There is virtually no part of the Bible that hasn't been debated, analyzed, and scrutinized for centuries. Regardless of topic, there are always differences of interpretation. Some take this as proof that we should all defer to what is termed an infallible interpreter,1 a person or group charged with making authoritative decisions binding upon all. Yet scripture does not grant such infallibility to anyone, but rather charges everyone with diligent study and cooperation (Prov. 15:22, Acts 17:11, 2 Tim. 2:15).
Many books have been written about Bible prophecy, and there is no shortage of controversy and disagreement on this topic. But what such books often lack is a thorough examination of the foundations, the principles by which scripture (or any other writing) should be analyzed. Those who debate prophecy often talk past each other, because they argue from fundamentally divergent bases. And even when there is no debate but only an explanation, it can be a mixture of principles, resulting in an inconsistency that confuses rather than clarifies.
So it is of the utmost importance that discussion of a given topic be prefaced by the establishment of a firm and consistent foundation, and conducted according to coherent rules of logic, grammar, and analysis. This effectively sets boundaries by which any line of reasoning will be governed, resulting in a consistent and rational explanation. This is especially vital when the topic is prophecy, since this topic is characterized by symbolism and requirement to study and search. Bible prophecy is especially challenging due to the fact that we are not always able to say which prophecies have been fulfilled completely in the past, and which remain in whole or in part.
This is why this particular book on Bible prophecy will begin with a careful study of basic principles of interpretation, and rationale for certain axioms, meaning self-evident premises or starting points. Every philosophy and belief has them; even the most naturalistic and humanistic arguments rely upon them. For example, the scientist begins with the assumption that whatever can be observed and repeated constitutes a scientific fact. Likewise, the student of Bible prophecy begins with considering the text as inspired of God, or else the whole exercise is merely academic and pointless.
There is no question that many will reject the axioms used in this book, and so every argument built upon those axioms will be rejected as well. But every effort will be made to argue consistently with those axioms, and to draw rational and logical conclusions from them. The goal is to present a plausible prophetic viewpoint that is not confusing or sloppy, and to accomplish this as concisely as possible. This will be done without any intent to offend, belittle, or antagonize those who hold other opinions on the matter.
Bible prophecy may, at least in part, be deliberately ambiguous. In 1 Cor. 2:8, Paul explained that God hid his plans about Jesus from “the rulers of this age”, who, if they had understood the prophecies, “would not have crucified the Lord of Glory”. And in 1 Peter 1:12, Peter says that “even angels strain to look into this”. Who before the cross could have figured out that the Messiah would first come to be a literal sacrifice, or that he would come not once but at least twice?2 So we must not treat our personal understanding of prophecy as infallible or obvious, nor judge people who disagree to be defective or lost.
There are difficulties with every prophetic interpretation, which is surely related to the ambiguity already discussed. But we must try, and in trying we must not overlook details. There are many similarities in prophecies, but equally significant are the differences. For example, cities all have boundaries, buildings, and people, but this hardly means that all such descriptions refer to one particular city. And we must determine to the best of our ability which differences are simply a matter of further information (e.g. the four Gospel accounts) or are conflicting, in which case the details indicate that more than one city is being described.
We should also consider basic principles that serve as limits on the scope of a particular prophecy. For example, if one believes that there will be mortals (aging, death, and decay) on earth forever, then the presence of mortals on earth cannot be used to argue that a particular prophecy must occur before the end of the Millennium. Conversely of course, a prophecy indicating the presence of mortals on earth must refer to no later than the end of the Millennium if death itself is done away with by then. Such fundamentally divergent interpretive approaches make discussion of future prophecy an exercise in futility, though of course there is always value in making each other think.
But perhaps a more important issue to resolve before discussing this or any other Biblical topic is whether a given passage is literal or figurative/spiritual. And these two things are not always mutually exclusive; something could be both literal and symbolic. If, for example, a passage gives meticulous detail about the dimensions of a temple, the reader must first decide whether this itself is an indication of literalness, or whether such details only serve the purpose of conveying the idea that the temple is enormous or ornate. As before, a discussion between individuals holding to conflicting fundamental interpretive methods will prove ultimately futile in terms of coming to any agreement or resolution.
Intended Audience and Terminology
This book presumes that the reader has at least passing familiarity with Bible prophecy. This includes terminology such as Tribulation3 and Millennium4, and other terms familiar to most Christians. The words “saint”, “elect”, and “holy ones” refer to the righteous of any era, not just the church age, and not only the most devout. The word “church” has come to be the most familiar, albeit not the most accurate, term for those in this age who believe Jesus rose from the dead and who have put their trust in him alone for salvation.
This book, as others I have written, was inspired by encounters with many people holding various viewpoints. Complex and controversial topics have always compelled me to write everything down and reduce the great amount of material to its simplest form. So in addition to acknowledging the grace of God and support of family and friends, I also extend gratitude to those debate opponents who caused me to double-check and cross-check everything I believe about Bible prophecy. And of course, I am indebted to the many scholars and teachers who have made their studies freely available, as well as searchable online Bible texts.
- 1 The proof-text “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Pet. 1:20 KJV) is frequently cited to justify an infallible interpreter. But the context concerns not the interpretation of prophecies but their origins, as stated in the very next verse: prophecies of old were not made up by the prophets but were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
- 2 Nowhere does scripture indicate that there are only two comings.
- 3 http://christianity.about.com/od/faqhelpdesk/f/thetribulation.htm
- 4 http://www.biblebay.org/article/178/the-words-that-make-up-the-bible/frequently-asked-questions/what-is-the-millennium