Monday, June 15, 2015

The End Is Near(er)

Steve Ashburn,The Next Nuclear War: Are We on the Edge of the End Times?

“But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true.”
—Jeremiah 28:9

I promised myself I’d squelch my skepticism regarding end-times literature. Famous Christian eschatologists in recent years, like Tim LaHaye, Harold Camping, and Hal Lindsey, have needed to revise their apocalyptic handbooks—several times in Lindsey’s case, as his prophecies keep not coming true. So okay, books like this aren’t for me. Therefore I swore I’d sideline my theological understanding and read this book entirely “as is.”

Steve Ashburn doesn’t make this easy. His cocksure declaration, from page one, that he uniquely possesses knowledge necessary to decode biblical end-times prophecies, is off-putting, especially since his predictions sound remarkably familiar. His Christian Zionist appeals come almost verbatim from Lindsey and LaHaye. His principles of progressive revelation, finding a historical through-line in non-sequential prophetic writings, is altogether concordant with American Dispensationalism.

Let’s avoid bogging down in theological terminology (like Dispensationalism). Instead, let’s focus on whether reasonable, Biblically literate Christians can take Ashburn’s predictions seriously. That’s no easy sale. Serious Bible readers disagree how literally we should take scriptural language. Much Biblical text was written around the same time Homer composed his epics, and serious, well-informed Christians debate whether and where we’ll find literal versus metaphorical language.

From the beginning, Ashburn prophesies chillingly specific historical events, beginning with a war between North African coalition, under Egyptian hegemony, and Israel. Ashburn finds this in Ezekiel, which prophesies against Pharaoh. Wait, Egypt hasn’t had a Pharaoh in millennia; can something so rooted in ancient days really reflect the day after tomorrow? Yes, Ashburn says, because the prophecy isn’t about Pharaoh, it’s about Satan, who dwells in the Nile.

Ezekiel 29 foretells a situation where Egypt lies desolate, bereft of life, its people scattered abroad and its skies blackened with God’s wrath. Could this perhaps describe the Roman conquest of Egypt, which saw its national treasures looted, its language extinguished, and its identity as an independent nation ended for two millennia? Absolutely not, Ashburn says; we must necessarily interpret this prophecy as Israeli-initiated nuclear annihilation.


Ashburn writes: “The Bible uses in this passage both symbolic and literal meaning—which can be confusing.” Except to Steve Ashburn, evidently. He decodes how we should read Biblical images as unerringly literal. Ashburn actually asserts that images from Ezekiel’s prophecy make sense for literal reading if we realize Ezekiel could see clearly, but couldn’t understand images like nuclear fallout in ancient Hebrew terms. Ezekiel couldn’t understand… but we can.

My pastor once explained Biblical revelation thusly: would you write a letter, knowing recipients would truly understand it years, possibly centuries, later? Probably not. Biblical writers wrote in distinctive idiom, using images and references specific to their place and time. Even when using metaphoric language and indirection, they wrote for their own living audience. We can apply Biblical principles to modern life, but we cannot impose our situation onto ancient prose.

However, Ashburn, like LaHaye and Lindsey, isn’t circumscribed by adherence to boring old fact or logical sequence. Ancient Hebrews received God’s revelation piecemeal, and therefore got portions of apocalyptic omens spread thinly, Dispensationalists believe. We moderns, having gathered separated ancient manuscripts into one book, the Bible, can read holistically as Hebrews couldn’t, permitting big-picture insights that the prophets and patriarchs didn’t share.

Dispensationalist eschatology skips merrily across entire books of the Bible, assembling prophecies like jigsaw puzzles. Though Ashburn anchors chapters to central Biblical passages, especially Ezekiel and Daniel, he isn’t limited by proximity or sequence. One lengthy paragraph caroms from Ezekiel to Obadiah to Joel to Isaiah to 1 Thessalonians to Ezekiel to Revelation to Zechariah, cheerfully heedless that these authors didn’t know one another, and certainly didn’t collaborate.

Then I flung the book.

Notice that list doesn’t include much New Testament reference. Dispensationalists, unlike most Christians, rely heavily on Hebrew scripture as theological foundation. Even New Testament apocalypse, like Revelation or Matthew 24, come second to Hebrew prophecy. Ashburn dips momentarily into Matthew or Paul where necessary, but never lingers. In Lutheran terms, Ashburn’s eschatology is all law, no gospel.

An agnostic friend, who lapses into self-righteousness during religious discussions, recently snapped: “Far too many Christians have no idea what is in the Bible.” I don’t want to believe this. Surely others read Scripture and theology like me. Yet this book relies on Biblical illiteracy and theological confusion. Ashburn reads less like a theologian, more like a fast-talker. It’s an insult to my faith.

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