The world did not end. We were wrong! I wouldn't listen to us anymore if I were you!"

  3. The same thing that happened in 1988 when the Lord was supposed to return. They will reassess and come up with another date.

  4. If such an event ever does take place in our lifetimes, the 'Apocalypse' that the religious promise will rain down on the rest of us is much more likely to land on their own heads first, hard and heavy!

    Christian history is all theological. A human intellectual construct, attempting to know the mind of God without that mind being revealed by God and has been in perpetual disagreement for most of its' history. Thus unlikely to have anything to do with God. No more than the intellectual pretensions, vain imagination, the folly of empty hopes. But I suppose it's good to have an occasional example of what is really false, just in case something true actually even happens!

    The bottom line is that if a second coming should take place in any form, what must be among the first priorities for such personage is to expose those theological claims which are no better than chasing after wind. And to do so, such a person would have to 'reveal' a message at odds with all existing orthodoxy? Rapture could quickly turn to nightmare! And blow two thousand years of religious status quo right out of the water. From Rome to Mr. Camping and everything in between. That long over due revolution may already be getting started? Check out http://www.energon.org.uk or


  5. The word of God, the Bible, is larger and more inclusive than how it's "interpreted." Using one part of it to guide into the truth of the final days is short-sighted; the entire Bible must be used and harmonized to find the truth.

    While the author of the above may have spent years studying opinions, integrating the Bible is what is needed so that it guides into truth.

  6. Sooner or later one of these predictions has got to be right! Look at the world today. How would you fix it?
    The world is in such a mess our only hope is God's return. You who don't want him to return, ask yourself: Who is going to help the world. The world is truly beyond any human help. No jobs, no money, no future. Governments around the world in unrest! Greed and violence and vice has already destroyed our world. Now our only salvation is the Lord's intervention.

  7. 2 Peter, Chapter 3
    3 Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts,
    4 And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.
    5 For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water:
    6 Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished:
    7 But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.

  8. Fred,

    Disagreeing of the nature of scripture and how we interpret it does not make one a scoffer.

  9. Scoffer in the New Testament comes from the Greek noun empaiktes. Empaiktes means; derider, false teacher, mocker, scoffer.

    In the organized church, there are a few who deny outright the fact of the Second Coming of Christ. However, while most pastors, teachers and elders would not be so bold to say they deny the Second Coming, they do deny it by their actions. They deny what Christ says and Scripture teaches by avoiding the topic of the Second Coming. After all it was Jesus Himself who commanded us to “keep watch” for His return, and most are not.

    Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch (Matthew 24:42-43).

    Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour (Matthew 25:13).

    When Jesus said, “therefore keep watch”, did he mean we should watch for His return once in a while or occasionally? No, He said to, “keep watch” which means to maintain a watch, or watch continuously.

    "Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man" (Luke 21:36).