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Rev. VanBaren is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Newsweek—and Prophecy

Last time I pointed out a feature article in U.S. News and World Report: “Is the Bible True?” Newsweek, November 1, 1999, weighed in with another article related to the Bible and the millennium. It examined especially the book of Revelation and its prophecy of the end of the world. It is striking that the national magazines pay such close attention to Scripture and its prophecy as the new millennium approaches. Striking, it is, because obviously the writers and editors do not believe the testimony of an infallible Scripture. They do, however, recognize that there are many people who do believe the Bible and are interested in its prophecies. So the writers present their opinions and evaluate the prophecies of Scripture—though they do not believe what Scripture has to say. Allow me to quote a bit from the article:

Millennial dreams and apocalyptic nightmares are never far below the surface of the American psyche—especially now, as the third millennium approaches. Of course, few people seriously think the apocalypse will come at 12:01 on New Year’s Eve; some of those who do will descend on Jerusalem at the year-end with millennial expectations, putting Israeli police on high alert…. The deeper and more interesting phenomenon is the enormous role prophecy has played in Western religious and popular culture. A Newsweek Poll found that 40 percent of American adults do believe that the world will one day end, as Revelation describes, in the Battle of Armageddon. Every choir that sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” or the Salvation Army’s “Onward, Christian Soldiers” resurrects martial images and themes from Christian prophecy. In the 1970s, the best-selling book of the decade was Hal Lindsey’s apocalyptic “The Late Great Planet Earth,” with 28 million copies sold by 1990. More recently, a series of “Left Behind” novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins based on Christian prophecies, including two published this year, have sold more than 9 million copies. Among academics, studies of the apocalyptic tradition have produced dozens of new books. “Over the past 30 years,” says Bernard McGinn, a medieval specialist at the University of Chicago Divinity School, “more scholarship has been devoted to apocalypticism than in the last 300.”

The article continues and presents the author’s summary of the book of Revelation and a sort of evaluation of the book:

Whether John’s Apocalypse (the word means “unveiling”) is a foretelling of the future or a symbolic interpretation of the then current situation of Christians has long vexed church theologians. Early Christianity had revived the long-dormant spirit of Hebrew prophecy, and in doing so relied on Jewish precedents. Much of John’s arcane imagery is borrowed from Ezekiel, Zechariah and especially the dreams of Daniel. He also uses numbers as a code for letters. Thus the beast whose number is 666 translates to Nero, the mad emperor who had persecuted Christians; his seven heads refer to the first seven Roman emperors. Similarly, the number 1,000 does not denote a period of 10 centuries but symbolizes an indefinite period of long duration. 

In short, most contemporary Biblical scholars now believe that John was not predicting a distant future. Rather, he was locating the trials of the first-century churches within a wider cosmic battle between Christ and Satan. Like the earlier prophets, he wanted Christians to know that the faithful would be rewarded and their oppressors punished.

The writer gives other interesting but far-fetched interpretations of the book of Revelation. He goes through some of the history of the past 2000 years, showing the various views which were held during that period. Then he comments on present-day ideas presumably based on the book of Revelation:

Christian fundamentalism owes much of its continuing power and appeal to the belief that the prophecies of John, Daniel and other Biblical writers forecast a sequence of specific historical events. But fundamentalists have also shown a remarkable capacity to add to the stock of apocalyptic portents. Since the Antichrist must have the means for controlling the world, many new technological advances are now seen as ominous signs: Social Security numbers, bar codes, ATMs, international organizations like the United Nations and the European Common Market, and—most recently—the World Wide Web. As a newly elected president, George Bush set off alarms among many Biblical literalists when he announced in 1990 his ambition to create a “new world order.” Could he be, some fundamentalists wondered, the cat’s-paw for the Antichrist?

The article concludes with some interesting comments:

Though widely read for the wrong reasons, John’s Apocalypse nonetheless insists on hard truths that no serious believer can discount. One is that sinners have reason to fear a God who, having chosen to create the world, can also choose to destroy it. The second is that the just have reason to hope in a God who stands by those who trust their lives to him. Thinking of the end of the world—like contemplating one’s own end—is a painful process. But studying the Apocalypse presumes that even the end of the world is within the providence of God. And who’s to say that John’s mythic battle between Christ and Antichrist is not a valid insight into what the history of humankind is ultimately all about?

If the new millennium does nothing else, surely humankind is forced to consider the possibility of the return of the ascended Christ and the judgment to follow. The child of God, especially, ought to consider the impending return of his Lord. The signs are all there. There is already virtually a “one world order.” Only there must be the coming of the Antichrist. Will Christ return on January 1, 2000, 12:01 a.m.? The answer of course must be “no.” The Antichrist has not yet manifested himself. So, we are reminded of the passing of time; of the rapid fulfillment of all things of which Christ speaks in His Word; and we look up—knowing that the time of redemption is at hand.

Where Are the “Traditional” Families?

The Grand Rapids Press, November 24, 1999, presents an Associated Press article titled: “Study finds fewer traditional families than in ’70s.” What it states has become increasingly obvious even to those who live in the secluded circles of conservative and somewhat religious communities. The figures, however, are ominous.

The percentage of American households made up of married couples with children dropped from 45 percent in the early 1970s to just 26 percent in 1998, a survey found.

Researchers at the University of Chicago said their findings, which were being released today, are yet another sign that the face of the American family has changed. Researchers also said their findings show Americans are becoming more accepting of those changes.

“The single-earner families with young children still present in the household have become the exception rather than the rule,” said Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey, conducted annually by the university National Opinion Research Center.

The figures paint an even starker picture of marriage in the 1990s than the U.S. Census has. Census takers found that married couples with children younger than 18 fell from 50 percent of all households in 1970 to an estimated 36 percent in 1997.

The figures reflect the increasing number of people waiting to have children and the growing number of baby boomers becoming “empty nesters.”

The survey found that in 1998:

Fifty-six percent of adults were married, compared with nearly 75 percent in 1972, when the survey was first taken.

Fifty-one percent of children lived in a household with their two parents, vs. 73 percent in 1972.

The percentage of households made up of unmarried people with no children was 33 percent, more than double the rate in 1972.

And the percentage of children living with single parents rose to 18.2 percent, vs. 4.7 percent in 1972.

…Stephen Kraus, a Connecticut-based market researcher for Yankelovich Partners, agreed that Americans are becoming more tolerant of divorce—partly because many people who are starting families may be products of divorce themselves.

Bahira Sherif, a professor of individual and family studies at the University of Delaware, said Americans continue to see marriage as an ideal—even if they don’t think it’s always best to get married or stay married.

We are fast becoming a society that accepts as normal what God’s Word clearly condemns. Families are “nice” but not essential. It’s “nice” if mothers with young children can stay home to care for them, but it’s neither practical nor profitable for most. Divorce and remarriage are considered normal—even expected. Articles are written about “blended” families. Sadly, what is happening generally within this country is also happening within the churches. Surely the sin of divorce and the evils of remarriage must be emphasized in the churches.

It is interesting to note that there are those, perhaps many, outside of our own Protestant Reformed Churches who recognize the wrongness of divorce and remarriage. Christianity Today in a recent issue wrote about the subject of remarriage and divorce. In response to that article some interesting (and accurate) “letters to the editor” were printed. I quote a few. The first letter points out the inconsistency of the condemnation of homosexual relationships while approving divorce and remarriage. Though the point of the writers is, obviously, to support homosexual relationships, their point re the inconsistency of the evangelicals who allow and even perhaps encourage remarriage after divorce is correct.

May our sympathetic and intelligent panelists who participated in your CT forum on homosexuality and public policy please explain why homosexual Christians are absolutely bound to God’s creational intent, whereas we discover just a few pages further [“You’re Divorced—Can You Remarry?”] that heterosexuals are not so bound?

Gay and lesbian people are being turned away from salvation in Jesus Christ by the hypocrisy of evangelicals.

Or one can agree with two other writers:

Burge ignored the force of vow-taking in the wedding ceremony. How does God view vow-breaking? Marriage is profoundly theological in that it should foreshadow the marriage of

Rev. 19:7

, rather than merely provide convenient fulfillment of desires here and now.

[And this:] Is God able to provide renewal and new hope? Of course he is! But let us not think that he does so by violating his own laws. That we can point to situations where Christians have remarried in obvious violation of the Scripture, and observed that the new marriage “worked” or was “a blessing,” is to only fall further into the ends-justifies-the-means rationalization of our secular activities.

It is profoundly disappointing that, when called to take an unpopular stand, both Burge and Christianity Today chose to provide the soothing answer that many living in sin wanted to hear. It is not I who called such relationships adultery, it was Jesus. In 2,000 years, I see nothing to make me believe that his standard has changed.

So there are others who recognize the inconsistencies within the evangelical camp—and the error of reasoning when Scripture is contradicted. Sinful life-style is condoned and sometimes encouraged within the churches. What Jesus said (“From the beginning it was not so”) applies to homosexuality and also to divorce and remarriage.