Living Without Blueprints

Some people look at the biblical book of Revelation as a blueprint for the end of time. It tells exactly when the end will come, how it will come and who will be punished when it happens. Those with this perspective buy up apocalyptic fiction like the "Left Behind" series and confidently pronounce that we are in the "end times." They may even associate certain modern day figures or happenings with supposed end-of-times events. There are three basic problems with this perspective: (1) It is counter to the pronouncements of Jesus himself; (2) It ignores the long history of people who have tried to use Revelation in this way; and (3) It is counter to the nature of faith itself. Let's look at these three problem areas more closely.

First of all, a carefully laid out blueprint for the end of human history is counter to the pronouncements of Jesus. Jesus clearly says about the time of the end, "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mt. 24:36, NRSV). Jesus then goes on to say what we should do about this: "Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming" (Mt. 24:42, NRSV.) Jesus' parables of the ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom (Mt. 25:1-13) and the unfaithful slave who beats his fellow slaves because his master is delayed in returning (Lk. 12:41-46) underscores this idea of his coming as at an unexpected time which catches people off-guard. So we see that Jesus did promise to return to this world, this plain of existence. He will do so to bring to completion God's plan to redeem creation. Included at that time will be a judgment against those who are being abusive to others, and hence are not ready for this return. But there will be no flashing warning signs. Jesus even spoke against those who go around looking for such signs. He told the scribes and Pharisees, "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign?" The alternative Christ called for was for people to live a life of constant submission to God and readiness to have our lives called into account.

Looking for a blueprint or exact timetable for Christ's return also ignores the long history of people who have sought to use the book of Revelation in this way. The current movie "Kingdom of Heaven" portrays some of the apocalyptic thinking behind the Crusades, an effort that cost many lives and put a black mark on the Christian faith which remains to this day.

One of the earliest writers to expound extensively on Revelation was 12th Century Italian monk Joachim of Fiore. He divided history into three periods, the period of the Father (the Old Testament), the period of the Son (the New Testament and early church) and the period of the Holy Spirit (which dawned with the coming of the Antichrist). He believed the Antichrist would come in his lifetime or shortly thereafter.

Thomas Muentzer assured his followers that their struggle against the landowners, rulers and leaders of Germany in the 1520's, was a divinely ordained struggle, and that in the war that would follow God would intervene. When the final showdown came in 1525, the peasants were arrayed against the German princes and their army, and Thomas Muentzer continued to assure them, even at the last moment, that Christ would intervene on their side. This would be the apocalyptic moment foretold in Revelation. They were singing hymns and awaiting a glorious triumph. Muentzer even assured them that he would catch the cannonballs in his shirtsleeves. It turned into the slaughter of five thousand ill-equipped peasants.

Protestant reformers like John Wycliff and John Foxe identified the Pope with the Antichrist. John Foxe was the author of the "Left Behind" of his era. He wrote a work that is popularly called "the Book of Martyrs", in which he proclaimed that history was divided into five periods, and the time of the Reformation was the fifth and final period. All of this he based on Revelation, and his work revived interest in that book. Certain early Anabaptists like Melchior Hoffman and Jan Mathys saw their own persecution as signs of the end of time. Hoffman predicted that the final judgment would come in 1533. While Hoffman believed in waiting for God to bring the new age, his disciple Jan Mathys saw his role as bringing it about by force. He and a man named Jan Beukelssen declared Munster, Germany as the New Jerusalem, and their radical followers flocked to that city. In 1534, they led a revolt to seek to establish the kingdom of God on earth. Mathys died in battle, and the revolt was soon put down. While most Anabaptists were peaceful, this rebellion did great damage to their movement.

The ascendancy of Oliver Cromwell in England in the middle of the Seventeenth Century was also built around apocalyptic expectations. Cromwell believed that replacing the corrupt, unfaithful leadership of England with a godly ruler would bring about the Second Coming and the kingdom of God.

Skipping ahead to the Nineteenth Century, we find William Miller teaching that the return of Christ would come in 1843. Miller was the founder of the Adventist movement, and taught a pre-millennial view, which is to say that Christ's Second Coming would inaugurate a thousand year reign of Christ on earth. Miller's movement attracted a lot of attention at the time, in part because they published a lot of literature, again making it reminiscent of the current "Left Behind" craze. When Christ did not return in 1843 (or in the adjusted date of 1844) many were disappointed and even depressed. The Adventist movement survived, though on a smaller scale.

Hal Lindsay's book "The Late Great Planet Earth", published in 1970 revived apocalyptic thinking in the modern era. His book related the events of Revelation to modern events, including the Cold War and the restoration of Israel. The Cold War has come and gone, and Lindsay predicted that the events of the end would come about a generation (40 years) after the restoration of Israel in 1948, which would have been 1988. Interestingly enough, in the mid-1980's many parts of the country saw the distribution of a book entitled, "88 Reasons Why the Rapture will be in '88." Now seventeen years later, that does not seem to have happened. The Antichrist, a central figure in Christian apocalyptic thinking, has been connected with modern figures as diverse as Adolph Hitler, John Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, and Bill Clinton.

This abbreviated history shows two problems which arise from apocalyptic crazes. One is that they sometimes give rise to people who try to make them happen. How long before someone comes along who thinks they have been commissioned by God to be a new Thomas Muentzer, Jan Mathys or Oliver Cromwell, ushering in Armageddon? The other problem is that in time they leave people disillusioned. How many times can this faction within the church cry "Wolf!"? People might start to think that the Christian faith has failed them, when in reality it is just this sensationalist perspective which pretends to offer blueprints for the future, blueprints which Christ specifically told us would not be made available.

Finally, seeking exact blueprints for the future is counter to the very nature of faith itself. That in part is why Jesus told us, "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign?" Hebrews 11:1 tells us, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." And Paul tells us in Romans 8:24-25, "Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience" (NRSV). All of this is to say that it is the very nature of faith to look beyond the present and trust God for what the unseen future holds. We trust that God will act in that future, and we trust that part of that action is that Jesus Christ will in God's timing return to bring completion to what he started. All of creation will be renewed and brought back to what God intended for this world in the first place (Rom. 8:18-25). In the meantime our role is to remain faithful and work for the better world which God seeks to bring about. Sure, we won't be able to do it all on our own. The task is too big for human hands alone. But faith means looking at a big task and believing that a big God will one way or another find a way.

Keith Madsen is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Portland, Oregon. He is also owner & editor of a New Sea Publishing and author of the fictional The Bridles of Armageddon. See http://anewsea.com

In The News:

Eternal Religion  The Statesman
Americans' Views on Religion in Society, Politics | Pew Research Center  Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project
Congress May Set Back Religious Freedom  The Wall Street Journal

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