Friday, March 7, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Abomination of Desolation in Biblical Eschatology

Desmond Ford.  The Abomination of Desolation in Biblical Eschatology.  Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1979.

I used to listen to Desmond Ford at one of the churches that I attended as a child.  The church’s leader would play for us tapes of Ford’s lectures and sermons, and that would be our message for many a Sabbath.  I also read Ford’s magazine, Good News Unlimited, as well as two of his books: The Forgotten Day, which is about the seventh-day Sabbath, and Daniel, which Ford wrote while he was still a Seventh-Day Adventist.  The Abomination of Desolation in Biblical Eschatology was Ford’s dissertation for the University of Manchester, where he worked under the supervision of renowned evangelical scholar F.F. Bruce.

I decided to read this book because I wanted to see how Ford interacted with the historical-critical method.  The “Abomination of Desolation” appears in the Book of Daniel, and also in Mark 13 and parallel passages in Matthew and Luke.  The concept, albeit not the term, appears to be in II Thessalonians, and Ford argues that it is in the Book of Revelation, as well.  Many scholars would identify the Abomination of Desolation in the Book of Daniel as what Antiochus Epiphanes did to the Jewish Temple in the second century B.C.E., and they would say that in Mark 13 the Abomination of Desolation relates to the Roman invasion of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.  These scholars tend to believe that both biblical writers were expecting an imminent eschatological intervention by God in (or close to) their own time, as God would overthrow evil and set up a new kingdom on earth.  But time passed, and this eschatological intervention by God apparently did not occur, neither in the second century B.C.E., nor in the first century C.E.  This poses a problem to a number of Christians.  Are Daniel and Mark 13 still indicators of what God will do, or are they simply dreams that were frustrated and invalidated?  How did Desmond Ford, one who believes that biblical eschatology is still relevant to today, interact with biblical scholarship that arguably undercuts the truth of Christianity?  Moreover, Seventh-Day Adventists tend to read into Daniel and Revelation things that arguably do not relate to those books’ original historical settings, such as events in medieval and Reformation history and the founding of the United States of America.  Did Ford hold these views when he was writing his dissertation, and, if so, how did he make his case within an academic world that largely focuses on the original historical contexts of biblical writings as the key to understanding their meaning, a world that would probably view Adventist eschatology as anachronistic in its treatment of the Bible?

In his dissertation, Ford quoted from a number of German and French sources, and I did not translate them while I was reading it.  Perhaps I should have, but I wanted to get through the book, and I did not want to devote a lot of time to looking up words or putting lengthy passages into Google Translate.  Consequently, my understanding of Ford’s position may be incomplete.  But I will share what I did get out of his dissertation.

Ford believes that the eschatological discourse in Mark 13 goes back to the historical Jesus.  He thinks that Jesus could have predicted the destruction of the Temple, the same way that some of the figures Josephus mentions predicted the destruction of the Temple.  (Notice that Ford does not appeal to Jesus’ supernatural ability to know the future.  While Ford critiques some of the presuppositions and conclusions of many biblical scholars, he still plays their game, when it comes to methodology.)  According to Ford, Mark 13 is also consistent with some of the details that Mark mentions about Jesus’ ministry: Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple, Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree, etc.  Ford appears to be open to the idea that Jesus in Mark 13 anticipates an eschaton that will surround the Roman occupation of Jerusalem.  Was Jesus therefore wrong, since that eschaton apparently did not materialize in 70 C.E.?  Ford does not think so, for he notes conditional elements to Mark 13.  Mark 13 states that the end will not come until the Gospel spreads to all the world, and that Jesus neither knows the day nor the hour of the parousia.  Perhaps, according to Jesus in Mark 13, the end would have come had the Gospel been preached to all the world, or had the Jews converted, Ford appears to argue.  That would have facilitated the triumph of the good.

Does Ford believe that Mark 13 will have a future fulfillment?  I would say that he does.  My problem is that I am not entirely clear as to the extent to which Ford believes that the Abomination of Desolation is historical, and the extent to which he believes that it is more general, or related to our future.  Ford thinks that the Abomination of Desolation in Mark 13 concerns the Roman armies invading Jerusalem.  However, while he does argue that II Thessalonians 2 and the Book of Revelation draw from Mark 13 as a source, he does not appear to interpret II Thessalonians 2 and Revelation primarily in reference to their historical contexts, or the events of 70 C.E.  He argues that the man of sin occupying the Temple in II Thessalonians 2 does not relate to the Jerusalem Temple, but rather is symbolic for the man of sin usurping the prerogatives of God.  Ford is open to the possibility that, say, the things that the Roman emperor Caligula did with respect to the Temple may have influenced Paul’s narration in II Thessalonians 2, and that the force restraining the man of sin may somehow relate to the Roman empire. (I was unclear as to where exactly Ford stood on this: He argued that the Holy Spirit was the restraining force, but he also appeared to be associating the Holy Spirit with the common grace that was behind the law-and-order within the Roman empire.)  Ford ultimately maintains that II Thessalonians 2 goes way beyond these historical events, and also way beyond the events of 70 C.E.  Ford in his discussion of Revelation has a similar policy.  Ford acknowledges that the Book of Revelation was for suffering Christians in the first century, but he largely resists interpreting Revelation in reference to first century people and events.

Does Ford believe in dual fulfillments of prophecy: that prophecy can have a historical fulfillment, but also a more general or end-time fulfillment?  Maybe.  He notes that the Book of Daniel re-applies Second Isaiah’s prophecies about the doom of Babylon, and he argues that Jesus believed that Antiochus did not exhaust the fulfillment of the Book of Daniel’s Abomination of Desolation.  Overall, my impression is that Ford was trying to situate the Abomination of Desolation within ancient history, in accordance with historical-critical standards, and yet that he was trying to give it a more general or end-time application, as well.  In my opinion, he could have done that more crisply and neatly than he did.

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