Newsweek recently ran an article on whether Obama is [seen as] the Antichrist by some which quotes me. So now I’m getting missives from the media about apocalyptic issues again. Below is a set of questions one reporter sent me with my answers.
• There have been many “revivals” recently among the charismatic Christian groups (such as the Lakeland, FL revival) claiming that we are in the “end times.” What is the difference between these new apocalyptic groups versus the millennialists?
Millennial and apocalyptic are two different aspects of the same phenomenon. Millennial refers to the belief in a coming period (a thousand years, mille anni) of collective salvation, peace on earth, justice, plenty, fraternity. It is above all “this worldly,” a kind of social mysticism.
Apocalyptic refers to the sense that the transformation from this world, filled as it is with evil, to that perfect world, is imminent. Apocalyptic scenarios differ, some are cataclysmic, others transformative; some call for action, others for waiting for God’s intervention.
The current Lakeland Revival looks like many movements that Ronald Knox called examples of “enthusiasm.” A cursory look at their site suggests that they emphasize healing (a few “resurrection” claims which do tend to announce the end, but not necessarily). Pentecostal Christianity need not be explicitly apocalyptic, i.e. imminentist, indeed it should probably best be understood as a response to disappointment, just as the original Pentecost (descent of the Holy Spirit 50 days after the crucifixion) was a response to disappointment that Jesus had not returned to earth to “finish the (millennial) job.” (the movement started at 2am January 1, 1901, hours into the new century).
Their website has nothing immediately about the end of time; their prophecy page stops dating prophecy fulfilled in 1967. If they are apocalyptic, they are not working off of specific dates (understandable after 2000), but off of high energy. They clearly want to be a new spiritual capital, and they envision their spark (“Ignited Church” – what a name) catching fire throughout the land and the world.
But my guess is that this may be in interesting variation of previous such movements. The iconography is biblical, they’re clearly philo-Judaic, having spent time in Israel (they refer to Jerusalem as Yerushalayim which suggests animated conversations in that city), they use Kabbalistic ideas and terminology (Shekinah). They seem resolutely transformational, although the reports of Todd Bentley roughing up people when heals them suggests an opening for violence. (hopefully that will door will be closed.)
For an example of a preacher who was accused of similar things, see an account from the late 6th century in Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks bk 9, ch 3 or 4: (from a chapter of an as-yet unpublished book)
The pattern of Gregory’s narrative on this score seems remarkably consistent. Popular charismatic prophets come in the wake of signs, wonders, and prodigies, not to mention catastrophes, like mushrooms come after rain. In Book 9, chapter three reports on the “many portents [that] appeared at this time.” The following chapter tells of “imposters and soothsayers”:
That same year there appeared in Tours a man called Desiderius, who gave it out that he was a very important person, pretending that he was able to work miracles. He boasted that messengers journeyed to and fro between himself and the Apostles Peter and Paul. I myself was not there, so the country folk flocked to him in crowds, bringing with them the blind and infirm… [Gregory then describes his miracle working as a kind of sadistic chiropractics where his assistants often pulled and stretched people to death]. The wretched man was so above himself, that he gave it out that Saint Martin had less power than he; for he imagined himself to be the equal of the Apostles…
Not quite as dramatic as claims to be the Christ of the Second Coming, the case nonetheless bears all the marks of apocalyptic charismatic prophets: the healing, the crowds of commoners, the inflated ego of the leader.
This one took place around 580. Here’s another one around 591 that is quite explicit in that the healing revival leads the leader to claim to be Christ returned (can’t get more apocalyptic millennial than that).
Gregory of Tours, False Christ of Bourges, History of the Franks, X:23-25.
• Why do you think this resurgence is occurring now?
These things happen all the time. It’s when they begin to coalesce into a larger wave that apocalyptic expectations begin to play an open role in things. Here I find the apocalyptic dimension quite muted, at least in the movement’s public face. Obviously, there are Christian believers who are in a state of super-excitation – again, “Ignited Church” – and these kinds of revivals are an obvious outlet. Look at the Promise Keepers in the 1990s. If you have more evidence of a number of such phenomena, then you might be able to talk of a resurgence.
• Have you noticed any specific trends that seem to spark new apocalyptic movements?
Predicting the outbreak of apocalyptic movements and their development necessitates using Chaos theory, and will never be a science. Obviously disturbances and sudden and profound changes, as well as signs (astronomical, earthquakes, tsunamis, plagues) make people much more attentive to the message of apocalyptic “roosters” crowing that the dawn is near. I’d also factor in a) the passage of 2000, which was a disappointment, but did not put an end to the conviction of many that they lived in the endtimes (Pentecostalism as a response to disappointment makes a lot of sense here); 2) the radical instability of the world right now, and particular the existence of another apocalyptic millennial movement, global Jihad.
• Do you expect this new wave charismatic Christian apocalyptic groups to die down? Why or why not?
No I don’t. Christians have too much invested in their current reading of the apocalyptic scenario linked to Israel to go back to normal time easily. This one may not “take,” but my sense is that we’re in for many more examples. None may “take” in the apocalyptic sense (full-fledged movement of people convinced that they act on the stage of salvific history), but we might be in for another “Great Awakening” like the decades from 1720-40 and 1820-40.
• The Christian Zionists, for example, claim that the large migration of Russian Jews back to Israel is a signal pointing to the end of the world. Does that carry any legitimacy?
Legitimacy with whom? With Christian apocalyptic believers? Sure. The existence of Israel is the one concrete historical event that they can claim fulfills prophecy in our day. For both the Jewish Zionists and the Christian Zionists, 1948 was supposed to bring the return to Zion by all Jews – it didn’t; 1967 got the temple mount back so the 3rd temple could be built, but it hasn’t been yet; so the Russian migration is a way of telling themselves that, although it didn’t happen as fast as they thought, it’s still happening.
• Are there any global events that have been known to spark this “end time” thinking?
The Great depression set off lots of apocalyptic thinking, including the ugliest of all, the Nazis. Apocalyptic prophecies speak of “wars and rumors of wars”, but that fits any time. The creation of Israel is the single most important apocalyptic event of our time, and anything that happens to Israel and Jerusalem (Yerushalayim) will have a major impact on this apocalyptic mindset. In apocalyptic dynamics, “one person’s messiah is another’s Antichrist,” so the successes of global Jihad (9-11, other bombings, intimidation of Europeans, especially English, spread of an aggressive and triumphalist Islam) will also strengthen the argument that we live in the endtime.
• What is the difference between an apocalyptic cult versus, a Christian denomination that believes we are in the end times due to Biblical prophecy?
You’ve just stepped into an academic minefield. So I won’t use your vocabulary (“cult”? Horror!) but I’ll try and answer the question. A Christian community that has come to believe that the end is near, and pray and repent and await, but otherwise remain within the current traditions and continue to function within the social norms is different from an apocalyptic movement that “burns bridges” to “normal time” and everyday demands (job, parenthood, planning), that begins to feed off its own enthusiasm and break away from other, less responsive/evolved/”true” believers (Christians, Muslims, Jews) becomes a “sect” and eventually (if it successfully re-enters normal time, which all apocalyptic movements must eventually do), either a denomination, a sect, or a new religion (Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Nation of Islam).
• Are any of Biblical claims and prophetic predictions about the end of the world valid?
This is a bizarre question. Academically, we can’t know; historically for millennia people in every generation have been convinced they lived in the endtime. Both Christianity and Islam are religions born of apocalyptic origins. Both await the completion of the original prophecies about the Day of Judgment. They’ve all been wrong. (As a “bringer of the End,” God is a major underachiever.) I personally don’t think that if there is a God, he intends to intervene in history (if he didn’t in the Holocaust, then I can’t imagine when he would). But that won’t stop inspiring people to believe that. That’s what I study.
• How can you distinguish the true apocalyptic claims from false?
Only when they prove false.
• Can the Bible be considered a valid source for predicting the end of the world? Why?
Well, on the one hand, as a source for that kind of thinking it’s been inexaustable. (Even Muslims are using the Bible for their apocalyptic prophecies – much richer than the Quran.) So if we’re to judge by the traffic, it’s the all-time greatest site. But if we judge by the accuracy of the prophecies , predictions, and calculations that people have derived from their reading of that text, then it’s a dismal failure. Personally, I think the bible has much more interesting things to say about “transformational” apocalyptic, than it does about when to date the cataclysm.
• What do most end times “prophets” do once they find they incorrectly predicted the end of the earth? Is there any accountability from their followers?
This was studied by Leon Festinger in a study of a 1950s space-ship “community” led by a woman. He coined the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the painful experience of disappointment. There are many ways to handle this c.d., including “upping the ante”, turn to coercive purity, flip from passive to active mode, or vice-versa, redate and proselytize some more (the delay was so the believers could spread the word), flee the world. What mixture any group eventually blends in this period of “apocalyptic jazz” is as “chaotic” a process as when such a group gets going.
• Although these groups have a bad track record when it comes to predicting the end of the earth, is it acceptable to ignore their claims all together? Why?
The other major law of apocalyptic dynamics is that “wrong does not mean inconsequential.” The Nazis were wrong about beginning a “tausendjäriger Reich” (millennial kingdom), but they sure left their mark on history; the Zionists were wrong that by establishing a state, they would put an end to anti-Semitism, but Israel is a major player in the global scene, both practically and in the global imagination. I think we ignore them at our peril, especially the “active cataclysmic” ones who believe that God wants them to be his agent in carrying out massive devastation of this “evil” world.
• What is your personal opinion on the end of the earth? Do you think it is possible to predict an end?
There’s a difference between “end of the world” – eschatology – and the end of “this world” and the beginning of the messianic age – millennium – on earth, in history. I’m personally hoping that this world continues to struggle in every generation to find just ways to settle disputes and productive ways to interact with both the earth and each other. Even if Augustine was probably right that there will never be perfection “in the saeculum” (time-space continuum, world of the flesh, history), we can surely make that world a better place. Eliminate suffering and aggression? No. Bridle it, reduce its gratuitous presence, yes. Even in the messianic age, there will be disputes, dishonesty, cheating, and injustice. The question is, “how do we deal with it.” If that’s a “liberal’s” imperfect (processual) millennium, so be it. But I am very wary of the folk who say, the only way to perfect world is violence and destruction… “don’t you know that you can count me out…”
• Do you believe that there will be any events to signal that we are entering into the end?
Hopefully when the sun novas in several billion years.
• What (if you believe there will be an end) do you think will happen during the end of the earth?
I have great respect for the passion of apocalyptic believers, but not much for their common sense; nor can I adhere to scenarios (like the Book of Revelation) that anticipate the death of millions if not (under current global demographic conditions) of billions. Not something I find it spiritually uplifting to look forward to. I am fairly immune to the lure of apocalyptic prophecy – perils of the profession – even though I can admire and respect some of the spirituality that sincere apocalyptic beliefs can inspire. (It does great things for your modesty, integrity, and appreciation of others to spend a some intense moments imagining yourself before an omniscient and just judge.)