signs of the end time
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Boyer is the Merle Curti Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

(more about Boyer)

It's extremely important to prophecy believers to be able to read the signs of the times, that is, events that are signalling to us that the end time is near, and such events as wars, conflicts, increasing levels of evil and wickedness in the world, rising environmental hazards, the emergence of a global economy--all of these are seen as signs of the times that signal to us that the Rapture is near; the final sequence of events could unfold, at any moment.

So prophecy believers are very careful readers of the newspapers. They're very careful observers of current events. And they view those events through a particular prism of biblical interpretation that they are convinced tells us the true meaning of these unfolding events. ...

What about signs of social decay? How are present day moral values seen as signs of the end?

When Christ met with his disciples just before his arrest, the disciples said, "Lord, tell us the signs of the last days. What will be the signs of thy coming?" And one of the signs that Christ mentioned to them was wickedness. "As it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be in the last days." Well, what were the days of Noah? They were days of sexual excess, days of total license in terms of sexual behavior. So when contemporary popularizers of Bible prophecy look around them at our contemporary world, in terms of what you can see on television, what you can see in movies, kinds of behavior that go on in contemporary culture, they say, "Clearly, these are the days of Noah. The days of wickedness foretold by Christ 2,000 years ago are here. They are present."

What effect did the bomb have on people's end time thinking?

The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, had a profound effect on prophecy believers. Almost within hours of the news, prophecy believers were turning to their Bibles and finding references in, for example, the Book of Second Peter--describing that the earth shall be destroyed by fire, the earth shall melt with fervent heat; and saying, "Now we know how this could come about," that nuclear destruction can in fact bring on the destruction of the earth that is foretold in the Bible. So throughout the period of the nuclear arms race, images of atomic destruction, global thermonuclear war are woven through popularizations of Bible prophecy as the scientific means by which this prophesied destruction will occur. ...

Does the bomb also raise the apocalyptic consciousness of people who are not prophecy believers? Does everybody in the world, in some sense, become more susceptible to apocalyptic thinking?

Yes. Right after World War II, right after the knowledge of the atomic bomb became worldwide, there was quite a surge of interest in biblical prophecy. One prophecy writer published a small book called This Atomic Age and the Word of God, which was actually condensed in Readers Digest. It entered into the secular realm of American culture, and even global culture, I think, in a way that had not been true before. So the atomic bomb is a very important event in terms of the history of apocalyptic belief in America.

What effect does the Cold War have on prophecy belief?

The beginnings of the Cold War in the 1940s was also viewed as extremely significant by prophecy believers. For a long time some prophecy writers had speculated that Russia is alluded to in the Book of Ezekiel in chapter 38, when we read of a kingdom of the north invading the land of the Jews and then being utterly destroyed as a result of that invasion. As early as the early 19th century, some interpreters had said the kingdom of the north is Russia. And certainly after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, they had said that.

With the beginning of the Cold War, now it was possible to link Russia very directly to the kingdom of the north whose destruction is foretold in Ezekiel 38. And countless paperback books and countless evangelists touring the country throughout the period of the Cold War build their message around this theme, the coming destruction of Russia. ...

What about events in the wake of the bomb?

Right after World War II and the atomic bomb, showing how the destruction of the earth might occur, the re-establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 was viewed as a prophetic fulfillment of very great importance. In Europe, the rise of the European Common Market was seen as laying the groundwork for the rise of the Antichrist. ...

It seems that for many people, with the fall of Communism, much of this kind of prophecy interpretation that had become so popular in the wake of WWII, the wind must go out of the sails. What happened?

Well, during the period of the Cold War and the period of the nuclear arms race, a particular interpretation of Bible prophecy gained tremendous popularity that assumed the coming destruction of Russia, assumed possible nuclear war in the future. We've now entered an era when world realities are very different. The Soviet Union doesn't exist any more. The nuclear arms race doesn't exist in its classic form. And you might have anticipated, "Well, Bible prophecy belief is going to fade."

In fact, it seems to be increasing in interest. And what we're seeing is a reworking of the scenario, drawing upon current events as they are today. So for example, there's much more attention today given to Islam and fundamentalist Islamic terrorism and so on. A lot of attention to Saddam Hussein and the rebuilding of Babylon. And an enormous amount of attention to the rise of the new global economy, multi-national corporations, mass communications technologies. These are seen as preparing the way for the Antichrist. . . .

James Tabor

What has changed in modern times concerning how we deal with Revelation?

Tabor is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

(more about Tabor)

A hundred years ago, 200 years ago, really, throughout modern history, people have had the same Bible, they've had the same texts, they've read them, they've wondered what they might mean. But in the 20th century, particularly, the last half of the 20th century, everything has changed. This is really the age of Biblical apocalypticism. The 20th century, and particularly the last half of the 20th century, has opened up a whole new range of apocalyptic possibilities. And that has to do with the possible literal interpretation of the words of the prophets. For example, there is a state of Israel. Israel is in control of Jerusalem. There's a possibility perhaps of a Temple being built some day. And so people are able to read these texts of scripture that anciently might have been seen as symbolic, as not literal, in the most literal way. ...

One of the things that is required for a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation is the kind of global economic network, both communications and finances and political alliances, that could only be possible now in the late 20th century. And when you read in the Book of Revelation about a worldwide power that causes every person on earth to be marked with a certain mark, clearly interpreters in the late 20th century think of things like computer chips and bar codes and that sort of thing. That would have been completely unimaginable 100 years ago, and the texts were read in a more symbolic way, not a literal way. ...

The Book of Revelation is somewhat like a downhill slide. Once you have an identification of your main characters, the two beasts and the two witnesses in Jerusalem and some military power controlling the Middle East and finally the whole world, then it moves very rapidly. But presently on the world scene, none of those things exist and so the interpretation of Revelation becomes very speculative. That is, there are not many events that people can point to and say, "See--here actually is the beginning the end." So it's almost the beginning of the beginning of the beginning of the end. It's this speculative possibility. Saddam Hussein. Maybe he will rise up and be the one to march on Jerusalem. But the fact is he hasn't, and he was utterly defeated in the Gulf War, and maybe we'll never hear from him again.

And so that's the kind of problem that interpreters have. So to put an actual time on it, is very difficult, and most of them don't do that. Date setting has pretty well passed from the Evangelical fundamentalist Christian scene. I don't think you're gonna find many preachers, or even avid interpreters of Revelation for our time, willing to put any kind of dates. You hear them talking in terms of "in the next few years," "over the next few decades," or "perhaps we're entering into a time when some of these things might take place." ...

Can you summarize the signs that would make most people think that the apocalyptic clock is ticking?

There are some general conditions in the late twentieth century-- I wouldn't necessarily call them signs of the end--but they have provided a context through which one could read the Book of Revelation more literally.

For example, the Book of Revelation talks about the massive and sudden destruction of millions of people. Well, this couldn't have been done in the past by ancient means of warfare, swords and arrows and so forth, and yet now it could be. The Book of Revelation presupposes some kind of world wide communication system. For example, when the martyrs, the two witnesses, are killed in chapter 11 of Revelation, it says the whole world will gaze at their dead bodies. I've seen many interpreters quote that and say, "Well, see this is CNN and Global News networks and satellite TV.". ... I think most prophetic interpreters of the Book of Revelation who read it literally and expect it to be talking about the near future, would point to the following things: the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb, which make mass destruction capable on the levels that you read in this book, a death count that high. Asteroids potentially hitting the earth, there's a lot of attention now about that. A geo-political power or force that could actually control the entire world with global communications.

[However], the things that are supposed to happen, by a literal reading of the book, that would really bring it on, are not on the horizon. I think you could say a stage has been set, as these interpreters would understand the world scene. That is, Israel does exist. The Israelis do control Jerusalem. Therefore, there's the possibility of other things happening.

In terms of what's supposed to happen, I think it's mainly three things--none of which have happened. There has to be a third Temple built in Jerusalem. There has to be a military ruler coming from the north, perhaps from Europe, to invade the Middle East, and enforce a world-wide system of religion on the world. That's certainly not happened. And there's got to be these two prophetic figures showing up, speaking from God's side, that would cause all sorts of droughts and plagues to come up on the world as reported in the Bible from the time of Moses and Elijah. None of those things have happened, and until those things happen, you really don't get going with interpretation. It's as if you're waiting and expecting and wondering--could these things happen? But nothing's moving on the stage you might say. It's all just in place, but the drama hasn't really begun. ...

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