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Archive for the tag “Apocalypse”

Everybody needs to calm down about the Blood Moon (especially Christians)

I didn’t really believe it at first, but there it was, right on my Facebook feed. Someone talking about how the lunar eclipse that happened on Tuesday. Or, in their terms, the “blood moon.” I don’t really blame them, there are people who like to stir up hysteria and they make very convincing arguments with nice rhetoric. But they are mistaken about it, and usually don’t really care how often they are wrong (and if you look at the track record of the sorts of people who cause these hysterias they are almost always wrong). Nor was simply talking about the moon a problem. I mean everybody was talking about it. This was one of the clearest and fullest lunar eclipse of our lifetimes, and so it is a rare opportunity to view the moon looking almost entirely red. No, the problem was that the talk focused entirely upon a discussion of how the end of the world is about to happen at any minute. Now it may be the case that the end of world really is about to happen at minute, but it has nothing to do with the “blood moon” and here are three reasons why:

Someone get that moon a bandage. It's bleeding everywhere.

1. This is not the first lunar eclipse and it won’t be the last

This point is really pretty obvious. It is true that most ancients and medievalists thought the red moon or “blood moon” was a bad omen, but they thought that because it occurred periodically. However, when bad things followed such an event, it was really just a case of confirmation bias. That’s a phenomenon where you only pay attention to observations that confirm your already held suspicion. It’s not proof, it’s selective observation. “But this one’s different” I’ve heard and seen people say. Well…

2. This lunar eclipse is not really that different

It’s different in the sense that it looks a lot clearer and more obvious than most lunar eclipses we will likely witness in our lifetime. But it’s not different in the sense of paying attention to specific dates and times, etc. Do you know who set about creating calendars and such? People did. They are a social convention. Now, it is true that they’ve conformed generally to some external phenomenon, like the revolution of the earth around the sun, or the lunar cycle (note: the current Jewish Calendar is somewhere between the two). Still, it is ultimately a human invention. The Holy Days enacted in Scripture are an example of God accommodating his revelation to us. At least that seems to be the opinion of Paul in the 2nd chapter of Colossians (NIV):

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

In fact, the obsession with timing specific days and alignment with the planets as somehow an omen is not routed in Christianity. Instead, you would expect to find that sort of thing in Astrology and Paganism (both ancient and modern or neo-paganism).

“But” someone will object “what about those bible verses?”

3. Those Bible verses don’t necessarily mean what you think they do

There are, by my count, exactly three verses of the bible that refer to a red moon. And one of those is a New Testament passage explicitly quoting an Old Testament passage. So let’s look at that one first.

In Joel 2, it reads:

28 “And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
30 I will show wonders in the heavens
    and on the earth,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
31 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. (NIV)

Now that doesn’t sound so bleak. I mean, it does call it a “dreadful day of the Lord,” but the Hebrew text uses words in different ways than we do. I mean what’s with the prominence  of “Fear of the Lord” in Proverbs. Does that mean we should be scared and hiding from God, or does fear mean something else? Does “dreadful” mean something else? This becomes particularly clear in the context of the chapter. Immediately prior to this section, the prophet Joel describes the restoration of the land and provision from God, and immediately after Joel notes that all who call upon God will be saved. That’s not very bleak at all. In fact, if we look to the New Testament, we see how they understood its fulfillment.

At the beginning of Acts, immediately after the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, Peter gets up and starts shouting that this very passage has just been fulfilled. After all, the Spirit is being poured out on all of the church, not just an individual (as had been the case in the Old Testament). What’s more, he quotes the bit about the sun being black and the moon being blood during what, by all accounts, seems to be a pleasant day (people are outside celebrating this festival and no one is terrified). There’s no black sun and no red moon. What gives? It could be that the black sun and red moon mean something else entirely.

One more passage before I come back to that. In Revelation 6 we have the following appear:

12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. (NIV)

It’s always interesting to me how different people treat the book of Revelation. (Sidenote: pet peeve of most biblical scholars: putting an “s” on the end of Revelation. If you know one, try it out and watch them squirm a little before apologizing). Everyone talks about taking it “literally” but what they mean by that varies.

-Revelation mentions that there will be two prophets against the city of Babylon? Well then, we better look for exactly two men who are prophesying against a pagan city, bonus points if that city is actually named Babylon.

-Revelation talks about a beast rising up out of the sea, a third of the stars falling from heaven? Well, I mean it’s not a “beast” but a person. And those stars are demons. Clearly a metaphor.

-Revelation mentions Jesus standing at the door and knocking? Well that is not bound to a specific time period in any way shape or form. Come on, give us some credit.

Here’s the problem with the above. How literal one takes Revelation depends upon how literal the one doing the reading decides to take it. And it usually is a personal choice, with little to no respect (or even awareness) of the genre in which the book was written. It’s read like a modern book, and one that the reader knows based upon a gut feeling (that gut feeling is not the Spirit, by the way. The Spirit is expressed in the full body of believers known as the Church). So we read it “literally” when it is convenient, and dispense with literality any time it is convenient or interesting to do so. That’s a problem. Revelation is a hard book to understand. I don’t claim to fully comprehend it, but while I’m willing to admit that, I do understand it on some level.

So what’s going on here?

Well John, the author of Revelation, is very adept at blending into Revelation and referencing a wide variety of Old Testament symbols. He doesn’t do so explicitly (partly because that would violate the genre in which he’s writing), but it is permeating by the Hebrew Bible. Given that the only reference to a red moon found in the Old Testament is in Joel, we should probably see if there is any overlap. For Joel, the use of the images of a black sun and red moon were indications of the end of the world. Not because Joel thought there natural occurrences would actually foretell the end of the world, but because this was an already established motif. Other cultures sure seemed to think that, but Joel didn’t (or, at the very least, Peter quoting Joel didn’t believe that). They are merely a more poetic way of talking about the end of history.

That fits pretty well with Revelation, but it doesn’t explain why Peter references it in Acts.

It helps if we understand that Peter was a Jew, not a Gentile Christian. As such, he had certain expectations about how the world would end. During the first century, this included a belief in the “resurrection of the dead.” Peter, and all the early church, wholeheartedly believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. For the early church, then, that meant the end of history wasn’t only eminent, but already present. The end of the world had come. Indeed, one question that 1-2 Thessalonians and Revelation are all trying to deal with is how the end of the world could have so clearly arrived, and yet the world not be over yet. It is then that the church began to make sense of Jesus’ statements that “A time is coming and is now here.” This is two Kingdoms theology. The end of the world has come, it has come in the Kingdom of God, which is the Church as it should be. It is at war with the kingdom of the world. Yet, in light of the resurrection of Christ and Pentecost, the kingdom of this world has already lost to the Kingdom of God. The end of the world has already happened. It’s coming, yes, but it’s already here. Maranatha!

What do I mean by “apocalyptic”? Revelation (Difficult Passages)

Quick Review

Last week, I stated that the book of Revelation (like other Christian Apocalyptic literature, which is not in the biblical canon) is actually an attempt, in many ways, to imitate the earlier Jewish form of apocalyptic. The reason I am taking the time to talk about the genre of Revelation is that it can too easily be misunderstood or misinterpreted if we don’t take that into account. To be sure there are other examples of Jewish Apocalyptic, also non-canonical, that help us to see the characteristics of the genre. Next week I’ll talk about the uniquely Christian contribution to the genre, but this week I want to focus on the characteristics of Jewish apocalyptic, most of which we find in Daniel and Revelation. (Well, not the first one)

The Characteristics

  1. Pseudonymous: This one really doesn’t apply to either Revelation or Daniel in my opinion (I explain in a sec). Most Apocalyptic literature is written under an assumed name (such as “The book of Enoch” for Jewish literature, or “The Apocalypse of Peter” for Christian Literature). Usually the idea was that it had been written long ago and was only just now being discovered. Because it deals with events at the end of the world, this gives it an additional sense of urgency because the end could be closer at hand. The fact that the authorship was false (and usually known to be false) is likely why other examples were excluded from the canon. However, usually there is a phrase where the writer is supposedly told to “seal these things up” until the time is much closer. No such phrase appears in either Daniel or Revelation. In fact, John is specifically told not to seal them up because they will soon take place.
  2. It is something hidden now revealed: This is accomplished by some of the rejected apocalyptic literature by claiming the message was sealed until now (while in Revelation it’s very heavily against “sealing” things, often breaking seals). The point is that the message is so beyond the speaker/author it could only come by supernatural means. One could not look around and see that this was the case (while other prophets often condemn the people for not already knowing the content of their message from what God had previously told them).
  3. Future orientation: Isn’t this just prophecy? Well yes and no. Prophecy technically refers to someone with a message for a people right then and there, and the prophet is just the person who relays the message from God. Sometimes this includes a future element, but usually there isn’t one at all. (For instance, in Jonah where is the future element?). Even when there is a future element, though, it is usually very vague and can easily be applied to the present situation of the author/prophet as well. The one exception is Isaiah who, after chapter 40 delivers a message to Israel in exile (though it applied to his audience then), and eventually gives a specific message relaying the identity of the historical redeemer (Cyrus/Darius). However, his reason for doing so is not to give a message about the future. Rather, he is demonstrating how the God of Israel (Yahweh) is the only genuine god and that other gods and idols are silly. Thus the specific future is offered as evidence (because only the true God could do that). Contrast that with Daniel and Revelation, though, who talk about future events, for the sake of talking about future events. They want to relay what will happen.
  4. The future is set: While the intervening history may be a little more open, in both Jewish and Christian apocalyptic there is a sense that certain key events, particularly those at the end of the world, are set in stone. They are going to happen. God, Yahweh, is going to come back and establish his throne. It is inescapable.
  5. The message is mediated: In contrast to the prophets who receive their message direct from Yahweh, the writer of Apocalyptic literature receives his message indirectly. While this may come in the form of a vision, it also occurs via an Angel, something not previously seen as a bearer of a lengthy message. While Ezekiel, in particular, utilizes the concept of vision, in the book it is clear that the vision is direct from God (and other times, Yahweh speaks directly to Ezekiel). On the other hand Daniel either receives his vision from an Angel or just says he had a vision, without relaying the source.
  6. Use of fantastical imagery: There is imagery that seems to clearly not belong to this world. Animals of a kind never seen before. Statues too massive to be real. This is common place in apocalyptic literature. Again Ezekiel shares some of this (which has led some to argue sections of Ezekiel should be apocalyptic not prophetic), but on the whole it doesn’t fit the genre.
  7. Contrasting “Present” with “The End”: There is a sense of a huge disparity between now and then (the end of the world). What is happening now will be destroyed (often violently) and give way to what happens at the end, usually God acting as King in a more explicit visual than is seen throughout the rest of the bible.
  8. Intentional obscuring of the message: The use of symbolism is not meant to convey multiple connotations necessarily (though it may do that), as in other biblical literature, but is intentionally done to obscure the meaning. There are a few reasons for this: 1) To intentionally give a sense of uncertainty to the reader so they don’t rely exclusively on that writing, but look to other literature (Gospels and Torah). 2) To add to the otherworldly sense of the writing. 3) To ensure it could only be completely understood by those who were part of the “in crowd.” That is, only the community to which it was intended would have the necessary information to understand what was being written. This was important because…
  9. It is written from the perspective of the oppressed: The writers are generally writing from a position of powerlessness, and speaking to a time when God will reign in power. There is coming a great upheaval. This perspective of oppression is likely the most important feature. Think about Daniel, which was written from those in the exile. Revelation was written either in the reign of Nero (early date) or Domitian (later date) both of whom began a massive campaign against Christians. This will also play into the unique features of Christian Apocalyptic I’ll get into next week.

Defining the genre of Revelation (Difficult passages)

I’m currently in a series within my difficult passages post on the book of Revelation.

After defining some of the major viewpoints on Revelation last week and the week before, this week I’d actually like to talk about what genre Revelation is (which is important for understanding what, exactly, Revelation is trying to say).

Some have argued that Revelation is prophecy. The problem with that view is that “prophetic” books are not the same as books that talk about the future. Just so I am clear, prophecy is not defined upon whether or not something tells the future (how is Jonah prophetic?). Rather, prophecy is a message from the LORD that speaks to a situation contemporary with the prophet, and which may possibly, but not necessarily, have something to say directly to future groups of people (Yahweh). Yet prophetic books seem to conform to certain styles of writing including, but not limited to, receiving a message direct from the LORD (YHWH). Revelation is distinct from that because the message is not direct from God, but is mediated to John through an angel. Instead it has something in common with another Hebrew genre, of which there is only one book represented in the Old Testament. Here’s a hint: the book gets really really weird.

It’s Daniel. Sorry to those who picked Ezekiel (which is pretty weird, but definitely a prophecy book). Daniel, despite often being grouped with prophecy, is Jewish Apocalyptic. The biggest shift between prophecy (some of whose elements carry over) and apocalyptic is that it is delivered by an angel, which for Daniel starts about halfway through the book. Other characteristics: more frequent use of animal imagery, much broader in focus (i.e. the whole world and all of time, not just Israel), much more fantastical imagery (though Ezekiel approaches this at times), and similar things.

How do we know this is a separate genre? Well there are other writings, which were rejected for canonicity, that meet these criteria (and sound quite a bit like Daniel). Revelation also fits well with this genre in many of its elements, and was labeled early on in the church as the Apocalypse of John (there are other Apocalyptic books also). So to understand something about how John works we need to also understand something about how Daniel, and similar books, work.

Unfortunately for this post, I am pretty worn out from preaching this past weekend (a 40min bit on the 2 chapter of 1 John), so I’m leaving it at that. But I’ll pick up again next week.

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