How to Argue About Revelation
I've spent the past few months preaching through the book of Revelation, which has required me to study the book more than I ever have before. The more I studied, the more I discovered that Christians have some disagreements over Revelation.
I mean, I knew that Christians disagreed over some of the details concerning the end times, but boy, did I underestimate the extent of that disagreement.
Just to give you one little example. In Revelation 2, Jesus writes a letter to the church in Thyatira, and he promises to give them "the morning star." In my study, I found at least 6 possible explanations for what "the morning star" is, from everything to Jesus to the literal planet Venus.
The truth is, when you get right down to it, no one knows! Seriously, no one knows with complete certainty what "the morning star" is. Sure, we can do our best to study and come to a conclusion using other biblical texts and the context of the passage and some word study.
But at the end of the day, we really can't be that confident in the meaning (Except I'm pretty confident Jesus will not be giving anyone the planet Venus). And unfortunately, this is the case with a lot of what we read in Revelation. Again, we can study and come to our best conclusion, but for anyone to say confidently that they have mastered Revelation is nonsense. I've actually learned that the people who seem most confident about their interpretation of Revelation are the people we should be listening to the least.
Humility and grace are what's needed. And a few years ago, I came across a paradigm that helped me with just that. It's enabled me to disagree with other Christians in a way that preserves our unity and love. And it's especially helped me as I've trekked through Revelation and discovered that I disagree with some of my closest Christians friends!
This paradigm I'm referring to is called Theological Triage.
It seems that Dr. Al Mohler was the first to write about this idea. Triage is a medical term that describes the process of assessing patients and the severity of their medical needs. I am quite familiar with this term as my wife is an ER nurse. If I walk into the ER with a toothache and you walk in with chest pain, you will see a doctor before me. That's triage in action.
So theological triage is assessing Christian beliefs and ranking them based on their urgency and necessity to the faith. Once we place a belief into its proper "level", that determines how we ought to argue and disagree with other believers about it.
First level beliefs are those doctrines that are essential to the faith. That means we cannot disagree on a first level issue and consider one another fellow believers. These arguments live in the realm of heresy and orthodoxy. These are the big ones like the person and work of Jesus and the Trinity.
The buck stops with first level beliefs.
Second level beliefs are those doctrines that we can disagree on and still consider one another believers, but we may have difficulty being a part of the same church body. These beliefs tend to concern the local church and how it functions.
The best example of a second level belief is baptism. I have several Methodist and Presbyterian friends who love Jesus and have taught me much. But we would have challenges if we attended the same local church because of our different views on baptism. This one belief would create disagreement on how our church should function week in and week out.
Third level beliefs are those doctrines that we can disagree on and not only consider one another believers, but we can also attend the same church, sit on the same pew, and belong to the same Sunday School class with little issue. These beliefs tend to concern scriptural teachings that are less clear than others.
It's my opinion that most of what we disagree on in the book of Revelation are third level beliefs. Sure, the return of Christ, defeat of Satan, and guarantee of eternal life are first level issues. But on the other hand, the timing of the rapture, the identity of the 144,000, and the meaning of the morning star are not essential to the faith.
It's not that these beliefs are unimportant. Everything in the Bible is important. It's just that God chose to make some things more apparent and clear than others.
And it's not that we shouldn't study and come to conclusions on third level beliefs. I think we should be able to defend and make an argument for everything we believe in the Bible. It's just that some things have multiple Christian viewpoints that come from sound arguments.
No, it's not that everyone is right. The Bible is not a fortune cookie that we can interpret however we feel. When we disagree, one of us right, and one of us is wrong. But it's not always apparent which one of us that is!
The key is to approach third level beliefs with humility, understanding that we may very well be wrong. Our view may not have the evidence we think it does, and someone else may have an argument that causes us to change our minds. Surely we are all wrong sometimes.
When you approach third level beliefs in this way, you uphold Christian unity, demonstrate Christian character, and promote Christian truth.
So by all means, argue over Revelation. Make your case and do it well. Just do it over a cup of coffee rather than a Facebook post, with an open hand rather than a raised fist, and as a friend rather than a jerk.