The classical dispensational model, as we discussed in part 2 (if you haven’t read click here), born and shaped as it was by John Darby in the early 1830s which hinged, so to speak, on a secret-rapture of the church spread like wild fire as at appealed to the wider-scientific worldview of the early twentieth-century. It was the cultural-but-polemically-shaped-reflection of the rational scientific models of the naturalists of the early twentieth-century. In sum, “You have a scientific model?—so do we.” As Barbara Rossing writes, “When the goal is to put scripture on the level of science there can be no loose ends, no allegory, and certainly no contradictions.”
In other words, in pursuit of a theological system that neatly fits all the pertinent texts into a water tight-scientific system, dispensationalists may actually be pressing aspects of the text—nonconforming exegetical material, genre, original context, etc.—beyond recognition which may violate the original authorial intent. It is sort of like when I squish my favorite-roundish hamburger buns into the squarish-holes in my toaster; the result?—squarish-toasted hamburger buns, but it is another thing to say that the buns started out square or that the baker intended them to be. Yes, the dispensational system works—so does my toaster—but is this theological worldview “smashing down” texts so that there is no tension between the round-shape of the given texts and square-angles of the system itself? This statement from the famed dispensational Charles Ryrie sums up my point well:
The premillennial scheme is a result of interpreting the promises and prophecies of Scripture in a plain, normal, or literal way. This is the strength of premillennialism—its method of interpretation is consistently the same whether applied to history, doctrine, or prophecy. It is unwise to take the words of the Bible in a nonliteral sense, particularly when the literal meaning is plain. Those promises to Abraham and David concerned the physical descendants of Abraham. Why, then, expect them to be fulfilled by the church unless Israel no longer means Israel but by some sleight of hand means the church? Since the New Testament continues to distinguish the Jews from the church, it appears that we can expect these promises to be fulfilled through the Jews rather than the church (1 Co 10:32; Ro 11:26).
Despite the confusing, and in my opinion misleading, use of “literal” here (more on this in our genre portion in this series) note Ryrie’s premillennial hermeneutic: “its method of interpretation is consistently the same whether applied to history, doctrine, or prophecy.” In sum, dispensationalist hermeneutical strategy gives rise to a worldview (read here as “interpretive lens”) that approaches these texts with a near-total disregard for genre and rhetorical function; in other words, to read apocalyptic as “literal” (which is not the same as “literal sense” of the text) could lead to a serious misreading of a text whose literal sense is in fact metaphorical. Darby et al are thus guilty squishing round buns into square-toaster holes. N.T. Wright is instructive on this issue:
It is important to notice a key difference in meaning between one of the Reformers’ central technical terms and the way in which the same word has been used in the modernist period. When the Reformers insisted on the “literal” sense of scripture, they were referring to the first of the four medieval senses. Though, as we saw, this would refer to the historical meaning and referent of scripture… the “literal” sense actually means “the sense of the letter”; and if the “letter”—the actual words used by the original authors or editors—is metaphorical, so be it.
This is why Darby’s use of “literal” is over-simplistic at best and misleading at worst, because as the Reformers knew full well, the “literal sense” of a given passage could in fact be metaphorically symbolic and not historically concrete. To use the term “literal” as meaning “equivocally concrete” in every exegetical circumstance, as Darby here suggests, is to run roughshod over the potentially metaphorical-literal sense of the same. Darby, a priest in the house of dispensationalism, thus sacrifices the lamb of textual-sensitivity at the altar of systematic-clarity. And as we’ll soon see, this is just the case when Darby and gang begin treating 1 Thessalonians 4:17, the “go-to” text of the rapture adherents.
The Ancient Apocalyptic Imagination
The rise of the Jewish apocalyptic imagination, according Frederick Murphy, was the result of a complex pressure system made up of both “external” and “internal” forces. External influences can be traced by Zoroastrian interest in “dualism, periodization of history, heaven and hell, postmortem rewards and punishments, resurrection, angels and demons, the clash of superhuman forces of good and evil, eschatological battles with attendant suffering, and the ascent of the soul.” It seems, then, that Israel’s exilic banishment from the Promise Land into Babylon awakened apocalyptic thought that reached full orb during the Hellenization attempts under Antiochus IV in the second-century. Other external influences were much closer to home; scholars for some time have detected the shape of ancient Persian and Canaanite combat myths which seem evident in the cosmic battle scenes often depicted in Israelite and later Christian apocalypses. This is not so much about “borrowing” Mesopotamian thought, much less about “stealing” it, but about the complex interaction in life, thought, and culture that Israel shared with her wider Near Eastern neighbors.
Mesopotamian apocalyptic thought seem to awaken what lay dormant within Israel’s own wisdom and prophetic traditions. Israel’s wisdom literature, according to Murphy, like Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and Wisdom of Solomon seemed to contain the some of the necessary ingredients for what would later become full orbed apocalypticism (the worldview) under Antiochus IV, distinctions aside. However, it seems that Israel’s prophetic tradition exercised a greater role in the materialization of the apocalyptic worldview enjoyed by later Jews and early Christians. Murphy concludes:
Jewish apoclypses (the genre) emerged during the Hellenistic period. They show the influence of Persian and Greek forms and thought, characteristic of the mixing of cultures that defined Hellenism. They are products of factors both internal and external to Israel’s culture.
Interestingly enough, the Jewish-non Christian (a hard and fast distinction between Jewish and Christian here seems to be anachronistic) side of the first and second-centuries seemed to quite this side of their imaginative discourse and worldview after their two devastating loses to Rome. Remember, apoclypses—like Daniel and the Animal Apocalypse—were originally written largely in response to the new found Hellenizing threat of Antiochus IV. They are a colorful-prophetic call to faithful obedience in the face of pagan apostasy, even if it meant battle or martyrdom. But, as N.T. Wright has noted about the post 135 A.D. era, Jewish apocalyptic features that looked toward a cosmic-climactic end are traded in for an interpretative approach to Torah adherence. Wright continues:
After the second revolt there began the period which marked the real beginning of what we know as rabbinic Judaism. From then on the revolutionary talk was taboo. It was rabbi Nahunya be ha-kanah, a disciple of Akiba, who gave voice to the changed mood: ‘He that takes upon himself the yoke of the Law, from him shall be taken away the yoke of the kingdom and the yoke of worldly care,’ and vice versa. In other words, study of Torah means that one need not be concerned with political power… Energy (and the apocalypticism that fueled it) which had previously been directed into revolutionary politics was now channeled into revisionist scholarship.
While non-Christian Jews seemed to be extinguishing any apocalyptic-counter-imperial fervor, Christians (Jewish and Gentile) however, seemed to be adding fuel to the apocalyptic fires, producing what would ultimately and arguably be the most well-known apocalypse ever—St. John’s Revelation. I believe, and this is just a hunch, that Christianity’s emphasis in the return of their Messiah would not permit them to follow their Jewish compatriots down the path of interpretative devotion and instead into a head on collision with Rome, whose historians were ever busy promulgating their own imperial-spun eschatology, especially in Asia Minor. Early Christianity would thus pick up and bear the charred standard of apocalytpicism that lay smoldering in the ash heaps of Jerusalem.
The apocalyptic worldview of the early Jewish and Christian writers was shaped largely by their interactions, mostly oppressive, with the then-current empires. All the motifs are present—cosmic battle, heaven and hell, resurrection, evil, angels and demons, etc.—in the later Christian apocalypse, only there is a radical re-centering around devotion to and imitation of Christ coupled with a symbolically-charged polemical position against Rome and her cultural-pervasive ideology. Once the coded and symbolic nature of Revelation (and other contemporary apocalypses) is grasped as it relates to the cosmic struggle of early Christ followers vis-à-vis the Roman Empire and her propaganda machine will we begin to see that Darby et al never got on the right interpretative-footing to begin with; these texts were simply not produced to answer the kind of questions buzzing around in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries. Greg Carey seems to sum up best what St. John’s apocalypse is about:
Revelation is the most explicitly counter-imperial book in the New Testament. It pronounces God’s condemnation of Rome and its empire and looks for the future establishment of a new society in the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven. It calls in the mean time for faithful endurance of persecution by the forces of empire, anticipating that it may lead to martyrdom.
Now that we’ve considered worldviews and some historical considerations that gave rise both to the apocalyptic worldview of the first-century Jews and Christians and the much later dispensational system of Darby and his followers can we create some hermeneutical breathing room to hear these texts afresh in their own imperial context. This means we’ll be able to re-engage the key texts in the New Testament with a greater care to historical context and genre, the subject of the next part in this engaging and yes, dizzying topic.
 Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 25.
 Charles Ryrie, A Survey of Biblical Doctrine (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972).
 N.T. Wright, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005), 73.
 Frederick J. Murphy, Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World: A Comprehensive (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), 22.
N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 199.
 Greg Carey, The Book of Revelation as Counter-Imperial Script in The Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Witness, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 157.