Signs of the Apocalypse?

7 Signs of the Apocalypse[Someone handed me this DVD and asked for my thoughts. Here it goes…]

Review: 7 Signs of the Apocalypse, Directed by Tim Prokop, written by Lee Fulkerson. DVD. A&E Television Networks, 2009.

“Is it possible that we are experiencing the seven signs of the apocalypse?”

 

Originally developed as a feature-length documentary for the History Channel, Seven Signs promises to show how prophecies in the Book of Revelation might be coming true right now. There are lots of clips showing death, doom, and destruction. There are lots of weasel words: could, might, etc. The rest of the 94-minute running time consists of interviews with talking heads because, you know, this is a documentary.

The End of the World

Right out of the gate, the title trades on an ambiguity. For many people today, “apocalypse” is synonymous with “the end of the world.” But the word as used in the Book of Revelation means precisely that: a revelation, an unveiling. The very first verse of the book tells us that this will be the “revelation [Greek: apokalupsis] of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1 ESV).

Some of those “things” are truly catastrophic, but limited in extent. For instance, the seven trumpets affect only a third of the trees, a third of the stars, a third of mankind, etc. (Rev 8-9). We don’t see anything like a final, comprehensive judgment until we get to the end of the book (Rev 20:11; 21:1; see also 2 Pet 3:4,10-13).

Despite popular misconceptions, the Apocalypse of John spends very little time on the end of the world as such. This is consistent with the rest of Scripture, which promises that we will get exactly zero signs of the Lord’s return. Instead, He will come “like a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5:2-4).

Although John uses highly symbolic language, Jesus expects His church to dig deep for the correct interpretation (Rev 1:20; Rev 13:18). To practice hermeneutics-by-headlines is to flatten the text beyond recognition.

Here’s a typical scary headline: “Massive Asteroid to Hit Earth in 2040?” (discover.com, Feb 28, 2012). Now let’s do some Bible study.

According to Seven Signs, the Wormwood star of Rev 8:10-11 could represent a literal asteroid impact. But if we take Wormwood as a literal astronomical object, then we will have to take the rest of the Third Trumpet prophecy at face value as well. A literal angel sounds a literal trumpet causing Wormwood to fall on exactly one third of all the rivers and springs in the world, leading to the literal death of some unspecified number of people who drink from those waters.

But wait a minute: Wormwood is a star (Greek: astēr), not an asteroid (Greek: asteroeidēs – i.e., a star-like object). Getting hit by an asteroid is bad enough; getting hit by a star is going to be a real bummer.

Blasted Planet

NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

Is God going to cause a literal star-planet collision? Probably not. Remember: the Book of Revelation is couched in highly symbolic language. When John writes “Wormwood,” he evokes God’s judgment on Judah (Jer 9:15; 23:15). The Hebrew word la‘anah in Jeremiah can be translated “wormwood” or “bitter food.” John, of course, is not writing about Judah; he’s writing to Christians about God’s judgment on Rome. There. I said it. I know it was quick, but it’s the best explanation for what we read in the Second Vision (chapters 4-16). But programs about the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy are not exciting enough to put on cable TV.

Gentlemen and scholars?

On-screen testimony comes from two distinct groups. One group consists of science experts talking about science topics: planet killing asteroids, nasty plague viruses, etc.

The other group consists almost entirely of fiction writers who dabble in end-times theology. Let’s give these guys a quick once over. I’ve listed them in roughly their order of screen time.

Jonathan Kirsch – Lawyer with a B.A. in Russian and Jewish history. Kirsch churns out novels and books that are not sold as novels, but may as well be. Case in point: The Harlot By the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible (1998). This is a book that sensationalizes sex in the Bible. As the folks at Kirkus Reviews write, “Kirsch’s novelistic retellings have all the subtlety of a tabloid tale.” No doubt his book on Revelation, A History of the End of the World (2006), earned him a place at the Seven Signs table. For the record, Kirsch thinks Revelation is a book of failed prophecies that Christians have used and abused for centuries to justify violence and vengeance. I don’t see that, but then again, I’m no lawyer. And by the way, run, do not walk, past any book or documentary with a title that tries to connect the Bible to anything “forbidden,” “hidden,” “untold,” or “lost.” The Bible is there for anyone to read.

Paul McGuire – Radio host and cheerleader for dispensational premillennialism. Seven Signs tags him as a “Professor/Author.” Professor of what? Author of what? According to the conservative news site, wnd.com, McGuire is “an adjunct professor of eschatology at Jack Hayford’s The King’s University in Van Nuys, Calif., and the author of 22 prophecy books.” Does he have a graduate degree in theology or something? Beats me. If he did, you would think that piece of information would appear prominently in his online bios, but it does not.

Joel C. Rosenberg – Bachelor of Fine Arts in filmmaking and a messianic Jew. Rosenberg writes novels and novel-like books linking current events to Biblical prophecy. The tagline on Seven Signs says that Rosenberg is the author of The Last Days. Would that happen to be a scholarly treatise on Revelation? Nope. Is it a tightly-argued piece of research on Biblical end-times teaching (eschatology)? Again, nope. It’s the second novel in his Last Jihad series.

Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins – Co-authors of the Left Behind series of novels. This series has catapulted dispensational premillennialism into the popular imagination. LaHaye’s specialty is the so-called pre-tribulation rapture. It’s hard to imagine how there could be a pre-, post-, or mid-trib rapture when the Bible nowhere links the rapture (“caught up…in the clouds,” 1 Thessalonians 4:17) to a period of tribulation. Maybe that’s why it’s best to write novels about it.

Keith Essex – Associate professor of Bible exposition at The Master’s Seminary. He has a professional ministry degree (D.Min.) from the same institution where he teaches, but otherwise, a solid background in undergraduate and graduate studies. The seminary’s official Statement of Faith affirms dispensational premillennialism.

Michael J. Vlach – Associate professor of theology at The Master’s Seminary. He has an M.Div. from the same institution where he teaches, and a Ph.D. in systematic theology from the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Vlach describes himself as a “committed dispensationalist.”

By my count, that’s one Jew, one messianic Jew, and five Evangelical dispensationalists. Out of seven, only two have advanced degrees in Bible, and they get the least airtime. None of that might matter, except that Seven Signs makes it sound as though dispensationalism is the default view: no other alternatives get a hearing. All the letters after people’s names might not matter, either, if only the show didn’t make such a big deal out of comparing science experts with Bible “scholars.”

For instance, after tying the Pale Horse prophecy (Rev 6:7-8) to a future pandemic that slays a quarter of the world’s population, the narrator concludes with this ominous line: “And both science and religion agree, it may only be a matter of time” (30′ 54″). Note the broad brush strokes: if you are religious, then this is what you believe. Also, notice how the rest of the prophecy is left conveniently untouched. I would have loved to hear how swords are going to be the next super weapon, or how wild bunnies are going to rise up and eat us in our sleep. Apparently, no scientist answered her phone when those particular casting calls went out.

Every now and then, the program will qualify the kind of people they’re talking about. “To these evangelical Christians,” we are told, “it reveals God’s master plan for the destruction of the world, and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ” (41′ 51″). What does the “it” refer to? Is it the Book of Revelation as a whole, or is it the Second Vision alone? If you flatten the text and ignore the structure of Revelation, then you are probably going to come up with the wrong answer.

Even scientists are caught in the net. According to Kirsch, “Scientists agree that many of the features of the end of the world may resemble phenomenon, catastrophes, that are described in Revelation” (42′ 18″). Oh really? Which scientists? In the entire 92 minutes of this show, no scientist offers his opinion on the Bible or the Book of Revelation.

It’s obvious why Seven Signs would want to go with an ultra-literal, futurist interpretation. If the prophecies of John’s Second Vision have already been fulfilled (and they have), then today’s headlines are irrelevant, and so is this movie.

Sharks and Jesus

<rant>Look, Seven Signs is basically Sharknado meets Jack Van Impe. At home, I avoid hyped-up documentaries like, well, the plague. The people who make these kinds of shows are looking for ratings, not truth or balance. Typically, they are not going to show an expert poking his finger through their tissue-thin premise. If dissent is allowed, it will be followed immediately by comments from a less-qualified expert, or someone with an axe to grind, or the narrator/presenter saying, “But does it?,” and carrying on as if nothing had happened.

Documentaries are all about the editing. This is why I refuse to watch a lot of the faith-bashing programs that come out in time for the holidays. And by that I mean, literally, “holy days” — days of significance to Christendom broadly construed. You will never see documentaries on mainstream TV bashing the Qur’an at Ramadan. No siree.

For most of the year, we are fed a steady diet of shows on sharks and plane crashes. As soon as the pastel-colored candy goes on sale, we get to hear about The Lost Gospel That Threatens To Overturn All That Christianity Holds Near and Dear (“The Gospel of Judas,” National Geographic Channel, 2006, aired seven days before Easter). And when the chocolate eggs appear on the shelves, we get to hear Shocking New Research Uncovering the Remains of Jesus (“The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” Discovery Channel, 2007, aired a little over a month before Easter). In both cases, reality quickly outstripped the hype. Remember what I said about putting “lost” in the title?

Nope, there is not enough duct tape in the world to keep my head from exploding when I watch those shows. And besides, my wife forbids me. She doesn’t want to hear me rant.</rant>

© 2014, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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