For years, Christians have done a great disservice to the cause of Christ with their failed eschatological prognostications of biblical prophecies. From the venerable John Wesley and his 1836 "Second Coming" of Jesus to Christian"Y2K" predictions of economic doom to the most recent end time craze of “Blood Moons” - all falling short of the much heralded and anticipated cataclysmic doom for man and the Earth. Time just marched on.
I often wonder why these highly publicized egregious errors doesn’t seem to bother the Christian community. Why isn’t there any outrage at these false prophetic outcomes given the stain it casts on the Church, the Scriptures, and the Savior it proclaims? Meanwhile, the unbelieving world looks on - no longer willing to simply wag their heads in silent skepticism but seemingly ignoring everything Christians have to say. After all, if Christians can’t interpret prophecy correctly - their own domain of expertise - why should unbelievers believe anything the Bible says on the existence of God or matters of morality.
This erosion of credibility is no longer limited to academic circles or the culture at large, but it has even affected the Church. Children raised in Christian homes are abandoning the faith in droves. According to a Barna 2011 study, the Bible for young adults "...is not taught clearly or often enough" or they feel that "...Christianity does not make sense". Southern Baptists - the largest Evangelical denomination in the US - continues to see decline in its memberships. Admittedly, some of the decline in Southern Baptist churches are actual transfers to non-denominational churches. Nevertheless, many non-denominational churches tend to place less emphasis on doctrine and bible study while placing greater emphasis on experience and community. Add to these concerns the fanciful and sometimes outlandish predictions that prophecy prognosticators make, and it only solidifies any doubts young people may have about the truth claims of the Bible.
So, why so many misfires? Even the erudite Reformers erroneously ascribed Revelation’s beast to the papacy. Surprisingly, the answer may lie in Late Antiquity.
Antioch versus Alexandria: Schools of Interpretive Thought
Two schools of thought for interpreting the Bible fought for primacy throughout the Christian Era: The School of Antioch and The School of Alexandria. The Antiochian school “stressed the literal interpretation of the Bible and the completeness of Christ’s humanity” . By contrast, the Alexandrian school “emphasized the allegorical interpretation of the Bible and stressed Christ’s divinity”. Both schools looked to faithfully exegete Scripture but had opposing interpretive approaches leading to deep divides within the world of exegetes up and through the current era. The Antiochian approach eventually prevailed. And yet, it is the strict adherence by Antiochian exegetes that - in the hands of less careful exegetes - leads to the wooden literalism of prophetic misfires.
The Bible is literature and literature is art. Therefore, bible exegetes must exercise imagination when trying to comprehend figurative passages while at the same time constraining their imaginations to the confines of holy writ. Bible interpretation is not a creative endeavor. It is a quest for truth. A quest to know and comprehend the mind of God and what He desires of us. Therefore, creative exegetes must demonstrate great wisdom in adhering to the interpretive guardrails of Scripture interprets Scripture - lest creative passions run wild with impunity. And, yet, the Alexandrian must scoff at Antiochian allegations and epithets of spiritualization of the text. After all, what is the Word of God if not Spirit (John 6:63)? And, what are God’s people to be if not spirit-filled (Eph. 5:18). Are citizens of the Jerusalem from above supposed to interpret Scripture and comprehend its King as citizens from the Jerusalem that is below? Is God not Spirit (John 4:24) and does He not seek Spirit-filled people who live spiritually? All of life, including how we understand the Bible, must be viewed through the lens of the divine mind. As such, He is highly rational (logikós ). And yet, the divine mind is also the mind of the "Creator". Meaning, He is also highly creative. With this in mind, our interpretive viewpoint starts with heaven and looks down – a “top-down” perspective on the Bible as well as life. We comprehend the bible not just rationally nor just as a work of art, but with both in mind. As Kepler aptly stated, we think “God’s thoughts after Him” in order that we may see His perspective on all matters of heaven and of Earth. However, all too often - because we're human beings and the crown jewel of all Creation - we see things from our perspective only. The modern day exegete tends to approach the Bible with an "what's in it for me" attitude or "how can my congregation apply this" perspective. And, when we approach the Bible these ways we begin to translate the Bible through the filter of human eyes and human thought - an unintentional eisegesis. Let me elaborate.
In Revelation 1:20, Jesus is found holding seven stars in His hand. Seemingly, in anticipation of John's question, He notes that the seven stars represent seven angels. Most read Jesus' definition and move right on through to the next verse. After all, Jesus is God Almighty. He is omniscient and has first hand knowledge of what He possess in His hand. And yet, these same exegetes reach chapter 6 - just five chapters later - where John tells us that "stars of the sky fell to the earth” (Rev 6:13) - and immediately conclude that these are, to quote the inimitable Pumba of The Lion King, "balls of gas burning billions of miles away" falling upon the Earth. Why conclude literal stars? Because they were taught to interpret the Bible with its normal and plain meaning - unless it is obviously symbolic or a figure of speech. This is the first rule - and perhaps the most important rule - of hermeneutics. And yet, we can see from the example above how it fails when we place greater importance on the rule of interpretation than the very God who spoke the verse. Many, understanding the absurdity of interpreting falling stars as literal falling stars, attempt to rescue their literalism by noting that John meant meteors, comets, or asteroids - as if numerous cosmic bodies of these types falling upon Earth would not extinguish life. Why abandon Jesus' definition? Better yet, what give us the right to abandon Jesus' definition? Is it not possible that falling stars is a more elegant and poetic way of stating fallen angels? Wouldn't that be a consistent use of the language as found in Job or in the Psalms? Wouldn't Jesus' definition of stars unlock a deeper meaning of Genesis 1? What happens when we reach chapter 9 of Revelation where a "star" is given a key? Do "literal" stars, meteors, comets, or asteroids have hands to receive and turn keys?
The answer is obvious and yet the absurdity is lost on many.