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Timeout: Cosmic Conflict vs. Historicism


“Let me tell you a story,” the late Dr. Wil Alexander, my former teacher and later my colleague at Loma Linda University, used to say. More often, he would say to patients, “Tell me your story.” Dr. Alexander was a master storyteller and yet, as Dr. Carla Gober said upon his passing, he was “the finest listener.” He made us feel that we could tell our story and be safe.

Will I be safe if I tell my story in relation to Revelation? In last week’s TIMEOUT, I referred to “the crisis of historicism.” I suggested that the crisis is twofold. On the one hand, historicism has lost support among readers and scholars. On the other hand, some historicist claims rest on less than compelling evidence. “Historicism” is not a paved, pothole-free, four lane highway through Revelation. In this TIMEOUT, I will reflect on the subject under the headline “Cosmic Conflict vs. Historicism.” There will be an element of “my story” in the reflection. I don’t expect readers to listen like Dr. Alexander, but I hope it will be safe to have the conversation. I also hope that the part I call “my story” will provide context that reduces the risk of misunderstanding.

What I call “Cosmic Conflict” is not an –ism. Revelation tells the story of a cosmic conflict that culminates in the demise of Satan and the restoration of all things: “all things accursed will be no more” (Revelation 22:3). Historicism is an –ism, a theory that Revelation should be understood as historical prophecy. The two are not simply complementary. On some points they are competing views, even contradictory. Consider the following, presented in an either/or mode for the purpose of discussion:

1. The biblical mainstay of “historicism” is the Book of Daniel. Daniel presents historical prophecy (“history” without the need to call it “historicism”).

Revelation is influenced by Daniel, but it is more than a Second Daniel. The cosmic perspective in Revelation is far more developed, and it echoes a wide range of Old Testament voices. These voices should in my view be listed in the following order of importance:

1. Isaiah  

2. Genesis

3. Ezekiel

4. Daniel

5. Zechariah       

6. Psalms

7. Exodus and Deuteronomy (tied)

8. Jeremiah

(I won’t be offended if anyone tinkers with my list if Isaiah is left in first place).

2. Uriah Smith, the leading proponent of historicism in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (“old historicism”), had a bold historicist scheme, but he had little or no interest in the cosmic conflict. Did Smith discuss Isaiah 14:12-20 in relation to the cosmic war? He did not, not even with a single reference.

3. Historicist readings are event-centered, time-centered, and history-centered. “Cosmic conflict” readings are value-centered and God-centered.

4. The two readings differ not only in applications but in their theology. In relation to the trumpet sequence, an historicist interpreter (“new historicism”) says that the calamities reported under the trumpets “are in essence not natural disasters or general calamities, but God’s covenant curses on His enemies.” Or, as the Quarterly puts it, “The seven trumpets are God’s judgments on rebellious humanity in response to the prayers of His oppressed people.”

What will a “cosmic conflict” reading say? It ought to say something like this: God is not the acting subject behind the calamities in the trumpet sequence. The acting subject is demonic, and the calamities are not the work of God. If the trumpets are “an answer to the prayers,” they deal in revelation.

5. Historicism sees a punitive and retributive logic at work in history. “Cosmic conflict” sees a revelatory logic. (The punitive logic is more pronounced in the “new historicism” than in the “old historicism” of Uriah Smith).

6. Historicism disappoints with respect to its temporal horizon and its events, precisely the two areas where it is supposed to excel. “Cosmic conflict,” by contrast, does not settle for trivia.

Example 1 — historicism: For Uriah Smith, history in the trumpet sequence all but ends in the first half of the nineteenth century. The fifth and sixth trumpets represent Islam. “New historicism” (Quarterly) offers the following for the fifth and sixth trumpets: “The fifth and sixth trumpets describe the warring factions in the religious world during the late medieval and post-Reformation periods.”

Example 2 — cosmic conflict: The symbols of the fifth and sixth trumpets are an in-your-face exposé of the demonic reality that is at work in the world. These trumpets have the most overwrought rhetoric in the entire book. In a “cosmic conflict” framework, the symbols will not collapse under the weight of whatever burden history places on them, not even if the burden is the Holocaust or Hiroshima. Unlike historicism, the twentieth century is not an afterthought — or centuries to come — if what is what we’ll have. Historicism is here so anticlimactic that it causes physical pain to read it. (I will say more and be more specific in a subsequent TIMEOUT).

7. A “cosmic conflict” reading is patiently, expectantly, attentively, perseveringly a textual project. At the risk of oversimplifying, the preterist wants the reader to travel to Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum in order to facilitate understanding. The historicist wants you to read history, especially church history, or, in the “new historicism,” get acquainted with some of the -isms that inundated the world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (secularism, humanism, nihilism). The futurist takes an easier path; it is enough to watch television; the fifth and sixth trumpets describe the Cobra helicopters that were used in Vietnam. In a textually moored reading, it is also necessary to read, but the reading prioritizes the text of Revelation, its Old Testament echoes, its literary character, and its plot structure. It does no honor to the text to tie the symbols to things that lie on history’s surface when the text aspires to capture heavenly and subterranean forces in fierce conflict.

I am now ready to tell my story, four stops on a long journey.

Shocked in Loma Linda

I was a first-year resident in internal medicine when, on May 18, 1980, I heard a sermon in University Church in Loma Linda. Locally, the day was unremarkable. Nationally, it was not. It was the day Mount St. Helens erupted. The subject of the sermon was unusual, the rape of the concubine in Judges. The theological point of the sermon was unusual, too: the problem of the unanswered prayer, God’s permissiveness, and God’s apparent absence. There was also a note on how bad truly bad people can be and the more demanding thought that good (religious) people can be worse than bad people and often are. In the course of the sermon, the speaker read a couple of statements by an author he held in high regard. The author also seemed to take an interest in the problem of God’s apparent absence. Here is what I heard, the context some ill-defined period in Old Testament times:

For centuries God looked with patience and forbearance upon the cruel treatment given to his ambassadors, at his holy law prostrate, despised, trampled underfoot. He swept away the inhabitants of the Noachian world with a flood. But when the earth was again peopled, men drew away from God, and renewed their hostility to him, manifesting bold defiance. Those whom God rescued from Egyptian bondage followed in the footsteps of those who had preceded them. Cause was followed by effect; the earth was being corrupted.

A crisis had arrived in the government of God. The earth was filled with transgression. The voices of those who had been sacrificed to human envy and hatred were crying beneath the altar for retribution. All heaven was prepared at the word of God to move to the help of his elect. One word from him, and the bolts of heaven would have fallen upon the earth, filling it with fire and flame. God had but to speak, and there would have been thunderings and lightnings and earthquakes and destruction.

The heavenly intelligences were prepared for a fearful manifestation of Almighty power. Every move was watched with intense anxiety. The exercise of justice was expected. The angels looked for God to punish the inhabitants of the earth.

The speaker was not done. He read one more statement to the same effect, this one, too, on an alleged crisis in the government of God.  

Before Christ’s first advent, the sin of refusing to conform to God’s law had become widespread. Apparently Satan’s power was growing; his warfare against heaven was becoming more and more determined. A crisis had been reached. With intense interest God’s movements were watched by the heavenly angels. Would He come forth from His place to punish the inhabitants of the world for their iniquity? Would He send fire or flood to destroy them? All heaven waited the bidding of their Commander to pour out the vials of wrath upon a rebellious world. One word from Him, one sign, and the world would have been destroyed. The worlds unfallen would have said, “Amen. Thou art righteous, O God, because Thou hast exterminated rebellion.”

The impact on me was profound. I could not have been more shocked if I had witnessed the eruption of Mount St. Helens at close range. What a bold, exceptional perspective! It took me a while to land. In fact, I still have not landed. Here was a writer who took the problem of God’s apparent absence seriously. The perspective in the statements is cosmic. Someone, somewhere, is looking over God’s shoulder. What they see is not to their liking. There is in their eyes an intolerable discrepancy between reality and expectations. A crisis of confidence is brewing, not between God and a sinful world but between God and “the worlds unfallen.”

As I said, I heard this in a sermon. Sermons are supposed to be based on the Bible. This time it did not bother me that neither the preacher nor the author quoted had a Bible reference for the bold claim. I fell intuitively into line. Of course, there should be a crisis in the government of God! Of course, there is an intolerable discrepancy between reality and expectations! Of course, too, God has some explaining to do! Of course, no thinking person can simply sit back and say, “You are God, and you know best!”

I noticed that the statements were crowded with allusions to the Book of Revelation, a full seven or eight of them, that I have italicized. I did not think then and do not think now that these were part of an exegetical exposition. They are the stuff of homiletics, and yet they have more than marginal interest. Revelation deals in ultimate horizons, and here, using language dealing in the ultimate, was a statement 1) how “the heavenly intelligences” expected God to close the gap between reality and expectations; 2) what “the worlds unfallen” would have said if God had done what they expected; and 3) the clear idea — not reproduced above — that God intended to proceed contrary to expectations and would, this notwithstanding, earn the exclamation, “Thou are righteous, O God!”

There is nothing like this in recent mainstream theology, historicist or otherwise. There is a hint of it in the writings of the French sociologist Jacques Ellul. And there is a lot of it in one of the most influential books in literature, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov. The crisis of confidence in the heavenly council parallels the outrage of Ivan Karamazov, who cannot bear the suffering of children and God’s reckless permissiveness. From my shock in Loma Linda, I went forth into a world more deeply seared, a post-Holocaust world. In that world I would be reading the Bible for myself and for others willing to listen.                                                                 

Sleepless in St. Andrews

Twenty-one years later, I arrived in St. Andrews, Scotland, to pursue a PhD in New Testament studies. I was at that time a practicing physician and church pastor. The University of St. Andrews is one of the oldest in the world (ca. 1410). The idyllic town is rich with history, as the ruins of the huge cathedral built in 1158 proves. It is also known as the cradle of golfing, with the Old Course as one of the most prestigious in the world. The biblical scholarship done at St. Andrews has been exceptional for generations. I was to study with two of the finest in our time, one of them a leading scholar on Revelation. My research topic was settled in my mind before arriving. I had been to Duke University, immersing myself in the New Perspective on Paul and a new and more radical perspective on the faith language in Paul. The latter says that when Paul uses the expression pistis Christou, he is talking about “the faithfulness of Christ” and not, as Luther and the Protestant tradition have it, “faith in Christ.” I planned to pursue this subject in the context of Revelation — to the effect that pistis Iēsou in the first angel’s message in Revelation 14:12 is not “faith in Jesus” but “the faithfulness of Jesus.”

E. P. Sanders at Duke University, the father of the New Perspective on Paul, had told me that when he came to Union Theological Seminary to study with the great W. D. Davies, he had made it a point to read all of Davies’ books before arriving in New York. I intended to do the same before I got to St. Andrews, but there was too much to read, and I did not meet Sanders’ standard. But I had my topic ready, and that was the problem.

At least I felt that it was a problem. I had my text (Revelation 14:12), but texts have contexts. It does not work to interpret a text in isolation from the context. To most scholars, Revelation is a clever, thinly veiled critique of the Roman Empire (Nero is the wounded head in Revelation 13). The main concern of the book is the Roman foreground. The cosmic perspective amplifies Roman issues, but it is background and not decisive for the plot. I planned to pursue a reverse reading, one that moves the Roman “foreground” into the background. My reading would show that it is the cosmic “background” that counts. It, not Roman concerns, controls the story line.

When I said this to my professors, I felt that they were understanding but skeptical. Why would I swim against the tide of the Roman imperial perspective that was so much in vogue and so plausible? I got some suggestions for things to read, like Walter Wink and Jeffrey Burton Russell, but I still felt shorthanded. How could I proceed with a project concerning which my supervisors lacked enthusiasm? I was sleepless in St. Andrews over this. I ran along the long shoreline by the Old Course, listening to “the sound of many waters” like John must have done at Patmos. I sought out the sand dunes at the far end of the Old Course, kneeling among the tall grasses where no one could see me. I looked at the town of St. Andrews from the far end of the Old Course, thinking that it looked like the New Jerusalem. But I was at a loss what to do.

Did serendipity or Providence come to the rescue? Two thought venues opened to me, like breaks in the clouds. One came from Elaine Pagels’ book, The History of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics. Pagels’ thesis is intriguing, but it was one of her sources that caught my eye. She gives Origen of Alexandria (185-254) broad exposure. This is Origen, the most influential theologian and apologist before Constantine and still revered as an iconic figure in the Orthodox tradition. In almost all his many books, the cosmic perspective is prominent, especially in First Principles and Contra Celsum (Against Celsus). Here, as a voice from the Early Church, I found a fully developed cosmic conflict story as it was understood and believed in pre-Constantinian times. I was speechless. All the footwork is there — how early Christians read the poem about the fall of the Shining One in Isaiah (Isa. 14:12-20) and the poem about the Covering Cherub in Ezekiel (Ezek. 28:12-19). I, who come from a tradition that pays more than lip service to the notion of a cosmic conflict, had not heard any of this. Where had I been? Where had my Seventh-day Adventist mentors been, none of whom told me any of this?

I spent six months reading Origen, primary sources first, secondary sources after that. I wrote fifty-five pages, thinking that this part would make my thesis more persuasive. I presented my findings at a St. Andrews seminar, receiving high marks for my work. I shortened the presentation somewhat and got it published in Andrews University Seminary Studies. Then I had to delete it all from my dissertation because there was no room for it. But my mentors had seen it, and the path forward for my Revelation project seemed more hopeful.

The second break in the clouds was this: The cosmic, apocalyptic perspective of the New Testament fell into disfavor because of trends in biblical interpretation in the twentieth century. Leading scholars said that the New Testament needed to be demythologized. This could spell the end for Satan. The main argument for this view was given in Germany in 1941 and 1942, in a city where the new Jewish synagogue had been burned to the ground and where trains had started traversing the land, headed for Auschwitz. I wrote in one of my submissions that if Satan does not exist, we must invent him. If he is put out of commission for alleged lack of explanatory significance, we must recall him, dress him up, and send him back into service. Perhaps the New Testament needs to be demythologized, I said, but interpreters should have waited till the war was over. I criticized the greatest New Testament scholar of the twentieth century not only for defective perception but also for poor timing. And then, considering Chelmno, Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor, Belzec, and Auschwitz — places I intend to visit in April this year for my final Holocaust tour — we shall never again feel the urge to demythologize the New Testament. We shall leave it just as it is, showing special respect for the claim that there is a demonic reality at work in the world. Perhaps I did not need to win over my supervisors, but I felt they were won over. My sleep returned. When I submitted my thesis, my most wonderful mentor, Bruce Longenecker, said that he will never read Revelation the same way again. He helped me settle on the title for the final version, Saving God’s Reputation: the Theological Function of Pistis Iesou in the Cosmic Narratives of Revelation (2006).

Disappointed in Silver Spring

In the fall of 2005, after receiving my degree from the University of St. Andrews, I attended meetings in Silver Spring, Maryland. I had been invited by my good friend, the then-president of the General Conference, Jan Paulsen. I was to have an informal, advisory role in Ministry Magazine. I had brought along a couple of bound copies of my dissertation, and I was eager to give a copy to the director of the Biblical Research Institute. With some help from the GC president, I was able to get an audience with the director. I gave him a copy. He thanked me, and that was it. The next day, I met him again. He was cordial. After some introductory comments, he said, “You did not do historicism.”


How disappointed was I? I was as disappointed as the day when my colporteur-father came home with a new tricycle. I may have been three and a half years old. My older brother had a tricycle already. I took it for granted that I would get the new one. But that was not how my father’s mind worked. He believed in seniority. So he gave the new tricycle to my brother and the old one to me. The burning in my eyes was intense, but I tried to hide it. I tried wanly to hide my disappointment at the BRI director’s comment, “You did not do historicism.” I understood his comment to express his priorities — an apology for a certain point of view, namely historicism. My priority was not to do apologetics but unravel the story told in Revelation, culminating in “the faithfulness of Jesus.” I left Silver Spring with the old tricycle, as it were.

(Not long after the tricycle episode, my brother and I were racing each other on the dirt road leading from our house. Suddenly, his new tricycle broke in two. He was devastated. I felt sorry for him. But there I was, the disappointed one, with my (“cosmic conflict”) tricycle proving its resilience.)

Hopeful in a Post-Holocaust World

I am hopeful in a post-Holocaust world because of “the cosmic narratives of Revelation,” as my mentor helped me put it. Six or seven years after I left St. Andrews, he contacted me, wondering whether I would be willing to write the commentary on Revelation in a reputable New Testament commentary series. I was dumbfounded, but I said yes. There was a period of uncertainty for a while, but then the offer was confirmed. I turned in a long manuscript over a year ago, one much longer than stipulated. The revised version was submitted in July last year. The editors said that it was good; that I did not need to change anything with respect to content. It is a cosmic conflict reading, the text of Revelation speaking to a post-Holocaust reality. My cosmic conflict reading has been to Auschwitz in ways historicism has not. We should meet there one day to talk. 


Further Reading:

Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019

Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019

Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019

Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism, January 18, 2019

Crisis in the Heavenly Council, January 21, 2019


Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash


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