Chapter One: The End Is Near ONE The End Is Near
I was expecting some significant culture shock when I moved to North Carolina in 1988. I had spent ten years in New Jersey, four of them teaching at Rutgers University. It was a position I loved: teaching the New Testament to students who were curious but not, as a rule, particularly invested in the subject before taking the class. Most of my students were Roman Catholic, at least nominally; others were Jewish or secular. Not many were Bible-reading evangelicals. I was pretty sure things would be different in the South. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was not known as a bastion of conservative thought, but it was, after all, in the Bible Belt. I braced myself, imagining that—as a former evangelical Christian myself—I knew what to expect. But the world is full of surprises.
I arrived in early August, and about a week after unpacking I received a call from a local newspaper. The reporter had heard I was a New Testament scholar and he had a pressing question: “Is it true that Jesus is returning in September?” My first thought was “Here we go.”
The reporter was asking because there was a booklet in wide circulation by someone named Edgar Whisenant, who mounted numerous biblical arguments that the “rapture” would occur that year during the Jewish festival of Rosh Hashanah—just weeks away. There were some two million copies of the booklet in circulation.
For readers who do not know about the “rapture”: for well over a century now, self-identified fundamentalists and other conservative evangelical Christians have maintained that Jesus is soon to return from heaven in order to take his followers out of the world.1
They will be “snatched” up with him from earth to heaven—hence the term “rapture” (meaning “snatched up”). Jesus will remove them from the world so they can escape the coming “tribulation,” a seven-year period of absolute misery in which the chief opponent of Christ, the Satan-inspired “Antichrist,” assumes sole political power over all the nations of earth, while natural and military catastrophes occur one after the other. At the end of this period, when the world is about to blow itself into oblivion (in most scenarios since 1945 through a massive nuclear exchange), Jesus will return again, this time to put an end to the madness before all is lost. He will then bring a thousand-year period of peace on earth, to be followed by a last judgment and then a utopian kingdom for the saved, for all time.
Whisenant argued that the rapture was going to happen next month.
I assured the reporter that, well, no, this wasn’t going to happen. He was a little disappointed, but I did tell him the good news: if I was wrong, either he wouldn’t be around to worry about it or he would have lots to write about for the next seven years.
Since the end of the nineteenth century, most fundamentalist Christians have maintained that all this is taught in the Bible. That would have been news to Christians throughout most of the first nineteen hundred years of the church, who thought no such thing. But starting especially in the 1890s, this view spread in popularity until it became the standard understanding of what was to happen here on planet earth, at least among Christians in North America and some parts of Europe. Today, a belief in the coming rapture is held by hundreds of millions of people—not just fundamentalists—all of whom believe it is simply what the Bible teaches, especially in its final book, the Apocalypse of John, also known as the book of Revelation. The author, who calls himself John, assures his readers that these events are “coming soon.” But when?
Edgar Whisenant had narrowed the options down to September 11–13, 1988.
Almost no one had heard of Whisenant before he placed his booklet in circulation. He started out as a NASA rocket engineer, but he was less interested in propelling people into space than in knowing when God would take them there. To find the answer, Whisenant engaged in an intense investigation of the Bible. The hints he found were scattered in verses here and there throughout the Old and New Testaments: a verse from Daniel combined with one from Matthew, together with one from Zechariah, another from Romans, and, of course, a number of them from the visions of the book of Revelation. When Whisenant had assembled the requisite pieces of this divine jigsaw puzzle, he produced his small book, giving it a compelling title: 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Is in 1988
Whisenant does indeed provide eighty-eight arguments for his prognostications, based mainly on the Bible but also on historical events and, well, “common sense.” It would be tedious to discuss these at length (I can assure you), but a solitary example should give an idea. Matthew 24 shows Jesus speaking about what will happen at the end of time when the cosmic “Son of Man” arrives from heaven in judgment. His disciples, somewhat naturally, want to know when all this will happen, and so Jesus tells them: “Learn the parable from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and it puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So I tell you, when you see all these things happen, you know that he is near, at the gate. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matthew 24:32–34).
To explain the parable, Whisenant asks what the “fig tree” represents and points out that elsewhere in Scripture it is a symbol of the nation of Israel, expected to bear good fruit. In Jesus’s saying, the tree has lain dormant through the winter—as if dead—but then comes back to life in spring and puts forth its leaves. When does the nation of Israel come back to life after a long period of dormancy? Israel was destroyed as a nation in the second century CE and did not become a sovereign state again until 1948.
Jesus declares: “This generation will not pass away before all these things take place.” How long is a generation in the Bible? Forty years. And so, it is a matter of simple math: 1948 plus 40. Bingo! Jesus himself says he will return in 1988.
There are eighty-seven more of these arguments.3
Most people will find this kind of reasoning puzzling, or perhaps weirdly interesting. But Whisenant did not write his book for scoffers who could easily poke holes in his thinking. His predictions were for those who were inclined to be convinced. And many were. Not so much in New Jersey, but certainly in parts of the South. I had an undergraduate student that semester whose parents literally sold the farm.
It is not that there was unanimous fundamentalist support for Whisenant’s convictions. Even conservative Christians often refuse to set a date for the rapture, and many of them pointed out to Whisenant that Jesus himself said that “no one knows the day or the hour” when the end will come, “not the angels in heaven nor even the Son” (Matthew 24:36). Whisenant, though, had a ready response. He agreed no one could know the day or the hour. He just knew the week.4
HAL LINDSEY AND THE END OF THE WORLD
The Whisenant affair was new to me, but I had long been familiar with these lines of reasoning—even with the idea that Jesus would return around or even in 1988. That had been my own view for years. I had been brought up as a decidedly nonfundamentalist Episcopalian. But when I was fifteen, I had a “born-again” experience and became convinced that if I was going to be a “serious Christian,” I would not do something pedestrian like go to a major university or liberal arts college. I decided to attend a fundamentalist Bible school. Someone suggested Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, so, in August 1973, there I went.
The summer before going, I studied the Bible as best I could. I knew there was an entrance exam at Moody, and I didn’t want to seem like an idiot. But the book of Revelation scared me. I had glanced at it and had heard people talk about it, but it sounded so bizarre and puzzling that I wasn’t sure I could handle it. The week before leaving for Chicago, I decided I had to bite the bullet, but it was to no avail: I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
My sense is that most readers are like that. It really is a mystifying book, and unless someone gives you a road map to explain how the author gets from point A to point B and tells you how to interpret the signs along the way, you’ll get lost. After getting to Moody, I was given that map. I got the general lay of Revelation’s land right off the bat—the book is quite popular among fundamentalist futurists—and in my second year I took a semester-long course on it. In addition, I had a private guide, recommended by millions of travelers before me: Hal Lindsey, whose book The Late Great Planet Earth
, first published in 1970, became something of a second Bible for evangelicals around the country.5
Lindsey was a graduate of the fundamentalist Dallas Theological Seminary—the school all we burgeoning fundamentalist intellectuals aspired to attend—and had become a spokesperson for the imminent end of the world. Unlike Whisenant, he was not on the fringes of American culture. On the contrary, The Late Great Planet Earth
was the single bestselling work of nonfiction (using the term loosely) of the 1970s, a book later important to none other than President Ronald Reagan, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and other members of Reagan’s cabinet, who were convinced that the bombs were eventually going to fly. For people in power to think that mutual self-destruction has been foreordained in holy writ is not, obviously, a comforting thought.
Lindsey was not a number cruncher like Whisenant. He was a spinner of tales. He did believe that Jesus was returning by the end of the 1980s. Matthew 24:36 (“the fig tree puts forth its leaves”) was determinative for him as well. But he was too canny to name a date. He was more interested in showing how
it was all going to happen. Again, this involved a scrupulous examination of the Bible. It is not clear that Lindsey himself did much of the investigative legwork: while a student at the Dallas Theological Seminary he had taken classes with John Walvoord, famous in fundamentalist circles for his many books on biblical prophecies about the imminent end of the world. Some of Lindsey’s classmates later claimed that he cribbed The Late Great Planet Earth
from Walvoord’s lectures.6
But Lindsey certainly had a flashy style of presentation, quite different from Walvoord’s rather gloomy and ponderous prose. Lindsey was witty and clever and knew how to package the bad news. To us fundamentalists in the 1970s, his guide to the events soon to take place seemed not just plausible but virtually assured.
In Lindsey’s account, the now-restored Israel was soon to assume control of the entire city of Jerusalem and, in the process, claim the Temple Mount entirely for itself. It would then level the Dome of the Rock, the Islamic shrine built over the site of the original temple, which had been destroyed in 70 CE. Israel would rebuild the temple, as predicted by the biblical prophets. This reassertion of Israel’s religious and national rights would rouse opposition from the neighboring Arab states, compelling Israel to seek political and military assistance through an alliance with a newly formed ten-nation European Commonwealth. The leader of the Commonwealth would negotiate peace in the Middle East for three and a half years but would then show his true colors. He would enter the Jerusalem temple and, in the holy place itself, declare himself to be God. This would begin a reign of terror designed to beat the nations of earth into submission so that he himself, the Antichrist, could control the entire world’s economy.
The Arab-African coalition would respond to this threat by invading Israel. Then the big guns would get involved. The Soviet Union, always eager to flex its expansionist muscles and keen to acquire the vast resources of the Middle East, would enter the fray with an amphibious and ground attack that would overwhelm the Arab-African alliance. The European Commonwealth would respond with a tactical nuclear strike, wiping out the Russian homeland. At this point, China would see its opportunity and, with a newly refurbished 200-million-soldier army, would converge on the Europeans in the final battle. (Lindsey did not spell out the involvement of the United States in all this; he vaguely links it with the European Commonwealth.) In desperation, both sides would release their nuclear arsenals and the human race would be on the brink of complete annihilation when… Jesus returned to end the nonsense.
For Hal Lindsey, this is what the Bible teaches. And it teaches it will all happen soon. But—and here is the big “but” that we Christians reveled in—believers in Jesus would see none of it happen. Immediately before this entire sequence of events begins, the followers of Jesus would be taken out of the world. They would be raptured.
For those of us inclined to subscribe to the infallibility of the prophetic writings of Scripture, these dismal projections were not speculations but judicious interpretations of God’s holy word. Everyone had a choice. They could go directly to heaven at the first return of Jesus to enjoy the bliss of paradise, or they could stay down here to experience hell on earth.
Lindsey meant the book as an evangelistic tool. This was not an old-fashion revivalist evangelism in the dour mode of Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” This was a 1970s hip, blow-your-mind, futuristic evangelism. And it was highly effective… at least among those who were already fundamentalists. All of us bought it—literally. Millions of copies of The Late Great Planet Earth
were sold (ten million by the end of the decade; twenty-eight million by the end of the 1990s).
THE RAPTURE IN SCRIPTURE?
What we had no idea of at the time—and what practically no one has any idea of still—is that the book of Revelation was almost never read this way throughout the course of Christian history. And yet almost everyone today thinks that Revelation provides a blueprint of what is to happen in the near future—at least those who think about it at all. There are, of course, some holdouts, even among conservative Christians, who maintain the book needs to be read another way. But the popular perception is that, whether absolutely right or terribly wrong, the book of Revelation tries to describe what is going to happen to us here in the twenty-first century.
Why does this seem to be the natural, commonsensical reading? Because the fundamentalists have won.7
It is not that fundamentalists have won over the great bulk of society to the entire panoply of their religious views. The vast majority of the human race decidedly does not think the Bible is completely inerrant in everything it says, that the world was created in six days some six thousand years or so ago, that there really was an Adam and Eve, and that… well, make your list. But fundamentalists have succeeded in convincing everyone (or at least those who are remotely interested) that Revelation describes what will happen in our own future, and probably soon. Possibly starting next year, or, well, next Thursday.8
But here is a little-known factoid: The word “rapture” never appears in the Bible. Here’s another: Even apart from the actual word, the book of Revelation never says anything about the followers of Jesus being taken out of the world before it all goes up in flames. The idea of the rapture has not been taken from the Bible; it has been read into
Here is an even more interesting factoid: No one had even thought of the idea of a “rapture” until the 1830s. Of the many, many thousands of serious students of the Bible throughout Christian history who pored over every word—from leading early Christian scholars such as Irenaeus in the second century; to Tertullian and Origen in the third; to Augustine in the fifth; to all the biblical scholars of the Middle Ages up to Aquinas; to the Reformation greats Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin; on to, well, everyone who studied or simply read or even just heard passages from the Bible—this idea of the rapture occurred to no one until John Nelson Darby came up with the idea in the early 1800s (as we will discuss in chapter 3).
Even so, back in my fundamentalist days, I, too, was completely certain the rapture was in the Bible, right there in black and white. The key passage was 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, a letter by the apostle Paul to his converts in the city of Thessalonica, written to provide assurance and comfort because they were worried about “those who have fallen asleep.” That’s a euphemism in the Bible for “those who have died.” When Paul converted the Thessalonians, he had taught them that the end of the present age was coming very soon: God was about to bring a utopian world to the world, the glorious kingdom of God. Now, some of the Thessalonians had died before this could happen, and the survivors were very upset: Had those who were no longer living lost out on their chance for the coming kingdom?
Paul writes to assure these people that they do not need to “grieve as the others who do not have hope” (that is, the non-Christians; 1 Thessalonians 4:13). When Jesus returns from heaven, the very first to be rewarded will be the believers who have already died. They will be raised up from their graves to meet Jesus on his way down; then those still living on earth will also rise up to meet him in the air.
That’s the rapture, right? It sure seems to be if you read the passage with fundamentalist eyes:
For we tell you this by a word of the Lord: we who are living, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not go before those who sleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God—and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are living, who remain, will be taken up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:15–18)
How can this not be referring to the rapture?
To begin with, it is important to read the passage, and all passages of the Bible, in context—a point I will be beating like a drum throughout this book. Paul certainly did believe Jesus would be returning from heaven and it would be soon. The key, though, is to understand Paul’s explanation of what will actually occur at that second coming.
Throughout his writings Paul insists that Christ will return in judgment. Jesus was crushed by his enemies at the crucifixion, but he is coming back to annihilate them. His return will bring destruction to everyone who has not accepted the good news of his salvation. The “saved” will survive the onslaught and be rewarded with glorious bodies that will never again be hurt, sick, or die; they will then live forever with Christ in the coming kingdom (see 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 1:9–10).
I want to pause here to discuss something seemingly small that will help us understand this passage, and every other passage in the Bible. Our Bibles today have chapter and verse divisions. These are extremely helpful, of course, since without them it is very hard indeed to tell someone where to find a passage. But the authors did not write in chapters and verses. One problem with our having them is that they make us think that the next chapter (or even verse) is changing the subject. But Paul would have written the first sentence of what is now 1 Thessalonians 5 right after the final sentence of what is now chapter 4 (quoted above) without skipping a beat. In these next words, he indicates that the coming of the Lord (4:13–18) will bring “sudden destruction” for those not expecting it (5:3). Christ will be like a “thief in the night” (5:4). This is not a reassuring image. The robber comes to harm, not to help. But the good news for Paul is that this harm will come only to those who are not among Jesus’s followers; his faithful will survive the onslaught, “For God has not destined us for wrath but for salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:9).
So what does Paul mean in 4:17 when he says that Jesus’s followers will “meet him in the air”? It can’t be a “rapture” that removes his followers from the world before the long-term tribulation. Jesus is not coming to provide an escape for his followers but “sudden destruction” for his enemies. Then why are his followers floating up to meet him?
The Thessalonians, reading this letter in 50 CE, would have had no trouble understanding it. As scholars have long suggested, Paul’s description of Jesus, the “Lord,” coming to his “kingdom” uses an image familiar in antiquity. When a king or high-ranking official arrived for a visit to one of his cities, the citizens would know in advance he was coming and would prepare a banquet and festivities. When the long-awaited king and his entourage approached, the city would send out its leading figures to meet and greet him before escorting him back to their town with great fanfare.
For Paul in 1 Thessalonians, that’s what it will be like when Jesus comes. He is the king coming to visit his own people, who will go out to greet him. In this case, though, he is not coming with his entourage on horses; he is coming with his angels from heaven to destroy his enemies. And so, to greet him, his followers—all of them, not just the leaders—will be taken “up” to “meet him in the air.” But this escort will not remain
in the air any more than, on earth, the king’s welcoming committee would remain outside the city walls. They will accompany him back to earth, where he will enter his kingdom and rule forever, in a paradise provided to his chosen ones, now that all others have been suddenly destroyed.
There is no “rapture” here, no account of Jesus’s followers being taken to heaven to escape a massive and prolonged tribulation on earth. The same is true of other passages used by fundamentalists who insist that the rapture is taught in Scripture. Another popular verse—we used to love this one—is Matthew 24:39–40:
So too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
We took the verse out of context as a pretty obvious reference to the rapture, where some will be taken out of the world and others abandoned for long-term misery. If we had read it in
context, however, we would have seen that this is the opposite of what Jesus was teaching. In the verses right before the passage (Matthew 24:38–39) Jesus likens the coming of the Lord to what happened in “the days of Noah,” when only Noah and his family were saved in the ark when the flood took away—that is, drowned—everyone else. In this passage, then, it is the people who are “taken” who are destroyed; those “left behind” are the ones who are saved.
Both Matthew and Paul warn their readers that they need to be alert because Jesus is coming soon. But how soon? When Paul talks about this coming day of judgment, he speaks about the reward that will come to Jesus’s true followers, both those who have already died, who will be raised from the dead, and those who are still alive. Notice that Paul includes himself among the living at the time. When he speaks of the two groups, he refers to “those” who are dead and “we” who will still be alive. It’s a point worth emphasizing. These New Testament authors who speak of Christ’s return thought it was to happen in their own day.
MASS MARKETING THE RAPTURE
That’s not what we believed back in my evangelical days. We had been told that passages like these referred to what would happen two millennia later, in our
time. (Hey, it’s all about us!) We needed to be ready. This was a message drummed into our heads through various media—not just “prophecy books,” but Christian rock music, such as Larry Norman’s ever popular “You’ve Been Left Behind,” and Christian film, starting with A Thief in the Night
in 1972, an unusually low-budget production about what would happen if you were not among those raptured and had to face the terrifying rule of the Antichrist. The movie was meant to scare the hell out of teenagers, and it was massively successful. Everyone I know who was a 1970s evangelical has stories about it, often about the horrible sense that came over them when, one day, they found themselves alone in the house and thought the rapture had just happened but they had missed it.
All this would seem terribly bizarre and irrelevant were it not for how commercially successful the subject remained in the decades that followed. The rapture is the theme of one of the bestselling book series in the history of publishing, the Left Behind
novels by Timothy LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. (As a fundamentalist prophecy spokesperson, LaHaye is the one usually credited with the idea for the series; Jenkins provided the writing skill.) Over the course of sixteen volumes (1995 to 2007) the pair narrate events on earth after true believers in Jesus (i.e., fellow conservative evangelicals) have been raptured out of it as those who realize their mistaken ways band together and wage battle with the Antichrist and his forces.
Literary scholars, needless to say, were no more impressed with the books than film critics were with A Thief in the Night
. But the series was massively popular: when LaHaye died in 2016, eighty million copies had been sold. There were also three movies, a spin-off movie, and a reprisal starring Nicolas Cage. For many readers the books were page-turning stuff, and these people were not all fundamentalists, or even Christians. But the vast majority of them—studies have shown—not only turned the pages; they believed them. One important analysis by a scholar of contemporary religion, Amy Johnson Frykholm, suggests that most people who read the novels took them to be just as authoritative about what was soon to happen as the Bible itself. Readers didn’t put it that way, of course. Instead, they said they thought that what they read in the novels was simply what the Bible itself says.9
IS IT ALL ABOUT US?
We are, then, talking about a wide-ranging cultural phenomenon. One fairly recent poll indicates that 79 percent of Christians in America believe Jesus will be returning to earth at some point. Another poll, taken in 2010, shows that 47 percent of the Christians in the country believe Jesus will return by 2050 (27 percent definitely and 20 percent probably). The vast majority of these people believe this is stated throughout the Bible itself, culminating in that great set of predictions in the book that brings the entire sacred canon of Scripture to a close, the Apocalypse of John.
I believe this view of Revelation, and indeed of the entire Bible, is simply wrong. In saying so, I am not suggesting anything novel or strange. Revelation was almost never read as a prediction of the near future for nearly two millennia. It certainly is not read that way among most historical scholars today. Revelation was not written to show what would happen in the twenty-first century. It was written by an author in the first century who was addressing readers of his own time with a message they
needed to learn. This view of the book is certainly not as scintillating as the claim that a prophet two thousand years ago could see what would transpire at an end of the world that we ourselves will be experiencing. You mean God was not
principally concerned about our generation from the very beginning? We aren’t the culmination of the human race, the goal of all human history? How disappointing.
But even if Revelation is not predicting what will happen soon after the next presidential election, that does not mean we should relegate it to the trash heap of historical curiosities. On the contrary, it is a book that continues to be massively significant, even if for reasons people might not expect. To understand why, we will first need to see why the dominant futuristic readings of Revelation have not worked and never will work. In the next chapters, I will show how these kinds of futuristic readings originated and explore why (in every single case) they have proved to be wrong. That will naturally involve looking at what the book of Revelation actually does say and how it says it, matters surprisingly overlooked by many so-called experts on biblical prophecy. I will then show what scholars have long known about how the book is to be read and understood, and give a frank assessment of its major teachings and perspectives, especially what its author wants to say about God and his relation to both the world he created and the people who inhabit it. As we will see, it is a disturbing view.
STRANGE WAYS PEOPLE READ THE BIBLE
Before explaining why Revelation has never been successfully interpreted as a blueprint for the future—and why it never will be—I need to provide a broader overview of how people today read the Bible. Most people don’t read the Bible the way they read other books, and “experts” in biblical prophecy certainly don’t treat the Bible as a book at all.
There are, of course, numerous ways to read the Bible. Many people (most?) open the Bible to find answers to personal, pressing questions and to receive guidance. Such readers want direction. For them, since the Bible is the means by which God speaks to his followers, it can be used to provide almost mystical answers that would not be available through a simple reading. A very common technique is simply to open the Bible at random—either with a particular concern in mind or hoping to learn whatever God “wants to tell me today”—and to read the first passage that strikes your eye (or the passage you blindly place your finger on) to find out what it is saying to you.
That, of course, is not how you read Jane Eyre
or The Grapes of Wrath
. But the logic behind the approach is that the Bible is a different kind of book from every other, because God is speaking through it. In my view this is not reading the Bible as a book. It is using the Bible as a kind of Christian Ouija board. God directs your gaze or your finger to what he wants to tell you. You then interpret what you read in light of your concerns.
The professional prophecy writers like Hal Lindsey and Timothy LaHaye who appeal to Scripture as a guide to our imminent future do not take a Ouija board approach. On the contrary, they read the Bible very carefully, picking out subtleties that might be missed on a first or ninth reading. But in doing so they are looking for something. They are trying to find the pieces of a great puzzle, in fact the greatest puzzle of all: what will happen in the future. If the Bible is inspired and gives all the answers to the important questions of life, then this Big Answer must also be in its pages. For these readers, the Bible is like a great jigsaw puzzle, with one piece hidden in this place, one in another, and yet a third somewhere else. The way to use the Bible is to assemble the pieces to reveal the big picture, which until now no one has seen before.
It is relatively easy to observe prophecy writers ferreting out and arranging the pieces of their puzzle, having retrieved them from hither and yon. In one of his eighty-eight reasons, Edgar Whisenant reaches his date of 1988 by putting together Daniel 2:1, Leviticus 26:2, and Romans 11:25. On the same page, he appeals as well to the pieces provide by Matthew 13:39; Luke 21:24; Acts 3:21; and Zechariah 14:4. Lindsey also moves flawlessly over the entire expanse of Scripture, pulling out the requisite pieces from Ezekiel 38, Daniel 11, Joel 2, Matthew 24, and Revelation 11 all in one breath. These may be biblical books written over the course of many centuries by authors living in different areas, speaking different languages, addressing different audiences with different concerns, but for these fundamentalist readers, each writing may contain a vital missing piece to the Puzzle of the End.
In treating the Bible this way, Whisenant and Lindsey are not anomalies among the predictors of the imminent End of All Things. On my desk just now are a few books by another famous prophecy writer, Jack Van Impe, who spent a long career lecturing that the end was coming right away. In fact, he wrote basically the same book several times over, decades after first demonstrating from Scripture that the end was coming “any day now.” A minute ago I opened one of Van Impe’s books at random to see him prove this by splicing together Nahum 2:3; Isaiah 31:5; Deuteronomy 7:6–8; and 1 Chronicles 17:22.10
In graduate school we denigrated this approach to biblical “study” by calling it “proof-texting”—that is, finding “proofs” for your views by jumping from one text to another. This eschatological approach to proof-texting is particularly intriguing, as it is designed to assemble the pieces of the great puzzle of life hidden throughout the books of Scripture, even if each book is actually about something else altogether. It’s a bit like finding Waldo in a Dickens novel.
The whole enterprise reminds me of a passage from the early church father Irenaeus (180 CE), who was attacking a group of Gnostic heretics for how they used Scripture. Irenaeus argues that since these Gnostics could not support their bizarre teachings about the creation of the world or the identity of Christ simply by appealing to the texts, they reassembled them. In a memorable image, Irenaeus says the heretics are like someone who takes a gorgeous mosaic of a gallant king and rearranges the stones so they now portray a mangy dog, claiming this is what the artist intended all along. Even more, they insist this is
a portrait of the king. For Irenaeus, this is no way to treat a book (Irenaeus, Against Heresies
TREATING THE BIBLE LIKE A BOOK
Historical scholars could not agree more and so do not advise treating the Bible as either a Ouija board or a jigsaw puzzle. They argue that since the Bible is a book, you should read it as a book. Which of us reads by arbitrarily looking at a passage and seeing what guidance it offers, or taking bits and pieces and assembling them together? Is that how we should read Pride and Prejudice
or The Remains of the Day
? A Bible-believing Christian may respond by saying: Yes, but those books are not inspired by God. There is, however, a fairly obvious counterresponse: If God inspired a book, surely that means he wanted it to be read as a book
. He certainly could have inspired a board game instead.
Indeed, the Bible is not a single book but an anthology of sixty-six books. If the Bible comes from God, he did not inspire a single author in a single time and place to write a single Bible; he inspired different authors with different backgrounds, different assumptions, and different views of the world. And we simply can’t read books (at least if we want to understand them) without knowing at least something about the historical context in which they were written. Imagine reading The Odyssey
or The Divine Comedy
knowing nothing about the history of ancient Greece or medieval Italy. And we can’t understand them without reading them from beginning to end. How can one possibly understand On the Origin of Species
or The Autobiography of Malcolm X
by randomly picking a sentence here or there to meditate on, or by taking lines scattered throughout and assembling them in the way one thinks best?
If you don’t read a book the way books are written to be read, you’ll be taking a mosaic and rearranging the pieces to show what you yourself want it to show. And that is precisely what modern prophecy writers do. This approach allows them to make bold claims about what will happen in our future, when, and where—without paying the least regard to the original meaning of the passages they apply to. That alone is one important reason why every biblical projection of when and how Jesus will return has been incontrovertibly proven to be flat-out wrong by the relentless march of history.
Most of us might think that, with egg on their face, such prophecy writers would never speak in public again. But that almost never happens.11
When September 13, 1988, passed, what did Whisenant do? He wrote another book. In this one he explained that he had earlier made an unfortunate but slight miscalculation. He had forgotten there was no year 0. History moved from 1 BC to AD 1, so that the first decade had only nine years in it. That threw his calculations off by a year. So expect the rapture in 1989.12
So, too, when Hal Lindsey’s prediction of the late 1980s didn’t come true: he is still preaching his message today, over half a century later, telling us that the signs now
are even more convincing than ever. That’s the remarkable thing about signs of the imminent end: they are always there to be seen. As historian Norman Cohn pointed out about those who realized that the current news matched biblical predictions of what would happen near the end of the age: “Since the ‘signs’ included bad rulers, civil discord, war, drought, famine, plague, comets, sudden deaths of prominent persons and an increase in general sinfulness, there was never any difficulty about finding them.”13
It is important to note: Cohn was not talking about our Whisenants and Lindseys. He was talking about predictors of doom in the Middle Ages.14
Some things never change.
Some end-time enthusiasts who make false prediction after false prediction eventually do give up. But it doesn’t happen often. Prophecy scholar Harold Camping, for instance, made a very nice career out of predicting the end of the world. First, in 1992, he wrote a 551-page book filled with mathematical proofs explaining why Jesus would return for the rapture on September 6, 1994. When that didn’t happen, he announced it would be September 29. Then October 11. Eventually he gave up on 1994 and in 2005 declared that it was now a certainty: the rapture would occur on May 21, 2011. This time, people outside his small coterie of followers took notice. His church and long-running Family Radio station invested $100 million in advertising—you could see the billboards on the highways—trying to convince people to repent before it was too late. He claimed that after the rapture, starting May 22, millions of people would die every day for five months. When nothing happened on May 21, Camping made a last-ditch effort, claiming the rapture would be October 21. Finally, on October 22, he quit. He had had enough. Many conservative Christians also hoping for the rapture had warned him: Jesus had said, “No one knows the day or the hour.” Camping admitted he had been wrong and that he had sinned against God. He died two years later.15
THE RELEVANCE OF THE COMING APOCALYPSE
I don’t hear about Christian prophets of doom and their millions of followers in my day-to-day life, even though I used to be one of them and am a scholar who deals with their texts. I expect most people on our planet don’t hear or think about them much, either. But that does not mean such phenomena are in fact irrelevant. These seemingly bizarre predictions of the coming end are not only widely held but even more widely influential. As you will see in the pages to come, whether we know it or not, they affect our lives. Not only have they proved emotionally traumatic for millions of people in our world, they have had social and cultural effects, involving such things as US foreign policy and the welfare of our planet (think climate change).
For yet other reasons, and on a more personal level, I would also like us to think about what the book of Revelation really does say and why that matters. It may seem like an obscure book to spend any time thinking about, but the reality is, as a part of Christian Scripture, it is taken as inspired truth by billions of our fellow citizens of this planet. Even if it does not predict what will happen soon in our history together, it does try to present a “revelation” of sorts, a revelation—for many Christians—of the truth about God, humans, and the course of what’s to come. But what kind of “truth” does it reveal?
Many people coming to the book of Revelation for the first time find its sweeping narrative disturbing. It is almost impossible to read the book without being struck by its sheer violence: it describes an apocalypse where God will vent his wrath against the world and everyone he opposes, bringing widespread misery and pain. The book recounts heaven-sent catastrophe after catastrophe: famine, epidemic, war and, in the end, a lake of fire for the majority of the human race.
What does one make of this narrative of divine violence and vengeance in a book of sacred Scripture? Is this a view of God that people should subscribe to? And is it consistent with the teaching of Jesus himself?
Before answering these questions, we need to consider what the book actually says.