Religious leaders, scholars debate end-time prophecies of Bible

U-WIRE, Mar. 28, 2003
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AMES, Iowa — The rampant popularity of novels about the end times — such as the “Left Behind” series — has heightened the public awareness of the way some Christians think about events as they happen in relation to biblical prophecy.

For instance, those who want to know whether the United Nations is a precursor to the One World Government prophesied in the Bible, or whether the Antichrist is alive now, may want to check out a Web site called the “Left Behind Prophecy Club” at www.leftbehind.com, which is associated with the books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

Those in the market for a new kerosene stove to survive the last days can visit a Web site called “The End Times Report” at www.endtimesreport.com, which sells the stoves and provides fallout prediction maps for all your nuclear emergency needs.

There is no consensus among Christians as to what the end times might look like, not to mention how certain biblical texts on the issue are to be interpreted, but the conflict in the Middle East has prompted some Christian groups to speculate the end times are near.

One local pastor said while he believes there will be a series of conflicts in the Middle East that will occur before the return of Jesus Christ, there is no immediate connection between the war in Iraq and certain biblical prophecies about the end times.

“We have to be careful of interpreting current events so that we have to shoe-horn them into scripture,” said David Staff, senior pastor of First Evangelical Free Church, 2008 24 St.

Staff said the location of the war does not match the location of the final battle predicted in the Bible. The series of conflicts that will set in motion Christ’s return will take place in Palestine for a battle near the Mountain of Meggido, which is considerably east of the location of the war in Iraq, Staff said. The Old Testament prophet Zechariah spoke of this battle, which later was tied into the New Testament book of Revelation, he said.

This particular interpretation of the Bible is not universally shared by Christians.

Rev. Everett Hemann, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church and Student Center, 2210 Lincoln Way, said certain books of the Bible, such as Daniel and Revelation, belong to a genre of literature called “apocalyptic style,” which means the authors were writing about events in the present day as if they were in the future.

Hemann said it is very important to interpret the Bible in its historical and cultural context and to ask questions about the audience for whom the book was intended.

The author of Revelation was writing to a first century church and the symbolism shows “ultimately good’s triumph over evil. The book of Revelation was written to a church that was suffering a lot of persecution,” he said.

Staff said while he agrees Daniel and Revelation are apocalyptic literature, they are also something more.

“The problem with using [Revelation] as a metaphor as a triumph of good versus evil is that it’s apocalyptic as well as prophetic,” he said.

Staff said there are several examples of Old Testament scriptures that predicted events in the future: Jeremiah’s prediction of the coming of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians to conquer Israel, as well as Isaiah’s predictions about the Messiah that were fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

“Prophetic literature needs to be allowed to have its supernatural character, and part of that character is telling us what will happen in the future,” he said.

Hector Avalos, associate professor of religious studies, said while the nature of apocalyptic literature is highly debated by scholars, “There is no justification to deem anything in the Bible as intended as a discussion for today in terms of prophecy. “Daniel and Revelation cannot be thinking thousands of years in the future, because their urgency wouldn’t make sense,” he said.

Avalos said Daniel interpreted the prophet Jeremiah as writing about events in his own time, and the author of Revelation interpreted Daniel as writing about events in his own time.

“And most modern fundamentalists are re-contextualizing all of them,” he said. Even the community that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls interpreted Old Testament prophets as writing about their own time period, he said.

“The interpretation of ancient scripture to one’s own time is as ancient as scripture itself,” Avalos said.

Staff said there is a danger when Christians attempt to interpret every current event in the Middle East as a sign of the end times. “They end up crying wolf, and too often people stop listening to the urgency of remembering that Jesus Christ will personally return,” he said.

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