It is a fascinating subject, the source of much vigorous debate within certain parts of the Christian community. Do the End Times begin before or after the Second Coming of Christ? Will the Last Judgment take place after Christ returns, or at roughly the same time? Will there be a rapture of the church that spares true believers the horrors of the Great Tribulation? Who are the figures named in the Bible that play important roles in the last days — Gog and Magog, the Great Whore, the Beast, the Antichrist? If you have even a slight familiarity with the material, it can be fun to talk about. But it’s a hypothetical game. The Bible is many things — a book of morals, a book of shocking violence, a record of the changing conception of God by a culture over thousands of years, a book of mythology — but it does not tell us what’s going to happen. I don’t think it even tries.
I’ve heard many different people cite many different reasons why the Bible — as they interpret it — is the complete and inerrant word of the one true God, none of which I find incontrovertible or even all that compelling. They say the Bible is true because of this — whatever “this” happens to be, usually meaningless semantics. A great many Christians desperately want the Bible to be more than it is — they want it to be their personal oracle, keeper of the perfect answers to all their questions, including questions about their ultimate fate. Lucky for them, the Bible has an entire section about just that very thing: the Book of Revelation.
Except that John of Patmos, the self-identified author of Revelation, was writing figuratively about events contemporary to him, not some far-flung future two thousand years hence. John lived in the first generation of Christians, when they were a weak and persecuted sect under assault by the Roman Empire they opposed. Jesus supposedly told his followers that he was returning after his death to reign over the Earth and judge the living and the dead. His followers, including the author of Revelation, quite understandably took this to mean that Jesus was coming back soon, within their lifetimes, not thousands of years in the future. Whatever prophecy Revelation contains, if any, has long since been fulfilled. John simply was not writing about our generation; he was writing about his.
Christians began predicting the return of Christ and the end of the world as soon as he’d been taken down off the cross. They have continued to announce his imminent return and the establishment of his holy everlasting kingdom on Earth for the last twenty centuries. Anabaptist leader Melchior Hoffman predicted the Second Coming in 1533; the Millerites, later the Seventh-Day Adventists, in 1844; the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1925; Pat Robertson in 1982; Hal Lindsey in 1988; Marilyn Agee in 1998; and on and on and on. Whenever the prophesied last day passes without incident, someone else comes up with another one. It happens with such frequency that few people except the true believers pay such predictions any attention at all. Yet Biblical prophecy is taken seriously by millions of Christians all over the world. Most will admit that they have no idea when any of this — the Rapture, the Antichrist, the Great Tribulation, the Second Coming — is going to happen, but they believe very sincerely that all of it will happen eventually. Some of them can see events lining up into place even now. They believe themselves to be on the verge of seeing Biblical prophecy fulfilled.
There’s a fellow who comes into the library where Ashley works, a friendly guy who talks candidly about his belief that we are now in “prophetic times.” He quotes lines from Revelation, and Daniel and other supposed sources of prophecy in the Bible, but he also regards the spiritual beliefs of American Indians with great reverence, and claims to have experienced first-hand the power of enchanted crystals. He will take his hocus pocus wherever he can find it. Most of the callers yesterday on the Liddy show were probably not as eclectic in their beliefs as this guy, but I think his is typical of that mindset: blind and deaf to reason, and credulous to the point of gullibility.
I’ve never heard of a case where the Bible actually predicted something in the future, and that prediction was helpful in avoiding some catastrophe. But, like the supposed prophecies of Nostradamus, Biblical prophecy is supposedly designed to be interpreted after the fact. So George W. Bush is revealed to be the Antichrist and Christians go running to their Bibles, flip breathlessly to Revelation, skim the relevant passages and excitedly exclaim “Yes! It all fits, praise God!” Well that’s just super, but would it have killed the Bible to tell us about this a few years ago, so someone could’ve put a bullet in the guy’s brain before he enslaved the human race or whatever he’s supposed to do? Oh wait, I forgot — the Antichrist is supposed to get shot in the head. It’s part of the prophecy.
Believing in this sort of thing makes you feel important, makes you feel like you and the times you live in really matter in the grand scheme of things. To many people the knowledge that the Earth is just one planet circling one unremarkable star among hundreds of billions in a typical spiral galaxy, in a remote corner of an inconceivably vast universe, is depressing. But if the Earth was formed directly by the hand of God, and if the Son of God himself is coming back to judge the living and the dead — and best of all, we’ll get to see it! — then our little patch of sky is consequential, and our generation gets to stand above those who came before.
It’s a beautiful idea, though also an appallingly self-centered one. The truth can be just as beautiful — more beautiful, even, because we can see it right before our eyes. We only need to let go of our selfish, treasured delusions and embrace it.