As yet another major Christian denomination, the Evangelical Free Church of America, changes it doctrinal statement, to back away from its historic commitment to premillennialism, it bears reflecting upon how much Christians are rethinking the “End Times,” in the 21st century.
Dick Woodward, the late pastor emeritus of my church, and founder of the Mini Bible College, always described himself as a “pan-millennialist,” when it came to the “End Times.” When asked, what is a “pan-millennialist?,” Dick would always say that he believed that everything would simply “pan-out” in the end.
That made for a very humorous joke, but it cut across the grain of what passed for the so-called biblically “inerrant,” premillennialist view of the “End Times,” that dominated American evangelical theology, in the latter half of the 20th century. Today, many core doctrines of the Christian faith are under attack, by the surrounding culture. Surely, Christians are compelled to defend the faith, against the onslaught of these attacks. So, is the doctrine of premillennialism, one of those core doctrines?
The main problem with asserting premillennialism as a core doctrine, is historical. Premillennialism, the belief that Jesus’ Second Coming will occur prior to establishing a 1,000 year millennial kingdom on earth, has reigned supreme in many American evangelical church circles, despite being historically a minority position, within the 2,000 year tradition of the Christian church as a whole. When pressed, my pastor, Dick Woodward, would describe himself as a progressive dispensational premillennialist, but he was never dogmatic about it. But was there any other genuine alternative, that took the Bible seriously?
When I was a young Christian, any mention of the “End Times” brought up ideas about the Rapture, a 7-year Great Tribulation, the nation of Israel, the Antichrist, and, of course, the Book of Revelation. In short, the “End Times” were all about events yet to happen in the future. But what if some of, if not most of, what we read in the Book of Revelation, is about events that have already happened in the past?
Such a question might make some Christians ill at ease. After all, many Christians still hold firmly to futuristic view of prophecy, that includes premillennialism. But a recent book I read, by Christian film maker Brian Godawa, suggests that there might be a better way to read the Bible, when it comes to biblical prophecy.
Brian Godawa is perhaps best known from writing the screenplay for To End All Wars, a movie about life as a prisoner of war, under the Japanese during World War II. Based on a true story about Ernest Gordon, a Scottish soldier, this prisoner moved from being an agnostic to becoming a Christian, in the midst of the horrific trials he faced. After the war, Gordon became a Presbyterian chaplain at Princeton University.
But Godawa is also a book writer, and I listened to the audiobook version of End Times Bible Prophecy: It’s Not What They Told You. Godawa grew up in a Christian home, where he was taught the idea of a pre-tribulational “Rapture” of the church, followed by a 7-year Great Tribulation, to be then followed by Jesus’ Second Coming.
The problem was that Godawa was confused by all of the various speculations about the End Times, and how he was frustrated by the fact that all of the supposed prophecy predictions would continually fail.
I was reminded of the confusion that Godawa addresses by a recent statement made by Anne Graham Lotz, a daughter of the late evangelist Billy Graham, who believes that Jesus will return within her lifetime (listen at the 8:25 time mark). In keeping with Scripture, as she interprets it, Anne Graham Lots believes that her generation; that is, “this generation” will be the generation that sees the return of Jesus Christ. As she explained to the Christian Broadcasting Network, ” Israel was born in a day, May 14, 1948….Jesus said the generation that sees that take place is the generation that will be the last. And for me it’s meaningful. I was born May 21, 1948 so I believe it’s my generation.”
Now, I have always had great respect for Billy Graham, and his family. But what Anne Graham Lotz says here bothers me: Have not other Christians made the same type of predictions of Jesus’ expected return, only to be disappointed when such predictions fail to pan out? In other words, is Anne Graham Lotz’ view strictly based on firm biblical teaching, or is it simply speculation?
After doing years of research, Brian Godawa adopted what most theologians call a partial preterist view of the End Times. His view is “preterist,” in the sense that the word “preterist” means “past,” believing that many prophecies have already been fulfilled in the past, namely in the first century of the church. Yet his view is “partial,” in that Godawa believes that at least some of the End Times prophecies are still yet to happen in the future, such as the Second Coming of Jesus and the Resurrection of the Dead.
One of the top things that changed Godawa’s mind was that verse quoted by Anne Graham Lotz, in Matthew 24:34, where Jesus says to his listeners, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” The standard futurist way of interpreting this verse is to say that “this generation” actually applies to events at least 2,000 years into the future.
Many Christians accept this interpretation as valid, but the vast majority of scholars, and many other curious non-specialists in the Bible, are not so convinced. After all, if Jesus was speaking to his contemporaries, in the 1st century, why would he refer to “this generation,” if he really was talking about Anne Graham Lotz’ generation, some 2,000 years later? I continually meet skeptics, and other critics of the Bible, who are convinced that Jesus was predicting the end of the world, within the period of the first century, and that Jesus was simply wrong.
A partial preterist view of the End Times, on the other hand, addresses the skeptics’ criticisms, while still affirming the trustworthiness of Jesus and the Scriptures, informed by evangelical biblical scholarship. In other words, Jesus, in Matthew 24, is indeed predicting something, that historically did come to pass, in the 1st century of the Christian era, thus adding confirmation to the New Testament claim, that Jesus truly was and is the Son of God. If Jesus did acccurately predict future events, that can be confirmed historically, then this would be consistent with the biblical claim that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. Brian Godwa argues that many Christians have failed to see this as being taught in the Bible, so they are unable to effectively defend the Bible, when the critics press upon the Bible-believing Christian.
Strictly futurist views of the End Times are deeply ingrained in the minds of many Christians, so Godawa goes to great lengths, even in this popular level book, to substantiate his argument. Godawa goes through the Bible, building his case that many of the biblical prophecies are actually metaphorical in nature, and that they should be not be taken in a non-metaphorical way. Concepts such as the “Day of the Lord,” “all the nations,” and cosmic catastrophes, such as “Blood Moons,” are explained within their original context, as the original biblical writer intended.
Christians who are reticent to believe that God would make heavy use of metaphorical language, to describe prophetic events, will probably be skeptical of Godawa’s book. Yet every Christian believes that there is at least some metaphorical language in the Bible; such as, Jesus’ description that you must “hate” your family, in order to be a disciple, or that the “sign of Jonah” refers to “three days and three nights,” in the belly of a great fish, as an idiomatic expression corresponding to the three days and two nights Jesus was dead, between his Crucifixion and Resurrection. Most Christians even agree that there are at least some metaphorical elements found in the Creation story in Genesis.
The key is to evaluate the contextual evidence, found within the text itself, from the perspective of the original writers of Scripture, in order to determine the correct interpretation of any particular passage of Scripture. Only in this manner can we responsibly understand what is metaphorical and what is non-metaphorical in the Bible.
What is the point of application of Godawa’s view? While we still await Jesus’ future Second Coming, looking at the original context of a great deal of biblical prophecy, including much of the Book of Revelation, the Bible was still addressing the situation of persecution, for that first generation of believers in the first century church. For Christians living in a world today, where persecution is more prevalent than ever, the example of first century Christians under stress can provide great comfort to believers undergoing current trials for their faith.
Has Brian Godawa made his case convincingly? At this point, I am not sure. The jury is still out, in my view.
What I am sure about is that Brian Godawa has made his case, in a very thorough manner, citing Scripture all the way through his book, and illustrating where the original context, that the biblical authors had in mind, actually makes a big difference in how biblical prophecy should be interpreted. Godawa still has a healthy measure of hermeneutical humility, acknowledging that he could be wrong in a number of the details of interpretation, that he presents. Nevertheless, he does find partial preterism to be convincing. Otherwise, he would not have written a book about it.
Many Christians have grown up, like Godawa, being taught about a pre-tribulational Rapture of the church, as an event separate from the Second Coming of Jesus, for example, with a central role for national Israel being within that divine plan. I can not categorically rule out that scenario as a possibility. Many of my dear Christian friends strongly hold to a futurist type of view. So if Anne Graham Lotz’ prediction comes true, then God will still get the glory, no matter what!
On the other side, Brian Godawa’s case for partial preterism is certainly within the range of acceptable bounds of theological orthodoxy. Is it the best and most accurate way to interpret difficult passages in the Bible? Well, the curious reader will need to pick up a copy of Brian Godawa’s book to find out.
Godawa’s book stands as a perfect complement to something like the late R.C. Sproul’s book The Last Days According to Jesus, reviewed a year ago here at Veracity. Sproul’s argument is mainly about the apologetic concerns, that partial preterism addresses forcefully, in which more futurist approaches to Bible prophecy, tend to wobble on. Godawa’s book digs more into the exegetical details, addressing particular interpretation issues found in difficult prophecy passages.
In addition to premillennial futurism and partial preterism, there are other views about the “End Times,” that Christians throughout church history have thoughtfully considered (See these prior posts at Veracity regarding amillennialism, the most well-known view taught within Christianity, promoted by the 5th. century, Saint Augustine, and historic premillenialism, defended recently by popular prophecy blogger, Joel Richardson). Christians should not be dogmatic about timing issues, concerning the Rapture or other specific End Time chronologies. Our ultimate landing point, is that Jesus is truly coming back. The other details will sort themselves out, over time.
Granted, the establishment of the modern state of Israel, is a strong point of evidence, in favor of a futurist perspective on biblical prophecy. Nevertheless, the delay of the Rapture, now some 71 years after the founding of the Middle Eastern Jewish state, leaves many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, wondering. I can not claim absolute confidence here, but if I had to pick a particular viewpoint, that is easier to defend with a non-believer, then the partial preterism view advocated by Brian Godwa carries with it the best overall argument.