We’re All Still Here: The Fallacy of Predicting the End of Time

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Like a thief in the night…

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There are four reasons–four very distinct reasons–why people like Mr. Camping are always wrong about predicting the end of time by scouring the Book of Revelation for secret clues.  By the way, the proper biblical term for “The End of Time” is the Eschaton, not the culturally popular “apocalypse,” which means “to pull back the veil.”  This error is based on confusing the Greek word “apocalypsis” used for the Book of Revelation, with the word that means the “end”: eschatos.  In some editions of the Christian Bible, Revelation (please note the word is singular not the plural “revelations” as many call it) is titled “Apocalypse of John.”  Unfortunately, the genre of literature in which the Book of Revelation is classified is called “apocalyptic literature” and not “eschatological literature,” a fact that adds to the confusion.  Here is the list:

  1. The knowledge of the End of Time is exclusively reserved for the Mind of God.   In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 24, which contains Jesus’ teachings on the “end of the age,” Jesus explicitly states that “No one knows the about that day or hour,  not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mt 24:36, NIV*).  Point One: Christ did not know the time of the End.
  2. Since the First Century, Christians have yearned for the return of Christ.  Even St. Paul, early in his ministry. believed that Jesus would return in his generation.  This belief figures prominently in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, and his instructions to them strongly suggests they were actively debating the return of Jesus in their time.  Some had even quit their jobs.  And though Paul, himself, believed Jesus would return in his lifetime ( later in his life he realized that this likely would not be the case), nevertheless, he cautioned the Thessalonians not to let it cause division among themselves and also not to behave as if there were no tomorrow.  Literally.  To emphasize his point, he writes, “About times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (I Thess 5:1, NIV)  Point Two: Paul the Apostle, nor any of the other apostles, knew the time of the End.
  3. Nowhere in the Book of Revelation is there a definable, historical, sequence of events tied to the narrative that points to a specific knowable day in the future.  It just isn’t there.  The reason is so simple it’s almost ridiculous: That day was not revealed to John.  Revelation is written in the first person as a series of visions given to John.  Not once does Christ nor the angel that guided him through those visions reveal the date of the End. In chapter 16:15, Christ is once again quoted: “Behold I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him…” (NIV) In fact, knowing the date is irrelevant to the whole message of Revelation.  The true message of Revelation to Christians of all generations is: Endure, Overcome, and Endure Patiently. That however, has not stopped Christians in every single generation since Jesus walked on this earth from trying to “unlock” the mysteries of Revelation and predict the exact day the End of Time will begin.  Mr. Camping joins a very large, and very frustrated legacy of people who have discovered that what Jesus said in Matthew, chapter 24, indeed was the truth.  In 2008 I wrote an outline of Revelation for a program curriculum at my church.  You can access it by clicking here: The Revelation to St. John. Point Three: The Book of Revelation is not about predicting the End of Time, it is about how Christians are to live until The Day of the Lord.
  4. In light of the first three points, the final reason is: You can’t outwit God.  What Mr. Camping failed to understand, and in a deeper sense, discern, as one of the most important theological truths in Christianity, is that we cannot know when the Day of the Lord will be.  Notice I am not using the term “Day of Judgment.”  The Day of the Lord will take place in God’s timing.  The date of that day is not secreted away in the text of the Bible.  Jesus, himself, said he did not know the day, as did St. Paul and St John.  The reason for teaching us about the Day of the Lord is to help us live according to the gospel of Christ, not to stop living trying to anticipate that which cannot be known.  Point Four: You can’t outwit God. The Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.
*NIV: New International Version.

A Bible Only A Radical Conservative Could Love

The Conservative Bible Project has announced its intention to publish a version of the Bible that they believe will correct errors and translational biases caused by “liberal” agendas:

(Note: Links in the quoted passages go to Conservative Bible Project sites.)

Liberal bias has become the single biggest distortion in modern Bible translations. There are three sources of errors in conveying biblical meaning:

  • lack of precision in the original language, such as terms underdeveloped to convey new concepts of Christianity
  • lack of precision in modern language
  • translation bias in converting the original language to the modern one.

Of these three sources of errors, the last introduces the largest error, and the biggest component of that error is liberal bias. Large reductions in this error can be attained simply by retranslating the KJV into modern English.[1]

Gospel of John, Codex Sheef Manuscript; Source Unknown

Gospel of John, Codex Sheaf Manuscript; Source Unknown

Here is the list of deficiencies they believe infect current translations, especially the New International Version:

As of 2009, there is no fully conservative translation of the Bible which satisfies the following ten guidelines:[2]

  1. Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias
  2. Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, “gender inclusive” language, and other modern emasculation of Christianity
  3. Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity; the NIV is written at only the 7th grade level[3]
  4. Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms: using powerful new conservative terms as they develop;[4] defective translations use the word “comrade” three times as often as “volunteer”; similarly, updating words which have a change in meaning, such as “word”, “peace”, and “miracle”.
  5. Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms for it, such as “gamble” rather than “cast lots”;[5] using modern political terms, such as “register” rather than “enroll” for the census
  6. Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.
  7. Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning
  8. Exclude Later-Inserted Liberal Passages: excluding the later-inserted liberal passages that are not authentic, such as the adulteress story
  9. Credit Open-Mindedness of Disciples: crediting open-mindedness, often found in youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John, the authors of two of the Gospels
  10. Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word “Lord” rather than “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” or “Lord God.”

The Conservative Bible Project evidently believes the eisegesis  and the imposition of political ideology, “conservative” take precedent in Bible translation rather than accuracy in communicating the author’s intent with the highest degree of integrity of possible, deliberately suppressing the urge to phrase the passage to one’s own ends.

All Bibles have translational biases.  It is unavoidable.  The key is the intent of the translators and what they want to end up with.  For example, Martin Luther’s original translation of the Bible into vernacular German had passages translated in such a way that reflected his anti-Semitism.  He may or may not have been aware of them when he was working.  The Revised Luther Bible and the Today’s German Bible correct these biases.

So, let’s start with how to translate an ancient text.  You don’t start with an intermediate translation (such as the King James Version), you work with the oldest copies of the manuscript you can find.  Such as the Codex Sinaiticus, that’s now available online.  The most commonly used New Testament Greek source is the Nestle-Aland text.

Then you compare the different versions of these original language texts and look for variations.  You’ll find them, but biblical manuscripts tend to have fewer variants than other MSS from the same time periods.  The copiers were motivated to be accurate, and before the advent of printing, there were publishing houses producing multiple copies for sale, and they had proof-readers and editors.

In the case of the New Testament, you have four gospels, all written by different authors at different times.  Three of them, Matthew, Mark and Luke, used a common source, called “Q” by scholars (from the German word “Quelle” meaning source).  Q was a collection of the sayings of Jesus.  These three gospels are referred to as “The Synoptics” meaning from one view or source.  Unfortunately, no version of “Q” has survived or been discovered yet).  The Gospel of John approaches the story Jesus quite differently, but it, too, has the key common elements.  Think of it as giving a story pitch to Tom Clancy and Dan Brown.  They are required to follow the plot, but you end up with two quite different books.

What then do you do with the variants? You can throw them out (maybe the scribe was part of a “liberal” 12th Century publishing house) or you can look at how often that variants show up in manuscripts from different scribes.  If you decide your most reputable sources all include the verse, you generally will leave it in.  It is common for the “disputed” passages to be bracketed, such as the story of the “Woman caught in adultery” that only appears in the Gospel of John (John 7:53ff).  It does not appear in the earliest MSS, but after it does appears, almost all MSS include it.  As Net.Bible points out, it may come from an independent Jesus tradition, and though unlikely Johannine, it is thoroughly consistent with the acts of Jesus in numerous other passages.

Christ and the Adultress, Valentin de Boulogne, 1543.  Copyright: Getty Trust, Getty Images

Christ and the Adultress, Valentin de Boulogne, 1543. Copyright: Getty Trust, Getty Images

The Conservative Bible Project calls for explaining Jesus’ parables about money as “free market parables.”  They do not list any examples; however, I would counter that there are no “free market parables.”  All the parables that include an illustration of money are of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, how Christians are to think about God and treat each other as children of God, or are about stewardship.  Although Jesus commends giving liberally (sorry, just couldn’t help myself) and with generosity, he  is not giving a Dave Ramsey or Suze Orman seminar on investing or economics.  In fact, his anger and rampage over the money changers in the Temple is an example of Jesus condemning unchecked and unethical free market practices.

Their plan and intent, however, is far more dangerous than just spinning a passage to suit their ends.  What they propose is presenting another gospel.  Hans Kung, the preeminent German Catholic theologian, in his book, The Church (Verlag Herder KG, 1967) says this is schisma of the worst kind:

When the expression “heresy” is used in the New Testament, not in a neutral sense meaning “school” or “party”, but in a definitely negative sense, it implies something more than the word “schisma”. . .which indicates a “split” in the community based above all on personal quarrellings. “Heresy means a fellowship which questions the whole faith of the ecclesia by presenting “another gospel” (cf. Gal. 1:6-9), and which is therefore in opposition to the ecclesia (p 315).

Heresy? Perhaps, perhaps not.  But the authors of this version walk perilously close to “presenting another gospel” discounting 2000 years of scholarship and orthodoxy.

Fast forward to today.  One of the most common tools for studies of the Gospels is called a Gospel Harmony.  The complete text of all four gospels are lined up side by side, sometimes with the primary Greek MSS used for that translation, so you can read it to compare and contrast what the four authors wrote.

What I find interesting to the point of almost laughable about the Conservative Bible Project, is that the New International Version of the Bible was touted as the vanguard of conservative, evangelical translations when it was first published!

As for the cited example, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (23:34), not all early MSS include the verse, but the inclusion is based on sound hermeneutical principles

Translating any ancient document is complex.  Most works were written by a single author.  The Bible was written by numerous authors over a period of perhaps 1000 years.  The Conservative Bible Project, with what they list on their website, appears to lack the panel of reputable biblical scholars needs for an accurate translation, in addition to having a dubiously authentic rationale to remake this work into their own image.

If you want an English translation that was intended to be as accurate reflection of the best Greek sources, chose the New American Standard Bible (1960).  The “Updated Version” (1997) has retained that translation accuracy while creating a text that is more readable.  The 1960 version was often written in a style that was better “Greek” than it was English.  The Updated Version corrects this tendency.

The Conservative Bible Project is about to commit a travesty of Biblical proportions.