Are We There Yet? (from Chapter One)
Every year brings its share of dashed hopes and frustrated expectations. In 1988, the Denver Broncos were defeated in Super Bowl XXII, Tom Hanks came up short at the Academy Awards, Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts lost the race for the U.S. presidency, and the world's armies failed to end human history in catastrophic battle at Armageddon. The last disappointment belongs primarily to the twenty million or so readers of Hal Lindsey's 1970s bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth. Lindsey had argued that the world was poised for cataclysm, literally "of biblical proportions," after which Christ would return to reign for a thousand years. He calculated that these things ought to occur within forty years--a "biblical generation"--of the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948. "Many scholars who have studied Bible prophecy all their lives believe that this is so."1
It is not so. 1988 came and went with nary a whiff of sulphur. But prophetic interpretations are malleable as Playdough and resilient as cockroaches. Post-1988, there is no end to the writing of such books, both by Lindsey himself and by his many imitators, including Tim LaHaye, whose dark End Times novels, the Left Behind series,2 have sold tens of millions of copies to date. In fact, the Evangelical Studies Bulletin recently named LaHaye "the most influential Christian leader" of the past quarter century.
Even in today’s sluggish economy, prophetic interpretation is a growth industry, what Robert Jewett calls the "doom boom".3 Volumes predicting the Second Coming line the shelves of Christian bookstores, competing for space with Last Days videos, charts, tracts, and novels. Search the Internet for terms like "apocalypse" and "return of Christ," and you will be directed to tens of thousands of websites. Clearly, a lot of people are intensely interested in what the Bible has to say about the future. Why? Surely curiosity plays a big part, as does a sincere desire on the part of many to understand the Scriptures. Less laudable motives also are in evidence. For a community that prizes the Word, a knowledge of biblical esoterica can bring crowds, status, and authority like nothing else. It is no accident that many well-known Bible teachers regularly offer new, idiosyncratic interpretations of prophetic texts. "Profounder-than-thou" competition is very real in Christian circles. Last Days preaching also is used to generate fear, most frequently employed for the sake of evangelism: "Turn or burn! Fly or fry!" Enthusiasm for the end shows no sign of ending anytime soon.
But that is not the whole story. For every Christian captivated by the subject, there are many others who either ignore or dismiss it. Their reasons are plentiful. The matter may seem peripheral at best, incomprehensible at worst. Biblical language about the end strikes some as vindictive and offensive. Many find the whole thing an embarrassment. What generation has not read itself into the biblical texts, only to be proved wrong? Worse still are the myriad of silly, sometimes grievous acts that have been committed under the intoxicant of prophetic expectation. (Think Marshall Applewhite and the Heaven's Gate community.) Regrettably, the book of Revelation in particular has a lamentable history as the favored text of miscreants and dupes. (Think David Koresh and the Branch Dividians.) For still others, End Times belief is an unwelcome inheritance from the family's primitive past, an uncouth relative who should have been shown the door long ago. Ancient ideas about a "new heaven and a new earth" are so time bound as to be irrelevant. Indeed, some modern biblical scholars have taken considerable pains to construct a "historical Jesus" respectably free of such barbarity (see Chapter Six).
Extremism is often the easiest but seldom the truest course. The uncritical embrace and the unqualified rejection of the biblical hope are equal but opposite errors: in the first instance, faith is robbed of reason; in the second, faith is deprived of substance. Those most enthralled with prophecy seldom ask difficult and uncomfortable questions about the context and world-view of the biblical authors, the extent to which their expectations went unfulfilled, and so on. Those quickest to reject these same texts show little grasp of the historical and theological difficulties triggered by their dismissal. So it is wise to avoid, as it were, both uncritical infatuation and overhasty divorce. Still, each side has a point. On the one hand, it is important to recognize that Christian faith is grounded in hope of the triumph of God. To give that up is to jettison the core of historic Christian belief. On the other hand, it is dishonest not to admit the problems inherent in the biblical expressions of this hope. To avoid the hard questions is to retreat into a naive and ultimately unsatisfying faith. These texts are troublesome, but they have something vital to say to contemporary Christians. What is needed is an approach that takes seriously both possibilities and problems and so encourages both a faithful and a thoughtful response. What follows is one small attempt to meet this challenge.