Friday, March 22, 2013

Visions of Victory and Defeat

Well so much for one post a week. I guess I will go back to my old plan: Post when I feel like it!

When I was growing up I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to the books of Daniel and Revelation. I read them. They didn't make any sense at all. I moved on. In fact, the only time I really thought about them was when I was being taught dispensational premillennialism at my private Calvinist high school. This is the highly dramatic and popular interpretation of Daniel and Revelation that inspired the Left Behind books and a great deal of other ill-advised literature.  I listened to what they had to say, read the Bible, and quickly concluded they were full of crap. The whole thing seemed ad-hoc, and certainly not literal as they always ludicrously claim. If it really was a literal interpretation, they would believe in an actual dragon-riding women, an actual beast with seven heads and ten horns, and all sorts of other fantastic things. Furthermore, by putting all of this into the future, they put it completely out of the reach of any sort of accountability to known fact, and thus they could allow their imaginations to run wild about helicopters that look like scorpions and credit card computer chip implants as the mark of the beast and could never be proven wrong. I never felt any obligation to believe this interpretation, but I did not have my own. For many years I felt that Revelation was just a highly emotional, stylized and metaphorical way of asserting Christian superiority over the forces bearing down on it in the first century. God wins in the end, and Christians would be justified at that time by being on His side through thick and thin. That was the sum total of what I believed about Revelation.

Daniel however was a different matter. That book is difficult to interpret solely as a vision of victory. For instance, at the very end in Daniel 12:7, Daniel asks when all of this will occur and is told "as soon as they finish shattering the power of the holy people, all these events will be completed." Another important passage is Matthew 24, where Jesus says specifically about Daniel's visions that "there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will. Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short."

Earlier in that same chapter, Matthew 24:6-14:

"You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs. Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name. At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come."

The Christian, or at least the Protestant, interpretation of the end of the world has been based on this duel message of defeat and victory in the prophetic texts of the Bible.  That is, a message of utter defeat followed by a final victory. Our vision of the end is that of defeat, defeat and more defeat until Jesus Christ gallops in at the last second, whisks us all away to heaven and leaves the earth to its final destruction for all its wickedness. Today's Christians do not believe in trying to save the world because we believe the world is doomed no matter what we do, and only Christ's second coming can make things right. It is a recipe for apathy and defeatism, a belief that there is not much we can do to make things better because they will continue to get worse and worse until the end. Furthermore, this degeneration must happen in order to bring God's righteous judgment on the earth and usher in the new heaven and new earth where all wrongs will be righted without any effort from us. It is a recipe which I would of course accept if I believed it to be the Truth, and I did implicitly accept for most of my life, but no longer. What changed my mind?

At the end of Daniel chapter seven, there is a thrilling depiction of God's victory over an enemy and His establishment of an everlasting kingdom of saints with dominion over the whole earth, but during and immediately after this vision is over and Daniel has received the interpretation, he describes himself as troubled. Why?

Daniel 7:27-28: "'Then the sovereignty, the dominion and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One; His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all the dominions will serve and obey Him.' At this point the revelation ended. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts were greatly alarming me and my face grew pale, but I kept the matter to myself."

Why was Daniel so alarmed? After all, he was a member of a conquered nation in exile in Babylon. Things couldn't get much worse for him and his people. You would have thought that a vision which predicted the final victory of God's saints and an everlasting kingdom over the whole earth would cheer him up a bit. When I sat down a couple years ago, asked God for wisdom and made yet another attempt to understand all of this Daniel and Revelation stuff, this verse proved the trigger. What if Daniel realized the vision of victory was not about the Jews? What if Daniel was disturbed precisely because he recognized that God had not promised him what he so desperately desired? There is certainly no precedent in the Jewish paradigm for a nation of Israel that is dominant over the entire earth. In fact, the Jews always understood themselves to be a nation set apart from other nations, not in dominion over them. The Jews were given a precisely defined tract of land as their promised land. There was no inclination towards expansion beyond the promise God had given them. Daniel only hoped for the restoration of the Jews to the promised land after a period of punishment for their wrongdoing. He wasn't expecting a prophecy of an everlasting kingdom established over the whole earth, and he certainly knew that these visions weren't exactly consistent with earlier restorations of Israel. And then I realized another implication of Daniel's alarm: If the vision of victory was not about the Jews, what if the visions of defeat were not about Christians? What if we have got it all wrong?

I began to study the secular histories of New Testament times just to find out what was going on in the time around Jesus Christ and the destruction of the temple forty years after He ascended. What I found, in a very short time, boggled my mind. In the space of a few days I independently arrived at an interpretation I later found was called "preterism". I did not know about preterism before and had never studied it. I studied the Bible and history and came to the view on my own. Preterism writ large is the view that most of the prophecies popularly understood as "end times" prophecies have already been fulfilled. Don't knock it till you've tried it.

I am planning on one or two more posts on this, but for now I want to look at Daniel's visions in Daniel 2 and 7, and briefly relate them to the beast with seven heads and ten horns that makes appearances in Revelation 13 and 17.

The vision in Daniel 2 is usually not very controversial because it includes an interpretation that does not involve the end of the world. Briefly, king Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a statue with four parts, a gold head symbolizing Babylon, a silver chest probably symbolizing the Medo-Persian empire, bronze thighs probably symbolizing the Greek Empire and finally iron legs probably symbolizing the Roman Empire, complete with feet that are part clay and part iron, symbolizing the split of the Roman Empire into its eastern and western halves. In Daniel's interpretation, he only says that the golden head is Babylon, but it's very difficult to come to any interpretation for the other parts of the statue except that which I have given considering the history of that region after Babylon fell. It was a period of clear and immediate succession from one empire to the next, each one rising immediately from the ashes of the previous one. In fact the first such transition is actually recorded near the end of chapter five, involving, apparently, an assassination and a palace coup by Darius the Mede, marking the beginning of the Medo-Persian empire. The Medo-Persian empire lasted until all of its territory and even a bit more was conquered by Alexander the Great in an amazing ten year campaign that cemented his status as the greatest general of all time. Alexander was a Macedonian and his conquests established the Greek empire, which after Alexander's sudden death in his early thirties promptly split into four kingdoms. The Greek empire later fell to the Romans.

The really interesting thing about the vision from chapter two is the destruction of the whole statue by a rock not cut from human hands:

"You continued looking until a stone was cut out without hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and crushed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were crushed all at the same time and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away so that not a trace of them was found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth." (Dan 2:34-35)

This stone, not cut by human hands, crushed the statue at the feet, which symbolized the divided Roman Empire, and eventually destroyed the whole statue, growing into a mountain which filled the entire earth. Read what Daniel says about that stone:

"In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever. Inasmuch as you saw that a stone was cut out of the mountain without hands and that it crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold, the great God has made known to the king what will take place in the future; so the dream is true and its interpretation is trustworthy." (Dan 2:44-45)

 At the end of the vision in Daniel 2, an everlasting kingdom will destroy the succession of empires from Babylon to Rome and never again will the world be dominated by an earthly empire, but by a heavenly one. In this vision, the key event which transforms world history forever occurs during the fourth and final empire, that is the Roman Empire. On to chapter seven.

The vision in chapter seven starts with four beasts. These four beasts are revealed to be four kingdoms, and they bear a suspicious resemblance to the same four kingdoms from the vision in chapter two.The first beast is a lion with eagle's wings, the classic griffin, who is given the mind of a man. This could be a reference to king Nebuchadnezzar's brush with madness and animal behavior recorded in chapter four, after which his mind was restored. That fits if the first beast is Babylon. The second beast is a bear with three ribs in its mouth. I'm not sure of the significance of that, but if this interpretation is correct the bear is Medo-Persia. The third beast is a leopard with four wings and four heads. I believe that is pretty clearly a reference to the four kingdoms of the Greek Empire. It would correspond well to the goat in chapter eight, which had one large horn (Alexander the Great) that broke into four at the height of its power, but more on the chapter eight vision later. Then there is the fourth beast which unlike the other three is not described as a specific animal, just that it had iron teeth which crushed everything and also had ten horns. That would correspond well to the Roman Empire, symbolized by iron in the statue vision from chapter two. Before moving on, I will briefly note that this fourth beast is clearly referenced in Revelation 13, right down to the boastful words and the ten horns. There it is described as part lion, part bear and part leopard. Thus John in Revelation 13 describes the fourth beast from Daniel 7 as an amalgamation of the first three beasts in Daniel 7, again connecting the four kingdoms as a continuum. Indeed we know that the Roman Empire basically adopted the Hellenistic, or Greek, culture, even adopting almost completely the Greek gods by giving them Latin names. After the fourth beast utters it's boastful words, it is destroyed by God's kingdom which is given everlasting dominion. Just like in chapter two, there are four kingdoms, and the fourth and final kingdom is destroyed and replaced by an everlasting kingdom given dominion over the earth. It seems quite obvious that these two visions are about the same exact events. The fourth kingdom in both cases is Rome. God's everlasting kingdom is the kingdom of Christ, and these visions are predicting the fall of the Roman Empire to Christianity, the everlasting kingdom of God's holy saints given dominion over the earth.

Now that's whack.

To be continued...