Literal Interpretation of Bible Prophecy: Help or Hinderance?
By Thomas Ice
About the time of the End, a body of men will be raised up who will turn their attention to the prophecies, and insist upon their literal interpretation in the midst of much clamor and opposition. -Sir Isaac Newton
Dr. John Walvoord was asked about a year ago “what do you predict will be the most significant theological issues over the next ten years?” His answer includes the following: “the hermeneutical problem of not interpreting the Bible literally, especially the prophetic areas. The church today is engulfed in the idea that one cannot interpret prophecy literally.”1 While millions of evangelicals still believe and practice literal interpretation of the Bible, including prophecy, there is nevertheless, a noticeable trend by some who are “engulfed in the idea that one cannot interpret prophecy literally.”
CLAMOR AND OPPOSITION
The last few years have witnessed the rise of a new growth industry within evangelicalism relating to Bible prophecy. There has been an ever- increasing wave of materials warning evangelicals against the literal interpretation of Bible prophecy and perceived implications that could follow from such practice. Increasingly, from outside the church (and some from within), those who believe in the literal interpretation of Bible prophecy are being pictured as a danger and threat to the progress of modern society. In the past, those who took Bible prophecy seriously were often ignored, since it was believed that their views did not impact in any significant way society at large. However, a reassessment by some secularists appears to attach great significance and blame to such beliefs.
The recent assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has set off a new flurry of criticism in the media of conservative religious beliefs that the Bible gives Israel a divine right to the land. Since many evangelicals share this view, I expect some will attempt to link this ungodly act with a literal belief in Bible prophecy. The last decade has increasingly seen an attempt by some to link a literal interpretation of the Bible to extremism. Some critics have tried to blame such activities as the threats of nuclear war, Islamic terrorism, American cult extremists, and the bombing in Oklahoma City, as all identical in nature and inflamed by a literal interpretation of the Bible. Such false linkage is then presented as proof that beliefs of this kind are a dangerous threat to society and that steps must be taken to control such views and preempt supposed actions that might follow from them.
SECULAR PROPHECY PHOBIA
Since they reject the Bible as a whole, especially the supernatural implication required for fulfillment, secularists have always thought that belief in Bible prophecy was weird, In recent years a number of books and articles have appeared attempting to explain to secularists biblical prophecy beliefs in an attempt to assess the impact of such beliefs on the thinking of society in general. Some of the books include: Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America by Charles Strozier; Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession by Robert Fuller; and the most widely-heralded When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture by Paul Boyer.2
Why, apart from pure academic exercises, would secularists (who believe that life should be lived apart from religious influence) be interested in the prophetic beliefs of biblical literalists? Apparently some secularists believe that one is not properly enlightened if he or she is ignorant of the prophetic beliefs of a large segment of the common people. In this way, Robert Fuller speaks of “my insistence that religion can and should be made the subject of intellectual inquiry.”3 Likewise, Paul Boyer contends that “Much evidence (some direct, some inferential) suggests that, despite gradual erosion in the twentieth century, prophetic belief remains deeply rooted in the United States as the century ends.”4
The December 19, 1994 issue of U.S. News & World Report ran a cover-story on Bible prophecy. Interestingly,it was run not in the religious section, but in the science and society section, and entitled “Waiting for The Messiah: The new clash over the Bible’s millennial prophecies.”5 This article reduces belief in biblical prophecy as the fulfillment of a psychological drive to find meaning in life, even though it is said to have great “destructive potential” (p. 71). What is interesting about the article is its focus on a departure by some evangelicals from the literal interpretation of prophecy and a new openness to less literal alternative approaches. The tone of the article seems to be that finally, even some of those crazy literalists are waking up and realizing that Bible prophecy cannot be taken literally in these enlightened and modern times.
Among evangelicals, who believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God, a significant stream of criticism by those who are withdrawing from a literal interpretation of Bible prophecy has come forth. These criticisms can be divided into two camps; 1)those who disagree with the literal interpretation of prophecy and 2) those who may agree to some extent with literal interpretation but whose focus on prophecy often relates to warning against extremism.
It is to be expected that those who do not interpret prophecy literally would disagree with those of us who do. It can be proper and honorable to sincerely disagree with another Christian on the basis of interpretation. I believe that this should be done on the basis of our differences in the understanding of the biblical text and honest dialogue should focus on these issues of biblical interpretation. However, some adopt ridicule and sarcasm, similar to the mocking secularist, in an attempt to gain an advantage in the disagreementor to win the approval of others listening to the dialogue.
Within any system of belief there is always a spectrum of those holding a viewpoint. This is true within our camp of literal interpreters. I have written in the past about our own who I believe are wrongly involved in date-setting and improper speculation. I have tried to make the case that such approaches really conflict with the principles of consistent literal interpretation of Bible prophecy. I admit that we do have some who are vulnerable to criticism, but this does not justify many of the false characterizations of some of our opponents. Instead, they often work very hard in taking examples of the extreme and making them out to be the norm in representing our beliefs and their outworking. They often delight in putting the worst face possible on our views and often wrongly implicate with extremist views those within the mainstream of our tradition.
Examples of such ridicule can be found in books by Reconstructionists like Gary DeMar’s Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church and Gary North’s Rapture Fever: Why Dispensationalism is Paralyzed. Others attempt to smear the literal interpretation of prophecy by saying it was derived from spurious historical origins. Dave MacPherson has taken this approach in his many editions of his booksThe Incredible Cover-Up, The Great Rapture Hoax, and his latest The Rapture Plot. Others have tried to paint the literal interpretation of prophecy as just plain weird as in Robert L. Pierce’s The Rapture Cult: Religious Zeal and Political Conspiracy or John Noe’s The Apocalypse Conspiracy.
There are some who say they believe in the literal interpretation of prophecy, but yet it seems that the only time they write about the subject is to warn against extremists. During the last year many articles and editorials about prophecy have appeared in Christianity Today . Regrettably, almost all of them have been warnings of some kind focused on the potential abuses of extremism instead of a positive presentation and application of the literal interpretation of prophecy.
Along this same line, are recent books such as B. J. Oropeza’s 99 Reasons Why No One Knows When Christ Will Return and C. Marvin Pate and Calvin B. Haines’ Doomsday Delusions: What’s Wrong with Predictions About the End of the World. Many literal interpreters of prophecy agree with the overall thrust of these books (it is wrong to date-set or speculate wildly), but I wonder if their tone and approach does not have more in common with the above mentioned prophecy nay-sayers.
HISTORY BEFORE IT HAPPENS
I believe that Bible prophecy is history written before it happens (cf. Isa. 46:8-48:11). Just as it is right and necessary to interpret the early chapters of Genesis literally in order to build a biblical framework of origins, so it is right and necessary to interpret prophecy literally in order to build a biblical framework of the future. Just because a speculation based upon a literal interpretation of Genesis may prove to be wrong is not a sufficient basis to reject a literal interpretation of Genesis. So also, improper speculation about the future is not a legitimate basis for the rejection of the literal interpretation of prophecy. Thus, prophecy should play an important role in the life of a Christian, since it is a dominant subject throughout the Bible, especially in the New Testament. As with the biblcal text in general, we should endeavor to study and relate prophecy to our lives in a responsible manner.
Prophecy has always played a central role in the life of the church during her 2,000-year history. Prophetic study and speculation have been a constant down through church history. What has changed at times over the years is the rise and fall of various interpretative approaches to prophecy. Few, if any, question the early church focus on prophecy. I doubt if any modern emphasis on prophecy could rival the impact upon the medieval church as a whole by various prophetic interpreters and speculators such as Joachim of Fiore. Only those with a surface knowledge of the Reformation can question the central role that eschatology played in the minds of such leaders as Martin Luther and John Knox. But something is different in our day. Prophecy is seen by many in the church as something that is non-essential. Many see it as a secondary issue merely reflecting preferences that cannot be ultimately resolved by Bible study. Yet, to think that about 25% of Scripture can be viewed this way should be an unacceptable approach for any evangelical. Since prophecy deals with real history, then it is as important as any other portion of the Bible.
Why would many evangelicals, who otherwise take literally other portions of Scripture, be tempted to relegate secondary importance to so much of the Bible? I think Paul Boyer has given us some insight when he notes:
Down to the Enlightenment, biblical apocalyptic was read with seriousness throughout Christendom, at all social and educational levels, for the clues it offered to God’s divine plan. But as skepticism and rationalism gained ground in the eighteenth century, the academic and popular views of these texts gradually diverged. . . . At the popular level, particularly in America, the apocalyptic texts remained what they had always been: a vital source of doctrine, reassurance, and foreknowledge. Ordinary believers continued to pore over their pages and to look expectantly for the events they found predicted there.6
Marjorie Reeves, the leading historian of prophecy during the later Middle Ages echoes Boyer’s thoughts:
Today much decision is based on a type of prediction which is being evolved under sets of rules deriving from scientific method. . . . The medieval concept of prophecy presupposed a divine providence working out its will in history, . . . Although obviously different ways of looking at the future were forming in the sixteenth century, they existed side by side with the old assumptions in the minds of rulers, churchmen, and scholars. Only reluctantly in the seventeenth century was prophecy as an attitude towards the future acknowledged to be outmoded. . . .
But prophecy has now ceased to be of importance except on the fringes of modern civilization. . . . Perhaps we might say that only when intelligent and educated men ceased to take prophecy seriously were the Middle Ages truly at an end. The contention here is that this change hinges on a change in our whole attitude to history and to our own participation in it.7
Just as many were influenced by Enlightenment thought and abandoned a literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis , it appears that a similar dynamic has been at work in assaulting prophcey or “future history.” We know that secularists disdain prophecy because it gives a person a clear and certain view of the future, which clashes with the Enlightenment view of science and knowledge. However, a proper view of science does not clash with Scripture, just as the literal view of Bible prophecy will not be at odds with history. Thus, we can take Bible prophecy literally, develop a scenario of the future, and at the same time interact responsibly with current events as they foreshadow and lead up to a time when God will literally fulfill His Word.