by Conrad F. Goeringer
27th National Convention of American Atheists
Let me begin by recounting something that’s probably happened to many of you. You’re driving down the highway, and you see a car in front of you with a bumper sticker. It says: THIS CAR UNMANNED IN CASE OF RAPTURE, or WHEN THE LAST TRUMPET SOUNDS, I’M OUTTA’ HERE.
If you’re like me, you find this unusual, a bit incongruous in modern times. The slogan seems more bizarre than “Jesus Saves” or “Warning: Angels On Board.” Who is the person driving that car? What are ‘the last trumpet’ and “The Rapture”?
Today, millions of people believe that we are living in an era of history known as the End of Days, the End Times, the final period when Biblical prophecies of the Apocalypse are unfolding. Surveys reveal that as many as 40% of Americans believe that will likely live to see the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Millions more await an event known as The Rapture, when they will rise into the air to meet Jesus. Those left behind will endure seven years of calamitous events, known as the Great Tribulation, after which Jesus will return to earth with an army of saints and angels, and preside for a 1,000 period known as the millennium. At the end of this, according to some accounts, there will be a titanic battle between good and evil, followed by the Final Judgment and the end of the world.
Not all Christians believe that these events will occur literally, but in the United States, much of Europe, Latin America and elsewhere, the fastest growing Christian sects are those which embrace a high level of apocalyptic beliefs. Among those who do, there is disagreement over the precise chronology and other details; but apocalyptic ideas and movements are a seductive, compelling and evocative force in American society. They have played a role in our nation’s history; and today, these beliefs are percolating through modern culture as never before.
Last year, for instance, over 100 books were published in the United States which deal with some aspect of apocalyptic belief. The idea of the End Times, The Rapture and other trappings of the apocalypse are discussed on television, in radio programs, and magazine articles. They have penetrated into modern culture at nearly every level, including the more prosaic artifacts of everyday life, like the bumper sticker warning of the Rapture and the Last Trumpet.
Many identified the year 2000 with expectations of an apocalypse or some other cataclysmic event. Some believed that on or after New Year’s Eve, Jesus Christ would descend on Jerusalem for the Second Coming. Another group in Japan followed the teachings of a man named Soko Asahara, who fused Buddhist, Christian and new age beliefs into an apocalyptic shake-and-bake doctrine. The Aum Shinryo cult released deadly Sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, believing they could jump-start the apocalypse, and survive to take over the world. In Israel, a small but determined sect of so-called Messianic Jews believes that their Messiah will come soon to rid them of their enemies. Along with many fundamentalist Christians, they also believe that the a new Temple must be constructed on the ruins of two previous temples before this Messiah appears. This area, known as the Temple Mount also is considered one of the most sacred sites to the Muslim religion, so it is the geographical and metaphorical “ground zero” in the confrontation of three major world religions. A Muslim mosque happens to stand over or near the location of the earlier Jewish temples, so imagine the political and military consequences of Messianic Jews and their Christian fundamentalist allies trying to storm this 26 acres of Middle-East flash point.
This is Gershon Salomon who is head of a group called the Temple Mount Faithful, a organization that demands that Muslims be expelled from the Temple Mount and a new Temple constructed. Add nuclear and biological weapons into this volatile mix of confrontational politics and religion, and you have the ingredients of an apocalypse.
In the United States, most apocalyptic ideas are identified with energetic fundamentalist and evangelical sects. Evidence that these ideas are alive and well, can be found everywhere -- on that bumper sticker declaring the immanence of The Rapture, or in the brisk sales of a fictional series known as the Left Behind books.
Over 30 million copies of these books have been sold since 1995 when the series began, and the pace of sales is accelerating. Critics were dumbfounded when the titles began reaching the New York Times bestseller list -- a remarkable feat, since the list is based on reported sales from mainstream bookstores, not the thousands of Christian retail outlets across the country. One of the books has been made into movie which was released earlier this year, and opened in nearly a thousand theaters across the county. It had a $15 million budget, starred some fairly big name actors including Kirk Cameron, and it is doing surprisingly well at the box-office and in video stores.
To give you some idea of the success of these books, the eighth in the series, THE MARK, was released on November 14 of last year, was on the USA TODAY TOP 150 list in 9 days, and by November 24 was Number One on the NY Times bestseller list.
The authors of the Left Behind series are Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. LaHaye is essentially the theologian in this project of grinding out doomsday thrillers. Jenkins is a mechanic who fleshes out the story line, trying to bring Biblical text into a modern-day context that readers can identify with. While the books are marketed as fiction, the authors, along with millions of readers, believe that they describe events that will take place in our time.
Warnings about the end of the world are nothing new. What makes the Left Behind books significant, though, is that they convey both a theological and a political message. Tim LaHaye graduated from Bob Jones University, a fact which is rarely mentioned in press handouts and stories about the series. In the 1970s, he helped co-found a group called The Moral Majority along with evangelist Jerry Falwell; it was the most ambitious effort to date in organizing the nation’s millions of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians into a cohesive political unit. His wife, Beverly LaHaye, founded her own group called Concerned Women for America, which today has hundreds of thousands of members, and mobilizes over issues such as banning abortion, combating rights for homosexuals, and school prayer. In 1984, LaHaye formed the American Coalition for Traditional Values, and later on the semi-secret Council for National Policy.
It’s easy and tempting to dismiss the Left Behind series as pure escapism. The overt message is about sin and redemption; the true believers find salvation literally by rising into the air to meet Jesus. You might ask, with that type of doomsday belief, why would anyone be concerned with the politics? I think we interpret the Left Behind phenomena in such a fashion at our own risk, however. This is not just a modern-day adaptation of the Book of Revelation, although it is partly that; it conveys a social-political message, and its real power is not in the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, but rather in how it can motivate believers and affect the political and cultural landscape.
It divides the world into camps -- the godly, and everyone else, those “left behind,” those nonbelievers and occasional churchgoers and liberal Christians, and secular humanists and Atheists and every one else who does not adhere to the literal inerrancy of the Old and New Testament.
It’s also easy to say that this is bad writing, and I doubt that the LaHaye and Jenkins will be winning any prizes for bestowing upon the world a new canon of great literature. Nearly every major reviewer has panned the series, and despite the high production credits, the film adaptation of “Left Behind” has suffered a similar fate. None of this seems to affect the popularity of the series, though, or quenched the enthusiasm of the growing ranks of fans.
The authors never say exactly when the world is to end, and Jenkins carefully notes, “One of the major tenets of our belief is that not even Jesus knows the time and hour of his return. Only God knows.” But there are mixed signals here, because Jenkins and other Rapturists believe that this generation is living in the so-called End of Times, that there are “signs and wonders” around us that confirm the ticking of an apocalyptic clock, a Biblical time bomb about to explode with the mysterious and dramatic events of the Final Days.
The idea of an apocalypse, while it is best identified with Christian fundamentalist and evangelicals, grew out of ancient Hebrew writings, and is found in other religious belief systems as well. Today, even Islamic movements embrace a view of an impending apocalypse. The confluence of these expectations -- Christian, Jewish, Muslim -- is centered on the Middle East, specifically Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount.
Books of the Old and New Testament, as well as writings omitted from the official canon of the Bible, all speak of an apocalypse. If we want to understand Tim LaHaye -- or the last trumpet motorist, or perhaps the friend or neighbor enthusiastically recommend that you read “this great book,” and the whole Left Behind phenomenon, you have to begin by learning the meaning of terms and beliefs rooted in ancient history.
APOCALYPSE is derived from the Greek, and means unveiling. It is synonymous with the last book included in the New Testament, the Revelation of St. John, written several decades after the purported death of Jesus by an unknown author on the island of Patmos. It is a book replete with symbols and metaphors, many derived from earlier apocalyptic texts. Scripturally, apocalypse refers to writings which deal with the final kingdom or the end of the world.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, apocalyptic texts often present a prophetic and highly symbolic element. They rely extensively on the use of metaphors and codes; and their origin lies in the political history of the Jews. Central to this narrative are the great events in their history, such as the conquest of Jerusalem in the sixth century BCE by the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar, and the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. This is a depiction of Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake, the English poet and mystic who was profoundly influenced by apocalyptic ideas. After the conquest, large numbers of the Israelite people were enslaved.
The city of Babylon came to used as a metaphor in apocalyptic literature to signify all of the evil of this period. The wealth of the Babylonians, the decorative motifs of their cities -- winged beasts, wooden gates, altars studded with gold -- were all important imagery. More important, though, was that for the early Jews, the conquest of Jerusalem meant that the Israelites and their Temple were no longer protected by God. Evil had overcome good; and Jewish tradition had to rethink its place in history, and its relationship with the sacred. The covenant with Jehovah had been shattered; the Jews had built a Temple, they followed the Laws of God, and He had seemingly abandoned His chosen people.
Another influence was transmitted through the Zoroastrian religion. Within half a century of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Persians invaded and conquered the Babylonian empire. In Isaiah, the Persian king Cyrus is referred to as a liberator, God’s instrument. Cyrus ends the exile of the Jews, and allows them to return to Jerusalem. In the modern era, he is immortalized in the famous
Cyropaedia of Xenophon, a historical romance.
With the return, though, the Jews bring with them the essential elements of the Zoroastrian faith, named after its prophet Zoroaster, also called Zarathustra. At the core of this was a dramatic confrontation between good and evil. The deity of darkness, Ahriman, the devil is locked in constant struggle with Ahura Mazda. This struggle becomes incorporated into a staggering array of apocalyptic texts.
The Jews rebuild the sacred Temple in hopes of again sealing the Covenant with Jehovah. What they did not anticipate was the coming of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE. With Alexander comes Hellenism, and a line of rulers known as the Ptolemies. The Greeks bring with them new sensibilities about the human body, new ways of worship, and new view of the world that is quintessentially pagan. Greek temples are built, and many Israelites begin to absorb the beliefs and practices of Hellenic culture, but some see all of this as corruptive and blasphemous Around 225 BCE, the book of First Enoch is written, metaphorically reflecting this dichotomy between the new ideas of the invaders, and the ancient ways of the Covenant. It talks about Satan and the fallen angels, and the timeless conflict between good and evil.
At the beginning of the second century, control over Judea passes from the Pytolemaic Greeks to the Seleucid Greeks of Syria, who are less tolerant of the traditional Jewish religion. Antiochus the Fourth marches into Jerusalem, desecrate the Temple by making sacrifice of a pig, and soon Judea is in political revolt. Out of this comes the Book of Daniel, which is actually set centuries earlier and tells the story of the Babylonian captivity.
At this point, a dramatic addition is about to made in the apocalyptic narrative. The political and social circumstances now mean that Apocalypse is thought of not just in the loss of Covenant, but in the active dichotomy between good and evil. The language of struggle, revolt and liberation is incorporated into this narrative, in part because of a man named Judas The Hammer, Judas the Maccabee. After the desecration of the Temple, Judas and his small band of guerrilla warriors began a military campaign against the Greek occupation, and they even re-conquer the Temple and conduct a purification ritual, and this become part of the feast known as Hanukkah.
Now, this ushers in a period known as the Second Hebrew Commonwealth, and there is a line of Hasmonean rulers who are descendants of Judas the Maccabbee. But a bit more than a century later, there is another threat, and this is the Roman Empire. Rome is extending its political hegemony, and under the military commander Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, or Pompeii The Great, Roman Legions march through the Middle East taking over the territory once controlled by Alexander and his descendants. In Jerusalem, there is a civil war within the Hasmonean line; the leaders of the city actually call up on Pompeii to settle dispute, but to their dismay, he ends of staying and incorporates Judea into the Roman Empire.
At first the Romans are relatively tolerant of Jewish religion and cultural identity. Under Herod the Great the Temple is rebuilt. Herod is a sort of proxy ruler, who was appointed Governor of the province by Julius Caesar and then made King by Marc Anthony; and the re-built Temple assumes a dialectical character. On one hand it becomes a symbol of national and religious aspirations, but on the other it is identified with foreign rule, and the corruption and pagan ways of the Romans. Herod, for instance, has 10 wives, and rules the land in a draconian style.
Now, during this time, many Jews await a Messiah, and this god-man is seen in many different ways. For some he is a spiritual redeemer, but there are those who look for a military commander who will rally the people and expel the foreigners, and restore the Covenant. And people act upon these perceptions in different ways as well. In some cases, they stage political uprisings; in others, they retreat into the mountains and remote places where they establish small, cloistered communities and essentially disengage from the outside world and they await the conflagration of the apocalypse.
So now, you have another element in apocalyptic belief. You’ve got the cosmic struggle between good and evil; you have the lamentation over a wicked oppressor; and you have the expectation and hope that a messiah will come and liberate you. In some cases, there is the belief that you or perhaps some leader that you follow is the Messiah, so you can become a Soldier of the Apocalypse or an Apocalyptic Agent of Change. And now, you have this notion of withdrawing from the world to await the calamitous end times.
Along with the armed uprisings and self-appointed Messiahs who emerge during this period, you have another strain of apocalyptic belief that has the devout hunkering down for the events that are to come. These people withdrew from the towns and cities and established remote communities. There is considerable debate over one group known as the Essenes, who by some accounts withdrew to a group of caves by the Dead Sea. And here they may have established a priestly community, and possibly saw themselves not as Soldier of the Apocalypse, but rather as what we might label Apocalyptic Scribes. They believed they were keeping their own Covenant with God, but from the little we known of them, they saw themselves possibly in part a repository of Apocalyptic and related texts; and from here, of course, in 1947, you have the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. Among these are texts that were never incorporated into the canonical Bible.
Another thing the Essenes may have done -- and again, there is a lot of debate over this, but if they didn’t do this, other remote communities of believers probably did -- and this was to take early Apocalyptic texts and reinterpret them for their present days, and this is a form of narrative called pesharim, which means “this is interpreted.” And here you have yet another characteristic of Apocalypse, which is taking earlier texts and looking for ways in which it can be interpreted to correspond to present day circumstances. So, what you have, in effect, is the continually recycling of texts and narratives and symbols and themes and everything else.
Among the documents found in the Essene collection or library is something known as The War Scroll. And this is a prophetic text which vividly describes the final, battle between the Yahad, or the Sons of Light and the forces of darkness, which stretches out over a 40-year period. Each side wins three battles when in the final confrontation God intervenes with a host of angels and defeats Satan. It is a very detailed text; it describes the different groups that will be among the Sons of Darkness, and it has much of the language and narrative structure that you find in subsequent apocalyptic texts.
Well, all of this carries well into the time associated with Jesus, and whether or not he existed as a historical personality, these apocalyptic beliefs resonated with the early Christian communities. There is good evidence that most Christians of this period believed that the prophetic vision -- an apocalypse, the return of the Messiah -- would occur in their lifetime, or shortly thereafter. Jesus supposedly said: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In Mark 9:1 he declares, “Truly, I say unto you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” And this became a problem for the early church; there was this tension between the organizational needs of Christianity as a social movement with a doctrine and ecclesiastic hierarchy, and this vision of immediate redemption and return. And as time goes on, the church becomes more of a hierarchical assembly with a priesthood and formalized doctrines and rituals, in other words it becomes an institution. And apocalyptic expectations are increasingly out of step with this trend; so what happens is the established church re-interprets these texts, and essentially calls a time out on The End Times. You have people like Augustine emerging at the turn of the fourth century declaring that all of these apocalyptic writings pertain to a distant future, or maybe they are symbolic and not literal, or in some cases you have the claim that all or most of the events have already occurred on some profound spiritual level.
Another curious and unanticipated thing happens at this time, and this is there’s no apocalypse or second coming, but instead the Church essentially conquers the western world. The evil pagan empire Rome falls pretty much without a shot when Constantine first defeats the Gauls at the battle of the Milvian bridge in 312, and supposedly has a vision of a fiery cross in the sky with the words “in hoc signo vinces,” in this sign you will conquer, and he converts to Christianity! And by 324 Christianity is the official state religion, and the following year, when the Church calls the Council of Nicea and really begins to bureaucratize as a formal institution, the persecution of pagans begins. And none of this is part of the apocalyptic scenario!
But there are still groups that believe in the immanence of the Second Coming. There are heretical sects that the church never fully manages to stamp out, and if they do, more heresies flower, and often they are constructed around a belief in an apocalypse, perhaps the creation of an earthly utopia. Apocalyptic ideologies are identified again with outsiders, those removed from the cultural, political and religious mainstream. As time goes on, even the papacy is identified by some with the forces of darkness.
Another term is MILLENNIUM, the 1,000 years. It is not a date, but it describes a period during which Jesus Christ will rule over the Earth. By some accounts, this is prior to the final battle between good and evil. In a wider sense, Millenarianism has come to describe any religious or even secular movement which seeks to construct, sometimes through violent upheaval and confrontation, an earthly paradise.
THE RAPTURE is an event which some Christians believe will take place prior to the Second Coming of Jesus. Living and dead will rise into the air to meet Christ. Rapturists believe that this is a physical event, not a symbolic or metaphorical idea. In LaHaye’s book, thousands of disappear from the face of the Earth. Passengers vanish from planes, people disappear from their homes, cars, all of the children are gone. Those “left behind” behind face years of persecution, as the Anti-Christ, false prophet and others in this Biblical drama, rule the earth.
THE TRIBULATION is a seven period during which Satan unleashes horrific persecution against those who oppose his rule. Pre-Tribulationists such as LaHaye believe that true Christians, a spiritual elect, will escape these bloody events. Some Christians believe that the Rapture will occur half-way through the Tribulation; others hold that Christians must endure the full seven years, before Christ arrives.
Christians argue over the sequence and details of this cosmic event. Pre-millennialists believe that Christ must return first before the thousand year reign of good. Post-millennialists, though, insist that Christians must take dominion over the world first, purifying it, and preparing the way for Christ’s return.
THE ANTI-CHRIST is another component of apocalyptic ideology. He is Satan’s henchman on earth, and has been described as a sort of evil twin of Jesus. Modern apocalyptics believe that the Anti-Christ will create a one world government during the Tribulation, and in concert with a “false prophet,” also preside over a fraudulent religion. The Anti-Christ is supposedly doomed to failure, since Jesus will defeat him and his legion of followers in a final titanic conflict.
The Book of Revelation even provides a location for this which is Armageddon, near the town of Megiddo in Palestine. This area was the site of numerous ancient battles and is located on what was once a major trade route. Incidentally, on New Year’s Eve, 2000 while Christians were descending on Jerusalem to await the apocalypse a group of Israeli Atheists and science fiction fans reportedly gathered at Armageddon for a party.
The term “Anti-Christ” appears three or five times in the New Testament depending on translation where this agent of Satan is described as “the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ.” John declares that the Anti-Christ “even now is already in the world,” and that the same being is also a “deceiver.” In Thessalonians 2 he is equated with the “beast” and described as “the lawless one.”
During the Middle Ages, roughly the 7th to 11th centuries CE, descriptions of the Anti-Christ become more horrific and detailed. Much of the imagery drew upon the Book of Revelation, or the Book of the Apocalypse. There also emerges a close link between the Anti-Christ and the persecution of the Jews as those who supposedly killed Jesus. Again, in Medieval Europe Jews are described as evil and sinister, and it is even proposed that the Anti-Christ is or will be a Jew, and that mythology lives on today. You may recall that Jerry Falwell made a statement to that effect last year. And as time goes on, various depictions and descriptions of the Anti-Christ emerge from the Christian imagination.
An abbess known as Hildegard of Bingen, for instance, who was a very prolific writer of her time which is the 12 century, had a series of visions which include the Devil and the anti-Christ as a black beast with flaming eyes. Hildegard produced numerous books and other writings, and renderings of her visions which include the birth of the Anti-Christ from the belly of Satan.
Between 1499 and 1504, the Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli produces two of the most disturbing and controversial frescos of the period, they are known as The Preaching of the Anti-Christ and The Last Judgment, and they reside in the San Brizio Chapel in the Orvieto Cathedral. And here, for the first time is the visual imagery of the Anti-Christ not so much as a monster but a being who resembles a fraudulent Messianic figure and prophet. Signorelli’s Anti-Christ is surrounded by the symbols of the apocalypse, he is shown seducing a crowd of admirers. He uses bribes to consolidate his rule; in the background, Signorelli places a wealthy Jew who is reaching into his purse which is decorated with the Star of David. If you look closely to the left, you will see a crowd which seems to be discussing what the Anti-Christ is saying, and only two figures seem enthralled, and they are women. This is significant when you examine the theological literature of the time, and the recurrent idea which began with the tale of Eve and the Garden that women in particular are vulnerable to evil supernatural seduction.
In the 16th century, along comes Martin Luther who is a Professor of Biblical Exegesis at Wittenberg, and he begins to preach the doctrine of salvation by faith rather than works, and in 1517 he indicts the Catholic Church with his list of 95 Theses. One of his books from this period discusses the Babylonian captivity. The Protestant Reformation is underway, and the papacy becomes identified with Babylon and the Anti-Christ.
Now, Luther had much to say on many subjects, but one theme was that the institutionalized church had become corrupted. He translated the Bible into the vernacular German and used the printing press to spread the word because he believed that the masses of people needed to read this work, and not have it filtered through the priesthood.
But when he came to the final book of the New Testament, which is Revelation, Luther had a problem. He did not believe that it should be given the same status as the other Biblical texts, and he didn’t identify the author as a Saint, but on the other hand, it was the only book in his Bible that was illustrated with woodcuts. And these portrayed the whore of Babylon with a papal crown; another, a Seven-Headed beast is identified with the papacy as well. And toward the end of his life, Luther became more fascinated by the Book of Revelation, and the whole message of apocalypse.
Now also during this period in Germany there is a priest named Thomas Muentzer, and while he is first a fan of Luther, he later becomes a critic; he is also outside of the theological mainstream, and he fuses radical social ideas with an apocalyptic ideology.
He is also considered a paradigm of what can happen when apocalyptic texts become widely accessible. For Muentzer, the wealthy aristocracy of his time, the Princes and land owners were the evil ones foretold in the book of Revelation; he believed that the impoverished members of the peasant class were the Sons of Light, and the repository of saintly virtue, and in 1525, Muentzer is at the head of a rebellion that becomes known as The Peasant’s War. Luther, incidentally, denounces Muentzer for turning to violence.
Muentzer tells his followers that a military showdown is that apocalyptic moment when they will triumph over evil; even though they are outgunned and out-manned, he says that they will prevail, he says that he personally will catch cannon balls in the sleeves of his coat. His battle flag includes the image of a rainbow, which reminds them of Noah seeing the rainbow from the ark. And as the battle begins, a rainbow appears in the sky, Muentzer’s followers are singing religious hymns. They are up against a professional army, though. Five thousand peasant warriors are slaughtered at the bloody Battle of Frankenhausen.
Incredibly, Muentzer found a place in history thanks to the rise of Communism and the creation of the German Democratic Republican after World War II. Frederick Engels, a collaborator of Karl Marx, includes Muentzer in one of his discourses. The East German government embraces him as a symbol of social radicalism, they name streets and gymnasiums and public squares after him, and they even construct an enormous shrine to Thomas Muentzer which houses the world’s largest diorama that depicts the battle at Frankenhausen, where the Peasant Army fell to the evil forces of the aristocracy.
All during this period there are similar revolts and movements involving charismatic leaders fusing an apocalyptic religious message with some kind of political or social ideology. Melchior Hoffman, for instance, predicted the second coming in 1533 and taught that the Lord would establish his millennial kingdom in Strasbourg. Another was John Hus, who preceded Luther as a critic of the established church. He and followers set up a theocratic movement, they take control of the city of Prague, and some of them become known as Taborites, after Mount Tabor, the place of the transfiguration of Jesus. They construct a fortress there and they believe that this is their citadel for the Apocalypse, and they await the second coming. One writer says that they saw themselves as “the army sent by God into the whole world to execute all the plagues of the time of vengeance ... Each of the faithful out to wash his hands in blood of Christ’s enemies...”
Even more extreme factions come out of this movement, like the Pikarts who preached that they could engage in any kind of licentious behavior they desired since they were Saints of the Last Days and incapable of sin.
Now, apocalyptic ideology comes to America beginning with Christopher Columbus. Columbus first proposed to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that he lead a crusade to the Middle East to regain control of Jerusalem. Instead, he ends up searching for a new route to the East. He wrote a document called the Book of Prophecies and he very much thought of himself as part of an apocalyptic tradition. He felt that his voyages would usher in a new age marked by the rise of a messianic figure called The Last World Emperor.
He is followed by the Puritans, and they come out of a period of time in English history where the country is swept up in apocalyptic fervor. There is the revolt against Catholicism, an English Reformation, and religious leaders believe that they can literally create a New Jerusalem or some millennialist society based on God’s law. There is also the Puritan revolt against the Anglicans, and they head for what later would become America, and they bring with them this idea of creating a theocratic paradise, their version of the New Jerusalem.
You have John Winthrop, who obtains colonial charters from Charles II, and in one of his sermons he says: “The eyes of the world will be upon us. We are as the city upon a hill raised up.” And all of this rooted in the Book of Revelation, where a New Jerusalem descends from the sky at the end times. Winthrop also draws upon the biblical lamentation in Jeremiah, “I had planted thee a noble vine, wholly a right seed: how then are thou turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto me?” And thus you have what becomes The American Jeremiad, the invoking of an idealized vision of society based on a religious standard, which for Winthrop and many of the Puritans is a fulfillment of millennial prophecy. And centuries later, a man named Ronald Reagan takes the oath as President of the United States, and talks about America as this “city on the hill.”
There are also periodic outbursts of religious zeal, there’s the first so-called Great Awakening in the 1740s, there is another one, the Second Great Awakening about 75 years later, and both of these involved very complex and often contradictory effects on the American religious scene. A lot of people caught up in the religious enthusiasm come to believe that they must work to build the New Jerusalem and prepare the way for the Second Coming, and in that case they are post-millennialist, meaning that the church has to purify society and construct the Millennium and that during or after that time Jesus Christ comes.
But in the 19th century, along comes a man named John Nelson Darby, and he is an Anglican who has a falling out with his church, and goes on to become part of a group in 1830 known as the Plymouth Brethren; and Darby will have a profound influence on what later emerges as American fundamentalism and evangelicalism, and he will also shape the doctrine expressed for the next century or more that becomes known as Premillennialist Dispensationalism. Within the scheme of the apocalypse, Darby preaches what he calls The Rapture.
The Rapture is not a term found in the Bible; and what Darby does is take various verses and blend them inductively to establish this new belief. Darby and his movement teach that The Second Coming will take place in two phases. First, Jesus comes to “rapture” his followers and remove them from the world so that they escape the persecution of the Tribulation, and then he, and the saints, and by some accounts the Raptured faithful return in another advent to dispense His wrath on the world, and this of course leads to the Millennium, Final Judgment and the End of time.
In the 1820s something like this was preached in London by a man named Edward Irving, and he incorporated other elements into this scenario such as the speaking in tongues and people suddenly having the gift of prophecy. And this became one of the roots of Pentecostalism. Irving is driven out of the Presbyterian church for all of this, but there is an evangelical revival already on, and in Scotland there are reports of people being possessed by a spirit and engaging in Glossolalia, or the speaking in tongues, and one of them is a woman named Margaret Macdonald. She is close to death, but suddenly she experiences prophetic visions and claims that God communicated with her -- and part of her prophetic message was this idea of a two-stage Second Coming.
John Darby visits the area to see first hand these reports of a religious revival, and when he returns to London, he too begins to preach this doctrine as well. There’s even evidence that Darby actually visited MacDonald. But it is Darby, drawing upon Irving and Macdonald, and possibly even earlier sources, along with the biblical notion about the second coming, who preaches that when history has reached a certain period or age known as a “dispensation,” this two-stage Parousia or second coming will occur. And even though Rapture isn’t mentioned in either the Old or the New Testament, or in the non-canonical texts of the period, there are verses that suggest to Darby the prophetic reality of this phenomenon. Paul in 1 Corinthians, 15:51-52:
“Behold I show you a mystery,
We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall all be changed...”
And that verse is so compelling and evocative, and so captivated the imagination of that time -- as it does today -- that nearly a century before, the great German composer George Frederic Handel included it in his masterpiece, “The Messiah.”
Back in America, there is an farmer named William Miller. One account I found says that Miller was a deist, someone who believed in “nature and nature’s God.” Miller is a captain in the Army during the War of 1812, and he gradually comes to believe that America is a predestined nation; and that is a belief widespread at the time, we even hear this claim made today that God has given America a special role in history. At the Battle of Plattsburg, 15,000 British troops are defeated by a much smaller US contingent, and Miller believes this is a sign of divine intervention, and he plunges into a period of intense Biblical study. And as with so many who embark on this sort of search for ultimate truth, he lands in the fever swamp of apocalyptic literature, texts like Daniel and Revelation.
Miller is also affected by “date setting,” and this involves trying to assign a calendar to the chronology of the Bible. Nearly two centuries earlier, this would be about 1650-1654, a Bishop of the Irish Protestant Church, James Ussher had written a book and fixed the moment of creation precisely at 4004 BCE. And some believed that by scrutinizing the generational time line in the Bible, you could also arrive at the time of the Second Coming, and this is what William Miller believed he had accomplished. He begins speaking about his findings in 1831, and by all accounts was a very compelling orator. And part of his message was the world would end, so to speak, on March 21, 2020; and Miller predicted something else, and that was a form of The Rapture where the faithful will rise into the air to be with Jesus.
Millers followers were very excited about this, and some started newspapers with names like THE MIDNIGHT CRY and SIGNS OF THE TIMES. Incidentally, maybe it’s coincidence, but the theme song to the movie version of LEFT BEHIND is by a Christian musical group called THE MIDNIGHT CRY. Miller’s first prediction, of course, turned out to be wrong, and he announced a new calculation, and -- behold! -- this attracted even more curiosity and believers. That was wrong, of course, and Miller then came up with a third date, and even more people were caught up in the enthusiasm and joined the so-called Advent movement. Posters appeared in cities and towns, there were people who sold or gave away their worldly possession, some of the Millerites were selling what they described as “Ascension robes.”
The religious establishment looked warily upon this, and the Millerites denounced them as “Harlots” and “whore of Babylon,” using quintessential apocalyptic imagery. When the third date passes, it became hard to sustain the level of emotional excitement, and so this affair later became known as “The Great Disappointment.”
Two years later, the remnant of the Millerite movement calls a meeting in Albany, NY and organizes the Mutual Conference of Adventists. And out of this “Great Disappointment” burst a slew of apocalyptic sects and movements, including the Seventh-Day Adventist Movement headed by Ellen White. Another group to emerge is the Watchtower Society headed by Charles Taze Russell, he lived from 1852 to 1916. Russell had been a Congregationalist minister whose preaching had become increasingly prophetic and apocalyptic. Russell was fascinated by Pyramidism, and this was a teaching that held that the Great Pyramid dated to the period around the Noachian flood and had encoded in its dimensions the entirety of Biblical history and prophecy.
And as you trace all of these different prophetic and apocalyptic strands, you can actually follow them to the origins of many movements we have in the modern era. The Adventist message of William Miller and Ellen White eventually found its way into the teachings of a man named Victor T. Houteff who in 1934 formed a group known as “The Shepherd’s Rod,” and established a small enclave near Waco, Texas known as Mount Carmel. This group later became the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists and it ended up under the leadership of a man named Vernon Howell who called himself David Koresh, “Koresh” referring to the ancient King Cyrus. Koresh had traveled to Jerusalem and surveyed the Temple Mount to see if it had room for the 144,000 thousand people he thought would be Raptured at the Apocapyse. But as the siege at Waco began, and you can go back and read the transcripts of communication between Koresh and the various crisis management teams, he began to reinterpret those events taking place as the unfolding of prophecies from the Book of Revelation.
In the 1970s, this belief in apocalypse and rapture is far from dead, it’s a doctrine of groups like the Seventh-day Adventist and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the latter are constantly setting dates about the end of the world, but in the 1970s, writings by a man named Hal Lindsay begin to captivate the public imagination. Now, like many apocalyptic scribes, Lindsay is a man of little formal education, especially in theology, but he begins pouring over Biblical texts, and in 1970 comes out with THE LATE GREAT PLANET EARTH. And he espouses the Rapturist view of John Darby, but he fits all of this into the current events of the day, so he’s weaving together three narratives -- Biblical text, current events, and prophetic claims-speaking.
For Lindsey, the middle East, specifically Jerusalem, is ground zero for dramatic events of an apocalypse in our time, and he points to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1949 and then the Israeli conquest of Jerusalem in 1967, as evidence than an apocalyptic clock has begun to tick. The world is knee-deep in the cold war, there is profound social and political upheaval, and this is the sort of climate that the end times imagination just thrives on. And Lindsey’s book becomes the all-time, non-fiction bestseller of the entire decade of the 70s, and it is a wake up call for publishers to realize the cultural angst and potential market that is involved.
Another thing is happening, and this brings us to Tim LaHaye. I’ve spent all of this time talking about what really is the history of the idea of the Apocalypse because when you read Hal Lindsey, or Tim LaHaye or another other modern writers of this genre, you need to understand what is going on here. They are drawing upon ancient texts and ideas, and they are involved in this process of pesharim, looking for ways to fit these ancient writings into the circumstances of the modern world.
What is so significant about LaHaye, in my opinion, is that he tries to blend a theological and political message. It used to be the case that pre-millennialists were not social reformers or activists; they have traditionally been far more focused on salvation and spiritual things than on politics, which they traditionally associated with the evil, material world. LaHaye, I think, has managed to span these two realms. Today, the most politically energized segment of the American religious spectrum is fundamentalist evangelicals who adhere to a pre-millennialist doctrine. So, one of the tasks I think we face is to not just understand the theological underpinnings of LaHaye and this whole “Left Behind” phenomenon, but appreciate its political import as well. And I would say that in this cases, there are “Uses For Apocalypse Belief.”
* One use comes from the act of dividing the world into two camps, the Children of Light and the forces of Darkness. If you combine this with a political agenda, what you have done is literally demonize your opponents. Your political adversaries are not flesh-and blood people that you happen to disagree with, they are actors or dupes in some supernatural drama. Once you create these sorts of categories, just by putting someone on one side or the other of this cosmic ledger sheet, you alleviate the responsibility of having to really think about what you’re doing. You create a whole narrative landscape that operates by your rules, not necessarily the common language. I think that just one example of this is the kind of harsh rhetoric that’s been used against gay people, and it become so divisive and brutal that even some religious groups recently had to caution Jerry Falwell to tone down his denunciation of homosexuals.
* I think that LaHaye is also providing relatively simple answers in a world of very complex events and often ambiguous situations. There is a lot of uncertainty around us; there is a lot of technological, economic and cultural change and this often creates the periods of social stress in which various apocalyptic or millenarian movements can flourish. The Millerite phenomenon, for instance, came during a period of profound economic transition in the United States. Being able to provide some kind of explanation for all of this -- especially one that fabricates a future scenario -- can be very reassuring and comforting.
* Another thing I’d add here is that LaHaye’s premillennialism contains a political message, or goes with a political agenda, but it is not like many of the other messages you find in other religious movements. Post millennialism was often the ideology of groups bent on social reform, for good or bad, because they saw this as part of a gradual process of reforming and perfecting the world. And there are secular millenarian groups that also buy into this assumption, that the world can be refined, and perfected and made unified and whole.
But LaHaye’s message is more about fighting the anti-Christ and building up the fear level in Christians, and winning more souls -- let’s make that “minds” -- in the process. So, with this message you don’t have to worry so much about reforming the world. You worry about spreading the word, and any social program is subordinate to that agenda.
* I’d also suggest that the Left Behind books need to be viewed in a larger context, where some people are turning to authoritarian religious or political or cult ideologies for assurance and solutions. The Jesus of the Tribulation is not a whimpy, love-and-forgiveness Messiah. I recently heard an evangelist speak on this topic, and he made it pretty clear that the Jesus that is coming back is a god of vengeance. This isn’t some pencil-neck Jesus who talks about forgiveness, or love, or inclusiveness. This is Jesus on apocalypse steroids; this is the final battle, and all of those who have not obeyed are going to get theirs. And I suspect that this even feeds into very basic human feelings such as the desire for revenge... they haven’t listened to our message, they don’t think or believe like us, now they will be punished for their wickedness while we look on. I see a connection between the god of the Rapture and the apocalypse, and the emergence of what I call ‘muscular Christianity,’ the Jesus of the Promise Keepers, for instance, a view of Christianity that places emphasis on punitive retribution, punishment, judgment; and, it a view that encourages Christians to “take dominion” over all social and political institutions.
* Now, another feature has to do with something that is very basic to many apocalyptic narratives, and that is the notion of “duality,” or inclusion and exclusion. Those who anticipate some kind of apocalyptic or millennialist moment -- whether it’s a peasant army in the middle ages or some prophet writing texts in a desert wilderness -- need to divide the world, and they divide it into light and darkness, good and evil. And in the context of modern times, this means constructing a sort of conspiracy theory to explain the events around us. This provides a simple, self-validating template to explain what are otherwise perplexing and often ambiguous events from the past and present. And all of the future is like that, it’s unwritten, it’s filled with surprises and uncertainty and often conflicting trends. But an apocalyptic vision addresses all of that uncertainty. Just as you demonize your political or religious opponents, you fit their actions into a larger plot line that is orchestrated as part of a cosmic or eschatological drama.
And LaHaye does this in two stages. First, the Left Behind books which focus mainly on several characters including an airline pilot and a news reporter, are supposedly fiction but they are also presented as “fact” in their prophetic vision. But LaHaye is more blatant in some of his other writings, and I think these inform us more when we evaluate the Left Behind series. For instance, LaHaye has recently come out another book, and it is titled “MIND SIEGE,” and it is already hot seller, and let me read you a couple of paragraphs from the flyleaf. The co-author, by the way, is David Noebel, he is head of Summit Ministries and an associate of James Dobson, who is head of Focus on the family. Noebel goes way back on the religious right, in the early 1960s he was associated with Billy James Hargis, and for years he denounced rock and roll music as a communist plot to create what he called “a generation of American youth useless through nerve-jamming, mental deterioration and retardation.”
And the flyleaf reads:
“Authors Tim LaHaye and David Noebel are sounding trumpets of alarm, calling us to wake up and defend our right to believe and behave as Christians.
“Already, Christianity has been silenced in our schools and driven from the public arena. Abortion rights, gay and lesbian rights, feminist rights and atheists’ right have virtually eclipsed any rights Christians used to enjoy.
“The authors insist that the conflict is between the biblical Christian and the Secular Humanist world views. This is a battle for our minds, a war to decide whether our thoughts will be shaped by the wisdom of men like Marx, Darwin, Freud, and Nietsche (and NIETZSCHE is misspelled), or by the wisdom God shared through Moses, the prophets, the apostles, and Jesus.”
LaHaye goes on to list what he says are the five basic tenets of Secular Humanism, namely Atheism, Evolution, Amorality, Human Autonomy and Globalism. He even has one chapter titled “Humanists control America,” which I think would be news to most humanists!
I don’t think we have to dwell on the problems with this view, especially since “Secular Humanists,” or at least the ones I’ve met, often still can’t figure out what they stand for. I’m an Atheist, but I resent being consider “amoral,” and since I’m a First Amendment voluptuary who distrusts big government, there are plenty of things about Globalism that I don’t endorse. This sort of disagreement is what being a Free-Thinker is all about!
But what does this remind you of?
I’d suggest that in many ways, LaHaye’s “Left Behind” series, and especially his battle cry for Christians to mobilize against the evil of Atheism, evolution and modernity, is apocalyptic. “Mind Siege” is a type of modern-day War Scroll, carefully delineating who are the Sons of Darkness. Apocalyptic believers divide the world into absolutist encampments of good and evil, and usually in such a scheme, evil is by far the more pervasive. Like the vision of the Essenes, good is confined only to the cultural nooks and crannies... your “enemies” are always more powerful, more malevolent, more sinister. Only the intervention of the Final Judgment can save the day.
* Another method I think LaHaye uses to emphasize this dualism and cosmic struggle between good and evil is by promoting the notion of Christian persecution. This view seems to fit with an emerging narrating that is increasingly used by many religious fundamentalists and evangelicals. Traditionally, evangelicals especially saw themselves as “apart” from the secular world, but LaHaye’s writing are part of a larger phenomenon which suggests that somehow secular culture is “persecuting” or violating the “rights” of Christians. This is now part of the rhetorical battle over everything from school prayer and the display of religious symbols on public property, to issues like faith-based social programs and the Religious Liberty Protection Act. You hear even liberal religious partisans suggesting that thanks to secular culture, their religious freedom are somehow at jeopardy, or that religion is “under attack.”
Finally, and there is a lot more that can be said here, are the political ramifications of this sort of apocalyptic belief on the Middle East. Jerusalem is “ground zero” for many religious groups, it is the cultural intersection of three of the world’s oldest and largest faiths, it has been overrun and re-configured politically and culturally for literally millennia. It is a volatile region; and when groups talk about storming the Temple Mount, or perhaps seeing in some kind of military action (like the Seven Day War in 1967 when the Israeli Army took Jerusalem) an apocalyptic sign, this only fuels the tensions. I think that all of the different factions there should be suspect when any type of apocalyptic rhetoric appears; we are no longer talking about armies with chariots and swords, but nation-states with potential nuclear and biological capability. The same can, or probably will, be said of other players in the region, from terrorist sects to extremist political movements.
So, I hope that this excursion through one of the obscure corridors or human history, gives you some idea of how apocalyptic ideas have worked in the past, and how they are affecting us today. We know for sure that all of these predictions have failed to come true; that doesn’t mean that some won’t in the future, but for us, the best evidence is that none of this is going to occur. That’s unfortunate on one count: every time I see a “Last Trumpet” bumper sticker on a nice sports car or SUV, I think of that sticker that says: “In case of Rapture, can I have your wheels?”
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