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Planning ahead: The Enduring Appeal of Prophecy Belief

by Grant Wacker

Grant Wacker is associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This article appeared in The Christian Century, January l9, l994, pp. 48-52. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


The young woman said that she urgently needed to see me. No, she was not having difficulty in my religion course. The problem was more serious. She explained through tears that she had just broken up with her fiance, and since I purportedly knew something about fundamentalism, she hoped that I might be able to offer a word or two of advice.

Her story was familiar. Like millions of American Christians, she had grown up in a fundamentalist church where she had come to believe that the Lord would soon take his saints back to heaven in a glorious event known as the Rapture. This occurrence would be followed by the Great Tribulation, seven years of increasingly violent conflicts and natural calamities. At the end of the Great Tribulation the scriptural armies of Gog and Magog -- which everyone knew to be the Soviet Union and China -- would attack the comparatively defenseless state of Israel. But just then, when all seemed lost, the Lord of Hosts would return to slay the forces of Gog and Magog in the most fearsome struggle of all time, the Battle of Armageddon. Thereupon Satan would be bound, the Jews would acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Messiah, and Christ would establish a kingdom of righteousness on earth for a thousand years. At the end of the millennium the Lord would separate the saved from the lost, giving the saved everlasting dominion over the new heavens and the new earth, and casting the lost into the Lake of Fire to burn forever.

It was all standard fundamentalist fare, a set of ideas commonly known as Darbyite premillennialism (after an architect of the scheme, John Nelson Darby, a 19th-century British Plymouth Brethren preacher.) So why the tears? Why the break up? Because the young woman had just discovered that her fiance had the details all wrong. Though he was a firmly committed premillennialist like herself, he believed that the Lord would take his saints from the earth after the Great Tribulation, not before it. In the parlance of the fundamentalist subculture, he was a "post-trib pre-mill," while she was a "pre-trib pre-mill."

Given that I too had been reared in the fundamentalist subculture, where the vocabulary of the Rapture and of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was as familiar as Cheerios and the St. Louis Cardinals, I could readily understand the gravity of the young woman's concerns. I could also understand her fear that most of her college friends would consider the dilemma rather silly. From my perspective, the latter problem was more serious. The pain of a broken romance would pass, but the studied disinterest of the elite culture of the university -- which was also the elite culture of the New York Times, of the secular media, and of the Washington Inner Beltway -- was, it seemed clear enough, here to stay.

In When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture, Paul Boyer, a senior historian at the University of Wisconsin, and one of the best in the business, seeks to address the world of secularized academics and journalists who can scarcely imagine, let alone appreciate, the breadth and depth of popular apocalypticism in contemporary America. Whether we rely upon "hard" poll data, or sales figures of books and periodicals, or an endless stream of anecdotal evidence, Darbyite premillennialism proves to be one of the most resilient and widely held belief systems that has ever gripped the American imagination. Gallup polls attest that 62 percent of adults affirm that Jesus will literally return to earth. TV and radio preachers trumpet the details of prophecy belief over hundreds of stations and cable networks Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth sold 9 million copies within eight years of its publication in 1970. By 1990 that number had soared to 28 million. Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis, penned by Dallas Seminary president John F. Walvoord, sold nearly a million copies after its publication in 1974 and another million following the Persian Gulf crisis. Scores of magazines and newsletters such as End-Time News Digest and Prophecy-Watch International turn up in the mailboxes of the faithful every day. Houston preacher Hilton Sutton maintains a 24-hour 800 number to keep devotees updated on late-breaking developments. Merchants tell of customers who refuse $6.66 in change. I recall reading of a Washington, D.C., bookstore that was being asked to refund the cost of Woodward and Bernstein's The Final Days after disappointed purchasers found that it was about plain old politics, not spine-tingling biblical prophecy.

Boyer does not rush into his subject. He devotes more than a hundred densely footnoted pages to a learned discussion of apocalypticism in the Hebrew and Christian traditions from the second century B.C. through the mid 20th century. While students may regard this leisurely stroll through two millennia of intellectual history as useful background, true believers are likely to find it more than a little disturbing. The problem is not that Boyer is ever less than respectful. Indeed, he goes out of his way to show that, given certain assumptions about the ahistorical nature of the Bible, Darbyite premillennialism arose in a natural, even logical way from the scriptural text. The problem rather is that the very act of treating prophecy belief historically at all -- that is, showing that its main features have cropped up with astonishing regularity for centuries -- undermines the assumption that lies at the heart of the system: namely, that the signs of the time are valid because they are the signs of this time and no other.

Boyer's main topic is, in any event, the efflorescence of prophecy belief in America from World War II to the early 1990s. He examines the way that apocalyptic thinking has structured popular attitudes toward nuclear war, Israel, Russia, American foreign policy, the growth of government, and whatever was regarded at the moment as the Antichrist. He focuses almost exclusively upon Darbyite prermillennialism, which might be called the main trunk of apocalyptic thinking in modern America. Other branches, such as Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and more exotic groups like (but not including) the now-infamous Branch Davidians, receive only passing attention, as do secular doomsday warnings of nuclear holocaust and environmental destruction. Yet Boyer's instincts are sound, for it was the unique version of premillennialism nurtured by Darby and brought to these shores after the Civil War that helped form the doctrinal core of virtually all fundamentalist and many evangelical churches.

. Boyer avoids -- or more precisely, explodes -- much of the conventional wisdom about prophecy believers. He challenges the widely held notion that they came solely from the ranks of the dispossessed. He allows that a majority represented the stable working and lower middle classes, but a sizable minority held upper-class positions and enjoyed advanced education. Boyer also doubts that premillennialism went hand in hand with pessimism about social reform and the outcome of history. We shall return to this matter later. Here it suffices to say that adherents typically proved themselves tireless toilers in the Lord's vineyard and viewed the end of history with anticipation, not apprehension. Most important, Boyer questions the pervasive assumption that believers were somehow abnormal-social losers, cultural misfits, psychological wrecks. He takes pains to show that in every respect except the specific matter of prophecy belief they looked and behaved remarkably like anyone else occupying a similar position in the social system. Anyone who seriously doubts that, Boyer wryly urges, need only attend a fundamentalist church picnic.

When Time Shall Be No More is so thoroughly researched and so comprehensive in scope it is difficult to imagine that any critical historian will try to retell the story for decades to come, The only real problem with this truly magnificent book is that Boyer strains to locate the significance of prophecy belief where it does not exist, or exists only inconsequentially: in the realm of secular politics. Although he never falls into the trap of claiming that prophecy belief actually brought about one or another specific policy, he insists that it established a climate of opinion that made the development of nuclear weapons, for example, or automatic support for Israel seem eminently sensible.

Yet surely the most striking feature of prophecy belief is precisely the opposite: how impotent it has been as an instrument of public policy. Consider the Reagan years, when many high-ranking officials, including the secretary of the interior, the secretary of defense, and the president himself all identified themselves as firm adherents. Nuclear holocaust did not ensue, the cold war thawed, Israel lost the ear of the president, and the U.S. government continued to spend hundreds of billions on social reconstruction. The same has been true within the sphere of religion. The confrontation between the FBI and the Branch Davidians at Waco riveted public attention precisely because that sort of thing happens so rarely. The Branch Davidians represent a wildly atypical twig on the apocalyptic tree. Indeed, one of the most striking characteristics of the vast majority of prophecy believers has been the contrast between the militancy of their rhetoric and the law-abiding regularity of their daily behavior.

If, then, the tenacity of prophecy belief cannot be explained in terms of standard theories of deprivation, and if it seems to have little pay-off in the secular political realm, why does it persist at all? Indeed, why did it flourish as vigorously in 1990 as in 1890 or, for that matter, as in 1790? Though Boyer himself is more interested in tracing the impact of premillennialist beliefs than in analyzing the wellsprings that perennially fed them, his research offers numerous clues.

Emotional certainty may be the most obvious appeal. Though apocalypticism had been around for millennia, it is worth noting that Darbyism, the peculiarly rigid and florid form that arose in the late 19th century, accompanied the growth of Darwinism, biblical higher criticism, and the dawning awareness of world religions. Ever after, Darbyism served as a powerful antidote to infidelity, for it seemed to show that the Bible's predictions about future events invariably proved true. Prophecy belief afforded certainty in other ways too. Adherents could sleep easy at night, knowing exactly how things would turn out in the long run. And it allayed the fear of death. Hope for the resurrection life always had been an integral part of the Christian message. But this version of premillennialism offered a more radical promise: that the saints who were alive in Christ at the time of the Rapture would be spared the sting of death entirely.

Ironically, though, prophecy belief endured precisely because it did not offer too much certainty. The sequence of events at the end of time was predetermined, to be sure, but there were multiple ways of getting from here to there, and there was just enough contingency along the way to make things interesting. The overall effect was very much like a rollercoaster: slightly scary because the riders did not know exactly how the car would twist and turn, but not scary enough to warrant despair, for they knew the outcome. It was hardly accidental, Boyer suggests, that participants often used theatrical language to describe the end-time scenario, calling it thrilling, majestic, exhilarating.

Prophecy belief offered intellectual rewards too. Outsiders might wonder about this, but Boyer makes clear that antiseptic rationality pervaded the system. The biblical text was strictly defined, there were no subtexts, and hermeneutics was more like a home repair manual than an intuitive art, a set of rules for applying textbook formulas to problematic situations. Prophecy belief seemed eminently logical because it was neither arcane nor mysterious but rooted in an authoritative document and confirmed again and again by the daily newspaper. Every proposition of the system could be laid on the table and debated up or down by any intelligent man or woman. Further, the system was both elegant and comprehensive. The simplicity that rendered it sophomoric to outsiders was the very quality that made it so compelling to insiders. And it offered an explanation for everything. There were no loose ends; every aspect of the natural and human worlds, past, present and future, could be embraced within its capacious arms

None of this meant, however, that prophecy belief was uncomplicated. Partisans worked with a jigsaw puzzle of hundreds or even thousands of biblical verses that had to be painstakingly assembled and readjusted as the world changed. Thus the system evolved in complex ways, as converts kept one foot anchored on the (seemingly) stable rock of the Bible and the other immersed in the rushing, turbulent river of current events. The possibilities were endless. Was the ten-toed colossus of Daniel's dream a prefiguration of the ten nations of the European Common Market? Was Isaiah's allusion to the "land shadowing with wings" a bow to the American eagle and the U.S. aircraft industry? Was Revelation's reference to an army of 200 million fulfilled in Chairman Mao's boast that he could field a force of exactly that number?

Outsiders might see those connections as nothing but acrobatics, a perverse determination to force a random collection of ancient Mediterranean texts to fit the six o'clock news. But for insiders there was no distance between biblical words and current events. Scripture not only portended current events but in a very real sense brought them into existence. The key point is that for true believers the connection between ancient text and modern fulfillment functioned just like any belief system that looked to the historical or natural realms for empirical confirmation. For the faithful, day after day world affairs fell into place like the clink of a lug-nut on an axle bolt. And when they did, millions stopped to remember Sunday school lessons long forgotten, and wondered.

Boyer shrewdly notes, however, that premillennialism did not take rationality (like certainty) too far. In one sense, each constituent proposition in the system could be debated up or down. But many of the crucial terms remained impenetrably vague, and there lay much of the appeal. The ambiguity of the, key symbols allowed them endlessly to stretch as events unfolded. This vagueness in the ideational superstructure paid off at the organizational level too, for it meant, among other things, that men and women with new angles of interpretation were able to jockey for dominance and rise to the top. The system was constantly renewed not only with new ideas, but also with new blood.

High among the intellectual attractions of prophecy belief was one that true partisans rarely owned up to, at least among outsiders: it was a lot of fun. We know from Edmund Gosse, Garrison Keillor and other raconteurs that many a long winter night was shortened by spirited debates in front of the fireplace over the correct interpretation of the seven seals of Revelation, or the exact number of days till the reestablishment of Christ's rule over Israel. Arguing the fine points of eschatology may not have been quite as pleasurable as dancing, but it came close.

Prophecy belief provided a secure social identity, and that was a third source of appeal . In the hurly-burly of modem life, fundamentalists knew exactly where they fit on the landscape. They were not just Christians, but Christians of a particular kind: Bible-believers or, more precisely, believers in the Inerrant-Word-of-God (preferably pronounced as one word). If prophecy belief defined a community of like-minded and socially similar folk, it also erected a ladder of status within the family. Adepts who were able to discern the inner connections among a vast array of obscure prophetic passages soon found themselves holding positions of formal and informal authority within the group.

Less happily, prophecy belief secured believers' identity by cleanly dividing the world into the saved and the lost. The former, of course, consisted of Christians pretty much like themselves. (Whether one had to affirm the Rapture in order to make the Rapture remained a hotly disputed question.) The lost, in any event, consisted of everyone else, including -- especially including -- nominal mainline Christians who claimed to believe the Bible but tried to allegorize-away its angular details. Ecumenical broadmindedness might have played well in the mainline seminaries, but prophecy adherents instinctively understated that ordinary folk preferred sturdy fences.

Social invidiousness entailed what might be called cognitive invidiousness as well, for Prophecy believers knew that they would be vindicated at the end of time. To some extent that was a matter of knowing that the economic tables would be turned when the last trumpet was sounded; the meek would have their day. But the essentially middle-class character of the movement suggests that the story may be more complex than that. It is not at all clear that well-paid service workers dreamed apocalyptic dreams because they harbored deep resentments against well-paid service managers. The more compelling attraction, one suspects, was the comfort of being proved right. Like the hypochondriac who wanted "I told you so" inscribed on his tombstone, prophecy believers relished the sweet delight of knowing that someday their vision of the end,: and theirs alone, would be fulfilled.

This brings us to the complex question of political passivity. As noted, over the years outsiders have routinely alleged that prophecy believers were "pessimistic," too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good. Boyer admits that there is some truth in this perception. Fundamentalists typically doubted the effectiveness of any large-scale efforts to reform society, and they displayed intractable hostility toward the therapy profession's ability to remake human nature. But the key and often-overlooked point here is that most prophecy believers --- Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson notwithstanding -- instinctively sensed that they were incapable of doing much in the secular political realm anyway. Lacking important political connections, not knowing which fork to use at the power luncheon, they focused their energies where they could in fact make some impact. Though Boyer himself says little about it, scholars such as Nancy Ammerman, Margaret Poloma and Robert Wuthnow have shown that fundamentalists lived their faith by setting up orphanages, running de-tox houses, maintaining inner-city day care centers. And they took the gospel of Jesus Christ as they understood it to the ends of the earth. While mainline missions dwindled to insignificance, evangelical missions, which were usually aligned with or at least sympathetic to premillennialist notions, flourished with unabated vigor. Adherents invariably saw themselves living on the cusp of history, straddling the end of the present age and the beginning of the age to come. If the day of the Lord was at hand, only the foolish would while away their time in a pool hall or by watching television. Far from being demoralizing, then, the practical effect of premillennialism was a renewed determination to do the Lord's work before it was forever too late.

How did the movement's leaders add to its appeal? This was a fourth source of strength. Boyer shows that the leaders were, contrary to stereotype, neither bumpkins nor charismatic demagogues. Rather they turned out to be men (and occasionally women) of exceptional intelligence, albeit self-educated or educated in nonhistorical disciplines. Bursting with self-confidence, they proved not the least bit intimidated by their lack of academic credentials. Indeed, fundamentalist leaders frequently gave themselves the title of "'Dr.," effectively saying that the institutions of the secular elite did not own the title, and that proven ability in the rough-and-tumble world of ordinary affairs -- putting up radio stations and running colleges in remote mission outposts -- was credential enough. Moreover, spokesmen manifested an uncanny ability to translate the tangled argot of the apocalyptic tradition into the language of the pews and the streets. They were not above larding the text with technical theological jargon when that served their purposes, but most of the time they wrote like Howard Cosell talked. If Darbyite premillennialism was a "roll your own" religion, its leaders were the masters of the trade.

Even so, Boyer's research shows that for all of their democratic, egalitarian pretensions, fundamentalist spokesmen, like countless mass religious leaders before them, also displayed a strong elitist streak. They went out of their way to flaunt whatever contacts they managed to make among secular intellectuals, newscasters and government officials. Three days a week they presented themselves as brothers and sisters in Christ. The rest of the week they functioned as heirophants, cognoscenti who alone understood the true plan of the ages. The system had been rightly discerned and handed down. Tinkering by ordinary folk was not encouraged.

Prophecy belief appealed, then, for many reasons. It afforded the emotional comfort of certainty, offered a compelling explanation of current affairs, situated its adherents on a social map, and was led by men and women of skill. The movement functioned, in short, pretty much like any other ideologically self-conscious stirring. And this leads to the central insight of Boyer's study. Prophecy belief flourished not because it was aberrant but precisely because it shared so much with other social ideologies. -This point becomes particularly clear when we consider prophecy believers' attitudes toward America and their yearning for a place in history.

One of the more remarkable intellectual revolutions of the 20th century is the shift of attitude among Americans toward the American experiment itself. From the colonial period through World War I, few doubted that this country held a special place in God's favor. This "hog-stomping baroque exuberance," as Tom Wolfe said in a different context, gave way after World War I, and especially after World War II, to deep disillusion. The litany of real or perceived ills included greed, materialism, abortion, homosexuality, adultery, drunkenness, gluttony, divorce, militant feminism, New Age religions, God-denying secular education, street crime, encroaching government, and the routinization of life. Admittedly, concerned citizens assessed those trends in different ways. Not everyone necessarily agreed that the increase in overdue library books was, as one earnest soul put it, a sure sign of the times. But there could be little doubt that many thoughtful men and women of all political and religious persuasions worried about the kind of world they were bequeathing to their children.

If prophecy believers shared with many others a diagnosis of the problems America faced, they also shared a prescription for the future. It is hard to see how the vision of the coming kingdom of God outlined by one theorist commonly associated with the political right differed all that much from the goals of left-leaning, free-thinking secularists:

The beatings, the burnings, the tortures -- all the pain and cruelty inflicted on people-will be banned. No more small babies with swollen bellies.... No more terrified peasants afraid to plant rice because soldiers might come and take it away. No more hungry stomachs and slave labor camps ... No more of Satan's horrors.

Where was the difference? The final phrase offered some hints, to be sure. But whether supernatural agency, affirmed as a line item in the creed, so to speak, was all that crucial in the way that the two groups actually lived their lives, day by day, may well be questioned.

This brings us finally to the most important commonality: the desire of almost -all humans, or at least those in the modern West, to think that their lives counted in some larger scheme of things. Admittedly, a few tough-minded souls -- usually academics -- were able to face their own extinction with equanimity, knowing full well that the traces they left in the culture would be erased within a generation or two at best. But not many. Poll data suggested that on the whole modem Americans were no more preparedto face the prospect of a godless universe than their medieval ancestors. Nor were they prepared to believe that their individual lives bore no more import than the life of a desert flower, exquisite for a time but soon extinguished. When the atomic age dawned Bible thumpers everywhere related it to ancient biblical prophecies of great noise and fervent heat to come at the end of time. And, Boyer wryly notes, so did President Harry Truman in the privacy of his diary.

Nonetheless, it is important to draw distinctions between things that really differ. Prophecy belief remains an important part of evangelical Christianity in America, but it is not the whole story. The folks who gather each Sunday in the small rural United Methodist church my family and I attend seem little concerned with the details of Darbyite premillennialism. I suspect that few could identify the scheme in a line-up of competing theological systems. Yet I also believe that, if asked, virtually all would affirm that the Lord alone will bring history to a close, one way or another, sooner or later. They remain quietly confident that the God of ages past is also the God of ages future. That may not be good enough for hard-core prophecy buffs who have the end-times all spelled out in lurid detail, but it is more than good enough for millions of other evangelical Christians. They understand, as the young woman who knocked on my office door did not, that simple faithfulness counts too.


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