Back when I was in junior high I got invited to a weekend-long retreat that my church put on called Disciple Now! Given the evangelical church’s relentless obsession with branding (“Makin’ Jesus kewl since Century One!”), they’ve since changed the name of the retreat in a rather futile attempt to obfuscate the religiousness of the event.
Now they call it Downtown 40 to signify forty straight hours of sparklingly-packaged indoctrination anchored around a centralized worship rally at the main facility downtown. In practice they usually just call it DT40 for short, because everything’s always cooler when it’s shortened to an abbreviation, amirite? Extra points if you can think of one that includes the letter X, short for extreme.
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Despite the urbanity of it name, the bulk of the event happens in upper middle class homes scattered all over the metro area. It plays out that way because almost no one who attends my family’s church lives within a ten minute drive of the five-story campus, which takes up two city blocks and requires $10M a year to sustain. Most members fled to the surrounding suburbs decades ago, along with all the other white people.
When I attended Disciple Now! it was still the mid-1980s, and the Cold War had not yet fizzled out. We were still obsessed with whether or not the Russians were going to nuke us, and the preachers and evangelists got an awful lot of mileage out of that. The youth minister who drove two states over from Texas to lead our Bible study that weekend was no exception.
As I recall, he was a winsome fellow, as most of them are. He talked fast and energetically, and he had a lot of entertaining tricks up his sleeve, including one in which he could flick a playing card across the room to hit a target no larger than a middle schooler’s hand. He also convinced a room full of impressionable seventh graders that he had accurately predicted the sexes and birth dates of both of his children several months ahead of time. That last detail became far more important the moment he asked us to open our Bibles to the book of Revelation.
Scaring the Hell Out of Us
I will never forget what happened next. I had already gotten the fear of hell and of the end of the world drilled into me despite the fact that the pastor of our church almost never mentioned either one. See, there are far more influences on evangelicals besides the man who occupies the pulpit. They also read books, they attend concerts, and they belong to Bible studies and Sunday School classes for most of their lives. Today because of social media they also have virtual bubbles in which they all live regardless of their denominational persuasion. As I recall from that time, the class that specialized in biblical prophecy was among the most well attended in our church, even though our church had no official position on how to interpret it.
This guy took out a large sketchpad and set it up on an easel in the living room of the house in which we were staying, and he had us read aloud portions of the book of Revelation so that he could sketch out on his drawing pad whatever it was that the author of the book was trying to describe. Obviously our group leader was under the impression that the visions “John” was having were actual peeks into the distant apocalyptic future rather than the effects of a bad mushroom trip, which I am personally convinced inspired much of the book of Ezekiel. A conversation for another time, perhaps.
We read aloud the passage that describes a swarm of locusts billowing out of a fiery pit, only the more we read of the locusts the less and less they sounded like insects and the more they sounded like airborne weapons. They were covered with armor and had faces like men (a visible cockpit, perhaps?). They shot fire out of their tails which targeted people and not the surrounding environment. The sound of their flying “was like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle,” and they had crowns on their heads (top-mounted propellers?) and “hair like that of a woman” (smoke trailing behind?). By the time the traveling evangelist finished his drawing, we were gasping at a likeness of an apache helicopter.
This was all terrifying. Had an ancient apostle exiled to a remote island been given a vision of a 20th-century battle between the forces of good (clearly America) and the minions of evil (almost certainly Russia, or maybe China, or both)? Our group leader bounced around through selected verses in the book of Revelation to show us all the places where a vague reference here and there could signify the Soviet Union, including the mention of a falling star called “Wormwood,” which he assured us translated into a Russian word that matched the name of a Soviet satellite scheduled to be decommissioned within the next few years.
He predicted that Jesus would return by May of 1989, just two and a half short years away, and like any other red-blooded teenage boy, all I could think of was that the world would end before I could even lose my virginity. I was going to go to heaven without ever having acquired a driver’s license. I was devastated.
I spent many late nights lying awake in my bed, fretting over the imminence of it all. What horrors would I have to endure at the hands of a God finally fed up with humankind, and would I ever be foolish enough to receive the mark of the beast, whatever the hell that was?
A couple of years earlier, my Pentecostal grandmother had sent us a cassette tape of a preacher who insisted we would all be tagged with tiny microchips embedded either into our foreheads or onto the backs of our hands, and that would be the mark, without which we wouldn’t be able to buy or sell in the marketplace. A few years later, the leader of the prophecy study at church told everyone the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet looks exactly like our letter “W,” quite possible indicating that the internet (www…) was the true mark of the beast.
Frankly, the details didn’t matter; what mattered most was the instilling of fear into the hearts of impressionable young minds—the kind of fear which could motivate a wayward heart to commit his or her life to Jesus in order to avoid the coming judgment. This was the same foundation which later youth evangelists could build upon so that a month before my sixteenth birthday I would once again “give my life to Jesus” and commit to serving him for the rest of my days. I have to say it stuck for a very long time. The next twenty years of my life, my devout faith was the central organizing principle of my life. Nothing else came close.
The Second (and Third) Coming of Jesus
It wasn’t until I began to study the Bible formally (along with the history of its interpretation) that I discovered how many different ways there were to understand what the writer of this book was trying to say. The dramatic interpretation to which I had been exposed was only one among many, and it turns out the purveyors of each are bitter rivals with one another.
While in seminary, I attended a meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society and there discovered that premillennialists have their own separate conferences to discuss their views about the second coming of Jesus and that those conferences are further subdivided into pre-trib, post-trib, and mid-trib tracks in which they discuss the many ways that each of the other groups get the order of events wrong.
Pre-trib folks insist that Jesus will come again first to rapture up all the Christians who are spiritually ready for his return so that they won’t have to endure the coming Great Tribulation, starring the much-maligned Antichrist who rules the world with an iron fist. This tribulation, we are told, will last exactly 7 years* and once it is complete, the great battle of Armageddon will occur in which the forces of good finally clash with the forces of evil for one last time. Long story short, Jesus comes back again for a third time to defeat Satan, who then has to go to cosmic jail for a thousand years, ushering in a glorious kingdom in which righteousness and the knowledge of God cover the whole earth. After that, there’s a judgment but everyone’s fates are pretty set in stone at that point, with most people going to Hell forever (“wide is the gate and many are they who enter it”) and a select few going to eternal bliss in Heaven.
But not everyone preaches that Christians get a pass from this hellacious series of unfortunate events. The mid-trib and post-trib folks insist that Jesus will wait until the tribulation is over to rescue up those who believe in him, although their theological opponents will quickly tell you that anyone who gets the order of events wrong is a damned heretic. Quite possibly they are false disciples who don’t know Jesus at all, but are the unwanted weeds sowed in among the wheat by those who wish ill on the kingdom of God.
Of course these folks want nothing at all to do with the millions of Christians who don’t buy into this nonsense at all. Generally speaking, the higher the education level of the person reading the text, the more likely they are to adhere to a perspective called amillennialism, which means they interpret most of the details of biblical prophecy in purely symbolic terms. They would note that we are always in a state of tribulation, and that the battle between good and evil is going on all the time, as is the kingdom of God. We all eventually meet our maker, they argue, and we each will have to stand before the judgment seat of Christ whenever our time comes to die.
This was basically the view of my childhood pastor, Frank Pollard, who was once president of Golden Gate Seminary and was for many years the voice of the Baptist Radio Hour. Whenever this kind of discussion came up, he usually just shrugged and said, “Who knows?” and then changed the subject to something more interesting to him. In retrospect, I am often grateful that my model of ministry was neither an end-times sensationalist nor a flashy egotist, but a self-effacing introvert with a knack for turning every conversation around to focus on you instead of on himself. He was one of the good ones.
For the record, there used to be a lot more postmillennialists as well. Most of these folks understood the millennium symbolically, which creates a great deal of overlap with the amillennialists. Some would even say they feel they belong equally in either camp, depending on what you’re asking about. Generally speaking, what distinguishes the former from the latter is the level of optimism about the success of the church in converting the rest of the world to the Christian way of thinking. Historically, this view was popular among Calvinists and Reformed types (including the Puritans who dominated early American religious life), but after two world wars it’s become a much tougher sell to convince people that the world is progressively becoming a better place.
When Does All This Happen?
Besides debating the timing of the rapture (which is mentioned only once in the Bible here), there are many other ways to break down the interpretation of biblical prophecy. Painting with a much broader brush, you can either view the bulk of biblical prophecy as futuristic, as already completed, or as purely symbolic and therefore timeless and perhaps even recurring or cyclical. These perspectives on prophecy are called, respectively, futurism, preterism, and historicism or idealism.
As you’ve probably guessed, futurists understand a majority of prophetic passages as foretelling dramatic events in the very distant future from the perspective of the original authors. Interpreters who favor this perspective on prophecy tend to have a very “high” or supernaturalist view of the authorship of the Bible. Who wouldn’t be impressed by a book that can tell you the future, sometimes even thousands of years before it comes to pass? This is the interpretational leaning which dominates almost every one of the above mentioned camps (pre-trib, post-trib, mid-trib, etc). All of the Left Behind books and movies drink deeply of this particular kool-aid.
Historicists believe the Bible foretells the future as well, although in a much more general way. They see biblical prophecy as laying out a broad epochal outline which traces the significant turning points of (mostly western) history. All that business about a beast with seven heads, a city on seven hills, and the “Whore of Babylon” are interpreted both symbolically and futuristically to indicate significant players in the still-unfolding drama of western civilization (who cares about the rest of the world, right?). Protestants in this camp usually peg the pope as the Antichrist, by which they mean the office itself and the church it represents rather than any particular individual who occupies the chair. This perspective sees much of biblical prophecy as both “already” and “not yet,” and you’ll find that a number of postmillennial and amillennial interpreters favor this way of looking at things.
The preterist school of thought reads most or all biblical prophecy in light of the historical context in which it was written, more often than not finding ancient historical elements that correspond to the images in the text from events which were contemporary with the authors themselves. For example, they see most or all of the catastrophic events Jesus foretold in his Olivet Discourse as occurrences which took place in 70 C.E. with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. They see the apocalyptic language about stars falling from the sky and the sun losing its light as symbolic ways of saying that the end of an era was coming to pass in which God would judge the nation of Israel, finally removing their blessing because of their rejection of the Messiah.
It Is Finished
After studying these things for more years than I care to admit, my take is that whoever it was that wrote the book of Revelation, he was intending to communicate things about his own time, not ours. In fact, we know from the text itself that what we see as a singular “book” is really a collection of letters to seven particular churches in Asia Minor (he says that here) that were around at the same time as the author. We also learn from the text itself that, if there is such a thing as a “tribulation” and a “kingdom” (i.e. the much anticipated millennium), they were things which the author of the book believed were already in progress at the time of his writing.
I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. [emphasis mine]
Somehow I never caught that introductory statement when I was a younger Bible student, and it wasn’t until I got to college that I learned about how apocalyptic literature works. All this business about the moon turning to blood and stars falling from the sky sounds like a nightmare to us today because we tend to take things very literally. But at the time of the writing of the book of Revelation, people were accustomed to this kind of talk and wouldn’t have heard it the way we do.
For the ancient Jews, the Temple and the priesthood and the sacrifices were sacred things which marked the age in which they lived. They were put on earth to signify the importance of God’s relationship with Israel, and the ending of that relationship would mean nothing less than the destruction of a bedrock spiritual reality which governed everything about their lives, and I mean everything. If anything happened to change the nature of that relationship, it would mean the ending of their whole world. No language was too hyperbolic to express the catastrophic nature of such an event.
In the Old Testament, when a foreign army invaded Israel, the prophets spoke of the event in hyperbolic terms, using the exact same kind of language the writer uses in the book of Revelation. In fact, the author of this book was clearly borrowing familiar imagery from earlier apocalyptic writings, speaking in code to the people who would understand what he was saying. Incidentally, my students do the exact same thing in class using their own codespeak borrowed from the songs they listen to. They don’t think I understand what they’re saying, but I do. Which incidentally works just fine for me.
For example, for centuries much has been made over the identity of the Antichrist and the mark of the beast, but we’ve known for a very long time that the author of this book was almost certainly indicating the emperor of Rome who was ruling at the time of his writing.
Back when this circular letter was being written to the churches of Asia Minor, it was customary to take the letters of a person’s name and calculate its numerical value in order to derive a shorthand code. Today we call that gematria or isopspehy, and we’ve found examples of it in graffiti in the recovered city of Pompeii. It turns out if you calculate the name Caesar Nero using the Hebrew alphabet, it adds up to 666. Not only that, but a variant spelling of his name leaves off a letter to produce 616, which was an alternate number found in some early manuscripts of the book of Revelation (see the Bart Ehrman video below, 5:19)
Christians and Jews living in the first century often spoke about the spirit of Nero rising again to resume persecuting them, and this codespeak undeniably points to that fear. Rome was undoubtedly the city set on seven hills, and if you walk through each of the images laid out in the text, you can pretty easily pick out contemporary historical counterparts to each of the apocalyptic symbols being used in the text.
Why would they write like this? For the same reason my students talk the way they talk around each other. It lets them get away with saying things to each other without getting in trouble because only people on the inside even know what they’re talking about. This kind of literature gave ancient Jews and Christians a way to speak allegorically about the oppressive regimes under which they lived while also communicating a belief that underneath the daily pressures of marginalized life, there were spiritual forces at work which God himself controlled. It’s just like Christians like to say to each other today: “I’m not sure what happens next, but I’ve seen how the story ends, and we win!”
Making the Bible Sexy
Can you imagine how bored that room full of middle schoolers would have been back in 1987 if the youth minister had driven two states away just to teach us about gematria and first-century politics? How many conversions and “rededications” do you suppose he would have scored using that approach? I can see why folks gravitate toward futurism. It’s way sexier than historical accuracy. You’re never going to convince teenagers to stop trying to lose their virginity if they think the much ballyhooed second coming of Christ actually happened symbolically almost two millennia ago.
This very morning faithful Christians will assemble in houses of worship all over the world to parse through the headlines of today’s news in order to figure out which person or country matches this beast or that horn or that harlot or whatever in the book of Revelation, and they have no idea that the stuff they’re reading really all happened long before the country in which they live was even an idea in anyone’s head. They thoroughly believe we are living in “the Last Days,” and that Jesus will be coming back at any moment, either to take Christians out of the world before letting the bogeyman wreak havoc on the world, or else to wait until he’s done to carry them away to a celestial city or wherever so that they can finally live in a place where their views about the world are no longer culturally marginalized.
People everywhere are looking for the news to finally validate what their favorite preachers keep telling them the Bible says. What a day that will be! All their deepest worries that their lives are built on false assumptions will be swept away in an exciting series of cataclysmic events, each one infallibly foretold by a book that’s been sitting beside their bed for as long as they can remember. How encouraging that will be!
Millions of people around the world are eagerly waiting for things to finally fall apart, because maybe what happens after that will finally set things straight. Maybe God will finally swoop in and fix all our problems, because trying to fix them ourselves is really hard work, and we’re tired of trying. Governing ourselves is nigh unto impossible, especially with all these other morons we live with, amirite? It’s much easier to just give up and hope that someone will come and save us.
I gave up that luxury years ago, and I can’t say that I miss it. I know too much now, and I don’t figure I can ever go back to thinking that way again. I certainly won’t be looking for marks on people’s foreheads, anyway. We ourselves already are our own worst enemies. But then again, we are likely our only saviors, as well.
[Image Source: Wikimedia]
* Back when I taught Bible at Christian schools I used to challenge my students to find for me where the Bible actually says the Great Tribulation has to be exactly seven years in duration. My students were incorrigibly confident that a verse must clearly lay that out somewhere because their pastors and their teachers were all so certain of it. I once offered a $1000 reward to any student who could find such a verse and explain it to the class, but after a week of intense investigation, they all came back and said I could keep my money. One outspoken senior said he found a guy at his church who could explain how the 7 year period was derived, but he was so confused by the end of the explanation that he just gave up.