“Waiting for Armageddon,” a new and controversial documentary about America’s 50-million-strong evangelical population will be shown tomorrow afternoon at Lincoln Center’s Jewish Film Festival. Although directed by non-Christians, the film purports to be fair-minded, portraying conservative evangelicals not just as ignorant, knuckle-dragging troglodytes, but as people from all walks of life, including enlightened and prosperous yuppies and highly educated physicists. What is meant to be particularly frightening, however, is the documentary’s observation that what they all have in common is a fervent expectation of the end of the world, preceded by the Rapture and Armageddon– a belief system that leads, the directors believe, to a worldview that seems shockingly self-serving and militaristic.
I haven’t seen the film, and I doubt I would agree with all its preconceptions about Evangelical Christianity, but I do share its concern that a literalist reading of the Book of Revelation, coupled with a premillennial view (that is, the belief that things will only get worse and worse until Jesus returns) does tend to foster a great deal of fear, resulting in often fanatical, unchristian behavior, militarism and a lack of concern for human suffering. The question the documentary asks is whether evangelicals’ fanatical support for Israel and the kind of militaristic holy war waged by the Religious Right are in fact a self-fulfilling prophecy pushing us closer to World War III.
From its inception Christianity has always been an apocalyptic movement. The theology of the kingdom of God, as taught by Jesus, is based on a worldview that believes that God is bringing this present evil age to a close. The Bible teaches us that we are in fact living in the Last Days, that Jesus could come at any moment. At various points and crises in church history the end has seemed very close indeed. But while emphatic in instructing his disciples to prepare and look for his coming, Jesus never commanded them to focus on rebuilding a temple or an Israelite empire, nor to attempt to hasten the end through holy war or militarism.
Am I saying that I don’t believe in the Rapture of the Church? Yes and no. I believe what Jesus tells us about it but not what has been commonly put forth as “endtime prophecy” in such popular literature as the best-selling Left Behind Series. The latter, I believe, has popularized a highly literal, and I think erroneous, interpretation of Scripture.
What does the Bible say about the Rapture? Very little, in fact. Most people would tell you the book of Revelation lays it all out nicely– and they would be wrong. In fact, Revelation says nothing at all about the Rapture. In the Gospels Jesus himself does tell us that at his coming he will “gather the elect from the four winds.” That would indicate that the gathering of the church will take place at his return, not, as is widely believed, at some previous time before the Great Tribulation. (Don’t believe me? Read the text: Mt 24:30-41). Paul seems to put forth the same idea (1Thess 4:13-18). The idea that the Lord will beam us up before things get too hot down here may just be wishful thinking.
There is a very basic but wise rule in biblical interpretation, that one of the Lord’s own teachings (called a dominical saying) should always have greater weight than any other. Another rule is that we should not make doctrine out of obscure verses or those whose interpretation is unclear (and Revelation is full of those). So what we believe about the endtimes should be based first and foremost on what Jesus tells us himself– and certainly not on popular literature.
I believe that authors like Tim Lahaye are sincere in their devotion to the Lord, but their particular interpretation of Scripture is hardly canonical. What is dangerous is the fear and fanaticism engendered by these books. People read them without much discernment, unaware that the echatology contained in them is highly disputable.
Will Jesus return? Yes, the Bible is clear on that. Will he gather his people upon his return. Yes. He’s clear about that too. Will there be a Great Tribulation? Well, Jesus does warn us that the coming fulfillment of God’s kingdom will be accompanied by cataclysmic events, among nations and in nature (wars, earthquakes, famines, etc.), unequaled in world history. Will there be a Great Battle of Armageddon? That is much less clear. Jesus does not mention it specifically, and the author of Revelation describes it only briefly. (Whether Rev 16:16 and 19:19 depict the same event is by no means certain. So building one’s eschatology on something so comparatively obscure seems foolhardy. Yet most evangelicals would swear their interpretation is canonical truth.)
What about the place of Israel in end-time prophecy? Paul tells us that the bulk of Jewry will turn to Christ before the end (Ro 11). Zechariah 14 speaks of the Lord’s standing on the Mount of Olives to judge the nations (but interpreting this passage as a prophecy about the Last Judgment becomes problematic). Revelation describes certain end-time crises in Palestine, but whether the author is referencing events contemporary with the 1st century or the actual end itself (doubtless he believed the two to be the same) is also disputable.
So for Christians to put so much money and effort into the rebuilding of Israel (and not so much for love, but for a kind of fanatical desire to hasten Jesus’ return) seems selfish and myopic. For Christian Zionists to aspire to reconstitute the old empire of David and the temple, in the absence of any specific instruction from Jesus and in the face of such suffering on the part of another people group, the Palestinians, appears arrogant and cruel.
Revelation is a dangerous book in the hands of fools. Throughout the history of the church so many cults and sects have sprung from a misreading of its pages. No wonder the early church argued so long over its inclusion in the canon (the Russian Orthodox church even forbids it from being read in the liturgy).
What does the Lord want us to focus on? He wants to live daily in the light of his return and to conduct ourselves in such as way that we will not be ashamed of standing before him. He wants us to share the gospel with every living soul and to continue his ministry in demonstrating the reality of his kingdom by healing the sick, helping the poor and oppressed, casting out demons, and even raising the dead. When we become sufficiently accomplished at the latter, then perhaps we can spend hours speculating endlessly about the end times. Meanwhile, there’s work to do!
When the disciples asked the risen Lord whether he was going to restore the Israelite nation, Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know the times and dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:7,8). In other words, this is the Father’s business; your business is to spread the gospel.
Jesus is not going to return simply because a bunch of fanatics have built a landing strip for him on the Mount of Olives. He promises he will return when we’ve done our job of preaching the gospel to all nations. Period.