After apostates, another group of abusers are the spiritualizers. These are people who believe the Bible does contain prophecy, but they argue that it never means what it says. Instead, it means whatever they want it to mean.
People love to spiritualize scripture because it enables them to play the role of God since they can use the spiritualizing process to make a prophetic passage mean whatever they want it to say.
A good example of what I am talking about can be found in a book called The Millennium by the renowned theologian, Loraine Boettner.1 Since he was an Amillennialist who did not believe that Jesus would ever return to this earth to reign for a thousand years, Boettner had to spiritualize the meaning of Zechariah 14:1-9.
That passage clearly and simply states that in the end times when the city of Jerusalem is surrounded by the forces of the Antichrist and is about to fall to him, the Messiah will return to the Mount of Olives. When His feet touch the mount, it will split in half. The Messiah will then speak a supernatural word, and all the forces around Jerusalem will be instantly destroyed. The passage closes by asserting that on that day, the Messiah will become "king over all the earth" (Zechariah 14:9).
Boettner totally destroyed the plain sense meaning of this passage by cleverly spiritualizing it to mean something else. He argued that the Mount of Olives is a symbol of the human heart. Thus, the enemy forces surrounding Jerusalem represent the evil in the world that surrounds the human heart. When a person receives Jesus as his Lord and Savior, his heart (the Mount of Olives) breaks in contrition, and on that day, Jesus becomes the king of his life. So, the passage has nothing to do with the Second Coming of Jesus. Instead, it is a passage about individual salvation!
I grew up in a spiritualizing church where we were taught that the Bible never means what it says when it is speaking prophetically. Because we spiritualized prophecy, we were Amillennial in our eschatology, denying that Jesus would ever return to reign on this earth.
Our preachers seldom ever spoke about Bible prophecy, but when they did, they would always confidently proclaim, "There is not one verse in the Bible that even implies that Jesus will ever put His feet on this earth again." That was our prophetic mantra, and I heard it over and over again.
So, you can imagine how shocked I was one day when I was about 12 years old and was flipping through the Bible, and it happened to fall open to Zechariah 14. It was easy to read and simple to understand. The message was clear: the Messiah is returning to the Mount of Olives, and when His feet touch the ground, the mount is going to split in half. I couldn't believe my eyes!
The next time I went to church, I confronted my pastor in fear and trembling with the passage. I reminded him of his teaching that "there is not one verse in the Bible that even implies that Jesus will ever put His feet on this earth again." I then showed him Zechariah 14 and asked him to read it. He did so — over and over. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he looked up at me, stuck his finger in my face, and said, "Son, I don't know what this passage means, but I'll guarantee you one thing, it doesn't mean what it says!" When I asked why, he bellowed, "Because it is Apocalyptic!"
I didn't know what that meant, but it sure sounded authoritative, so when I started preaching in my 20's, I used the same technique to put down anyone who would question my assertion that Zechariah 14 did not mean what it said. I would just growl, "It's Apocalyptic!"
And then one day I read the entire book of Zechariah, and I noticed that it contains several prophecies about the First Coming of the Messiah, and every one of them meant exactly what they said. Consider:
The Messiah will come humbly, riding on a donkey (9:9).
He will be hailed as a king (9:9).
He will be betrayed by a friend (13:6).
He will be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver (11:12).
The betrayal money will be used to purchase a potter's field (11:13).
The Messiah will be forsaken by His disciples (13:7).
The Messiah will be pierced (12:10 & 13:6).
After discovering these prophecies and realizing that they were all literally fulfilled in the life of Jesus, it suddenly dawned on me that if the First Coming prophecies in Zechariah were literally fulfilled, then there was no reason to assume that the Second Coming prophecies in the same book would not be literally fulfilled. I realized that "Apocalyptic" was nothing more than a smoke screen to hide the true meaning of the prophecies.
Unlike the apostates and the spiritualizers, the fanatics truly believe in Bible prophecy to the point of being obsessed by it. Where they go astray is that they view prophecy as a playground for fanciful speculations.
You can spot a fanatic easily. They are always trying to guess the identiy of the Antichrist or else they are attempting to set a date for the Lord's return.
Edgar Whisenant is a good example. In 1987 he published a little pamphlet entitled "88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988."2 Over 300,000 copies of 88 Reasons were mailed free of charge to ministers across America, and 4.5 million copies were sold in bookstores and elsewhere. When 1988 came and passed without the Lord returning, Whisenant wrote another pamphlet giving 89 reasons why the Lord would return in 1989!
One characteristic of prophecy fanatics is that they never learn from their mistakes. The classic example is Harold Camping who owns one of the largest Christian radio networks in the United States.3 He used that network to proclaim his conviction that the Lord would return in 1994. Did he learn his lesson? No! In 2010 he cranked up his procrastinating machine once again and set another date for the Lord's return: May 21, 2011. And when nothing happened on that date, he proceeded unabashed to revise the date to October 21, 2011.
Needless to say, the fanatics do great harm to Bible prophecy. Their reckless speculations produce disillusionment and mocking. They cause the whole study of Bible prophecy to be held in contempt.
In the next part of this series looking at the abuse of Bible prophecy, we'll see how Satan has convinced even Christian leaders to ignore its study.
1) Loraine Boettner, The Millennium (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, revised edition, 1990).
2) Pamela Starr Dewey, "Edgar Whisenant's 88 Reasons," www.isitso.org/guide/whise.html.
3) Alyssa Newcomb and Lyneka Little , "Harold Camping: Doomsday Prophet Wrong Again," http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/business/ 2011/10/harold-camping-doomsday-prophet-wrong-again.