Are the End Times Changing?

Are the End Times Changing? June 13, 2019

What the blazes is this?

Dave Hayes, a self-declared prophet, Christian author, and online activist who is better known as the “Praying Medic,” hosted a livestream on Saturday in which he proclaimed that Christians are going to have to rethink their conception of the End Times because President Trump is on the verge of creating a literal utopia on earth.

I … what?

Hayes argued that the contemporary interpretation of the events depicted in the book of Revelation, in which things grow worse and more corrupt as the return of Christ nears, is faulty and was crafted at a time when the world was regularly going through massive global conflicts. The many evangelical Christians who have been taught that version of the End Times, Hayes insisted, have been misled because “now we are past that” and are actually living in a world that is increasingly heading toward utopia, thanks to Trump.

This is beyond fascinating.

I should start by clarifying that I don’t think Hayes necessarily holds a particularly widespread view on this. That said, I do think we need to talk about this, because Hayes’ ideas of how Christians ended up with their current End Times theology is both spot on and completely wrong.

Before I turn to that, though, I feel I should note that part of the mystique of the antichrist is supposed to be that most people won’t recognize him. If everyone knew who he was right off, that would rather change the story. If I were on antichrist-watch, then, statements like Hayes’ would make me more concerned about the possibility that Trump may be the antichrist, not less. The antichrist is supposed to have a silver tongue. People are supposed to find him convincing. People are supposed to be taken in by his rhetoric and words. Check, check, and check.

As a quick aside, it’s worth considering what Hayes believes this “utopia” will look like. I look around and see things like immigrant children being kept in cages. Hayes, in contrast, argues that Trump is ushering in an era when there will be “no sickness, no disease, no poverty, no lack of anything.” (This somehow despite the fact that the Trump administration is still fighting to repeal overturn the Affordable Care Act, with no replacement in sight. Sure.)

Is this “utopia” is meant to be limited to native-born Americans? How is this a global view? End times theology is supposed to be global. Revelation doesn’t end with “and then God made the United States into a utopia.”

Anyway! Aside over!

What of Hayes’ claims about the development of End Times theology? This is something I actually know quite a bit about, so his claim jumped out at me:

Hayes argued that the contemporary interpretation of the events depicted in the book of Revelation, in which things grow worse and more corrupt as the return of Christ nears, is faulty and was crafted at a time when the world was regularly going through massive global conflicts.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Fundamentalist Christians developed dispensational premillennialism, the view of the End Times that Hayes references here, over the course of a series of prophesy conferences beginning in the 1870s. It was at these conferences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that ministers and theologians combed through Revelation and books of prophesy in the Old Testament to create the view of the End Times we are most familiar with today from Tim LaHaye’s novels. The Scofield Reference Bible, which codified and popularized dispensational premillennialism, was published in 1909.

And you know what? Everyone thought the fundamentalists were crazy! The period beginning in the 1870s, often called the Progressive Era, was marked by optimism about the future. People believed that they could fix the problems that beset society, that they could eliminate poverty and end suffering, if they only worked at it. People looked at science and technology as forces of good, and lauded the future with unparalleled confidence.

And into that, here come the fundamentalists, declaring that the world will get worse and worse, culminating in a horrific seven-year tribulation and the return of Christ! How nutty! How ridiculously laughable!

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, predominant Christian thought held that the End Times would be ushered in by the church through global evangelism and social uplift—and not just spiritual uplift. The “social gospel”—the idea that Christians could (and should) solve social issues like slums and poverty—was extremely popular. Only when Christians had rid the world of evils, creating God’s kingdom on earth, would Christ return. Most were optimistic about their generation’s potential to realize this goal.

To the people of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the world was getting better. It was obvious! Human progress, the application of Christian ethics through social uplift, whatever you wanted to call it—it was real and possible. Reformers were solving problems. Technology offered new and exciting tools for improving society. A new world was dawning. It was in this context that fundamentalists began declaring that the world would get worse and worse until Christ returned. This view was laughed off the stage.

Until WWI, that is. People often underestimate the extent to which WWI changed the world—and the global psyche. After WWI, when science and technology and all of the world’s learning and progress turned in on itself with extraordinary self-destructive power, fundamentalists’ End Times theology suddenly seemed almost prophetic. Those who proclaimed unending human progress were the ones who seemed laughable. It had all gone wrong.

With that context, let’s return to Hayes’ words:

Hayes argued that the contemporary interpretation of the events depicted in the book of Revelation, in which things grow worse and more corrupt as the return of Christ nears, is faulty and was crafted at a time when the world was regularly going through massive global conflicts.

Hayes is wrong that dispensationalist premillennialism was crafted “at a time when the world was regularly going through massive global conflicts.” It wasn’t. It was actually crafted at a time of great hope and optimism about the future. It is the case, however, that WWI’s sudden global turn for the worse—followed by the Great Depression, WWII, and the Cold War—appeared to legitimize this pessimistic End Times view. This apparent legitimacy may have played a role in the interpretation’s long term success and widespread adoption. It is also true that dispensationalism is not compatible with optimism, or with the world taking a decided turn for the better.

That’s why I said that Hayes was both spot on and completely wrong.

As fascinating as I find all of this on from a scholarly standpoint, I am somehow left profoundly saddened by Hayes comments. This is his desired utopia? The only thing at all resembling utopia I can think of is the strong economy, and even that has left many behind, struggling with student loan debt or a minimum wage too low to make rent. Everything else—from the instability Trump is creating abroad to his raw hatred of Central American asylum seekers (most of whom are families fleeing violence) to his walking back LGBTQ rights, his tax cuts for the rich, his constant and blatant lying, and his continued attempts to end some of the most important healthcare reforms in generations—is nothing short of dystopian.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Given how different our value systems are, it’s to be expected that my dystopia would be his utopia. Isn’t that the entire point of the Handmaid’s Tale? The leaders of Gilead set out to set up their own personal utopia, but what they created was, to everyone who didn’t share their particular beliefs and value system, a terrifying dystopia.

And maybe—just maybe—that’s why I find it far more interesting to focus on the historical accuracy (or not) of Hayes’ comments.

Before I close, let me ask something else. If individuals like Hayes are so quick to argue that the Bible should be reinterpreted based on current events—and so eager to conclude that past interpretations held for generations were made based on current events of the time and not on what the Bible actually says—how can they simultaneously claim that it is possible to know what the Bible actually says? After all, another generation might come along fifty years in the future and say “no no, those people before us had the Bible wrong.”

Yes, Hayes is one person, and I don’t think his views are very widespread at this point. But isn’t this what theologians of the End Times have always done—changed their interpretations with the times? True, I said fundamentalists developed Dispensational Premillennialism at a time when most of the world was profoundly optimistic. But it was also a time of great social change and other factors that undoubtedly influenced their interpretation. And in addition, holders of this view have woven current events into Revelation ever since, declaring FDR the antichrist in the 1930s, and, in the 1970s, assigning specific end times roles to Cold War powers that no longer exist.

Clearly, I should write more about eschatology. This is an utterly fascinating subject that may have more implications for fundamentalists’ interpretation of the Bible (and the Bible’s interpretability) than I’ve given much thought to. It’s not a surprise, at the very least, that someone (Hayes) would find a conflict between fundamentalists’ End Times theology and their current optimism in the age Trump. He’s absolutely right—it doesn’t particularly fit.

Note: The label “fundamentalist” was not coined until 1920. I referred to the attendees at the prophesy conferences that began in the 1870s as fundamentalists because it was there fundamentalism and its distinct theology was born, even if the label itself was not used until decades later. 

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