Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Breaking the Apocalypse Code: The Presumption of Persecution

In “The Corpse of Caiaphas” I reviewed the second so-called error listed in chapter 1 of Breaking the Apocalypse Code in which Hitchcock and Ice argue that Hank Hanegraaff is wrong when he claims Caiaphas and the council must have seen Jesus' coming in judgment upon Jerusalem in AD 70. We discovered that while Hanegraaff is indeed wrong, since Caiaphas and many of the council members were dead by then, Hitchcock and Ice miss the point. Jesus' promise that they would see Him "coming on the clouds" and "sitting at the right hand of power" is in no way a reference to His Second Advent. Rather, He promised them that "from [then] on" they would see the evidence and outworking of His ascension to the throne in heaven, which in fact they did.

Of the other six errors Hitchcock and Ice allege are made by Hanegraaff in The Apocalypse Code, one deserves special attention since it calls into question the dating of the book of Revelation. It should be noted that the last chapter of the book, "When Was Revelation Written," (which I reviewed in "The Dating Game" part one and part two) discusses the dating of Revelation, and so it seems a bit disingenuous to be discussing it in this first chapter some 150 pages earlier. Nevertheless, it is the authors' prerogative to do so. Let's take a look.


"Hanegraaff notes that Revelation was written to the seven churches of Asia and says that these churches were 'seven historical churches in the province of Asia about to face the full fury of the ancient Roman Beast.' Hanegraaff relates Nero to the Beast and believes that the seven churches in Asia were about to face the great Neronic persecution...' However, there is almost universal agreement among scholars that Nero's persecution never reached beyond the city of Rome and its environs, much less all the way to Asia. This view argues strongly against a mid-sixties date for the writing of Revelation and favors the mid-nineties date when we know that some persecution by Roman authorities was occurring under the Roman Emperor Domitian." (p. 34-35)

This might seem on the surface to be devastating to the Preterist position. If John indicated that the seven churches of Asia were being persecuted by the Roman government, and if it wasn't until years after the destruction of Jerusalem that Christian persecution by the Roman government extended beyond Rome itself, then a mid-60's date for Revelation indeed seems problematic. Let's take a closer look at the evidence Hitchcock and Ice present in making their case.


"The internal testimony of Revelation indicates there was at least some degree of persecution against Christians in the province of Asia at the time it was written...the church at Smyrna was warned of imminent imprisonment, which indicates a more widespread and organized threat (Revelation 2:10). The death penalty was a real possibility because the believers at Smyrna were urged to be faithful to death. In fact, Antipas of Pergamum had already been martyred (Revelation 2:13)...the execution of Antipas must have been carried out by Romans since the right to...execute was reserved for Roman authorities alone." (p. 34-35)

One need only spend a few minutes investigating this argument in order to discover that the authors of Breaking are standing firmly in thin air. Hitchcock and Ice acknowledge that "One could argue that the persecution at Smyrna was instigated by Jews." Indeed, John is told to them that Jesus knows of "the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan" (Revelation 2:9). They are also warned that "the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days" (Revelation 2:10), but Luke's account of the early church indicates that the local Roman authorities did not need to be actively persecuting the Church for Christians to be imprisoned.


In the early days after Christ's ascension the high priest and the Sadducees are said to have put the disciples in public prison themselves (Acts 4:1-3; Acts 5:17-18). One might object, however, pointing out that this was done in Jerusalem, where perhaps the prison was run by the local Jewish authorities. That may be, but that wasn't the case in "Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia, a Roman colony" (Acts 16:12). There, Paul and Silas arrive in Philippi and witness for several days without any opposition whatsoever. One day they cast the divining spirit from a woman whose masters, furious at the loss of their convenient source of income, drag Paul and Silas before the authorities and persuade the crowd against them. Responding to the desires of the townspeople, the authorities imprison them (Acts 16:13-23).

We see, then, that it does not take a present, active attitude of persecution on the part of the Roman government for local authorities to have Christians imprisoned. Its citizens can quickly and without precedent rise up against the local Christian community, to which the authorities may respond by imprisoning them. That Smyrna was warned of impending imprisonment in no way "indicates a more widespread and organized threat."

As for the claim that Antipas in Pergamum "must have been carried out by Romans" because only local Roman authorities have the right to perform executions, this is both false and meaningless. The claim is false because Stephen was stoned to death by the council without approval by the Roman government (Acts 7:58-60). The letter to Pergamum says nothing of Antipas was killed by execution performed by the state; like Stephen, he might have been killed without authority.

The claim is meaningless because, as was the case with imprisonment, the Roman government didn't need to be actively persecuting Christians to execute them at the whim of the townsfolk. When Jesus was condemned to death by Pilate, there was no active persecution against Christ or His disciples on the part of the Romans. Jesus was brought to Pilate, who could find no guilt in Him, and though he consented to punish Jesus he initially planned to release Him. The crowd wouldn't have that and insisted that Pilate execute Jesus, and eventually--hesitatingly--he gave in to their demand (Luke 23:13-25). Thus we see that local Roman authorities could quickly give in to the will of the townspeople.


If the warning to Smyrna and the martyrdom of Antipas in Pergamum are not evidence that the Roman government was actively persecuting Christians in Asia--which, as we've seen, they're not--what other evidence to Hitchcock and Ice present?

"John had been banished to Patmos for his faith in Christ (Revelation 1:9)...[this] must have been carried out by the Romans since the right to banish...was reserved for Roman authorities alone. So there was some degree of local persecution when John wrote Revelation. However, there is almost universal agreement among scholars that Nero's persecution never reached beyond the city of Rome and its environs, much less all the way to Asia." (p. 35)

If John was banished to Patmos, an island off the coast of Turkey near the seven churches of Asia, for his faith in Christ and evangelistic efforts, this would indeed suggest local persecution of Christians on the part of the Roman government. I pondered this issue at length and had originally intended to respond by saying that the lack of evidence of Neronic persecution beyond the borders of Rome isn't strong enough evidence to tip the scales in favor of a mid-90's date, given the variety of external and internal indicators that the book was written in the mid-60's. I still think this is true, but in my research I discovered an assumption made by most Christians engaged in the end times debate--including myself--that may not be warranted at all, and which demolishes Hitchcock's and Ice's claim regarding John and his banishment to Patmos.


Ask yourself this question: Why do I believe John was given his revelation while banished to Patmos? When I asked myself that question, I couldn't answer. I assumed John said so in his introduction to the book. Let's take a look at the text:

"The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near. John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace, from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood--and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father--to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen. BEHOLD, HE IS COMING WITH THE CLOUDS, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him. So it is to be. Amen. 'I am the Alpha and the Omega,' says the Lord God, 'who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.' I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet, saying, 'Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.'" (Revelation 1:1-11, emphasis mine)

I apologize for the long quote, but I wanted to include the context so there was no room for argument. Where in the text does John say he was banished to Patmos? It simply doesn't. Yes, John calls himself his readers' "brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance," but so what? Christians began experiencing the tribulation associated with the coming kingdom and learning perseverance from the very beginning of the Church.

The word for "tribulation" is the Greek θλῖψις (thlipsis) which is used in Acts 11:19 where we read that "those who were scattered because of the persecution [θλῖψις] that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone." In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes that "we also exult in our tribulations [θλῖψις], knowing that tribulation [θλῖψις] brings about perseverance" (Romans 5:3). Apollos, or whoever it is that wrote the letter to the Hebrews, ties these together nicely:

"But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations [θλῖψις], and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one. Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised. FOR YET IN A VERY LITTLE WHILE, HE WHO IS COMING WILL COME, AND WILL NOT DELAY." (Hebrews 10:32-37, emphasis mine)

The fact that John calls himself his readers' "brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation" in no way suggests he was currently banished to Patmos. He was a "fellow partaker" with his readers simply by virtue of professing Christ at that time. Tribulation was not something one experienced only when actively persecuted by the Roman government; it was something all Christians experienced.


What of John's statement that he "was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus?" This in no way suggests that John was banished there. The Greek word rendered "because of" is διά (dia) and can simply mean John was there for the purpose of "the word of God and the testimony of Jesus," either to hear it (the most probable meaning, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia) or to spread it. Its use here is admittedly similar to Revelation 20:4 where John "saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God," and to Revelation 6:9 where he "saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained." However, those texts explicitly include the persecutive activity--beheading and killing--whereas here there is no such activity mentioned.

All John says is that he "came to be" on the isle of Patmos. The word "was" here is the Greek γίνομαι which means "to become, to come into existence" or "to be made." He doesn't say he was imprisoned, he doesn't say he was sent, he doesn't say he was enslaved; he simple "came to be" there. The question is, then, did John "come to be" on the isle of Patmos "for the purpose of" the gospel? Or was he "made to be" on the isle of Patmos "because of" persecution resulting from the gospel?

I don't think the text tells us one way or the other. It is tradition, not Scripture, which tells us John was given his apocalypse while in exile on Patmos. Interestingly, however, this tradition does not appear clearly in the writings of the Church Fathers until the late 3rd or early 4th centuries. Irenaeus, himself a disciple of John's disciple, Polycarp, wrote in the 2nd century, and though he mentioned the apocalypse of John in several places (in Against Heresies I.26, IV.14, IV.17, IV.18, IV.20, IV.21, IV.30, V.26, V.28, V.30, V.34, V.35, among others), I am unable to find a single mention anywhere of John's having been banished to Patmos. Clement of Alexandria also wrote in the 2nd century, and though he wrote that John returned to Ephesus from Patmos upon the death of "the tyrant" (Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved? XLII), he gives no indication that John was banished there, whether by order of said tyrant or otherwise.

Decades later in the 3rd century, Origen apparently pointed out that John did not say why he was at Patmos, but that tradition taught that he had been exiled there by the unnamed king of the Romans ( Then, 100 years or so after Clement and Irenaeus, authors like Victorinius, Eusebius and Jerome more explicitly attribute John's presence in Patmos to banishment there, in particular by Domitian (and not Nero). However, what this means, apparently, is that we have no mention of banishment to Patmos until at least 150 years after John wrote Revelation.

Why, then, did this tradition develop if it wasn't true? Here's what I think happened: John was, at best, ambiguous concerning the purpose of his presence at Patmos. A hundred years later (give or take), Irenaeus comments that John was seen toward the end of Domitian's reign, connecting it to the Apocalypse, and Clement of Alexandria says John returned to Ephesus from Patmos after the death of "the tyrant." Neither author indicates that John was banished to Patmos, but a tradition develops combining these details in perhaps an unintended way, concluding that Domitian had banished John to Patmos. With Irenaeus and Clement no longer alive, the tradition can neither be confirmed nor falsified, so the tradition goes unchecked. By the time of Eusebius some 100 years later, the tradition has firmly taken root.


Hitchcock and Ice would have us believe that John's alleged banishment to Patmos and the imprisonment and killing of Christians "argues strongly against a mid-sixties date for the writing of Revelation and favors the mid-nineties date when we know that some persecution by Roman authorities was occurring under the Roman Emperor Domitian" (p. 35). But as we've seen, this is a tenuous claim lacking any real force, whatsoever.

I could be wrong, and perhaps John was, in fact, banished to Patmos by the Roman authorities. However, the Scripture certainly doesn't tell us this, and we don't see a tradition develop until 150 years later. I'm hesitant to say that all the internal and external evidence in support of a mid-60's date for the writing of Revelation should be ignored simply because of an ambiguous statement made by John and a tradition that formed a century and a half later. And as we've seen, the Roman government did not need to be actively persecuting Christians for local authorities to imprison or kill Christians.

I enjoy healthy debate over this and a multitude of other issues concerning preterism and the end times. But when critics of preterism such as Hitchcock and Ice resort to such desperate measures, clumsily clinging to flimsy, tenuous arguments which are utterly devoid of merit, it distracts from the real debate and makes critics of preterism look bad. Though some preterists might relish in this, I would rather Christians witness preterists and futurists debate the question meaningfully, giving onlookers the ability to make an informed decision.