A thief in the night

March 21, 2011

Preterism and dispensationalism are probably the two most prominent views of eschatological interpretation amongst Christians in North America. Both are discredited, if prophecy is being fulfilled now, in current events, and by developments in the church.

Dispensationalism says the rapture of the church should happen before the world descends into great tribulation. But, the past few years and months have seen economic crises, sky-rocketing oil prices, cyclones, flooding, earthquakes, an awful tsunami, Mid-East unrest and warfare, threats of terrorism, potential nuclear meltdown in Japan, etc. Many Christians wonder if current events fit the time Jesus described, when he said,

Luke 21:25-26
And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring;
Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.

A time of “distress of nations,” and “perplexity,” seems to have come. Some Christians avoid watching the news on TV, as unfolding events threaten their world-view.

Preterism is in disarray. Some preterist ministries in the USA are involved in bitter feuds; in some cases, leaders of the movement have recanted; a few of these became formidable and effective opponents of that doctrine. The various groups battle against each other, and preterism and dispensationalism continue their mutually destructive warfare.

Jesus said his coming would be a surprise, and compared it to a thief in the night. He said,

Luke 12:35-40
Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning
And ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord, when he will return from the wedding; that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately.
Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.
And if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants.
And this know, that if the goodman of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and not have suffered his house to be broken through.
Be ye therefore ready also: for the Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not.

Belief in a false interpretation of prophecy is like being the victim of theft.

The apostle Peter said, “the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night.” [2 Peter 3:10] Preterism denies that it will come; they say that it all happened in 70 AD; dispensationalism says the church won’t be here to see it. Both are a snare!

While he said that his coming would be like a thief, and would catch people unprepared, and unaware, Jesus also said there would be signs in the sun, signs in the moon, and signs in the stars. These statements about signs appear to contradict the idea that he will come as a thief in the night, unless he was referring to stars, and the sun and moon symbolically.

How could the heavenly signs Jesus described be literal? For one thing, real stars are so far away, that any sign in them would need to have occurred long ago, for their light to become visible to us.

In Genesis 1, the sun and moon were appointed for signs, seasons, days, and years, and to provide light on the earth.

What are signs?

Moses demonstrated signs before Pharaoh. For example, he cast his rod on the ground, and it became a serpent. When he caught it by the tail, and picked it up, it became a rod again in his hand.

Exodus 4:2-4
And the LORD said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, A rod.
And he said, Cast it on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it.
And the LORD said unto Moses, Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail. And he put forth his hand, and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand:

In another sign, his hand turned leprous, and returned to normal again. And in another, when he poured water from the river on the ground, it turned to blood.

The signs in the sun and the moon Jesus referred to are not sunspots, nor does it have anything to do with the natural, or literal sun, or the moon. The prophet Joel said the sun would turn to darkness, and the moon to blood, a prophecy which the apostle Peter quoted on the day of Pentecost, after Jesus had ascended to heaven, when the Spirit fell upon the disciples. [Acts 2:16-21]

Is the darkened sun symbolic, or literal?

Leading dispensationalists disagree with one another on the interpretation of events that occur at the opening of the 6th seal, and on the significance of the darkening of the sun. John N. Darby declared that the sun and moon were symbols representing “ruling powers,” but others have rejected that position. Both the text of his comments on Revelation 6:12 and footnotes are quoted below. Darby wrote: [1]

The sixth seal has occasioned great difficulty. I admit the application of all this to an ulterior period, if “the things that are” are taken as the whole dispensation, which I recognise; but it is not the simplest interpretation, nor is the application always so minute, so true. There was a great earthquake, [1] and the ruling powers shaken, convulsions of the prophetic earth, and dislocations of its governing powers; [2] and to strengthen the saints, the consequence is shewn.


1. In the crisis, I do not believe it to be the judgment of Antichrist at all, but that subversion of Satan’s power in the heavens, and consequent complete subversion and revolution of all the foundation and elements of all political arrangement and power, which are spoken of as preceding the day of the Lord, for the sources of power in the heavens must be changed before the day of the Lord come, though Satan may be raging upon earth; against whose earthly doings, and upon them, the day may come (see Joel 2; Mark 13:24-25) The extent and importance of this revolution in the heavens, I believe not to be ordinarily sufficiently attended to. The earth may have been often shaken, and have reverted to its course, because the heavens are not; but where the heavens are, the sources of power are changed, and the enemy cast out; and he never regains that place, though, when loose, he may still act in opposition–fruitless opposition–on earth; for then judgment is come, the heavens being so established and ruling.

2. The application of symbols, literally, seems to me to be very false in principle and a very unsuitable mode of interpretation. It is the denial that they are symbols. I believe the language of symbols as definite as any other, and always used in the same sense, as much as language is.

Another dispensationalist, Ford C. Ottman wrote: [2]

The description is figurative; for the heavens do not literally pass away until after the Millennial reign of Christ. The great earthquake speaks of the upheaval of human government. Anarchy and riot-rule follow in the path of war, and stable forms of government are overthrown. The “darkening of the sun” seems naturally to refer to the collapse of some imperial head of power that might result from such a political convulsion.

Clarence Larkin contradicted both Darby and Ottman. He wrote: [3]

It will not do to say that these things prefigure and symbolize the overthrow of the Powers of the Earth by great social and political convulsions. These are nothing more or less than great physical convulsions that shall shake the earth, and that have been foretold by the prophets and by Christ himself.

James Moffat pointed out that the trumpets that follow the opening of the 6th seal imply that previous convulsions of nature have not greatly changed the world. He wrote: [4]

As the safety of the physical universe rested on the safety of the righteous, according to the Jewish notion, so any massacres of the latter at once affected the stability of the world. Hence the sequence of vv. 11 and 12 f. There is no hint that these physical abberations were temporary. Yet the following catastrophes (vii f.) plainly presuppose a universe in its original and normal condition. It depends upon the theory adopted of the book whether this points merely to such discrepancies as are not unfamiliar in literature (especially imaginative literature), or to recapitulation, or to the presence of different sources.

Vv. 12-14. The earthquake, darkening of the sun by atmospheric disturbances, reddening of the full moon as in a total eclipse, the dropping of the stars, the removal of the sky, and the displacement of mountain and island are all more or less stereotyped features of the physical situation in apocalyptic eschatology, where naturally agonies and distortions of the universe precede some divine punishment of men.

These observations discredit the literal approach of Larkin, and of other dispensationalists.

John F. Walvoord of Dallas Theological Seminary also contradicted both Darby and Ottman; he wrote on Rev. 6:12-17, in his Commentary: [5]

In view of the catastrophic and climactic character of the period, there is no good reason why there should not be precisely the elements mentioned here, namely, disturbances in the heavens and earthquakes on the earth. This is borne out by the effect upon the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the chief captains, the mighty men, bondmen, and freemen mentioned in verse 15, who hide themselves in dens and in the rocks of the mountains. The events are of such character that all are impressed with the fact that the day of the wrath of the Lord has come and their judgment is now about to take place. In support of this, E. W. Bullinger writes, “It is impossible for us to take this as symbolical; or as other than what it literally says. The difficulties of the symbolical interpretation are insuperable, while no difficulties whatever attend the literal interpretation.

It is curious that Walvoord would quote Bullinger, an ultra-dispensationalist. H.A. Ironside would not have been impressed!

The symbolism of the sun and moon

The sun is symbolic of the gospel. The woman in heaven, in Revelation 12:1, is “clothed with the sun.” She represents the church. I suggest the sun turning to darkness pictures the gospel being obscured by false teachings. In the early centuries of the church era, pagan superstition and philosophy was introduced into the church. Plato’s theory, that man has an immortal soul, was merged with the teachings of the apostles, by the Alexandrian scholars Clement and Origen, and others. St. Augustine, who had been involved with the Manichean sect before his conversion to Christianity, elevated the pagan idea of the unending infernal torment of unbelievers into a church dogma. These and other flawed doctrines obscured the gospel, and the promise of a resurrection from the dead, and this was pictured by the prophet by the darkening of the sun.

This is one of the “signs” that Jesus referred to, that signal the day of the Lord.

The moon turning to blood seems to refer to the Jews and the Mosaic legislation, and a wide-spread aversion to things Jewish, the development of antisemitism, and antinomianism, a term that comes from two Greek words, anti, meaning “against”; and nomos, meaning “law.”

The reason for this is that when Jacob interpreted the dream of Joseph in Genesis 37:10, the moon was identified with Rachel, Joseph’s mother. In Matthew 2:18, where an Old Testament prophecy of Rachel weeping for her children is interpreted, Rachel was identified with the Jews. The moon reflects the light of the sun, and this is the role of the Mosaic legislation, and of the history of the Jews in the Old Testament; they provide “shadows,” and types, and examples for the church. [1 Corinthians 10:1-11]

The earthly Jerusalem was identified with Sinai, and with Hagar, who was handmaid to Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Sarah is identified with the heavenly city, Jerusalem above. [Galatians 4:24-31] Paul said:

Galatians 4:31
So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.

The sun turning to darkness, (distortion of the gospel) and the moon to blood, (antinomianism, and antisemitism) are “signs” in the sun and moon. What about the signs in the stars? One third of the stars are described being drawn by the tail of the dragon, and cast to the earth, in Revelation 12:4. They represent the saints who are deceived by false teachers, and abandon their faith, and return to the world. There are many examples of this, in previous centuries, as well as today. When Christians embrace false teachings, and when we see apostasy, and all that goes with it, that is one of the “signs” in the stars that Jesus mentioned.

What are the powers of heaven?

Paul spoke of “powers in heavenly places.”

Ephesians 3:8-10
Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ;
And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ:
To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God,

Evidently, offices in the church are “principalities and powers.” And Paul said the saints wrestle against spiritual powers, “the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

Ephesians 6:12
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Theories of eschatology such as preterism and dispensationalism are no doubt included here.

These are “shaken” by current events! And by the great controversy that has overtaken them.

Luke 21:27-28
And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.

And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.

The sun becomes dark

Revelation 6:12 describes a darkening of the sun, and the moon becoming like blood, at the opening of the 6th seal.

Revelation 6:12
And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;

The nature of the darkening of the sun is suggested in chapter 9, where at the 5th trumpet, there arises smoke from the bottomless pit, and a horde of locusts emerges from the smoke. The smoke is said to darken the sun, which, as I suggested, represents the obscuring of the gospel by false teachings, in this case, the doctrine of the locusts, which affects only non-believers. What else could this be, but the doctrine of unending infernal torment of unbelievers, introduced and made a dogma of the church by St. Augustine? Those who teach that doctrine are the “locusts.”

Revelation 9:2
And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit.

False teachers are described in the Bible as thieves, because they obscure the true interpretation of God’s word. The sun becoming dark, like sackcloth of hair, alludes to the sun which clothes the woman in Revelation 12:1. It is ludicrous to claim that it is literal! The false doctrines darken the sun, and obscure the message of the gospel; it is actually good news for all mankind. The promise to Abraham was that in his seed all nations will be blessed. The false teaching that obscures the sun says most of mankind is doomed to suffer unending torment in hell fire. What a shame!

Jesus said, when the tares, that were sown by an enemy are taken away and burned up, “Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.” [Matthew 13:43]


1. John N. Darby. Notes on the book of Revelations. p. 38-39.

2. Ford C. Ottman. The Unfolding of the Ages in the Revelation of John. The Baker & Taylor Co., N.Y. 1905. p. 160.

3. Clarence Larkin. The Book of Revelation: A Study of the Last Prophetic Book of Holy Scripture, p. 84.

4. James Moffatt. The Revelation of St. John the Divine, in: The expositor’s Greek Testament. W. Robertson Nicoll, ed. G.H. Doran, New York. 1897. p. 393-394.

5. John F. Walvoord. Book of Revelation.

  1. Steve
    September 11, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    You say both are no good for interpretation of prophecy, then you go on and on about dispensationalism; and then just sort of lump preterism in with it. How do you label yourself?

  2. September 21, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Steve :

    You say both are no good for interpretation of prophecy, then you go on and on about dispensationalism; and then just sort of lump preterism in with it. How do you label yourself?

    If dispensationalism has veered to the right, and preterism to the left, the way I want to go is in between, the middle way.

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