Despite writing 85 books over his long career, when Tim LaHaye died on July 25, most media reports focused on his popular fictional series, Left Behind. The series sold more than 62 million books and was on the New York Times best seller list for over 300 weeks. Not only did LaHaye’s books sell well, they created a whole sub-industry of Christian fiction detailing events which may occur after the Rapture. Left Behind also spawned study guides, children’s versions and dozens of books condemning the whole thing as dangerous heresy. While I know of no one who has sold their belongings and headed to the hills because of the Left Behind series, it has generated a great deal of heated discussion within Evangelical circles. Although the books used a basic dispensational understanding of Revelation as an outline for a post-apocalyptic adventure story, these novels were not intended to be predictions of the end of the world, nor were they intended to be a substitute for serious Bible study.
Even though the popularity of the Left Behind series has waned, predictions of the end of the world based on misunderstanding of the book of Revelation continue. According to a You Tube channel with over five million views, the world was supposed to have ended on July 29, 2016. The “end of the world as we know it” was supposed to begin with a “polar flip” which will pull the atmosphere to the surface of the earth, causing a rolling cloud to cover the planet, followed by a megaquake (whatever that is). This follows Harold Camping’s famous prediction that the Rapture would happen on May 21, 2011 (later updated to October 21 ). Looking to the future, Pakistani spiritual leader Riaz Ahmed Gohar Shahi has predicted the earth will be destroyed by a meteor in 2026, and Sunni theologian Said NursT predicts the world will end in 2129.
These sorts of predictions are not new, in fact, the history of the Church may be told by the failed predictions of the nearness of the end. In 1898, W. E. Blackstone wrote, “We see apostasy moving forward with such rapid strides that we again conclude the end is near.” In the late twelfth century Joachim of Fiore wrote, “The Antichrist is already born in Rome …. The Antichrist’s persecutions will begin in a mere four years.” These examples can be multiplied by the hundreds. In fact, in nearly every generation of the Church has some group believed these are the final years, that the tribulation period was about to begin, that Antichrist was already born someplace.
Because of the unusual nature of the book of Revelation, we need to spend a little more time discussing our assumptions about how we read prophecy and how we can read a book like Revelation “literally.” Some think the images and symbols invite a “spiritual” reading of the text, others look for hidden meanings hidden in some mysterious code. What is the “literal reality” behind the images? How do we go about discovering the meaning of John’s unusual language?
First, I suggest the best way to study Revelation is in the light of what the book says about itself. The first verse indicates the book is about “the things that must soon take place.” Jesus commands John to “write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this” (1 :19). Revelation therefore speaks not only about the future, but there is an application to the Christians living in the present age.
Second, because the book claims to be prophecy, we need to understand how biblical prophecy works. Not surprisingly, popular American media has some ideas about prophecy which are not at all based on the Bible. For example, many people think prophets spoke in bizarre, obscure language which must be interpreted by some spiritual guru. Although it often uses colorful metaphors, biblical prophecy is almost always clear and applicable to the time it was written even if it is describing events of the coming messianic age.
Third, we need to read Revelation in the light of relevant Old Testament backgrounds. Revelation uses images from the book of Daniel but also Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The book of Revelation completes the story of the Old Testament by describing how God finally redeems creation and restores his creation that was ruined by sin. The better we understand how John is using these prophetic texts, the better we will understand the book of Revelation.
These are some of the issues I will discuss in the Gathering Grounds Sunday School class this fall. I want to help people to read the book of Revelation properly, looking to the future while understanding the application of this important book to our world today.
~ Pastor Phil