Friday, April 16, 2010

Does the Bible predict nuclear war?

Sometimes I find myself watching bad Christian television (such as TBN), either when curiosity sits in or boredom overcomes me. It is not that I necessarily support the people who run it, nor the shows displayed on it (although I have no idea why Charles Stanley is on TBN, given he's a thousand times more orthodox than Benny Hinn or Kenneth Copeland ever try to be). It is simply that I believe it is necessary to see what the various heretical teachers and groups are saying, so that we may know what the spiritually young are being fed and might be prepared to give a response.

One of the most "interesting" shows I've ever come across is Jack van Impe Presents. It's a combination of news reporting and punditry (a bit like Pat Robertson's 700 Club) that attempts to take headlines in the world today and apply it to a dispensationalist mindset. The style of presentation is noticeable, even on a one-time viewing: Rexella van Impe, Jack van Impe's wife, reads off headlines of recent news stories, all having to do with a similar subject, and then turns to her husband to ask some (obviously scripted) questions. Jack van Impe then launches into a storm of scripture citing, trying to convince the viewer that these events are leading up to the Rapture, followed by the Tribulation and then the Second Coming. I have read people praising Jack van Impe for his knowledge of scripture, calling him "the Walking Bible" (source). Given he's always looking at the camera when he does this, and given that most television cameras have teleprompters on them, I'm not certain how much praise is deserving for him.

In any case, I was watching the episode that aired on The Church Channel on April 14, 2010 at 11:30 PM EST. Two-thirds into the episode, the subject of nuclear weapons came up and this dialogue occurred:
Rexella: "Jack, nuclear warfare - in the Bible?"

Jack: "Very definitely! Psalm 97:3, Isaiah 66:15, Ezekiel 20:47, Joel 2:3 and 30, Zephaniah 1:18, Malachi 4:1, Revelation 8:7 and 9:18...over and over, it's coming!" [source; 18:01 mark]
Jack van Impe doesn't once, in the entire episode, bother to stop and quote or explain these passages, he simply throws them out there and essentially says, "Yup, there's nukes in the Bible! See? They're there!" Do these, in fact, predict nuclear weapons? Let's examine them one by one. All translations will come from the ESV, and I will put the passage cited by Jack van Impe in bold.

First, let's look at Psalm 97:3.
The LORD reigns, let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him and burns up his adversaries all around. His lightnings light up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. [Psalm 97:1-5]
Psalm 97 is actually speaking about the destruction of God's enemies. Besides fire, the following verse speaks of lightning destroying them - are we to assume that David, writing the psalm, predicted not only nukes but perhaps electronic weapons from satellites? I highly doubt that was on David's mind at the time. Furthermore, this psalm is simply reiterating language found throughout the psalms: Psalm 21:9 states, "The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath, and fire will consume them"; Psalm 50:3 states, "Our God comes; he does not keep silence; before him is a devouring fire, around him a mighty tempest." Fire is a representation in the psalms of God's power - not nuclear warfare.

Next, let's review Isaiah 66:15.
"For behold, the LORD will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire will the LORD enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the LORD shall be many." [Isaiah 66:15-16]
The fact that Jack van Impe has taken this verse out of context is obvious - it states "the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury." It does not take a master theologian to know that the Lord is not going to come in nuclear weapons. These verses (and all those that follow) are talking about the coming judgment of God, going on to say: "the time is coming to gather all nations and tongue. And they shall come and shall see my glory" (Isa 66:18). They are not speaking of earthly weapons, but the fire of God's wrath and judgment. There is no possible way to take these to be nukes unless one commits eisegesis - which, unfortunately, Jack van Impe has done.

Now let's examine Ezekiel 20:47.
And the word of the LORD came to me: "Son of man, set your face toward the southland; preach against the south, and prophesy against the forest land in the Negeb. Say to the forest of the Negeb, Hear the word of the LORD: Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree. The blazing flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from south to north shall be scorched by it. All flesh shall see that I the LORD have kindled it; it shall not be quenched." [Ezekiel 20:45-48]
As with Isaiah 66:15, we have to ask: is this fire caused by a man-made weapon, or is it the fire of the Lord? God answers that for us by telling Ezekiel, "I the Lord have kindled it" (20:48). The fire is the fire of the Lord, which is sourced directly to Him. Nuclear weapons are not used directly by the Lord. To paraphrase a popular line from Star Trek V: "What would God want with a nuke?"

Here we reach Joel 2:3 and 30; since these are two different passages separated by some 27 verses, so we'll look at each individually. Let's start with Joel 2:3.
Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations. Fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but behind them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them. Their appearance is like the appearance of horses, and like war horses they run. As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle. [Joel 2:1-5]
These passages are referring to a two-fold prophesy: the Day of the Lord, for it says "the day of the Lord is coming," as well as a destructive invasion of Israel (believed by some to be the Babylonians). The fire, in either case, is not caused by nuclear weapons, for it says that it is caused by a "great and powerful people," and that the "fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns." If this were a nuclear blast, then it would put them in the middle of it - few people survive an atomic blast point blank. It is merely a description of great destruction caused by a massive army.
"And it shall come to pass afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls. [Ezekiel 2:28-32]
This is, again, not in the context of an earthly war with man-made weaponry. The Lord will show wonders "in the heavens and on the earth," which includes "blood and fire and columns of smoke." These are the signs spoken of in the end times, which Christ warned: "And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven" (Luke 21:11). Not only are these sourced to heaven (and there is little chance that God has a nuclear arsenal) but it is stated that there will be wonders in heaven and on earth - will nukes randomly blow up in the sky, or will someone attempt to nuke heaven?

We have gone halfway through the list of passages given by Mr. van Impe, and have already seen that the majority of them have been taken grossly out of context. Yet for the sake of discussion, let us continue now to Zephaniah 1:18.
The great day of the LORD is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there. A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. I will bring distress on mankind, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the LORD; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the LORD. In the fire of his jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth. [Zephaniah 1:14-18]
As we can already see, the pattern seems to be that Jack van Impe searches for "fire" in the Bible and throws it out as a sign of prophesy for nuclear warfare. Is this the fire in this passage the fire of nuclear warfare? Clearly no, because the text says it is the "fire of his jealousy," meaning the jealousy of God. We must ask also ourselves, if this fire refers to nuclear warfare, then does that mean this is how everyone will die? Remember the passage states that in this fire "all the earth shall be consumed" - if nuclear blasts consumed the entire earth, we can expect a dead planet, for most of the inhabitants will be dead from the initial blasts and any one who survives will suffer in the massive fallout to follow. In any case, looking at the full context of this passage leads us to understand this is speaking about the return of the Lord, not a nuclear war.

Now let's review Malachi 4:1.
"For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts. [Malachi 4:1-3]
This verse, as the passages explained before, is speaking in reference to the Day of the Lord. It states that "all the arrogant and all the evildoers" will be set "ablaze" by the fire, whereas those who fear the name of the Lord will see it as a "sun of righteousness" that will have "healing in its wings." What nuclear weapon in the world is able to burn up only bad people while leaving true believers unharmed?

Now let's do Revelation 8:7.
Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them. The first angel blew his trumpet, and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, and these were thrown upon the earth. And a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up. [Revelation 8:6-7]
The author of Revelation states that this "hail and fire, mixed with blood" was "thrown upon the earth." I am no master in nuclear physics, but I do not think "hail" nor "blood" are any part of the nuclear weapon itself. Certainly the splitting of the atom does not involve mixing blood with hail and fire. Someone might argue, "Ah! But it comes down like hail, causes the fire, and when people die they spill their blood!" That, however, is an interpretation separating the words from the text.

Now for the final piece of scripture, that dealing with Revelation 9:18.
Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God, saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, "Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates." So the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, were released to kill a third of mankind. The number of mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand; I heard their number. And this is how I saw the horses in my vision and those who rode them: they wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur, and the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths. By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths. For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, for their tails are like serpents with heads, and by means of them they wound. [Revelation 9:13-19]
This almost seems to be one of the few passages Jack van Impe has cited that could possibly be relevant to nuclear warfare. It might be interesting to note here that, before the dispensationalist beliefs which Jack van Impe attempts to push on his viewers, many learned Christian men and scholars believed that Revelation discussed early Christian history, or rather that which had already happened - not the distant future.

One example is John Wesley, who believed this passage was referring to the wars against Christian empires and the rise against Islam.
9:15 And the four angels were loosed, who were prepared - By loosing them, as well as by their strength and rage. To kill the third part of men - That is, an immense number of them. For the hour, and day, and month, and year - All this agrees with the slaughter which the Saracens made for a long time after Mahomet's death. And with the number of angels let loose agrees the number of their first and most eminent caliphs. [from John Wesley's Commentary on the Bible]
Legendary Bible commentator Matthew Henry, amazingly enough, did suggest that this passage spoke in an allegorical reference to weaponry, but that it was about cannons, not nukes. He likewise believed it to be a reference to a past war against Christian empires.
3. Their formidable equipage and appearance, v. 17. As the horses were fierce, like lions, and eager to rush into the battle, so those who sat upon them were clad in bright and costly armour, with all the ensigns of martial courage, zeal, and resolution. 4. The vast havoc and desolation that they made in the Roman empire, which had now become antichristian: A third part of them were killed; they went as far as their commission suffered them, and they could go no further. 5. Their artillery, by which they made such slaughter, described by fire, smoke, and brimstone, issuing out of the mouths of their horses, and the stings that were in their tails. It is Mr. Mede's opinion that this is a prediction of great guns, those instruments of cruelty which make such destruction: he observes, These were first used by the Turks at the siege of Constantinople, and, being new and strange, were very terrible, and did great execution. However, here seems to be an allusion to what is mentioned in the former vision, that, as antichrist had his forces of a spiritual nature, like scorpions poisoning the minds of men with error and idolatry, so the Turks, who were raised up to punish the antichristian apostasy, had their scorpions and their stings too, to hurt and kill the bodies of those who had been the murderers of so many souls. [Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Bible]
And, amazingly enough, Adam Clarke made the same conclusion.
Verse 17. Breastplates of fire-jacinth, and brimstone] That is, red, blue, and yellow; the first is the colour of fire, the second of jacinth, and the third of sulphur. And the heads of the horses] Is this an allegorical description of great ordnance? Cannons, on the mouths of which horses' heads were formed, or the mouth of the cannon cast in that form? Fire, smoke, and brimstone, is a good allegorical representation of gunpowder. The Ottomans made great use of heavy artillery in their wars with the Greeks of the lower empire.

Verse 18. By these three was the third part of men killed] That is, By these was great carnage made.

Verse 19. Their power is in their mouth] From these the destructive balls are projected; and in their tails, the breech where the charge of gunpowder is lodged. Their tails were like unto serpents, and had heads] If cannons are intended, the description, though allegorical, is plain enough; for brass ordnance especially are frequently thus ornamented, both at their muzzles and at their breech. [Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible]
My point, of course, is not to say John Wesley, Matthew Henry, nor Adam Clarke are infallible interpreters of the Bible, but only to show how Christians before Jack van Impe have interpreted this passage. In any case, the mere reference to "fire" in the passage is not sufficient enough to designate nuclear weapons.

Nine texts. Nine proven miscitations. Jack van Impe has shown that simply memorizing various scriptural passages is not enough - one must know and understand the context of those passages. Rapid-fire text citing is not sound exegesis, nor should it be considered a proper replacement. Or, if you are going to make reference to various texts, at least reference them within the context of which they are used. Do not break from the context of which they are said - doing so will either present you as ignorant of scripture or attempting to read a doctrine or belief into the scripture you so excitedly pontificate upon.

Most of all, it shows the need for biblical study, if not to understand what some passages mean, then at least to gain the habit of cross-referencing scriptures and making sure we are able to respond to rapid-fire text citation with serious exegesis.