As a child I accepted the detailed dispensational scenarios of what was to happen in the near future. As I neared adulthood I began to question some of what I was taught but avoided end-time prophecy because it was too murky, even though I studied other areas of theology.
It was not until I completed Bible college that I determined to address the thorny issues of end-time prophecy and began an intensive study of them. Among my last steps was a class on the Book of Revelation in seminary.
I learned a lot and ultimately rejected dispensationalism as a theory without adequate foundation.
Revelation as Apocalyptic
One significant discovery was that primary documents used to support dispensationalism, such as Daniel, Revelation, and Matthew chapter 24, were examples of Jewish apocalyptic literature rather than God’s revelation of things to come.
Apocalyptic literature was written primarily to encourage Jews (and Christians) in times of great stress when it seemed that outside forces would cripple, or even destroy, the community. Those outside forces were first the Greek empire and later the Roman empire; the destruction of the Jewish temple by Rome a few decades after the death of Jesus was an enormous crisis.
The book of Revelation is an example of apocalyptic literature addressed to Christians under attack.
Daniel and Revelation
Dispensationalists see great significance in the correspondence of imagery between Daniel and Revelation, and by comparing them together they lay a foundation for a time-line of future events. Dispensationalists believe the common imagery demonstrates a consistent message delivered by God.
What they don’t consider is that borrowing imagery and themes from a great variety of sources, including other apocalyptic works, was a characteristic of apocalyptic literature. So it is no surprise that Revelation draws on the earlier apocalyptic book of Daniel.
I intended to write a post on Daniel and Revelation at this point in the series, but the subject is too complex to address here, so I will defer it to a later series on dispensationalism.
However, I contend that neither Daniel nor Revelation gives us a peek into the future.
Problems of Misunderstanding Revelation
If we don’t realize Revelation is symbolic apocalyptic genre, we often misread the text as factual information. This results in seriously mistaken beliefs.
Angry, Violent God
Apocalyptic is filled with grand symbolism, cosmic tumult, and the clashing of good and evil. Those who take this literature as insight into God’s nature come away with an angry, violent God who pours out his vengeful wrath on those who displease him. This is not simply a distortion but a complete contrast to the Father Jesus describes as one who loves everyone and desires reconciliation and peace.
God seems more terrible and frightening when this mistaken view of Revelation is connected with some Old Testament writers who portray God as angry, violent, and vindictive.
But the loving Father Jesus tells us about is not altered by this symbolic book which wasn’t meant to deliver factual information but was simply a message that the church will survive and evil in the world will not ultimately prevail.
Satan and Eternal Punishment in Fire
Symbolic characters in the book of Revelation include, among others, four horsemen, the beast from the sea with seven heads and ten horns, a great harlot, angels—and Satan.
Revelation chapter 20 says:
He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.
The devil…was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened…The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.
Fixation on End Times Speculation
I consider dispensationalism to be one of the seven major religious baggage issues. Understanding the book of Revelation as end-time prophecy distracts many believers from living a balanced Christian life today by focusing on the antichrist, mark of the beast, rapture, and eternal state tomorrow.
Sometimes end-times fervor becomes the overriding concern of their lives.
Benefits of Revelation
The book of Revelation does provide benefits:
Encouragement to the original hearers in crisis; Revelation was not written to us but to them.
Encouragement to others in similar situations, but even here the impact is limited because our cultures don’t fully comprehend the apocalyptic genre.
An interesting glimpse into the history of the early church.
Revelation should not be understood as God sharing details of what is to happen in the future, and its symbolism does not offer insights upon which to develop doctrine or speculate on end-times events.
With the completion of this discussion of biblical genre, we will next look at the role of figures of speech in understanding biblical context.
I invite your comments and observations below.
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Have a great day! ~Tim