Blue on Blue and Eschatological Optimism

The proprietor of Genesis 2:24, Neil Novotnak, has offered a review of my book Contra Mundum Swagger. You can find the review here. I appreciate Mr. Novotnak’s sincerity and zeal in desiring to seek out truth, identify falsehood, and obey God’s word. We need more men like this. I’m also tremendously grateful for the fact that he has demonstrated with his own life the courage to follow Christ in our divorce culture. Most men are too cowardly to sacrifice their lives to follow Christ in our era. Mr. Novotnak is not among those men. I consider Mr. Novotnak a brother in Christ and one with whom I have much common ground and agreement regarding the necessities of orthodox Christian faith, or what C. S. Lewis called our “mere Christianity.” However, the Kingdom of God is a big place filled with sons and daughters of the King who disagree from time to time on issues of secondary and tertiary importance. How should the Kingdom be run? What does the Kingdom look like? When is the King returning? He has chosen to highlight some of these disagreements in his review, so I’ll do my best to adequately address some of them here.

The eschatology of the book is one of the more prominent issues Mr. Novotnak takes issue with and really the main one I’ll be dealing with here. It’s genuinely baffling to me how problematic this aspect is for him. I commend him for seeing the connection of an optimistic eschatology and the issue of divorce and remarriage. I think he’s correct in seeing the two as influencing or affecting each other. However, he ascribes things to me that I don’t write about in the book and I’m astounded at how little he interacts with what I have actually written. However, he has accurately represented my position in numerous places, too.

It should be noted that just because I identify my eschatological views as postmillennial doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with every aspect another postmillennial author may write about, or every description of postmillennialism one may happen upon on the internet. If eschatological views are on a spectrum with premillennial dispensationalism on one end and postmillennialism on the other, I am definitely closer to the postmil end. I don’t have everything figured out on the subject, but where I’m at now and how I understand the Bible can best be described as postmillennial.

Considering that divorce and remarriage is adultery, and those who practice adultery will not inherit the kingdom of God, and a majority of Christians currently do not preach or practice discipline on this issue, I think it’s a strategic mistake to unduly focus on secondary and tertiary doctrinal differences between fellow Christians who are fighting against the greatest heresy of our time. It’s like being part of the Allied Invasion of Normandy, traversing the beach in a hail of Nazi machine gun fire, noticing an Allied soldier from another platoon wearing boots that are out of standard Army regulation, and shooting him in the head for doing so.  I would describe everything Mr. Novotnak brings up, particularly eschatology, boots that aren’t standard issue – secondary or tertiary doctrine. Is it really wise to get in a huff over these things? However, I also appreciate the fact that Mr. Novotnak believes the problems in the Church or more structurally entrenched than merely divorce and remarriage, and so his alarmist tone is understandable. For now, I would simply disagree with him on this point and possibly address it in another post. Let’s stick with the end times stuff.

There is deluge of words that could be said about all these things, but I will try to limit myself in responding to what Mr. Novotnak has written in attempt to achieve at least understanding of each other, if not agreement. Mr. Novotnak writes, “But the Lord also answers questions from his disciples about the times of the end. (Matthew 24) It is clear to my understanding that before the Lord Jesus Christ returns, there will be apostasy and a falling away just as in the times of Noah (Matthew 24:37),  and Paul also tells us about the “last days” in 2 Timothy. (2 Timothy 3:1-7)” It seems to me that Mr. Novotnak has done little to understand the exegetical reasons for why someone might disagree with his eschatology. This can be easily clarified by saying that I believe most of the “last days” language in the New Testament and particularly Matthew 24 are in reference to the last days of the Old Covenant era and the beginning of the New Covenant, Messianic, Kingdom era. And that the tribulation and judgment referred to is usually, but not always, in reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Matthew 24 is a great example of this.

I didn’t become postmil by encountering a system and then trying to get the Bible to fit the system, I became postmil by trying to understand the Bible, and then realizing there is a label for how I understand the Bible. Premil explanations of passages like Matthew 24 and other New Testament passages that I was taught were about the end of the space time universe simply weren’t convincing to me. So, let’s look at a few of these passages, starting with Matthew 24.

First, what is being discussed at the beginning of Matthew 24? “Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, ‘Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.’” (Matthew 24:1-2) Jesus is making a prophetic statement about the destruction of Jerusalem, and particularly the temple. Then his disciples ask him to elaborate. “Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?’” (Matthew 24:3 – the greek word for age here is αἰῶνος or aionos, aion, which can be translated as world or age, doesn’t matter) They ask Jesus about the destruction of the temple, which is described as “the sign of Your coming, and the end of the age.” They don’t ask Jesus to tell them about the destruction of Jerusalem and then the end of the space time universe, or Left Behind movie conceptions of the rapture, which is how most modern readers take this verse because they are thinking in modernistic categories, and not in Biblical categories.

Let me explain further. The Jews believed in the age of the law and the age of the Messiah. When they ask when the end of the age is going to happen, they aren’t asking about the end of the world in its entirety, they are asking about the end of the Old Covenant World. They are asking about the end of the age of Mosaic law. And what better sign of the age of the Mosaic law than the destruction of the Temple, which Jesus had just mentioned in the previous verse, and which Jesus goes on to prophesy about for the rest of this passage? Jesus doesn’t say, “Good question guys, but let me just tell you about the end of the entire world instead.” There is little in the text that indicates this if you are thinking in thoroughly Biblical categories. Let me explain some more.

Consider the decreational language Jesus employs in verse 29. “Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.” He says the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give her light, and the stars will even fall from heaven. I still see the stars in the sky, so this must be a prophecy that’s going to happen in the future. Right? Wrong. We only think this because we aren’t reading these prophecies as the Bible would have us read them.

The way Jesus prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem corresponds almost identically to the way prophets in the Old Testament prophesied the destruction of nations or cities, which employed the same metaphorical decreational language. In Genesis we are told that the stars in the sky were put there to rule the night and day. (Genesis 1:14-18) The celestial lights represent rule, governance, authority. In these prophecies the destruction of celestial governance symbolizes the destruction of human governance.

Consider the prophet Isaiah.

The oracle concerning Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw.

 Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the land a desolation
and to destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light.
I will punish the world for its evil,
and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant,
and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless. (Isaiah 13:1, 9-11)

Isaiah is saying the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light, the sun will be dark, the moon will be dark, he will restore justice and punish the world for its evil. All of this is described as the day of the Lord, yet, we are told that this is a prophecy concerning Babylon! This sounds like a prophecy of the end of the world, of Jesus’s Second Coming, but it’s not. We are explicitly told it’s a prophecy that anticipates something that has already happened in history. Babylon is destroyed by the Assyrians in 689 BC by Sennacherib, and 539 BC by the Persians, Cyrus the Mede.

Okay, that’s just one prophecy. Maybe it’s a one off kind of thing. Oh wait, here’s another.

The Prophet Ezekiel: “In the twelfth year, in the twelfth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, raise a lamentation over Pharaoh king of Egypt and say to him:

‘When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens
and make their stars dark;
I will cover the sun with a cloud,
and the moon shall not give its light.
All the bright lights of heaven
will I make dark over you,
and put darkness on your land,
declares the Lord God.'” (Ezekiel 32:1,7-8)

Sun, moon, and stars going dark. Sounds familiar, yeah? Is Ezekiel prophesying Jesus’s Second Coming? Nope, it’s about Egypt. Egypt is destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar the Babylon in 605 BC.

And another.

The Prophet Amos: “The words of Amos…which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake…

And on that day, declares the Lord God,
‘I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.'” (Amos 1:1; 8:9)

Universal decreational language, again, in reference to a particular judgment in history of a particular region and people. Northern Israel is destroyed by Assyria in 722 BC.

Another.

The Prophet Joel: “The earth quakes before them;
the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining. (Joel 2:10)

More decreational language. However, we only know that the prophecies here are directed toward “the inhabitants of the land.” (Joel 1:2) There is necessarily a specific time frame of judgment here, except that we do know parts of Joel is fulfilled at Pentecost. Peter says, “‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh.” (Acts 2:17) He then goes on to quote Joel extensively. Notice when this is happening – in the last days! When were the last days according to Peter? 2,000 years ago. Peter explicitly relates the events of Pentecost 2,000 years ago to the “last days” prophecies of Joel. Uh oh, that doesn’t help with an eschatology that is largely informed by Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series does it? No, it doesn’t. 

Paul, like Peter, also says of himself and the Corinthians that they are living in the last days, or more specifically “the end of the ages.” After citing examples of Israel in the Exodus and wilderness, he says, “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” (1 Corinthians 10:11) Isn’t the end of the ages supposed to come in 2025 or something? What is Hal Lindsey predicting these days? I know it’s hard for us not to narcissistically read these passages and think Paul is talking about 21st Century America, but once you wrench yourself from that paradigm, and simply read Scripture on its own terms, it becomes clear that many of our eschatological conceptions are more informed by what we watch on the news and the Left Behind series than they are from Scripture itself.

What about Revelation? Isn’t Revelation about Russian attack helicopters and some one world Anti-Christ or something? I mean, Revelation is clearly a prophecy about the end of time as we know it. It probably says the things prophesied there will take place in the distant future from when it was written, right? Let’s check. Uh, well, maybe, err…It says the Revelation given to John are of “things which must shortly take place…for the time is near.” (Revelation 1:1-2) ““These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place. Behold, I am coming quickly.” (Revelation 22:6-7) When Daniel prophesies about Alexander the Great and Antiochus Epiphanes, which culminated 400 years later from the time Daniel wrote about it, he is told to “seal up the vision, for it refers to many days from now.” (Daniel 8:26) But John is told, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.” (Revelation 22:10) This indicates that the prophecies in Revelation were at least to occur within 400 years of John writing them. I submit to you that they occurred within a few years of him writing them.

What about the date of John being post AD 70. Comes from an obscure reference in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies which could be interpreted to mean a number of things. It isn’t definitive. All internal evidence, like the fact that the temple is still standing in Revelation, points to a pre AD 70 date. What about a day is like a 1,000 years and a 1,000 years like a day for the Lord. Yup, that’s true. But you have to ignore all the evidence that points to these prophecies being about the destruction of Jerusalem, and abandon a more natural and Biblically consistent and informed reading of these prophecies.

I want to return to the Olivet Discourse, but let me make a few remarks about Revelation. The book is a highly symbolic and difficult book to understand. I don’t have it all figured out and any eschatology that has Revelation as its starting point already is making things difficult for itself. My understanding of eschatology comes from looking at the entire Bible and trying to harmonize everything. With that said, a few things to consider about Revelation. As we mentioned already, we are explicitly told that the things in the book are going to happen soon. There is no mention of an anti-Christ anywhere in Revelation, only a beast. Anti-Christ is mentioned only mentioned in 1 John and John defines anti-Christ as a spirit that denies that Jesus came in the flesh. (1 John 4:3) There seems to be a lot of confusion which clumps the beast together with the anti-Christ spirit, so I figured I clear that up. Much of Revelation also lines up nicely with historical realities in the first century. Check out the gematria explanation of 666 as Caesar Nero. Nero’s reign fits well with Revelation 17:9. “The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits. There are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, and the other has not yet come. And when he comes, he must continue a short time.” Rome was known as the city built on seven hills. There were five Caesars prior to Nero. Five have fallen – Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, one is – Nero, and the other has not yet come. And when comes, he must continue a short time – Galba, who only reigned for seven months and seven days. Lastly, I believe that Satan is bound now as it says in Revelation 20, but that binding is qualified in Revelation 20:3, which states that he is no longer able to deceive the nations. Jesus says all authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to Him. How many nations worshiped the true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prior to Christ? One. The rest were under the authority of the evil one. That changed with Christ. How many nations have millions of people who worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob since Christ? Many, just as the Bible promises. 

Despite how grim things are now, I don’t know how anyone can study history and not see how clearly Christianity has been dominating for the past 2,000 years. The Kingdom of God ebbs and flows and has peaks and valleys. It doesn’t ascend like a rocket ship or an escalator. It grows like tree which weathers storms and gets pruned, loses branches, grafts in new branches, grows so large that “that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Matthew 13:32) It is like ascending a mountain which has crags and crevices and valleys. We can be 8,000 feet up the eschatological mountain, and when we fall down a 50 foot crag we all forget that we’ve ascended 7,950 feet. We deny that the mountain exists at all, and that the only thing that exists are cliffs and blackholes. And we launch into an evangelical version of existential despair wherby we cry “Maranatha!” But Jesus has told us that He is already with us as we ascend this mountain and that it’s not a vain endeavor, but one which does see the view from the peak.

I believe that most of Revelation can be understood preteristically with the exception of most of the last two chapters, which I believe are in reference to the culmination of the new heavens and the new earth and Christ’s eternal reign of heaven on earth. But I also believe there is a lot in Revelation that is difficult to understand. I’m not laying out a precise chart for how I think things will happen. I’m not coming at this with a “I know exactly what everything in the Bible means” attitude. I’m simply pointing out that when Mr. Novotnak dismisses my eschatological position as being unBiblical, he appears to not have understood the exegetical reasoning behind my position, which is overwhelmingly Biblical. I’m not saying I’m totally right and everyone else is wrong. I recognize these issues to be extraordinarily complex and I don’t get in a huff over people who view these things differently. I’m happy to have the disagreement and still be in charitable unity. I’m also fine with saying I don’t have all these things figured out. I enjoy resting on the mystery of passages that still remain enigmatic to my mind. So, I’m not interested in getting into an eschatological cafeteria food fight. I’m simply presenting my position as a reasonable one.

After Jesus prophesies what some interpret as his second coming and the end of the space time universe, Jesus says, “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” (Matthew 24:34) What makes more sense? That by “generation” Jesus means over 2,000 years later and hundreds of literal generations or by “generation” Jesus means exactly that. If we take the latter meaning, it very easily fits in with the interpretation that Jesus began prophesying about the destruction of Jerusalem and continued to reinforce this prophecy throughout the passage since many of the hearers of the prophecy would have been witness to its fulfillment exactly 40 years later. 

Jesus begins the Olivet Discourse prophesying about the destruction of Jerusalem, his subsequent prophecies reinforce this idea throughout the passage by using the same celestial decreational language as Old Testament prophets who also prophesied concerning the destruction of particular nations or people, and He tells his hearers that they would witness the fulfillment of everything he prophesied to them in the passage. This is reinforced by the the Apostles, Peter and Paul who explicitly identify themselves as living in the last days, and John whose prophecies in Revelation we are explicitly told in numerous places will take place soon, and implicitly told this in comparison to Daniel’s prophecies.

There are many other things Mr. Novotnak brought up in his blog which demonstrates that he does not understand my position or has ascribed things to me that I do not believe. Perhaps I will more thoroughly address these in another post, but for now I’ll simply bring up the fact that I place guys like Instone-Brewer and Craig Keener in the position of the Benjamites of Judges 19, which I refer to as a wolf in the book. There are dozens of examples of me giving very severe chastisement and evil categorization to these men. And so, the reader should read my book and decide for themselves if I only think they are a little misguided.

I appreciate Mr. Novotnak as a brother in Christ and one who has fought hard battles that many Christian men have not. I hope this blog and perhaps subsequent blogs will only bring more charity and clarity between us and those who read Contra Mundum Swagger.

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