Visions of the End
by Isabella Price
This is part two of Isabella Price’s reflections on apocalyptic prophecy. Go here to read part one.
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It is easy these days to fear the world is coming to an end: armed conflicts, terrorism, economic crises, dysfunctional political systems, social injustice, climate change, oil spills, millions of refugees, epidemics, and natural disasters, to name a few. It is as if Earth is purging herself with the floods, earthquakes, fires, and storms of recent years. Human nature itself seems geared toward periodic panic-attacks over imminent end-of-the-world scenarios. For the record, of course, so far we’ve survived the recent onslaught of apocalyptic forecasts, warnings ranging from the prediction of an imminent collision between the Earth and “Comet 67P” to the so-called “Mormon apocalypse” (because an independent group of Mormons made the claim) predicting a September 2015 doomsday.
Such symbols and portents of end-times have reoccurred for thousands of years, particularly by believers in distress who take their truth to be the one and only truth. In this library of bad-news stories, none has had more influence than the Christian Book of Revelation, wherein a scroll is opened to reveal God’s secret plan for the end of the Earth. The scroll has been closed with seven seals containing all the major calamities that will strike the Earth, war, famine, plague, suffering, and death. Over the centuries, people reading Revelation have mostly assumed that the text offers a literal, factual account of the imminent future.
Let’s be clear from the start: today most scholars agree that Revelation needs to be understood primarily within the historical-cultural context of the late first century CE. It was composed by a prophet named John, though not the “beloved apostle” John. This John experienced a vision on the Greek island of Patmos along the southwestern coast of Asia Minor, in modern-day Turkey. Revelation, in other words, was written primarily for people who lived 2,000 years ago and experienced inordinate hardship and suffering under Roman imperial rule. But we’re leaving history aside for now to consider what the book has meant in Christian history.
A Dark Vision
Revelation paints images of a fearsome, wrathful, punitive God engaged in a bloody “cosmic war” against “his” enemies. And for believers, the timing is everything. Christian forebears who assumed Revelation’s cosmic battle is a precise prediction of the future also assumed thatitwill come to pass in their own time. Generation after generation proclaims that “Finally now the time has arrived!” Again, till now, the assumptions have been wrong. But counter-intuitively, the failure of each generation to crack the Revelation “code” keeps encouraging a few in the next generation to try harder. Fundamentalist apocalyptic advocates take the metaphor-laden images to refer to ourselves today. For example, giant locusts with stingers in their tails whose wings make a noise like an army of chariots become modern-day helicopters. Stars falling to the earth refer to a thermonuclear exchange.
Motivated by the Terror of Extinction
In The Battle For God: A History of Fundamentalism, Karen Armstrong argues that the desire to define doctrines and ideologies, erect barriers, and segregate the faithful in a sacred enclave, where the law is stringently observed, springs from that terror of extinction which has made all fundamentalists, at one time or another, believe that modern secular culture is about to wipe them out. Because they feel embattled, fundamentalist movements often became distorted in campaigns to re-sacralize the void at the heart of secular society. Instead of emphasizing core ethical tenets such as tolerance, compassion, and inclusiveness, they can cultivate theologies of exclusion, intolerance, and anger, and end up perverting religion by using it to sanction violence and even murder.
The God of punitive righteousness is a glorification of negativity, offering his followers a disavowal of responsibility and justification of cruelty. To be sure, many, perhaps most conservatives resist this temptation and oppose violence and terrorism, yet still can tend to be exclusive and condemnatory toward those who do not share their views. An apocalyptic perspective is a temptation to demonize “others” as “unbelievers” or “agents of Satan.”
Moreover, an obsessive focus on the end-times typically leads to a disinterest in taking care of our world. After all, if everything is going to end soon anyway, environmental concerns are irrelevant. And if the imminent future is going to be filled with war, it doesn’t make sense to build peace.
Back to the future – Revelation holds that the great enemy of God, the Antichrist, will arise on Earth during the end-times. The Antichrist is responsible for deceiving the righteous people and creating ever-mounting terror during the final days. This period of oppression and persecution under the sovereignty of the Antichrist is also known as the Tribulation. This period of great suffering will precede the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The end-times will eventually culminate in a final battle, which will take place in Armageddon (a site in the northern part of modern-day Israel that figured in several historical battles) between the armies of God and the demonic hordes of the Antichrist. The Antichrist is overthrown and his forces are destroyed. They are subjected to eternal damnation in the flames of hell. Eventually, a new world of divine perfection will emerge, in which the true followers of Christ will live their lives untainted by evil and sin. This new reign of Christ, based on peace and justice, will supposedly last for a period of a thousand years. At the end of this period, the Last Judgment will bring human history to a close.
Revelation clearly suggests that everyone on earth – men, women, children, saints and sinners alike – will be compelled to endure the suffering inflicted on humankind by the Antichrist during the Tribulation. Only after these final days of suffering will the martyrs and dead saints be raised from their graves and allowed to enjoy the fruits of their just rewards in the millennial kingdom to come.
The Coming Rapture
A number of nineteenth-century America Protestants, however, refused to believe that they would have to endure such afflictions. They embraced a highly inventive version of the world’s end, propounded by an Anglo-Irish preacher named John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), who spent years in the United States lecturing. Darby held that faithful Christians worthy of salvation would be miraculously “snatched up” and elevated to heaven before the Tribulation begins. Seated in the galleries of heaven, they would look down and watch as everyone
left behind on earth suffered and died at the hand of the Antichrist. Their comforting doctrine maintained that the elect would be spared the horror and trials of the last days. This new idea became known as the Rapture. This apocalyptic revision took root in American Protestantism in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Neither the word nor the concept of the Rapture is mentioned anywhere in Revelation. Rather, it is based on a few lines of biblical text in the First Letter to the Thessalonians, the earliest of Paul’s writings and perhaps the oldest document in the New Testament: “When God’s trumpet sounds, then the Lord himself will descend from heaven. First the Christian dead will rise, then we who are still alive shall join them, caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord” (4:16-17).
The doctrine of the Rapture, based on slim biblical pickings, was eventually adopted by Protestant fundamentalists and popularized in the 1970s in books such as Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, which sold millions of copies. In Lindsey’s world, the Rapture and the final seven years of world history are at hand.
Another apocalyptic thriller series, the Left Behind books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, launched in 1995. Their best-selling novels begin with the Rapture, and then tell of the tumultuous events of the final period of history, marked by trials and tribulations. The series culminates with the Battle of Armageddon, the Second Coming of Christ, and the Last Judgment in which the vast majority of humankind is annihilated and condemned to eternal torment. You know where they got the outline!
American Christian evangelist and radio broadcaster Harold Camping predicted that the Rapture and Judgment Day would take place on May 21, 2011, with the end of the world occurring five months later on October 21, 2011. When his predictions failed, Camping eventually acknowledged that his critics had been correct in pointing to scripture stating “about that day and hour no one knows” (Matt. 24:36).
I want to add this after-thought, that beyond the Rapture and all the doomsday predictions proliferated through the centuries, another way to end the world as we know it exists with more immediate and beneficial effects: that is, any kind of transformative spiritual practice that allows us to re-discover our essential nature, always free, unborn, and undying, as Buddha Shakyamuni and other great mystics have taught us for thousands of years.