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10/20/17

Beginning of the End?

credit: Chuck Sigler

According to David Meade, September 23, 2017 was a momentous day—the day that the prophecies written in chapter 12 of the book of Revelation will be evident. He said the world itself was not ending then, but the world as we know it will end. There was to be a series of catastrophic events over the course of weeks afterwards. “A major part of the world will not be the same the beginning of October.” … Still waiting … Anything happening yet?

As The Washington Post noted, the pregnant woman described in the twelfth chapter of Revelation was to appear in the sky on September 23rd. On her head will be a crown of twelve stars. She’ll be clothed with the sun; the moon will be under her feet. The woman represents the constellation Virgo, which will be “clothed in sunlight” and positioned over the moon and under nine stars and three planets. The planet Jupiter will emerge from Virgo, “as though she is giving birth.”

But then Meade revised his prediction, saying that while there were major signs in the skies on September 23rd, but the most important date of the millennium was October 15th, 2017—which would be the beginning of the world’s destruction, the beginning of a seven-year period of tribulation. On his website, Meade wrote: “Hold on and watch — wait until the middle of October and I don’t believe you’ll be disappointed.” You could buy and read his book, but he warned, “You don’t have long to read it.”

Before Meade there was Harold Camping, who predicted the end of the world twice. The first time was supposed to happen between September 15th and 27th, 1994. The second prediction by Camping said it was supposed to happen in 2011. On May 21, 2011, at 6 pm local time, the Rapture and Judgment Day was to take place. Then on October 21, 2011 would be the end of the world. He would later write that while his statements were incorrect and sinful, they allowed God to get the attention of a great many people who otherwise would not have paid attention. “Even as God used sinful Balaam to accomplish His purposes, so He used our sin to accomplish His purpose of making the whole world acquainted with the Bible.”

Meade and Camping are examples of a repeated mistake made by Christians when they fail to read and interpret the visionary texts of the Bible correctly. They often confuse or misinterpret two related visionary genres, prophecy and apocalypse. In How to Read the Bible as Literature, Leland Ryken described visionary literature as picturing setting, characters and events in an imaginary context as opposed to ordinary, empirical reality. This, however, does not mean that the visionary literature of the Bible is pure fantasy.

Visionary literature pictures settings, characters, and events that differ from ordinary reality. This is not to say that the things described in visionary literature did not happen in past history or will not happen in future history. But it does mean that the things as pictured by the writer exist in the imagination, not in empirical reality.

Neither prophecy nor apocalypse is entirely visionary; nor are they necessarily futuristic in their orientation. But they will transform the known world or the present state of things into an imagined reality. “In one way or another, visionary literature takes us to a strange world where ordinary rules of reality no longer prevail.” Ryken said the simplest form of this kind of transformation is to give a futuristic picture of the changed fortunes of a person or group or nation. The motifs of transformation and reversal in visionary literature mean that when interpreting it, the reader needs to be “ready for the reversal of ordinary reality.”

There are several elements or themes within Biblical visionary literature that form its otherness that must be cautiously read and interpreted. There is the portrayal of a transcendental or supernatural world, usually of heaven. This transcendence primarily takes the reader beyond the visible, spatial world and not forward in time. The scope of Biblical visionary literature is cosmic rather than localized. There are supernatural, fantastic agents and creatures. Inanimate objects and forces of nature become actors in the visionary drama.

In the strange and frequently surrealistic world of visionary literature, virtually any aspect of creation can become a participant in the ongoing drama of God’s judgments and redemption. It is a world where a river can overflow a nation (Isaiah 8:5-8), where a branch can build a temple (Zechariah 6:12) and a ram ‘s horn can grow to the sky and knock stars to the ground (Daniel 8:9-10).

The strangeness of such writing leads to a related rule for reading it: visionary literature is a form of fantasy literature in which readers use their imaginations to picture unfamiliar scenes and agents. And the reader must remember that the vision is an imagined reality—different than ordinary, empirical reality. “The best introduction to such visionary literature in the bible is other fantasy literature, such as the Narnia stories of C. S. Lewis.”

The purpose of visionary literature is to break through our normal way of thinking and shock us into seeing that things are not as they appear. The world may not continue on as it is now; there is something wrong with the status quo; or reality cannot be confined to what we can see with our senses. This element of the unexpected extends even into the structure of visionary literature. It has brief, shifting units. There is a range of diverse literary material in the Biblical visionary texts. There can be visual descriptions, dialogues, monologues, brief narrative segments, letters, prayers, hymns, or parables. Visionary elements may be mixed with realistic scenes and events. “Instead of looking for the smooth flow of narrative, be prepared for a disjointed series of diverse, self-contained units.”

There is more that could be said, but this gives us a sense of what constitutes visionary literature in the Bible. Now back to Meade and his prophesied end of the world. He is taking an explicitly apocalyptic text, Revelation 12, and treating it as if it were a prophetic text.  There are specific features of apocalypse that distinguishes it from its literary cousin, prophecy. The Biblical scholar Leon Morris summarized the features found in apocalyptic literature as follows:

  • The vision or revelation is of the secret things of God, inaccessible to normal human knowledge. There are secrets of nature, of heaven, of history of the end.
  • Pseudonymy
  • History is rewritten as prophecy
  • There is a determinism in history ending in cosmic cataclysm, which will establish God’s rule.
  • Dualism (good and evil).
  • Pessimism about God’s saving rule in the present.
  • Bizarre and wild symbols denote historical movements or events.

Apocalyptic is a rather loose category, meaning that texts designated as such won’t always share all the same features. Revelation, for example is not pseudonymous. And the book of Revelation often modifies the apocalyptic features it does have. The golden age for apocalyptic literature was roughly between 200 BC and 400 AD. It is primarily found in Jewish and early Christian texts. Some examples include: Assumption of Moses, 1-2-3 Enoch, 2-3 Baruch, 4 Ezra, Apocalypse of Peter, Apocalypse of Paul, Apocalypse of Thomas, and Ascension of Isaiah. Within the Bible, the following show some features of apocalyptic literature: Numbers 23-24 (Balaam’s oracles), Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah 24-27, 1 Thessalonians 4-5, 2 Thessalonians 1-2, the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21), Revelation. Some scholars would also add parts of Zechariah. With these particular in mind, here is how another Biblical scholar, J. J. Collins, defined apocalypse:

A genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.

Now let’s turn to the text of Revelation 12 used by Meade in his prediction that October 15th, 2017 would initiate a seven-year period of tribulation, resulting in the destruction of the world. Here is a four-minute YouTube video by Unsealed that illustrates how Meade and other Christians believe September 23rd represents a spiritual sign of the ending of the “Church Age.” On his website, Meade said: “We’re all watching for the September 23 Sign because we know it means the end of the ‘Church Age.’  That is a spiritual sign only.  But it is huge.” Now compare the video to the following verses in Revelation 12 that it interprets.

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne. (Revelation 12:1-5)

This passage in chapter 12 of Revelation is one visionary unit in a series of visions give to John by an angel (Revelation 1:1). After the letters to the seven churches, which represent the Church universal, John looked up and saw a door open in heaven (Revelation 4:1). Then came a series of visions including the throne room in heaven. The scroll and the Lamb, the seven seals, the 144,000 of Israel, the seven trumpets, the angel and the little scroll, the two witnesses, and more. At the sound of the seventh trumpet, the twenty-four elders worshiped God. Then God’s temple in heaven opened to reveal “the ark of his covenant.”

The context of Revelation has many of the characteristics of apocalyptic literature. There is a vision framed within a narrative. It’s mediated by an angel to John, and discloses a series of scenes of what is happening in heaven. Chapter 12 describes the conflict between good and evil; the pregnant woman and the dragon. There was the symbolic representation of the encounter of the woman and the dragon; and what happened afterwards.

Revelation 12:1-5 is a condensed retelling of the story of the gospel using apocalyptic. There will be enmity between the seed of the woman and the serpent. In pain she will bring forth children (Genesis 3:15-16). Jesus is that seed, and the verse in Genesis 3 has been traditionally identified as the protoevangelium—the first gospel. Satan intended to “devour” him, but failed. Jesus was caught up—by God—to his throne at his ascension (Acts 1:9-11). A final clue that the passage is not a prophetic foretelling of a future time to John, namely the September 23, 2017 initiation of the end of the church age, is the parallel here to the Greek myth about the birth of Apollo. Gordon Fee, in his commentary on Revelation related the following.

It is important for the modern reader to know that the whole scene is a common one in ancient mythology as well; thus the first readers of this book, mostly Gentile converts in the province of Asia, could hardly have missed here an echo of the well-known myth from their own history. In that myth about the birth of Apollo to Leto, wife of Zeus, the dragon Python hoped to slay the child (Apollo) but he was protected by Poseidon. When grown Apollo then slew the dragon. But whatever the coincidences that may exist between that myth and the essential Christian story, John’s imagery has effected its total transformation into the basic (historical) story of Christ, who through his cross and resurrection thus defeated the dragon. At the same time, the astute biblical reader will see something of a replay, but in a radically new way, of the scene in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3; but now the woman withstands the snake, and her child is rescued by God, who also protects the woman in “the wilderness.”

The interpretation of Biblical apocalyptic literature is fraught the dangers of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, as Harold Camping discovered and hopefully David Meade will himself acknowledge. In his own apocalyptic narrative in the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24, Jesus said: no one knows the time of his return and the end of the age; not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only (Matthew 24:36). Not even David Meade knows.