Sunday, March 14, 2021

Escapism in a Time of Trouble

Christians are sometimes accused of escapism, primarily with respect to the doctrine of the “rapture” (or parousia) taught in the New Testament.

After all, why should a bunch of Gentile believers expect to get a free pass on the judgment of the world? Doesn’t that seem just a little unfair?

Not all those who dislike the idea of Jesus Christ making a special trip to this planet specifically to carry away his people to be forever with him object to the notion for exactly the same reasons. Some feel believing in a parousia is elitist. Others see it as baseless and wishful. Still others, like Kurt Willems, are troubled by the idea that Christians with a psychological safety net like the “rapture” will give up trying to make society a better place — or worse, will mislead others about what Willems believes are God’s plans for this world. He says, “Our world’s future is hopeful. Let’s tell that story and not the escapist narratives that many of us grew up with.”

Nice idea. Tough to see where he gets that “hopeful” bit from these days though.

Parousia-Free Eschatology

Still, Willems picks his way through 1 Thessalonians 4 trying to explain the words of the apostle Paul in some way (any way) that doesn’t involve a mass exodus of believers from the planet prior to the final judgment.

That’s one way to go about dismissing an interpretation you dislike, certainly, and maybe I’ll have a go at Willems’ parousia-free eschatology one of these days if there’s any interest in the subject from our readers.

But Willems has another problem if he gets rid of the rapture of the church, and that’s finding some credible reason to associate the church with the prophesied tribulation period (or the “great tribulation”, as the Lord referred to it in Matthew), the time during which the whole earth will experience the very unsubtle involvement of Satan in world affairs followed by the wrath of God and the return of Jesus Christ in judgment. You know, the Beast, 666 and so on. Even if we did not have the specific revelation about the coming of Christ for his people in 1 Thessalonians, the fact of the tribulation period itself and the prophecies about it in both Old and New Testaments give us good reason to wonder how and where the church fits in.

The short answer is that it doesn’t. This coming great tribulation period has nothing whatsoever to do with the Christian.

The Tribulation and the Jew

I’ve known this for years, but it always impresses me as I read the Old Testament just how very consistently the prophets who touch on the subject of the “time of the end” remind their readers of the distinctly Jewish character of this coming period more fully set out by the Lord in the gospels and by John in Revelation.

In the very last chapter of the book of Daniel, the Man in White Linen (who almost has to be a vision of the preincarnate Christ, as I’ve previously tried to demonstrate) gives Daniel a few final answers to his questions, an enigma or two to ponder, and an “executive summary” of the rest of human history in a few brief sentences. And they’re just so ... Jewish. The church is nowhere to be found. Let me give you a few examples:
  • The “time of trouble” is connected with the rising of “Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people”. That’s Daniel’s people, the Jews.
  • The “time of trouble” is connected to the nationhood of Israel. While the Lord in Matthew expands Daniel’s concept to a “great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now” and makes clear its impact is global, the center of the trouble is Israel.
  • The deliverance Daniel is told to expect for those whose names are found “written in the book” is, again, of “your people”.
  • The timing of this great tribulation is connected to “the regular burnt offering”, again suggesting Judea and specifically Jerusalem as the center of everything.
Once it is evident that the purpose of the great tribulation is intimately connected with the restoration of Israel and not with any object lesson for (or purification of) the church, and once it is understood that it is specifically a subset of Jews that are to be preserved and refined through this time of trouble (“your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book”), then verses with pre-Christian language like “Many shall purify themselves and make themselves white and be refined, but the wicked shall act wickedly” not only start to make perfect sense in context, but also reacquire their specifically Jewish meaning.

Thanks, We’ve Had Ours

Those like Kurt Willems who imagine Christians going through the great tribulation fail to perceive the specifically Jewish character of the “time of distress for Jacob”. For those in Christ, tribulation is our characteristic lot in this world. (I am speaking here of the real church, the Bride of the Lamb, not the powerful, politicized entity that has been as much involved in the persecution of the true church as the world itself.) For us, judgment began with the house of God in the form of suffering for the name of Christ, as Peter tells us, and such has been the church’s default situation since the early chapters of Acts.

There is a significant difference between generalized persecution and the great tribulation, an event unique in history. People who complain that believers are not entitled to a pass on persecution are correct. North American Christians much of these last two centuries have been notable exceptions. We are outliers, not the norm. It is only with a very blinkered view of church history and a blind eye toward the sufferings of Christians elsewhere in the world today that anyone can deny that the church has already had its tribulation, and continues to have it today. It has no part in the wrath to come.

Now of course there is a segment of the Christian church that believes the promises of God to Israel (presumably including the prophecies of Daniel) have all been fulfilled spiritually in the Christian church, and that God has no future plans for the earthly nation of Israel. That too is a subject for another day and a very large one indeed.

But my point is that such an eschatological view makes nonsense of Daniel 12, not to mention Daniel 10 and 11. There are two very solid reasons I believe that locating the church in the tribulation as the inheritors of Israel’s covenant with God does violence to our understanding of this particular prophetic book:

1.  The Prayer of Daniel 10 Demands a Literal Response

The Man in White Linen hovers over the Tigris in this last chapter of Daniel’s prophecy, seen only by him, and tells him what will happen to his nation in the latter days. This vision of the future is a direct response to Daniel’s fervent prayer on behalf of the Jewish nation (not the church, about which Daniel knew nothing) found in the first verses of chapter 10. This is a prayer Daniel prayed repeatedly and agonized over. He mourned for three weeks. He ate no delicacies. He had no meat, and he drank no wine. He did not even attend to his own bodily needs. Such was the nature of Daniel’s distress over the condition of Israel.

It seems impossible to me that Daniel, as spiritual a man as he was, would have been satisfied with an answer along the lines of “Well, your people are going to be permanently disinherited from the promises of God, but don’t worry, a whole bunch of Gentiles and a few stray Jews will make out real well.”

Daniel anticipated a literal fulfillment of the prophecies of Israel’s restoration. And this is precisely what the Man in White Linen gives him.

2.  The Fulfillment of Daniel 11 is Literal

Bob Deffinbaugh makes a really effective point about symbolic prophecies and their consistent, literal fulfillment in scripture:
While prophecy may be figuratively or symbolically revealed, we can expect it to be literally fulfilled. In type, the Messiah who was to come was portrayed as the bronze serpent, which was lifted up on a pole (Numbers 21:19; John 3:14), and as the Passover lamb (Exodus 12; John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Peter 1:19; cf. 2:21-25). In Psalm 22, the passion of our Lord is described by the very terms which David used to portray his personal anguish of soul. In Isaiah 53, we have another prophecy of the atoning work of Israel’s Messiah. All these prophetic pictures were literally fulfilled. So, too, the prophecies that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:5-6) of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:21-23) were literally fulfilled. Whether in symbol, in figure, or in direct statement, the prophecies of the Old Testament which have already been fulfilled were fulfilled literally. We should therefore expect that the prophecies which remain unfulfilled, those which pertain to the second coming of our Lord, will be literally fulfilled.”
Daniel 11 is a great example of this literalism Deffinbaugh talks about. The Man in White Linen takes Daniel through history from the very ruler he was serving at the time right up to the “time of the end”, showing him the various kingdoms destined to replace the Medo-Persian empire as world powers throughout history. In this schema, we find Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire and so on. This is not some conspiracy theorist’s interpretation of the chapter, but one agreed upon (at least as to its broad strokes) by huge numbers of Christians. One mostly-successful attempt to assign correspondence between the characters of Daniel 11 and historical kingdoms and leaders is found here.

My point is this: many of these prophecies, though full of imagery, were fulfilled literally. Why should we assume those prophecies made by the same Man in White Linen at the same time and place (the ones in Daniel 12 about the “time of the end”) that have yet to be fulfilled should be any different in character?

In Summary

It’s not enough to simply dislike the idea of the “rapture” or find it escapist. Given the track record of human government and the institutional church (not to mention the demonstrable failure of human nature generally), the notion that even a Christianized society could issue in a bright tomorrow on its own smacks of wishful thinking far more fantastic and far less substantiated by the Old Testament prophets than any interpretation evangelicals might put on 1 Thessalonians.

That being the case, we might well ask who the real escapists are.

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