Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Thoughts about the Apocalypse

He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom, shall be preached in the whole world, for a testimony to all nations, and then shall the consummation come. When therefore you shall see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place: he that readeth let him understand. Then they that are in Judea, let them flee to the mountains... Matthew 24: 13-16

Interpretation of apocalyptic passages in scripture is dominated by the extremes. There are those who read exceedingly particular and peculiar messages into such passages. In opposition to the Rapture-ready, a common interpretation has minimized the relevance of these passages to the return of Christ, instead seeing their fulfillment in such historical events as the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the fall of the Roman Empire.

I am not writing to dispute the relevance of these historic events to apocalyptic passages throughout Scripture. Instead, I wish to propose (though I am hardly the first to do so) that these passages are best viewed as being progressively fulfilled, with their consummation yet to occur. The above passage in Matthew 24 is definitely evocative of the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. The question is whether that event marked the entirety of the fulfillment of the Matthew 24 prophecy, or whether there is a greater fulfillment yet to come. To answer that question, let us turn back to the Prophet Daniel.

The "abomination that causes desolation" is mentioned three times in Daniel- in 9:27, in 11:31 and in 12:11. 9:27 occurs in the context of a prophecy of the Messiah (Daniel 9:25-27):
Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven sevens, and sixty-two sevens. It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two sevens, the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with many for one seven. In the middle of the seven he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing of the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.
The striking thing about this passage is that the abomination that causes desolation appears to be something that follows the destruction of the city and the sanctuary (70 AD). The words "War will continue until the end" do not fit AD 70 particularly well, as AD 70 did not mark the end. Still, one can read this as limited to AD 70. Perhaps it is not the best interpretation, but neither is it plainly wrong.

Chapter 11 of Daniel begins with a detailed prophecy of the rise of a future King, a prophecy that is fulfilled with Antiochus Epiphanes. He would desecrate the Temple, sacrificing pigs and erecting his own image in the sanctuary:
His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation. With flattery he will corrupt those who have violated the covenant, but the people who know their God will firmly resist him. Those who are wise will instruct many, though for a time they will fall by the sword or be burned or captured or plundered. When they fall, they will receive a little help, and many who are not sincere will join them. Some of the wise will stumble, so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless until the time of the end, for it will still come at the appointed time. (Daniel 11:31-35)
While the remainder of Daniel 11 appears to continue to describe this King who is to come, the prophecy no longer fits Antiochus Epiphanes- the Prophet has subtly allowed the description of Antiochus Epiphanes be overtaken by a prophecy of the Antichrist.

The twelfth chapter of Daniel describes the victory of God over this King: the delivery of Israel by Michael the Archangel, the resurrection of the dead, and the reward of the just. The prophet Daniel is instructed to "shut up these words, and seal the book", a further indication that this prophecy is not for the immediate time. Daniel then sees two men by the side of a river, and one asks "how long shall it be to the end of these wonders?" The answer is given: a time, times and half a time. Finally, in a further explication of this answer, we are referred back to the abomination that causes desolation: :
From the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the abomination that causes desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days. (Daniel 12:11)
That's pretty much 3 1/2 years (a time, times & half a time). This mention of the abomination that causes desolation is referring back to its presence in Daniel 11. However, that places us in a conundrum- the Daniel 11 reference clearly applies to Antiochus Epiphanes. Remember however that Daniel imperceptably shifts between the King who fits Antiochus Epiphanes and a King who is best regarded as the Antichrist. With this understanding, it is not surprising that the "abomination that causes desolation" passage should apply to both Kings.

We should see in history the prefigurements of the Antichrist and of Satan's final defeat, but should not mistake them for the whole. I believe, as generations of Christians have believed, that Holy Scripture describes the coming of the Antichrist and the consummation of history. Of the day and the hour we are not told, nor are we granted a detailed, blow-by-blow account. We are not granted certainty, nor can we dismiss it as already occured. Instead, we are given mystery.


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