The Collapsing Universe in the Bible: Literal Events or Powerful Metaphor?

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August 23, 2011 Tags: Christ & New Creation

Today's entry was written by Brian Godawa. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

The Collapsing Universe in the Bible: Literal Events or Powerful Metaphor?

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

Notes

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.


Brian Godawa is the screenwriter of To End All Wars and other feature films. He has written and directed documentaries on church-state relations, stem cell research and higher education politics. He is the author of Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (InterVarsity Press) and Chronicles of the Nephilim, a series of fantasy novels about Biblical heroes within their ancient Near Eastern mythological context. He speaks around the country to churches, high schools and colleges on movies, worldviews and faith. His movie blog can be found at godawa.com/movieblog/.

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Enosh - #64200

August 23rd 2011

I think that it is fair to note that both of the authors cited in favour of orthodox preterism (R.C. Sproul and Kenneth Gentry) believe that Genesis 1-11 reports real events as an accurate summary historical narrative and are young age creationists. In other words, they do not think that the ‘creation language’ in Genesis should be interpreted the same way as the ‘de-creation language’ in prophetic and apocalyptic texts because they believe that they are different literary genres.

Informed young age creationists are not ignorant of ANE background or literary genres; we just believe the only plausible literary genre of Genesis 1-11 is historical narrative. There may be some symbolism in Genesis 1-11 (Satan as a serpent comes to mind as a possibility), but that doesn’t detract from our assertion that things really happened basically as Genesis reports them. I don’t expect BioLogos to agree with this assertion, but that’s not the point. The point is that one can legitimately be both a young age creationist and an orthodox preterist. Understanding prophecy and apocalyptic as Brian Godawa does here does not mean that one must understand Genesis 1-11 (especially 1-3) in a non-historical sense. Genre determinations need to be made on a case-by-case basis.


Brian G - #64219

August 24th 2011

Enosh,

Yes, some orthodox preterists are YEC. But stay tuned. The point I will make will be the case by case you ask for. In a previous article I have already illustrated that creation language is often used to express covenant creation: http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/godawa_scholarly_paper.pdf
So it should be no surprise that decreation language refers to covenant violation, or the fall of a world order. But as i said, I hope to prove this by the case over the next few posts.
Orthodox preterists can also legitimately be old earth and/or creationary evolutionists.
The three most important things in reading literature: Genre, genre, genre!

Brian G - #64220

August 24th 2011

I meant evolutionary creationists.


PNG - #64233

August 25th 2011

The preterist interpretation and futurism are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to take the texts as applying in more than one time frame. One trouble with a purely preterist interpretation is that it takes this spectacular book and puts a p.s. (right after don’t add any words or take any words away or you will pay a most terrible price) and says to us, “by the way, you can ignore this - it’s already happened.” The Bible ends with a whimper, not a bang.


Jesus said He was coming back. It is reiterated at the very end of the Apocalypse. He hasn’t come back yet. I don’t think subtle genre distinctions alter the obvious sense of this.

 


Cal - #64242

August 25th 2011

There’s a major difference between Preterism and Hyper or Full Preterism. The latter is what you have a problem with.


Jon Garvey - #64262

August 26th 2011

PNG and Cal - truly spoken, both.

Just as many problems arise from an over-realised eschatology as from its opposite. It’s certainly true that Hal Lindsey did for American Evangelical eschatology what Morris and Whitcombe did for its take on creation (but historicism and futurism were alive, well and carefully nuanced millennia before his brand appeared on the scene, and even before de Alcasar and Grotius established preterism in the 17th century).

But what if all that cosmic imagery is already fulfilled? There can be unforeseen consequences. The Resurrection? Amen! The Christ Spirit inspires his Church! But the empty tomb? These are the same guys who talk about the sky rolling up, right?

And the second coming? What does that mean, exactly? The dead are raised already, unless you’re talking about Paul’s stuff, and what did he know about entropy?

The Kingdom of God! Hallelujah, Right here among his people  (God help us!). Well, maybe not amongst the Fundies or the Liberals… Hmm, maybe that Church Militant imagery means we ought to start taking the reins of government now, if it’s all really being fulfilled in us now…

I agree on genre, genre, genre - but that must include the transition between the prophetic tradition’s eschatology, which was largely earthly, through the transition of (Deutero)-Isaiah, to the apocalyptic vision of the end which “now signified not simply the end of Israel’s enemies, but the termination of history, the end of the world itself” (Russell, Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic 1964, p266).

Like PNG, I’d expect the New Testament hope to encompass, and extend, both elements.


Brian G - #64289

August 27th 2011

I agree with you that preterism and futurism are not mutually exclusive. For instance, progressive dispensationalists believe most of Matthew 24 was fufilled in AD 70, but just not the cloud coming of Jesus (More on this in a later post). As inconsistent as this may be, it is certainly one interpretation out there by respected scholars.


Preterism has many iterations, so I am certainly not supporting them all, just the principle that has been almost completely missed by many Evangelicals.

No preterist interpretation I know of says, “By the way you can ignore this because it’s already happened.” That would be a straw man. However, I do know that there are many prophecies that have “already happened” in the Bible that will not happen again, such as the incarnation and others, so it is not at all a “whimper” to exegete such prophecies as fulfilled. It is actually exciting to learn about history that many other Christians completely miss out on because they don’t see the intense transcendent meaning of a “world shattering” event such as AD 70.

micahmartin5 - #64245

August 25th 2011

Brian,


I am so glad to see this article. I can’t wait for the next installments. 

BTW, I just realized that you were involved in the movie, “To End All Wars”. I watched that with my wife a few years ago. I have to tell you that that movie was one of the best depictions of Christianity I have ever seen on film. You guys did a fantastic job!

Blessings in the Kingdom,

Micah 

Brian G - #64290

August 27th 2011

Thanks Micah,

it is always a blessing to hear about the effect of To End All Wars.
This article has not even gotten rolling yet.


markchenoweth1 - #64287

August 27th 2011

Brian,


Just wanted to say it’s good to see you blogging for BioLogos.  I read your book, “Hollywood Worldviews” years ago, and detected orthodox preterist references in it, but then saw YEC references also.  Given your very reasoned approach to how a Christian should view cinema and your preterist interpretation of scripture, I thought, wow!  I’m really surprised he’s a YEC.  But glad to see you saw the light.  : )  

Do you have any intentions of editing your book to take out the section that recommends “Evolution: The Fossils say No!”?  I think that’s the book you recommended, if I’m not mistaken.

markchenoweth1 - #64288

August 27th 2011

Looks like I should have checked your website first!  Looks like you have an updated version!  : )


Brian G - #64293

August 27th 2011

Mark,

Thanks for the encouragement. I guess it’s a step by step process for us all, which is why I sometimes hold beliefs in tension because I haven’t had the time to explore. It takes years sometimes for paradigms to change. So little time, so many books.

Actually, I did the new version of HW before I got out of YEC. But, you know, I would not have a problem citing YEC books as references to read, just as I would recommend reading books by antichrists like Nietzsche, because I try to always maintain a scholarly openness to the access of information and knowledge. Gish and Whitcomb remain good sources for those who want to read the YEC view from the “horse’s mouth,” even if I don’t agree with them anymore. 

micahmartin5 - #64305

August 27th 2011

Brian,


That is a very encouraging comment. Coming into Preterism and leaving YEC was a step by step process for me. The thing I was so frustrated was that the YEC leaders (and futurist) would never encourage their followers to actually read source material from the opposing side. They only wanted you to read the book they wrote disputing someone else’s book. Once I started reading source material, I found out that the arguments are not always faithfully portrayed by the other side. It is very encouraging to see someone like you point people to the “horses mouth.”

Blessings,
Micah

Donald Byron Johnson - #64382

August 31st 2011

More, please.


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