Prophets of Doom Profit from Gloom
Is the war with Iraq a sign of The End, or just the beginning of more failed attempts to interpret the book of Revelation?
By Carl E. Olson
Is Saddam Hussein and his violent regime predicted in the book of Revelation? Is the war in Iraq part of the "end times" events revealed, albeit in mysterious and puzzling ways, in the last book of the Bible? Does St. John's Apocalypse provide a blueprint for the final days of the world--and are we living in them today?
According to many self-proclaimed "Bible prophecy" writers and "experts," the answer to all these questions is an emphatic "Yes!"
In a March 2003 Washington Times article ("For believers, Iraq crisis means the end is near" by Bill Broadway), pastor and prophecy buff Irvin Baxter insists that Saddam is the "Destroyer" (Hebrew: Abaddon; Greek: Apollyon) spoken of in Revelation 9:11. "Iraq fits like hand in glove," he claims, predicting that The End is nigh. Other prognosticators link Saddam's construction of palaces and power to a rebirth of "Babylon the great," the "strong city" spoken of in Revelation 17 and 18. While some are less willing to make these same direct connections, the overwhelming consensus is that time is short, the end is near, and the book of Revelation is being fulfilled.
Been There, Done That
Back in 1991, I was a Fundamentalist attending the evangelical Briercrest Bible College in Saskatchewan, Canada, when the U.S. went to war with Iraq. A number of students and teachers began earnestly searching the Scriptures for clues about what was going to happen, and how the Persian Gulf War figured in Bible prophecy. A continually changing list of passages from Old Testament prophets, Matthew's Gospel, and the book of Revelation were compared to daily events in the Middle East. Some seemed to indicate that Saddam was the Antichrist. Others, such as Jeremiah 51, apparently pointed to the destruction of the modern-day Babylon:
Thus says the LORD: Behold, I am going to arouse against Babylon And against the inhabitants of Leb-kamai The spirit of a destroyer. And I shall dispatch foreigners to Babylon that they may winnow her And may devastate her land; For on every side they will be opposed to her In the day of her calamity. . . . Suddenly Babylon has fallen and been broken; Wail over her! Bring balm for her pain; Perhaps she may be healed. (Jer. 51:1-2, 8. NASB)
Not surprisingly, the same sort of mix-and-matching of Scripture with current events took place following the attacks on September 11. As I noted in my November 2002 First Things article, "No End In Sight," [http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0211/opinion/olson.html] Bible prophecy "students" quickly discovered Bible verses that had "predicted" the events in New York:
The Los Angeles Times reported that a North Carolina pastor has linked the attacks in New York City to Isaiah 30:25, which speaks of "the day of the great slaughter, when the towers fall." And the irrepressible John Hagee, a fervent premillennial dispensationalist and best-selling author based in San Antonio, flatly states: "I believe World War III actually began Sept. 11, 2001." Of course, Hagee made similar comments after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, but that's already ancient history.
Such practices have been a pastime--even an obsession--for some Christians, dating back to the first decades of the Church. Common characteristics of such folks include a gloom-and-doom view of all current events, the belief that Christ will return in their lifetime, and (in most cases) the conviction that Christ will establish an earthly, millennial kingdom that will last a thousand years (based on Rev. 20:1-10).
The most well known and important of the early Christian millenarianists were the Montanists, formed in Asia Minor by the "prophet" Montanus in the 170s. Adhering to a strict, ascetic lifestyle, the Montanists based their beliefs on ecstatic gifts of the Holy Spirit they claimed to have received on an exclusive basis. They expected Jesus Christ to return to Phrygia, in Asia Minor, and establish the New Jerusalem. Eventually the Montanists faded away, although many of their defining traits endured. Later individuals, such as Hippolytus (170-236) and Sextus Julius Africanus (c. 160-240), calculated the year of the Second Coming by using the supposed date of creation and adding 6000 years to it. This was based on 2 Peter 3:8 ("with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and thousand years as one day") and the belief that each of the seven days of creation corresponded to a thousand year period, with the seventh "day" marking the end of time.
Modern-day Bible prophecy has its roots in the French Revolution, antagonism towards the Catholic Church, and the resulting explosion of end time studies in England during the early nineteenth century. It was there, in the 1830s, that premillennial dispensationalism, the most popular and influential of the various end time belief systems, was formulated by ex-Anglican priest John Nelson Darby. Although it took several decades, dispensationalism eventually came to the United States and became the norm for most Fundamentalist groups, popularized by the so-called "Fundamentalist Bible," the Scofield Reference Bible (1909). Presented in a neatly organized and systematic manner, its dispensationalist premises (including the "Rapture") regarding key passages of Scripture entered into the mainstream of conservative American Protestantism. In the sixty years following publication, Scofield's reference Bible sold between five and ten million copies. Its basic approach would eventually be popularized in Hal Lindsey's mega-selling The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) and the best-selling Christian novels of all-time, the Left Behind series (1995- ), created and co-authored by leading Fundamentalist Tim LaHaye.
Book to the Future
The basic dispensationalist approach to the book of Revelation begins with the premise that it had little or no meaning for the early Christians--or anyone else living prior to the twentieth century. It was a book meant to be "locked," or "sealed," until the time of its fulfillment approached. In There's a New World Coming, his commentary on the book of Revelation, Hal Lindsey (quoting C. I. Scofield), explained:
"The book is so written that as the actual time of these events approach, the current events will unlock the meaning of the book." He [Scofield] pointed out that the book of Revelation didn't have too much meaning to people a few centuries ago, and that for this reason very few people were willing to study its message. Revelation is written in such a way that its meaning becomes clear with the unfolding of current world events.
In the popular dispensationalist reading of the book of Revelation current events reveal, and even interpret, its meaning. While Christians of past centuries had occasionally aligned images and symbols within it to events and persons of their own times, this method of interpreting the meaning of the book of Revelation is a mostly recent approach. It is also one filled with problems, including the possibility--long realized now--of an endless stream of highly subjective interpretations of "Bible prophecy" in light of current events. Lindsey claims the recent "great revival of interest in prophecy is actually one of the important signs of the end times," providing a perfectly ironic example of a "self-fulfilled prophecy." Yet it logically follows that once people accepted the dispensational method of interpreting the book of Revelation there would be a flood of interpretations connecting it to events as varied as the French Revolution, the Civil War, the Holocaust, the establishment of the modern Israeli state, the Cold War, the creation of the European Common Market, and, of course, the recent wars with Iraq.
The latest and most popular dispensationalist take on the book of Revelation can be found in the Left Behind novels. As Tim LaHaye acknowledges in Revelation Unveiled, his commentary on Revelation, the novels are simply an interpretation of that book in which the characters are fictional, while the global events described in the books reflect the "definitive" teachings of the last book of the Bible:
For that entire series is based on the future events found in the book of Revelation. Modern men and women want answers to the future and Revelation provides them. Thousands of readers of the Left Behind series have written or e-mailed us to say our prophetic novels have inspired them to read the book of Revelation for the first time (some several times) and found it thrilling. That should not be surprising, particularly in light of the fact that it is the only source we have for definitive answers for those events of the future that intrigue us all.
According to LaHaye and other Bible prophecy popularizers, the point of St. John's vision is to foretell the future for twenty-first century Americans. Oddly enough, prognosticators such as LaHaye always seem to locate the date of the end times no more than a few years ahead in time, conveniently within their life span. This was usually the case with millenarians two centuries ago and is still the case with dispensationalists today. Christ may have said, "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only" (Matt. 24:36), but his words have not restrained popular dispensationalists from creeping as close to the date-setting line as they can without actually crossing over it. In Are We Living in the End Times?, a non-fiction companion to the Left Behind books, LaHaye writes, "A study of the 'signs' of the end of the age or the return of Christ should always be undertaken with a degree of restraint. Date-setters are to be ignored or, even better, rebuked as false teachers." Yet a bit later he pens another passage filled with the strained mixture of temerity and ambiguity often found among popular dispensational writings:
We really do have some powerful reasons for supposing that our generation has more reason than any before us to believe He could come in our lifetime! Still, although there are several signs of the end in existence today, we refuse to set limits on the season. But we will point out that some of these signs did not exist even a half generation ago. At the outset, however, we wish to state categorically that we refuse to predict that Christ will come in our lifetime, for He may delay His coming another fifty years or more. Still, we believe the evidence is to the contrary.
This tension between not knowing and knowing creates some of the high-wire appeal of the dispensationalist method, since it seemingly bridges the gap between the present and the future with a string of ingeniously knotted together Bible verses.
Unlike the Millerites or the Watchtower Society--nineteenth century American millenarians who set exact dates for the Second Coming--dispensationalists will rarely state a definitive date for the pretribulational Rapture and the events they say will follow: a seven-year Tribulation, the Second Coming, and the millennial reign of Christ on earth. Instead they speak of the "signs" of Christ's coming, pointing to a variety of current events which come and go with dizzying rapidity. Adherents of this method rarely have a chance to ponder why last week's events, which offered remarkable proof that the Rapture could occur within days, are now forgotten and replaced with new events, which in turn will also disappear in short order. Inevitably an overly eager and confident prognosticator sets a firm date. Sometimes the date comes and goes and no one notices; occasionally it ruins the date-setter's reputation. But for those who master the tightrope, it stretches on into the future with no real end in sight.
Make Room for Doom and Gloom
The breathless excitement expressed by dispensationalists over Saddam and the war with Iraq scenarios is the norm, in part, because the premillennial dispensationalist system thrives on conflict, chaos, and doom (real or potential). In my new book, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? A Catholic Critique of the Rapture and Today's Prophecy Preachers, I write:
There exists a self-feeding cycle in dispensationalism: pessimism about humanity and the future feeds the belief that the end of the world is just around the corner, while the belief in the rapidly approaching Tribulation makes such pessimism logical and necessary. Those not embracing this pessimistic perspective are often viewed with suspicion, and if they claim to be Christian they run the risk of being labeled "liberal" or identified as someone lacking "true knowledge of the Word". Fundamentalism and dispensationalism share in a potent neo-Gnosticism, the conviction that "true believers" possess secret knowledge attainable only through their system of interpreting Scripture and rightly discerning "the signs of the times". Related elements include the dualistic nature of the radical distinction made between Old Testament Israel and the Church, as well as a suspicious (and even hostile) attitude towards the material world. It logically follows that since The End is so near and this world is passing away, there is no need to invest time and effort into social, cultural, or political institutions and efforts. The Christian life, according to this perspective, should be oriented toward heaven and eternity, free from the impediments found in a fallen and depraved world.
As the situation in Iraq escalates, more and more "prophecy experts" will provide us with all sorts of bloody, horrific scenarios. Some will claim that 50-75% of the global population will soon die in WWIII. Anticipation for the Rapture will grow even more. A few folks will sell all their possessions in anticipation of being "snatched up" to meet Christ. Sales of the Left Behind books will probably soar, just as they did after 9/11 (a 60% increase in already large sales).
Despite its pessimistic spirit, discredited history, and unbiblical premises, dispensationalism's unique mixture of Christian fatalism, apocalypticism, and Gnostic mystery will continue to mesmerize millions of Americans. As the Left Behind books demonstrate, the power of the dispensationalist system rests in its claim to make sense of Scripture and current events, its offer of escape from suffering and tribulation, and its invitation to be part of a chosen, knowledgeable few--true believers who God will soon vindicate with wrath and power. As long as people want to know the future but not live in it, these teachings will live on, even while their premises, arguments, and logic continue to fall apart under careful and cautious scrutiny.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Envoy magazine, a leading journal of Catholic apologetics. He has written articles for Envoy, This Rock, Catholic Parent, Gilbert!, First Things, Saint Austin Review, National Catholic Register, and CatholicExchange.com. He has been a guest on Catholic Answers Live!, Kresta in the Afternoon, and EWTN's The Journey Home, 'The Abundant Life," and "Threshold of Hope." A former Fundamentalist and dispensationalist, he has written several articles about the Left Behind books and the Fundamentalist belief in the "Rapture." His book critiquing the Left Behind phenomenon and premillennial dispensationalism, titled Will Catholics Be Left Behind? Catholic Critique of the Rapture and Today's Prophecy Preachers, is now available from Ignatius Press (parts of this article were adapted from that book). It has been described as "extraordinary" by novelist Michael O'Brien, and "wonderful" by EWTN's Fr. Mitch Pacwa. Carl can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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