Waiting for the End

The growing interest in apocalyptic prophesy

The world as we know it is coming to an end. Not because some general or madman will push a button and reduce our planet to poisonous ash. And not because the weight of a burgeoning population will cause it to lurch out of orbit. Rather, the end is near because God has had it planned that way for at least 1,900 years. It's all right there in the Bible, in Daniel and Revelation, with auxiliary illumination from other key portions of Scripture. Just as surely as he created a fully furnished universe out of nothing in six twenty-four-hour days approximately 5,986 years ago, so is he now about to bring it to completion in precise accord with the detailed blueprint tucked away in his Word.

Judeo-Christian history has seen numerous outcroppings of interest in biblical prophecy, usually in times of social upheaval, but few, if any, have been as widespread and influential as that now flourishing in conservative Protestant circles. No hard data are available, but millions of American evangelicals apparently believe that within the present generation, and probably sometime in the 1980s, Jesus will return to lay the groundwork for a glorious thousand-year reign here on earth. Hundreds of Bible-believing preachers discuss the chronology of these latter days with confidence that what they are saying is as familiar and real to their congregations as the stories of Noah's ark and the birth of Jesus. The same themes are proclaimed by such leading television evangelists as Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Rex Humbard, Herbert W. Armstrong, Kenneth Copeland, and Jack Van Impe, and on such lesser-known programs as The Voice of Prophecy, The King Is Coming, and 11:59 and Counting. . They are elaborated endlessly in traveling slide-shows and lectures by spokesmen from such independent ministries as Lamb and Lion, Second Coming, Inc., and World Prophecy Ministry, and are updated regularly in such periodicals as It's Happening Now, Bible in the News, Bible Prophecy Newsletter, and The Endtime Messenger. They have been the subject of novels, stage plays, films,. and cantatas, and are reflected in hymns, gospel songs, and bumper stickers ("Ready or not, Jesus is coming"). And the number-one nonfiction volume of the 1970s was not a revolutionary diet plan or a manual on sexual fulfillment but Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth (over 15 million copies sold), one of five successful prophecy books by Lindsey that led The New York Times to name him the best-selling author of the decade. The book was also the basis of a 1977 movie narrated by Orson Welles.

Though its growth has occurred mostly within the past two decades, this movement, based on biblical prophecy, had its roots in the nineteenth century. The French Revolution and its aftermath had kindled interest in prophecy, as biblical students saw the destruction of papal power, the secularization of the state, and the rise of a religion of reason as being remarkably similar to events described in Daniel and Revelation. A number of societies and conferences, primarily in Great Britain, developed an approach to these texts contending that they foretold, in explicit detail, the restoration of the Jews to Palestine, a cataclysmic end to the present age, the Second Coming of Christ, and the Millennium-a thousand years of unearthly bliss. Further, those able to break the code of these books not only could understand what was happening all about them but could face the end of the age with a joy born of the certain knowledge of eventual triumph.

Millenarian thought also flourished in the United States during the nineteenth century. Mormons spoke of themselves as Latter Day Saints, and the Shakers viewed Mother Ann Lee, their founder, as the female complement to the male Christ of the First Advent, and taught that she had inaugurated the Millennium. The most notable millenarian during the first half of the century, however, was William Miller, a prolific writer who held camp meetings and tent revivals that built him a following estimated at 50, 000 people. Miller believed so strongly in his ability to interpret biblical signs that he confidently selected 1843 as the year Christ would return in fiery judgment. His willingness to set dates drew tremendous interest, but ultimately brought his movement to ground and subjected him to ridicule and charges of fanaticism and quackery.

Eventually, millenarians learned to avoid the embarrassments of overspecfication, and by 1875, with the evangelist D. L. Moody as a prominent public spokesman, the movement grew into a supra-denominational community characterized by an ecumenical spirit that did not require commitment to any specific interpretative scheme. The most widely held view of the end-time, however, was a pre-millennial theory (so called because it taught that Jesus would return before the Millennium) developed by an Englishman, John Nelson Darby, and incorporated into the Scofield Reference Bible, an enormously influential book published by the Oxford University Press in 1909.

The latest revision of the Scofield Reference Bible, a 1967 edition, has sold more than two million copies to date. In this book, C. I. Scofield printed interpretations of Darby's teachings on the same pages as the Scripture on which they were ostensibly based, thus creating an impression in the minds of many readers that the notes and their teaching were virtually of canonical status.

Though factions within the ranks of literalist fundamentalism disagree over the precise sequence of events, those who adhere to the Darby-Scofield version believe that the triggering action will be "the Rapture." This term, not found in the Bible, means "the catching up," and refers to the scene described in I Thessalonians 4:16,17: "For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air."

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