Any time American Vision posts an article dealing with Bible prophecy, we get emails from Bible prophecy “experts” chastising us for our “ignorance.” One fellow wrote that since Revelation talks about earthquakes and we see earthquakes today that earthquakes must be a modern-day sign that the end is near. Here’s what he wrote:
“I don’t know who this guy [Gary DeMar] is and I don’t want to know but I am going to say this he does not know the bible cause it says in the Book of Revelation That Earth Quakes is one of the many signs of the end times.”
If someone sends me a well argued response, I appreciate the effort. It helps me to be a better student of the Bible. But so many of the responses I get are from people who “don’t want to know” or “don’t want to read.” They have settled on a position not because they studied it but because so many other people believe it and teach it that it has to be true. Even well-published authors do shoddy work on the subject of Bible prophecy. They can get away with it because they are writing to an audience that (1) already agrees with them, (2) rarely does independent study, and (3) does not know that other schools of interpretation exist. Then there are those writers who know there is a problem with their system of interpretation but refuse to engage opposing views honestly.
Paul N. Benware’s revised and expanded edition of Understanding End Times Prophecy is a case in point. While Benware includes a chapter on Preterism, he does a shoddy job in answering it. He can get away with this approach because he knows 99 percent of his audience will never bother to check his sources. As my debate with Jim Fletcher will show (soon to be released), it’s getting harder to defend dispensationalism in the light of preterist arguments.
Preterists teach that certain prophetic passages have already been fulfilled (e.g., Matt. 24), while futurists claim that these same passages are yet to be fulfilled. The debate centers (mostly) on how specific time indicators like “near,” “shortly,” “quickly,” and “this generation” should be interpreted. Benware claims that preterists regularly mix “the literal and allegorical” which results in “very inconsistent interpretations to a passage.”1 The following quotation encapsulates Benware’s argument on how he believes preterists interpret certain prophetic texts:
[P]reterist Gary DeMar concludes that the cosmic disturbances in Matthew 24:29–30 (the sign of the Son of Man, the darkened sun and moon and the stars falling from the sky) are symbolic of the passing away of the old covenant world of Judaism in [A.D.] 70. This conclusion is based on the illegitimate transference of meaning from one verse to another as well as some full-blown allegorization.2
For the record, my book Last Days Madness includes a 14-page chapter with the title “Sun, Moon, and Stars.”3 Benware never interacts with my arguments and scholars who follow a similar interpretive methodoloogy. In fact, he depends on secondary sources to make his poorly constructed arguments.
In evaluating Benware’s work, let’s begin with Matthew 24:29 where Jesus says, “But immediately after the tribulation of those days THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL FALL from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Applying this passage as well as the rest of Matthew 24 to events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 has a long and distinguished interpretive history. Dispensationalist author Thomas Ice, a prophecy writer who Benware quotes approvingly, states that Eusebius (c. 265–339) rightly argues “that the first-century destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans fulfilled biblical prophecy and was thus a ‘proof of the gospel.’”4 This is more than 1600 years before the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible and the systemization of dispensationalism. Benware accuses me and other preterists of an “illegitimate transference of meaning from one verse to another” when we apply Old Testament passages to Matthew 24:29. His indictment would have to go back beyond me to the earliest writings of the church fathers including many of the finest biblical expositors the church has ever produced.
In some translations, Matthew 24:29 includes a section that is in SMALL CAPS. The New American Standard translators did this, as they do with all Old Testament citations in the New Testament, because Jesus appropriates several passages from the Old Testament (Isa. 13:10;5 Dan. 8:10;6 Joel 2:107). Jesus is the one making the “transference of meaning from one verse to another.” Even The Popular Bible Prophecy Commentary, edited by dispensationalists Tim LaHaye and Ed Hindson, cites Isaiah 13:10 as a cross reference for Matthew 24:29.8 This means that they believe that there is some relationship between these two passages. If we know how Isaiah was using the passage, then we can determine how Jesus was using it. There is also a reference in Matthew 24:29 to Isaiah 13:13 which reads: “Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken from its place at the fury of the LORD of hosts in the day of His burning anger.” (cf. Isa. 34:4 [Rev. 6:13]; 2 Sam. 22:8; Isa. 24:19; Jer. 50:46).
Then there’s the description of a male goat in Daniel 8:10 that causes “stars to fall to the earth,” an action in itself that would destroy the earth. These fallen stars are then “trampled” by the goat. Most likely the goat refers to a civil ruler, and the stars are civil powers under the ruler’s dominion. How do the literalists handle Judges 5:20 when it states that “the stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera”?
Benware and other dispensationalists claim that the only way Revelation can be interpreted is literally. Let’s put their literalism standard to the test. In Revelation 6:13, it is revealed to John that “the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind.” Let’s move to chapter 8. “The third angel sounded, and a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of waters” (Rev. 8:10). If one star hits the earth, the earth will be vaporized in an instant. In fact, if a star gets even close to the earth, the earth is going to burn up before it hits. Then there’s Revelation 8:12: “Then the fourth angel sounded, and a third of the sun and a third of the moon and a third of the stars were smitten, so that a third of them might be darkened and the day might not shine for a third of it, and the night in the same way.” How can a “third of the sun” be smitten without catastrophic results on the whole earth and not just a third of it? All of this language is drawn from the Old Testament and only has meaning as it is interpreted in light of its Old Testament context—the judgment and destruction of nations (Isa. 14:12; Jer. 9:12–16). To ignore how a passage is used in the Old Testament is like trying to interpret Egyptian hieroglyphics without the Rosetta Stone.
Then there’s Revelation 12:3. John F. Walvoord quotes E.W. Bullinger approvingly: “It is impossible for us to take this as symbolical [Rev. 12:3]; or as other than what it literally says. The difficulties of the symbolical interpretation are insuperable, while no difficulties whatever attend the literal interpretation.”9 No difficulties whatever? A seemingly plausible explanation for Walvoord is that the “stars” are actually meteorites. If Jesus is describing a meteor shower, then I can’t see how this would be a significant sign today since there have been many of them over the past 2000 years. In the famous Leonid meteor shower of 1833, one estimate is that more than one hundred thousand meteors an hour passed by earth. But if John is seeing meteorites in Revelation 6:13 and 12:4, then they are meteorites in Matthew 24:29. Even “a third of the meteorites of heaven” falling to the earth would have a devastating effect on our planet. The earth would be uninhabitable. Scientists have speculated that a single meteorite threw up enough debris upon impact with Earth millions of years ago that it “ended the reign of the dinosaurs. . . . The colossal energy released in its collision with Earth is now estimated to be equal to the detonation of up to 300 million hydrogen bombs, each some 70 times bigger than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.”10
But there is a problem with interpreting “stars” as meteorites as Tommy Ice does in Matthew 24:29. He says the Greek word aster can mean “falling stars” or meteorites: “Stars do literally fall from heaven. They are called ‘falling stars,’ ‘shooting stars,’ ‘comets,’ or ‘meteors.’ The Greek word for ‘star’ in Matthew 24:29 can be used in this way.”11 Linked with sun and moon, it’s unlikely that meteorites are in view in Matthew 24:29 considering that the first use of sun, moon, and stars refers to fixed stars (Gen. 1:14–16; Deut. 4:19; Ps. 136:8) and not “falling stars.” The same is true in Genesis 37:9–10. The eleven stars that bow before Joseph are not meteorites. The use of stars in Matthew 24:29 cannot mean meteorites.
Charles L. Feinberg, writing in the dispensational Liberty Bible Commentary, writes: “The sun, moon, and stars indicate a complete system of government and remind the reader of Genesis 37:9.”12 Notice that Feinberg argues that sun, moon, and stars relate to “a complete system of government” and not literal stellar phenomena. He also references Genesis 37:9 where sun, moon, and stars are used as symbols for Israel. Other dispensational authors follow a similar pattern of interpretation.
John A. Martin, writing in the dispensational-oriented Bible Knowledge Commentary, argues that “the statements in [Isaiah] 13:10 about the heavenly bodies (stars … sun … moon) no longer functioning may figuratively describe the total turnaround of the political structure of the Near East. The same would be true of the heavens trembling and the earth shaking (v. 13), figures of speech suggesting all-encompassing destruction.”13 So why couldn’t Jesus be using the language from Isaiah 13:10 to “figuratively describe the total turnaround of the political structure of” Israel that took place with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70?
Consider the comments of dispensational author John F. Walvoord on Revelation 12:1 and how he draws from the Old Testament to explain the meaning of the cosmic language used: “The description of the woman as clothed with the sun and the moon is an allusion to Genesis 37:9–11, where these heavenly bodies represent Jacob and Rachel, thereby identifying the woman with the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. In the same context, the stars represent the patriarchs, the sons of Jacob. The symbolism may extend beyond this to represent in some sense the glory of Israel and her ultimate triumph over her enemies.”14 If sun, moon, and stars represent Babylon (Isa. 13:10) and Israel (Gen. 37:9) in the Old Testament and the New Testament (Rev. 12:1), then why can’t sun, moon, and stars represent Israel in Matthew 24:29? Benware never discusses these issues and seems oblivious to what his fellow dispensationalists say about the nature of cosmic language and how the prophets use it to describe past local judgments.
R.T. France’s comments on the use of cosmic language are helpful since he is a well known New Testament exegete who is respected by all eschatological camps for his fair-minded handling of Scripture. The following comments are from his commentary on Mark 13:24–25 which parallel Matthew 24:29:
The passages cited in [Mark 13] vv. 24b–2515 use the language of cosmic disintegration to denote, as often in prophecy, climactic (not climatic!) changes to the existing world order. The lights are going out in the centres of power, and the way is being prepared for a new world order. . . . The language of v. 24b is paralleled at several points in the prophetic literature (Ezk. 32:7; Jo. 2:10, 31; 3:15; Amos 8:9) but is verbally most closely related to LXX16 Is. 13:10, part of the oracle against Babylon. . . . In most of these passages the immediate reference is to the imminent downfall of specific nations (Egypt, Babylon, Edom, Israel, and Judah). . . . In the original prophetic context, therefore, such ‘cosmic’ language conveys a powerful symbolism of political changes with world history, and is not naturally to be understood of a literal collapse of the universe at the end of the world. . . . The natural sense of such language, used in a Jewish context, is surely clear. Mk. 13:24b–27 is not about the collapse of the universe, but about drastic events on the world scene, interpreted in the light of the divine judgment and purpose. What is startling about the use of such language by Jesus in this context is not that he uses the same language as the prophetic, but that he uses it with regard to the fate of Jerusalem and its temple.17
A good way to test interpretive methodologies is to compare Psalm 18 with the actual historical events when “the LORD delivered [David] from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.” The language of the Psalm is as apocalyptic as to what we find in Isaiah 13:10, Matthew 24:29, and Mark 13:24–25, and yet Psalm 18 describes God’s deliverance of one man over his flesh and blood enemies with depictions of a “volcanic eruption that shook the mountains and raised the sea bed.”18 A reading of David’s encounter with Saul in the historical narratives of 1 Samuel will show that no series of events line up with the narrative of Psalm 18. Following the standards of dispensational interpretive principles, the events of Psalm 18 are yet to be fulfilled in some future prophetic scenario when David and Saul are raised from the dead to battle again.
Benware and other dispensationalists insist on a literal interpretation of Revelation. If the claim is made that the “stars” are actually meteorites, then there is a problem with Revelation 12:4 where a “great red dragon” uses his “tail” to sweep a “third of the stars of heaven” to throw “them to the earth.” Such a barrage would destroy the earth, making it uninhabitable for man and beast for millennia. And yet, we are to believe that the armies of the entire world are going to pick a fight with Israel (Rev. 16:13–16) after a third of the earth’s population has been wiped out. The effects of stars falling in Revelation 6:13 would have already done terrible if not irrevocable damage to the earth where “every mountain and island were moved out of their places” (6:14).
Prophetic language in the New Testament is borrowed from prophetic language from the Old Testament. If you want to know what the prophetic parts of the Bible mean, then study the Old Testament. You will see that what so many Christians understand as world-ending events, the Bible means as local judgments on particular peoples and places (e.g., Zeph. 1).
- Paul N. Benware, Understanding End Time Prophecy: A Comprehensive Approach, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press,  2006), 158. [↩]
- Benware, Understanding End Time Prophecy, 158–159. [↩]
- Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church, 4th ed. (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 1999), chap. 11. An abbreviated discussion of sun, moon, and stars language is also found in my book Left Behind: Separating Fact from Fiction (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision,  2009). [↩]
- Thomas Ice, “The History of Preterism,” The End Times Controversy: The Second Coming Under Attack, eds. Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2003), 42. [↩]
- “For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; the sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will not shed its light” (Isa. 3:10). [↩]
- “It [male goat] grew up to the host of heaven and caused some of the host and some of the stars to fall to the earth, and it trampled them down” (Dan. 8:10). [↩]
- “Before them the earth quakes, the heavens tremble, the sun and the moon grow dark and the stars lose their brightness” (Joel 2:10). [↩]
- Tim LaHaye and Ed Hindson, gen. eds., The Popular Bible Prophecy Commentary: Understanding the Meaning of Every Prophetic Passage (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2006), 360. The editors claim that the Babylon of Isaiah 13 is a post-rapture, Great Tribulation, newly resurected Babylon. This is impossible since 13:6a says “the day of the LORD is near.” [↩]
- E.W. Bullinger, The Apocalypse (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1902), 274. Emphasis added. Quoted in John W. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1966), 137. [↩]
- William J. Broad, “New Clue to Cosmic Collision and Demise of the Dinosaurs,” New York Times (September 17, 1993), A8. [↩]
- Ice, “The Olivet Discourse,” The End Times Controversy, 192. [↩]
- Charles L. Feinberg, “Revelation,” Liberty Bible Commentary: New Testament, eds. Jerry Falwell and Edward E. Hindson (Lynchburg, VA: Old-Time Gospel Hour, 1982), 820. [↩]
- John A. Martin, “Isaiah,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, eds. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 1059. Futurist William E. Biederwolf offers these comments on Isaiah 13:10: “Here is the usual description or the usual Scriptural characteristics of the ‘day of the Lord’—any day of His judgment. Here it must be figurative for anarchy, distress and revolutions of kingdoms, ‘although,’ says Fausett, ‘there may be a literal fulfillment finally, shadowed forth under this imagery.’ (Rev. 21.1.)” (The Millennium Bible [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, (1924) 1964], 65). [↩]
- John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ: A Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), 188. Emphasis added. Michael Wilcock’s comments are equally helpful: “[The woman] is not simply Mary, the actual mother of Jesus; nor Mary’s ancestress Eve, whose offspring was to be the serpent’s great enemy (Gn. 3:15); nor even all mothers in the chosen line between them. For regarded as a ‘sign,’ she is adorned with the splendour of sun, moon, and twelve stars, which in a parallel Old Testament dream (Joseph’s in Gn. 37:9–11) represent the whole family of Israel. . . . She is in fact the church: the old Israel [Acts 7:38], ‘the human stock from which Christ came’ (Rom. 9:5, Knox), and the new Israel, whom he has now left in order to go back to his Father’.” (Michael Wilcock, I Saw Heaven Opened: The Message of Revelation [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1976], 118–19]. [↩]
- “But in those days, after that tribulation, THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL BE FALLING from heaven, and the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24–25). [↩]
- LXX=Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. [↩]
- R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark: The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 530, 532–533. [↩]
- George R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 6. [↩]