It's all too easy to make fun of the extreme examples of prophecy belief that we encounter on bumper stickers and best-seller lists. When people talk breathlessly of the dangers of Universal Product Codes and automated teller machines as signs of the impending Tribulation, giggles and head shaking are hard to repress. But in many ways, adherents of premillennial faith in the Second Coming of Jesus and the battle of Armageddon show themselves to be more astute analysts of our times and exhibit more trust in God than many who fancy themselves "liberal" Christians.
It is important for people committed to the gospel to come to grips with the phenomena of apocalyptic literature so popular among premillennialists, and with the social realities to which their sometimes absurd interpretations respond. We need to examine the roots of apocalyptic Christianity, as well as some of the offshoots of apocalyptic thinking in our own day, including the powerful reports of near-death and alien abduction experiences. Throughout, we should hold before ourselves these questions: How do we know that God is good and truly reigns over our evil-infested world? What expectations do we have that God can and will act to conquer injustice, oppression, and poverty?
When we ridicule apocalyptic interpretations of bar codes and the European Common Market, we are saying a number of things about our attitude toward scripture and about our faith. First, we are properly rejecting an interpretive method that posits a one-to-one correspondence between biblical events and symbols and our own daily lives. When people identify the Antichrist with specific living persons or decipher the code of 666 to refer directly to Ronald Wilson Reagan or Saddam Hussein, they fail to take seriously the scriptural writers' intentions to speak to their own world situations, and suggest that parts of the Bible have had no meaning until our particular generation.
But there is a shadow side to our mockery, too. Are we not also suggesting that we are often more influenced by the Enlightenment's exaltation of rationality and the celebration of the myth of progress than by the biblical tradition that is the foundation of our faith? The idea of the rapture may be bizarre to many, but those who proclaim it are at least witnessing to a faith in a God who is powerful and involved in human affairs. For many Christians caught up in the socialized mindset of our secular world, the idea that God actually is capable of breaking into everyday reality with strength and justice is embarrassing. We profess belief in Jesus' healings, exorcisms, and resurrection, but as a practical matter we often put our faith more in science, reason, and other fruit of human striving.
To come to grips with apocalyptic literature, we must look again at our own captivity to "the Beast." The book of Revelation portrays a Christian people seduced into covenant with an alluring prostitute. It is seduction—as well as threats of violence and exclusion—that leads to citizenship in Babylon rather than in the New Jerusalem. While looking back at history, we should keep our attention clearly focused on our own willingness to be seduced by the false gods that seek our allegiance.
Roots and Branches of Apocalyptic Thought
Where did apocalyptic imagery and literature come from? Most scholars would root it in Israel's post-exilic struggle to reconstitute the Holy Land. Upon their return from Babylon, the "winning" priestly aristocracy accepted the "liberation" offered by the Persian Empire and established a new Jerusalem temple, surrounding its victory with sacred texts that legitimated its perspective. The story is told plainly in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and a bit more covertly through the "priestly" strand of the Pentateuch and the revisionist history of the Chronicler. Their "official" view, in sum: From the chaos of the primordial sea, God has ordered the creation (Genesis 1). From the chaos of exile, God has brought forth a new Jerusalem. God has created a stable universe. And God has put us, the priests, in charge of maintaining that order and stability. And it's all been done through the divinely inspired assistance of the Persian Empire.
This theology, though, did not convince all in Israel. Dissenters held an alternative vision: God is dynamic and free! God's people should not turn to the Empire for help! God will act to destroy this lie! This perspective, astonishingly, has been preserved in scattered places in the Bible: Isaiah 56-66, Zechariah 9-14, the book of Malachi. No longer was the battle simply between Israel and its national enemies, but within Israel—between the faithful "remnant" who resisted the Empire and the dominant priests and their supporters who defended Persia's role in restoring Jerusalem. The hope was born that God would act dramatically to break down the edifice of priestly lies and restore true justice to those patient enough to endure.
This fresh seed of apocalyptic faith flowered in the book of Daniel. Written in response to the oppressive rule of the Seleucid Empire and its king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Daniel presented an alternative to the warfare advocated and carried out by the Maccabees. Rather than usurp God's authority to seek vengeance, as had the Maccabees, Daniel presented Israel's struggle as a cosmic battle between God and a series of royal "beasts." Daniel's imagery offered a stark choice: resist the worldly powers with weapons and thereby take divine power into human hands, or risk being killed for the sake of enduring faithfulness and thereby be honored by God with a place in "the book."
Many apocalyptic writers claimed the Danielic tradition during the centuries before and after Jesus. In referring to himself exclusively as "the Human One," Jesus identified himself with God's victorious representative who would defeat the evil oppressors (Daniel 7:13; Mark 13:26, 14:62). As the Pauline tradition expresses it, "Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12).
Of course, this tradition found ultimate expression in the visionary experience of John of Patmos, recorded in the book of Revelation. Long before Hal Lindsey, readers of John's apocalypse found its imagery speaking to their own situation and interpreted its language as predicting an imminent end of the world. Theologian Catherine Keller refers to this pattern as "the apocalypse script," the tendency in Western society to read the signs of the times as reflecting the power of evil, while anticipating a sudden destruction of the evil world and its replacement by the reign of truth, goodness, and beauty. The apocalypse script can easily be detached from the biblical writings, as was the case later with Marx's vision of a proletarian revolution or Hitler's of a 1,000 Year Reich.
Living in the New Jerusalem?
The apocalypse script became a major force in shaping one of the most important developments in Western history: the "discovery" and conquest of the New World. Columbus spoke of this land in highly charged apocalyptic terms, transferring the end-time hope for a New Jerusalem to the present-day world that lay before him. The Puritans, who had already interpreted their oppression in England in apocalyptic imagery, deepened this identification upon their arrival in the Promised Land. The obvious consequence: If the European colonists had created—with God's help, of course—the New Jerusalem, then those "outside" corresponded to those listed in Revelation 22:15. Thus the eventual genocide of the indigenous "pagan savages" found its justification in this apocalyptic reading of the colonial adventure.
This tendency to interpret American experience apocalyptically has pervaded our history. From the early revivals led by 17th-century preachers such as Cotton Mather to Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, we have consistently understood ourselves as people of divine destiny, the fulfillment of the biblical promises.
However, not all have equated America with the New Jerusalem. Starting with the dehumanizing experience of the industrial revolution, many U.S. biblical commentators began to explore the darker implications of the American Dream. In fact the detachment of America from dreams of biblical glory goes back to the founder of the Plymouth Brethren, John Nelson Darby. It was Darby's scheme of "dispensations" that laid the foundation for modern-day prophecy writers' sense of the endtime, in which a restored nation of Israel will provide the space in which Armageddon would take place. Darby's eventual successor—the converted forger, Cyrus Scofield—made biblical prophecy available to those who were not mesmerized by the Enlightenment myth of progress. Scofield's Reference Bible, published in 1909, in which marginal notes and canonical text merge into a single apocalypse script, sold more than 10 million copies. It remains the sourcebook of choice for today's seekers of apocalyptic "truth."
BY THE MID-20TH CENTURY, two additional events poured fuel on the flames of apocalyptic expectation. The development and use of the atomic bomb made some of the more popular biblical passages sound all too literally prophetic. For example, 2 Peter 3:10 reads: "The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire."
The second "apocalyptic" event was the restoration of the state of Israel in 1948. Together with the atomic bomb and the Cold War, premillennialists were given all they needed to spin out scenario after scenario of prophetic fulfillment. Once one begins to see the world through this lens, other signs emerge from their surroundings: the wasteland of capitalist-driven consumerism, sexual licentiousness, cold-hearted personal and international violence.
The premillennialists, better than most, have looked these signs of the times in the eye. They have been willing to acknowledge, where many other Christians have not, that we are living within a dying empire. In rejecting the reformist agenda of liberal Christianity and its underlying faith in progress, they join with such radicals at the other end of the spectrum as Jacques Ellul, William Stringfellow, and Dorothy Day in looking not to human effort but to divine grace as the way to live past the end of empire. They have heard the apocalyptic cry as a call for conversion, a turning away from the Beast and toward the Lamb. They have often been willing to forego the benefits of material success and social popularity in favor of fidelity to the Voice from Above.
For Americans to whom the biblical narrative has become remote at best, the sense of anxiety in the face of impending doom remains, but without the escapist dream of rapture. There also remains a deep, if unspoken, yearning for a word from above, some clear light that would shine in our darkened world. Thus, we find the blossoming of an astounding array of quasi-spiritualities, from the vaguely apocalyptic New Age movement to near-death experiences and reports of alien abductions.
What these have in common is a quest for insight that offers both an authoritative source of security and an explanation that manages to fit more-or-less within the realm of scientific reason. Beings of light that beckon upward to patients on their deathbeds and intelligent aliens who pull humans at random into spaceships are high-tech versions of Daniel's and John's visions of heavenly angels. They offer hope from beyond, a promise of harmony offered by visitors who are outside this earthly struggle. They tap into an apocalyptic desire that wishes desperately for an end to suffering, for a way out of the darkness and into the light. As with the evangelists of rapture, we ridicule these expressions of real hope at our own peril. I am not urging uncritical acceptance, but simply a respectful recognition of the deep human hunger that leads people to seek salvation in unlikely places.
Where does this leave us? It is tempting to reject the entire apocalyptic project as an unsavory relic of a primitive spirituality. All the racism, hatred, and death that have accompanied many manifestations of the apocalyptic spirit over the centuries can lead those who believe in a God of love and of peace to reject Revelation altogether. We are left with many questions to explore: Can Revelation's symbolic narrative be read without the rapture? What did its message sound like for Christians living in Asia Minor under the Roman Empire of the first century? Ought Revelation to be included within the family of Christian texts, or should it be thrown on the fire of apocalyptic excesses?
Wes Howard-Brook was an author and activist living in Seattle when this article appeared.