VIII: Why Should the “New Teaching” Trouble Us?
The Christian community always takes notice, early or late, of erroneous teachings. We noted that in the former Presbyterian Church U.S. two General Assemblies (1944, 1978) attended to earlier manifestations of dispensationalism. All of a sudden we find ourselves in the midst of a constant barrage of promises and threats of a Rapture plus nuclear holocaust. This is dangerous and we must attend to it. People who hold the views we have examined call themselves evangelical fundamentalists. But we must make a clear distinction. What we find in the proponents of Rapture and Millennium is a fundamentalist temperament, a fundamentalist note of certainty, a fundamentalist claim of "literal" interpretation -- but also lots and lots of other elements. Fundamentalists may believe that they interpret the Scriptures "literally," but most of them are not in the prophecy business. They do not have millennial, rapture, tribulation expectations. They remain in the framework of eschatology shared by all historic churches and creeds. We must be sure not to attribute dispensational doctrines to all fundamentalists. I called the situation dangerous for two reasons: first, the significant spread of this view; secondly, the consequences of this view.
"Of the 4,000 evangelical-fundamentalists who annually attend the National Religious Broadcasters Convention an estimated 3,000 are dispensationalists ..." writes Grace Halsell (Prophecy and Politics, p.14). Halsell adds that 1,400 religious stations carry this voice and that of the 80,000 evangelical pastors who broadcast on 400 radio stations, a very large majority are dispensationalists. Halsell’s book painstakingly documents part of the political consequences of dispensationalist prophecy in our day. Yes, the spread of this voice is dangerous, because the content of this voice is dangerous.
A. Knowledge of Good and Evil. I can recall saying during an argument, "I know I am right. You must be mistaken." That at least is more polite than "I am right and you are wrong," but the feeling is the same. Of course we realize that each side is convinced of its rightness, or there would be no argument. Communities argue too. Canada and the U.S. have debated damage from and solutions for acid rain for several years. This argument differs from the previous example, because even though the U.S. side may not have felt "right," any admission of being wrong would have been too expensive. We have come toward that admission now.
But what would happen in a personal argument -- or in the Canada-U.S. debate on acid rain -- if one side said: "I am good and you are evil." How would you settle any argument? Would you give in, just a little bit, to evil? Of course not. Wrong, error, mistake is partial; a wrong view partially contains the right, so we negotiate. But not with evil.
In his "Nuclear War and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ" (Old Time Gospel Hour, 1983), Jerry FaIwell says that the Russians (the usual term used by dispensationalists) will invade Israel, and their forces will be annihilated "on the mountains of Israel." The battle will end this way: "Scripture tells us that five-sixths (83 percent) of the Russian soldiers will have been destroyed (Ezek. 39:2). The first grisly feast of God begins (Ezek. 39:4,17-20). A similar feast would seem to take place later, after the battle of Armageddon (Rev. 19:17-18, Matt. 24:28). The communist threat will cease forever." Since Armageddon, the world’s final battle, will have been fought, a lot of other things will cease forever also. "Seven months will be spent in burying the dead" (Ezek. 39:11-15), adds Falwell.
No sympathy is wasted on the devastated. "There are some very recent developments in Russia," said Falwell in 1979, foretold "by the prophet Ezekiel, which point up the soon return of our Lord. These communists are God-haters, they are Christ-rejecters and their ultimate goal is world conquest. Some 26 hundred years ago, the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel prophesied ..." just such a nation, north of Israel, as Russia is ("Dr. Jerry FaIwell Teaches Bible Prophecy," Old Time Gospel Hour, 1979).
Pat Robertson and most of the politically inclined dispensationalists speak about the Soviet Union in this vein. It is indicated that President Reagan shares this view also. James Mills of the California State Senate reported on 1971 conversations with the then Governor Reagan (San Diego Magazine, August 1985). Mr. Reagan referred to the Ezekiel prophecy, noting that "Gog, the nation that will lead all the other powers of darkness against Israel, will come out of the north. Biblical scholars have been saying for generations that Gog must be Russia." And since the only powerful nation on the north is "Russia," the question is settled. Earlier it did not make sense, said Mr. Reagan. "Now it does, now that Russia has become communistic and atheistic, now that Russia has set itself against God."
That was in 1971. a long time ago, and everyone, even governors and presidents, are entitled to their own beliefs. Yes, but belief provides perspective and influences action. In 1983 Jerry FaIwell attended National Security briefings and discussed plans for a nuclear war with the U.S.S.R. with top officials. Arrangements for the meeting came from President Reagan. (See Grace Halsell, Prophecy and Politics, p. 47.) According to Hal Lindsey, writer of The Late Great Planet Earth, with Mr. Reagan’s approval he gave a talk to Pentagon strategists on nuclear war with the Soviet Union (ibid.).
On the other hand --we are fine. "America has more God-fearing citizens per capita than any other nation on earth," says FaIwell. And because the Bible says that the gospel is to be preached to the whole world before the end, it will be so, says FaIwell. Then, because his interpretation of the Bible is always colored by his reading of the situation, FaIwell notes that God could use any nation for this, but "we have the churches, the schools, the young people, the media, the money and the means ..." (Listen America! New York: Doubleday, 1980), so we will evangelize the world. Using the term "evil empire" for the Soviet Union may not be a rhetorical device or a matter of style, but a matter of belief. As in our earlier example, if good is confronting evil, there can be no negotiation. Peace then is not possible, we cannot compromise with the Soviet Union. In that case, our military build-up and total inability or unwillingness to make any step toward disarmament reveals itself in a different light. If our leaders are depending on dispensations, we may be arming ourselves not in a world of international politics -- but for God’s battle when Good will overcome Evil and open the world for the Second Coming of Christ.
B. Hope and hopelessness. The reader probably noticed that prophecies are read by dispensationalists as railroad timetables. However much the scenarios may vary from each other with each person giving his own, yet each gives it with complete certainty. This is possible because to these interpreters the future is determined in all its parts. It is so clearly determined that most of the dispensational writers I have read present time charts to indicate which event follows which in lineal progression. And because there is an insatiable appetite for this kind of reading, the output is so great that there is now even an End-time News Digest edited by Jim McKeever of Medford, Oregon. All this is possible because dispensationalism is thoroughly deterministic. If we live in such a cut-and-dried world, what then can we do? What difference would be made by anyone’s beliefs and actions?
"We are in a terminal era, close to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, in which angelic forces are warring against demonic forces for the control of this planet that wandered away from the Lord," writes the Rev. Carlos L. Ramirez in a sermonette in the Amarillo Globe-Times (April 9, 1984).
Amarillo, Texas, the town where Pantex, the final assembly plant for nuclear weapons is located, is one of the most religious towns in the U.S. The book about life, religion and the bomb in Amarillo, Blessed Assurance by A. J. Mojtabai, is recommended reading for everyone -- but most of all for Christians. This town of 160,000 people has one synagogue, ten Roman Catholic and 191 Protestant (64 Baptist) churches. In addition, there are some Bahais and other small and diverse religious groups. The town is immersed in religion -- for anxiety relief’? Mojtabai records some of the religious signs that abound: "Jesus is Lord of Amarillo" or "Jesus Christ is king of kings. Alternators started."
"I really think there is nothing much us human beings can do," (Blessed Assurance, p. 79) Mojtabai records. "...I think that the things that are in God’s timetable and these times are going to happen and ain’t a whole lot we can do...we might prolong it...but I think it is prophesized, and I think it’s gonna come to pass" (ibid., p. 80).
These voices speak of utter powerlessness -- it’s all God’s ballgame -- we might prolong it, that is all. One might as well go on making bombs, and a living. One is just participating in God’s plan.
Since Scofield promulgated his dispensations at the turn of the century, new notes have been added to his deterministic scheme. One new emphasis surfaces not only in Amarillo, but on the question of weapons production in general. Since God is going to destroy, or partly destroy, this earth, or at least decrees "some nuclear holocaust," then believers may -- even should support the means of destruction. At present the great men of dispensationalism agree and support the military budget.
A second new note centers on Israel. We saw that Scofield expected the "time of the Gentiles" to end with the coming of the Lord in glory (Rev. 19:11,21), until which time Jerusalem is "politically subject to Gentile rule (Luke 21:24)" (Scofield on Rev. 14:14). Since Scofield wrote, the nation of Israel has come into being and all the sign seekers have seen a new sign. And they speak of this sign as if it had been expected all along, but hope was delayed through all the centuries until the formation of the nation rekindled it. We noted earlier that further signs are foreseen: the whole of Jesusalem needs to be a Jewish possession, the temple needs to be rebuilt. We do not know the exact location of the first and second temples. Since many people think that the temple stood where the Dome of the Rock -- one of the most holy places of Islam -- is located, or at a place near it, Jewish terrorists several times have stormed the mosque to destroy it. Christian dispensationalists have contributed significantly, together with Jews, to a temple fund, or to a legal defense fund for such terrorists.
There is a strange alliance here. FaIwell, Robertson, Lindsey and hundreds of other leading preachers find Israel the key to the whole play: Armageddon will take place there, the Tribulation may largely or entirely be there, and where else would the New Jerusalem be? Remember, the New Jerusalem is where God will move his headquarters, and not in Swaggart’s view alone. The political state is Israel is seen as God’s Zion, God’s chosen people. Therefore Israel is of central significance, so all military and economic support is to be extended to them. The best we can do, as Christians and Americans, for our eternal future, is to stand with God’s people.
On the other hand these same preachers can speak calmly of the destruction of almost all the Jewish people. "The primary subject of the tribulation...is Israel." God will save 144,000 -- perhaps. But even that is no comfort to Israel. Dispensationalists agree that in the end the only people not thrown into the fiery lake are those who accept the Lord Jesus Christ. So this is a tenuous alliance, but for the time being it is an alliance.
Since Scofield dispensationalists have categorically rejected the possibility of peace. And new occasions have brought new variations on this rejection. Jerry FaIwell, speaking after the Camp David agreement, acknowledged the Prime Minister of Israel and the President of Egypt, in that order as great men who truly want peace. He failed to mention the President of the U.S., Jimmy Carter, who was the architect of the accord. But it will not work, said FaIwell. There will be no peace in the Middle East or elsewhere, until Jesus Christ sits on the throne of David in Jerusalem. This means there is no need to work for a just peace, no need to speak to Palestinians (never mentioned by any of the preachers) or deal with Arabs. Peace is not in the script until the coming of Christ.
Where is hope in all this? For the dispensationalists there is no hope in change, but the hope of escape belongs to them.
C. Molding the message. I said at various points that we basically disagree with the dispensationalists because we read the Scriptures differently. Now that we have dwelt on the visions of some major preachers, we can be more specific.
"Mold" is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as "a pattern by which something is shaped," "a hollow form or matrix into which plastic material is cast or pressed." That is what I mean by molding the message. The division of history into seven dispensations is not a biblical doctrine. It is the mold that Dr. Scofield’s mind -- an overly orderly mind, I came to see -- placed on the material. Millennialism was a "feeling" at times, not a doctrine. Rapture and Tribulation are newcomers arriving in the second part of the 19th century. The newest signs concerning Israel are usually not proof-texted, but sometimes are. Both Hal Lindsey and Gordon Lindsay refer to Ezekiel 36:24, where God says: "I will...gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land." And they rejoice that 2,600 years ago the prophet foretold it all. To disregard that Ezekiel is a prophet of the Babylonian exile and that those words gave hope to fellow exiles about their return is an example of molding the message.
Choosing texts with what I call the catch-as-catch-can method is also molding the message . Any text with enough warfare in it is serviceable for an end-of-the-world prediction. The resulting tone of violence characterizes the prophecies of the current prophets.
Here is an example of the contrivance and confusion that result from pushing texts into preformed molds. Ezekiel 38 and 39 are well-thumbed chapters. Revelation 20:7-10 is indebted to these chapters, which are oracles in apocalyptic language. These passages are used to point to the great battle, as standard evidence that history is coming to the end time. I referred to this text earlier and noted Mr. Reagan’s interest in it. It is time we looked at Ezekiel 38:24 (verse numbers are given):
(2)Son of man, set your face toward Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him (3) and say, Thus says the Lord God: Behold I am against you, 0 Gog ... (4) and I will bring you forth, and all your army ... all of them with buckler and shield, wielding swords; (5) Persia, Cush, and Put are with them,...(6) Gomer and all his hordes; Beth-togarmah from the uttermost parts of the north... many peoples are with you.
Interpreting Ezekiel 38 Pat Robertson free-quotes: "...when Israel is regathered from the nations...I am going to put hooks in the jaws of the confederation that is going to be led by someone named Gog in the land of Magog (the Soviet Union). And the people that will be with it are Beth Togarmah (Armenia), Put (Libya), Cush (Ethiopia), Gomer (South Yemen) and Persia" (CBN program, July 9, 1982).
Jerry Falwell interprets the same passage in his Bible Prophecy tapes. He tells us that the land of the God-haters, according to Ezekiel "would be Rosh -- that is Ezekiel 38 verse 2 in the American Standard Version -- Rosh, ROSH." Note that is not so in the Revised Standard Version, but earlier translations place it in v. 2. Then Ezekiel, says Falwell, "continues by mentioning two cities of Rosh. There he called Meschech and Tubal -- the names here are remarkably similar to Moscow and Tobolsk, the two ruling capitals of Russia today." Tobolsk may be interested to learn about its new status. "He also said that Russia or Rosh would invade Israel in the latter days." Then Falwell turns to verses 5 and 6. "He named those allies: Iran (Persia), South Africa or Ethiopia, North Africa or Libya, Eastern Europe (called Gomer here in Ezekiel 38)" [Robertson’s South Yemen] "and the Cossacks of Southern Russia called Togarmah" (Robertson’s Armenia -- whose inhabitants would not be Cossacks]. Remember that for Robertson Cush means Ethiopia, and Magog is the Soviet Union. Hal Lindsey asserts that Libya refers to the whole of Arab Africa and Ethiopia to Black Africa.
According to Scofield, "The primary reference is to northern (European) powers headed up by Russia, all agree." The notion of Moscow and Tobolsk comes from Scofield, although when Scofield first outlined the stages of history, Russia was still Tsarist Russia and not the "godless" U.S.S.R.
Now can we sit with all these "learned" men and play a game? If you have a reasonable study Bible you find quite different explanations. Meshech and Tubal and Gomer and Beth-togarmah are Assyrian place names, not surprising in that place and time. The Oxford Annotated Bible footnote adds: "Though people and places in apocalyptic literature can often be identified, they are part of the literary equipment and should rarely be taken literally." But if you want to show that before Christ’s return the Soviet Union will attack Israel according to the Scriptures, you have a lot of molding to do.
A final look at the process of molding on two points. Both of the following quotes come from Jerry Falwell. The first is from his interview in the Los Angeles Times (March 3, 1981). The point he makes is made by most of his fellows. He is talking about Armageddon: "And Russia will be the offender and will be ultimately totally destroyed... I don’t mean every person -- Russia has many wonderful Christians there too. The underground church is working very effectively...It [the war] will come down out of the north -- that has to be the Soviet Union -- upon the midst of the earth -- Israel and the Middle East...That’s why most of us believe in the imminent return of Jesus Christ."
Think for a moment. Why does Falwell believe in the imminent return of Christ? Because Ezekiel in the sixth century B.C. wrote that the enemy will come down from the north? You may want to look up the word "north" in a good concordance. If you check out the Old Testament usage in books that depict Israel as a nation in the land (i.e., not in Egypt, not in the wilderness or during the conquest of Canaan), you find that many of the references in various periods speak of the "enemy from the north." Only once did Egypt, from the south, come against Judah. Throughout their history Israel and Judah were threatened and/or invaded by their northern neighbor Syria, or by the great successive empires on the east. But in order to avoid the waterless, roadless desert, the foe from the east also came around from the north. If one looks again at the assured prediction of Mr. Falwell, one is amazed. Could a certainty be more flimsy? A final shaping is reflected in one of the tapes, "Dr. Jerry Falwell Teaches Bible Prophecy" (Old Time Gospel Hour, 1979). Going back to Ezekiel 38, the question is why the Soviet Union would invade Israel. Verse 12 says the purpose is "to seize spoil and carry off plunder...."Mr. Falwell says, ‘If one removes the first two letters from this word ‘spoil’ he soon realizes what Russia will really be after -- obviously, oil. And that is where we find ourselves today." So much for Hebrew prophecy.