Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist; pp. 325-329
Rayford Steele is preaching Bruce Barnes’ final sermon, a belated survey of the Seven Seals of the Great Tribulation.* The seals come from the sixth chapter of Revelation. The interpretive framework of the Great Tribulation comes from Tim LaHaye’s premillennial dispensationalist folklore.
It was poor planning on Bruce’s part not to inform his congregation about the first five of the Seal Judgments until after they had already begun. It seems like that bit would have been both more impressive and more practical if he’d shared this information before the war and famine and mass-martyrdom began. But Rayford still dutifully recites this part of Bruce’s final sermon, reassuring everyone that if Bruce were still alive he would be standing there himself, reporting on how all the prophecies he’d neglected to warn them about were coming true:
“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse lead to the white-robed tribulation martyrs under the altar in heaven, that could be happening even as we speak. …
“Bruce taught us that the first four Seal Judgments were represented by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I submit to you that those horsemen are at full gallop. The fifth seal, the tribulation martyrs who had been slain for the word of God and the testimony which they held, and whose souls are under the altar, has begun.
“Bruce’s commentary indicates that more and more martyrs will be added now. Antichrist will come against Tribulation saints and the 144,000 witnesses springing up all over the world from the tribes of Israel.”
The 144,000 (singing, virgin) martyrs** bit is from a whole other chapter in Revelation, and can’t really be merged with the martyrs of the fifth seal the way Bruce and Rayford confuse them here. That’s like mixing up the giant earthquake of the sixth seal with the giant earthquake of the seventh vial. Rookie mistake.
But if it’s too late to warn the congregation of Seals 1-5, there’s still just barely time to foretell the next big calamity in the sequence — the massive earthquake that John’s Apocalypse describes as the sixth seal. “We need to know what the sixth seal is,” Rayford says:
“Bruce felt so strongly about this Seal Judgment that on his computer he cut and pasted right here into his notes several different translations and versions of Revelation 6:12-17.”
If someone has gone through all the trouble of cutting and pasting, then you know it’s gotta be important. (Not important enough to consult the original Greek — which Bruce, like most “Bible prophecy scholars,” apparently couldn’t do — but, still, important.) Rayford then reads the passage in question from LaHaye & Jenkins’ preferred New King James Version:
I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place. And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
See how much more impressive it is to make predictions before the things you’re predicting have already happened? It’s also much more practical, serving as a fore-warning that allows people to prepare for the coming event. (Granted, that’s less true in this case, given the whole nowhere-to-hide aspect of this prophecy, which makes it harder to prepare for than, say, the famine that Bruce failed to mention beforehand. But the general rule still applies.)
Note that the sequence of the fifth and sixth seals — mass martyrdom, then the giant earthquake — isn’t quite what you might expect. It’s not rocks fall, everyone dies, but rather everyone dies — then rocks fall.
Rayford looked up and scanned the sanctuary. Some stared at him, ashen. Others peered intently at their Bibles. “I’m no theologian, people. I’m no scholar. I have had as much trouble reading the Bible as any of you throughout my lifetime, and especially over the nearly two years since the Rapture. But I ask you, is there anything difficult to understand about a passage that begins, ‘Behold, there was a great earthquake’?”
No, this isn’t hard to understand at all. Once you put in place the general “Bible-prophecy” and End Times framework that treats all of Revelation as a linear sequence of predictions about a linear sequence of events predestined to occur literally during “the Great Tribulation,” then there’s no need for anyone to have a “theologian” or a “scholar” explain what this means. Which is why no one needed to have Bruce locked away in his study for the better part of a year poring over this text, struggling to decipher its meaning by cutting and pasting all the English translations of it into his notes. And why no one sitting there at New Hope Village Church shouldn’t have been able to read Revelation for themselves, making this and all of Bruce’s other sermons “interpreting” such passages redundant and unnecessary. And why it’s so utterly strange that the congregation seems shocked by this news, or are “peering intently at their Bibles” as though encountering this passage for the very first time.
Look, the book of Revelation is really short. You can read it in less than an hour. Yes, it’s trippy and dense and difficult — but that’s because it’s an ancient work written in an ancient literary genre that doesn’t even exist anymore. So if you really want to understand and learn from Revelation on its own terms, you’ll have to do lots of study to get a handle on what apocalyptic literature is and how it works, and lots of study on the first-century context of Imperial Rome and early Christianity and the fall of Jerusalem and all that.
But the whole point of LaHaye’s “Bible-prophecy” scheme is to simplify everything so that none of that work is necessary to understand this text. The “prophecy” framework makes it all clear and easy to understand. Rayford reminds us of that here, and thus also reminds us of how stupid and weird and unnecessary it has been for all of these people to have spent a year and a half sitting around waiting for Bruce to tell them what they could easily have figured out for themselves.
LaHaye and Jenkins seem dimly aware of this contradiction, so they abruptly shift gears into a discussion of an arcane intramural dispute among the guild of “Bible-prophecy scholars”:
“Bruce has carefully charted these events and he believed that the first seven seals cover the first 21 months of the seven-year tribulation, which began at the time of the covenant between Israel and the Antichrist. … The Tribulation did not begin with the Rapture. It begins with the signing of that treaty.”
For 99 percent of readers, this bit of occult gobbledygook will be dully confusing. For the other 1 percent, these are fighting words. See, some people are going around preaching that the Great Tribulation begins with the Rapture. These are false teachers — the blind leading the blind. Do not be led astray by them. Real, true Bible-prophecy scholars, like Tim LaHaye, know better. They know that the Great Tribulation actually begins with the signing of “the covenant between Israel and the Antichrist” — just as it says in the Bible. (Or just as it would say in the Bible if the Bible ever spoke of “the Antichrist,” which it literally does not.)Likewise, you may encounter foolish, deluded false teachers who insist that the seven-year Great Tribulation should be divided into two 42-month periods. This is madness and heresy. All right-thinking, orthodox Bible-prophecy scholars know that the seven-year Great Tribulation should be divided into four 21-month periods.
The point being that you should buy Tim LaHaye’s books and VHS tapes, but not those other guys’. And also that even though you don’t need anyone to explain what “a great earthquake” means, you still require the assistance of righteous scholars like LaHaye and Bruce Barnes to fully understand Bible prophecy.
“Hear me, from a very practical standpoint. If Bruce is right — and he has been so far — we are close to the end of the first 21 months. I believe in God. I believe in Christ. I believe the Bible is the Word of God. I believe our dear departed brother ‘rightly divided the word of truth,’ and thus I am preparing to endure what this passage calls ‘the wrath of the Lamb.’ An earthquake is coming.”
This is Rayford’s first sermon in an evangelical pulpit and already he’s mastered the rhetorical sleight-of-hand of the affirmation-as-accusation — that bit about “I believe in God. … I believe the Bible is the Word of God” and therefore if you disagree with anything I’m saying you must not believe in God or in the Bible.
But Rayford is right about the “very practical” aspect of this message. “An earthquake is coming,” is, in fact, news you can use while there’s still time to prepare. Rayford says that he is, himself, “preparing” for this coming earthquake — although we never actually see him doing anything of the sort “from a very practical standpoint.” He isn’t stockpiling food, water, medicine or other supplies. He isn’t seeking or planning any sort of shelter for himself or his family. And he has no qualms about sending Tsion Ben-Judah off to live in a sub-basement under a likely soon-to-be-toppled church building.
I suppose that what Rayford means is he’s preparing himself emotionally for the coming earthquake.
For his part, Buck finds this all very exciting. He’s so excited that he does something he hasn’t done for the past dozen chapters or so — he remembers that he’s supposed to be a journalist:
Buck was furiously taking notes. This was not new to him, but he was so moved by Rayford’s passion and the idea of the earthquake being known as the wrath of the Lamb that he knew it had to be publicized to the world.
That last sentence is a bit garbled. It almost makes it sound like Buck doesn’t care about the actual reality of the coming earthquake so much as he does what Rayford is calling it. But that couldn’t be right, could it?
Perhaps it would be his swan song, his death knell, but he was going to put in the Global Community Weekly that Christians were teaching of the coming “wrath of the Lamb.” It was one thing to predict an earthquake. Armchair scientists and clairvoyants had been doing that for years. But there was something about the psyche of the current world citizen that caused him or her to become enamored of catchphrases. What better catchphrase than one from the Word of God?
The weirdest thing there isn’t Buck’s musing on “catchphrases” — that’s silly and vapid, but given that Buck is a senior editor at a newsweekly magazine, it kind of works. I’ve seen enough Time and Newsweek stories on supposed cultural “trends” that I can imagine such a person thinking such things. What strikes me as far stranger is Buck’s dismissal of the significance of being able to publish a very specific and detailed prediction of a major, worldwide earthquake. I suppose “armchair scientists and clairvoyants” (?) have been predicting earthquakes “for years,” but he could do something those folks have never done — he could predict an earthquake and be proved right.
Like Rayford and Bruce and everyone else at New Hope Village Church, Buck is obsessed with the paramount importance of evangelism. He’s desperate to convince an unbelieving world that his End-Times Rapture gospel is true. And he has proof that it is. He’s got a list of dozens of specific, unprecedented events that he knows are about to occur. Sharing that list with the rest of the world would be overwhelming, incontrovertible proof that what he believes is true.
Buck could even do this without sticking his own neck out and risking the “death knell” of his cushy job at Antichrist Publications, Inc. He could run the full list of “Bible prophecies” as an odd-ball curiosity piece — even give it a snarky, derisive tone. “You’ll never guess what these religious nuts say is going to happen in the next few months.” He could drum up publicity by making a wager of it — “Global Weekly Editor Challenges Bible-thumper to Put Up or Shut Up With $1 million Bet on Earthquake.” That would reveal the proof of the truth for all the world to see.
Even apart from the overwhelming proof this would supply in support of his evangelistic efforts, there are also basic humanitarian reasons that Buck should be trying to convince the world to believe his prophecies for the months ahead. An early warning of this great earthquake could save lives. So could an early warning of the coming poisoning of the waters, or of the coming onslaught of the demon locusts with human faces and scorpions’ stings (something I don’t recall any “armchair scientists” ever predicting).
But Buck doesn’t consider prophecies or early warnings to be newsworthy. Even the massive earthquake and the sky rolling back like a scroll is not, in Buck’s eyes, newsworthy. For Buck Williams, the GIRAT, it’s only news if you’ve got a good catchphrase to go with it.
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* It’s difficult to sort out which words to capitalize when discussing all of this. I’ve opted to capitalize the Rapture, the Great Tribulation, and the Seven Seals because those seem like proper nouns. That’s a different approach than the one Jerry Jenkins takes. For Jenkins, the Great Tribulation and the Seven Seals are not proper nouns and do not need to be capitalized, but referring to the latter as the Seal Judgments does require upper-case because this is an Important Name assigned by Tim LaHaye and thus requires Extra Significance.
** The big, round, symbolically resonant number of 144,000 was a lot more impressive in John’s day, when the population of the whole world was only about 200 million. Nowadays — in a world approaching 8 billion — it’s not quite the same. The population of Syracuse, roughly. We can speculate what that figure might have meant to John and his readers, but we’re just guessing. It’s like the ages of the pre-Noah patriarchs in the book of Genesis. Those numbers probably meant something for the people who wrote them, but we have no solid idea what that was.