by Alf Cengia – The Omega Letter Commentary
Are you ashamed of dispensational Bible prophecy? Or are you one of those proud prophecy kooks who love Israel? I like to think I’m the latter. Unfortunately there’s pressure on Christians to keep their interest in Bible prophecy and Israel to themselves.
My introduction to prophecy occurred when I was around six years old in class at a Catholic School. It was during an afternoon of torrential rain unlike I’d ever seen before. One older girl remarked that this was the end of the world and that Jesus was coming soon.
The girl told us all our worries would be over. I remember how comforting it was. I also remember the disappointment when the rain abruptly stopped and Jesus didn’t come. Of course, this was an amillennial version of the Second Advent. You might say that my first exposure to prophecy was a failed amillennial prophetic prediction.
I came across premillennialism years later. My parents provided me with a Bible. When I finally read it I couldn’t easily reconcile some of the things I’d been taught. One of these was the relationship between Israel and the church.
Later, I learned that premillennialism was out of favor in circles where amillennialism is preferred. Historic premillennialism gets a pass because it doesn’t generally fuss about Israel or prophecy. It concedes that Israel eventually gets saved. However, this salvation doesn’t require future land privileges or millennial distinctions.
Dispensational premillennialism – with its alleged inordinate focus on Israel and other end-time events – is out of favor. Abner Chou summed the sentiment up in a lecture delivered to the 2016 Pre-Trib Conference:
Some have alleged that dispensational premillennialists do not focus upon the centrality and glory of Christ because they are too consumed with Israel. They contend that dispensational premillennialists are so infatuated with God’s plan for Israel and its restoration that this becomes a hermeneutical key that offsets God’s larger plan of redemption. (Emphasis mine)
This sentiment is sometimes subtly expressed. For example, one of my favorite reformed pastors wrote a Foreword to a commendable book about Jesus Christ. He included the following observation:
…consider what is being read by this generation. If the best sellers tell the story, we are preoccupied with imaginative descriptions of end-time phenomena while searching for ways to live up to our human potential. (Emphasis mine)
Regrettably it’s true that prophecy students can sometimes be sensationalistic. But the broad-brush lumping of prophecy with the prosperity teaching is unfortunate and inaccurate. Comments like these discourage Christians from expressing more than a passing interest in eschatology.
If we take the Bible seriously, we can’t ignore its vast prophetic content. And if we pay close attention to this content we cannot overlook the fact that it is Israel-centric. You can’t take Israel out of prophecy without manipulating the plain-sense meaning of many verses.
The subject of Israel in prophecy doesn’t sit comfortably with the modern church. You find this in many theological books and blog articles. Israel is either seen as an oppressor to a minority, a usurper of the church’s place in God’s plan, or a usurper of our attention on God.
Occasionally, Christians attempt a conciliatory position regarding Israel. They admit that it has sometimes been unfairly presented. But even when taking this position, Christians are steered away from Zionism and prophecy.
Such was the case in a (fairly typical) blog article a friend passed onto me. The writer advises that one can be a Christian without being a Zionist. One can support Israel without giving it a blank check. While true, these statements are loaded to (at some level) shame Christian Zionism and prophecy.
The friend who sent the article dubbed it “pseudo-pietistic neutrality.” I agree. Notably, opponents of Israel and Zionism don’t usually generate negative attention in reformed circles.
The blogger observed that Christian Zionism isn’t the “historical view of the church” – that it is championed by “Chuck Missler, American Republicans, and the Left Behind series” and is a “loud voice at a popular level in the church.” On the last point I disagree. He also wrote:
[Christian Zionism] is a view which requires God to have two plans, one for Israel and another for the rest of us. But many Christians would see that as limiting and lessening the scope of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Many Christians see the promises of God in the Old Testament as answered in Jesus…
Firstly, if the historical view of the church disagrees with Scripture, then we ought to discard the former. Secondly, God’s prophetic plan for Israel is enabled by the same New Covenant which saves Christians (Jer 31:1, 31; Matt 23:39).
It is the cross which enables Israel’s salvation, once they come to their Messiah. So the cross isn’t diminished at all. God’s choosing of Israel as an elect nation demonstrates the scope of His sovereignty and redemption plan.
This leads me to hermeneutics. The same site promotes Michael Gorman’s, “Reading Revelation Responsibly.” Gorman rejects the “Left Behind” (dispensational) view of Revelation. According to one review:
Historical situation and literary genre considerations (properly understood meanings of “apocalyptic”, theopoetic, and pastoral writings) are explored to demonstrate the shortcomings of dispensational and the various other improper readings of Revelation.
In case you were wondering about theopoetics (I had to look it up):
Theopoetics is an interdisciplinary field of study that combines elements of poetic analysis, process theology, narrative theology, and postmodern philosophy. ~ Wiki
Michael Gorman invokes familiar warnings about dispensational (Left Behind) prophecy and “date setting.” He mentions Harold Camping in his list of cautions. It should be noted that Camping is amillennial, just like my class mate earlier.
Gorman’s idea of “Lamb Power” is reminiscent of ELCA scholar Barbara Rossing’s re-interpretation of God’s wrath in Revelation. This notion presumes God as all-loving, but never wrathful. Therefore one must appeal to some deeper “pastoral” insight to understand the “real” meaning behind the Book of Revelation.
Theologians have developed various systems of hermeneutics and terms. Too often these are attempts at re-interpreting prophecy where it doesn’t comply with their theology.
Theological assumption may also over-ride plain-sense meanings verses. A classic example is the supersessionist reaction to Jesus’ reply to the disciples’ question on the timing of the restoration of Israel’s kingdom (Acts 1:6-7). Jesus tells the disciples that it is the Father’s authority to know this timing. Supersessionists claim that this is a rejection of Israel’s future kingdom.
If I ask someone when they’re going to give me the million dollars they’ve promised me – and there was no promise given – they’d hardly give me a cryptic response about timing. Anything different to this understanding renders a natural reading of the Bible out of reach of most people. So who is being irresponsible?
Prophetic texts and Revelation can be difficult in areas, but the overall themes aren’t. The Book of Revelation’s allusions are drawn from the prophets and the Olivet Discourse. If ordinary people weren’t meant to study and comprehend Bible prophecy, God wouldn’t have provided the information.
We shouldn’t be ashamed or embarrassed about our interest in prophecy. It reveals God’s plan. We honor God when we give all Scripture our attention.
I’ll let Abner Chou have the last word:
Because dispensationalists insist on a cohesive plan consistent with and compounding from the OT, they insist on understanding that the Messiah is a critical part of the OT. He is prophesied and promised in the OT and drives the entire storyline for both Israel and the church. In this way, dispensationalists are Christ centered people, for we truly believe that Christ is critical for fulfilling the entire plan of God, a plan encompassed by and articulated in the entire Scripture. That magnifies the glory of the Messiah. So the charge of not being “Christ centered” is bogus. We champion Christ.