This is installment #4 in response to an article by my friend Elton Hollon, in which he offered a scholarly critique of the Full Preterist view of prophecy. Be sure to read the previous three articles:
Cognitive Dissonance and “Spiritualization”
Hollon claims that failed end times prophecies, including those in America in the 19th century, gave rise to the spiritualization of cosmic de-creation language like that found in Mark 13:25f / Matthew 24:29-35, etc. He says that, “one of the main strategies (to avoid the problem of charging Jesus with failure, DKP) is to find past fulfillment of traditional parousia texts sometime around Jerusalem’s destruction in70 CE in order to avoid the charge of error” (p. 2).
He then suggests, “According to social psychological research ‘spiritualization’ is the most successful adaptive strategy for handling the threat of disconfirmation.” Hollon is suggesting that when believers realize that their paradigm has been falsified, they create some justification, no matter how untenable, to maintain their belief. This is called Cognitive Dissonance.
Let it soak in that the suggestion is being made is that the Gospel writers (not to mention the writers of the epistles) actually realized – they actually KNEW– that Jesus’ predictions had failed! But to cover it up, they “reworked” the narrative. Yet in their re-workiing, as we saw in the previous installment, they actually exacerbated the problem. Remember that Matthew wrote after Mark, who ostensibly wrote after AD 70. Mark, we are told tried to “disconnect” the parousia from the destruction of Jerusalem. Matthew, however, said that the parousia was to be “immediately after” the fall of Jerusalem. Yet all the while, he (supposedly) KNEW that it had not happened! Does this not call the “intelligence” – if not the integrity – of the Gospel writers into severe question?
The suggestion that the spiritualization of prophetic language is the creation of cognitive dissonance is untenable, however. It fails to consider the very nature of Hebraic thought which was “poetic” by nature. Hebraic literature creates “word pictures” to convey powerful concepts. To suggest that spiritualization of prophetic language demands cognitive dissonance implies that the ancient Hebrews were incapable of expressing poetic, figurative and metaphoric thought in their literature. Yet, all one has to do is read the Psalms to know this is not a valid concept.
There are OT texts that use highly figurative, hyperbolic language to describe past events. For instance, in 2 Samuel 22 we find this: “Then David spoke to the Lord the words of this song, On the day when the Lord had delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.”
Here is how David described his deliverance:
In my distress I called upon the Lord, And cried out to my God; He heard my voice from His temple, And my cry entered His ears. “Then the earth shook and trembled; The foundations of heaven quaked and were shaken, Because He was angry. Smoke went up from His nostrils, And devouring fire from His mouth; Coals were kindled by it. He bowed the heavens also, and came down With darkness under His feet. He rode upon a cherub, and flew; And He was seen upon the wings of the wind. He made darkness canopies around Him, Dark waters and thick clouds of the skies. From the brightness before Him Coals of fire were kindled. “The Lord thundered from heaven, And the Most High uttered His voice. He sent out arrows and scattered them; Lightning bolts, and He vanquished them. Then the channels of the sea were seen, The foundations of the world were uncovered, At the rebuke of the Lord, At the blast of the breath of His nostrils. “He sent from above, He took me, He drew me out of many waters. He delivered me from my strong enemy, From those who hated me; For they were too strong for me (2 Samuel 22:7-18).
We have here virtually every constituent element of NT prophetic passages about the parousia: the coming of the Lord out of heaven, in fire, with a shout, the destruction of creation. It is safe to say that David did not contrive that language to justify God’s failure to deliver him from Saul. There was no cognitive dissonance from whence this figurative language sprang. David, the great poet of Israel simply expressed himself figuratively, metaphorically and spiritually.
In addition, as the prophet Isaiah and Israel prayed for deliverance from their oppressors, (which would have included Assyria and Babylon) they looked back on YHVH’s actions on their part:
Oh, that You would rend the heavens! That You would come down! That the mountains might shake at Your presence— As fire burns brushwood, As fire causes water to boil— To make Your name known to Your adversaries, That the nations may tremble at Your presence! When You did awesome things for which we did not look, You came down, The mountains shook at Your presence (Isaiah 64:1-3).
So, the prophet prays for YHVH to come out of heaven as He had come in the past. This is a retrospective look at God’s past deliverance of Israel. We have God coming out of heaven in flaming fire. We have the shaking of creation at his presence (LXX- prosopon, meaning face or even ‘nose.’ The word is closely akin to parousia which means presence). We have the nations being burned like brush. There can be no ascription of Cognitive Dissonance here.
Habakkuk 3:4-13 likewise is another example of where the prophet described God’s actions in judgment.
God came from Teman, The Holy One from Mount Paran. Selar His glory covered the heavens, And the earth was full of His praise. His brightness was like the light; He had rays flashing from His hand, And there His power was hidden. Before Him went pestilence, And fever followed at His feet. He stood and measured the earth; He looked and startled the nations. And the everlasting mountains were scattered, The perpetual hills bowed. His ways are everlasting. I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction; The curtains of the land of Midian trembled. O Lord, were You were displeased with the rivers, Was Your anger against the rivers, Was Your wrath against the sea, That You rode on Your horses, Your chariots of salvation? Your bow was made quite ready; Oaths were sworn over Your arrows. Selar You divided the earth with rivers. The mountains saw You and trembled; The overflowing of the water passed by. The deep uttered its voice, And lifted its hands on high. The sun and moon stood still in their habitation; At the light of Your arrows they went, At the shining of Your glittering spear. You marched through the land in indignation; You trampled the nations in anger. You went forth for the salvation of Your people, For salvation with Your Anointed. You struck the head from the house of the wicked, By laying bare from foundation to neck. Selar
This language is remarkably like 2 Samuel 22 – except in reverse. Whereas David spoke of God’s past deliverance from Saul, Habakkuk described God’s actions in judgment. Did Habakkuk expect God to literally come out of heaven on a horse, at the destruction of the mountains? Did he believe that YHVH had actually “marched through the land” or was he, like Isaiah spoke of Assyria as God’s staff of anger and judgment (Isaiah 10:5-7), suggesting that YHVH had sovereignly marched through the land by utilizing the Babylonians? After all, the prophet Ezekiel tells us that YHVH had put His sword into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar (Ezekiel 30:23-25) and that, “I will brandish my sword” against His enemies (Ezekiel 32:10, cf. Ezekiel 21:23-25; 30:24ff).
In most of these texts the prophet was looking back at Adonai’s actions in the past, not only did He act in salvation but in judgment:
Hear, all you peoples! Listen, O earth, and all that is in it! Let the Lord God be a witness against you, The Lord from His holy temple. For behold, the Lord is coming out of His place; He will come down And tread on the high places of the earth. The mountains will melt under Him, And the valleys will split Like wax before the fire, Like waters poured down a steep place. All this is for the transgression of Jacob And for the sins of the house of Israel (Micah 1:3f).
Micah describes the imminent time when YHVH would act in judgment of the ten northern tribes in the eighth century BCE Assyrian invasion, He was to come out of heaven in flaming fire to destroy the earth. (This is the language of Isaiah 64). We are justified to ask, if figurization of language was contrived to justify failure of the expectation of salvation, why would such language be used to describe the impending judgment? Assyria did conquer Israel, and she did totally devastate the land. What hermeneutic demands that we ascribe failure to Micah, or the invention of figurization to describe what did not happen? Was the prophet incapable of expressing the awesome and awful events in hyperbolic and figurative language?
Similarly, in Isaiah 30-37 we find the story of the Assyrian invasion of Israel and the siege of Jerusalem. YHVH had told Hezekiah the king not to shoot an arrow, nor throw a spear, but to submit in quietness to Him. Here was the promise He made:
There will be on every high mountain And on every high hill Rivers and streams of waters, In the day of the great slaughter, When the towers fall. 26 Moreover the light of the moon will be as the light of the sun, And the light of the sun will be sevenfold, As the light of seven days, In the day that the Lord binds up the bruise of His people And heals the stroke of their wound (Isaiah 30:25-26).
At the same time that He promised to make the sun seven times brighter than normal and to establish streams on the tops of the mountains in blessings for Israel, the Lord spoke of the fate of Assyria:
The Lord will cause His glorious voice to be heard, And show the descent of His arm, With the indignation of His anger And the flame of a devouring fire, With scattering, tempest, and hailstones. For through the voice of the Lord Assyria will be beaten down, As He strikes with the rod. And in every place where the staff of punishment passes, Which the Lord lays on him, It will be with tambourines and harps; And in battles of brandishing He will fight with it. For Tophet was established of old, Yes, for the king it is prepared. He has made it deep and large; Its pyre is fire with much wood; The breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, Kindles it (Isaiah 30:30-33).
A final example will suffice. In Isaiah 34 we find some of the most graphic language found in any prophecy of the coming Day of the Lord’s vengeance. This prophecy foretold the coming destruction of “all the nations”. It foretold the dissolution of the cosmos, the turning of the dust and even the streams of Edom into pitch that would burn forever. The animals of the field would dwell in the ruins of Bozrah. In Malachi 1:1-3 the prophet looks back on the destruction of Edom, even mentioning that the jackals and animals were now dwelling in that land. In other words, according to the prophet Malachi, God had kept His promise to destroy Edom. Yet we are on safe ground to affirm that the language of Isaiah 34 was not fulfilled literally and physically.
Many scholars have noted and established, “…that ‘heaven and earth’ in the Old Testament may sometimes be a way of referring to Jerusalem or its temple, for which ‘Jerusalem’ is a metonymy.” Commenting on Matthew 24:35 and Mark 13:31 (about the passing of “heaven and earth”) Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis says,
The temple was far more than the point at which heaven and earth met. Rather, it was thought to correspond to, represent, or, in some sense, to be ‘heaven and earth’ in its totality.” And “. . . [T]he principle reference of “heaven and earth” is the temple centered cosmology of second-temple Judaism which included the belief that the temple is heaven and earth in microcosm. Mark 13[:31] [or Matthew 24:35] and Matthew 5:18 refer then to the destruction of the temple as a passing away of an old cosmology.
Finally, while a host of other scholars could be cited, R. T. France offers us this:
‘The coming of the Son of Man in the clouds of heaven was never conceived as a primitive form of space travel, but as a symbol for a mighty reversal of fortunes within history and at the national level.’ Such language therefore fits well with the apocalyptic language in v. 29 in describing the destruction of the temple, viewed as an act of divine judgment, whereby the authority of Jesus is vindicated over the Jewish establishment which has rejected him. (For this understanding of the significance of the destruction of the temple, cf. 23:29–39.) The language is allusive rather than specific, and depends for its force on a familiarity with Old Testament imagery which is unfortunately not shared by all modern readers!
In light of the fact that the writers of the Tanakh assuredly did use hyperbolic, metaphoric language to describe YHVH’s actions in past history, whether judgment or salvation, it is noteworthy to realize that the NT writers commonly cited and quoted that language without a word of explanation or, suggest in any way that they were changing that language to a literal application. In fact, Paul Minear noted this:
As one recalls Old Testament passages like these, one is forced to conclude that every constituent essential feature in the New Testament prophecies was an echo of these. No Christian prophet tried to explain the meaning of these references to solar disasters, a fact that suggests that the audience was expected to understand the language. Modern readers, therefore, must compare this idiom not with modern views of the cosmos, but with an ancient outlook within which an intelligible message was conveyed without undue difficulty.”
All of this is highly suggestive- I believe probative- that the suggestion that figurative language was “invented” or even “employed,” to explain away the proposed failure of the parousia is untenable
We have more to come, so stay tuned. In the meantime, get a copy of my book, The Elements Shall Melt With Fervent Heat, for an in-depth study of the nature, use and application of the Bible’s use of metaphoric, apocalyptic language.