Friday, April 26, 2013

Assumption Upon Assumption: The Role of Worldviews in Eschatological Speculation

If two people don't share the same worldview, they may mean very different things even when talking about the same topic. Nowhere is this axiom more true than when the discussion involves religious topics. One of the main reasons I now steer away from apologetics is I can never be sure whether I'm debating the same thing as the person I'm talking with.1 This was true whether I was talking to an Evangelical defending biblical inerrancy, Book of Mormon historicity with another Latter-day Saint, or the implications of either issue with a skeptic/atheist.2

A recent discussion I had with a couple Jehovah's Witnesses made me realize that apologetics was not the only religious topic where worldview makes a difference. The topic turned to the last days, and I was asked whether I believed we were approaching the end. I honestly replied that I thought the entire subject was irrelevant.3 In retrospect, that really should have been a red flag. I was asked whether I thought it would make a difference if it could be proven we are in the last days. On that point I hesitated, because I honestly did not know whether it would affect my feelings.4 That proved a natural point for them to discuss why Jehovah's Witnesses believe we are, in fact, in the last days.

I was happy about that, because I finally learned the significance of the year 1914 to Jehovah's Witnesses.5 According to Watchtower doctrine, 1914 was the year Jesus was installed as the ruler of the heavenly kingdom. Jesus' ascension to the throne marks the beginning of the end. I'm sure there is more involved, but that is the gist of it. The teaching reminded me of the Seventh-day Adventist doctrine of investigative judgment, wherein Christ is said to entered the holy of holies area in the heavenly temple to begin the final judgment.6

As a supernatural event, the Watchtower's doctrine is impossible to either prove or disprove—one either believes it or they don't.7 It is not my place to make that determination. What really got me thinking about the problem of worldviews was the biblical reasoning Jehovah's Witnesses used to get to 1914. What follows is a reflection of how my understanding of the Bible causes problems with the Watchtower's dating system—and by extension almost all eschatological speculation.

Please note my intent is not about “proving” the Watchtower “wrong.” Even if that were my intent, I'd be foolish to think my statements are successful. In fact, stated as an argument, it is completely unfair. With one notable exception, all my reflections are directed at an appendix of the Watchtower publication What Does the Bible Really Teach?8 (hereafter WDBRT). This appendix, “1914—A Significant Year in Bible Prophecy” is obviously just a summary of key points meant for a general reader. A more detailed explanation would probably answer some of the specific issues I raise.9

If it looks like I'm picking on the Jehovah's Witnesses, it is only because I'm working with material that I have right in front of me. Consider this a case study illustrating a general point. These issues could have been applied to the Millerite movement of the 1830s. They can be applied to Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins' Left Behind series. They would apply to virtually any eschatological theory that requires a fairly literal reading of the biblical end times material. All these interpretations require a certain mindset, without which they could not begin their work. Someone who does not accept their worldview will find their work hard to follow and difficult to accept.

The Jehovah's Witnesses, along with all others that seek to relate the Bible's apocalyptic material to real world events, share the view that Scripture is verbally inspired. As one of my friends put it, the biblical authors are God's secretaries.10 A fair way to state this is to say they believe Scripture is the Word of God because it is God's words. I do not take this view. The best way to summarize my view is to say Scripture is the Word of God, but not (necessarily) God's words.11

The implications of this difference are stunning when it comes to discussing the “last days.” If the biblical authors are God's secretaries, it makes sense that various passages mean (more or less) the same thing when they discuss a given topic using similar wording.12 I don't think the biblical authors are God's secretaries, and therefore I cannot assume different authors mean the same thing even when they use the same word. For example, when Jesus talks about Jerusalem being “trampled on by the nations,”13 Luke is alluding to Isaiah 63:18, Daniel 8:13, or both. And they are all likely talking about different empires. Isaiah 63:18 likely has the Babylonians (or possibly the Persians) in mind; Daniel 8:13 likely has the Greeks in mind; and Luke 21:24 likely has the Romans in mind. Each writer must be taken in their own context first, a point I will return to later.

If we don't assume different biblical writers mean the same thing when talking about the same subject, the repercussions are staggering.14 The whole concept of setting specific dates for events to happen in the last days becomes nearly impossible. In order to do it, we would have to show all the authors have the exact same timeline in mind and the flag drops on the exact same event. We cannot just assume it. Should the authors have differing timelines or if the flag drops on a different events, the differences would have to be reconciled. If the differences can't be humanly reconciled, then game over.

The other big problem I have with eschatological discussions is the assumption of exclusive literalism.15 Note this is not a problem unique to the Watchtower's chronology. Most end time hypotheses suffer from the same problem, from William Miller to Hal Lindsey to (more recently) the Left Behind series. This is not necessarily a fault—one probably can't relate eschatological texts to the real world without assuming some degree of literalism. Without the assumption of literalism, most discussions about whether we are in the last days become moot, even ludicrous. I take only one biblical text about the last days literally: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32, NRSV).

Let's move on to our specific application. According WDBRT, the Bible teaches that the Gentiles began trampling on God's rule when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, which they date to 607 BCE. This “trampling” would last for “seven times,” citing Dan. 4:10-16. Revelation 12:6, 14 is used to establish this amounts to 2520 days. This is obviously wrong, so the day-year principle is invoked to to get 2520 years. Adding 2520 years to 607 BCE yields 1914. Ergo, this is when Jesus was became the heavenly king. With Jesus' ascension to the throne, the “last days” have begun.

The 607 BCE date for the fall of Jerusalem threw me. I had never encountered a date that early before. Indeed, the only significant debate among modern historians is whether the date was 587 or 586 BCE. Even most Evagelicals don't dispute this.16 My new friends did not appear to be aware of any other date but 607 BCE, so I had to go looking for the Watchtower's justification. I found it here. Basically, the 607 BCE date is based on a literal reading of Jeremiah's prediction (25:11-12; 29:10) of a seventy year exile. If the Jews were released from captivity with Cyrus' decree in 537 BCE, then counting back seventy years gets us to 607 BCE.17 The historical data pointing to 587/6 BCE is wrong.

Thus, the whole chronology hinges on taking Jeremiah's “seventy years” literally. It is used to date the fall of Jerusalem to 607 BCE and drop the flag that leads to 1914. But what if Jeremiah's seventy years is not supposed to be taken literally?18 If, for example, “seventy” is a rounded off figure for anything between sixty-five to seventy-four years, the end date would be off by as much as five years. And if the number is entirely symbolic, the end date is anyone's guess. The Jehovah's Witnesses may be right the seventy years should be taken literally. I can't just assume it though.

Using Rev. 12:6, 14 appears to stem from the fact that Daniel chapter 4 does not define what is meant by times. I have no question that John drew upon the book of Daniel in composing Revelation. However, I have no assurance John and the author of Daniel meant the same thing by “times.” I could set aside my reservations and stipulate that John's “times” is the same as the author of Daniel's “times.” The math works if nothing else. But even that doesn't work! As WDBRT says, “the Gentile nations did not stop 'trampling' on God's rulership a mere 2,520 days after Jerusalem's fall” (p. 217). For me, that is a clear and bright line that something is wrong.

This appears to be the reason why the day-year principle is invoked. Yes, the day-year principle has a long history in biblical studies, particularly in studying the books of Daniel and Revelation. It is specifically invoked in Num. 14:34 and Ezek. 4:6 and implied in Dan. 9:24-27. And the Jehovah's Witnesses are not the only ones who use it; the day-year principle is commonly invoked by more “orthodox” Christians as well.19 The day-year principle “saves the prophecy” because a straightforward reading can only lead to the conclusion the prophecy failed. If one believes the Bible is verbally inspired and inerrant, then surely the prophecy is right and we just need to figure out how it actually works. Hence, the fall of Jerusalem was actually in 607 BCE regardless of the historical data, and the “days” of Daniel and Revelation really mean “years.”

Because I feel so strongly that each biblical book should be taken in its own context, anyone who invokes the day-year principle raises a red flag for me. For me, a variation of Occam's razor comes into play. The more texts that are needed to prove an otherwise obscure point, the less likely the Bible really teaches that point. I become suspicious the person making the argument is simply proof-texting. When the day/year principle is invoked, I'm tempted to respond, “Look, if the Bible meant to say the end times begin 2,520 years after the fall of Jerusalem, it would say, 'The end times will begin 2,520 years after the fall of Jerusalem.' No need to go through complicated codes.”20

If pressed further, I would ask why I should assume the day-year principle is in play when it is not apparent in the immediate context, other than to save the prophecy.21 With specific regard to the Watchtower's chronology, other than the fact that 2520 days doesn't work literally, why should I assume this principle is in play? “[W]ith the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Pet. 3:8, paraphrasing Ps. 90:4). I could use that reasoning to say the last days will start 2.52 million years after the fall of Jerusalem with as much justification.22

If one does not begin with the assumptions of verbal inspiration or biblical inerrancy, one does not need to save the prophecy. I can just say the prophecy failed, be done with it, and move on. In the past, this attitude has perplexed biblical literalists, Book of Mormon historicists, and complete skeptics alike. No doubt this attitude will prove puzzling to my Jehovah's Witness discussion partners, if it hasn't already done so. Hopefully, we'll be able to keep our radically different starting points in mind as we go forward.

1 Another reason is that I've come to realize that apologetic arguments are not meant for nonbelievers. Finally, such debates have a tendency to devolve into shouting matches, literally or figuratively.
2 While my worldview overlaps to some degree with all these groups, in practice, their representatives don't know what to do with me. Consider these statements: “The Bible is full of errors and contradictions; “The Book of Mormon was written by Joseph Smith;” and “Evolution proves Genesis is wrong.” My reply to any of these statements would be “Yeah, so, what's your point?”
3 For the record, I do believe that Christ will return … someday. I just don't believe the Second Coming is an appropriate focus on which to live my life.
4 After further reflection, I decided that it still would not matter if it could be proven we are in the last days. I admit I might feel a sense a relief that it will all be over soon. But meanwhile I still have work to do today.
5 I had come across references in Watchtower literature to some event in 1914, but they were mostly passing references. I knew it was important, but not why.
6 I am, of course, aware there is more involved in the Seventh-day Adventist teaching than my one-sentence summary implies. For an overview, see “Investigative judgment.”
7 As a reminder, much the same thing could be said of Christ's resurrection or Joseph Smith's First Vision.
8 (Brooklyn, New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, 2005), 215-218. A PDF version of this book can be found here.
9 However, I doubt it would address the fundamental difference of worldviews, my main theme.
10 I do not know if this means she follows a dictation model or a verbal, plenary view. She may not be aware of the distinction. I would consider it a distinction without a difference for practical purposes.
11 I have not sweated out the details, so please don't press the point.
12 In fact, if one believes Scripture is verbally inspired, then even the most outrageous proof-texting is justifiable.
13 Luke 21:24, New World Translation as quoted in What Does the Bible Really Teach, p. 215.
14 The repercussions are not limited to discussions about the last days. The whole concept of “Biblical theology” also requires a (more or less) unified voice throughout the Bible in order to work. Nor can we properly say, “Scripture teaches X” without qualification. We could talk about recurring themes, or compare the theological views of the different authors, but that is about as far as we can go.
15 What I mean by “exclusive literalism” is a topic for another essay. Briefly, the term refers to biblical literalism that takes the literal meaning of Scripture to the point of denying scientific or historical data, logic, or even common sense.
16 I once threw Jeremiah's “seventy years” at an Evangelical claiming the Bible's prophecies were completely fulfilled as an example of a failed prophecy. 586 BCE to 537 BCE only amounts to some fifty years, after all. Notably his rebuttal did not dispute these dates.
17 The Jehovah's Witnesses are not the only ones who use this reasoning. See this for an example of someone using the same reasoning to get to the same date. The sites editors specifically deny other Watchtower claims.
18 I am aware of the other biblical texts supporting a contention Jeremiah should be taken literally. But for the argument to work, one has to assume those texts have to be taken literally. It is the assumption of literalism itself I'm questioning.
19 For an overview, see “Day-year principle.”
20 Again, this does not apply only to eschatological speculation. I have gotten the same type of runaround when I press for a book, chapter, and verse when someone declares something to the effect of, “The Bible says abortion is wrong.”
21 Daniel chapter nine may imply the day-year principle; Revelation chapter 12 does not.
22 However, it should be noted that we may have a case where a mere summary of the chronology does not do the argument justice. Using this reasoning to “prove” the Jehovah's Witnesses “wrong” would likely be a strawman argument.