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This is a 5-part series we will post this entire week at about this time. It will unpack a “partial preterist” view of Jesus’ eschatology. Oddly enough, I was interviewed last week by CBS TV in Chicago about 2012. Evidently, some folks are getting riled up about the imminent return of Christ. (I think the interview will be at 10am Wed or Thurs.) Here goes …
Because my life’s story finds itself wrapped around the various
poles of Christian thinking about eschatology, I have in the following
eschatology. In short, along with many other theologians, my thinking
has moved through several “either/ors”: either pre-tribulation or
post-tribulation rapture and either literal or metaphorical
interpretation of eschatological language. By a strange twist of fate,
my own thinking moved to the metaphorical hermeneutic while many
popular evangelical preachers were packaging once again the older
notion of the pre-tribulation rapture. To adjudicate between the
literal and the metaphorical, one needs to examine prophetic language
honestly and fairly; furthermore, as will be shown below, one needs a
firm grasp of what Jesus was speaking of when he gave the address now
recorded in Mark 13 (and Matthew 24 and Luke 21). I have not footnoted
the paper but have left it in its original public lecture format.
Kris, my wife, is a psychologist and her research for her dissertation was on the process of individuation, or growing into adulthood, for kids who were raised in Fundamentalism. It gave her a solid foundation for understanding, among many other things, me – for I was reared among the Fundamentalists. But I was raised at a time that had lots in its favor, like the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and Grease – when it wasn’t Olivia Newton-John and John Trovolta but real kids with tattoos and cigarettes rolled up in their T-shirt sleeve and sporting a pompadour. That environment also gave me a vision of the world to understand disasters like rock music with a theory that the world was going to pot – in two ways, one not metaphorical. I was a bit of a Tom Sawyer so school was a bore; the only that interested me was competition and that occurred at recess. Teachers made us memorize, they weren’t interested in self-esteem, and the politically correct group was still in kindergarten – whining already. My teachers thought I was a rough without the diamond.
But the best thing we Fundamentalists had going for us was the Rapture, and it was coming before the Great Tribulation and it might occur at any minute, and I was ready but most other people weren’t, especially those who attended rock music dances on Friday nights and learned to dance without moving their feet. They were going to Hell, we were taught, and a Fundamentalist’s Hell is all-bad; Heaven is all happiness without fun or pleasure and with lots of prayer meetings and rules that were obeyed without questions being asked. To be ready you had to be one of us, a Fundamentalist, and not one of them, Liberals and Modernists. Back then, the world was a very simple place, filled with people like Donna Reed and Beaver Cleaver and Andy of Mayberry. We had the Bible and we had, right next to it on our bedstands Salem Kirban’s Guide to Survival and Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth. A veritable literary holy trinity. These people taught us a belief that all things prophetic were literal and they did so, to use John Updike’s language, with ‘a spinsterish consistency.’ And they knew the future with rococo detail.
Then I went off to college and read George Ladd’s The Blessed Hope and Bob Gundry’s The Church and the Tribulation, and my heart leapt the gap and landed in their pockets. This meant my teachers were wrong, and that meant also my pastor and my parents. The world was not quite as simple anymore: boys were lengthening their hair and girls were wearing slacks to church and young kids wanted to bring their guitars to church and pastors weren’t sure how to deal with these changes. But, things in the world were still getting worse and it wouldn’t be too long before the Anti-Christ, someone like Gorbachev or Kissinger or the Pope (we were very anti-Catholic), would take over and we’d be raptured – but it would be more challenging this time, because the rapture wouldn’t be until the end of the tribulation. The tribulation didn’t come and neither did the rapture – the verdict on who was right still wasn’t in – so I went to Seminary just in case more history would occur.
When I was in Seminary I saw a trend that only now is bringing forth what I never suspected then: nearly all my Seminary teachers were post-tribbers and most of my student peers were as well, but people in the churches were not catching our wave. I knew that my peers would soon populate pulpits and over the next twenty years the whole situation would change. Seminary is, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, “a lot of young men shut up together, all thinking about their souls [and eschatology].” He then asks, “Isn’t it awful?” (Letters, 132). We shut-up eschatology-thinking seminarians thought pre-tribbers would disappear like the American Condor – but alas they (both the pre-tribbers and the birds) are making a comeback. I should say something about George Foreman but won’t.
Let me explain what I am saying: at the fundamental level, the entire world of academic Evangelicalism shifted in the late ’60s and ’70s from pre-tribbing to post-tribbing. Some, like the Amillenialists weren’t tribbing much at all, but most of us were post-tribbing. But this change was in the Academy, not in the scores who attended evangelical and Fundamentalist churches. Seminaries and those educated there are called to lead the Church and so I knew that time would eventually calm down the fears of the churches and lead them to see the light on this issue. What happened, however, continues to boggle: when my peers got into pulpits, they lacked nerve and courage, and fell prey to preaching and teaching what the parishioner wanted rather than what they knew to be the truth. Instead of sticking up for their beliefs, they decided to teach general things (Jesus is coming again, the resurrection, the millennium) and avoid controversy (and the rapture was for many of them controversial), or they simply switched their minds to appease their congregations or keep their jobs. I know peers who have told me these very things; I shall not give you their names, though I’d like to.
It is this failure of nerve, I am suggesting, that leads to the modern-day craze of reading and believing the pre-trib views and fictional scenarios of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Some 40 million copies of these books have sold, showing us that America is a hot-house for eschatological speculations. These two authors must soon receive the Nobel Prize for Winning Literature. Each of the 40 million copies, descending like locusts on our airports (that’s an apocalyptic metaphor!), has the same theology and it is a theology rendered impotent, so I thought, by George Ladd and Bob Gundry. Alas, this is not the case. Their books didn’t brush a molecule off Hal Lindsay’s sleeve and they are riding the wave to popular beaches. Our moment of glory was as ephemeral as our suntans gained on their beaches. They put us (post-tribbers) to bed just when the party was about to begin.
George Bernard Shaw once sent Churchill two tickets for the opening night of his new play, noting in the invitation: “Bring a friend – if you have one”; to which Churchill wrote back to say he was busy but would appreciate tickets for the second performance – “if there is one.” Well, I must confess we thought there would be no second performance for the pre-tribbers. Alas, guess who plays the part of the fool? This play has more performances than Blue Man Group. Now to quote Samuel Johnson: “I wish there were some cure, like the lover’s leap, for all heads of which some single idea has obtained an unreasonable and irregular possession” (Life, 328).
What was the case, however, was that the academics of Evangelicalism became increasingly distanced from the lay people of that movement, and this in part because of several factors: first, the “hush-hush” attitude academics had to utilize when in churches because the churches had not changed on eschatology; second, the growing awareness not only of the reasonability of the post-trib viewpoint, but the increasing awareness of Jewish apocalyptic literature which supported new approaches to the eschatological material in the entire Bible as well as the post-trib viewpoint; and third, the development of a flood of literature and scholarship on the historical Jesus that has led to a growing consensus (a slippery and advantageous term if ever there was one!) that the language of Jesus about the future, most especially that found in Mark 13/Matt 24/Luke 21, was to be understood in its Jewish context and not in light of how church people had been interpreting it for nearly a century. (a footnote: the dispensational mode of reading the Bible, its hermeneutic, is a trend that began at the end of the previous century and which took hold through Moody Bible Institute, the Scofield Bible, Dallas Theological Seminary, and famous evangelists and preachers, like Harry Ironside and Billy Graham. End of footnote.)