Symbolism is fascinating, bringing depth and richness to the arts, literature…and to the Bible. Yet how do we know what is symbolic in scripture and what is literal?
This is a very important question, because if God is attempting to convey to us literal facts and commands, and we willfully interpret them in an evasive way, we have made his wishes of none effect. We have insulted God and sinned.
Distinguishing what God intends to be literal from symbolic in scripture is, thus, a high stakes game upon which our salvation can easily depend. As a result, we should never interpret scripture as symbolic unless there is overwhelming evidence that God intends us to.
Fortunately, God usually provides a common-sense context to help us understand the difference between the literal and symbolic. If he does not, he understands if we say, "We're baffled."
God is like a human father wanting to instruct his children. For example: what if a father were concerned by his daughter's poor grades in college. He writes to her and says, "Cindy, you'll have to get your house in order!"
Does Cindy think her father now believes she owns a house and must do better housekeeping in order to keep his monthly support coming? Of course not. Common sense tells her that he is speaking symbolically: by "house" he refers to her studies.
On the other hand, what if this father has a younger son still living at home. He says to Kevin: "Today, I want you to empty the garbage, rake the yard, and clean up the garage." Yet, when evening comes, alas, all these chores have been left undone.
Kevin replies: "Dad, I know for a fact that you spoke symbolically to Cindy. Knowing you to be consistent, I interpreted what you said to me as symbolic also. I decided that you would approve of my broadening my mind by mastering several educational video games. That is how I spent my day."
Is the father going to be "broadminded" in his response? Of course not. He is angry. He has been mocked, his words being made of none effect. He has been entirely frustrated in communicating his will. He will punish his son, having zero tolerance for his ‘symbolism game' in the future.
The eschatological equivalent of Kevin's symbolism game is being played by a rapidly growing school of biblical interpretation called "Pretorism." It contends that Christ's Second Coming and final fulfillment of prophecy occurred around 70 A.D., especially during events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman armies.
This claim is in flat defiance of St. Paul's warning not to let anyone convince you, by any argument, that the Second Coming has already taken place. (II Thess, 2:2-3)
The Bible contains many specific prerequisites for the Second Coming and fulfillment of prophesy. How does Pretorism deal with these? Answer: like Kevin, it declares them largely "symbolic" even though most are as clearly enunciated as Dad's work list.
Here are some events the Bible stipulates must precede and surround Christ's Second Coming, which Pretorists say were entirely fulfilled nearly 2,000 years ago.
|Bible Prediction||Pretorist Interpretation|
|Israel makes a covenant with Antichrist
|Antichrist killed, resurrected
(Rev. 13;7, 12, 18)
|Remnant Jews endure "Great Tribulation" for 3 ½ years
(Dan. 7:25, 9:27, 12:11)
|fulfilled in siege of Jerusalem, 70 A.D.|
|Antichrist desecrates Jewish temple and law: "Abomination of Desolation"
(Dan. 9:26,27, 12:11; Matt. 24:15)
|fulfilled in accidental burning of temple in 70 A.D.|
|Antichrist sits in temple proclaiming himself god
(II Thess. 2:4)
|Antichrist requires all on earth to receive his mark, "666," in order to buy or sell
|symbolic, fulfilled by decrees of Nero|
|Antichrist's false prophet performs miracles/causing fire to come down from skies
|Christ arrives like lightning flashing from one end of earth to other; in the clouds (Mk. 13:26); with a shout (I Thess. 4:15-17); every eye seeing him worldwide (Rev. 1:7)||NON-LITERAL|
|First resurrection of saints or "rapture"
(Matt. 24:31; Mk. 13:27; I Thess: 4:15-17)
|symbolic of personal redemption|
|Christ judges world with disasters, plagues and vials of wrath
(Is. 51:22-23; Jer. 30:16; Ezek. 38, 39; Joel 2:20, 3:1-2; Obad.1:15 Micah 5:15; Hab. 3:8-15; Zech. 14:2-5; Rev. 8:7-13, 9:17-21)
|symbolic of siege of Jerusalem 70 A.D.|
|Antichrist and his armies attempt to destroy Christ as he comes in skies
|symbolic of human perversity|
|Christ destroys Antichrist's armies, Gog and Magog (Rev. 19:20)||NON-LITERAL|
|Christ alights on Mt. of Olives, splitting it in half
|Christ brings repentant nation of Jews back to Jerusalem
(Is. 4:4, 10:20, 14:3, 31:12, 51:17, 52:1-4, 64:9-10, Jer. 3:22-24, 30:8, 33:6, 8, 50:20, Ezek. 11:19-20, 16:41-42, 39:22, 44:23; Joel 2:18-20; Zeph. 2:7, 3:11-20)
|symbolic of conversion of individual Jews to Christianity|
|Christ ruling the world from Jerusalem
(Ezek. 4; Joel 3:18; Isa. 11:6-10)
|symbolic of Christ ruling in our hearts|
|Christ ruling the world with his saints for 1,000 years
(Dan. 7:22, 27; Zech. 9:8-10, 14:9; Isa. 11:6-10; Dan: 7:22; Zech. 8. 9:8-10; Joel 3:20; Rev. 20:1-6)
Obviously, the above sequence of events did not occur during the centuries prior to, or immediately after, Christ's alleged Second Coming in 70 A.D. Yet, Pretorists are undaunted. They believe that Bible prophecy, being primarily symbolical and figurative, need not correspond precisely to the facts of history. On the contrary, the Bible never evades truth and historical reality. Instead, it unites literal reality with the spiritual.
Without the many "prophetic sign posts" the Bible provides for the church during the age of grace, the church has very little idea of what threats to expect or even who its true enemies are. Pretorism claims we are now living in all we can ever expect of a "millennium." They say we are now experiencing that symbolic thousand year period (which has now lasted nearly 2,000 years) during which the devil and his demons, imprisoned in the bottomless pit (Rev. 20:6), are powerless to influence man.
The reality, of course, is that the world has never been under greater demonic influence than it is today!
During WWII, one of the most effective ways of sabotaging the Axis in Europe was for the resistance to remove road signs or point them in wrong directions. This is what Pretorism does, removing the divine guidance system meant especially to guide the church during a time when spiritual deception will be so pervasive and compelling that "if it were possible, even the very elect would be deceived." (Mk.13:20,22)
The Bible's specific, trustworthy guidance is vitally important to us in our present struggles against fear, deception, and hopelessness. Pretorism obsoletes virtually all of God's prophetic guidance for us today, relegating it to the dustbin of antiquity. It makes biblical truth into a guessing game in which, not only issues of prophecy, but the whole Bible might eventually become "symbolic."
This is an enormous theft - stealing from God; stealing from the church he wants to guide.
John Anderson, one of the most influential Pretorists today, told me that our personal interpretations of prophecy do not affect our salvation.
Pretorism's license to vaporize vast, very clear sections of scripture must be very frustrating to our Lord, very angering. Its distortion of holy scripture tarnishes God's character, making him seem a spacey, ineffective communicator, who cannot be trusted to convey his will or keep his promises in specific, literal ways.
It mocks him.
And God will not be mocked (Gal. 6:7)
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