Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Ghosts of End Times Present: John Walvoord's Boiling Oil

From the July 2009 E-Block.


It may perhaps be rightly asked whether John Walvoord is a "ghost of end times present" - or past. What makes it hard to say is that, while he died in 2002, his work continued in his name edited by his son (also John) and Walvoord's student, Mark Hitchcock, in 2007. 

In the end, I deemed "present" appropriate as the category, though in some ways, if we were to press the Dickensian analogy, Walvoord's present incarnation does not quote resemble his past incarnations - to put it another way, the image of the ghost wavers, and we cannot be sure, as Dickens would put it, whether we are seeing a true ghost or merely a glob of mustard!
For you see, Walvoord is rather unique in this respect: Unlike some end times writers, who produce numerous books under different titles and often test the wind for trends to use in their books (as we have seen from Lindsey and Hagee), Walvoord himself fairly well resisted the temptation to do this. His book, Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis (AOMC), appeared in successive editions in 1974 and 1990, and then in a 2007 edition retitled Armageddon, Oil, and Terrorism, which was edited and added to by Walvoord's son and Hitchcock. The former two editions are in some places hardly distinguishable from one another - and for the most part, Walvoord didn't try to mesh specific events into the prophetic paradigm in the same way Hagee and Lindsey did.

In other words, specific events like the assassination of Rabin did not prompt Walvoord to see prophecy coming closer to fulfillment. At most, Walvoord made use of general trends (e.g., the rise of Communism) to suggest that prophecy was nearing fulfillment. And this in turn meant that he would have had little need for revision between successive editions of AOMC.

It is thus that I am able to say that in Walvoord, I find someone who represents perhaps the most sensible expositor of dispensational prophecy I have seen so far. He was not given to sensational claims and made only a few tenuous connections compared to other prophecy writers we have examined so far.
In tracking this, we will actually go somewhat further back than AOMC, to a book of Walvoord's titled The Church in Prophecy (CIP) (Zondervan, 1964). Even here, Walvoord was careful about not seeing too much into details. 

Perhaps the only rather peculiar application he tried to make (54-5) was an effort to see in 1 Tim. 4:1-3, a prohibition on marriage and foods, a relation to Roman Catholic prohibitions on marriage for priests and Lenten prohibitions. (I found that one of interest, inasmuch as I recall the "Apostasy Now" website connecting the passage to current diet fads!)

But generally, Walvoord appealed to two major trends as signals for prophecy: The rise of Communism, and the strategic importance of oil. It is this latter point that has remained a staple of Walwoord's work. To a lesser degree, he also appealed in general to things like pollution and dwindling food supplies, but Communism and oil were his two primary themes.

Even at the most general level, however, Walvoord and his successors were compelled to make some changes. We will see how shortly. For the moment, I would highlight some other notes of interest from CIP:

58 - It was ironic to see Walvoord making much of churches as shallow, and referring to pastors who "preach interesting but unchallenging sermons and who leave the congregation undisturbed seem to be in the ascendancy." This was written in 1964 - and I shudder to think what Walvoord might say of today's popular preachers.

92 -- Walvoord was careful not to set anything like a time for the Rapture of the church, not even in very broad terms. His most concise statement: "…if the coming of the Lord was imminent in the first century, it is even more so in the present hour." I would note here that Walvoord did indeed fail to see the inherent problem for the dispensational view: "Imminent" must be redefined to suit the thesis.

99-100 -- Aside from eschatological issues, I found a useful point explaining why Matthew's saints were resurrected early. Walvoord draws an analogy to Lev, 23:9-14, the bringing of a sheaf of grain at the beginning of harvest, as a token of coming complete harvest. The saints amounted to a "token" of this sort before all were resurrected.

114 - Finally, a quote that is useful for dispensationalists and preterists alike: "Most conservative scholarship agrees that the early church fathers were in error in the conclusion that they were already in the great tribulation." Hence as well, it cannot be argued by dispensationalists that preterism is an "upstart" with no past pedigree.

With that, we now move to evaluations of the successive editions of AOMC. We will see how even commenting in the most general terms, and despite due caution, Walvoord ended up having to place a finger in the wind, ever so tenuously and briefly, in order to adjust his prophetic settings. He was more judicious than most we have seen at that, but was no less susceptible to the shifting requirements of the dispensational prophetic system.

Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis (Zondervan, 1974)

The Oil Factor. Oil at this time of early OPEC embargoes must have seemed a critical issue for Americans in 1974; I was too young to remember gas lines and OPEC rhetoric, but I am sure prophecy students of the time saw things much as Walvoord did - of the oil crisis as a prophetic signal.

But there is a bit of an oddity. Walvoord makes this comment [56]:
The coming crisis in the Middle East cannot be far away. The oil supply of the Middle East may run out in the next thirty to forty years.
This appeal is of interest, because essentially, Walvoord has subtly set a date, perhaps without realizing it. By his reckoning, the ability of oil to play a role in prophecy would end soon - and so thereby would the time when prophecy would be fulfilled. Indeed, Walvoord even expected that the USA would achieve self-sufficiency in oil within 10 years - from today's perspective, that is quite a romantic dream!

The Communism Factor. In Walvoord's view [110], spreading world communism was preparation for the Antichrist's coming world religion. This too is rather interesting, since commentators closer to our own time have perceived a New Age component to the religion of the Anti-Christ.

Other Matters. As noted, Walvoord generally (and wisely) avoided being too specific about where fulfillments might be found. He supposed [114] that the European Common Market might become the 10-nation confederacy, or might just be a preparation for it. He foresaw [125] a quite literal fulfillment of the Ezekiel 38-9 Russian attack on Israel - noting that the Russians still had cavalry units. The darkening of the sun and moon [148-9] he thought might come as a result of pollution. And, in an interesting switch from what we normally see [174], Walvoord explains how the entire Earth will see the return of Jesus - not by way of international media broadcasting pictures worldwide, but because it will be a "majestic procession" that will "take many hours." In other words, the world will see Jesus return because Jesus will take his time and take the long way around. That is perhaps the most interesting and creative solution I have seen to that particular problem.

When? Walvoord closes by saying [199] that "the rapture must be excitingly near." In the end, he was cautious only to an extent - but could not resist, apparently, the perceived hope he saw in the schematic he had laid out.

Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis (Zondervan, 1990)

How did Walvoord change things for the 1990 edition? He did not have to do much, for as noted, he was careful, mostly, not to be too specific. Still, we see the need for some significant changes:

The Oil Factor. Walvoord still says [63] "The oil supply in the Middle East may run out in another generation." There is still not much time for his scenario to come to pass, he thinks; but note the 30-40 years of the earlier AOMC "generation" - 40 years at least, tacked on now to the 30-40 Walvoord presupposed in 1974.

The Communism Factor. By 1990, we saw Communism as a system entering its death throes. This necessitated the largest change in Walvoord's schematic [119-20]: "Although the political ideal of Communism does not seem to be perpetuated in the end time, the Communist dedication to atheism, materialism, and military power will prepare the way for the final form of world religion."

Other Matters. Walvoord drew somewhat further away from identifying the EU with the ten-nation confederacy. He supposes [25] that the 0 nations might come from Europe, but also may include nations from "Western Asia and Northern Africa." He concludes [130-31]: "Whether the Common Market is the preliminary form of this ten-nation group or whether it is the forerunner of another confederacy of nations is difficult to predict."

When? In terms of time, Walvoord remained hopeful yet vague: [13] "the world has already begun the countdown to Armageddon" and the Rapture [16] "may be expected momentarily." And yet he also said there was [21] "no scriptural ground for setting dates." It seems contrary to say that we cannot set dates, but at the same time use words such as "momentarily" associated with a short time ahead. Walvoord did not set dates, but he did set ranges.

Armageddon, Oil, and Terror (Tyndale, 2007)

Walvoord, as noted, died in 2002, and this latest edition by his son and also his student (Hitchcock) is in some ways barely recognizable as part of the series. Indeed, what we find are solitary sections - recognizable ase work of the senior Walvoord from past editions - surrounded by pages upon pages of dire warnings concerning terrorism, chemical and nuclear attacks, and even bird flu [e.g., 42, 162]. The senior Walvoord made use of such things, but was far more general and restrained in their use; one would have seldom or never seen him citing statistics as a way of emphasizing his point.

The Oil Factor. Where formerly, the senior Walvoord envisioned the Arab nations running out of oil, and this limiting his prophetic schematic chronologically, the junior Walvoord and Hitchcock now make the critical issue "peak oil" [19] - a time when demand will outstrip production, causing political difficulties that will aid the Antichrist's advent.

The Communism Factor. Communism? It is barely whispered of now; rather, the wider complex of political forces, including Islamic militancy, take the fore.
Other Matters. AOT is considerably bulked up from prior editions of AOMC, and includes much more in the way of explanation about Biblical interpretation. I'd like to comment on a few of these points.

50 - One of the artificial constructions of the dispensational system has been what Walvoord and Hitchcock call the "horizontal view of prophecy" - in which they say the prophets' view of the future was like "distant mountain peaks" with no sense of depth, where depth is analogous to time. This view resulted in what they call "prophetic skip" [80] - where prophets had no idea how much time separated varied events they predicted.

It is an interesting concept - but one completely without any anthropological or social support. As I have noted, the actual scenario would be that the prophets pay by far the most attention to the mountains closest too them - and as the mountains are farther away, they see them less distinctly and can describe less of their detail.

Ironically, this is a far more realistic picture of how, indeed, people see mountains - the contrived scenario of "prophetic skip" is analogous to prophets not being able to see mountains in more than two dimensions, and is unrealistic as an analogy to real-life experience.

78 - Though the authors do not address my own preterist views, they make a statement concerning Daniel 2, the great multi-metal statue of Nebuchadnezzar. They insist that the clay and iron feet of the statue were not fully fulfilled in Roman Empire, because "the Roman Empire never existed in a ten-king form" and also "gradually deteriorated and declined" - the Western half in 476 AD, and the Eastern half in 1453 AD. This, they say, does not correspond with the "sudden destruction of the feet of the image and the ten-horn stage of the beast in Daniel 7:7."

No ten-king form? Really? What about the ten key Roman emperors (see here) or the ten provinces of Rome in the first century that were ruled by prefects?
As for the demise of the statue, it is rather ironic that this is the same argument once made to me by a Skeptic who denied an equation with Rome. My answer is the same: If we wish to be THAT literal, the whole statue - from the head down - was atomized by the rolling mountain (2:35), and so if Walvoord and Hitchcock wish to appeal to the slow downfall of Rome based on their reading, then they also have to argue that the prediction was that all of these empires would fall at once - which clearly did not happen, even if we assume the legitimacy of continuing to identify the divided Empire with the Roman Empire as it was known. I also see no "sudden destruction" of the beast in Daniel 7:7, though perhaps the statement is a grammatical ambiguity, only meaning that they saw no correspondence to the two separate elements of the image, and the beast.

84 - The European Union now is "not the final, ultimate fulfillment of the 10-nation confederation, but Europe still provides "necessary prelude" to fulfillment of prophecy in this matter.

131-- Jer 30:7 is seen as necessarily a reference to the end times for the same reason as Matthew 24:21 is (see here).

139 -- Is. 13:19 is also said to have to refer to a future Babylon, because the one in the past hung on until AD 1000 "in some form or substance". I believe Walvoord and Hitchcock require the perspective arrived at in our material on Tyre. Such indeed is the problem: For these authors, the prophecy "must be literally fulfilled" [140] and so must be in the future. The problem again is reading ancient texts in a fashion foreign to their literary and cultural background.

145 - The creation of an American embassy complex in Baghdad may be a "key step toward the rise of Babylon" as the new world capitol.

When? The junior Walvoord and Hitchcock are far more gloomy in their assessments, yet for the most part maintain the same soon-not yet tension as the senior Walvoord did. Thus for example [43]: "A dark shadow hangs over our world. It seems like the coming of Christ is very near."

The closest they get to a specific time is when they say [59] that 2006 is to be deemed a "key turning point" for the nation of Israel, as Israel became home to the largest Jewish community in the world. This is an interesting point. Although it is not stated explicitly, one gets the sense that this is being heralded as a marker the same way that the founding of Israel in 1948 was once used - and later the retaking of Jerusalem in 1967 - as the beginning of the "generation" foreseen by Jesus, according to dispensationalists. Does this mean the "generation" will now have until 2046 to see Jesus return?

Concluding Analysis

The works of the senior Walvoord have been escorted into the 21st century. Inside AOT, the end of each chapter refers readers to a website started to keep matters up to date: As of this typing, one may see on the front page the lead article, "Oil Climbs to Record High" - dated June 26, 2008. The site appears to have not been updated since then. One can only wonder why.

But that seems to reflect as well, by analogy, a story of what has happened to Walvoord's material. Walvoord's caution, which led him to speak only in general terms of world events fulfilling prophecy, simply gave insufficient reason to see impending fulfillment of specific elements of the dispensational paradigm. Such it is now that his successors have made it so that ANY bad thing can be seen as a sogn of a near end - and have thus gone the route of the Lindseys and the Hagees.

Is this is a flaw in the dispensational paradigm itself? Or in those who teach it, and cannot resist the temptation to make their own sub-prophecies, in order to make the schematic more believable, more concrete, more relevant, and more helpful for evangelism? I tend to think it is a bit of both - but the irony is, such looking at the prophetic long term, in the end, produces in the historic long term the poor result of discontent in those who look to these writers for advice and direction, and end up seeing them proved wrong.

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