Monthly Archives: October 2009

Is it possible to read Revelation literally?

literal (adj.) — in accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical: the literal meaning of a word (resource)

When Christians talk about reading Revelation literally, what do they mean? Is John the Revelator literally addressing seven contemporary churches (circa 90 A.D.), or is he addressing the church today? I have always considered that John was speaking to his contemporaries, but I also maintain that Revelation is for the church today. However, I believe it must be read figuratively in many places.

Nearly all kingdom exclusionists hold that Revelation should be interpreted literally, but what is meant by that varies.

Some insist upon a literal reading of all passages. For example, J.D. Faust maintains that a “sharp two-edged sword” actually comes out of the mouth of Jesus (cf. Rev. 1:16 and elsewhere). “After the judgment seat, the fiery sword of the Lord’s mouth will judge Christians that have lived unfaithfully and have not repented in this life.”[1. The Rod: Will God Spare It?, p. 148, emphasis Faust’s)] Should the reader really understand that a “sharp two-edged sword” actually proceeds from Christ’s mouth? Is not that reading forced?

Others indicate that Revelation should be understood literally and figuratively in some places, but figuratively in other places. For example, Arlen L. Chitwood maintains that the church of Laodicea was literally a church in a physical locality, but that we must also accept “the Laodicean Church of today” as a true, spiritual (i.e. figurative?) entity.[2. Judgment Seat of Christ, http://www.lampbroadcast.org/JSOC11.html.] In other places, no literal meaning is to be accepted. For example, Chitwood maintains that Christians will suffer the hurt of the second death, but not literally. In a reply to an e-mail inquiry, Chitwood explains, “Where Scripture uses metaphors, I’ve remained within that framework.” He adds, “Christians being cast into outer darkness, Gehenna, a furnace of fire, or the lake of fire, are simply four different ways Scripture uses to point to the same thing, using four literal things in metaphorical senses.”[3. Between May and June of 2008, I posed several questions to Chitwood by e-mail, and we maintained a brief correspondence on the subject.] Unfortunately, he does not explain what will literally happen to so-called carnal Christians at the judgment seat of Christ. Perhaps, nothing will happen.[4. In his published writings, posted at LampBroadcast.org, he makes no mention of the things he confessed in his e-mail. When I pointed out that most of the followers of his teaching believe Christians will be literally cast into the lake of fire, he discontinued our correspondence. His followers, such as John Herbert, a pastor at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, teaches, “Those Christians denied a position with Christ in His kingdom, because of the choices they will have made during their Christian life, will find themselves outside of the heavenly city, separated from the Light, in the lake of fire for the duration of the Millennial Kingdom” (http://www.cornerstonejacksonville.com/files/messagenotes/2005-11-06_matthew13_12.pdf). A similar view is held by another Cornerstone fellowship in Los Gatos, California. Adapting notes from Herbert’s outlines, Jeanne Alley presents the following: “And if we choose not to heed this warning, the consequence are given in – Revelation 21:8 ‘But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.'” In this instance, she is not speaking of the unsaved, but “ourselves here in the local body” (http://www.cornerstonelosgatos.com/EphesiansPartEight.php — opens as a PDF).]

If anything, Revelation should be read comprehensibly, should it not?

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From whence did it come?

There is considerable interest in knowing the origins of “kingdom exclusion,” the notion that carnal Christians will be excluded/punished in the millennial kingdom. The difficulty in tracing KE is that there is a similar, preexisting doctrine: Catholic purgatory. Advocates of KE reject the idea that exclusion and purgatory are alike, but similarities are too striking. As pointed out in this previous article (see here), both exclusion and purgatory occur at the time of the judgment and both are physical localities, etc. There are significant differences to be sure, but enough similarities to merit comparison. Exclusion is ultimately a reinvention of purgatory.

Exclusionism stems from dispensationalism. Introduced in the early 1800s, dispensationalism holds that all history is divided into several, distinct “administrations” or dispensations. In each period, God dealt differently with man and man’s sin. There are no set number of dispensations, though minimally two are suggested: the dispensation of the old covenant and the dispensation of the new. Most significantly, dispensationalists advanced the idea that the millennial kingdom is the culminating point of human history, as opposed to the eternal kingdom.

Shortly after the introduction of dispensationalism, a number of Protestant theologians began to consider how God would deal with sins committed after ones conversion. What would happen to Christians who lived carnally? What would happen to Christians who failed to walk in the good works God which had created for them since the foundation of the world. Men such as Robert Govett suggested there might be punishment, though they did not commit themselves to the idea.

Exclusion as it is known today emerges in the early 20th century. First, Watchman Nee, a Chinese convert and dispensationalist, advanced the idea that carnal Christians would be purged with fire in the millennial kingdom. If someone held this view earlier, I am not aware. By the mid-20th century, similar teachings were being advanced by the likes of A. Edwin Wilson and numerous others.

Today, exclusion exists in many forms — there is no one theory about exclusion, but several different ones. Some, like Nee, advanced the idea that exclusion purges the carnal believer of his sins; others, like Pastor J.D. Faust, argue that exclusion is punishment (not purgation); others are simply vague: Arlen L. Chitwood holds that carnal Christians will suffer the hurt of the second death, but he does not explain what this means.

Exclusionists ultimately conclude that the blood of Christ is not adequate to fully redeem the believer: some Christians will not be prepared for the judgment; they cannot directly attain the Kingdom of God. Ironically, this is the underlying premise of purgatory. According to the Catholic catechism, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (source).

The traditional Protestant objection to purgatory is that there is no intermediate judgment to be found in the scriptures. The blood of Christ wholly cleanses the believer of sin (past, present and future sin). Granted, purgatory is a matter over which Catholics and Protestants might politely disagree. The New Testament does speak of judgment, the scriptures do speak of purification. Fortunately, Catholics and Protestants maintain that believers are “indeed assured of their eternal salvation.” Protestant exclusionists, however, find themselves in a strange situation. They reject purgatory as heresy, yet advance similar ideas. They seem entirely disassociated from historical reality.

I note finally that exclusionism seems to become more radicalized as it develops. While Nee speaks of purification, later exclusionists, such as Chitwood, speak of salvation. Now, exclusion is a type a salvation. In Chitwood’s case, this form is limited to one aspect of a person’s being, the soul, but it is nevertheless a form a salvation. In a breathless swoop, he reconstructs the doctrine of works-salvation, long rejected by Protestants and Catholics.

The apostle Peter warns against works-salvation: “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first” (2 Peter 2:20). My hope is that by researching exclusion, well-meaning Christians might not fall into this theological mire.

Cornerstone Christian Fellowship of Los Gatos, California

I’ve been asked several times about Cornerstone Christian Fellowship of Los Gatos, California, as it is situated in my own community and as several of its members formerly attended Mountain Bible Church, where I am youth pastor and a member of the worship team. Apart from what is posted at their website (CornerstoneLosGatos.com), I do not know much about the congregation. Some of its members are familiar to me, but they have not been open to discussion on the topic of the “Word of the Kingdom,” a form of exclusion which they espouse. Briefly, I offer the following observations:

1. They do not have a paid pastor nor anyone qualified to preach; instead, they read notes adapted from the sermons of John Herbert, who pastors Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Jacksonville, Florida. The Los Gatos church does have two elders and a teacher, however.

2. They promote extensively the teachings of Arlen L. Chitwood, who advocates that the salvation of the soul is conditional. The Los Gatos church writes in its statement of belief: “[E]very Christian has the responsibility to work out their salvation through Jesus Christ by faithful obedience to the Lord, confessing sins, and being washed by the blood of Christ. This process of sanctification will result in one’s faith being brought to its goal, the receiving of the salvation of the soul” (source). Though not stated explicitly, those who fail to “work out” their salvation will not receive the salvation of the soul. That aspect of a person remains unredeemed.

3. The church is particularly sensitive to criticism. Defending the “Word of the Kingdom,” Jeanne Alley, a teacher at Cornerstone, writes, “Others within the Church declare any teachings of the sort to be “heretical'” (source — links to a PDF file). I do not know anyone who considers the entire teaching to be heretical; it is certainly unorthodox, and some parts are indeed heretical, i.e. that salvation is conditional, but no one I know suggests the entire teaching is heretical. Instead, it is simply bad theology. Rather unfortunately, Alley does not address the issue of conditional salvation at all, though it is the principal reason “others within the Church” object to it.

4. Discussion of certain issues is closed. Though hosting a discussion forum, the church states: “If we find your questions or comments to be inflammatory or persecutory we will delete your post and ask that you refrain from any further blogging” (source). That others disagree with the teaching does not constitute persecution. It would be more helpful if the church agreed to an open discussion of the issue, rather than simply accusing all other churches of teaching an incomplete gospel, which is their principal charge against the Body of Christ at large.

5. The fellowship’s reading of scriptures is wildly allegorical and highly speculative. It is also not original. Often, the congregation simply parrots the teachings of Pastor Herbert, who largely parrots the teachings of Chitwood. The latter’s teachings have been reviewed extensively at KingdomExlcusion.com, and are not regarded as being particularly wholesome or edifying.

Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, Los Gatos, is a rather small congregation of earnest minds. Unfortunately, as with Chitwood and Herbert, they have closed themselves off to the fellowship of the Body of Christ. When genuine concern for theological matters is expressed, they perceive persecution and close the discussion. This is unfortunate, for I believe an open discussion of the matter would be meaningful and edifying to the Body.