I think there are some very deep human needs that are met by the prophetic
belief system. Prophetic belief gives meaning to history. It gives a sense of
drama to history. It gives an order and shape to human experience. We need
beginnings. We need endings. Prophetic belief provides that. It also, if you
accept certain interpretations that are being presented, gives meaning and a
sort of coherence to current events, world events, and what's happening
technologically and politically in the world. It all fits into a kind of
master plan that is unfolding, and I think for many people it's very reassuring
to have that sense that someone is in charge ... .
One of the things I find most interesting about prophetic belief viewed
historically is how in every time period of history there have been groups,
there have been individuals who have looked at the events of their day and
concluded: This is it. This is the moment. And you can trace that from the
medieval period, from Joachim of Fiore and Hildegard of Bingen,
through the Reformation period, the incredible crisis, the sense of
crisis that the Reformation brought to Europe. Seventeenth century
Puritans in England were convinced that the corruption of the Catholic
Church and the corruption of the Church of England were signs of the end times.
Right down through the crisis of World War I and the crisis of World War II,
the Cold War period, each generation somehow has found circumstances that are
convincing to them that the end times are upon us. ...
When we talk about prophecy belief, what are we talking about?
Prophetic belief is a belief that human history has a meaning, a divinely
ordained meaning, and that that meaning is embedded within sacred texts; and
that through interpretation, through proper understanding of those texts, one
can understand the pattern of history as it has unfolded in the past, and even
more importantly, as it will unfold in the future. Perhaps not precise dates,
but the general pattern becomes clear from a study of prophetic scripture.
What do we not understand about the staying power of these ideas?
I think a lot of us have tended to assume a kind of progression of human
history, that religion gradually fades out with the rise of science and the
rise of different understandings of our natural world. A kind of
secularization model of history has been very pervasive in the teaching of
history. What we're seeing is, the secularization model really doesn't work.
Belief systems, including this biblical prophetic understanding of history,
have enormous staying power, even in an era of high technology and advanced
science. Why? It appeals to some very basic human needs. History is
meaningful. History has a beginning. History will have an end. And history
will culminate in a glorious era. Beyond the horrors of the Great Tribulation
lies the Millennium. So at its deepest level, this is a utopian belief system.
It speaks to the human need to believe that life somehow must be better than
we're experiencing it today; that a very different kind of society must be out
there somewhere, if only we could achieve it. The prophetic belief system
speaks to that need in a very profound and direct way. And I think that helps
us understand its remarkable staying power.
Where does the power of this apocalyptic message come from?
The apocalyptic message has enormous power for various reasons. One is,
ironically enough, the terror that it inspires. The vision of the future
that's embedded in the apocalyptic world view is really a frightening one. But
yet, combined with the fear, is a sense of meaning, and also the sense that as
individuals we can escape the true terrors that lie ahead. And that's where
the Rapture belief becomes so important, because horrible events will be
unfolding in the future, but true believers will be spared all of that because
they will be taken in the Rapture and spend that time with Christ in the skies.
So there's the sense of fear that comes with thinking about those events,
combined with the sense of escape, the sense of personal redemption from all of
that, that I think is one of the sources of strength of this belief system.
What are the circumstances that can tip people into a millennial or
apocalyptic world vision? What are the forces that come together to push
people toward an apocalyptic view?
Apocalyptic beliefs feed, I think, partly on social-economic circumstances. So
we have the most recent example of 1930s Germany, where Nazism and its
prophecy of the Thousand Year Reich flourished in economic collapse. We get
similar instances in the Middle Ages. But there's also the question of belief,
and why should be attracted to particular prophecies, particularly prophecies
of the end of the world. And I think that social-economic pressures themselves
don't really explain why the beliefs take particular forms. We can see that
they might indicate periods of popularity, but not the nature of those beliefs.
Apocalyptic belief thrives in oppression. For oppressed people, a prophecy of
the end of the world offers relief from their suffering and hope that their
suffering will come to an end. So the Book of Daniel was written to
encourage the Jews in their revolt against the Greeks. Christianity, which is
the apocalyptic religion par excellence, actually developed out of Judaism
partly as a result of the Roman conquest of Palestine. And then we can move
down through Reformation, when the German peasants flocked to the
reformers' standards in order to try and release themselves from feudalism.
And then to the 20th century, where we have Marxism explicitly appealing
to the oppressed of the world, and the great classic slogan: Workers of the
world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains. And then finally the
success of Nazism taking root in the economic and social collapse of Germany
between the wars.
What I would characterize as the problem of apocalypticism is something just
absolutely astounding when you think about it. It's a system of thought that
has a 100 percent failure rate; that would be one way to put it. That is, you
think of all the vast range of history and which scenarios have been put forth:
This is the Antichrist; this is this; or this is that; this is going to happen. None of those things have turned out to be the case. And yet the pieces get
picked up again. People open the Bible again. They read it in a new way, in a
new situation. And I think that has to do fundamentally with the dynamics of
the Biblical text itself, that these set pieces can move on through history,
and the Bible and the place that it has in our culture ensures that this will
go on indefinitely, I think. ... The idea endures because it's in the Biblical
text. And it's the text of the Bible, I think that gives power to these
possibilities. But to fit these possibilities with the real world, there's
such a juxtaposition and such a disjoining of events with fulfillment that
prophecy is always reaching forward and predicting, but then the events
themselves don't necessarily follow. So the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein is going
to invade Jerusalem, take over, and become the Antichrist. But instead, he's
defeated. So he's not the one. In World War II, Adolf Hitler. What a perfect
Antichrist, even a persecutor of the Jewish people. But he commits suicide and
is defeated by the Allies. So again and again, we have this crescendo of
possibilities that then become falsified by the reality of history. And that's
the pattern that we've faced throughout the ages. And yet the texts are still
there, predicting (if they're read literally) that this is the way that things
will wind up, this is the way the end will come. ...
Apocalypses are deeply symbolic, deeply mythological. Apocalyptic literature
is a re-invention of the mythological motifs going back to the ancient dragon
conflict, of Sumarian mythology. So apocalyptic literature doesn't work through discursive, rational presentation. It's symbolic, it's recapitulative
or repeating, and it's deeply emotional, in its appeal. ...
The great motifs of the conflict between good and evil, that according to the
combat myths, shaped the beginning of history, in both the Jewish religion and
later in the Christian religion, are shifted, in a way, towards the end, so
that history has a continuity, and it demonstrates the on-going conflict
between good and evil, which will reach a final goal, a final solution if you
will, when evil is ultimately defeated. So in a sense it's about odyssey, it's
in a sense proving that God does indeed have control over history, and
explaining why there is evil and conflict in the world at present.
I think it's crucial to our thought today. Even when we have secularized
versions of the apocalypse as we often see today. That is, we need to make
sense out of history. Both the individual history of our own lives, and the
history of the race, and the history of the cosmos. And one of the fundamental
ways to do that, was the way of the apocalypse. It's not the only way, other
societies have envisaged other modes of history, cyclical modes of history or
the like. But the apocalyptic mode is crucial to much of western history, and
the three monotheistic religions. ...
I think the central message is God's absolute control, or lordship over
history. John would say that even though the history that we live in at the
present, is a history of dire crisis, with the conflict between good and evil,
nevertheless, he's holding out the hope, the sincere hope to Christians that
God is in control over that history. And through tremendous trial and
tribulation, and a certain kind of judgment and crisis, there will be a triumph
that is sent to the heavenly Jerusalem. ...
I think a lot of us are trying to make sense of life. And we know that life
begins at birth, and ends in death. And in between that, that expectation, of
death gives structure to the way in which we live. And in that sense, what the
apocalypse does, and the apocalypse mentality does, is to expand that
individual sense of process, towards a goal, and try to incorporate history
within that understanding. ...
... The failure of things to happen at a certain date, doesn't squash the human
desire to make it good, just, a true world, and to make people at least more
perfect than they are now. So as long as there is a human desire to renovate
the world, and to renovate individuals, there are going to be millennial
movements. So in some ways, the date is a non-issue, because that human desire
will always be there. The date focuses people's attention and sometimes their
activities and might raise them to a higher pitch. ... I think what matters
most in apocalyptic or millennium movements is that they are either dourly
optimistic, or sunnily pessimistic. That is, they know we're in a bad time
now, but things will be better, immensely better, almost immeasurably better in
the future. REM had it great. People who believe in apocalyptic teachings say
things like, "It's the end of the world as we know it, but I feel fine."
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