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Our Enigmatic, Inscrutable God, Prophecy and Eschatology - Part 2

Our Enigmatic, Inscrutable God, Part 2:
Prophecy and Eschatology

By Bruce Atkinson
Special to Virtueonline
June 18, 2014

“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable His judgments, and His paths beyond tracing out!”

- Romans 11:33

Over a year ago, David Virtue was kind enough to post a brief essay of mine in which I attempted to explain why it is that God does not overwhelm us with evidence of His presence and power, although God surely could do so:

Recently, some article authors and commenters on VirtueOnline have been examining the difficult and controversial issues regarding eschatology and prophecy in the Bible. Those Christians who have very strong explicit opinions about how prophetic and eschatological passages should be interpreted will undoubtedly disagree with my take on the situation. However, I am motivated to present the following hypothesis.

No other area of theological study contains such widely divergent views as does eschatology and prophecy. How is it that many devout Christians (even those who are highly educated, spiritually mature, and theologically grounded in the gospel basics) are so enthusiastic about their views on eschatology and yet are so far apart from each other in what they believe? Just examine all the fairly popular but different theories regarding the Millennium in Revelation 20 (see “The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views,” by Robert G. Clouse, George Eldon Ladd, Anthony A. Hoekema and Herman A. Lloyt, 1977).

Here is a common way to categorize the various popular methods of interpreting prophetic Scripture, particularly the book of Revelation:

Simple Futurism: Part of the book of Revelation appears to be symbolic of the whole of church history and the rest of it is about a fairly short period of time that includes great tribulation, the Armageddon war, the Second Coming and the millennial reign of Christ, followed by the creation of a New Heaven and New Earth. God is not finished with Israel but most of the prophecies concerning her have been fulfilled, either in history or through the Church.

Extreme Futurism: Many of the prophecies regarding Israel are still unfulfilled. Only the first three chapters of Revelation relate to historical events and these letters to the churches also represent future types of churches. After these early chapters, the book of Revelation jumps forward nearly 2000 years (at least to 1948), and all the rest of the book is about our future. Many dispensationalists and other literalists fall into this category.

Continuism (semi-preterism): The book of Revelation is regarded as a symbolic panoramic vision that depicts the whole sweep of Church history. Most prophecy has already been fulfilled (especially those regarding Israel) and not very much prophetic material truly depicts our future except the Second Coming, the resurrection, and final judgment. Continuists tend to be “amillennialists.”

Radical Preterism:These people believe that virtually all of the events predicted in Bible prophecies have already occurred. This is based on the phrase in Matthew 24 that "this generation" would see it all happen. Most of the apocalyptic prophecies were fulfilled in New Testament times, mainly with the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70) and eruption of Vesuvius (AD 79). Like Continuists, they view the Millennium as being the present Church age (1000 years being symbolic, not literal). Radical Preterism ignores or allegorizes the Second Coming scriptures.

According to my understanding of early church history, there has never been much agreement regarding interpretation of apocalyptic or prophetic passages. And during his career, Augustine changed his mind from one extreme to the other. There is certainly no agreement today. Even Jesus’ own prophetic words about the future are cryptic enough to be interpreted in very different ways.

We saw the early church come together in the fourth century on Christology (hence the Nicene Creed). But about all they could agree on about the future was that Jesus Christ is going to return and human beings will be resurrected. And some theologians have even ‘spiritualized’ the Second Advent as meaning “Jesus in us” or the Holy Spirit, and thus according to them, He has already returned.

Since Christians (even those with widely differing views) each have the Holy Spirit within, what is going on here? The Spirit who is supposed to “guide us into all truth” (John 16:13) is allowing us to disagree to the extreme. Maybe the Holy Spirit is even fostering it. What would be God’s purpose in doing so?

I have a logical, rather common sense theory to explain this reality of divergence. Simply put, God is not ready for us to know what these passages mean. Thus, we will NOT truly understand them until He is ready. We are being kept in the dark regarding the future for some very good reasons. Yet He obviously wanted us to have some strong hints to keep us interested, hence we have Matthew 24, Mark 13, and the book of Revelation (not to mention Daniel, Zechariah, and all the OT prophecies referring to the descendants of Jacob). Especially the book of Revelation, which was probably not even available to the early church before 70 AD, these writings exist for important purposes, purposes that surely include preparing, guiding, and encouraging Christians throughout time, all the way to the final resurrection and judgment.

Scrolls and Seals

The interpretive difficulties of these passages that cause our intense divisions may be explained through the Revelation imagery of scrolls and seals. The Lord will not open the seals (with their secrets of how to interpret these prophetic passages) until the time is right for us to understand. Our knowing too soon might not only confuse us but may interfere with what must happen. Perhaps acting on our knowledge might actually cause some events that would go against God’s will.

When the time is right, God will reveal His truths about such things, and the truths will be so evident to everyone that there will be minimal debate and disagreement. But so as long as there are intense disagreements among mature and knowledgeable believers, then obviously there are seals remaining to be opened. We are not supposed to know yet and should just take the advice of Proverbs 3:5-6, leaning not so much on our own understanding but simply trusting God to lead when the time is right.

Because I currently believe this hypothesis, I don’t take my own eschatological views and disagreements with others too seriously. I too have my own favorite interpretations regarding these passages that I can back up with other scriptures, with my favorite theological authorities, and with rational logic.

The Word and Spirit Foundations of Prophecy

"Let the prophet who has a dream tell his dream, but let the one who has my Word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?" declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 23:28)

“And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20-21, NIV)

Jesus said that He spoke directly from the Father (John 14:10-11, 24) and when He was not provided the answer by the Father to give us (like the day or the hour of His return) He told us so (Matt 24:36, 25:13). Paul echoed the point that we do not need to know such details (1 Thess. 5:1) but as Jesus taught in a number of parables, we are to be always ready for His return.

As for the rest of His teachings, since we can fully trust the plain sense of His words, we should never twist them into some kind of metaphor in order to diminish the obvious literal meaning— so that it can fit our favorite theology. Although He did speak publicly in parables (mostly to confuse the Pharisees as He explained in Matt 13:10-13), when He taught the disciples privately, He did so directly, rarely using parables. Here is my warning: if we have to turn so much of Jesus said into an abstraction or metaphor, then it is not His words we believe but our own thinking.

Gaining some distance so we can see not only the trees but also the entire forest, my favorite overarching perspective on prophecy is best described by John R.W. Stott: "The whole question of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy is a difficult one in which there is often misunderstanding and not a little disagreement. Of particular importance is the principle ...that the New Testament writers themselves understood Old Testament prophecy to have not a single but usually a triple fulfillment --- past, present and future. The past fulfillment was an immediate or historical fulfillment in the life of the nation of Israel. The present is an intermediate or gospel fulfillment in Christ and his Church. The future will be an ultimate or eschatological fulfillment in the new heaven and the new earth." I submit that there may also be an allegorical fulfillment, like much of the book of Revelation, which applies generally to the entire tapestry of biblical history or to certain truths that keep showing up in multiple generations

Protesting the Extremes
I can easily critique Extreme Futurists and dispensationalists regarding their hyper-literalism and tendency to want to pin down dates and see obscure prophecies being fulfilled in the near future. Since very few Anglican theologians and clergy can be found in their camp, I think it unnecessary to present a major protest of their views beyond what I have stated already. However biased their views, I do believe that the error of believing the Bible too literally is not nearly as dangerous as the error of disbelieving the Bible or revising it. So I will focus here on this latter extreme.

The Radical Preterists’ view of prophecy is that all prophecies have been fulfilled and there are none remaining about our own future. This makes absolutely no sense to me at all. They cannot explain why none of the Apostles or early saints who survived this period noticed that these prophecies had been fulfilled. And if these prophecies had clearly been fulfilled, why have we been arguing about it since the beginning of the Church? I would have to say that, at best, these would have to be only minimal, partial fulfillments.

When I read the scriptures, I find many unfulfilled prophecies, and some of them speak of ultimate events that cannot possibly have been accomplished to date. Just one (of many) bits of evidence confirming why the extreme preterists have it wrong is found in Matthew 24:21-22: “For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now— and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.”

These are ultimate words used here by Jesus in Matthew 24. He is talking globally not locally (‘great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again’). The Jews had suffered through a number of ‘great tribulations,’ all pretty horrible and at least as traumatic as what happened with the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD. They experienced the same kinds of destructions when the Assyrians and later the Babylonians destroyed Israel and the temple, and exiled those people that they did not kill. And many more terrible things have occurred in the world worse than that event (World Wars, the Holocaust, genocides). And events more terrible than the 70 AD destruction keep happening in the world today--- and to many more people than the small population of Jerusalem at that time. So with these extreme and ultimate words, Jesus cannot be referring to this past event. He must be talking about something still in our future, something that can only happen once (only one event can be “unequaled” throughout the world in both past and future).

Another point: Does it make sense that God would provide so many prophesies for Israel about their future but then reveal absolutely nothing to us about our future, nothing about the Church’s future following the early persecutions? That is absurd because nothing in the NT suggests that God, who was so expressive about the future in the OT, would suddenly become silent about it. In fact, Peter, Paul and John (not to mention Jude) prophesy about future difficulties coming to the Church.

Although triumphalists abstract them away, the prophecies concerning what will be happening in the world when Christ returns suggest that things will not be well at all on planet earth. "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8) Apparently there is some doubt, or why ask this question? I think the Lord will find some faith, because the Gospel will have been spread throughout the world, fulfilling the Great Commission. We are almost there now. But the faithful may be a minority.

Is Jesus Physically Coming Back To Earth?

Radical Preterists (not your more common Continuists) want to deny the clear NT words about His returning to earth in the same way He left it. Although we do indeed have the Holy Spirit with us, Jesus has not physically returned from His throne at the right hand of the Father in the heavenlies. And as He lives, He will return--- the historic creeds all agree with Acts 1: 7-11, Matt 24:25-31, Matt 25, Luke 19:12, Revelation 1:5-8. He will come both to receive His Bride (John 14:1-3, 1 Thes 4:15-18) and also to personally reign in His Kingdom on earth along with his saints (Rev 20:4,6, Isaiah 2:4, Zechariah 14:1-5), a kingdom which even now is in the process of being built.


Let me return to the essential point of the article. You have your own favorite perspective and interpretive principles on how to approach these passages and I have mine — and we cannot both be right. So I figure we are both at least somewhat wrong. We just don’t know yet exactly where we are wrong and where we are right. Humility is very much in order when comes to our opinions regarding eschatology and prophecy. We will continue to disagree until God makes the truth abundantly clear to the great consensus of believers. Although I do not want to call one’s views on eschatology and prophecy adiaphora (issues of indifference), it is true that eschatological doctrines are not included among the universally accepted doctrines of the Church. Except perhaps with regard to the Second Coming of Jesus and the resurrection of all human beings at the time of final judgment (both indicated in the Nicene Creed and Athanasius Creed), one’s personal take on prophecy and eschatology is not a salvation issue.

Since none of us are able to have a certain and totally reliable grip on the truth regarding these issues, let us endeavor to disagree agreeably and remember to give others the same freedom of opinion that we demand for ourselves.

Dr. Atkinson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a doctorate in clinical psychology and an M.A. in theology. He is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Atlanta and also works as a clinical supervisor training Christian counselors for Richmont Graduate University. He is a founding member of Trinity Anglican Church (ACNA) in Douglasville, Georgia

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