Cindy and Mike Jacobs are co-founders of Generals International, a religious organization that emphasizes prophetic ministry. In late 2019 they gathered a group of high profile charismatic prophets to a three day event in Dallas “for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit” and to “hear from the Lord”. That’s code for predicting the future.¹
Most of the prophets predicted that Donald Trump would win a second term, making them 100% wrong. (They weren’t alone – more than fifty religious prophets predicted Trump would win. Most are now making retroactive adjustments…).
More importantly, none of America’s Top Prophets were able to foresee the worst pandemic in a century, making them 100% useless. I mean, isn’t that the kind of information that would be useful for literally everybody?
Perhaps you’ve seen the uptick in another prophetic pastime: grim warnings about Jesus’ Second Coming. Evidently signs are everywhere that Jesus is about to return, just like in the (very profitable) Left Behind series of books and movies.
These days amateur prophets in every media are warning (maybe hoping) that Biden’s election is ushering in the rampant evil of the last days. The prophecies are even appearing in our mailboxes. In late fall we received a (free) glossy magazine chock full of information about America’s role in end-times prophecy, illustrated generously with flags, eagles, angels, lightening bolts, and anti-catholic gobbledygook.²
End of Worlders (EOWs) hastily point out that the world is more evil than ever before (no it’s not). And though they admit no one knows when it will happen, it is obvious to EOWs that the second coming is on our doorstep. EOWs frequently use expressions like rapture, tribulation, Armageddon, mark of the beast, new world order, etc. You know, like in the movies.
Eschatology (study of final destinies) is a biblical concept for sure. But the ‘end of the age’ has been popularized into a layered series of supernatural events where graves pop open, people mysteriously fly through the sky, evil governments control us, and weird creatures rampage across the globe. It’s all very nightmarish and naturally culminates in a bloodbath when warrior Jesus returns on horseback(!) and triumphs over Satan. Again, like in the movies.
In your face
I remember being a guest at a church and sitting in on their adult Sunday School when the topic du jour was one of those wacky passages in Revelation. In spite of being fairly well prepared it was obvious the teacher was uncomfortable with the material, possibly because an elderly man to my right was considered the resident expert on prophecy.
The teacher kept deferring to the man who happily rattled off all sorts of increasingly complex insights and cross-references. It wasn’t long until it became clear that most people were uncomfortable as the EOWer became increasingly animated and specific. It was almost as if the rest of the room sensed the information was nothing more than intricately assembled guesswork – unknowable and irrelevant.
The second coming has always been a refuge for those who don’t like the world; who feel it is spinning against them. My experience is that EOWers aren’t as concerned about warning people as they are about having inside information. Often it is a back-handed way to scold us: When Jesus comes back you’re gonna see I’m right! Then you’ll regret not listening to me!
the thing is…
It’s not my intention to make this bigger than it should be but I thought I would curate a few thoughts about EOWism and the highly quoted book of Revelation. Not sure if I mentioned the movies, but it’s more helpful if you have not seen them.
It’s a new idea. This will be surprising to most, but these evangelical EOW beliefs were conceived fairly late in Christian history – the mid-nineteenth century – and there is no record of anything like it before that.
John Nelson Darby was an English theologian who heard of a Scottish woman who had a fevered vision about the end of the world from her sickbed. Darby seized on her ramblings to formulate a system called Dispensationalism which divides history into spiritual chunks of time, including the final stages when Israel is restored and the Church triumphs.³
The idea was not well received until the beginning of the 20th century when Darby’s thoughts were inserted into a bible published by Cyrus Scofield. The Scofield Study Bible became a popular and widely distributed resource for colleges and pastors through the twentieth century along with its notes on the second coming. It is still considered to be a valuable study tool by many.
Point being that all the bizarre images and complicated math that EOWers preach dangles by a thin, fevered, Dar-field thread.
It’s a bad idea. End times prophecy has been tried before – over and over and over – always with the same empty result. If you’re interested in Wikipedia’s chart of more than a hundred and fifty of the major ones, take a look here.
One recent notable was Hal Lindsay, a well known prophecy writer a generation ago who relied on both divine and biblical authority (according to himself). In his series of best selling books, he insisted the 1980s would be the countdown to the Rapture and Armageddon, even referring to the period as the ‘terminal generation’. Most evangelicals of the time either read or were well aware of his predictions.
Update: it didn’t happen, but least he made money from his books (‘course there haven’t been many re-prints lately).
There’s disagreement. Biblical prophecies are, you know … open to interpretation. There are bazillions of books and videos explaining things (okay, maybe only billions) but there is very little agreement. It’s confusing enough to decide what kind of millennialist you are without having to relate all the extraordinary symbols to current people and events. Yet, in spite of no consensus of who, what, when, where, why, or how, most are confident they have it figured out.
Revelation isn’t about that. I’ve written before that the last book in the Bible (and others, like Daniel) are in a style of writing known as apocalyptic. Apocalyptic writing is only bizarre if you read it literally, so it helps to read it for what it is.
We approach poetry, fiction, satire, news, biographies, etc. in different, nuanced ways – each has its own interpretive method. You can’t read Shakespeare the same way you read Stephen King, or Milton the way you read your tax bill, or Revelation the way you read a textbook. In fact, you can’t even read each book in the Bible the same way.
The writers used a multi-layered style and vocabulary that their readers would have understood; covert language critiquing the self-important Roman officials and their view of the world.
For instance: “Babylon” is any powerful empire, in this case Rome; the”Beast” and “666” are camouflaged descriptions of the emperor (for lots of gruesome reasons); “coming in the clouds” isn’t a literal sky-flight but a common OT term for God’s judgement.
Revelation is about this. Revelation is a letter written to multiple early churches. It should be read as a message of encouragement for christians who are living under the suffocating influence of an empire dangerously addicted to its own power.
Revelation is a benign word that simply means ‘to see’ or ‘show’ and the NT word for ‘coming’ is parousia which simply means ‘presence’. Revelation wasn’t written with the end of the world in mind but rather to preserve the faith of christians and their hope for a time of justice and rest.
Jesus’ first coming is the point. The reason we’re interested in prophecies is because we hope something better lies in our future. But the Bible puts a lot of energy into helping us see that Jesus’ first coming is the primary fulfillment of God’s plan.
The expression “end of the age” describes the end of the sacrificial system and Israel’s exclusive title as God’s people (Daniel 12). The term “last days” is simply the time following Jesus’ Resurrection which has ushered in a new time … called now.
The bottom line is that Jesus’ kingdom is currently among us but not yet fully realized. We are participating in the unfolding of Jesus’ reign.
what’s this got to do with me?
Yes, Jesus is going to return and bring healing but I don’t know what the end of time will look like, or whether it will even have a look. Neither do you. And neither do those EOWers who keep telling us they do.
At best EOWing is escapism: hoping God will miraculously fix problems we are responsible for. At worst, it is a convenient excuse to fawn over unknowable footnotes while avoiding the more important task of caring for the world.
I get it
Let me say that, to some degree, I get it. There have been times when I have heard of an evil act – abuse, cruelty, Sandy Hook, slaughter in Yemen – and I have longed for Jesus to come and and fix everything.
The world is dangerously opposed to the ways of Jesus but that’s not new. The earliest christians two thousand years ago are heavily oppressed and rightly expected, even craved, the healing return of their Lord.
But consider this: Jesus has returned! He is here with us now, and we have been commissioned to join with his kingdom in the work of healing and blessing the world. In other words, live like Jesus teaches us to. We haven’t come to the end of the story – we’re in the meaningful part of his story.
Isn’t that much better than obsessing about scrolls, blood moons, multi-headed creatures, or Armageddon?
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¹ The biblical role of a prophet is to “read the times” and warn about consequences, not predict imminent events. It is unclear to me why people of faith feel the need to peer into the future through ‘religious seers’ but my guess is it has something to do with money or prestige. At any rate, a prophet is a gift to God’s people, not a way to make a living.
² Yep, America’s in the Bible… well, it’s inferred… kind of inferred… actually, it’s not in there at all… My advice: if you see material preoccupied with descriptions of flags, dragons, numbers, or a white warrior Jesus – run far, far away.
³ The popular version is pre-millennialism (if you’ve seen the movies), a tiered string of events beginning with a surprise ‘rapture’ followed by other stuff then ending in the final judgement. In other words a first second coming, followed by a second second coming.