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Revelation and the End Times
Unraveling God's Message of Hope
By Ben Witherington III
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
THE CHARACTER OF BIBLICAL PROPHECY
Ideas have consequences.... At worst, such belief [in a rapture] is a form of escapism. The hope of impending departure can lead believers to abandon interest in the world and its problems. The expectation of deteriorating conditions prior to the soon-approaching rapture is morally corrosive, encouraging pessimism, fatalism, and the forsaking of political responsibility. Disengagement from the problems of the world is ethically indefensible, but it is all too common among today's prophecy elite. Their books tell us that nuclear war is inevitable, that the pursuit of peace is pointless, that the planet's environmental woes are unstoppable, and so on.—Craig Hill,In God's Time
A. THE NATURE OF PROPHECY
A particular way of thinking called dispensationalism arose in the nineteenth century, in part due to a concern about apparently unfulfilled biblical prophecies. To their credit, dispensationalists recognized rightly that the New Testament has a profound orientation toward the end times and much to say about the future. Indeed, it even has a good deal of Old Testament prophecy that seems to have not yet been fulfilled. The problem in part with dispensationalism was not only that it did not recognize that a good deal of biblical prophecy actually has been fulfilled (though sometimes in a less than absolutely literal manner), but also that it did not recognize that a good deal of biblical prophecy was conditional in nature to begin with. Thus, when the conditions weren't met, the fulfillment never came.
When a prophecy began, "If my people who are called by my name will repent and turn to me," and then went on to make predictions or promises, sometimes God's people did not repent, so, therefore, prophecy did not come about. And if the people did not repent, sometimes God's mercy prevailed. Lurking behind the dispensationalist approach was the worry that unfulfilled prophecy might be seen as false prophecy, or, worse, unfulfilled prophecy might make God appear to not be a keeper of his word. Unfortunately these sorts of anxieties were answered by coming up with a view of prophecy and its character that largely ignored the original historical context and the nature of the prophecy more generally. So let us consider the matter directly.
"In the beginning was the Word" is a familiar and seemingly simple assertion; and yet its complexity, especially in an oral cultural environment, cannot be overlooked. In an ancient culture the living Word, the living voice, always had a certain weight over a written word. And of all the wordsmiths of antiquity, none had more power or authority than those who could speak for God or, in a pagan culture, for the gods. Indeed, those who could offer a divine word might well have been the most important persons.
It is not at all surprising that a study of prophecy in antiquity reveals that apparently almost all such cultures had some persons who exercised roles we would call prophetic. I have written a detailed study of prophecy elsewhere but will here summarize some of the salient points. Prophecy did not begin with the period of the Israelite monarchy, nor did it end when that monarchy was eclipsed, for even in Israel prophecy in some forms carried on beyond that period of time. Nor were the prophets of Israel, any more than the New Testament prophets, operating in a cultural vacuum. It was possible for a Balaam or a Jonah or a Paul to cross cultural boundaries and still be recognized as some sort of prophetic figure. This is because the social functions and roles, and to some degree even the forms and contents of the messages, were the same in the eastern part of the Mediterranean.
Whether we are talking about the period of the Babylonian Empire or the Roman Empire, there were certain traits that marked out prophetic figures, such that they could be recognized throughout the region as some sort of spokesman or spokeswoman for the divine and could cross cultural and ethnic boundaries and still function. Indeed, prophecy was such a cross-cultural phenomenon that Babylonian kings might well have Jewish prophets serving in their courts, and Roman emperors might well listen to the word of a Jewish prophet before making a major decision. If one wants to understand biblical prophecy, one necessarily must be prepared to fish with a large net.
It is worth pondering why it is such a large proportion of the Hebrew Scriptures involves prophetic books, while the New Testament, unless one counts Revelation, contains no books that could be called prophetic as a whole or even any that, in the main, involve collections of oracles. Could it be because the New Testament writers believed that they already lived in an age when these prophecies, through and as a result of the Christ event, were rapidly being fulfilled? Yes, this is indeed part of the truth, but there are also many clues about Hebrew prophecy being a part of the larger ancient Near Eastern phenomenon that were missed.
While there was a range of things that prophets might do and say in the ancient world, nonetheless their activities, the forms of their discourse, and the social purposes and effects of this discourse were similar in all Mediterranean cultures, so much so that a person traveling from, say, Rome to the extremes of the eastern end of the empire in the first century A.D. could speak about prophets and prophecy and expect most any audience to have a reasonably clear notion of the subject matter. Similarly, during the time of Jeremiah one could travel from Babylon to Jerusalem and expect the social phenomenon of prophecy to be in many, though not all, ways the same in a variety of these cultures. The story of Jonah, like the story of Balaam, encourages us to look at prophecy as a cross-cultural phenomenon, with influence moving in various directions through the course of time.
I have discovered in my odyssey through the prophetic material that a great deal of loose talk has been allowed to pass for critical thinking about who prophets were and what the nature of their utterances was. For example, in the field of biblical studies, prophecy is often simply lumped together with preaching or with the creative handling and interpreting of earlier sacred texts. Part of this lack of clarity may be put down to confusion about the difference between prophetic utterances and the resulting books of prophetic material, collected and edited by scribes over time. We need to distinguish between the prophetic experience, the prophetic expression, the prophetic tradition, and the prophetic body of literature.
I have been struck again and again by how, across a variety of cultural lines and over the course of an enormous amount of time, Jews, pagans, and Christians who lived in the eastern end of the Mediterranean Crescent all seemed to have reasonably clear and reasonably similar ideas about what constituted a prophet and prophecy. For example, a prophet was an oracle, a mouthpiece for some divine being, and as such he or she did not speak for himself or herself but for another. A prophet might also be many other things (teacher, priest, sage), but the role of prophet was distinct from all others.
Prophecy, whether from Mari, Jerusalem, Delphi, or Rome, was spoken in known languages, usually in poetic form, and so was an intelligible, even if often puzzling, kind of communication. It might involve spontaneous utterances or a reading of omens or signs of various sorts, but in any case it was not a matter of deciphering ancient texts, which was the task of scribes and sages of various sorts. Furthermore, consulting a prophet was an attempt to obtain a current word from one or another deity about something pressing or impending. In sociological terms the prophet was seen as someone who mediated between the human and divine worlds, which, therefore, made the prophet very important but also subjected him or her to being pushed to the margins of society if the divine words involved curses rather than blessings, judgment rather than redemption.
At least in the setting of Israel and early Christianity, the prophet was one who deliberately stood at the boundary of the community—the boundary between God and the community, but also the boundary between the community and those outside it. It was the task of the prophet to call God's people to account and to reinforce the prescribed boundaries of the community while reestablishing or reinforcing the divine-human relationship. Prophets served as God's prosecuting attorney for the covenant lawsuit when Israel broke the covenant.
This takes us to another factor, which has too often been underplayed, perhaps in order to avoid the embarrassment of having to say that a particular favorite prophet might be wrong. I am referring to the fact that prophecy was, more often than not, predictive in character, though most often its subject matter dealt with something thought to be on the near horizon, not something decades, much less centuries, in the future. And even when the more remote future was the subject of prophecy, the subject was raised because it was thought to have a direct bearing on the present. In short, ancient prophets and prophetesses were not armchair speculators about remote subjects. Nostradamus would not have felt comfortable in this company, nor would the interpreters of the Mayan calendar, which allegedly targets 2012 as the date for the end of the world!
As a close reading of Isaiah 40–66 shows, biblical prophecy about the more distant horizon was deliberately less specific and more universal in character, dealing with not only ideas and themes the immediate audience could understand, but also themes that could transcend the immediate and particular circumstances of those listening to the prophet. Almost all oracles have something of a poetic form, but prophecy about the more remote future tends to involve even more metaphor, simile, and poetic devices, for example, hyperbole, to make the point.
Thus when prophets talk about Eden renewed with lions lying down with lambs and swords being beaten into plowshares, not only are such images not code words for modern concerns like the cessation of nuclear weapon stockpiling, but also they are not about building factories in antiquity where swords would literally be beaten into plowshares. Metaphors like these are, rather, ways of speaking about putting a stop to hostilities. It is especially interesting that when the Old Testament prophets, including Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah, thought about the more distant future, they did not dwell on impending doom or Armageddon, but rather on eventual redemption and restoration of God's people and the return to Eden-like conditions.
These predictions were indeed meant to be taken seriously as they referred to real events, but the prophets used figures of speech that were not intended to be taken literally. Taking these figures of speech literally does the Bible a great disservice, and it violates the character of biblical prophecy many times over. There is in addition the problem of mistaking material that was fulfilled long ago in Israel or fulfilled in a more general way in biblical times as material awaiting a literal fulfillment as the Christian era nears an end. However, Jesus was not joking when he said that the events leading up to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem would all occur within a generation (see Mark 13). This did happen! Only a minority of what is said in Matthew 24–25 or Mark 13 has any bearing on current or future events as we view them in the beginning of the twenty-first century, precisely because they already happened in the debacles leading up to and including the Jewish war with Rome in A.D. 70 when the temple and all Jerusalem were utterly destroyed.
B. THE NATURE OF THE APOCALYPTIC
The way apocalyptic literature is often treated by those on the far right and the far left of the theological spectrum is problematic. On the one hand, some treat it as a hard-and-fast prescription for the future, while, on the other hand, others treat it as some sort of imaginative fiction. However, when I refer to apocalyptic literature, I am referring to those biblical texts that refer to the end times—Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Revelation. But what is apocalyptic literature? Here is a definition that begins to help us decipher such material followed by an orienting discussion.
The Society of Biblical Literature definition, arising out of its seminar on apocalyptic literature, is a good starting point. It says that an apocalypse is "a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world." To this definition is sometimes added the statement that this literature is minority literature written in coded language to comfort a group of believers undergoing some sort of crisis.
The essence of the definition is that present, mundane reality is interpreted in light of both the supernatural world and the future. For the book of Revelation, for example, this entails beginning with the present experiences of the churches and trying to help them interpret and endure those experiences in the light of the larger perspective that John's visions of what is above and beyond give them. This particular book is clearly minority literature written in a somewhat coded way for persons enduring crisis.
Eschatological concepts, or ideas related to end times, are not necessarily the heart of what the apocalyptic is all about, for they are found in many types of early Jewish and Christian literature. For that matter there are apocalypses that do not really focus on what final form the future will take. Apocalyptic, then, is primarily a matter of the use of a distinctive form—visions with often bizarre and hyperbolic (extreme, larger than life) metaphors and images. Some apocalypses focus almost entirely on otherworldly journeys without saying much about the end of human history. In other words, historical apocalypses are not the only kind of apocalypse.
The very heart of apocalyptic is the unveiling of secrets and truths about God's perspective on a variety of thorny subjects including justice, the problem of evil, and what God proposes to do about such matters. This literature was the dominant form of prophecy in Jewish contexts from the second century B.C. to the second century A.D., and it reflects the fact that its authors believed they lived in the age when earlier prophecies were being fulfilled, and, therefore, it was right to contemplate what God's final answer and solution would be. This dominance of apocalyptic literature also reflects the deeply held conviction that God's people lived in dark times when God's hand in matters and God's will for believers were not clear. Indeed, in some ways it was a secret or a mystery. God's plan had to be revealed to us, because it was not self-evident.
A major shift occurred from traditional prophecy, speaking for God about the present or future, to apocalyptic prophecy, speaking primarily about the end times. The difference was not because there were no prophets around (for example, John the Baptist), but because of the conviction that God's people were living at the dawn of or actually in the end times. The final things had already been set in motion, and under such circumstances it was necessary to talk about them.
Excerpted from Revelation and the End Times by Ben Witherington III. Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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