DECEMBER 19, 1994




The Advent season, in church tradition, is a time of sacred anticipation as Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ some 2,000 years ago in a Bethlehem stable. For believers through the ages, the joy of Advent lay in their understanding of that humble birth as a divine promise fulfilled, the swaddled baby in the manger as the long-awaited Messiah.

But for many Christians, the comforting images of the Christmas season are inexorably linked to another, more mysterious prophecy: that of the apocalyptic Second Coming of Christ. Ancient liturgies and modern Advent observances alike point to the promised return of Jesus in what many Christians believe will be a cataclysmic event that will end history and inaugurate a divine kingdom on Earth.

Although Jesus is quoted in the Gospel of Matthew as saying no one will know ``the day nor the hour'' of his return, the approach of a new millennium in the year 2000 is unleashing a flood of doomsday prophecies, not only from zealous Christians who are convinced that Christ's return is imminent but also from those in cultural and religious settings far removed from Christian belief (see accompanying boxes starting on Page 66). There is broad expectation that ``when the world's odometer ticks over to three zeros, it will have cosmic significance,'' says Ted Daniels, editor of MILLENNIAL PROPHECY REPORT, a Philadelphia-based newsletter that tracks about 1,100 groups and individuals.

One result, Daniels and others note, has been a bizarre and sometimes deadly intensification of cultlike behavior. The tragic inferno at the Branch Davidians' ``Ranch Apocalypse'' in Waco, Texas, last year and the recent ritualistic deaths of members of the Solar Temple cult in Switzerland and Canada are just two of the most dramatic examples of modern millennial expectations run amok. They may not be the last. In the run-up to the year 2000, predicts University of Southern California Prof. Stephen D. O'Leary in his book ARGUING THE APOCALYPSE, ``we will see more religious groups who are willing to martyr themselves'' because of tragically distorted millennialist views.


Hoping to avert such tragedies, biblical scholars from a variety of Christian traditions have begun rethinking some popular views of the Second Coming. Some are openly challenging the imaginative end-of-the-world scenarios espoused by TV preachers and Bible teachers who view current events as fulfillment of end-times prophecies. Their objections are sparking a debate that is sure to intensify and that could dramatically alter some popular views of the apocalypse.

But belief in an apocalyptic end to history is by no means limited to the religious fringe. A new U.S. NEWS poll has found that nearly 60 percent of Americans think the world will end sometime in the future; almost a third of those think it will end within a few decades. And more than 61 percent say they believe in the Second Coming of Christ.

The poll, conducted by Market Facts Inc., found that self-described born-again Christians and frequent churchgoers subscribe to millennial views by significantly greater margins than others.

The embrace of millennialism comes as little surprise to social scientists. ``We no longer need poets to tell us it could all end with a bang, or a whimper, or in the agony of AIDS,'' explains Charles B. Strozier, a psychoanalyst and professor of history at the City University of New York. With the looming possibility of nuclear or environmental destruction, says Strozier, ``it now takes an active imagination NOT to think about human endings.''


Similar apocalyptic turmoil surrounded the year 1000. In a historical psychological study, THE YEAR 1000, Henri Focillon says artistic and cultural activity in Europe's monasteries nearly ground to a halt as the year 999 wound down toward what was widely viewed as ``an evening of the world.'' One legendary account has it that on the stroke of midnight, Jan. 1, 1000, the entire country of Iceland converted to Christianity out of apocalyptic anxiety.

Indeed, the mystery and promise of the Second Coming of Christ have fired Christians' imaginations from their earliest days, often inspiring hopeful piety and artistic and theological creativity but sometimes destruction and violence as well. Jesus is quoted in the Gospel of John as saying, ``I will come again and receive you unto myself; so that where I am there ye may be also.'' Most biblical scholars believe the first disciples were convinced Jesus would return in their lifetime. When he did not, the church began developing a more detailed eschatology, or theology regarding the ``last things.''

Belief that the Second Coming was imminent pervaded early Christian writings, scholars note. But only Hippolytus of Rome (A.D. 170-235) tried to pinpoint the timing: He guessed A.D. 500 based on the dimensions of Noah's ark. Meanwhile, Augustine of Hippo, the pre-eminent theologian of the fourth and fifth centuries, argued against literal readings of prophecy and detailed speculation concerning Christ's return. His eschatological views were endorsed by the Council of Ephesus in 431 and set the tone for Roman Catholicism.

Even so, and despite Jesus's warning in Acts 1:7 that ``it is not for you to know the times or the seasons,'' the history of the church is filled with self-proclaimed prophecy experts who think they have cracked the biblical code and pieced together precise timetables for the end of the world. Over the centuries, religious movements have risen and fallen on such speculation. In the 1840s, for example, Baptist Bible teacher William Miller set four successive dates for Christ's return. At the time, some followers dressed in white robes and waited on a hillside for the Lord to take them away. When it didn't pan out, some of his disciples left, disillusioned, while others adjusted his teachings and founded a new denomination, the Seventh-Day Adventists--who now refer to Miller's failed predictions as ``the Great Disappointment.''

Despite such failures, the doctrine of the Second Coming remains a part of mainstream Christian belief in both Catholic and Protestant traditions. There have been major disagreements, however, especially over how and when Christ's 1,000-year reign of peace known as the millennium, mentioned in Revelation 20, will occur. The church has long been divided into contentious camps: * Postmillennialists were strong among 19th-century Protestants but have faded in this century. Their optimistic creed proclaims that Christ will return after an earthly golden age of peace that is brought about by God working through the human efforts of the church. Adherents tend to encourage Christian activism in world affairs, according to Stanley Grenz, theology professor at Carey/Regent College in Vancouver, in his book THE MILLENNIAL MAZE.

* Amillennialists do not anticipate a literal, 1,000-year golden age but interpret the millennium as a period in which Christ reigns in and through the church and in the lives of individual believers.

They include Roman Catholics, some evangelicals and much of mainline Protestantism, and they tend, says Grenz, to be realists:

They expect that ``victory and defeat, success and failure, good and evil will be our experience until the end.''

* Premillennialists, who include most evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, take a much more pessimistic view of history. For them, says Grenz, the world will grow nastier. Only ``the catastrophic return'' of Christ, he says, will ``inaugurate the golden age on Earth.''


It is the premillennialist view, with its elaborate timetables and graphic end-of-the-world scenarios, that has captured the most attention in recent years and that now has become the focus of scholarly scrutiny. While there are differences of opinion within the tradition, the dominant view, called dispensationalism, has its roots in the teachings of John Nelson Darby, a 19th-century Englishman and founder of the Plymouth Brethren. He taught that history is divided into seven ages, or dispensations, which will culminate in the final judgment and the end of the world.

The dispensationalist scenario, popularized recently in evangelical writer Hal Lindsey's 1970 bestseller, THE LATE GREAT PLANET EARTH, and by Dallas Theological Seminary Chancellor John Walvoord's ARMAGEDDON, OIL AND THE MIDDLE EAST CRISIS, is drawn largely from the Old Testament prophecy books of Ezekiel, Zechariah and Daniel and the enigmatic New Testament book of Revelation.

The doomsday script begins with Christians suddenly being pulled out of the world in an event called the Rapture. Nonbelievers are left behind to face the great tribulation, a seven-year period during which the world is ruled by the Antichrist, a charismatic but duplicitous world leader who makes peace with Israel only to break the pact and persecute the Jews.

The major world powers then are drawn into a Middle East war and face off in the battle of Armageddon. At the climax of the battle, Christ returns in ``power and great glory'' to defeat the evil forces, judge the godless nations and set up his earthly kingdom of 1,000 years. Then comes the new Jerusalem, final judgment and eternal bliss.

A hallmark of premillennialism, and a major target of scholarly criticism, has been its inclination to view current world events as prophetic signs of the end times. No single event in the 20th century has excited apocalyptic fervor as much as the rise of the state of Israel in 1948. When the United Nations created Israel, premillennialists exulted that the final countdown had begun. In 1950, a youthfully exuberant Billy Graham told a rally in Los Angeles,

"Two years and it's all going to be over.''

Since then, Graham has become more cautious regarding apocalyptic timetables.

The embodiment of evil in most end-times story lines is the Antichrist, a powerful and charismatic dictator who, some Christians believe, will rule over a reconstituted Roman Empire, enforce a ``false peace'' and a heretical worldwide religion and ultimately declare himself to be God.

One identifying sign of the Antichrist, according to dispensationalists drawing from Revelation 13:3, will be his recovery from a mortal head wound: ``And his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast.'' Another will be his association with the number 666, described in Revelation 13:18 as the ``mark of the beast.''

In almost every generation, Christians have tried to identify the Antichrist from among their contemporary enemies, from the murderous Roman emperor Nero in the first century to Napoleon Bonaparte, Benito Mussolini and Saddam Hussein. More recently, some Christians even suspected Ronald Wilson Reagan, in part because each of his names has six letters. Fear of the Antichrist has prompted some fundamentalist preachers to denounce electronic bar codes and the increasing use of credit and debit cards as precursors of the ``mark of the beast,'' which Revelation says the Antichrist will place on his followers, and without which ``no man might buy or sell.''

Such views are often dismissed by more liberal academicians as fanciful inventions based on a too-literal reading of the Bible. But now some conservative evangelical scholars are beginning to challenge them as well. Professors at such bastions of premillennialism as Dallas Theological Seminary, Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., recently have raised strong objections to the literal interpretation of some apocalyptic texts and to the intense search for ``signs of the times'' in current events.

In their forthcoming book, DOOMSDAY DELUSIONS, Moody Professors C. Marvin Pate and Calvin B. Haines Jr. argue that premillennial doomsday preachers often ``misinterpret and misapply'' biblical prophecies by ignoring their historical context. They note that apocalyptic texts such as the book of Revelation and some of the Old Testament prophecies were a common literary genre in New Testament times and were often written during periods of oppression to reassure persecuted believers of God's faithfulness. Imaginative symbols and images generally were employed to evoke people and events known to the readers of that time.


The Antichrist in Revelation, for example, says Pate, was no doubt ``intended to signify Nero,'' a persecutor of Christians who committed suicide by falling on a sword. Later literary legends depicted Nero returning from the dead to plague his enemies, much as Revelation describes the Antichrist. Passages in Ezekiel that premillennialists say predict a future Armageddon probably refer to the invasion of Israel by Scythian hordes in pre-Christian times, according to the scholars. Imaginative doomsday preachers ignore this. Instead, says Haines,

Other evangelical scholars take premillennialism to task for drawing extreme conclusions from biblical text. Dallas seminary Profs. Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock argue for a more moderate view of the end times in their new book PROGRESSIVE DISPENSATIONALISM. While they, too, await the Second Coming and fulfillment of prophecy, they contend that God's agenda evolves in history and is not abruptly compartmentalized, as some dispensationalists teach.

At Wheaton College, growing faculty disaffection with the school's rigid adherence to premillennialist doctrine prompted school officials recently to drop the view from its doctrinal statement.

Even at Jerry Falwell's fundamentalist Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., New Testament Prof. D. Brent Sandy challenges the notion that details of future events can be extracted from the Bible. Prophecy's primary purpose, Sandy writes in the evangelical journal CHRISTIANITY TODAY, is simply ``to assure readers that God is going to accomplish his plans in unique and amazing ways.''

Aside from concerns about faulty interpretation, critics also worry that some Christians may be getting so wrapped up in deciphering prophecy and awaiting divine deliverance that they ignore other missions.

Some scholars see an even greater danger.

Beyond the theological debate, some social scientists and religion scholars have sought to explain why apocalyptic thinking strikes such a resonant chord in a modern age. Norman Cohn, history professor emeritus at the University of Sussex, England, in his often-cited book, THE PURSUIT OF THE MILLENNIUM, explained apocalyptic thinking as a "paranoid'' response to economic deprivation and political persecution and said that its adherents throughout history largely have been social and economic outcasts who take comfort in assurances that the tables soon will be turned. That might be true in other places, but it does not seem to apply to many American evangelicals in the 1990s who are comfortably middle-class and politically active.


Another explanation focuses on psychological forces. Bernard McGinn, theology professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, says apocalyptic eschatology

This provides ``meaning in a time of historical uncertainty.'' There's an ominous side, as well, says McGinn in his book ANTICHRIST. The apocalyptic worldview, he says, ``has no room for moral ambiguity, for any shades of gray.'' By viewing opponents as adherents of absolute evil, apocalypticism ``allows for total opposition and dire vengeance on the wicked.''

Despite millennialism's destructive potential, it is the ultimate optimism of the apocalypse that many through history have found so compelling. It is a ``primary task of religion,'' observes Strozier of City University of New York, ``to provide a meaningful sense of endings and beginnings.'' For nearly 2,000 years, Christians have found such meaning in the promise of Advent and their visions of the apocalypse. For them, as for others, the greatest challenge of the new millennium may well be in discovering spiritual satisfaction in the ordinary times that lie before the end--whatever that is and whenever it comes.