Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Why are Christadelphians obsessed with Bible Prophecy?

For many Christadelphians, Bible prophecy is a big deal. For some, it forms the bedrock on which all of their other beliefs rest. For others, it provides comfort and helps them to feel more secure in their beliefs.

This article takes a look at why Christadelphians put so much emphasis on prophecy.

Obligatory 'not all' disclaimer

Of course there are Christadelphians who don't care much about prophecy and whose faith does not depend on prophecy at all. Good for them. Let's move on.

Why do Christadelphians put such a big emphasis on prophecy?

Here's why I think Christadelphians are so obsessed with prophecy. Being human, Christadelphians often experience doubts about their beliefs, and that is extremely uncomfortable for them (as it is/was for us too). They desperately want to believe the Bible is true, because that belief supports all of their other beliefs about life and their own significance. The stakes are extremely high, because if they're wrong it means they've given up huge opportunities to more fully enjoy the only life they have. It also makes their lifestyle and practices seem rather strange and it introduces a huge amount of uncertainty about everything. So rather than consider that possibility, they double-down on attempting to build up certainty regarding their belief in the Bible.

By constructing many instances of "fulfilled prophecy" they create a smokescreen of certainty that is designed to reduce their doubt and allay their fears of being mistaken. Being surrounded by others "of like faith" also helps them to feel a similar assurance. 50,000+ Christadelphians can't all be wrong, can they? Come to think of it, that's actually a really odd question for a Christadelphian to ask, since they seem comfortable believing that over 7 billion people can all be wrong.

Despite their boasting about being "truth seekers", the smokescreen created by all of these independent "confirmations" of their beliefs serves only to obscure the truth and make them feel more comfortable with what they already believe. Seeking truth is rarely comfortable, which is why they put so much effort into "holding fast to the faith" rather than challenging their deepest beliefs and assumptions. That's why I found the title of a Christadelphian online publication, "Defence and Confirmation", to be almost the opposite of a genuine search for truth. They may as well have just called it "Echo Chamber". If your up-front stated goal is defence and confirmation of what you already believe, what did you ever hope to learn? If you discovered that the Mormons or the Jehovah's Witnesses had a similar publication with the same title, what would you say to them?

Christadelphians get excited about the possibility of fulfilled prophecy because it provides a boost to their feeling of certainty about their beliefs. I suspect that it literally provides a dopamine hit, making the term "prophecy junkee" seem rather an apt description of many Christadelphians. This leads to my next question.

Why are they still looking for fulfilled prophecies?

If Christadelphians already believe that prophecies have definitely been fulfilled in the past, why do they still seek more confirmation in the form of new prophecy fulfilments? One answer is that they simply want to know when Jesus will return, despite the Bible explicitly saying that no one knows that information. I don't think this answer is sufficient. I think there is much more going on.

I think the primary reason why Christadelphians are still looking for, and still excited about, new prophecy fulfilments is because despite so many alleged fulfilments in the past, they still experience doubts. Just as their beliefs about the Bible might be mistaken, their beliefs about previously fulfilled prophecies might also be mistaken, and so each one fails to deliver the promised "fix" for their doubts and fears. Personally I think their doubts are justified, and that in general doubt is actually a healthy precursor to more doxastic openness and genuine curiosity, but so many Christadelphians seem afraid of doubt - and so they fail to recognise its value. To experience doubt is to come face to face with an opportunity to learn something new, and that should be celebrated, not resisted.

While it may seem from their constant preaching about prophecy that they are always trying to convince others that they are right, I think it's probably more likely that they are actually trying to convince themselves. Thus, their search for confirmation continues.

Christadelphian Prophecies

While I'm talking about Christadelphians and prophecy, it's worth mentioning something about some particular themes of prophecy that are prevalent among Christadelphians.

In addition to the standard apologetics such as the prophecy against Tyre, prophecy against Egypt, and the return of Israel, there are some modern prophecies that may well be unique to Christadelphians.

The first is the idea that Russia will invade Israel, prompting leading world powers to engage in some epic World War III style battle before God intervenes and wipes out all the armies that opposed Israel. The general outline is taken from Ezekiel 38-39 and Zechariah 14. Christadelphians believe Gog is a title referring to the leader of Russia. Why Russia? Because some Bible versions incorrectly translated the word "chief" as "Rosh" (i.e. treating it as a proper name), and that sounds a bit like "Russia" - I'm not making this up. The footnote in the NET is quite informative here:

Heb “the prince, the chief of Meshech and Tubal.” Some translate “the prince of Rosh, Meshech and Tubal,” but it is more likely that the Hebrew noun in question is a common noun in apposition to “prince,” rather than a proper name. See D. I. Block, Ezekiel (NICOT), 2:434-35. As Block demonstrates, attempts by some popular writers to identify these proper names with later geographical sites in Russia are anachronistic. See as well E. Yamauchi, Foes From the Northern Frontier, 19-27.
Ezekiel 38:2 Footnote (NET)

Christadelphians attempt to translate all of the nations listed in Ezekiel 38 into modern nations that occupy the same or similar geographical regions, in order to create a map of which nations will be on either side of this predicted battle. I've seen no sane or valid justification for this practice. As with all other prophecies in the Bible, it is not at all clear to me that the author ever intended to refer to other nations than those he literally wrote about. People argue that modern place names would not have been understood by ancient people but this argument makes no sense. The prophecy itself is completely useless to anyone except those living in the time it actually refers to (unless the intent was to deceive people into thinking it related to their own day - as they have done right throughout history), and it only takes one sentence to say so. Further, predicting the names of modern nations would have been an impressive feat, but alas there is no such thing.

The net result of this Christadelphian prophecy is that every time Russia is mentioned in the news (and being one of the world's largest and more powerful nations, that happens often - as one might expect), Christadelphians get excited and start making doomsday predictions about the end being near, which is apparently something they look forward to. Sure, they believe they will be saved, but they also believe that all their non-Christadelphian friends and relatives may be killed - so how is that an outcome to look forward to?

Another Christadelphian prophecy is the belief that the world will get progressively worse (more violence, more war, more natural disasters etc.) until eventually it's so bad that God will have to intervene, which they then tie into the above thing with Russia. This one comes from verses such as Luke 21:25-26 and Daniel 12:1. I'm not sure why such doomsday predictions are so attractive, unless they have some deep hatred for humanity or something.

In my experience both as a Christadelphian and since I've left, these two prophecies (Russia/WW3 and doomsday) are by far the most common ones mentioned when Christadelphians refer to "signs of the times". The prophecies are vague enough that they can be applied to almost any world event, thus increasing their utility as vehicles for belief reinforcement. Christadelphians who find these sorts of things convincing can have their beliefs validated almost daily, which again probably provides some sort of comfort and protection against doubt.