Is the End Near?
by Robert Bachelder
Mr. Bachelder, who has worked in banking, in 1987 was minister of Worcester City Missionary Society (United Church of Christ) in Worcester, Massachusetts. This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 19, 1983, pp. 45-48. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
In 1963 a respected biblical scholar wrote in a popular commentary on Daniel and Revelation, "Should anyone today make minute predictions about events in world history between now and the year AD. 2400, he would not be likely to have an audience. He would merely be labeled a fanatic" (Thomas S. Kepler, Dream of the Future: Daniel and Revelation [Abingdon]).
Perhaps that observation demonstrates how radically and unpredictably the world has changed in two short decades; or perhaps it says something about the inability of that biblical scholar -- himself obviously no reliable reader of signs -- to anticipate the movement of the times. In either case, today preachers and Bible teachers all across the land are indeed making "minute predictions about events in world history." Furthermore, they are discovering among politicians and powers on the present scene the long-hidden identities of figures in the biblical apocalypse -- thus purporting to disclose the plan God has had for history from its beginning. They welcome emergent events, whether predicted or not, as confirmation that Godís climactic and decisive intervention in human affairs is about to occur.
Rather than being dismissed as a lunatic fringe, these preachers have an audience which numbers in the millions. The New York Times named Hal Lindsey the best-selling author of the decade for his runaway best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth (Zondervan, 1974), which has sold more than 15 million copies, to say nothing of four other highly successful Lindsey books on biblical prophecy. Television evangelists all across the dial -- Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, Charles R. Taylor, Jack Van Impe and Jimmy Swaggert -- along with sect leader Herbert W. Armstrong and many others -- are urgently warning their viewers that the end of history is near. And in large cities and small, independent Bible teachers and fundamentalist preachers are growing bolder in their claim to discern -- accurately and with divine authorization -- the cataclysmic signs of the times.
What is significant about this current apocalyptic mood, apart from the apparent size of the crowd that has been drawn into it, is that fundamentalists do not appear to be the only ones giving ear to the purveyors of biblical prophecy. Here and there, other Christians are beginning to wonder whether there may be something in it. I suspect that this wide attraction is partly the result of incessant repetition, and partly because events such as the doomsday nuclear policies of the United States and the Soviet Union and the dangerously deepening crisis in the Middle East lend apocalypticism a certain surface plausibility.
Here are some reasons for rejecting the claims being made in the name of biblical prophecy:
1. Weíve heard them all before. And weíve heard them pronounced with the same confident assurance that, however mistaken and disappointed earlier millennial expectations may have been, this time weíve got the scenario right.
Millennialism began in the very first generation of the church, and there has scarcely been a period of history since which has not witnessed predictions of its own imminent end. We have heard the beasts of Daniel and Revelation identified in virtually every century with whatever powers and persons were in the ascendancy at the moment. We have heard Revelationís 666 identified successively as Muhammad, Pope Benedict IX, the whole of the Roman Catholic Church, Martin Luther, Napoleon, the Kaiser, Hitler, Mussolini, Franklin Roosevelt, the National Council of Churches, Henry Kissinger and Anwar Sadat, to name only a few.
We have heard William Blackstone earlier in this century announcing that new modes of transportation, growing world literacy, pestilence, famine, socialism, accumulating armaments, industrial conflict, spiritualism, Christian Science and biblical criticism were all signs of that spiritual deterioration which heralded the immediate return of Christ. Today teachers of prophecy talk about satellite communication, space travel, television, world communism, the breakdown of the family and of church authority, abortion and the re-establishment of Israelís nationhood as all pointing to that return.
We have heard William Millerís call to the faithful to prepare for Christís coming on October 22, 1844; Jehovahís Witnessesí declaration that Christ returned invisibly and spiritually in 1914; and Herbert Armstrongís prediction that the end would come in January 1972 -- an announcement that led many members of his World Wide Church of God to sell their possessions in preparation for going to Petra (Wadi Musa) in Jordan, believed to be a place of safety for the elect.
One thing more is familiar -- and, one would think, embarrassing for the literalists -- out of the history of millenarianism: those who assert the literal and plenary facticity of the Bible cannot agree on what its facts are. Despite the assertion that God has favored Christians living in this present moment of history with the key to decode the prophetic ciphers, millennialists are unable to agree on how to read the message. Hal Lindsey says that the United States is not mentioned in biblical prophecy; but Herbert W. Armstrong, whose church is built on the belief that Great Britain and the United States are the ten lost tribes of Israel, holds that a great deal of biblical prophecy has to do with their special destiny in Godís plan for the world.
2. Prophecy of the kind represented in the current popular movement is an arrogant, self-centered, at the same time self-pitying and self-congratulatory, misuse of Scripture. What it says is that no one else who has ever read the Bible has read it accurately until now. Augustine thought he understood the biblical message, as did Luther and Calvin and Wesley; but God has finally given it to us to know that all of them are wrong and we are right.
In fact, it seems to me that these folk are telling us that if Daniel and Ezekiel and John of Revelation thought they understood the import of their own visions, they were wrong too. For they assumed they were saying something of significance to their own contemporaries, but we know that their message was really intended for late 20th century believers.
That attitude strikes me as arrogant. It makes a mockery of the view, also professed by this same crowd of witnesses, that the Bible is the eternally truthful Word of God. But if they are right, then the Bible cannot, in any meaningful sense, have been Godís Word to Augustine, or Luther, or Calvin or Wesley, since God deliberately hid the real Word (in contrast to the merely apparent words) from their eyes. This becomes nothing less than a claim that ours is the only generation to have been given the Word of God in its full truthfulness.
The claim is also at once self-pitying and self-congratulatory: self-pitying be-cause it says, "Our time is worse than any other time; nobody else in history has suffered as we are suffering, and that is one of the ways we know the end is near." The self-congratulation arises when we think that because of our extremity, God has chosen to let us in on the essential truth of things.
Of course we live, in tough times. But is our 20th century darker than, say, the 14th, that hapless time which has been impressively chronicled by Barbara Tuchman in A Distant Mirror (Knopf, 1978)? That was the century when, during two terrible years, the Black Death killed more than a third of the population from Iceland to India, returning four more times before the era was up; when gangs of terrorists roamed and plundered Europe without hindrance; when the Hundred Years War took on a life of its own, frustrating efforts to end it, "an epic of brutality and bravery checkered by disgrace"; when new weapons and errant knighthood brought an end to chivalry; when widespread peasant revolt was answered by terrible aristocratic repression; and when internal scandal robbed the church of its ability to comfort and save. Is our time worse? I doubt it.
3. Current claims for the impending end of history depend for their authorization on a highly selective use of Scripture. It must be admitted at once that there is a strong element of apocalypticism in the Gospels, with anticipation of the Parousia in Acts, in Paulís letters and in Revelation. If the earlier liberals were guilty of distortion in their attempt to make Jesus over in the image of a historical evolutionist, Albert Schweitzerís work made it impossible for liberal scholarship ever again to ignore the authentically apocalyptic theme which is present in Jesusí teaching.
Two things must be said about that teaching, however -- both of which are ignored or interpreted away by the teachers of prophecy. One is that the end was clearly expected to occur within the lifetime of the generation to which Jesus spoke. For example, Matthew 16:28: "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." And Matthew 24:34: "Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place." And when Jesus advised his hearers, in Luke 17:31, on their proper behavior when the end should break in ("On that day, let him who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away; and likewise let him who is in the field not turn back"), both he and they appeared to understand that the advice was for them.
Paul carried that understanding with him, especially during his early ministry. He told the Thessalonian Christians that "we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them [who have already died in the faith] to meet the Lord in the air" (I Thess. 4:17). And to the Corinthians, he said reassuringly that "we shall not all sleep [that is, die] before Christ comes again" (I Cor. 15:51)
So for much, perhaps most, of the New Testament, the expectation of Godís in-breaking is a present historical expectation; if in later writings New Testament authors appeared to alter that expectation from an outward, historical event to an inward, spiritual experience -- in light of its lengthening delay -- the church did not excise that earlier, more immediate expectation from the canon. It is still there to trouble and confound us.
Paul offers a similar warning to the Thessalonians. "But as to times and seasons, brethren," he writes, "you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night" (I Thess. 5:1-2).
Indeed, whenever in the Gospels the question of the in-breaking of Godís Kingdom comes up, Jesusí emphasis is not on prediction, not on prophesying, but on readiness. He says, in effect, "Donít wait until you think you see the signs of its coming, for those signs will probably be false anyway. God will choose his own time. Rather, be ready at every moment by living, in that moment, a life which is commendable to God. Then whenever God calls, in the sudden unexpectedness of his own will and way, you will be ready."
When teachers of biblical prophecy ignore the New Testamentís sense of apocalyptic immediacy and imperative to readiness, they distort the scriptural witness to serve their own historical and theological predilections.
4.Rather than creating a greater faithfulness and readiness, as Jesus apparently intended, apocalyptic teaching in our time provides some men and women an excuse for engaging in forms of personal and social behavior which are, by Christian standards, unacceptable and inexcusable. Listen to what some teachers of prophecy are saying, and see how often their message is either subtly or flagrantly anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, sometimes anti-Catholic, usually anti-Soviet, almost always antihumanist. It is, at least in some of its forms, a movement of againstness, offering a pious license for hatred. The language it uses in describing the "tribulation" to come is a language of terrible violence, and it appears to delight in the prospect that Godís "enemies" will suffer unspeakably -- feeling free, of course, to make assumptions about who Godís enemies are.
At the level of national policy, it is now possible to despoil the American wilderness; since the end is near, we are no longer required to worry about consequences for future generations. Said Interior Secretary James Watt at his Senate confirmation hearing, "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns." When he subsequently denied any implication from those words that, under his direction, the Interior Department would not be concerned with the long-term management of our natural treasures, he failed to explain satisfactorily why he raised the issue in the first place.
At the level of international policy, it is desirable to fire up the arms race and to create nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, because that activity may make things worse and thereby hasten the end. William Martin quotes television evangelist Pat Robertson as saying, "We are not to weep when there are certain tragedies or breakups of the government or the systems of the world. We are not to wring our hands and say, ĎIsnít that awful?í That isnít awful at all. Itís good. That is a token, an evident token of our salvation, of where God is going to take us." So if we do not choose to help make things worse, we can at least have a good conscience about resigning from responsible participation in the world. Ro much for seeking to alleviate world hunger or to ease the plight of refugees; so much for trying to mitigate violence or disorder or crime or family breakup. For only as these things worsen will God finally intervene decisively.
Strange behavior from those who profess to believe a Bible which tells us that anyone who says, "I love God" but hates the neighbor is a liar; which tells us that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and committing to us the ministry of reconciliation"; and which offers us a Lord to follow whose mission was to the blind, the bruised and the captive.
5. When the followers of prophecy teach that God will visit the earth with a time of tribulation beyond any previous suffering humankind has experienced, they traduce the character of the God whom we come to know in Jesus Christ. This is the way Ezekiel describes the tribulation, and the way followers of prophecy expect it to occur:
Because of all your abominations I will ao with you what I have never yet done, and the like of which I will never do again. Therefore fathers shall eat their sons in the midst of you, and sons shall eat their fathers; and I will execute judgments on you, and any of you who survive I will scatter to all the winds. . . . I will cut you down; my eye will not spare, and I will have no pity. A third part of you shall die of pestilence and be consumed with famine in the midst of you; a third part shall fall by the sword round about you; and a third part I will scatter to all the winds and will unsheathe the sword after them. [5:9-12].
Is that the God of whom Jesus taught that he makes his rain to fall upon the just and the unjust, that he causes his sun to shine on the evil and on the good? The shepherd who leaves the ninety and nine and goes in search of one who has strayed? The father who neglects the son who has stayed at home in order to watch for the return of a prodigal one who deliberately walked away? The God who loves not only the sinners but this imperfect world, sending his own son, as the fourth Gospel tells us, not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved?
Would you deliberately infect your neighbors with deadly pestilence? Would you starve or kill them? Surely not. Then are your goodness and compassion greater than Godís? Jesus taught that we should love our enemies and forgive those who persecute us unjustly. Would God do less? We are to be "perfect" in direct imitation of Godís perfection. Jesus said, "If you, being evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more shall God give good things to those that ask him?" The difference between ourselves and God, Jesus tells us, is that God is not less loving, but more loving; not less forgiving, but more forgiving; not less persistent in seeking the good of all, including his enemies, but more persistent; not less willing to give good things to the undeserving, but more willing.
I, for one, cannot believe in the God whom Jesus reveals and at the same time believe that he would deliberately visit upon the world a tribulation worse than all of the death camps of Germany and Russia, and all of the unremitting torture of Latin American regimes, and all of the diseases and natural disasters which have ever occurred, and all of the nuclear arsenals set off at once -- all at one time. Surely that makes a mockery of saying that God is love!
In biblical times, the Jews expected a messiah who would come with flaming sword, conquering and to conquer, calling down the hosts of heaven to destroy all who did not bear the mark of Godís elect, thereby purifying and clearing the earth for Godís Kingdom. Jesus faced the temptation to be that kind of messiah, but he believed that the temptation came from the devil, and he turned his back decisively on it. Because of his refusal of power, he was misunderstood by his Jewish-Christian disciples and rejected by the public at large, once events beyond Palm Sunday began to unfold. He said that he had come not to destroy sinners but to seek and to save that which was lost; not to cause suffering but to heal the sufferers; not to establish an earthly kingdom but to confirm a spiritual one; not to perpetrate a violent triumph by taking the lives of others but to win through his own suffering and death -- and by that unearthly means to set loose the power of salvation in the world.
When asked some years ago by a college student, "Is there a hell?" Baptist teacher Gordon Poteat said -- after a thoughtful silence -- "If there is a hell, Jesus is in it." The New Testament leads us to expect Jesus to be actively at work in the place of greatest human need.
Satan would host a holocaust. Jesus would not.
Well, that attitude simply wonít do. It is, in fact, evidence of unbelief. To be a Christian surely means to live in the confidence that God has already intervened decisively in history, setting loose in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ all of the transforming power the world needs. To be a Christian means to conform my life actively and responsibly to that power, and to let it do its transforming work through me.
Perhaps the end of the world is near. I donít know what foolish things people and nations will permit themselves to do in the near future, what compacts we will make with hell through the use of nuclear and biological weapons, what ecological disasters we will actively perpetrate or merely permit to happen or what unprecedented human tragedy we will willingly or witlessly sponsor. I only know that if there is a danger of the imminent destruction of the world, Godís hand is not in it. And if I am to be Godís man for this moment, it will be my obligation to work with him to see that it doesnít happen.