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The Second Fundamental: The Literal Accuracy of the Virgin Birth

11 April 2007: Start the discussion! »

The story of Jesus’ birth has now been celebrated in pageants, Christmas cards and in hymns for almost two thousand years. The characters in this drama like Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, the Shepherds and the Wise Men are familiar icons even in our secular society. The star in the East, Bethlehem, the manger and …

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Question & Answer

Dear Mr. & Mrs. Redel from Amherstburg, Ontario, Canada


I'm really bothered by the fundamentalist Christian movement that talks so much about the 'end times.' My daughter-in-law admits to being a fundamentalist Christian, and my husband and I get into some discussions with her from time to time. I'm wondering about your views on the book of Revelation, since I haven't heard you mention it. Do you have any reading suggestions about Revelation?"

Marilyn's husband adds:

I recently reviewed the Book of Revelation, which I hadn't read for some time. There's been a lot of fuss about end times among evangelical friends and family. It's no wonder, in the 2x2 church in which I grew up, that we didn't spend a lot of time reading this book. I have a question about the 12 tribes mentioned, of which 12,000 each are spared: Are they the original Israel and Judah tribes (which couldn't have all been around when this material was supposed to have been written)?


I have never written about the Book of Revelation because I do not

regard it as worthy of the kind of study that would be required to write

about this book. I'm sorry it was included in the canon of the New

Testament because it is so dated. It is a piece of apocalyptic literature

written under a code developed by late 1st century Christians. Presumably

the community that wrote this book and that received it would understand

that it was designed to strengthen them to endure a persecution that was

probably local, not empire wide, in the last decade of the 1st Christian

century. It is a product of the same Johannine School that produced the

Gospel of John and the Epistles of John in the New Testament though it is

not by the same author. It probably does participate in the idea that the

world is coming to an end soon but that was obviously a mistake since we are

here now. In early Christianity there was an idea that the second coming of

Jesus and the dawning of the Kingdom of God on earth would come in the

lifetime of people living then. Paul advances this idea both in I

Thessalonians and in I Corinthians. By the end of the 1st century that idea

had begun to die out and was replaced by the suggestion that the church must

be built for the long term. The book of Acts reflects this new consensus.

The book of Revelation reflects a throwback to the earlier attitude and may

have been inspired by the current local persecution that was interpreted as

the beginning of the cruelty that would accompany the end of the world. In

later years, when the supposed date of Jesus' birth was set and time counted

from that day forward, end of the world talk has always accompanied the end

of a century and was even more pronounced at the end of a millennium.

I have no truck with those who read the Bible this way. Predictions

about the end of the world, talk about the "rapture" and "no child left

behind" are all so much literal nonsense to me.

I have read the book of Revelation on several occasions. I studied it

when I was in seminary, but in no great depth. Today I would rather spend

my time on the gospels, Paul, or even the prophets, all of which have

enriched my life greatly. I do not see such potential in the book of


When one tries to interpret the symbols as Mr. Redel does in his letter,

he falls into the trap of assuming that there is some literal truth that

needs to be discovered. That is not the case. If all the copies of the

book of Revelation were lost tomorrow, I do not believe much of value would

disappear. However, it does keep some religious fanatics busy so maybe that

is its primary purpose.

Thank you for your letter.

John Shelby Spong


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