June 06 2006! A Day of Evil!
Well, actually, a day of making fun of evil. Or, more specifically, making fun of the notion of magical, superstitious evil.
So, in honor of the Day of Making Fun of Superstitious Evil, I am going to provide a TESTIMONIAL! Brothers and sisters! How I saw the light and STOPPED believing in the End Times! Hallelujah!
When I was young, and thought as a child, it was the 1970s, and Hal Lindsey's The Late, Great Planet Earth was the number one "non-fiction" bestseller of the entire decade. The Omen, released 1976, was a hit movie. There was a tremendous pop-culture awareness of the idea of "end times" "antichrist" and "rapture." As a Christian family, I and my parents both sort of assumed that we believed in it, at least in part -- we took for granted that it was part of our religion.
I remember distinctly discussing it with my parents one day, in the car, as we were leaving or arriving at church. I think it was 1977, and I was ten or eleven. I asked them what they thought about all this, and their thought was that it was silly to worry about it too much, since the same passages that people used to construct an end times narrative also specifically said things like "no man will know the hour" and that Jesus would come "like a thief in the night."
Which seemed reasonable to me. I decided it was time that I read the book of Revelation (Apocalypse in Greek) for myself. I thought it was weird, interesting, and completely psychedelic. I also thought that anyone who pretended to know exactly what it was all about, was lying. (That includes you, Hal Lindsey. Liar Liar pants on fire.)
Fast forward a few years. We were going to the Church of the Poison Mind (aka Lake Sawyer Christian Church circa 1980-83) and everybody believed passionately and enthusiastically in End Times, Antichrist and Rapture (oh my!). These people were absolutely obsessed with the imminent end of the world. And the devil. So I revisited the notion -- did I believe in that stuff? What did I believe about it?
And I realized that it didn't make any difference. Their rhetoric was always "get right with God because Jesus could come back any moment," as opposed to "get right with God because you could be hit by a bus today." There's no functional difference. Sure, it might be INTERESTING to live through some kind of exotic, apocalyptic, monster-filled end times before death, or be snatched up bodily to heaven as a means of death, but, you know -- dead is dead. And whatever lies beyond lies beyond. Heaven or hell or nothing or something we can't even begin to imagine, whatever it is, it's already waiting for us.
So, fast forward again, more than twenty years, and the year 2000 was fast approaching! In the mail, we received an invitation to go to some church and hear about the end times (which, I snickered to think, were supposed to be imminent back in 1977) and the book of Revelation.
I decided to re-read the book again, and this time I was struck by something. I was struck by the fact that the prophesied events are repeatedly referred to as happening "soon," and that it's peculiar that end times types like to interpret things like "666" literally, but "soon" figuratively, when, you know, really, the opposite approach makes more sense. And I was suddenly struck by the historical fact that this was written when the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was -- actually -- sort of imminent. And -- here's the slightly woo-woo part -- there was a forthcoming millenium. History was re-ordered to, basically start when Jesus was born. And then, over the next thousand years, Christianity spread to pretty much the entire planet, and became the dominant religion in what had been the Roman Empire.
So, not only was this book about (scary apocalyptic) stuff that had already happened two thousand years ago, it made some assertions, some predictions, that actually came true. Hey! Good on John of Patmos!
I felt like I was discovering this for the first time, like nobody had ever noticed this before! (It always feels that way when you figure out a book.) Naturally, I was incorrect. I discovered that, for a long time, the dominant interpretation of Revelation was that it was, actually, about the fall of the Roman Empire, that the various beasts and Antichrists were political figures of the time, and that the number 666 was likely a cryptogram for Nero Caesar. You know, the despotic leader who persecuted Christians and strummed a guitar while Rome drowned, I mean, fiddled while Rome burned.
I also discovered that the Catholic Church, and other Christian churches (Lutherans, for example) still hold to this view. They don't think Revelation is irrelevant -- in fact, sometimes it seems scarily relevant to our own times -- but they don't think it is unfulfilled prophecy. (Except the "I am coming again at the end of the world" part.) Protestant founder Martin Luther wanted to expunge it from the Bible entirely.
And, now that I thought back on it, I realized that, while I had grown up assuming that "we" Christians believed in a coming revelatory apocalypse, I had never actually heard a sermon on that topic. Not even at the Church of the Poison Mind. I couldn't remember a class on it in Sunday school (which, you might recall, is taught by daft old ladies). It hadn't come up in any Bible study guides. In fact, as far as I could tell, I picked up the notion through pure pop-culture osmosis.
In other words, exactly the same way a non-Christian would pick up on it.
So I was left with another mystery. How did this fringy belief become so mainstream? So taken for granted? Where did it come from? Who invented it? Hal Lindsey?
Well, it seems to have been at least partly invented by Englishman John Nelson Darby in the 19th century. According to the American Catholic web site, Darby began teaching, in 1830, that Jesus’ coming at the end of time would be preceded by a “rapture of the saints.” He claimed this had been revealed to him directly by God. He traveled extensively in the 1860s and 1870s in Europe, the United States, and Canada, where his views were very influential. They were incorporated into something called the Scofield Reference Bible, first printed in 1909. The 1967 edition is still in print, and, apparently, popular with some evangelicals.
Darby was probably influenced heavily by the book The Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty, written by Jesuit priest Manuel Lacunza, posing as a converted Jew under the name Juan Josafat Ben Ezra. The book was first published in 1811, and translated into English in 1827 by Scotsman Edward Irving, an acquaintance of Darby's, another major source of premillenialism doctrine, and also influential in starting the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements.
So, it sort of fits now -- these British guys got overexcited by the ideas of this Spanish guy, and came up with their own special radical new views, and their teachings corresponded historically with both the Great Awakening revival tent stuff, and with the 19th century fashion for making up new religions (the most successful of which was Mormonism). So the crazy people at the Church of the Poison Mind were actually part of a Charismatic/Pentecostal tradition reaching back more than a hundred years. Okay. That explains a lot.
But, here's the part that still bugs me. If my parents had taken me to a Mormon church, I would have known, "hey, I don't believe in this stuff because I'm not a Mormon." Yet, somehow, I lacked the cultural frame necessary to say, "hey, I don't believe in this stuff because I'm not a Pentecostal." Pentecostals still get to call themselves "Christians," without a qualifier. And that leads to a lot of confusion.
But I'm no longer confused. Except by the fact that so many people who aren't Pentecostals still think they believe in this wacky 19th century heresy.