Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Debate With an Agnostic on the Meaning of "Last Days" & Whether the Author of Hebrews Was a False Prophet (vs. Ed Babinski)

Sub-title: "Gimme That Lousy Hermeneutics, It's Bad Enough For Me."

The following is a reply to agnostic Ed Babinski's article, "Gimme That Old False Prediction, It's Good Enough For Me." I've cited most of it below, but not all of it, which can be read by following the link. His words will be in blue. Presbyterian NT scholar Dr. Robert Rayburn's will be in purple.

* * * * *

Ed provides a classic textbook case of ignorance of biblical and Hebrew idiom and the prophetic outlook, leading to false conclusions that (gee, what a surprise!) the Bible is filled with false prophecy, due to same. Let's take a few minutes to examine his claims.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews began his letter, ". . . in these last days," and argued on such a basis that, "He (Jesus) would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself." With equal fervor he employed the phrase, "as you see the day drawing near . . . " - and made the prediction, ". . . for yet a very little while, He who is coming will come, and will not delay." (Heb. 1:2; 9:26; 10:25,37) Oops! There's been a sleight [sic] delay.

Like the good fundamentalist that Ed used to be, he cites biblical passages piecemeal. This practice of prooftexting without proper consideration of either context or cross-referencing is notorious for producing false conclusions. Thus Ed falls prey to the very errors in methodology that he would seem to often fault Christians for committing. In zealously fighting ignorance, he exhibits a great deal himself.

Fundamentalists are also known for their hyper-literalism and wooden sort of biblical interpretation. But as every good Bible student knows (whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox) one has to interpret the Bible just as any other literature is interpreted. Clearly, not everything is meant to be taken literally.

Hence, Ed sees "last days" and salivates at the imminent commission of a false prophecy. He takes it literally; something like "the 31st is the last day of the month."

But is it necessarily so? Not at all. Dr. Robert Rayburn holds a Master of Divinity degree from Covenant Theological Seminary and a doctorate in New Testament from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. In his article (and sermon?), "The Last Days" (And "Imminence"),
he noted:

We are noting week after week the effect of the characteristic idiom in which biblical predictions of the future are cast, especially what scholars call the prophetic perspective according to which the future is set before us in its wholeness, as if it were a single event, a single moment. In this way - a way of speaking about the past and future that we often employ ourselves - the emphasis falls on the meaning of that future, on the divine purpose, on the certainty of an outcome and not instead on a detailed sequence of the events that make up that future. The main thing is placed before us, not the details.

Now, however, there is a motif that we might well think would be unusual in just that way, in the way in which it focuses our attention on chronological order. I am speaking of the phrase often used in the Bible to predict the future, viz. "the last days." However, we are going to see that this nomenclature, this way of speaking has precisely the same characteristics as do the other motifs we have so far considered.

Dr. Rayburn gives an OT example:

The NASB renders Daniel 10:14:

Now I have come to give you an understanding of what will happen to your people in the latter days, for the vision pertains to the days yet future.
Now what is interesting is that the prophecy that follows concerns the kings of Persia, Alexander the Great and his successors, and continues up to what seems to be without question the day of resurrection and the last judgment in chapter 12. Therefore, "the last days" in Daniel 10 encompasses a period that stretches from Daniel's own day to the end of the world. In chapter 2, the same phrase is used similarly to mean the future days, the days to follow. For example, in 2:28 Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar that in the dreams the Lord had given him, "He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come . . ." That "in days to come" is our "end of days" or "last days." And the dream, if you remember, concerned the empires that would follow Babylon up to the empire of Rome and, during that time, the arrival of the King of Kings whose kingdom would be established, which would crush all those other kingdoms, and would itself endure forever. There "last days" again stretches from Daniel's time to the end of history and includes within itself the long unfolding of history.

He notes that other passages indeed refer to a more compressed final period of history: "'The last days' can refer to the indeterminate future, or it can refer as a kind of technical term to 'the final period of history . . . the ideal or Messianic future.'" In other words, this phrase - as so often in Scripture - can mean several different things. Therefore, context must determine which meaning is meant. And one cannot simplistically, woodenly conclude - as Ed wishfully has - that one meaning is meant.

Rayburn cites 2 Tim 3:1, Jude 18, and 1 Jn 2:18 as evidence that the "last days" or "last times" or "last hour" would last long enough to cause people to doubt that Jesus was coming again (2 Peter 3:3). Thus, it again doesn't necessarily refer to a swift end, or literally the final hour of the day (like 11 PM till midnight). It is more analogous to something like 4 or 6 PM till midnight (in eschatological terms). Rayburn concludes:

Now, if you take all of this data together, it appears that "the last days," especially in its most technical, eschatological use, means the epoch of fulfillment which began with the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Once again, the OT prophecies of this time, the age is compressed in the vision of the future and we are given to see only the triumph of the Messiah, . . . In the prophetic perspective we are not given to see ahead of time either the number of years that "the last days" would encompass or the complicated history of the development of the Messiah's kingdom as it made its way out into the Gentile world. We have seen part of "the last days," but not yet all of it, we have witnessed the beginnings of that fulfillment but not, by any means, the consummation of the vision of Isaiah or Micah. In all of this, of course, "the last days" ends up being very like the other motifs employed in biblical prophecy to forecast the future of the kingdom of God.

Does this sort of interpretation make reasonable sense of the passages that Ed has employed in his zeal to prove that the NT writers were "false prophets?" Let's look at them. Hebrews 1:2: "in these last days": this can easily fit into the scheme I have just presented, since it gives no immediate indication of the imminence of Christ's return.

Perhaps Ed suspected this (if he knew very much about biblical prophecy and eschatological terminology), since he has to jump around to different texts in Hebrews. So he takes us to 9:26: "but now once at the consummation He has been manifested to put away sin . . ." (RSV: "end of the age").

Ed uses Matthew 13:40-41 to suggest that the "end of the age" is literally (and only) the very end of time, when God judges the world and individuals. Indeed, it can mean that, as already freely conceded, but it can also have a broader meaning, encompassing more time.

Thus, when Jesus gave a lengthy discourse on "the close of the age" (Matt 24:3), the length of time involved is quite vague. Many indications suggest a long span: "you will hear of wars and rumors of wars . . . the end is not yet" (24:6), "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world" (24:14), etc.

Now, obviously, if the gospel were to reach the whole world, it would take quite a bit of time. We Christians haven't even accomplished that yet! Peter takes up a similar theme in Acts 2, in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, referring to the "last days" (2:17), yet being very vague about how long that would last. Great time, in terms of needing to reach the whole world, and distant descendants seems to be implied in his words, "the promise [of baptism and reception of the Holy Spirit] is to you and to your children and to all that are far off . . ." (2:39).

The same Peter writes about "scoffers" in the "last days" being cynical about the return of Christ (2 Peter 3:3-4). Does he then go on to reiterate that it is only a wee bit longer; just a few years? No; quite the contrary:
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

(2 Peter 3:8-10; NIV)
So the evidence from both Jesus and Peter is quite consistent with the notion of an indeterminate future or vague concept of an "age". It doesn't require a view that it is imminent, in just a few years, as Ed makes out. But what about Ed's texts?:

"as you see the day drawing near . . ." . . . ". . . for yet a very little while, He who is coming will come, and will not delay." (Heb 10:25,37)

Once again, we must consult context, for we have already seen that this eschatological language can mean several different things. Can we find indications of a specific time-frame in Hebrews 10? No. Rather, we see this:
But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet.

(Hebrews 10:12-13; RSV)
Ed would have it that the NT requires that Jesus was going to return in His Second Coming literally very quickly, but in fact, it says here that He "wait"[ed] until certain things came to pass. No specific length of time is given, and, based on how prophecy works throughout the Old Testament, we know that this can indeed be a very long time.

The author also cites (10:16-17) the very famous passage from Jeremiah, announcing the New Covenant (Jer 31:33-34). If one peruses the older passage, one finds no indication in context that this was to be a quick consummation of the world. Nope; it was simply a time of renewal for Israel. Christians simply apply this to the Church age, post-crucifixion and post-Pentecost. Jeremiah refers to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which began occurring after Pentecost, when the Spirit descended upon the believers.

He writes, "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering" (10:23), perhaps suggesting a long span of time, rather than a short one. "You have need of endurance" (10:36). Then he spends an entire chapter recounting the extraordinary perseverance of OT saints (the implication being that Christians would have a long haul).

For example: "These all died in faith, not having received what was promised" (11:13); ". . . all these, though well-attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised" (11:39). He even keeps on in the chapter after that: "It is for discipline that you have to endure" (12:7). None of this data suggests a swift end. And none of it is inconsistent with what actually happened: nearly 2000 years of additional time and running. Since "last days" has a latitude of meaning in biblical usage, there is no need or necessity to posit a "false prophecy" here. Every indication is that no such "prophecy" was intended in the first place.

Ed cites Hebrews 10:37, which in turn cites Habakkuk 2:3-4. Now, does the old passage teach a swift end of time? Again, no (do we see a pattern by now??):
For still the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end - it will not lie. If it seem slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faith. (RSV)
Once again we see the simultaneously ambiguous and compressed time-frame which is altogether characteristic of Hebrew prophecy. The event will "seem slow" (human limited, fallible perspective) but will "surely come" (God's omniscient providence, out of time). The biblical text constantly moves back and forth from God's perspective to man's in this fashion.

This adequately explains all of Ed's passages from Hebrews in a way that doesn't require his interpretation at all. All of it is entirely consistent with a "last days" that can encompass all of history since Christ died, and more.

Ed writes:

. . . the author [of Matthew] based his description of "the end of the age" on Daniel 12, which was a description of the final judgment of mankind . . .

Yes, but as Dr. Rayburn showed above, that original prophecy (Daniel 10-12) also encompassed many epochs of time all the way up to the literal end of time. So that is no proof for his position, but of mine. Thanks, Ed! You make apologetics so easy.

Yet Ed rushes to the fool's conclusion:

So that is exactly what the author of Matthew and the author of Hebrews predicted would happen in their day, i.e., the final judgment of mankind.

Precisely the opposite, as all relevant cross-referencing indications suggest.

Ed argues:

Also note the logic behind the argument in Hebrews 9:26. The author argued that continuous sinning "since the foundation of the world" required blood sacrifices "often." But God saw to it that Jesus's sacrifice occurred at a time when no further sacrifices would be required. That time could only be "at the consummation" or "at the end of the age" when the time of final judgment for all sinners had arrived.

This is simply a logical fallacy, and as such , can be disposed of quickly. The cessation of the OT sacrificial system does not mean, automatically, that the absolute end of time must come. Jesus' sacrifice was the fulfillment of the OT law (Matt. 5:17-18) and the reality of which the OT sacrifices were types and shadows. The implication of a swift end is not required, as I have been showing in many different ways.

It should appear even to the most dense that the prediction as stated in the Book of Hebrews has failed.

Hardly. The only "dense" person here is Ed, who shows himself woefully, pathetically ignorant of reasonable Bible interpretation, while at the same time posing as superior to those of us who have made a love and study of the Bible our life's work.

So, the author of Hebrews was a false prophet.

Not at all, as shown. Unless Ed can overcome the mountain of contrary exegetical evidence, he simply has no basis for making such a claim.

For more examples from the New Testament of false prophecies see, "The Lowdown on God's Showdown." [link]

Having seen how Ed is capable of butchering biblical texts and making the most absurd mistakes of logic and application of sound hermeneutical principles (here and in an earlier exchange on the Psalms), I will not rush to this other paper with baited breath. But then again, it might provide a useful exercise in refutation, to once again illustrate the myth of the "profundity" and "unanswerability" of atheist/agnostic biblical interpretation.

When will you guys ever learn to stop doing this and to simply admit that you don't have a clue as to how to interpret the Bible properly? I highly suggest that you just go on with your lives and leave this work to those who know how to do it.

Yours, in It,

Dave Armstrong

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