Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis, by John F. Walvoord, revised edition (Zondervan, 234 pp.; $8.95, paper). Reviewed by Edwin Yamauchi, professor of history, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, and author of Persia and the Bible (Baker).

The invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein in August triggered intense interest in the possibility that Armageddon (Rev. 16:16), the final battle of the end of the ages, might be near. First issued in 1974 after the oil embargo crisis of 1973 and revised in light of fast-breaking events in 1990, more than a million copies of Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis have been released. Though it has not quite reached the popularity of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth published in 1970, Armageddon has garnered its author national attention.

John F. Walvoord is emeritus professor of systematic theology and former president of Dallas Theological Seminary (1952–86). He is an influential scholar and prolific writer, having written or edited 27 books, many of them on eschatology (the doctrine of last things).

Walvoord writes as a leading spokesman for dispensationalist theology, which views history as a sequence of dispensations or stewardships of God. He is also an articulate representative of the pretribulation and premillennial positions—that is, the views that maintain Christians will be “raptured” before the Tribulation, and that Christ will return before establishing a literal thousand-year reign on Earth (Rev. 20). This view has been accepted by many, if not the majority of, fundamentalists and evangelicals, has been taught at many seminaries and most Bible colleges, and has been popularized in earlier generations by the Scofield Reference Bible and more recently by televangelists (Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell).

Still, there is perhaps no other doctrinal area where evangelicals disagree so much as the area of eschatology. Whatever their differences, they will applaud Walvoord’s lucid exposition of an important school of biblical interpretation and his inclusion of an appendix setting forth the plan of salvation.

The Russian Invasion

Unlike Lindsey, Walvoord does not wish to set dates or offer detailed interpretations of nuclear disasters. But like Lindsey, he is sincerely convinced that many current events have fulfilled the necessary prophecies on the “Armageddon Calendar” so that the rapture of the saints is imminent. The crux of Walvoord’s (and Lindsey’s) belief that Russia will intervene in the Near East rests in Ezekiel 38–39. Walvoord avers:

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The prophetic chapters of Ezekiel 38 and 39 present many problems to the interpreter, but they clearly describe a horde of armed might invading Israel from the north. The names given to the leader, the country, and the cities, as well as the clear description of armies out of “your place in the far north” (Ezek. 38:15), could only refer to what we know today as Russia.

In this popular presentation, which lacks footnotes and a bibliography, Walvoord does not further explain his statements. But in a more scholarly work, The Nations, Israel and the Church in Prophecy (1988), Walvoord has presented in more detail his reading of Ezekiel: “ ‘Rosh’ may be the root of the modern term, Russia.… The term ‘Meshech’ is similar to the modern name Moscow, and ‘Tubal’ obviously is similar to the name of one of the prominent Asiatic provinces of Russia, the province of Tobolsk.”

But these often-repeated assertions are exegetically and historically untenable. Rosh in Hebrew means “head” or “chief”; Russia comes from Rus, a Scandinavian word that was introduced into Ukraine in the Middle Ages. Meshech and Tubal are attested in cuneiform texts as Mushku and Tabal, areas in central and eastern Turkey. (See my Foes from the Northern Frontier [Baker, 1982], chap. 1.)

An Opaque Lens

Whatever the merits of dispensationalism as a system of understanding Scripture, the viewing of current events through the eyes of such an eminent spokesman for this position leads to what are, in this reviewer’s opinion, some rather odd perceptions:

1. Walvoord suggests, “The fact that Babylon, the capital of the ancient Babylonian Empire, was in Iraq gave Hussein the ambition of establishing a new Babylonian Empire with himself in the role of Nebuchadnezzar.” Saddam Hussein helped to reconstruct ancient Babylon even in the midst of Iraq’s long war with Iran (1980–88), but this was designed to attract tourists. Like the Shah’s celebrations at Persepolis, this was a measure of understandable if chauvinistic nationalism rather than an aspiration to imperialism. If anything from the past inspired Hussein it was the glorious role of Baghdad in the Abbasid era (A.D. 749–1258).

2. Walvoord believes “Saddam Hussein’s ambition to destroy Israel motivated his move into Kuwait in August of 1990 as he attempted to set up a power base from which to attack Israel.” In fact, Hussein’s invasion was prompted by territorial, historical, and economic factors. Though Hussein launched Scud missiles at Israel, these were fired from western Iraq, not from the south.

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3. On the events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Walvoord does not rejoice in the collapse of atheistic communism, but he warns grimly: “Though Communism seems to be declining in acceptance and power in the world today, the atheism it spawned, along with the other influences toward a materialistic world system, is an obvious preparation for the final form of world religion.”

4. On the threat of Soviet intervention, Walvoord opines: “Russia has been deeply committed to the support of the Arab countries and would not have waited on the sidelines if one of the major countries was ready to collapse.… If Russia’s economic survival or national security are threatened, Russia will have few options other than a direct military move to control Middle East events.” As events have transpired, the Soviet Union joined the allies to condemn Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait; its intervention on the side of Iraq would have been the worst possible solution for its economic woes.

For a careful, critical study of Ezekiel 38 and 39, the reader may consult Ralph H. Alexander, “Ezekiel,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan). A scholarly exposition of what the Bible says and does not say about eschatology is W. S. LaSor, The Truth About Armageddon (Harper & Row).

Just An Ordinary Jacques

What I Believe (Eerdmans, 223 pp.; $19.95, hardcover); The Technological Bluff (Eerdmans, 418 pp.; $24.95, hardcover); The Reason for Being: A Meditation on Ecclesiastes (Eerdmans, 306 pp.; $18.95, hardcover), by Jacques Ellul. Reviewed by John Wilson, an editor and writer for a publisher of reference books in Pasadena, California.

Like Charles Bronson in Mr. Majestyk (he just wanted to tend his melons), Jacques Ellul is an ordinary joe. True, he has written more than 40 books (half of which he will refer you to in the course of any given volume), but, as he is quick to insist, he is not a philosopher, not a theologian, not a biblical scholar, not a specialist, period.

“Taking my place at the level of the simplest of daily experiences, I make my way without critical weapons. Not as a scientist, but as an ordinary person, without scientific pretensions, talking about what we all experience, I feel, listen, and look” (The Humiliation of the Word, 1985).

That is Ellul’s characteristic stance, repeated with variations in the books here under review. If the role wears thin at times, if the repetition, the calculated hyperbole, and the apocalyptic tone become tiresome, Ellul is nevertheless a refreshing voice: blunt, sarcastic, with a fine disregard for academic boundaries and received opinion.

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In 1954, Ellul, a French professor of sociology and law and a veteran of the Résistance, published The Technological Society, his single most-important book. Little noticed on its debut in France, it attracted a great deal of attention when it appeared in English translation in 1964, the same year in which Understanding Media made Marshall McLuhan a name to conjure with.

The conjunction is not trivial. Working independently of each other, Ellul and McLuhan arrived at similar conclusions about the impact of technology and the technological mindset on human consciousness. Ellul was accused of technophobia, McLuhan of uncritical zest for electronic media; both were charged with technological determinism.

Both, in other words, were widely misread (though their own excesses were partly to blame). Sententious critics, with the smug logic of NRA zealots, explained that technology is neither good nor bad in itself; what matters is how you use it. Ellul and McLuhan were equally scathing in their response. In the first place, the effects of technology are wildly unpredictable, so that in “using” it we literally do not know what we are doing. Moreover, as technology alters the entire environment, “change does not depend on the approval or disapproval of those living in the society.”

Here Ellul poses a challenge to American evangelicals. Freedom as we normally define it, he argues, is a diabolical illusion. If we think we can stand aloof from the “technological system,” we deceive ourselves. We can only find freedom by accepting our nonfreedom. Submitting to God, we can transcend our otherwise hopeless condition.

In What I Believe, The Technological Bluff, and The Reason for Being, Ellul reprises these themes and other recurring preoccupations. Of the three, What I Believe might seem to be the first choice for the general reader. In fact, it is the weakest book of the lot; the heading of the first section, “Various Beliefs,” hints at the disjointed nature of its contents. Perhaps the most cogently argued chapter is the one in which Ellul explains why he believes in universal salvation, though it is not likely to persuade those whose convictions are otherwise.

The Technological Bluff is essentially a rehash of The Technological Society with some changes in emphasis in response to intervening developments. Increasingly, Ellul argues, the exaggerated claims made for science, technology, and human “progress” are creating a “world of diversion and illusion.” For Ellul, this intellectual and spiritual bewitchment is epitomized by Julian Simon’s assertion, in The Ultimate Resource, that for all practical purposes humanity has at its disposal unlimited natural resources.

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While Technological Bluff includes flashes of insight, even readers sympathetic to Ellul’s viewpoint will find the book largely unsatisfying. As he jumps from subject to subject—automobiles, computers, television—his jeremiads rarely rise above curmudgeonry. Most of his examples (and most of the scholarly studies he cites) are French, further blunting the appeal of the book for American readers.

The Reason for Being is something else. In a playfully titled “Preliminary, Polemical, Nondefinitive Postscript” (the echo of Kierkegaard is deliberate), Ellul explains that he considers this to be his “last work,” the symbolic capstone of his career, even if he goes on to write several more books (as, in fact, he has). At first, Reason for Being looks like a book without an audience—too scholarly for devotional readers, not scholarly enough for academics, too idiosyncratic for both: Who will read it?

Many people, one hopes. The dialogue with Qohelet (the narrative voice of Ecclesiastes) keeps Ellul focused and brings out the best in him. (Ellul’s Qohelet, not surprisingly, bears a strong resemblance to Ellul himself.) Many commentators have assumed that the contradictions in Ecclesiastes reflect different strata of composition. References to God, for example, are said to be the work of a “rather clumsy, pious editor” who grafted them onto a “skeptical, nihilistic text.” In contrast, Ellul argues that such contradictions are integral to Qohelet’s vision, for “human existence is essentially self-contradictory.” To summarize the message of Ecclesiastes, Ellul quotes Georges Bernanos: “In order to be prepared to hope in what does not deceive, we must first lose hope in everything that deceives.” Both in cataloguing human vanity and affirming “the God who made himself known and who bound himself to humanity,” Ellul writes with the authority of a lifetime’s commitment.

Faithful Ragings

Naming the Silences: God, Medicine, and the Problem of Suffering, by Stanley Hauerwas (Eerdmans, xiv + 154 pp.; $9.95, paper). Reviewed by Buddy Matthews, who teaches philosophy at Collin County Community College in Dallas, Texas.

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Except for the first chapter, Stanley Hauerwas’s book Naming the Silences provides provocative insights into the problem of suffering. The first of the book’s three chapters is a detailed examination of Peter DeVries’s 1969 novel, The Blood of the Lamb. Filled with lengthy quotations from the novel, the intention is to help us “better understand how our belief in God entails that we suffer with a suffering child.” But far too much of this short book is devoted to an attempt to make us feel a dilemma with which most adult Christians are already familiar: How are we to reconcile a good and omnipotent God with the presence of evil in the world, especially when that evil entails the suffering of children?

The second chapter goes right to the heart of the theologian’s message: theodicy is not a problem in any real sense. Hauerwas sees the theodicy problem as an issue arising out of the deism of the Enlightenment. Reconciling evil was not, he claims, an issue for pre-Enlightenment Christians, who saw “suffering not as a metaphysical problem needing a solution but a practical challenge requiring a response” from the Christian community. Part of the legacy of the Enlightenment has been to convince humanity that we are in control of our destiny, to turn human beings into gods. Sickness destroys the notion that we are invulnerable, and thus “we conclude that sickness should not exist.”

Hauerwas does not question the existence of suffering, but rather suggests “that there is no such thing as suffering that challenges belief in the existence of God.” In his most salient point, the author contends that suffering should not drive us from God; rather, it should drive us to communion with God and with one another. The biblical psalms of lament encourage us to express our suffering, “to rage that we see no point to it, and yet our very acknowledgment of that fact makes us people capable of living faithfully.”

The final chapter of the book examines how adults view death and dying and also how terminally ill children handle their approaching death. Hauerwas concludes that our post-Enlightenment minds put far too much trust in medicine. We need a “more limited and modest conception of medicine,” and we need to see our life and death as part of a larger, “ongoing narrative.”

Hauerwas’s goal is to turn us from asking for an explanation for evil to a community that will absorb and support our grief. An explanation for suffering may be impossible, but offering support should be a vital part of every Christian community.

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