Six Blind Men and a Bible
The Blind Men and the Elephant
"A Hindoo Fable"
John Godfrey Saxe
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me!—but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
"Ho!—what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 't is mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"
The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he;
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
In modern times, few things divide Christians more quickly and forcefully than differing views about the Bible’s teaching on end times, particularly from the book of Revelation. Entire Christian denominations, schools of systematic theology, and even families and friendships have divided along eschatological lines, and these divisions run wide and deep with little possibility for common ground.
Consider that some Christians believe the Bible teaches that the earth must experience a future time of great suffering and tribulation, while others believe that time has already come and gone. Some Christians understand Christ’s promise of a coming kingdom as a metaphor for the Church, while others believe it is a 1,000-year period when the Lord rules on Earth.
Today, it's easy to find believers holding these diametrically opposed interpretations of scripture while sitting side-by-side in church pews. Even our Christian vocabulary has expanded to describe the various eschatological camps and their views. Theologians have coined terms like “amillennialist,” “preterist,” “futurist” and “pre-tribulation rapture” to catalog the various disagreements over the proper interpretation of end times scripture.
Curiously, these eschatology camps do agree on other foundational truths of the faith. Orthodox Christianity acknowledges the Bible’s teaching of salvation by grace through faith in Christ and not by human works (Ephesians 2:8-9); that Jesus Christ was the Son of God Who took human form to die as a sacrifice in the place of sinners (John 3:14-18); and that the Church was given the mission to reach the world with the truth of the Gospel as we await our Lord’s return (Matthew 28:18-20).
All agree these truths are the core tenets of our faith, and we stand united on these truths because they can be understood plainly from the Word of God. So how did the church fail to arrive at a common understanding of end-times scripture?
How can Christians find so much agreement in the Bible on many important topics yet disagree so profoundly on the proper interpretation of prophecy of the book of Revelation in particular? Do not all Christians have access to the same Spirit (Ephesians 4:4) and Teacher (Matthew 23:8), Who promises to bring all to a common understanding (John 14:26)? Doesn’t the Bible assure the Church that the Spirit will not confuse us concerning the truth (1Corinthians 14:32-33)?
Clearly, something has gone wrong in the Church's approach to understanding eschatology, and the blame rests with us, not the Spirit. Simply put, the Church failed to promote and defend proper scholarship in the study of prophecy – or at the very least, it failed to identify and refute incorrect teaching. The Church has (usually) defended a Biblically correct view of important doctrines like salvation, the person of Christ, the Trinity and other foundational truths, but it just as reliably minimizes the importance of sound eschatology in the spirit of "unity" and "fellowship." This is an unwise compromise.
For example, two recent Bible commentaries (which most Christians wisely ignored) presented a plurality of views on important doctrines of the faith. One book offered to explain the “four views of salvation” while the other examined the "five views of Jesus." Both failed to gain much of an audience among believers – and thankfully so! – because they imply that studying competing views is a valid means of discovering the truth.
This approach to Bible study is both dangerous and ineffective. Every view apart from the truth is, by definition, a lie, and so if a book offers to teach the "four views of salvation," then by definition at least three of these views are wrong. Why waste time reading a book in which three-quarters of the information contained within it is false? That's why Christians largely avoided reading these books.
On the other hand, a scripture commentary presenting the “four traditional views of Revelation” continues to sell well to pastors, seminary students and other believers fifteen years after it was first published. Why are we comfortable with a less definitive understanding of prophecy than we are other areas of doctrine? At least three of these views are wrong, so why waste time entertaining a collection of false understandings? This double standard supports the myth that prophecy is unavoidably confusing, and therefore multiple interpretations are to be expected.
Let's set the record straight. Multiple, contradictory interpretations of prophecy should not be expected, much less tolerated within the Church. A proper interpretation of end times scripture is not a matter of opinion; it is a pursuit of the objective truth found in the Bible (2Peter 1:20), so we shouldn't be satisfied with a personal eschatology that doesn't fit all the data nor answer all the fundamental questions.
An ancient parable about six blind men and an elephant (memorialized in the poem by John Godfrey Saxe) offers a useful illustration for how the Church fell into this predicament.
Six blind men encounter an elephant for the first time, and each examines a different part of the elephant’s body to learn its true appearance. All six blind men arrive at wildly different conclusions, and before long the men begin to argue with one another over what they believe they have seen.
The first man declares the elephant to be like a wall, another says it’s like a tree trunk, another says like a pipe and still another says it’s like a rope. In reality, each man correctly describes the part of the animal he examined, yet because his view was limited, his conclusion was wrong. No man examined the entire animal, so no one “saw” the elephant accurately.
This parable provides an analogy for how the Church came to tolerate multiple, mutually-exclusive interpretations of eschatology. First, Christendom hasn’t acknowledged that there can be only one correct interpretation of biblical prophecy. Like the elephant standing before the blind men, there is a truth waiting to be discovered, but the Church must first embrace the goal of finding that truth, one that fits all available data, while rejecting all other interpretations.
Secondly, Biblical scholars have attempted to explain the whole of prophecy by examining only a part of the Biblical record, resulting in a myriad of incomplete and erroneous interpretations. Many of these incomplete views have been proposed by important church figures, who by their influence were able to obtain an audience for their views. For example, many leaders of the Reformation taught an over-realized eschatology (i.e., believing that more of God's program for history has been accomplished than is actually so), and these incorrect views persist today largely because of their authors' reputations and revered place in church history.
It's telling that the chief reformer, Martin Luther, voiced doubts over the inspired origins of the book of Revelation on the canon of Scripture. He initially placed Revelation in his Antilegomena, a compendium of Bible books Luther considered untrustworthy, along with the Jewish epistles of Hebrews, James and Jude, reflecting Luther's antisemitic bias, which was prevalent among many of the reformers. Like the blind men in the parable, Luther saw only a part of God’s prophetic story, and he was so perplexed by his limited understanding that he resorted to questioning the authenticity of scripture!
There's little wonder why Luther struggled with eschatology. He overlooked important details in God's prophetic plan, including the Lord's promise to regather the nation of Israel in a future day, resulting in the Reformation's unbiblical view of end-times events that supposed the Church replaced Israel in God's covenant promises – a view that persists among those devoted to upholding Reformed Theology, who continue to confuse and mislead many Christians today.
Finally, as the parable taught, the correct interpretation of prophecy requires a holistic approach to study. Prophecy by its very nature yields its secrets in portions spread across the whole counsel of scripture. In my experience, the Spirit allocates us a proper understanding of prophecy only if we seek to find harmony across every book of Scripture. For example, a prophetic detail may be provided in the Old Testament, while the specific timing or sequence of that event isn't revealed until the Gospel accounts or an epistle in the New Testament. Therefore, we should expect that a proper understanding will require stitching together of many details across the Bible.
In my experience, the Spirit may limit our understanding of prophecy in one part of the Bible to encourage us to cross-reference our study with prophecy from other books. In this way, He promotes in us an appreciation for the entire counsel of God's word. That's one reason why New Testament prophecy (i.e., the book of Revelation) often relies on symbols, pictures and shadows taken from Old Testament prophecy. Knowing this, we should expect that studying any prophetic passage isolated from the rest of the Biblical record is a mistake guaranteed to make a fool of the student.
If we want to get to the truth and establish a common, orthodox understanding of eschatology, our interpretations must bring the entire Biblical record into alignment and tie up all “loose ends.” If our interpretation fails to account for all the evidence in scripture, then we must conclude our interpretation is wrong somewhere and reconsider our position, even if doing so sets us against our denomination, our church tradition or the community of believers in our church. We should prefer to know the truth than to believe ourselves "right."
The interdependence and self-reinforcing nature of scripture should come as no surprise to the experienced Bible student. The sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments were penned over centuries by many human authors, but all were inspired by the same Holy Spirit (2Timothy 3:16; 2Peter 1:21) to yield a unified story of God’s plan to glorify His Son.
In fact, we could compare the Bible to a novel with sixty-six chapters, where the plot and characters build one chapter after another until the story reaches a climax in the final chapters. Obviously, we would never expect to understand a novel’s final chapter unless we had first read and understood all earlier chapters.
Similarly, we shouldn’t expect to understand Revelation - the final climactic chapter in God’s novel - until we have first gained some understanding of the preceding sixty-five books of scripture. To do otherwise risks repeating the mistake of the blind men in the parable. Studying prophecy piecemeal is akin to taking hold of a trunk or leg or ear, drawing false conclusions about its meaning and then provoking arguments with others who have made the same mistake.
I believe these persistent arguments over prophecy have led many Bible students to assume that understanding prophecy is beyond reach. After all, they will conclude, if accomplished scholars disagree on the meaning of prophecy, what hope does the average Bible student have to uncover the truth?
While understandable, this view is flatly wrong. Prophetic scripture can be understood clearly, since the Lord made prophecy available for our benefit, and when Bible students forgo the study of prophecy, they walk away from the richest, most rewarding content in God’s word. They also set aside a huge portion of Scripture, since most books of the Bible are prophetic to some degree.
Rather than avoiding prophecy, Bible students should chase after it, tackle it, and wrestle with it, refusing to let it go until it reveals its secrets in plain, understandable terms and yielding its blessing in the process (Genesis 32:24-26). While no prophecy can be understood apart from the Spirit’s revelation (2Peter 1:20), the Lord delights to reveal His truth to those who earnestly seek it while patiently awaiting Him to reveal it.