When Reformed Christians are asked which millennial view they hold, some of the more cynical among them will sometimes answer: “I’m a panmillennialist. I believe it will all pan out in the end.” Much of this cynicism is due to frustration over the seemingly never-ending debates about the last things. It may also be due in some cases to exasperation with the endless train of falsified predictions of the rapture and/or second coming of Christ. For centuries, misguided teachers have repeatedly promised or strongly suggested to their contemporaries that they are the generation that will finally witness the end. I mean, isn’t it as plain as day that Napoleon Bonaparte was the Antichrist and that his exile was a sign that the end of the world was imminent? Some Christians who lived in that generation thought so. Their generation was not the first to fall into the trap of date-setting, and it certainly wasn’t the last. For centuries, numerous Christians have compared the headlines of their day with the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation and have convinced themselves and others that those books point to specific people and events in their time. This led to the mistaken belief that the end of the world was imminent.
Claiming that we know the specific (or even approximate) date for the second coming of Christ is foolish, but it can also be profoundly dangerous when it is accompanied by statements such as “The Bible guarantees it!” That was the slogan that was plastered all over billboards and the sides of buses in connection with Harold Camping’s prediction of a May 21, 2011, judgment day. As we know, that day came and went, and of course, Camping simply bumped God’s day of final judgment back a few months to October 21. But that day came and went as well. So, what happens when you spend millions of dollars advertising that the Bible guarantees a 2011 day of judgment? You make a mockery of Scripture, bring reproach upon the name of Jesus Christ, and provide skeptics with more excuses not to believe the Bible. If you tell the world that the Bible “guarantees” something and it doesn’t happen, then the world concludes that the Bible is wrong and is obviously not the Word of God.
All such date-setting attempts are based on flawed hermeneutics, flawed principles of biblical interpretation. Many believers, if they read biblical prophecy at all, tend to fall into one of two traps. Some read it in a strictly literalistic manner as if it were a prose historical narrative, failing to note the poetic use of figurative language. Others read it as if it were similar to the writings of Nostradamus. They use all kinds of esoteric methods to find just the right key for unlocking the “secret code” to its meaning. More often than not, this second, somewhat gnostic approach involves a form of numerology. If we can get the numbers just right, we can calculate specific dates. We can tell you with absolute certainty that the last judgment will occur on May 21, 2011. The Bible guarantees it, right?
There is a problem with such hermeneutical approaches. Perhaps an illustration will help us understand that problem. If we read the newspaper as if it were poetry or read a poem as if it were a financial report, we will miss the point of a text entirely. We instinctively know that. We know that in order to interpret any text correctly, we must understand its genre. However, what many Christians do with the prophetic portions of Scripture, especially the book of Revelation, is akin to reading the instructions for an electric coffee maker as if they were the lyrics to a folk song. We cannot expect to understand these texts if we do not know what they are.
Old Testament prophetic books contain oracles of judgment and oracles of blessing. In the preexilic prophetic books (e.g., Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah), most of the oracles addressed to the northern kingdom and then the southern kingdom are oracles of judgment. These oracles warn Israel that she has broken the terms of the covenant and that unless she repents, the curses of the covenant recorded in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, including exile from the land, will come upon her. As the impending exile approaches, the warnings of coming judgment become more definitive, but we also find more and more oracles of blessing, which point to a time of restoration after the coming judgment. Zephaniah presents us with a good example of both types of oracles. Zephaniah 1:1–2:3 contains some of the most striking oracles of coming judgment found in the prophetic books. The language used to describe Judah’s impending destruction is cosmic in scope. Zephaniah 3:9–20, on the other hand, is one of the most beautiful oracles of salvation found in the prophetic books.
Significantly, as a genre, oracles tend to use poetic language rather than prose, and Hebrew poetry is well known for its extensive use of figurative language and striking imagery. When we turn to the book of Revelation, we observe that John describes his book as a prophecy (Rev. 1:3; 19:10; 22:7, 10, 18–19). We should interpret it with this understanding of its genre. I like to call those who finally realize that the book of Revelation uses figurative language “Aha! Millennialists.” While I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there is a serious point. When we begin to read Revelation in the way the original author intended it to be read, we can begin to understand its intended meaning. We no longer read with the book of Revelation in one hand and a newspaper in the other. The newspaper will not help us understand Revelation. Knowing the Old Testament and the rest of the New Testament will help us understand it.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on December 10, 2018.