An extended review of a 2023 book by Brian P. Irwin with Tim Perry
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Book by Brian P. Irwin with Tim Perry. Lexham, 2023. 410 pages. $29 (e-book $26)
If you were growing up in an evangelical household in the late 1970s, you were most likely aware of The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey. It was common in church youth groups in those days to talk of the rapture, or whether you could be left behind.
The conversations would go like this: “We are living in the end-times. When will Jesus return to take believers up with Him? Can we avoid the seven-year tribulation period? When that tribulation period ends, Jesus will fully return and rule for 1,000 years (Revelation 20:2). We pray that we will be taken up in the rapture before the tribulation happens.”
This book explains the theology behind such an understanding of the “end times,” a church expression for the final period of human history before Jesus returns as He promised. This approach to interpreting the Bible is called dispensationalism, because it divides up human history into different periods (or dispensations) of God’s dealing with human beings.
Proponents of this approach like Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye and Jack Van Impe say we are living near the end of the final dispensation before Jesus returns. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 is the budding of the fig tree in Matthew 24:32. Soon the beast of Revelation 13 will appear who is a personification of the anti-Christ world leader.
These dispensationalist teachers use a present-day interpretation of a Bible passage without enough consideration of what it meant to the original authors.
A more traditional Christian approach asks two questions when reading a Bible passage. First, what did it mean for the original authors? Second, what does it mean for us today? Dispensationalists go straight to the second question.
The authors of After Dispensationalism are scholars in Toronto (Irwin teaches Old Testament at Knox College) and Manitoba (Perry taught theology at Providence Seminary).
Their book distinguishes carefully between prophetic and apocalyptic genres when it comes to interpreting prophetic Bible passages. The prophetic is not always concerned with foretelling (predicting future events) – it can also be forthtelling (giving a profound message to contemporary listeners of the prophet). Apocalyptic writing uses symbolism and imagery.
In church history there have been a variety of interpretations about the beast of Revelation 13. For the first-century Christians, it represented certain Roman emperors. For Martin Luther (1483–1546) who initiated the Reformation, it was the pope. Present-day dispensationalists also engage in speculation.
Irwin and Perry’s book offers a detailed exposition of the entire book of Revelation along with Ezekiel and Daniel, all books of the Bible that dispensationalism focuses on. A reader uninitiated in the world of biblical and theological studies might find this a demanding and exhausting section. However, its payoff is a better understanding of interpretation theory and methods (often called hermeneutics).
The subtitle of this book is “Reading the Bible for the end of the world.” The authors explain how dispensationalism affects our view of the end-times (often called eschatology by theologians). They help readers realize it’s not as complicated as the dispensationalists make it out to be.
That is comforting, yet it can leave the reader wondering how to think about the end-times without concepts like the rapture and the tribulation period. It’s very possible reading this book will leave readers recognizing they have more to learn.
It’s refreshing to find a recent book published on this topic, since it is not as prominent as it was just a few decades ago. As a pastor I must confess the end-times are not often mentioned in my Sunday messages and liturgy. This book serves as a reminder that there is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and that it gives hope to us. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
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