Awhile back I sat down with Dr. Scot McKnight following a lecture he gave at George Fox University. A prolific author and blogger (Jesus Creed) and world-renowned speaker, Dr. McKnight begins a new appointment as Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary this August.
When we spoke at George Fox University, I wanted to know what this leading bible scholar had to say about the End Times and how it affects the way we live now.
Wearing a cheery orange shirt, brown slacks, and his eternal congenial nature, Scot sat at a table in the center of the campus coffee shop, drinking coffee and recalling his own newspaper route days. Here’s a recap of our discussion:
So how old where you when you first heard about the End Times?
I would have been a teenager. Every fall we had a revival at church and they frequently brought in Eschatological preachers. I remember one preacher waxing eloquent on why Jesus would be returning very, very soon. He started telling stories about people dying unexpectedly.
We had this guy in our church, Gerard, who had been riding a motorcycle when he was struck and killed by an auto. I remember seeing blood on the road the next morning as I did my 4:30 a.m. paper route in Freeport, Ill. I couldn’t go by that corner in the mornings without thinking of Gerard and his death and Christ returning soon. It was a graphic set of sermons.
Later, sometime in 1971, Scot heard an End Times prediction from another preacher.
He gave a series of sermons: Fifty reasons why Christ will return before 1973. We were totally into the rapture theology.
But the notion of rapture didn’t trouble the budding bible scholar.
We were the Christians. We were on the right side. We were going to be raptured where everybody else in Freeport was not going to be.
That kind of eschatology has its comforts. It’s reassuring to the young and old alike, knowing that they are safe while everyone else faces sure peril. But a fellow has to be sure. McKnight was a junior in high school when he got right with God.
That fall of my junior year, I began seriously reading the Bible. I got up every morning before school and read two chapters from the Old Testament and two chapters from the New Testament.
His interest in Scripture carried over to the End Times. Someone gave the young McKnight a copy of Salem Kirban’s Guide to Survival, which he recalled as being written in the same sound-the-alarm style of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth.
It was a detailed graphic telling of what the world would be like when the rapture occurred and what it would be like afterwards. I studied it with Harry A. Ironside’s notes on Revelation.
McKnight came to appreciate the highly metaphorical language of apocalyptic literature. He doesn’t recall ever being frightened by what he read in Revelation.
I knew how to read it. The distinct impression I had was that I understood it. Apocalyptic literature is highly metaphorical and a lot of the symbols do not lend themselves toward specific interpretations. Now I think of it as a series of scenes rather than a chronological set of scenes.
Years later when it seemed all of Christendom was reading the apocalyptic pulp fiction series, Left Behind, McKnight did not read it. His own thoughts about eschatology were pretty well-formed by then.
It helps to have an understanding of the history of the evolution of America’s eschatology. Dispensationalism came through the influence of John Nelson Darby, who was influenced by the Niagara Bible Conference, more commonly called Believers Meeting for Bible Study. And then along comes C.I. Scofield.
“Scofield had some definite stuff in his woodshed,” McKnight said.
Indeed. Scofield was a scalawag, a rascal who deserted his fellow soldiers during a time of war, trading in his Confederate uniform for a Union one, solely to seek refuge among the Yankees, finagled his way into a position in Kansas as the youngest U.S. District Attorney in the entire nation, and then was forced to resign that position due to illegal activity including taking bribes and forging signatures. He married, deserted that family, divorced, and married again. All before his come-to-Jesus moment. Scofield would go on to pen the premier reference Bible touting dispensational premillennialism, commonly referred to as the Scofield Bible. (I received one as a gift during my junior year of high school and carried it around for years.) It made Scofield a very rich man, monetarily speaking.
Scofield wrote these notes that were incredibly clear. His bible was the best to buy. The Scofield Bible was the single most influential bible in American History. He shaped populist dispensationalism, dramatically.
I bought Moroccan leather Scofield Reference Bible for $18 with the money I made on my paper route. It was beautiful leather.
McKnight would adhere to the theology of his youth until his university years when he came across a book by George Ladd.
I went to college as a devout fundamental dispensationalist, but in college I discovered George Ladd’s The Blessed Hope. That book convinced me of the post-tribulation rapture, and from that moment on I was opposed to dispensationalism.
Immigration and urbanization were two of the compelling factors that contributed to the rising popularity of dispensationalism in the U.S., McKnight explained.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, American culture was threatened by massive immigration, and the shifting tides and morals. As people moved to the cities, there was a growth of liberalism, and with it a desire to make sense of the world and where it was going. Dispensationalism gave a crystal clear vision of the decline of the world before the rapture and people saw it every day. They saw a decline in the world. This told them to hang on because the rapture is coming.
It was while a doctoral student at the University of Nottingham that McKnight became much more sensitive to the uses of the images and metaphors in apocalyptic literature. And it was during his tenure as a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School that McKnight became convinced that Matthew 24 been fulfilled in 70 A.D. McKnight has considered writing a book on eschatology.
I think most of the 20th Century has seen evangelicals asking the wrong questions and they’ve got the wrong answers to the wrong questions. Evangelicals are preoccupied with a century of missing the point. It’s been an adventure in missing the point.
But to be clear, McKnight believes in a Second Coming.
I think we should affirm the Second Coming and be humble and very cautious about what we think that will look like.
So what does McKnight think heaven will look like?
I believe heaven will be here, on earth. I believe in transformed physical existence. It will be what we have now only transformed into ideal conditions.
Jesus was raised from the dead and people recognized him, but his body was transformed to a new kind of body. I think that’s what it will be like. You will have a perfect nose. (McKnight is making an inside joke about the awful incident in which Poe the Demon Dog almost took off my entire nose)
It’s important, McKnight said, that evangelicals avoid the controversial details that no one knows for sure and instead, emphasize the big picture. Wrong-headed eschatology can be dangerous.
Dispensationalist Christians have this belief that Israel must be favored because of God’s plan for the nation of Israel. They see it as a fulfillment of prophecy. So American politics have favored Israel knowing that there are huge pockets of Americans who believe that favoring Israel is the plan of God. So we have written into our international policies favoritism toward Israel. Our eschatology has led to a political situation where we favor Israel because Israel believes in free enterprise and is non-Muslim.
Our conservative Christian eschatology leans toward a final judgment for Muslims. Armageddon. In the bloody valley. If people are now seeing the final enemy as Muslims it makes me suspicious that we are projecting our biggest fears into our eschatological hopes.
But there is also a danger in a belief void of eschatology. Noting a young woman in the coffee shop, McKnight said today’s college graduates are committed to a world of “ought.”
They believe the world can be better because it ought to be better. They have an eschatology of peace and justice and ending poverty. This is what Obama tapped into — twentysomethings who believe if we change, we can make an impact. But they have lost the vision of biblical holiness. Their understanding of God is as a Big Mr. Rogers. They’ve been taught unconditional love. The wrath of God is incomprehensible to them.