Looking at the Collapsing Universe in the Bible
Note: With all the talk about the end of the world this week, we thought it would be good to reflect back on Brian Godawa's look at Revelations and the "collapsing universe" it presents. Today we repost the first entry in the series. The rest of the posts can be found here.
Creation and Decreation
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. (Revelation 6:12–14)
The non-concordist view of science and Scripture argues that Biblical texts about creation were never intended to concord with modern scientific theories. Thus, Genesis 1 is not cryptically describing the Big Bang or instant fiat, a young earth or old earth, special creation or evolutionary creation. It is not “literal” language describing the physics of the universe; it is “literary” genre describing God’s sovereignty over creation and most likely his covenantal relationship with his people.
But the argument against literalism of language of the creation of the heavens and the earth is also applicable to the language of the destruction of the heavens and the earth, or what the Bible calls, “the last days,” “the end of the age,” “the end of days,” or “the Day of the Lord.” Christians often refer to this as “the end times,” but the technical theological term is eschatology, which means “the study of end things.”
Regarding the end times, the modern Evangelical popular imagination has been deeply influenced and at times dominated by a theological construct that is best reflected in the 1970s bestselling The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey and the newer bestselling fictional phenomenon Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
This view believes that the Bible foretells an as-yet future scenario on the earth of a rapture of Christians, followed by the rise of an “Anti-Christ,” a world dictator who initiates a Great Tribulation on the earth, requires a “Mark of the Beast,” and assembles global forces for a battle of Armageddon against Israel, resulting in the Second Coming of Christ who replaces the universe with a new heavens and earth to rule forever. The technical theological term for this view is futurism, the belief that prophecies about the end times are yet to be fulfilled in the future.1
In this article, I will address the hermeneutic or interpretive approach used by this futurist perspective and apply it to the particular aspect of creation language, or in this case, decreation language -- the collapsing universe and the destruction of the heavens and the earth.
In short, the language of cosmic catastrophe often interpreted literally as referring to the end of the space-time universe is actually used by Biblical authors to figuratively express the cosmic significance of the covenantal relationship between God and humanity.
The tendency of modern literalism is to interpret descriptions of signs in the heavens and earth as being quite literal events of the heavens and earth shaking, stars falling from the sky, the moon turning blood red, and the sky rolling up like a scroll. The problem with this hermeneutic is that it assumes the priority of modernity over the ancient world. Rather than seeking to understand the origins of symbols and images used by the writers within their ancient context, this literalism often suggests the writer was seeing events that would occur in our modern day but did not understand them, so he used his ancient “primitive” language to describe it.
So for instance when the apostle John saw modern day tools of war in his revelation, such as battle helicopters, he did not know what they were so he described them in ancient terms that he did understand such as locusts with the sting of scorpions, breastplates of iron, a crown of gold and human faces, whose chopper blades made the “noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle” (Rev 9:3-9).
I was taught this modernist interpretation and lived by it for many years. When I read about Jesus explaining the “end of the age” I would assume he meant the “end of the space-time universe” because that’s the kind of language I, a post-Enlightened modern scientific mind, would use to describe such an event. When he spoke of the moon turning blood red and the sun being darkened, I assumed such events were easy miracles for God, so if you considered them figurative, you were falling down the slippery slope of neo-orthodoxy. When Jesus said stars would fall from the sky, you had better bet stars would literally fall from the sky (a primitive description of meteors2) or else you’re a liberal who doesn’t believe in the literal accuracy of the Bible.
But all that changed when I sought to understand the prophetic discourse on its own terms within its ancient cultural context instead of from my own cultural bias. I now propose that the ancient writers did understand what they were seeing, but were using symbols and images they were culturally steeped in, symbols and images with a history of usage from the Old Testament, their cultural context – not mine.
In this essay, I will argue that the decreation language of a collapsing universe with falling stars and signs in the heavens was actually symbolic discourse about world-changing events and powers related to the end of the old covenant and the coming of the new covenant as God’s “new world order.” In this interpretation, predictions of the collapsing universe were figuratively fulfilled in the historic past of the first century. The technical theological term for this view is preterism, the belief that most or all prophecies about the end times have been fulfilled in the past.3
1. The Left Behind series is a particular version of futurism called Dispensational Premillennialism. For a more in depth presentation of these varieties of eschatology see Bock, Darrell L. ed., Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999.
2. Interestingly, as soon as the interpreter thinks falling stars are meteors, he has just engaged in figurative speculation, which is not literal.
3. Some examples of orthodox scholars who hold to this view are Sproul, R.C. The Last Days According to Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998; and Gentry, Kenneth L. Jr. Navigating the Book of Revelation. Fountain Inn: SC, Goodbirth Ministries, 2009.