Waiting for the Apocalypse

Waiting for the Apocalypse August 8, 2017


I have spent a good deal of time this summer reading various materials in early preparation for a colloquium called “Apocalypse” that I will be team-teaching with a colleague from the English department next spring. Although this is well removed from my purported “areas of expertise” (one of the reasons I happily agreed to develop this new course), I’m particularly interested in what can be learned about human morality and psychology by studying apocalyptic stories in literature, movies, and television. One of my first self-assigned tasks was a careful rereading of the Book of Revelation—it was an eye opener.

Revelation has been called the most controversial book in the Bible, for good reason. The author’s nightmarish prophecies and visions of natural disasters, violence, bloodshed, revenge, and retribution have spawned countless movements, predictions, and crackpots—many of them violent and dangerous in their own right. But what has particularly struck me this time around is that the author’s world view is remarkably familiar and contemporary.

The author, for instance, is highly paranoid. He assumes that those who believe as he does are under constant threat and are subject to persecution at any time—even when they aren’t being persecuted. The rhetoric of Revelation is no less compelling to those who imagine themselves to be persecuted than it is to those who actually are persecuted. The author of Revelation is a relentless hater who embraces the simple principle that anyone who is not with him is against him.

There is little evidence in Revelation of Jesus’ message as reported in the Gospels, a message of inclusion, self-sacrifice, and love; this book is all about winners and losers, judgmentally drawing boundaries between saints (like the author) and everyone else, and—perhaps most shockingly—is fueled by promises of future retribution against and revenge upon those who are not in the inner circle. The author is obsessed with violence and looks with confidence toward what he suspects to be a near future in which all who are not part of the chosen few will be cast for eternity into fiery torment. The author of Revelation unambiguously promises his readers and hearers that God will avenge himself on their enemies and persecutors in a spasm of divine violence that can only be described as a holocaust.

I realize, looking back fifty years to my youth, that the Christianity in which I was raised, more often than not, was plugged into the psychology of Revelation rather than the Gospels. We were obsessed with determining who was in and who was out, were convinced that Christians—although significantly in the majority in our country—were under attack and constant persecution, and we sought to make a big show of how our self-proclaimed “purity” made us morally superior to everyone else (no movies, no dancing, no alcohol, no sex outside of marriage, and so on). Most importantly, we couldn’t wait for Jesus to come back, rescue us from this sinful world and, after the prophesied events in Revelation (which we struggled mightily to figure out and nail down), finally set us up as the winners that Jesus always promised that his followers would be.

My father was a Baptist minister, one of the founders and the president of a small Bible college in northern New England where I grew up. He was a dynamic preacher, a bit of a rock star in high demand among the various churches and summer conferences who sought guest preachers that would pack the pews and inject energy into their fundamentalist, evangelical flocks. Usually my dad was brought in for a series over a long weekend or even for a week of renewal/revival; I spent many hours, days, and weeks of my childhood along with my brother and mother at these events. My father’s themes, more often than not, were rooted in Paul’s New Testament letters, but every once in a while he would give a series of talks on “The End Times.” These were by far his most popular offerings—it would be standing room only every night.

In 1970, during my freshman year in high school, Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth was published. It fed our brand of Christianity’s obsession with eschatology—the rapture, tribulation, Anti-Christ, last judgment, Second Coming, millennium, and more—as drugs feed an addict. It was evangelical pornography—no one could get enough of it. We speculated about the meaning of events in the Middle East, how long before the events in Daniel and Revelation began happening, whether Henry Kissinger might be the Great Beast, and whether the rapture would happen before, in the middle of, or at the end of the tribulation. By this time my father was beginning to evolve away from his fundamentalist, evangelical roots, but I recall that his several consecutive evenings of meetings at his Bible school on Lindsey’s blockbuster were a smash hit.

More than any analysis or punditry over the past eight months, returning to Revelation has helped me understand why evangelical Christians voted in mass numbers for Donald Trump last November. Trump’s rhetoric during the presidential campaign and the first months of his presidency has exhibited many of the apocalyptic features that evangelical Christians are obsessed with in the Book of Revelation—winners vs. losers, aggression turned against those with whom one does not agree, a self-righteous but unearned confidence in one’s beliefs, paranoia laced with suspicion, and metaphors filled with violence and hatred. A certain brand of Christianity not only is comfortable with this rhetoric, but also defines itself in precisely the same terms while adding God into the mix. Revelation provides potent rhetorical weaponry in the types of culture wars that have swept over our country in the past few decades, regardless of whether or not one is a person of faith.

As apocalyptic energies infect our political and religious discourse, we would do well to remember that the moral calculus of Revelation—the demonization of one’s enemies, the sanctification of revenge taking, and the notion that history must end in catastrophe—can be detected in some of the worst atrocities and excesses of every age, including our own. Persons of Christian faith have many resources to push back against this moral calculus, but we need to remember that these resources are to be found in the first few books of the New Testament—not in the last one.

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  • Ted Grimsrud

    I think I mostly agree with your theology and your politics, Vance. But I think I strongly disagree with your interpretation of Revelation. I think Revelation is actually a radical book of Jesus-oriented peaceableness and resistance to Empire. It has just been misunderstood.

    The best scholarly commentary is a recent volume in the Anchor Bible series by Craig Koester. A good, more popular level book is Michael Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly. I’ve written quite a bit on Revelation: https://peacetheology.net/the-book-of-revelation/

    • Vance Morgan

      Thanks for your insights–I also have studied Revelation a great deal. I do agree that the best reading of Revelation locates it in its Roman Empire historical context. That does not, however, undermine my point that the violence in the book resonates both with our political discourse and the surface level reading of many Christians.

      • If I may weigh in–I hope that you might give Revelation a second (or third or…) chance, as Ted suggests. For a poetic theological approach, try Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder. For a political-historical approach, try Mennonite Nelson Kraybill. Or my own book, as I too read Lindsey et al as a teen.

        • Since Hal Lindsey keeps coming up, I’ll add a small but perhaps interesting side note. In my Evangelical and pre-progressive days, I was “near” Lindsey for a time. I’d read “Late Great Planet…” and generally knew the Dispensationalist scheme pretty well from Talbot Seminary (then so-called). I was working for Dr. Walter Martin and somewhat privy to his doings and some relationships. Since both he and Lindsey were centered at the big “Melodyland” Church in Anaheim at the time, I became aware that their differences were more than just pre-mill vs. post-mill (Martin’s leaning if not stated position… I can’t recall exactly). As I remember it (from nearly 40 years ago now), Martin had little respect for Lindsey, I think based largely on how he conducted himself. It may have involved some unpleasant interactions personally, also… I’m not sure.

        • Thanks for mentioning another Mennonite source (in addition to Ted Grimsrud). As I can find time, I’m hoping to read a bit more from that perspective. My mother was raised Mennonite and I slightly knew some Mennonite relatives, and had some as friends in college or later (such as Ted, when we were in Oregon together). I’ve respected and admired a number of their commitments and “ways”, though in more recent decades not aligned much with their more conservative branches, as my own extended family tended to be closer to. I much appreciate Ted’s work and will keep an eye for opportunity to check out Kraybill (and others).

          I’m particularly interested in promoting cross-pollination and perhaps cooperation between the more progressive Mennonites, particularly, and my own Protestant progressive “clans” such as the United Church of Christ (where I attend), the United Methodists and the Process people in their different varieties.

          • Vance Morgan

            You might want to check out the growing Mennonite/Catholic dialogue that started several years ago at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville MN. I can provide you with contacts if you like.

      • kzarley

        I think the book of Revelation had some application to the Roman Empire up to AD 70, but most of it, such as the trumpet and bowl judgments, apply mostly to the yet future of this age. Rev 19.11ff is clearly the second coming of Christ at the end of this age. And Rev 21-22 can most certainly apply to nothing else than during the time of the world yet to come. People who reject this book due to the violence don’t understand, or believe, that the period of about 3.5 years that immediately precedes the end, as stated repeatedly in both Daniel and Revelation and mentioned by Jesus in his Olivet Discourse as “the (great) tribulation, will be such a horrible time in which the Antichrist will put so many millions of Christians to death, and I think it could be a billion or more because the end will not be for at least a century.

        • Vance Morgan

          The confidence that you show in your specific interpretation is Impressive, just as impressive as the confidence with which dozens of other similarly detailed, but completely different, are offered is also impressive. Certainty in such things is overrated.

          • kzarley

            First, you are undermining a book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, and calling its author “paranoid.” You speak as if this book is not inspired by God and thus does not belong in the Bible. Nearly all Christians have accepted the book of Revelation as part of the Bible. During the latter days of this age, Daniel and Revelation will be very important books to Christians because the main thrust of the prophecies of those books will be happening to them. You should be ashamed of yourself for taking this view. You reveal that you have a negative reaction to your experience in youth when your father taught these things. You need to get over it. You know the end of this book, “if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city” (Revelation 22.18).

            Second, I know quite well the diversity of commentary on Revelation. I’ve been a serious student of biblical eschatology for 57 years. I’ve written seven theological books, and three of them are on eschatology. I’m writing a series of ten books on eschatology called Still Here. My website is kermitzarley.com. People disagreeing on the interpretation of biblical prophecies does not prevent me from having some confidence about my understanding of the subject. At the same time, I believe strongly that Christians should have humility, love, and respect for others. But in this case, you need to be rebuked, which the Bible tells about too. I also believe that biblical eschatology is the most difficult subject to understand in the Bible. It has in the past been somewhat unfathomable, but God’s people will increasingly understand its truths as civilization nears the end of the age.

          • Vance Morgan

            Thanks for your brief vita–I won’t bore you with mine, but trust me, I have more than earned the right to my perspective and my comments. You are rather thin skinned if you find my comment to be lacking in respect. I’m simply pointing out that confidence in such matters has to be tempered by dealing with an equal confidence on the part of scholars who have spent just as long studying the subject matter as you have. I don’t accept your rebuke, since I wrote nothing that any objective person would consider as worthy of rebuke.

            As to your comments about my own perspective on Revelation, you are assuming a lot if you think that playing the “Bible is the inspired word of God” card is going to have the slightest impact on me. I was raised in a world of Bibliolatry, taught to treat every word of the Bible as divine authority, and know first hand the damage that can be done to an inquiring mind by such commitments. The Bible did not fall out of heaven as divine dictation–the books of the Bible were compiled over several centuries by fallible human beings who undoubtedly made choices that are worthy of challenge, both in terms of exclusion and inclusion. I do question whether Revelation should have made the final cut, especially given the damage that human beings have done to each other over the centuries in its name.

  • Frank Blasi

    Yes, I used to have two books of Hal Lindsey, “The Late Great Planet Earth” and “There is a New World Coming”. Both of these I have lent out and I have never seen them again.
    One of Lindsey’s big problems was that he believed that the Rapture will occur before 1990. This was endorsed by his later two books: “The 1980’s Countdown to Armageddon” and “Terminal Generation”. However, as a newly-converted Christian back in 1973, I did find “The Liberation of Planet Earth” very helpful. This book opens with his own testimony about how his was converted to Jesus Christ as Saviour whilst working on a Mississippi ferry in New Orleans, after a series of unsuccessful baptisms he submitted himself to during his adolescent years. His acceptance into Dallas Theological Seminary, reputed for their toughness in accepting new candidates, convinced me that he became a modern-day spokesman of God, and I became a committed follower.
    But it was lately that I read about his marriage problems, and how he divorced and remarried more than once. It was this kind of revelation, together with the rather embarrassing fact that the eighties came and went and we are still all here – that Lindsey’s hold over me was weakened, although to this day I still have some respect for him.

    • Tim

      Every generation that has predicted the dispensationalist/ futurist version of the return of Jesus in their lifetime has been wrong. Perhaps they’ve been missing something? At the very least, it casts a huge amount of doubt on that interpretation of Revelation.

      • Vance Morgan

        It doesn’t seem to have stopped them from interpreting it in that manner.

        • Tim


      • kzarley

        Any futurist who ever predicted the day of the second coming of Christ was dead wrong in doing such a thing. Futurism clearly teaches against doing that, first of all on the basis of Mt 24.36/Mk 13/32. So, it is not a good futurist who does that. Historists have done that too and been proved wrong. Furthermore, dispensationalism classical/historic premillennialism differ on several points, starting with the tribulation.

        • Tim

          Interesting, because Hal Lindsay went to a very premill dispensationalist/ futurist college (Dallas Theological).

          • kzarley

            No, DTS is a seminary and has been since its founding in the mid-1930s. Tim, I don’t know what you’re saying here. See my remark above to Frank Blasi. In my next book, I intend to add more about my experience at Berachah (as I did in my Solving the Samaritan Riddle) and connection to Lindsey. (See my website kermitzarley.com.) BTW, I object to this author’s characterization of the book of Revelation. Since he says, “this is well removed from my purported ‘areas of expertise,'” maybe he shouldn’t be writing and teaching about it.

          • Tim

            I know it’s a seminary. My Dad graduated from there. He went there at the same time Hal Lindsey attended. I know what they teach, because I was raised with it.
            Even if what you are saying about end times doesn’t quite fit with that exact model of eschatology, it sounds very similar.

          • kzarley

            It is. I was a Dispensationalist from 1959 to 1971. I’ve been a historic/classical premillennialist ever since. The main difference is that they are pretribulational and I’m posttribulational.

          • Tim

            Ah, that would explain the similarities.

    • kzarley

      I don’t think Lindsey ever publicly predicted, or wrote in his books, that Jesus would return at some such date or thereabouts. He suggested that the rapture COULD occur in 1981, the Second Advent in 1988, based on his interpretation of “generation” in Mt 24.34, which was that it would be forty years after modern Israel became a nation, which is generally regarded as 1948 due to the Jews’ Proclamation of Independence being published on May 15, 1948. But that interpretation was peculiar to Lindsey. He didn’t get it from Dallas Theo. Sem. professors or Bob Thieme, pastor of Berachah Church in Houston, which was Lindsey’s church as was mine.

  • Bill Burchard

    Given that Revelations stands in stark contrast to the Gospels, perhaps the time to remove it from the New Testament is long overdue.

  • As the exchange between my friend Ted and you points out, interpreting Revelation is very difficult. One thing I think would lower the stakes and help a lot would be a needed redefining of biblical “canon”.

    For those largely uneducated on it, creation and confirmation of our “received” set of books came only slowly and with great controversy. Revelation is one of the latest-confirmed and most debated of the NT. Let’s take it as interesting and potentially useful early Christian literature and not “The Word of God”.

    • Vance Morgan

      Amen, Howard! Would that some of the people in the world of my youth had understood the Bible in that manner.

    • Satanic_Panic

      Using that logic, why accept any part of the buybull as ‘the word of god’?

      • That’s part of my point… though implied more than stated: the Bible is a human record of human ideas and experiences, mixed with various forms of stories and elements of actual history in some places. Not “The Word of God” as typically meant.

  • Greg Frederick

    As I grew up in the same milieu that Vance describes (literally, as his father was also the father figure in my own life), I found this very interesting and enlightening. Many of us “reformed radical fundamentalists” had a very difficult time over the last 2 years squaring the paranoia for strict lifestyle rules with the overwhelming acceptance of a political leader who proudly flaunted virtually all of those rules. I had previously noted the tendency toward authoritarianism as a common denominator, but this apocalyptic comparison is very apt as well. While I no longer espouse any sort of fundamentalist Christianity, that is not the point, and I do not mean to demean anyone who does. Some of the most authentically spiritual people I’ve ever known were fundamentalists (including my own mother), and we share many relatives who are. The point is to be an active thinking person, always willing to re-examine core beliefs as new information becomes available. The challenge is to maintain an authentic spiritual life within that context.

    • Vance Morgan

      Thanks for this, cousin! I just posted this essay on the family Facebook site–I’d love to hear comments from those who would still consider themselves fundamentalists.

  • 1PeterW

    Perhaps in understandable over-reaction to your fundamentalist upbringing, you’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater in your dismissive attitude toward John of the Apocolypse. For one thing, these Christians were indeed being persecuted at least some of the time–even if it was under Domitian’s reign vs. Nero (666). Second, you’re assuming all this is intended to be literal vs. metaphorical imagery, which is more in keeping with the apocalyptic genre. Please read William Stringfellow, Jacques Ellul, and Vernard Eller’s “The Most Puzzling Book of the Bible,” for a different, more radical perspective, not to mention the wonderful imagery of the New Creation and the New Jerusalem (NOT heaven,) which can be seen as inclusive vs. exclusive (Cf. the song “Twelve Gates to the City.”)

    • Tim

      I think I know where you’re coming from. Revelation can’t be taken literally. It is full of symbolism. Apocalyptic language is often hyperbolic as well.
      I was raised in a more or less fundamentalist background but I am no longer one. I interpret Revelation very differently now, more along the lines of what these and other authors are suggesting.

    • Vance Morgan

      I am not interpreting Revelation in any particular way. The essay is about how many Christians read it and how it has shaped their understanding of their faith–and understanding that resonates strongly with what we find in culture and politics today.

  • Robert Landbeck

    “We couldn’t wait for Jesus to come back” Yet the expectation of that event, like Christology itself is a human theological construct, mired in layers of myth and misunderstanding. And those foolish enough to attempt to fix dates for that ‘return’ only to see them fail and face humiliation is a useful reminder of how little, if any true understanding of God actually exists. It is almost as if ‘scripture’ was a trap to expose the false religious, moral and spiritual pretensions of our species. As there has yet be any mere moral that has successfully defined the actions or intentions of God in a way that can be demonstrated and confirmed.

    As for the ‘event’. There is one very big question that nobody asks which is this. Will a second coming, should it happen, it there is a God, in our life time, be to confirm any existing faith tradition or to correct our understanding of that ultimate reality? Given the very large number [over three hundred across the entire scriptural record] of references to false teaching and interpretation, deception and self deception, anti Christs and even an arch deceiver, one cannot doubt that such an appearance must be accompanied by a serious sorting out and gnashing of teeth. And while the ‘religious’ may think themselves secure, it could very well prove to be that the ‘apocalypse’ is going to come down on their heads for teaching a theological counterfeit in place of the true Gospel, lost in ancient times and that now only Christ on his coming can reveal again.

  • Tim

    I personally am no longer waiting for the apocalypse, because it has already happened.