Two Sundays from now, parts of the world will get to witness yet another lunar eclipse, this time the fourth in a set of four (aka “tetrad”). To astronomy enthusiasts, this is just another lunar eclipse, but to many evangelical preachers and their wide-eyed congregations, this signals THE END OF THE WORLD.
Or maybe not the end of the world—just the beginning of the end. See, some of them believe in a thing called “the rapture” which was most recently popularized by the Left Behind series of books and movies put out by Tim LaHaye, but first entered the mainstream in 1970 in a book by Hal Lindsey entitled The Late, Great Planet Earth. For these folks, the end of the world doesn’t just happen all at once. In their interpretive framework, there is a series of events that have to take place before Jesus can come back and fix the world, so to speak, or else totally wipe it out and start over again, depending on to which camp you belong. The rapture is one of those events, and I’ll explain where that idea came from in a second.
Fear Mongerers of the Month: John Hagee and Robert Jeffress
Current bloviations making the headlines this month come from John Hagee, an evangelical preacher in San Antonio, TX, who is disproportionately fixated upon the nation of Israel and its role in fulfilling his particular understanding of biblical prophecy. In fact, he helped to create an organization called Christians United for Israel for the express purpose of advancing support for Israel among American voters (Spoiler: Israel can do no wrong). Hagee has written an entire book on the meaning of next week’s lunar tetrad, which he calls “blood moons,” taking his cue from another preacher named Mark Blitz, who first thought up the idea but who (unfortunately for him) lacked the promotional apparatus to make millions off of scaring people like Hagee does.
Now, as the folks at EarthSky have explained succinctly, there have been 55 of these tetrads since the 1st century AD, 7 of which have already coincided with both the Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles (which is why Hagee and others keep making such a big deal of this). There is truly no logical reason why this particular lunar tetrad would stand out among all the other which have happened in precisely the same way other than the fact that this time it’s happening during Hagee’s pastorate.
That, and of course now same-sex marriage is legal in United States. And given that the history of the human race—nay, the eternal purpose of God himself from the beginning of time until this moment—hinges on what America does, clearly letting two women marry in this country means it’s all over. Just pack it up now, there’s nothing left but for the world to end.
You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. Another Texas preacher who’s been peddling endtimes madness and tying it to LGBT marriage is Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist, Dallas. Like Hagee, he too believes marriage equality must spell the end of the world as we know it, and he believes this puts us in a situation so desperate that we should consider voting for Donald Trump, whom Jeffress called a “competent leader” last week on FOX News, to lead our country. That endorsement prompted this warm reply from the Donald later that evening:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 11, 2015
Isn’t that sweet? Jeffress knows on which side his bread is buttered, and like Hagee, he’s making it work to his advantage every chance he gets.
So where did this fixation with endtimes come from, and what’s this business about a rapture? Who thought this stuff up?
Who Told You the World Was Ending?
Looking for the end of the world is a time-honored tradition that goes back many many centuries. That fact in itself should tell you something about the practice. It certainly has done a good job of motivating people to join a group over the years. The problem comes when people make their predictions too specific. When that happens, and the foretold date comes and goes without a bang, people quit following the leader.
This has never stopped groups from doing it, thanks to the neverending supply of people willing to believe whatever you tell them. Just check out this list of previous end-of-the-world predictions that never materialized. It never seems to kill a religious movement. Groups and leaders just reinvent themselves and gather a new crop of followers and on they go.
Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (full text here)
The apostle Paul likewise thought the world would end (or get rebooted) during his lifetime. In forecasting his view of the end times, he included himself among those who would still be alive at the second coming of Jesus:
After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (full text here)
Clearly both these guys misfired on this issue, which automatically should discount their views about the end of the world. But that’s not how faith works. Once you’ve decided you believe something, no amount of contrary evidence will cause you to let go of your belief. You just rework whatever happens to make sure it still fits what you were told. It’s prophetic reverse engineering. And like I said, they’ve been at it for centuries. It’s a pastime that never gets old.
Your “Biblical Worldview” Was Invented Around 1830
For the first nineteen centuries of the church, priests and preachers foretold that there would come a day in which a trumpet would sound (whether literally or figuratively) and as Paul said above people (and curiously nowhere else) would “meet the Lord in the air.” This is a rather dramatic picture, and regardless of how literally different interpreters throughout history have taken it, they had always assumed it would be among the many apocalyptic wonders that occur at the very end of the world as we know it.
But not John Darby. In the 1830’s this Anglican minister began preaching that the rapture would happen years before everything else foretold around the second coming of Jesus would take place. That was something new. In Darby’s view, what God wanted to do with the nation of Israel was completely separate from what he wanted to do with the rest of the world, even after the age of the Church had begun. For Darby, the Church Age is a parenthesis, a detour in the plan of God during which he will win as many non-Jews to faith in Jesus as he can just to stir up jealousy within the nation of Israel until such a time as they finally get back with the program.
But something has to freak them out and wake them up. That’s where the rapture comes in for Darby. Unlike all of his predecessors in church history, Darby suggested that the inclusion of non-Jewish believers wasn’t a part of the original program, and that therefore God would need to remove them from the earth in order to resume his original plan. By yanking people up out of their houses and cars and airplanes (leaving behind their clothes in more recent imaginations), the rest of the world would be awakened from their spiritual slumber and finally see that this Jesus guy really meant business.
[For more background on the development of Darby’s view, read “When All Good Sense Gets Left Behind.”]
Except that the way they usually envision it, the people of the world get really confused by all these mysterious disappearances and therefore throw all caution to the wind and put all their trust in one supreme leader of the world, the bogeyman they call The Antichrist. Never mind that the only biblical writer who uses that term speaks of “many antichrists.” For this particular narrative to stick, it helps to have one bad guy to fear. And fear sells, in case you haven’t noticed.
Jeffress’s followers have been so primed to see President Obama as the Antichrist that he’s had to go on record assuring them that Obama’s not personally the bogeyman, but that he’s “paving the way” for the real one to come along.
“I am not saying that President Obama is the Antichrist, I am not saying that at all. One reason I know he’s not the Antichrist is the Antichrist is going to have much higher poll numbers when he comes…President Obama is not the Antichrist. But what I am saying is this: the course he is choosing to lead our nation is paving the way for the future reign of the Antichrist.”
Once the president vacates his office (because remember term limits?) it will be interesting to see who the next bogeyman will be. When I was a kid it was always Russia, somehow. Then after the Soviet Union fell it had to be somebody from China. Then over time it shifted and became somebody from Eastern Europe (because they’re always a mess, right?). There will always be somebody Americans are primed and ready to fear. The current best candidates will most likely come from Islam. The key is to capitalize on people’s xenophobia and turn it into gold.
Let My People Think
I remember well when back in the mid-1980’s my Pentecostal grandmother passed along a cassette tape of a preacher who insisted that one day we would all have to receive on our foreheads or on the back of our hands “the mark of the beast” which he insisted meant a tracking device like a microchip implanted just below the skin. Thanks to modern technology, this is actually a practical possibility today, although I’m not personally cool with making it that easy for any government to track my every move, satanic bogeymen notwithstanding. But thanks to an internet meme that like a zombie will never die no matter how many times you “snopes” it, people around me are positively convinced that Obama wants to make this a reality and that this too plays into the end of the world.
My biggest beef with all of this is how gullible it keeps American evangelicals to be indoctrinated into intellectual dependence on their preachers for everything from how to dress, to how to speak, how to raise your children, and even to how you should vote. They have convinced entire generations of people that they need preachers and Bible scholars to interpret current events, and that the actions of entire voting blocs should be determined by how your church tradition reads its sacred text. The formula works quite well:
- You’re a fallen sinner who cannot know what is best on your own.
- God has placed men (almost always men) over you to tell you the right way to think.
- The rest of the world is under the control of the devil so you can’t listen to anything they say.
- Buy my book because then you will be among the chosen few who REALLY know how to interpret the times, for the days are evil.
Fear sells, and teaching people to distrust their own reasoning skills is a surefire way to keep people inside the fold. The world is always ending, no matter how many centuries have passed since people began saying that (and by sheer coincidence making money off of it). This month it’s blood moons, next it’ll be about whoever gets elected president next. Then maybe it’ll go back to being China or Russia again, who knows? All I know is they’ll keep reinventing it and remarketing it because it’s money in the bank, and people will fall for it every. single. time.
Finally in closing, I leave you with actual astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson‘s reaction to the endtimes hype about blood moons (I apologize for the video quality, that’s the best angle I could find):
* Interpreters have busied themselves reimagining what Jesus said about the end coming during his lifetime since it clearly didn’t come to pass. Most commonly they argue that while all the language he used sounds like the very end of all things, somehow it must not have meant that because clearly Jesus cannot make a mistake, right? Those same people often argue that Paul’s negative views about marriage stem from his belief that the world would end during his lifetime, and they admit his mistake but they can’t allow the same mistake in the mouth of Jesus. So they simply reinterpret his words and find a way to make it fit, calling it apocalyptic language and applying it to the end of Second Temple Judaism at the destruction of the temple in 70AD. That’s clever and all, and it makes Jesus look like he knew way more than he really did, but just try to convince John Hagee and his millions of followers who believe such language HAS to be literal, as evidenced by their fixation upon an actual moon turning the actual color of blood.