Interview with Craig C. Hill
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Dr. Grayson Carter, a professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary, submitted questions to which Craig Hill responded:
Carter: In the past three decades, during a time of relative peace, prosperity and security, there has been a virtual explosion of interest in the subject of the End Times. Why now?
Hill: Youíre right that the current wave of interest in the End Times goes back at least to the 1970s and Hal Lindseyís bestseller, The Late, Great Planet Earth. More recently, the events of 9/11 created a lot of anxiety, not least here in Washington, and it is understandable that people have been thinking apocalyptic thoughts since that terrible day. According to the recent Time magazine cover story on "The Bible and the Apocalypse," sales of Tim LaHayeís Left Behind novels, already strong, went through the roof in the weeks after the terrorist attack.
I can think of many reasons for the success of such books. Obviously, they appeal to our curiosity. More important, they address our need to come to terms with a world that appears to be out of control. Apocalyptic thinking flourishes in times of social dislocation. Despite their relative security and affluence, a lot of Christians feel that they are part of a besieged minority living on the margins of American culture. To a certain extent, they are right.
Max Weber wrote that religious authority is bestowed on the basis of perceived proximity to the sacred. Who or what is thought to be closest to God is deemed most authoritative. In Protestantism in particular, that most proximate thing is Scripture. It is for that reason that the dominant figures in Protestantism, especially at a popular level, are nearly all Bible teachers. An unfortunate consequence is the promotion of individual and idiosyncratic interpretation. "Profounder than thou" competition is very real, and prophetic texts are a natural (not to mention unregulated) arena in which to display oneís interpretive prowess. I have to wonder to what extent the recent proliferation of self-described "prophecy scholars" is a consequence of this dynamic.
Having worked as a pastor myself, I understand how hard it is to hold peopleís attention week after week, especially when competing with television preachers who set themselves up as dispensers of ever-more esoteric knowledge. It must be tempting to jump on their bandwagon.
Carter: As you know, there is no shortage of books on the subject of the "End Times." Why write another one?
Hill: First, let me say that the book isnít only about the End Times. Instead, it looks at the biblical authorsí views of the future, from Genesis to Revelation. It considers the origins of their ideas, their development over the centuries, and their relevance to faith today.
I wrote the book to counter, at least in some small way, what seems like a flood of misinformation about this subject. On the one hand, we have the likes of Lindsey and LaHaye, who interpret Scripture from a very narrow perspective, paying little or no attention to the actual historical origins and purpose of texts like Daniel and Revelation. Particularly vexing is their tendency to portray their views as the only reasonable and faithful Christian position. At the other end of the spectrum are the spate of recent books asserting that the "eschatological Jesus" was a figment of the Christian imagination. Equally rankling is their frequent assertion that this is the majority position in New Testament scholarship, which it is not.
Of course, most church people do not fall into either camp. As much as Iíd like to reach out to both ends of the spectrum, the book is written primarily for those in the middle who donít know what to make of this subject. I wanted to provide them with a substantial yet accessible resource.
Carter: Can a book be both substantial and accessible?
Hill: In my opinion, most Christian publishers underestimate their readers. I have spoken in scores of churches over the years, and it is my impression that people are eager to go deeper, to study the Bible at a more serious level. Thatís not to say that In God's Time is difficult to read; it isnít, but it does cover a bit of ground, much of which will be new to many readers. Itís not The Prayer of Jabez, to be sure, but neither is it A Brief History of Time.
I confess that I was surprised at how difficult it is to write in this style. Books written for other scholars can assume a lot and, frankly, donít have to be very engaging. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed writing In Godís Time. It reflects more of my own faith and personality than anything I had written previously.
Carter: You have mentioned Tim LaHaye and the Left Behind novels. How is your perspective different?
Hill: Itís different on two levels. LaHaye is a "premillennial dispensationalist," which means, among other things, that he believes that Christ will return twice, first to "rapture" true Christians, and second to set up a thousand-year reign on earth. Strictly on the level of biblical interpretation, I think that he is wrong. No New Testament author mentions a two-stage return of Christ; in fact, quite the opposite. His position requires a considerable amount of misreading, which is ironic, given the fact that he is a fundamentalist who says that he believes in the literal meaning of the Bible.
Which leads to the second level of disagreement: I am not a fundamentalist. I am convinced that the Bible has to be read in the context of its larger history, social setting, and so on. In the case of eschatology [belief about the End Times], that means taking honest account of the variety of biblical perspectives, as well as the degree to which the biblical authors borrowed ideas from other cultures. Relatively few books on this subject demonstrate any significant acquaintance with the ancient world. As a consequence, they frequently misconstrue and misrepresent the very texts they would understand and honor.
In Chapter Two, I wrote about the difference between a puzzle and a mosaic. Fundamentalists approach the Bibleís teaching about the future with the assumption that it is all uniform, that it is one great puzzle that they can solve. Consequently, this piece of Ezekiel is attached to that piece of Revelation, and so on. The reality is more like a mosaic: the resulting picture owes as much to the artist as to the medium. It is no accident that there are nearly as many interpretations of these texts as there are interpreters.
My greatest concern about premillennial dispensationalism is practical. All too easily, it becomes a form of escapism. If Christ is about to snatch believers from earth, there is little incentive for them to shoulder the heavy load of social and political responsibility. Belief that the rapture must be preceded by deteriorating conditions greatly compounds the problem. Bad news is good news. For example, the recent cover story in Time included quotations from believers who were "joyful" at the news of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, which they took to be confirmation that Christ would return soon.
Let me hasten to add that I do not mean to impugn the character or faith of Tim LaHaye or anyone else. From all that I have heard, LaHaye himself is a man of genuine integrity and piety. Obviously, we think very differently, but I do not doubt that he holds his beliefs sincerely, as do most of his followers.
Carter: How would you describe your own theological position?
Hill: I am pretty much a middle-of-the-roader on most issues. More often than not, I find truth to be a "yes, but..." proposition. I admit that there are many advantages to being on either extreme, either in atheism or in fundamentalism. Both positions are simple, clear, and (at least on a surface level) consistent. As such, they are far easier to articulate and defend. On the other hand, they are one-dimensional and do not take sufficient account of the counter evidence.
I was strongly influenced by Christian fundamentalism as a teenager, and I appreciate the attraction and benefits of that position. Over time, however, I came to realize that fundamentalism does a poor job of accounting for the Bible, which is a wonderfully complex book.
Carter: Does the Bible give a clear description of how and when the world will end?
Hill: If it were clear, I donít suppose weíd be having this exchange. As it happens, there were many competing eschatological viewpoints in both early Judaism and Christianity, several of which are reflected in the Bible. It is important to note, however, that all of these differing scenarios are alike in affirming that God--not evil, suffering, futility and death--is the ultimate reality in the cosmos. That is what is at stake. As I wrote in Chapter One, at heart eschatology is the assertion that "God wins." It is an affirmation that despite all apparently contrary evidence, God is just and human history purposeful.
I like the analogy between the beginning and the end suggested by J. A. T. Robinson. The creation account of Genesis 1 is theology projected onto the past. The author employed a typical ancient Near Eastern creation account (complete with watery chaos, etc.) to express several core theological convictions. If our God is God, then creation is good, humans are made in Godís image, and so on. Similarly, the book of Revelation gives us theology projected onto the future. To an extent that most modern authors do not acknowledge, the biblical writers, including the author of Revelation, made use of already-existing symbols (such as the "tribulation"). The point is not the symbols, however, but the theology they convey. Both Genesis and Revelation can be theologically true without being literally accurate descriptions of the worldís beginning and ending.
Will God "win"? As a Christian, I would say yes, but that does not mean that I know the how or the when. Ironically, the more that I learn about this subject, the simpler my faith becomes. Of course, many people today do think that they know both the how and, more or less, the when, but that has always been the case. Such thinking is as unsinkable as Styrofoam. Besides, itís fun to speculate about these things, and itís gratifying to think that one is on the inside of a secret, especially a really big secret.
Cater: Should Christians be optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
Hill: Apocalyptic literature is at once realistic about human sin and optimistic about Godís ultimate victory over evil. Thereís a lot to be said for that dual perspective. The author of Revelation, for example, knew full well that the exercise of political power can be demonic; nevertheless, he looked forward to a day when "mourning and crying and pain will be no more" (Rev. 21:4).
At best, belief in Godís coming reign can empower believers to live with purpose and to embrace values higher than those of the marketplace. Such a vision also can equip them to change the present in conformity to the hoped-for future, to "live into" the promised peaceable kingdom. Of all the sayings of Jesus about the future, perhaps the most timely is the one quoted at the conclusion of the Appendix: "Blessed are those servants whom the master will find at work when he arrives" (Matt. 24:46).
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