As promised, here is my follow up post on the apocalyptic imagination of second temple Judaism.
A common assumption found in Tim Lahaye’s Left Behind series is that the ultimate aim of apocalyptic texts like Revelation and Daniel is to provide a detailed, if coded, blueprint of future events. Prophecy has no other purpose than this. This becomes problematic when we start reading both prophetic and apocalyptic texts. The major and minor prophets in the Hebrew scriptures seem to have a different goal. The aim of these texts is not primarily in providing a detailed forecast of events, but to present a possible future based on Israel’s repentance or lack thereof. The goal of Biblical prophecy is to encourage the faithful and challenge the wicked to repentance.
If you are fans of the Left Behind series, you may interject here that this is indeed what Tim Lahaye is trying to accomplish. He is literally trying to “scare the hell out of you” with his horrifying portrayal of burning bodies. But here lies the second problem with Tim Lahaye’s telling of our future, and it once again goes back to a misunderstanding of the apocalyptic genre.
Apocalyptic texts are almost always written in times of acute suffering. The apocalyptic portions of Daniel were most likely written during the malevolent reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and Revelation during the persecutions under Domitan. This means that Revelation and Daniel must be read through the lens of suffering and oppression. What is the result? A reevaluation of what it means for God to return as judge.
Most American Christians today would characterize God’s judgment as bad and let’s face it, scary. The imagery that almost always accompanies God’s judgment is fire. It is commonly believed that God will once again destroy the world, but this time he will use fire instead of water. If this is the case, God seems to have found a pretty sick loophole in his promise to Noah. Early Christians would have had no theological category for this kind of destruction. The people in their day who thought the world would be destroyed by fire were the Gnostics and Stoics. God’s judgment was ultimately good news because it meant their God had returned to fully and finally eradicate evil.
Apocalyptic texts would then use highly symbolic language to communicate the truth that one day their God would put all things back together again. If you start with the assumption that creation is good but corrupted, then the solution is not to scrap the world but to redeem it. To view the world as evil is nothing more than a modernized version of Gnosticism. Therefore, the fire and plagues and judgment of God should be viewed in terms of purification not destruction. An oncologist pours a patient’s body with poison, not to destroy the body, but to eradicate the cancer that will ultimately kill it.
Finally, the last problem with the Left Behind series that I will mention here is in its wooden literalism. If we interpret Revelation literally, then during a three and a half year period (7 years is never mentioned in Revelation) God is arbitrarily pouring out fire, plagues and all other kinds of destruction on the world. Apocalyptic texts need to be interpreted within the larger framework of the Judeo-Christian worldview. Once we do this we notice that many of the plagues mentioned echo the plagues God brought on Egypt. The Exodus represents to both Jews and Christians God’s great rescue of his people and judgment against their oppressors. Revelation is trying to communicate similar themes, it is not predicting what will literally happen to arbitrary people “left behind.”
The Left Behind series is a shallow and dangerous misinterpretation of a beautiful, encouraging, and challenging book. It does not attempt to understand the worldview of scripture but instead imposes its own Western, anti-catholic, and anti-Semitic hermeneutic.