The mark of the beast. Armageddon. Tribulation. Millennial reign. The white throne judgment. For the average believer, just the mention of these words and phrases evokes images from the charts, timelines, movies, books and music that have become part of the fabric of 21st-century evangelicalism.
From A Thief in the Night movies of the '70s and '80s to the more recent Left Behind book series, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, the end- times story has come into the forefront of the imagination of the average churchgoer-and the average American.
More than 63 million copies in the aforementioned book series have been sold, with one in every eight Americans having read at least one Left Behind book. Even mainstream American entertainment has picked up on end-times terminology and culture. Movies (The Omen, The Seventh Sign, The Prophecy, The Rapture), books (The Stand, The Mask of Nostradamus) and music (“It's the End of the World As We Know It”) all borrow biblical phrases and imagery.
In fact, according to a 2001 Barna Group poll, 44 percent of American adults believed in a rapture. Those numbers fluctuated depending on church affiliation (71 percent of non-mainline Protestant organizations held to the belief while only 38 percent of mainline attendees did).
But how are theories on eschatology shifting in light of wars, natural disasters and epidemics? Is a younger generation embracing the end-times views of its forebears? And how does this renewed fascination with eschatology shape everyday ministry? Ministries Today sat down with some authors, pastors and scholars to explore what the future holds.
Eschatology is a heady topic-even for the most seasoned scholar. But, for many, their first introduction to end-time theories is prior to or immediately following conversion. In fact, one could argue that the threat of the immanent judgment of God is a useful motivation for becoming a Christian in the first place.
Truth be told, most of us have met at least one person who traces his or her conversion to reading the dire predictions of Hal Lindsey's 1970 book, The Late Great Planet Earth, or a tract created by Jack Chick. But some argue that fear tactics should not be the impetus behind evangelism.
“If our end-times talk is the good news being preached in all nations, then that will motivate us in a good way,” says Craig Keener, professor of New Testament Studies at Palmer Seminary and author of the NIV Application Commentary: Revelation. “The problem is that some people have used eschatology the way the world uses horoscopes, just to satisfy our curiosity about the future.” Paul Maier is professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University and author of More Than a Skeleton, a book that gently pokes fun at traditional dispensational eschatology and explores the possible reaction of the evangelical community if someone claiming to be Jesus suddenly appeared on earth. Maier discourages the use of eschatology for purposes of proselytizing.
“I think the core message is misplaced if we're constantly using the apocalyptic messages of the Bible for evangelical purposes,” he told Ministries Today.
Data suggest that apocalyptic events do have an impact, at least in the short term, on the public's sensitivity toward spiritual things. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Christian leaders celebrated a rise in church attendance, with Pat Robertson predicting, “one of the greatest revivals in the history of America.” The Gallup Organization chronicled a 6 percent rise in church attendance in the months following the attacks … which quickly dropped 5 percent.
Sigmund Brouwer, who co-authored the end-times themed The Last Disciple with Hank Hanegraaff, points to damage done by emotional end-times evangelism.
“Some Christians are happy to overlook false predictions made by church leaders who continuously revise the time-line of end-time prophecies,” Brouwer says.
“Again and again I hear of people who converted to Christianity a decade ago because they were told the end of the world was upon us, and who now doubt the entire Christian message because of specific failed prophecies made by church leaders.”
It doesn't help, argues Maier, when these stark visions of a wrathful God are juxtaposed with more tolerant portrayals that have recently become popular in mainstream entertainment.
“Let's say you have a seeker-someone who is now being affirmed in their unbelief by books like The Da Vinci Code,” Maier offers. “Is this person going to give any credibility to a God of the Left Behind series who zaps a Christian crew out of a plane and lets the plane crash?”
Jason Boyett is the author of the tongue-in-cheek Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse, a book aimed at helping 20-somethings understand the nuances of eschatology. Boyett argues that a pre-tribulation, rapture-focused Christianity is primarily numbers-focused in its evangelistic technique.
“It tends to place getting decisions for Christ above everything else,” he says. “The rapture can come at any moment, so the foremost duty of all Christians becomes an urgent commitment to evangelism. There is less focus on spiritual formation, discipleship, meeting the needs of the poor, being good stewards of the environment or concern about generations to come.”
But others argue that this imbalance is not a natural byproduct of a premillennial, pre-tribulation view of the end times.
“A believer on the lookout for Christ doesn't have to ignore the world,” says Greg Laurie, senior pastor of Riverside, California's, Harvest Christian Fellowship and author of the newly released Are We Living in the Last Days?
“It's been said a person could be so heavenly minded you're no earthly good, but, you can be so heavenly minded you can be earthly good,” he suggests. “If you really understand what the Scripture teaches about the imminence of the Lord's return, it isn't telling us to abandon our jobs and sit on rooftops but to be faithfully using the gifts God has given us.”
Laurie, who's been studying Bible prophecy for 30 years, says his end-times message is by far his “most responded to” message, prompting him to offer his views in the book.
“The Left Behind series opened the door to a whole new generation of people to look at what's going on in the world,” he says. “The authors would be the first to point out that they're taking certain liberties, but the core message is the same that Hal Lindsey wrote about years ago: The Lord could come back at any moment, there are signs of the times that have been fulfilled, and we need to be ready.”
Various interpretations of Scripture and prophecies have yielded several heightened moments of end-times focus. In 1988, Edgar Whisenant predicted Jesus' return during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana in his booklet 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Is in 1988. More than 3.2 million copies of the booklet were distributed, bringing eschatological discussion into the national spotlight.
Subsequent prophecies have followed, revolving around the dawn of the 21st century and the feared Y2K computer meltdown. Even in the midst of natural disasters and global terrorism, the question could be asked: Is the church still seeing “the signs of the times”?
“A perceived uptick in catastrophic occurrences tends to set everyone's rapture-meter buzzing,” Boyett explains. “Of course, there have always been wars, famines, earthquakes, tsunamis. These days, we're infinitely more aware of them because of the Internet and the immediacy of the global media. Whether or not these things have actually increased in recent years, the perception is that they have.”
Looking for signs is yet another possible distraction for the church, says Keener, who believes some of those signs aren't as clear as believers may think.
“The things we see as signs are in Matthew 24, but it's very ironic that we're using that passage,” he says. “Jesus specifically refers to them and then says, 'You'll see these things, but the end is not yet.' In verse 14, He says, 'When the good news of the kingdom has been preached to all nations … and then the end will come.' Instead of fixing on the signs, we should be fixing on the mission. It's not to say these things aren't indications of God's working, but they're not the point that Jesus calls us to focus on.”
Jill Austin, prophetic minister and author of the Master Potter book series, does feel the signs are everywhere and should engage the church to a greater awareness of Jesus' return.
“I feel the signs of the times, the birth pains, are getting closer,” Austin states. “We are in war, we're in global shakings. The church is in a radical transition right now. Different dictators are being taken out. There are holy alliances, and we are moving into an escalation of a real shaking. Everyone knows, even in the world, that the Lord is returning soon.”
But for Austin, these signs are not an impetus toward eschatological speculation or an escape clause, but a call toward spiritual warfare.
“I feel like if you want to be a history changer, you need to have a radical God encounter,” she says. “He gives you the power to change cities and strategies. It's having this living radical encounter with your life.”
Like Austin's call to prayer, there are points of agreement prophecy scholars can reach, giving some common ground to the end-times discussion.
“I believe all Christians should believe we are living in the last days,” Maier says. “When the church loses sight of Jesus' return, it gets lazy.”
Laurie is quick to address the potential divisiveness of the issue and his hope for a healthy discourse: “I don't think we as Christians should break fellowship over our views on this topic. A healthy discussion and debate is good, but I think most evangelical believers believe Christ is coming soon.”
The timing of Christ's second coming is the main point of disagreement for many evangelicals, who hold views as divergent as premillennialism (the belief that Jesus will return before a literal 1,000-year reign) and preterism (the belief that all Bible prophecies-including those concerning the second coming-were fulfilled before A.D. 70). With such diversity, what is there to agree on?
“As Christians holding different views, we all can agree on some of the insights of each of these views,” Keener says. “Christ reigns now and helps us to make a big difference in this world. In this world we have tribulation, and we must be ready to lay down our lives for our Lord. Our glorious hope is our Lord's return, and we must live our lives in expectation of that return.”
The view of a pre-tribulation rapture of believers is one that some scholars point out is virtually still “new” and only took hold with the non-mainline Protestant churches in the 19th and 20th centuries. If the emerging church continues to examine and study its beliefs in light of Scripture and not necessarily tradition, Keener says another theological shift might be in order.
“I was taught the 'pre-trib' view, and it was probably the most decisive issue that turned me toward reading and studying Scripture,” he says. “I was told that you have to believe this because all the great men of God believed it, but then I found out a few months later, nobody in church history, Luther, Calvin, John Wesley, nobody believed in that doctrine until 1830. I can't just say this is what everybody believes. I needed to find out for myself.”
There is some indication that this tendency toward self-study is a characteristic of younger evangelicals, many of whom resist both end-times speculation and adopting any one view of eschatology.
“Fueled by postmodernism, open-mindedness and the more conversational, less dogmatic theology of the emergent church-I believe the next generation will be much less apocalyptic in tone,” Boyett argues. “Less interested in reading Revelation as a scriptural play-by-play of the last days and more concerned with understanding it in terms of its place in the culture.”
DeWayne Hamby is a contributing editor for Christian Retailing and also has written for New Man, Christian Higher Education Today and Charisma. He resides in Cleveland, Tennessee, and serves as a teacher, youth camp director and singles-ministry leader. HISTORY LESSONS
There's nothing like unfulfilled end-times predictions to teach us that no one knows the day or the hour of Christ's return.
SOURCE: Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse, by Jason Boyett (RelevantBooks)