This is the fifth installment of a series of posts reviewing the new History Channel series entitled Bible Secrets Revealed (for others installements, see here, here, here, and here). I am now a few episodes behind due to (a) the holiday break, and (b) the fact that History Channel locked all their videos and restricted access. Not sure why they did this, but I have finally found a way to view them online.
The latest episode is entitled, “Mysterious Prophecies,” and examines the role of prophets in the history of Israel and the Church. Did these prophets really predict the future? Were the prophecies true? In particular, the documentary focuses on the prophecies regarding the coming of the Messiah.
This episode raised a number of intriguing issues and was more balanced than some of the prior ones. But, there are still some claims that need to be challenged.
1. Did the followers of Jesus misuse OT prophecies? Bart Ehrman and other scholars claim in this documentary that the earliest followers of Jesus simply looked into the OT in a desperate attempt to find something that could point to Jesus. Thus, the were just retroactively imposing their own messianic understanding onto OT passages that were never intended to be read this way.
Now, there is an element of truth in this reconstruction. It is certainly true that the earliest followers of Jesus saw OT passages in a fresh, new way that they never had before. They looked at the OT with a Christo-centric lens and made connections and links that they otherwise might not have made.
But, this does not mean their understanding of the OT was invalid. The coming of Jesus opened up all sorts of new understandings of the OT–and there is nothing scandalous about this. Moreover, it should be remembered that these messianic interpretations of the OT were not just due to the later disciples, but were initiated by Jesus himself who often claimed to be fulfilling the OT (e.g., Luke 4:21; 24:46), and even opened up the OT to his disciples in a fresh way (Luke 24:45).
2. Are promises of eternal life made up just to reduce present-day suffering? The documentary presents the prophetic passages of the Bible, particularly the ones that promise reward and eternal life, as merely a psychological move to alleviate people’s suffering in the present. These texts are not really prophecies, but a way to address people’s most basic need, namely to have hope in the midst of turbulent times.
The problem with this argument is that it confuses the result of these prophecies with the cause of these prophecies. The fact that prophecies may result in giving people hope in the midst of suffering, is not an adequate argument to prove that the prophecies are themselves caused by people’s need for hope. Indeed, this argument is dangerously close to Karl Marx’s maxim, “Religion is the opium of the masses.” A skeptic is free to have this opinion about religion, but that cannot be substituted for an actual argument.
3. Was the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius the motivation for the book of Revelation? One of the strangest suggestion of this documentary is that the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. was the impetus for John to write the book of Revelation. However, there is virtually no compelling evidence for this connection. Sure, Revelation refers to cataclysmic activities, but there is no reason in the text to think that John is referring to a volcanic eruption in his own day. Rather, he is drawing on cataclysmic imagery from the Old Testament in books like Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Isaiah. In other words, the main influence on John’s writing is not the present but the past–he is influenced by the writings of Scripture.
4. Does 1 Thess 4:16-17 teach that there will be a “rapture”? Curiously, a number of the scholars in this documentary argue that 1 Thess 4:16-17 teaches a “rapture,” namely that Jesus will come back and gather his people to him in heaven. Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman argue that this “rapture” contradicts the book of Revelation which teaches that Jesus will not bring his people back to heaven but instead will bring a new heavens and a new earth, destroying his enemies at the same time.
However, it is not at all clear that 1 Thess 4:16-17 teaches a “rapture” where people are taken back up into heaven. In fact, the text nowhere mentions going back to heaven. Instead, it says that Jesus will “descend from heaven.” Yes, the saints will “meet the Lord in the air” (v.17), but this is not Christ taking his saints back to heaven, but rather it is Christ gathering his elect to himself as he descends to bring final judgment. Thus, there is no contradiction between 1 Thess 4:16-17 and the book of Revelation.
In the end, this particular episode of Bible Secrets Revealed is marked by a pretty consistent theme, namely an attempt to find a naturalistic explanation for the Bible’s supernatural claims. OT prophecies, we are told, don’t really predict Christ; they are just texts which are manipulated by early Christians. Promises of eternal life, we are told, cannot really be trusted; these are just made up in order to placate the masses in the midst of their sufferings. The trials and tribulations of Revelation, we are told, are not really going to happen; they are just the musings of a primitive man (John) who was frightened by a volcanic eruption.
The problem, of course, is that it is not at all clear that these naturalistic explanations are superior to the supernatural ones. They are only persuasive to those who already hold to a naturalistic worldview from the start.