Endtime Fever Rising
In our incredibly rich English language, people who claim to know the future have been called prophets, seers, soothsayers, clairvoyants, crystal gazers, diviners, prognosticators — the list goes on and on — and these types have been unusually busy of late as the second millennium since the birth of Christ draws to a close. Most of what they say will be wrong, but at least one prediction about the year 2000 can be made with absolute confidence: an already noisy chorus of voices predicting doomsday and the end of the world will peak in all kinds of bizarre ways. Some of the voices come from decent but deluded attempts to tease a specific date out of Scripture; some — as always — come from self-serving religious scam artists who, in the words of a recent book, drive “the vehicle of doomsday prophecy all the way to the bank.” In a recent example, a man named Lee Jang Rim convinced some 20,000 Korean Christians to leave their jobs, quit their schools, and sell their homes because Christ would return to earth in person on a certain October day. Charged by prosecutors with swindling his followers of as much as $4 million dollars, Lee was found to have $380,000 tucked away in bonds with maturities as late as six months after his date for the end of the world, a rather strong hint that either he did not believe his own prophecy or he had found a way to be wealthy in the New Age to come.
Frauds of this kind, along with extremist groups like the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas who were so intoxicated by the imagery of Revelation that they died believing they had fulfilled it, are rare events which attract high public notice for a while, but most Christians who believe in what is called “millenialism” and a literal Second Coming of Christ are honest, hard-working people who have bought into one of the many interpretations of how the world will end which they have heard from some charismatic preacher. In a classic book on this topic,When Time Shall Be No More, [Harvard U. Press] written about 5 years ago, University of Wisconsin historian Paul Boyer shows that some form of millenialism is one of the most resilient and widely-held belief systems ever to grip the American imagination.
Another religious historian, who teaches at the Duke Divinity School, helps people not brought up in fundamentalist churches understand the doomsday doctrines a little better. He tells of the young woman in his religion course who said she urgently needed to talk with him. “No,” he says, “she was not having difficulty in [the course]. The problem was more serious. She explained through tears that she had just broken up with her fiance, and since I purportedly knew something about fundamentalism, she hoped I might be able to offer a word of advice. Her story was familiar. Like millions of American Christians, she had grown up in a fundamentalist church where she had come to believe that the Lord would soon take his saints back to heaven in a glorious event known as the Rapture.”
“This occurrence would be followed by the Great Tribulaton, seven years of increasingly violent conflicts and natural calamities. At the end of the Great Tribulation the scriptural armies of Gog and Magog — [identified in many ways through the centuries, but most recently with the Soviet Union and China] — would attack the….state of Israel. But just then, when all seemed lost, the Lord of Hosts would return to slay the forces of Gog and Magog in the most fearsome struggle of all time, the Battle of Armageddon…..Satan would be bound, the Jews would [accept] Christ as their Messiah, and [he] would establish a kingdom of righteousness on earth for a thousand years. At the end of [this] millenium the Lord would [reward the saved and cast] the lost into the Lake of Fire to burn forever.”
This Duke professor, who had been reared a fundamentalist, understood what his student was saying about “millenialism,” a set of ideas strung together by a 19th century Plymouth Brethren preacher in England. But why was his student crying? Why the breakup with her fiance? Well, it turned out to be because her fiance had the details of doomsday all wrong. Although he firmly believed, like her, in a thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, he believed it would happen after the Great Tribulation, not before it, which meant in the tortured language of their fundamentalist subculture that he was a post-trib pre-mill, while she was a pre-trib pre-mill.
I hope you’ll forgive me for that arcane verbiage. I know this is foreign country to most Congregationalists and other mainline churches who tend to steer clear of the wild symbolism of the book of Revelation , but it was a big deal in my childhood church where the post-millenialists refused to worship with pre-millenialists even in the same denomination. So however strange this may seem to you, be assured that for millions of Christians it is a matter of crucial importance. TV and radio preachers trumpet the lurid details of doomsday over hundreds of stations, and over100 Internet sites talk about it. By 1990, the last time I saw figures, Hal Lindsey’s best-selling prediction about the Second Coming, a foolish book with a marvelously catchy title, The Late Great Planet Earth , had sold 28 million copies. Another doomsday book called Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis , written by the president of ultra-conservative Dallas Seminary , sold a million copies after it was published in ‘74, and another million after the Persian Gulf crisis. Scores of magazines and newsletter pour into the mailboxes of the faithful every day. Merchants have told of customers who refuse to accept $6.66 in change because 666 is the “Mark of the Beast” in the book of Revelation , and I’m told that some people who bought The Final Days , by Washington journalists Woodward and Bernstein, asked for a refund when they found out it was only about politics and not about the Second Coming and the end of the world. But the predictions can certainly be good for business: at a recent convention some believers paid 100’s of dollars for rams’ horns so they could blow on them to signal the great event.
Would-be prophets have worked out their dates for Doomsday using a veritable jigsaw puzzle of hundreds of biblical verses that have to be readjusted constantly as the world order changes. It would take months in a classroomto make sense of those verses, most of which were never intended for us, anyway, so please understand how sketchily I have to handle this topic in 20-plus minutes. But I think it could be helpful , as the present millennium draws to an end, to know how seriously our next-door neighbors may take Second Coming prophecy as taught by their church. . I can testify, along with Garrison Keillor and others, that before television many a long winter evening was shortened in our homes and churches by debates over what the seven seals of Revelation meant, or the exact number of days before Christ would begin to rule over Israel. Arguing those fine points about the Second Coming may not have been quite as much fun as dancing, but for many of our devout ancestors it came close.
So it should come as no surprise that when the atom bomb was exploded, biblical literalists related it to the great noise and fervent heat prophesied to come at the end of time. One night, soon after Hiroshima, I stopped on a street corner in Birmingham, England to hear a Bible thumper warn us that within a few weeks an atomic chain reaction would flashburn the entire world as Christ returned to claim his people. It didn’t happen, of course, but in every year since then somebody has tried to scare meanness and money out of people by setting a new date.
Some of you may remember a few years ago when a woman named Elizabeth Clare Prophet convinced 2000 believers from Europe, South America and the United States to huddle up in steel and concrete bunkers dug deep into the hills of Montana. Many had sold their property, quit their jobs, and emptied their savings accounts to pay fees of up to $l0,000 for space in the shelters. It was not the first time Mrs. Prophet had set a date for doomsday. Only three years before she had predicted California would fall into the sea, but unfulfilled prophecy never seems to deter the faithful. An internal memo in her church set a specific March Friday 8 years ago as the day to hide underground and wait for the dawn of a new age. As always, when nothing happens, the press loses interest, and I have no idea whether Mrs. Prophet the prophet is still setting dates.
If you know the New Testament well, you know that first-century Christians were convinced that Christ would return in their lifetime. The Apostle Paul was one of those believers, and in the earliest scripture we have, he responds to people worried about what would happen at the Second Coming to their loved ones who had already died. Not to worry, Paul tells them: your dead friends and relatives who died believing will be raised first and then “we who are alive….shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess 4:17). It is implicit that Paul thinks he will still be alive when Jesus returns. So he advises single people to stay that way because “the appointed time has grown very short” and “the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor.7:26,29,31). Beyond all doubt, the Second Coming was just around the corner for the early church. But Christian history is filled with cases of how interpretations change to fit the facts, and so when nothing happened over the next two hundred years, theologians found ways of explaining the delay while still holding on to literal belief in a 1,000 year reign after Christ appeared on earth for the second time. But when Christianity became the state religion under the Roman EmperorConstantine, the church entered a new period of peace and growth, so St. Augustine, the great North African bishop, dropped the literal interpretation of a thousand year reign on earth and said that it had actually started with the ministry of Jesus.
So for a long time most people stopped expecting the Lord to return any minute, but as the year1,000 approached there were predictions that this would be a perfect time for the world to come to an end. Wrong once again! Butinstead of giving up their guessing, when life went on as usual, the prophets recalculated and decided that the millennium actually began when the Emperor Cosntantine was converted to Christianity in 312, so they added their thousand years and came up with 1312 as the new deadline! Once again, the time came and went, and more adjustments had to be made. How about starting the thousand years in 800 with the reign of Charlemagne, which would have Christ returning in l800?
Hope may spring eternal in the human breast, but it does weaken after a series of disappointments, so the prophetic movement waned at the end of the 19th century. But inflamed by two world wars in this century, it has revived and is generating more excitement and acceptance than ever before. Since the prophetic flivver requires constant tinkering, my files are fat with stories of one mistaken prediction after another. Typical samples: 1975 — 25 people isolate themselves in an Arkansas house waiting for the end of the world. Time magazine stories: 1977, “The End is Near” — 1978 “The Lure of Doomsday” — 1979 “The Deluge of Disaster-Mania” — 1980, radio evangelist Willie Smith [I love that name!] says all Christians will be swept up into heaven on April lst….. leaving all non-believers behind. (I think Willie had forgotten that would be April Fools’ Day……Or maybe he hadn’t].
One night in that same year I watched Billy Graham and Oral Roberts solemnly tell one another on national TV that the Lord was coming right away, and I marveled at their confidence, unshaken by 20 centuries of predictions and failures. A Dallas evangelist is even more specific than Graham and Roberts. He sees biblical prophecy as a Polaroid picture that takes 5 minutes to develop….and we are at 4 minutes, 55 seconds!
At the other end of the theological spectrum are mainstream Protestants who read the graphic verses about the sky splitting open and the trumpet sounding and the archangel shouting as part of the thought world of the first century, not of this one. For many of them, the Second Coming makes sense only as a metaphor for the hoped-for eventual victory of good over the forces of evil. They are not given to predictions because they wisely remember the words of Christ when his own disciples became too curious about dates: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons…..”
Unfortunately, so-called prophets ever since have ignored that message, and go right on setting dates. We have an insatiable appetite for knowing the future…and where there is an appetite, there is always someone ready to feed it. One year at another church I decided to keep a careful list of Jeanne Dixon’s prophecies (remember her?), the forecaster we wree told to trust becuase she had predicted the assassination of John F. Kennedy. [By the way, you know how this is done, of course: you say in your January column at the start of the year, “Something bad will happen to someone important this year” — and sure enough, somebody, somewhere is murdered or skis into a tree…..so there it is! a prophecy that came true! I reviewed my list in December and discovered, of course, that she had missed almost everything that was even close to being specific. But by then, who cared? She had a new list ready for a new year, the ever-hungry media played it up, and the true believers talked about her predictions over coffee. So, next week, next month, next year, someone will give us a brand-new set of calculations to prove that world’s end and the Second Coming are here at last. As Congregationalists you are free to read and interpret Scripture for yourselves, and if you become a prophet and start setting dates, we’ll love you anyway, but I think it’s appropriate to tell you about a certain Connecticut legislator, probably an early Congregationalist, who way back in 1780 took his job as Speaker of the House very serously.
At one of the sessions, where there had been some talk about the imminent end of the world, a tremendous roll of thunder shook the building. Some of the legislators looked as if they would like to suspend the meeting and head for a prayer-meeting at church. The Speaker (whom I would have liked!) said: “Either this is the end of the world or it is not. If it is not, we should proceed with the business. If it is, I prefer to be found doing my duty.” So, dear friends, the next time you hear a time-setting prophet, remember the long, long past and the strewn wreckage of a thousand mistaken predictions….and stay busy doing something useful!
Some of us, gracious God, like to hope for the kind of Second Coming of our Lord
in which we deeply believe: his arrival in our hearts, so that what we do each day
will prove his presence among us. Amen. a