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Theologizing the End. Preliminary Things

In 1970, Hal Lindsey’s book The Late Great Planet Earth was published. This book attempted to interpret the book of Revelation and does so from a literalist, premillennial dispensationalist perspective. [1] Lindsey attempted to interpret and decode the current events of that era through the lens of Revelation. At that time, the geopolitical climate was dominated by the Cold War and tensions between the US and Russia were high. The possibility of a nuclear Armageddon was not too farfetched. Lindsey’s views were widely circulated and accepted among believers. One blogger notes:

Among the things found in this book was the idea that Revelation was speaking about such things as the Soviet Union, nuclear attacks between the USSR and the US, etc. When Mikhail Gorbachov became president of Russia, individuals who followed the “Planet Earth” type of interpretation stated that Gorbachov was the antichrist, citing the references in Revelation to the “mark of the beast”—666—as proof of this. Gorbachov, if you recall, had a rather large birth mark on his forehead. While the birth mark in no way resembles the numbers 666, if one traces them in a certain manner one can arrive at this conclusion. So, many people were saying that the end of the world was near because Gorbachov, complete with the “mark of the beast” on his forehead, had emerged as a world leader but in reality was the antichrist and that the Soviet Union is going to devour the nations of the world.[2]

Gorbachov turned out to not be the antichrist and the world didn’t end in the 80s as predicted.

Lindsey is credited with having made a few prophetic claims that came true, but his repeated efforts to accurately predict the “End Times” is almost laughable. One blogger satirically wrote,

Every 3 years Hal Lindsay writes a new book denoting how the world will end in 5 years. Each subsequent book explains how he WASN’T wrong in the previous book and the world will really end in 5 years…. He has followed this pattern for 3 decades and is now acknowledged as “the fore-most authority on Biblical prophecy in the world today.”[3]

While I do not approve of this author poking fun at Lindsey, I can see how Lindsey’s failed attempts at prophecy provide ammunition for critics and skeptics.

Fast forward to 1999. I was a sixth grader. I went to a Christian school that taught what I will call a “Left Behind” theological view. In short, this view typically believes that believers will be raptured up to Heaven leaving the known world in utter chaos. In the midst of the chaos, a world leader will rise to power (the Antichrist) and deceive the world. Seven years of tribulation will follow as a bunch of terrible things described in Revelation will unfold. Christ will return, win the Battle of Armageddon, establish a millennium of peace, and defeat Satan again in one final rebellion before entering the “eternal state.” There is much more to this view, especially if you get into the question of whether the rapture happens before or after the seven year tribulation.

As the millennium was coming to a close, the world was anticipating the “Y2K bug.” I didn’t then and I do not now understand what all the fear was about, but it had something to do with the calendar and how computers stored data. Supposedly, the computers were going to fritz out and cause the world to shut down. Plus, it was the end of the millennium. People were so convinced it was the end that there were groups that migrated to Jerusalem to await Christ’s Second Coming.[4] Israel had to deport people who were visiting Israel during that time if they were thought to be there for suspect reasons.

All you have to do is Google Y2K and End Times prophecy and you will find that a lot of End Times rhetoric and theories were circulating back then. Here is sampling of some of the ideas being propagated back in the late 90s leading up to the year 2000 (ask yourself if any of these lines of thinking from 20 years ago sound familiar to stuff being propagated today):

In the minds of certain Christian evangelicals, the Second Coming of Jesus and the upheaval related to the Y2K bug are inextricably linked — the Y2K bug being a sure “sign” of the “Tribulation” predicted in the Christian Bible…. Today, for Christian evangelicals on the far right, the main players in the End-Time drama are the Federal Government, President Clinton and his associates, and the United Nations. For those who look for signs that the government is poised to seize power and establish the “one world government,” the global aspects of the Y2K computer bug offer the perfect opportunity to further their conspiracy theories. In several publications and on the Internet and the radio, various evangelicals have linked the Y2K computer bug to a plot by the President and the United Nations to seize power and establish a dictatorship in the service of the Antichrist…. “Y2K has been in the planning stages since the period of 1972-73 and is a designed peripheral function of the much larger study and implementation of ‘Global 2,000,'” the alleged plan to reduce the world’s population through money control, with the goal being a cashless society.[5]

As a sixth grader, this “end of the world” talk freaked me out. Especially when there was debate over whether we would be raptured before or after stuff hit the fan. On top of this, there were some pretty scary Apocalyptic-Left Behind-sort of movies that were made in the late 90s/early 2000s. We owned a couple of them on VHS. I remember people refusing to get the “mark of the beast” and being beheaded in these movies (nothing gross was shown, but the idea was still frightening).

Needless to say, after the year 2000 didn’t turn out to be the end of the world, I developed a great deal of skepticism for anyone who had confidence of the “End Times.” After my whole Y2K experience as a young kid, I sort of dismissed anyone who claimed to be an “expert” on End Times prophecy.

Fast forward another 20 years and here we are in 2020. The age of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Article after article after YouTube video is claiming that the “end is near.” As far as I can gather, Bill Gates is the newest contender for the mantle of Antichrist and vaccines will be the vehicle through which the “Mark of the Beast” will be administered.

Now, all conspiracy theories have just enough truth to be plausible. Could the events playing out before us be signs of the times? Possibly. But, surely you can understand my skepticism. Surely you can understand that some of the rhetoric raises some questions for me.

Series of Posts

Revelation is notoriously difficult to interpret. I grew up sitting in a Bible class that taught the dispensational/”Left Behind” view. As I studied theology and read more widely in my undergrad and graduate work, some of the views I held came into question. For a long time I have been able to articulate my questions concerning certain views, but I couldn’t construct a coherent alternative position. I could poke holes in other views, but not fully construct my own.

I want to spend a significant amount of time researching, developing, and articulating my eschatological position. Why now? For three main reasons:

  1. I need to be able to define and articulate my views rather than just disagree with certain elements of other views.

  2. The tendency of people to make rash predictions and statements concerning the “end” that turn out to be bogus, brings the credibility of our collective faith into question. This concerns me. While God uses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise and while faith supersedes man’s wisdom, we must not fall off the other side of the horse. We are called to love God with all our heart, soul, and minds. We shouldn’t adopt things that make us look gullible or ignorant. We should seek to expand our understanding of things that we adamantly claim to be true. Again, some of the theories may in fact contain bits of truth. I could be wrong. But, based on the track record of “End Times” predictions, we should proceed with caution so as not to bring embarrassment upon ourselves.

  3. In addition to the tendency of some people to make predictions, there are some byproducts of certain views that concern me. Our theological paradigms shape how we view God, the world, and our calling. Some of the views associated with some End Times perspectives raise some serious concerns for me. I will be addressing them in future posts more fully.

The Ocean

One of the things I have encountered within the Church is a tendency to sort of “blacklist” people with “divergent” views. (For the record, this happens in any sort of community/group, not just in the Church. As humans we tend to bind together around things that unify us. Things that challenge our collective view are sometimes seen as a threat or as the enemy. If you do not believe me, just tell a couple of Ohio State fans that Michigan is better or vice versa). Whether something is “divergent” or not is subjective. It depends on what denominational tradition you subscribe to. It also often depends on your particular cultural context.

Upon reading theologians from other countries/cultures, some of my beliefs were exposed as being more American than theological. That is not necessarily a bad thing. It is quite normal for us to read and interpret based on our contextual experiences. When it becomes a bad thing is when we ignore, or even worse, silence the other voices. When we refuse to see value in the perspectives of others it becomes a bad thing.

You see, we tend to get stuck in our particular stream of Christianity failing to acknowledge that the stream flows into a much larger ocean of orthodoxy. The other streams that flow into the ocean have something to offer. The voice of theologians from other times in Church history, from other Traditions, and from other cultures are valuable. There are certainly some streams that are polluted and contaminated with what we would call heresy, but there is a whole world of theological beliefs and considerations that fall within the bounds of “orthodoxy.” To ignore the ocean while adamantly believing your stream is the only true stream is at best narrow-minded and at worst plain arrogant.

Why do I bring this up? Because I have found within the subculture of certain Christian communities that I have held views that diverge from what has been popularly accepted. To question it is anathema, even if my questioning is perfectly within the boundaries of responsible theological inquiry. Many of the views people hold that I now disagree with, I once held to also. What happened? I spent over a decade reading various theologians, learned how to study the Scriptures exegetically, and allowed my beliefs to be challenged by other people. Some of the beliefs I held didn’t fit anymore with things I was learning. I had to reconstruct some of my theological paradigms.

There is a degree of what some call “deconstruction” that I believe is unhealthy. There are some voices and views that do not deserve to be entertained. But, there are also some commonly held beliefs that go unchallenged for many believers because they surround themselves with people who agree with them. They hang out in a an echo chamber. When something challenges their beliefs, I have found that many people actively resist being challenged.

Sometimes, they so strongly disagree with the voice that challenged them that they condemn that voice entirely. They denounce that theologian, pastor, preacher, teacher, as a heretic. Sometimes, they may be right. The voice of that person may be heretical, or outside the bounds of sound belief. However, other times, they simply disagree with the voice, but the views are actually in no way outside the boundaries of orthodoxy. That pastor, teacher, theologian, preacher is not, in fact, a heretic. They have just drawn different conclusions about a few different doctrinal beliefs.

This is a shame because it inhibits our growth. It puts boundaries on what areas we are willing to learn or grow in. I believe we can learn from unbelievers let alone believers with differing views. Further, if we adopt a policy that demands we throw out those voices that have some incorrect beliefs then we need to throw out a portion of the Scriptures. David, for example, clearly did not adhere to our understanding of monogamy in marriage. He had more than a couple of wives. That would be considered unsound doctrine today. Plus, he was an adulterer and murderer. Perhaps we should discount his contributions to the Psalms? I am being cheeky here, but you get my point right? We can learn from differing views even if the vessels that share those views are flawed.

Personal Note

My statement above about spending a decade reading other voices and my subsequent expression of different views could come across as arrogant. That is not my desire. I don’t believe my understanding is superior. At the same time, I do not believe it is inconsequential that I have spent my adult life immersed in biblical theology and the study of the Scriptures. I believe my voice could have something to offer for those willing to consider alternative perspectives.

I want to be teachable. I want to continue to grow. I also want to express that, even though I have studied and read a lot over the years, I am not expert. There are so many other people who are experts in biblical languages, Ancient Near Eastern culture, biblical history, philosophy, theology, etc. I have read books that make me feel like an idiot. I have books on my shelf that contain 1,000 pages on one theological idea alone. I have authored 0 books. My point: I am not an expert and do not presume to be one.

I have a lot to learn about this specific topic. There are about ten online articles, a couple of books, and several reference resources that I will be consulting. This will take time. I am not the fastest reader. My posts will come out as I am able to digest and articulate these ideas.

Some of what I articulate will be different from what a lot of Christians have subscribed to. All I ask is that 1.) You give it a fair reading, and 2.) Even if you disagree, please acknowledge that the views I will articulate are not heretical or even unequivocally wrong. Nothing I will write about would fall outside of the realm of Orthodoxy.

If you are willing to accept that your views could also be wrong, then join me for this journey. The way I see it, we are all probably a little bit wrong, especially when it comes to interpreting Revelation. The scribes and Pharisees were experts in the OT. Experts. Yet, they missed the Messiah. Who are we to believe we have it all figured out?

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