The Church and Apocalyptic Eschatology

LeAnn Snow Flesher, Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament

Having just completed another semester and having read and graded the final paper I am once again impressed by what the students teach me as I strive to respond to their questions and concerns.  It is no secret that seminary training challenges a person’s faith-filled understandings of the bible and of theology in general. This semester proved to be no different.  I had a wonderful first semester class this year, and in some way they are all wonderful, but each group is unique taking on very particular interests and asking a unique set of questions.  The fall 2011 Introduction to the Old Testament class was one of the most earnest group of students I have ever taught.  This class was made up of mature individuals from all walks of life with considerable ministerial experience.  They came with a fist full of questions and the willingness to probe the difficult and the complex.  I am indebted to them, and incredibly grateful, for their willingness to have authentic conversation in the classroom and in their writing.

I close each semester of my introductory course with a session and an assignment on apocalyptic literature.  This is a topic and theme that does not get nearly enough attention in the mainline progressive seminary.  As a consequence the dominant voice on the topic in our culture has been the self-declared “prophecy teachers,” not to be confused with the prophetic preachers of our day.  The former read the bible in an individualistic judgmental manner–preaching fire and brimstone to those and for those unlike themselves.  The latter, the prophetic preachers, speak truth to power, crying for justice and equity for everyone. 

This year, as I contemplated the class discussions and read through the papers on Daniel 9 I came to understand the fundamental message of the contemporary prophecy teachers with new clarity.  There are two distinct ideologies evidenced in the biblical apocalyptic literature with which contemporary prophecy teachers resonate.  The first is a pessimism about the current social order.  In Daniel 7-12, the apocalyptic portion of the book, the Jews are suffering under the severe persecution of the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV.  The book denotes a shift from living under friendly foreign rule (cps 1-6) to life under the persecution of Antiochus IV (chps 1-7).  In both sections the Jews are called to be faithful to the worship of YHWH, albeit with differing consequences.  In chapters 1-6 faithful worship and practice has positive results all around, even with the foreign king, but in chapters 7-12 faithful living results in martyrdom.  The result is a pessimistic view of the social order in chapters 7-12, with no hope for reform, and consequently, hope only that God will come supernaturally to bring judgment for the wicked and deliverance for the faithful worshippers of YHWH.

The contemporary prophecy teachers parallel these two major ideas: 1) there is no hope for the current social order to reform–and the only hope is that God will come to judge and deliver; 2) that God will only deliver those who are pure and holy and faithful–mainly themselves and their followers.  Thus, only those who live according to the regime outlined by the prophecy teachers can hope for deliverance.  This, of course, is a very dangerous perspective; and one that seriously thwarts openness to difference, cultural and otherwise.  It is also a tremendously controlling perspective that sustains a hierarchical authoritative exclusivistic structure.  To be clear, they believe wholeheartedly that they are the persecuted faithful that Jesus is coming again to rapture; and that they alone will be delivered and everyone else will experience an eschatological judgment.  End of discussion.

While each culture group probably has its own version of this theology, the resources used by students in my fall 2011 class, made up of African American and Korean immigrant students we’re written by white men associated with Dallas Theological Seminary.  I do not have space here to go into the differences between my class lectures and the writings of these men, but I have written a book on it.  However, what I do wish to emphasize is the influence these men have had on our society across culture groups, for two primary reasons.  First, there has not been enough attention given to apocalyptic eschatology outside of the writings of the contemporary prophecy teachers.  Consequently,  the only interpretation heard on this topic by the general population comes primarily from this source.  Secondly, prophecy teachers use numerous biblical passages–stringing them all together so as to create a brand new text that they then interpret.  This use of numerous biblical texts is very impressive to the untrained reader causing them to think these men really know their bible.  Finally, the prophecy teachers do accurately proclaim one of the essential messages of biblical apocalyptic, mainly that God is in control and at work, behind the scenes, preparing for the end when judgment and justice will come.  This word brings significant comfort to the general population, and is probably a major reason why their teachings are so popular.  But, of critical import is the manner in which this fundamental message is understood and applied to a contemporary world.

The main problem with the teachings of the contemporary prophecy teachers is twofold.  First, they do considerable violence to the biblical text, interpreting it as historically flat, and in every instance a prediction of Jesus coming again–totally ignoring the rich heritage and Profound truths to be found when biblical writings are interpreted within their own time and context.  Secondly, they do considerable violence to the Christian church and to our society, demonizing difference and diversity and focusing almost exclusively on individual salvation.  By focusing on individual salvation total attention can be given to recruiting people to pray the sinner’s prayer so that time and resources need not be given to ease social ills.  In fact, theologically they are not want to do so since the premise of their theology is on society becoming increasingly more evil until it reaches it’s height of wickedness at which time Jesus will come to deliver them and condemn the rest of us.  It is not their job to alleviate people’s suffering in the present “for their reward is in heaven.”

There is one final observation I would like to make before I close–and this is the profound reality that has hit me this semester.  Finally, the focus on individualism discourages the masses from organizing around a particular issue, such as racism, feminism, liberation, poverty, gay rights, etc.  Week after week the members of their congregations are told only to worry about praying the prayer and getting others to do the same.  No time or effort is put to alleviating current social ills.  They have already been told how they are to  act, the program has been carefully laid out and it does not include internal resistance of any kind.  People of color are welcome to join them as long as they follow the rules, the same for women, and gays, and the poor!  Is it any wonder the 1 percent have supported our current societal shift toward religious conservatism?

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