The Anti-Christ, 666, The Beast, Armageddon, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are all terms and concepts woven into the western imagination. They all arise from one source, the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Christian Holy Bible. Deciphering the meaning of the terms and images of the Book of Revelation has occupied religious thinkers for untold hours over nearly two millennia. (Check out the wikipedia entry for “666” as an example. The roots of conspiracy theories around The New World Order and vaccine implanted nano chips lie in fevered, modern-day interpretations of Revelation that have spread in secular society well beyond the the religious communities in which these originated.)
In my early teenage years in the 1960s as member of the United Methodist Church I was fascinated by the idea that the Book of Revelation offered a prediction of the future. I felt powerless on my own to decipher the meaning the intriguing text of the book, which, to the modern reader, presents images akin to a nightmare or a drug trip gone bad. I turned to my parents, my greatest influencers at that age, with my puzzlement. They weren’t much help, They offered various interpretations they had absorbed over the years that only increased my curiosity and embedded confused references to 666, The Beast, The Anti-Christ and related terms in the back of my mind. (There is nothing like the mysterious to captivate a teenager.) When I approached the youth minister at church with my questions he offered me some relief. His understanding of the Book of Revelation was that it was written in code (understood among Christians at the time it was written) referring to their persecution by the Roman Empire. Still, the shadowy, unsettling, vivid imagery of Revelation stuck with me, renewed periodically by cultural references.
In the 1960s, the United States was pushing hard for science and math education in an effort to catch up with the lead the Russians had demonstrated with the launch of Sputnik in 1957. My parents did what good Americans were supposed to do: they fostered my interest in math and science, buying subscriptions to the “All About” books, a simple chemistry set, a basic microscope and telescope. I devoured age-appropriate material on geology, cave paintings, and Neanderthals. I wrapped my head around the concept of geologic time. I reveled in the original Star Trek TV series (1966). I thought the world was struggling towards peace. To me the United Nations was a major force for good. Meanwhile, as I read the Bible, I tried to reconcile the Bible’s literal words with everything else I was learning. I was fascinated by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (late 1940s onward) and tried to understand how they might fit into an historical understanding the Bible. My patient mother, fond of quoting from the Bible, explained that parts of the Bible should be understood as allegory and not literally. Further proof to me that society was moving toward a common understanding of the world and mankind’s place in it came in 1968 when the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren congregations merged to form the United Methodist Church.
I tucked away Revelation’s Beast, the Anti-Christ, and 666 as literary references of historical import only. I did not understand that efforts to popularize the eschatological (End Times) interpretation of the Book of Revelation were alive and well. They were nurtured by at least a century’s worth of Fundamentalist backlash against two perceived threats: Darwinian evolution and academic efforts to understand the Bible in the context of history rather than as literal truth to be deciphered. The Fundamentals, a series of ninety essays published in the early 1910s by Lyman Stewart, an oil magnate, crystallized Fundamentalist pushback against scientific understanding while it lauded dispensationalism, an elaborate End Times construct based largely on an obscure interpretation of Biblical text by John Nelson Darby, an Anglo-Irish clergyman writing and preaching in the early 1800s. Darby’s End Times story was further popularized with the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. The Scofield Bible supported dispensationalism in Fundamentalist congregations but also lent some credence to Darby’s dispensationalist interpretation of Revelation among a wider, more mainstream Christian audience. That audience included my mother’s family, who tended to read Scofield’s annotations of the King James version of the Bible as authoritative. (After all, trying to understand the plain words of the Bible in its multiple translations without help from trusted clergy is a daunting task.)
Predicting the future of humanity based on the Book of Revelation and other Biblical clues burst into mainstream American culture during the decade following my period of fascination with the Book.
Then, in 1970, Hal Lindsey, an American evangelist, Christian Zionist and dispensationalist author and television host wrote The Late, Great Planet Earth. It was the most popular of fifteen books Lindsey wrote on his apocalyptic End Times predictions. The Late, Great Planet Earth was declared the best-selling work of “non-fiction”of the 1970s by the New York Times (selling 28 million copies by 1990). In 1976 the book was made into a movie of the same name narrated by Orson Welles. In both works Lindsey fancifully links his Biblical interpretations to current events and personalities as “fulfilled prophecy” and predicts these events might culminate with End Times in the 1980s. Lindsey’s work stands as a major contributor to the dis-ease of still current End Times thinking.
Just as some of the hype from the The Late, Great Planet Earth was starting to quiet down, End Times theology got a huge boost from the Left Behind book series and the films, video games, and other spin-offs that started in 1995 and echo to the present day. The Left Behindseries popularized the rapture, an event in which all righteous Christians suddenly rise into heaven, a concept based on John Nelson Darby‘s early 1800s out-of-context interpretation of a single Bible verse. The Rev. Jerry Falwell told Time Magazine in 2005 that the influence of Left Behind was “probably greater than that of any other book in modern times, outside the Bible.” He is almost certainly correct. The Left Behind franchise injected Darby’s End Times narrative into the minds of a far wider audience than tent revival preaching and guided Bible study had achieved over nearly two centuries.
Church concepts in both Protestant denominations and non-denominational Christian churches evolve organically, buffeted in some measure by the ideas current in the minds of their congregants. The prevalence and focus on End Times thinking among many today, particularly many Evangelicals, can be traced to the popularization of these ideas injected into the mainstream by The Late, Great Planet Earth, Left Behind, and all their spin-offs. The clergy have to reckon with ideas current in the minds of their parishioners. Part of the pickle in which we find ourselves in this country is traceable to relatively recent fanciful interpretation of Revelation.
I grew up in a church that was reconciling itself with scientific understanding, a church which had concentrated on bringing God’s kingdom to earth in anticipation of Christ’s Second Coming, an event that would unfold on earth and could happen at any moment. The emphasis was on making the world a better place, with aspirations of peace, tolerance, equality, ecumenism and uniting humanity to a common purpose. It was a church that pushed for all citizens’ right to vote, racial equity, workers rights and civil rights. It was a church focused on improving the lot of humanity on earth both now and into the future guided by Christ’s teachings.
The fanciful interpretation of the Book of Revelation, popularized by modern authors, is the antithesis of the Christianity in which I was brought up. Under this version of Revelation, the United Nations becomes an instrument of the New World Order, the evil “globalists”, uniting under the banner of Revelation’s Anti-Christ. Revelation becomes a road map for Christian nationalism, and, beyond that, it fosters suspicion of the motives of all levels of government. (Based on End Times theology it should be no surprise that Christian imagery and prayer were part of the January 6th insurrection.) Worse, for those captured by the paranoia of Revelation-based eschatology, all of geopolitics is viewed as a means to reach the End Times supposedly predicted by the Book. Rather than working to reduce conflict, attention is turned to encouraging strife that might lead to the glorious End.
The eschatological interpretation of the Book of Revelation is certainly not at the center of consciousness of every Christian. After all, Christianity, like all religions and human endeavors, is a slow, ever-changing mosaic of belief interwoven with popular culture.
Stimulus for this post came from my own boyhood fascination with the Book of Revelation and an excellent article, “Revelation Decoded: The Secrets Behind the Most Misunderstood Book in the Bible” posted February 23rd by Joe Forrest, a Christian blogger. It is richly referenced and well worth the time to read. You will come away with a clearer understanding of words and concepts you have seen before and glossed over. They permeate our culture.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. I first grasped the growing strength of the eschatological interpretation of Revelation among Christians and its seepage into popular culture thanks to a glossy brochure my Evangelical former neighbor sent to me that laid out in great detail the stages of the End Times, starting with the rapture. I wrote of it in “CMR’s Worldview“.