Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Dispensationalism and the New Jerusalem

by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com

John F. Walvoord
I consider Dr. John F. Walvoord to have been one of the two leading scholarly representatives of classic dispensationalism in his heyday. He and Charles C. Ryrie were the most prominent advocates of dispensationalism throughout the period of dispensationalism’s hegemony in the populist market (1955–85). Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost never quite made the grade, partly due to the problem regarding his magnum opus: Things to Come ought to have been called Things to Quote. It was merely an inventory of classic dispensational thought with little creative interaction.

I myself was once a dispensationalist, though I got over it. I graduated from a dispensational college with a degree in Biblical Studies (Tennessee Temple College, B.A., 1973). I always found Walvoord and Ryrie to be the most reputable, trustworthy, and compelling authorities to cite in promoting dispensationalism during those halcyon days in which I could study at leisure in the comfort of my home the identity of the (current) Antichrist prediction and formulate new and more compelling dates for the rapture.

In this blog I will be focusing briefly on the new Jerusalem as found in the Book of Revelation. The new Jerusalem imagery is an excellent test case for demonstrating the attempted consistency of dispensationalism (with its literalistic hermeneutic) on the one hand and its embarrassing absurdity on the other. Let me explain.

Walvoord’s Approach to Revelation
In 1966 Walvoord released his commentary on Revelation: The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Moody, 1966). In his Preface he states his general interpretive approach to Revelation, a mistake that casts its shadow over the entire book (and even extends about three inches beyond the book when left in the full sun at about 3:00 on a summer afternoon): “The author has assumed that this book should be interpreted according to the normal rules of hermeneutics rather than as a special case.” Apparently, this is due to Revelation being simply a normal book and without any special features.

Indeed, Walvoord notes of his commentary conclusions: “The result has been a more literal interpretation of prophecy and revelation in general and a clearer picture of end-time events than is frequently held by expositors.”

Thus, Walvoord attempts a literal approach to this remarkable book. We must remember that Revelation presents us with a leading character who not only is of a scarlet hue but also has seven fully-formed heads possessing ten horns. These ten horns serve as effective anchors for ten diadems which otherwise would be swept off his heads by fluvial action as he makes his way up from the sea channels below to the seashore above. There, once in full public view, he presents himself not so much as an aquatic creature but as a compound of animals, two of which normally avoid water sports (the leopard and the lion, Rev 13:2). (The bear is known for frolicking in rivers and streams in search of trout. The tiger is really the only cat that seems to enjoy water. But I digress, for the tiger is not even mentioned in this amalgamated creature.)

The New Jerusalem Problem
Perhaps no better exposé of both the tenacity and absurdity of dispensationalism exists than its attempt at explaining the new Jerusalem. John’s vision of the new Jerusalem absolutely defies literal description. Let us note some of the oddities created by the dispensationalist attempt at explanation of this glorious symbol.

In introducing the new heaven and new earth to which the new Jerusalem descends, Walvoord makes some important geological observations on John’s statement “and there was no more sea” (Rev 21:1c). Walvoord explains: “Most of the earth is now covered with water, but the new earth apparently will have no bodies of water except for the river mentioned in 22:2” (p. 311). This is odd enough in itself: to where does the river flow? Does it make a continual loop around the world, never pooling into a lake, sea, or ocean? Perhaps future dispensational exegetes can explain this geographical oddity. But Walvoord does not. He refuses to go beyond what Scripture actually states — unless something pops into his mind that seems to him to be a good idea.

Indeed, Walvoord compounds the problem when he observes the three dimensions of the city in 21:16. He suggests that it “could be in the form of a pyramid with sides sloping to a peak at the height indicated.” He notes in this regard that “this would have certain advantages, not necessarily because smaller, but because this shape provides a vehicle for the river of life to proceed out of the throne of God, which seems to be at the top, to find its way to the bottom, assuming our experience of gravity will be somewhat normal also in the new earth” (Walvoord, 323). (This is an actual quote from him; I did not make it up.)

I am not certain of this, but I suspect that had Walvoord been pressed he might have argued that this shape would also make an excellent ski slope for the new world. Undoubtedly he could have availed himself of his clearly stated scientific assumptions and then backed this by a compelling Scripture reference too often overlooked in Revelation’s exegetical history. Let me explain.

Referring back to his quote cited above, we may observe that Walvoord is already operating on the geo-physical assumption that “our experience of gravity will be somewhat normal also in the new earth.” And since the water in the new Jerusalem flows down from a height of 1500 miles above the earth the temperature would be quite nippy and ideal for icy conditions.

Doubtless he could have referred to the lubricating properties of surface ice conditions that would facilitate slipperiness thereby increasing ski enjoyment for those who strap boards on their feet to let gravity pull them down to where the drinks are served. After all, with fewer chemical bonds holding them in place, surface molecules in ice tend to vibrate with greater amplitude than those located in the bulk crystalline sub-structure of the ice mass. This obviously leads to an important reality of physics: the Mean Square Displacement of both the hydrogen and oxygen atoms on the icy surface of frozen water reflects the thermal vibration that increases as a natural function of temperature. But Walvoord is strangely silent on these scientific observations (just as he is on the issue of cheese) that would have further elucidated our understanding of the new world.

When we add these geo-physical assumptions to Scripture references elsewhere, the matter is irrefutably solved. Building on these scientific observations Walvoord could easily have pointed out that the top of the pyramid might also be the place to which God refers when he asks Job: “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?” (Job 38:22). Job was stumped because he lived long before the rapture and obviously could not have entered the storehouses at the peak of the pyramidal new Jerusalem.

Of course, we will have to overlook Walvoord’s views on the maintenance of gravitational mechanics in the new order when we consider the crushing weight of a city that exists as a 1500 mile high, wide, and long entity. Hopefully the new Jerusalem will be built upon a four inch concrete slab thereby preventing it from being driven down into the mud.

This would not be a concern during the millennium, however, for Walvoord notes: “If the new Jerusalem is in existence throughout the millennial reign of Christ, it is possible that it is a satellite city suspended over the earth during the thousand-year reign of Christ as the dwelling place of resurrected and translated saints who also have access to the earthly scene.”

A benefit of this view would obviously be that during the millennium the river flowing down the slope of the pyramidal new Jerusalem could be a primary source of fresh water for the earth below as it warmed upon reentering the warmer low altitudes. As the river flowed down the sides of the new Jerusalem, it would fall into the atmosphere, collect into clouds, and rain down upon the inhabitants below who would be marveling at the 1500 mile long city floating above. We could also back up Walvoord’s theories by providing Scripture support for this possibility: “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols” (Eze 36:25). This would allow us to take Ezekiel literally, rather than spiritually.

We must, however, recognize Walvoord’s reservation: “The possibility of Jerusalem being a satellite city over the earth during the millennium is not specifically taught in any scripture and at best is an inference based on the implication that it has been in existence prior to its introduction in Revelation 21” (Walvoord, 313). Nevertheless, regarding the question as to when the new Jerusalem is built, Walvoord argues that: “Nothing is revealed concerning this in Scripture unless the expression of John 14:2, ‘I go to prepare a place for you,’ refers to this” (p. 312). Jesus certainly has had sufficient time to build this 1500 hundred mile high, wide, long city, for his ascension was 1,970 years, two months, and three days ago.

Now we must understand that on the literalistic assumptions of dispensationalism, this new Jerusalem is an actual, literal city; it is not a symbol of the church or the people. Walvoord comments: “Of major importance are the facts that John actually saw a city, that this city was inhabited by saints of all ages, and that God Himself was present in it. Until further light is given, it is probably a safe procedure to accept the description of this city as corresponding to the physical characteristics attributed to it” (p. 320).

Walvoord continues, noting that John “itemizes the specific details” so that the symbolic view of the new Jerusalem “is difficult to harmonize with the specific details given which are nowhere explained in other than the literal sense in the Bible” (p. 321). By this he is referring to the many OT references to literal cities built with wall-foundation stones made from jasper, sapphire, emerald, and so forth, which also contain streets of pure gold, and which have gates carved out of single pearls from enormous clams dredged up from the Mediterranean Sea (cp. Rev 21:19–21). (I am writing this at 5:30 am in the morning so I am unable to remember where in the OT these literal cities are; but I am sure you will recognize them once you have had your morning cup of coffee.)

So then, the new Jerusalem is an actual, literal, physical city, complete with a street (21:21; 22:2). We must carefully note, however, that it has only one street: John never mentions “streets” and he does twice mention the street (singular): “the street of the city was pure gold” (21:21) and “in the middle of its street” (22:2). Obviously traffic problems will be solved in the new Jerusalem, proving that Los Angeles (despite it being the “City of Angels”) is not the new Jerusalem. But more significantly, with a city 1500 miles high, elevators will probably be the main means of transport thereby removing the need for a city highway system.

On Walvoord’s (and dispensationalism’s) analysis we must conceive of a whole, fully-functioning, 1500 mile-dimensioned city “that descends from heaven” (p. 321). According to the clear teaching of Scripture, this literal city floats through the sky (Rev 21:2, 10). Obviously it floats with such ease that it does not break up the street, which street apparently rests on nothing but air (though it would be protected from air turbulence by some unknown mechanism as it enters into the lower earth atmosphere).

We surely must surmise that this literal city will have literal pipes, electrical fittings, duct work, tubes, couplings, flanges, traps, strainers, block-and-table, and such hanging beneath it. We know for certain that it has foundation stones (21:14, 19). But these foundation stones are suspended on air — at least throughout the millennium and until it arrives from its near-earth orbit in the eternal state.

Christians: dispensationalism is a bizarre, absurd, and embarrassing theological construct. The fact that so many evangelical Christian believe it is a sad testimony both to Christian naivete and to the dismal lack of solid biblical exegesis in the churches of our land. Actually, the new Jerusalem is a symbol of the redeemed people of God in whom he dwells (Rev 21:3), much like the “temple” in Paul’s writing often represents the people of God and not a physical building (1 Cor 3:16–17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21).