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The Fascination With ‘the End Times’

The Fascination With ‘the End Times’

Last year’s installment of the Left Behind series sold over 3 million copies, was the first to outsell John Grisham as the number onenovel in the U.S. since 1994, and paved the way for the 11

book just released, Armageddon. Undoubtedly, the series can be labeled a success. On top of the millions in revenue the books have raked in, add comic books, CDs, children’s books in 22 volumes, board games and a second movie starring Kirk Cameron, and you have something of a media winner. And standing behind all of this buzz is one popular idea: Jesus is coming … again.

Christianity has several terms to discuss the end: Judgment Day, the Apocalypse, The Eschaton, heaven and hell and on and on. In fact, the only thing more numerous than the terms used is the speculation and guessing about its date and results.

From the moment John of Patmos penned his Revelation (literally Apocalypse) and the Church Fathers received it as the final book of Scripture, Christianity has had a fascination with the future. And as the newest and most popular exploration of end timesis being pushed by the Left Behind series and Middle Eastern affairs, it seems natural to lean forward with fear and hope.

But the reality is that the times or dates have been explicitly withheld from Christians (Acts 1:6-7), which is not cause for concern. The Christian faith is one of both certainty and mystery, built on the historic lessons learned by our predecessors and the beautiful open movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It serves us well then to take the opportunities we have now to discover the lessons already learned by others, instead of seeking the unknowable tomorrow. Let us start with William Miller.

On October 21, 1844, in the Northeastern United States, a heavy expectation hung in the air as midnight approached. Small crowds gathered in churches and in homes. They all awaited the Midnight Cry, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. It was a movement begun by William Miller, a staunch-looking farmer from New York. It began in 1831 when an inward call led Miller to reveal his secret to neighbors and friends: The world was coming to an end. These friends became eager listeners, and Miller’s popularity began to grow. So did his confidence.

Books and pamphlets began to appear, along with prophecy charts, complete with Bible verses and mathematical tables. Camp meetings, journals and speaking tours all progressed until the fateful day arrived. But the day that held some 50,000 people captive came and went without any doom or fulfillment. All that remained on October 22, 1844, was despair and disillusionment. A month later, Miller confessed his error and disappointment. He died a discredited and unpopular man.

The deeper story behind William Miller was that he was not simply a religious fanatic stirring people into hysteria. He appears to have been a prudent man who stumbled upon Daniel 8:14 and a young pastor named Joshua Himes who loved crowds. Himes did several things for Miller. He “purchased the biggest tent in America,” arranged speaking tours and “equipped Miller with a great chart” displaying end times facts and dates. Joshua Himes made William Miller popular.

Somewhere behind the Left Behind series, a similar trend has been occurring. The series itself was first envisioned by pastor, author and founder of a Christian school system, Tim Lahaye. However, Tim Lahaye primarily writes nonfiction, and he left the task of taking his notes and making them fiction to Jerry Jenkins and Tyndale House publishing. Together they have returned the Apocalypse to the forefront of American minds.

Now, Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins are no William Miller. They have never given a specific date for the apocalypse, and their novels are placed in fiction aisles for a reason. All three of those men are Christians. But the novels themselves are based loosely on a well-thought-out and detailed guide to the end times. Lahaye even recently published a book titled Charting the End Times: A Visual Guide to Understanding Bible Prophecy, which has charts, maps and illustrations. Regardless of how you approach the Left Behind books, fact or fiction, they represent a continuing reality of American Christianity’s focus on the end.

Early on, the fascination on the end was an optimistic hope, captured in the birth of the new nation with its Manifest Destiny. But following the Civil War, Americans started to see the end in newer, bleaker terms. Today that pessimism lingers, and occasionally it produces a prophet.

The actions of doomsday men, such as David Koresh, spike media coverage and newspaper sales, and we spend days fascinated with an anomaly in our culture. We label them “religious” or “spiritual,” as if to separate them from our more humane culture or faith. Yet, we give little concern or search to the conditions producing them. And we have taken little time to think of the social impact of our end times preaching in America.

The reality is that Christianity, like the media, is both product and producer of American culture. That is a hard reality for Christians in America to swallow. In fact, it seems safer to believe that a few bold prophets or teachers are marching Christianity forward or that the Church is able to outwit and outmaneuver worldly traps and human error. The history of Christianity, though, is ripe with both success and failure.

As culture progresses or deteriorates, the reality of the world’s end does draw near. That truth was upheld repeatedly and consistently by Jesus in His teaching (Luke 12:35-53, Matt. 24:36-51), but that same revelation was intimately tied into Jewish culture and history. Jesus preached a future as real as the past that testified to it. He knew His history and His culture. That same opportunity awaits every Christian.

As the temptation to scratch the prophecy itch looms in the American mind, it would be wise to turn backwards instead of forwards. It would be wise to uncover the history of Christianity. That history is often both a light unto current culture and a witness to times to come.

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