Winter 2000
Volume 4 Number 3


cont'd

People watching for the Second Coming, said one writer in 1944, were “those whose piety exceeded their balance of judgment.” If not dismissed as unbalanced, millenarians were portrayed as the oppressed. Their vision of a new heaven and a new earth was viewed as a product of deprivation, and their millennialism the cry of the disinherited. But whether as lunatic fringe or as the dispossessed, those who believed the End was coming soon took a place on the margins of American religious history. They were somehow apart from the responsible mainstream. 

We can, of course, find many groups and people who fit the image of a lunatic fringe. As examples, consider those who perished in the Heaven’s Gate Cult a few years ago, the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993, and Jonestown in Guyana in 1978. Less lethal but only scarcely less marginal in the eyes of many Americans are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have made it their chief business to go door-to-door to warn the uninformed that the great battle of Armageddon will soon destroy the wicked and that all men and women must be prepared.

 But we seriously delude ourselves if we think that belief in the imminent end of the world is a notion limited to the poor or to a handful of eccentrics. In his recent provocative book When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture, Paul Boyer demonstrates how widespread such notions are. While allowing that some surveys do indicate that poor or marginal people may be more likely to expect the early end of the world, Boyer goes on to argue that the correlation is far from absolute 

“Prophecy belief pervades all educational and income levels,” he says, “including Ph.D.s in computer science and multimillionaire Texas oilmen. A mid-1980s study of a ‘not particularly conservative’ community college in Oregon found that one-third of the students believed in the Rapture. One need only attend a service at the twenty-six-thousand-member First Baptist Church of Dallas (the world’s largest Southern Baptist congregation); Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel in Orange, California; or any of hundreds of large evangelical congregations across America to realize that these beliefs are not solely a refuge of the desperate, the unlettered, or the disinherited.”

Boyer’s reference to the Rapture is a reminder that the most numerically significant form of belief in the end of the world is not that of a sect like the Jehovah’s Witnesses; it has come from dispensational premillennialism. Although dispensationalism is generally attributed to a nineteenth-century sectarian (John Nelson Darby), the idea has overspread its sectarian origins to gain currency throughout vast sectors of conservative Protestantism. Bible schools such as Moody Bible Institute, seminaries such as Dallas Theological Seminary, networks of publishing houses and conferences, and the famous (or infamous, depending upon one’s point of view) Scofield Reference Bible have disseminated dispensationalism with astonishing thoroughness and success. Now millions of Christians await the signs of the end as enumerated by dispensationalism: the Rapture, when the true believers in Christ shall suddenly be whisked into the air to meet with Christ, the restoration of the state of Israel, the rise of a satanic beast, and the seven years of tribulation before the start of God’s millennial kingdom on earth. Within the subculture of dispensationalism, numerous artifacts testify to the belief in an imminent end. A popular postcard shows driverless cars careening off highways as occupants rise in the air to meet Jesus. Dispensational writers continue to speculate about the identity of the apocalyptic beast, some identifying the number 666 with the bar codes that are becoming ubiquitous in American life.

No one can say for certain how widespread dispensationalism is, but the movement is extensive. Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, a slick popularization of eschatology, has sold at least 19,000,000 copies since its publication in 1973. While the number of Americans who are strongly committed to belief in an early Second Coming may not be as large as Lindsey’s readership, it is clearly in the millions.

In “pop” secular culture, there is likewise at least passing interest in apocalyptic events and visions of the end. For example, the movies Omen, Damien — Omen II, and The Final Conflict dealt with the birth, childhood, and career of the Antichrist. The 1984 comedy hit Ghostbusters has one character quoting the Book of Revelation to Dan Ackroyd as his team prepares to battle supernatural forces. Then there is the science fiction version of final destruction and rebirth represented by the recent film Independence Day in which the entire earth faces annihilation by sinister aliens. In the popular mind, I suspect that dispensational books like Lindsey’s may get jumbled rather eclectically with these other notions of the end — a fact to which many bookstores testify when they shelve The Late Great Planet Earth with works labeled “New Age or Occult.”

Yet the crucial point is this: Whether through adherence to dispensationalism or through fascination with science fiction or the occult, many segments of our culture are deeply enamored with the idea of a cosmic End and rebirth.

There is even among secular intellectuals another sort of apocalypticism that flourishes. Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth is perhaps its best representative. Though written from an avowedly secular standpoint, Schell’s volume, too, is an eschatological tract, occasionally interspersing its warnings against nuclear holocaust with metaphors of destruction derived from the Apocalypse. But unlike traditional visions of the terrors of the End, Schell’s Armageddon, should it occur, would not be the prelude to a cosmic rebirth. “Extinction by nuclear arms,” writes Schell, “would not be the Day of Judgment, in which God destroys the world but raises the dead and then metes out perfect justice to everyone who ever lived; it would be the utterly meaningless and completely unjust destruction of mankind by men.”

Thus, there is at present a widespread fascination with notions of the end of time.

People watching for the Second Coming, said one writer in 1944, were “those whose piety exceeded their balance of judgment.” If not dismissed as unbalanced, millenarians were portrayed as the oppressed. Their vision of a new heaven and a new earth was viewed as a product of deprivation, and their millennialism the cry of the disinherited. But whether as lunatic fringe or as the dispossessed, those who believed the End was coming soon took a place on the margins of American religious history. They were somehow apart from the responsible mainstream. 

 We can, of course, find many groups and people who fit the image of a lunatic fringe. As examples, consider those who perished in the Heaven’s Gate Cult a few years ago, the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993, and Jonestown in Guyana in 1978. Less lethal but only scarcely less marginal in the eyes of many Americans are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have made it their chief business to go door-to-door to warn the uninformed that the great battle of Armageddon will soon destroy the wicked and that all men and women must be prepared.

 But we seriously delude ourselves if we think that belief in the imminent end of the world is a notion limited to the poor or to a handful of eccentrics. In his recent provocative book When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture, Paul Boyer demonstrates how widespread such notions are. While allowing that some surveys do indicate that poor or marginal people may be more likely to expect the early end of the world, Boyer goes on to argue that the correlation is far from absolute 

“Prophecy belief pervades all educational and income levels,” he says, “including Ph.D.s in computer science and multimillionaire Texas oilmen. A mid-1980s study of a ‘not particularly conservative’ community college in Oregon found that one-third of the students believed in the Rapture. One need only attend a service at the twenty-six-thousand-member First Baptist Church of Dallas (the world’s largest Southern Baptist congregation); Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel in Orange, California; or any of hundreds of large evangelical congregations across America to realize that these beliefs are not solely a refuge of the desperate, the unlettered, or the disinherited.”

Boyer’s reference to the Rapture is a reminder that the most numerically significant form of belief in the end of the world is not that of a sect like the Jehovah’s Witnesses; it has come from dispensational premillennialism. Although dispensationalism is generally attributed to a nineteenth-century sectarian (John Nelson Darby), the idea has overspread its sectarian origins to gain currency throughout vast sectors of conservative Protestantism. Bible schools such as Moody Bible Institute, seminaries such as Dallas Theological Seminary, networks of publishing houses and conferences, and the famous (or infamous, depending upon one’s point of view) Scofield Reference Bible have disseminated dispensationalism with astonishing thoroughness and success. Now millions of Christians await the signs of the end as enumerated by dispensationalism: the Rapture, when the true believers in Christ shall suddenly be whisked into the air to meet with Christ, the restoration of the state of Israel, the rise of a satanic beast, and the seven years of tribulation before the start of God’s millennial kingdom on earth. Within the subculture of dispensationalism, numerous artifacts testify to the belief in an imminent end. A popular postcard shows driverless cars careening off highways as occupants rise in the air to meet Jesus. Dispensational writers continue to speculate about the identity of the apocalyptic beast, some identifying the number 666 with the bar codes that are becoming ubiquitous in American life.

No one can say for certain how widespread dispensationalism is, but the movement is extensive. Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, a slick popularization of eschatology, has sold at least 19,000,000 copies since its publication in 1973. While the number of Americans who are strongly committed to belief in an early Second Coming may not be as large as Lindsey’s readership, it is clearly in the millions.

In “pop” secular culture, there is likewise at least passing interest in apocalyptic events and visions of the end. For example, the movies Omen, Damien — Omen II, and The Final Conflict dealt with the birth, childhood, and career of the Antichrist. The 1984 comedy hit Ghostbusters has one character quoting the Book of Revelation to Dan Ackroyd as his team prepares to battle supernatural forces. Then there is the science fiction version of final destruction and rebirth represented by the recent film Independence Day in which the entire earth faces annihilation by sinister aliens. In the popular mind, I suspect that dispensational books like Lindsey’s may get jumbled rather eclectically with these other notions of the end — a fact to which many bookstores testify when they shelve The Late Great Planet Earth with works labeled “New Age or Occult.”

Yet the crucial point is this: Whether through adherence to dispensationalism or through fascination with science fiction or the occult, many segments of our culture are deeply enamored with the idea of a cosmic End and rebirth.

There is even among secular intellectuals another sort of apocalypticism that flourishes. Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth is perhaps its best representative. Though written from an avowedly secular standpoint, Schell’s volume, too, is an eschatological tract, occasionally interspersing its warnings against nuclear holocaust with metaphors of destruction derived from the Apocalypse. But unlike traditional visions of the terrors of the End, Schell’s Armageddon, should it occur, would not be the prelude to a cosmic rebirth. “Extinction by nuclear arms,” writes Schell, “would not be the Day of Judgment, in which God destroys the world but raises the dead and then metes out perfect justice to everyone who ever lived; it would be the utterly meaningless and completely unjust destruction of mankind by men.”

Thus, there is at present a widespread fascination with notions of the end of time.

Yet for the most part mainstream Protestant churches have little, if anything, to say about this. At one level, our reticence is praiseworthy. Unlike those who believe that the apocalyptic and prophetic portions of the Bible provide a history written in advance, mainline Protestants have rightly resisted this misuse of the Scripture, especially the fanciful interpretations that have identified the beast with the number 666 and with figures as diverse as Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, Henry Kissinger, and Saddam Hussein.

Moreover, the mainstream tradition is rightly suspicious of the dreadful uses to which some would put the imagery of blood and violence lying close to the heart of the apocalyptic Scripture. Assurance that the End is nigh often brings with it profoundly dangerous baggage. The conviction tends toward the demonizing of opponents and toward the glorification of the divine violence that will supposedly usher in the new order. Adherents of such views all too easily assume the position of detached spectators, placidly awaiting the inevitable destruction; or, more ominously, they may be tempted to shed the pose of bystander, to enter the arena, and to nudge history toward its appointed cataclysm. 

Yet there is something in us that longs to know how history will turn out, whether it will have a morally satisfying conclusion. What Andrew Delbanco has written in his book The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil can be applied to the human need for the sense of an End: “Modernity, in other words, has doomed us to see the world through metaphors that cannot be ratified by any appeal to transcendence….Our culture is now in crisis because evil remains an inescapable experience for all of us, while we no longer have a symbolic language for describing it.” 

Perhaps we ought, then, to reframe the question about the End. Instead of asking how some people manage to believe in the End, we might instead ask how it is that a theme so prominent in important portions of the biblical tradition has been largely lost in mainstream Protestantism.

In the mid-nineteenth century, mainstream Protestants had a symbolic language that enabled them to speak about ideas of the End. While the vast majority were not premillennial dispensationalists, they did believe that history would have an eventual end after a period of bliss on the earth — the millennium of Revelation 20. That is to say, most of these Protestants were postmillennialists. They also believed that death was for each individual an End at which time she or he entered into either heaven or hell. They could speak of the experience of conversion as a kind of mini-apocalypse for each person, the struggle between sin and repentance prefiguring the judgment each individual would know at death and the Final Judgment that the whole human race would know at the end of time. In other words, a series of complex theological symbols — the eventual postmillennial Second Coming of Christ and visions of death, of heaven and hell, and of conversion — all provided the language with which Protestants could speak about the sense of a final End of time.

That sense of an End faded for numerous reasons. As the higher critical method of biblical study triumphed, the apocalyptic Scriptures were subjected to a rigorous scrutiny. First European and then American scholars shattered older understandings of apocalypticism. As a result of this research, the books of Daniel and Revelation, long the mainstays of speculation about time, lost their uniqueness. Critics analyzed them as mere instances of a larger genre of literature, much of it noncanonical. Moreover, scholars contrasted the apocalyptic mentality with that of Hebrew prophecy. They portrayed the latter as hopeful of redemption within history and characterized the former as despairing of the current age, apocalypticists entertaining the faulty expectation that the present order would shortly end in a supernatural upheaval. This contrast undercut traditional millennial speculation by suggesting that the Bible contained multiple views that could not be assembled into a single eschatology. Also, critics usually set prophecy against apocalypticism in order to derogate the latter. While prophecy allegedly represented the mainstream of biblical thought, the apocalyptic dream was an aberration, born perhaps of non-Jewish sources and representing the slightly unbalanced hopes of desperate men and women. The chief novelty of this critique was its overtness. Christians from Augustine to nineteenth-century postmillennialists had often found themselves uneasy with apocalypticism and had used various interpretive devices to mute it; but the canonical status of Daniel and Revelation had prevented direct onslaughts against that eschatology. Now, in light of newer scholarship and looser views of biblical inspiration, the attack was more direct. Apocalypticism was, in short, becoming an embarrassment to many Protestants.

In place of the apocalyptic vision was a new understanding of the Kingdom of God as a present ethical reality advancing according to organic laws of growth and requiring no dramatic intrusions. Little of apocalypticism remained. At best, Daniel and Revelation provided exotic images of a morally satisfying outcome to history, but no intelligent person could any longer expect to draw from them an actual picture of the future. In fact, one could know very little about ultimate destiny, said William Newton Clarke in his Outline of Christian Theology.

“But [Christ’s] coming is not an event,” he said, “it is a process that includes innumerable events, a perpetual advance of Christ in the activity of his kingdom. It has continued until now, and is still moving on…. No visible return of Christ to the earth is to be expected, but rather the long and steady advance of his spiritual kingdom…. We find ourselves on the stream, but see neither the fount nor the ocean, nor can we tell how far away either is, except that both seem far remote. After all, what need have we of seeing either?” 


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