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The Dangers of Premillennialism
In Defense of the Faith
Friday, March 04, 2016
Alf Cengia

The dangers of premillennialism and taking the Bible too literally...

While browsing through a local second-hand book store recently, I came across yet another book attacking dispensationalism. It warned about the subtle dangers associated with premillennialism. Since I'm a sucker for punishment, I bought it. This one is called Left Behind or Left Befuddled, written by Gordon L. Isaac.

I like to understand what the opposition says, and how it thinks. I call it the sort of "research" which keeps me honest and on my toes. But I'm beginning to think that I enjoy feeding my Inner Curmudgeon. Maybe I just like being Grumpy.

Just about all these polemical books operate along the same themes. It's as if these critics attended the same "How to Attack Premillennial Dispensationalism" seminary course. Whenever I see the words "Left Behind" sprinkled throughout a book, I know where the bulk of the focus will be and the pattern of attack.

These critics refer to John Darby and the assumed 19th century origin of dispensationalism. Next stop is Scofield and onwards to Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye. Along the way it is normal practice to mention the alleged personal faults of these people as a way to disparage premillennialism, dispensationalism and the rapture.

Note that the rapture criticism found in these sorts of book is a red herring. The real objections lie in:

1) The dispensational belief in a prominent future for national Israel in a future millennium

2) Supporting modern Israel

These efforts rarely engage dispensationalism at a high level. They predictably attack the dispensational "literal" interpretation. This is because the theology of the writers often demands the spiritualization of texts which address eschatology and ecclesiology.

Isaac cites Vern Poythress' book Understanding Dispensationalists regarding hermeneutics:

'They [dispensationalists] will tend not to read it [the Bible] in its historical context but in the context of the twentieth century, their own subcultural context. The Bible is thus regarded as a book written directly to modern people, not mainly to the original readers. Who, then, are the modern people whom the Bible addresses?...To lay dispensationalists "plain" meaning is meaning that they automatically see in a text when they read it against the background of the teaching and examples that they have seen and heard from fellow Christians, most of whom are themselves dispensationalists.' (Emphasis mine)

Poythress has been directly responded to by (among others) Dr. Robert L. Saucy and indirectly by Dr. Thomas Ice. In turn we ask: how was Jeremiah 31:31-37; Ezekiel 36:35-36 and Amos 9:14-15 etc understood historically by Israel; and how should we understand them now?

The promises outlined in these passages reach into modern times and extend far beyond. Yet supersessionists trot out NT verses which they insist reinterpret them; which is the very thing they claim dispensationalists do. They read these verses in light of their modern understanding of the NT, because they were taught to do it that way.

However, the redefining goes beyond reinterpreting the OT via the NT. Non-dispensationalists also reinterpret the NT based on supersessionist theology and cultural preferences. Like Barbara Rossing (The rapture Exposed) Isaac employs the usual bag of genre-apocalyptic excuses to argue for a non-dispensational view of the book of Revelation.

We're told that Revelation isn't a "repository of coded information about the events of the end time." Isaac accuses Darby, LaHaye and Jenkins of transposing, domesticating and distorting "John's apocalypse" from its "native vision and art" into a 19th century schema.

Funny, I always read it as "The Revelation of Jesus Christ." Apocalypse means revelation, after all. Though I wonder why Jesus even bothered revealing it to John when we can (supposedly) never take a face-value approach to it.

Similarly, Barbara Rossing warned of the danger of the Left behind theology's distortion of Revelation. In her schema, Christ is a gentle Lambkin rather than a Messiah returning in wrath. In a typical example of cultural redefinition, Rossing writes that the "beasts" of the "Roman Empire" are long gone but they've been replaced by today's beasts of violence, economic vulnerability, global injustice and irrational fear. Yep, that's four beasts. She's done her job well.

Rossing feels so strongly about this she wrote a book on Revelation. You can bet your last dollar that it isn't a verse by verse exegetical commentary. For a book that isn't supposed to have violent content, there certainly is a lot of it to sanitize away. Go ahead and read it for yourself. Kevin Zuber has responded to Rossing.

If you're in the business of sanitizing violent Revelation verses, you might also want to redefine Noah's flood, Sodom and Gomorrah and a bunch of other inconvenient non-apocalyptic passages. But I guess this is why Rossing's ELCA colleagues take a scornful view of Old Testament history.

The results of rethinking plain texts (contra-dispensationalism) sometimes border on the bizarre. In Revelation 20:4 non-premils spiritualize the resurrection of the beheaded saints and call it "regeneration." This is because they can't have a resurrection there and another one 1000 years later. So you then have a situation where dead saints are saved after their deaths. Does that make doctrinal sense?

But what about the so-called dangers of Left Behind theology (aka dispensational premillennialism)?

There's a laundry list of cautions handed out to Left Behind readers. For example dispensational end time views are racist towards Jews and Palestinians because of the carnage leading up to Armageddon. Dispensationalism is dangerous because of its view of an end time Jewish Temple will offend Muslims and incite more violence etc. It is dangerous because of its uncritical support of Israel and its interference in Mid-East politics (a favorite) and its escapist theology (another favorite).

Many of these polemical writers (Isaac & Rossing included) are fond of citing critic Timothy Weber who has sometimes resorted to anecdotal jibes. Dr. Mike Stallard has responded to Weber and the notion that dispensationalism hurts American politics in the Middle East.

For the record, Islamist extremism has never needed pro-Zionist lobbying or temples as excuses for violence. Just look at pre 19th century history. The genocide of Christians in the Middle East has nothing to do with Zionism, dispensationalism, Left Behind politics or Israel. Moreover, anti-Israel Christian activists have come under criticism for ignoring Middle Eastern Christian suffering under Islam.

One highly prominent anti-Zionist - who wrote a book suggesting Christian Zionists are marching towards Armageddon - has done his best to inflame the situation. He and his cohorts have consistently given Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and the PA impetus by demonizing Israel via conferences and various mediums. In the end he was banned form all media by his church for publicly entertaining the notion that Israel was behind the 9/11 attacks.

Finally, I find it ironic that non-dispensationalists find various offenses in the "Left Behind" beliefs of a premillennial Jewish Temple, the Armageddon conflagration and Jesus Christ returning in judgment and wrath, when Scripture plainly teaches these things.

Dispensational premillennialists try to understand the sense and meaning of Revelation and its hundreds of Old Testament (and NT) allusions. Jesus Christ gave us the Olivet Discourse and Revelation for a good reason. Paul wrote Thessalonians for a good reason. Daniel, Isaiah Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Hosea etc harmonize with the NT and The book of Revelation.

All these were given as warnings to the world. Shouldn't we be paying attention?

Yet you have a broad group which ignores God's prophetic warnings and imposes its Gnostic cultural feelings onto these texts. Or it tries to weave Revelation and prophecy into its own theological assumptions.

Which is ultimately the more dangerous?

But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man. Luke 21:34-36

About Alf Cengia

Last week: The Church's One State Solution



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