Tuesday, October 18, 2005

This is the End ... My Only Friend, The End ...

You can almost hear the snickering in this New York Times piece ... at first: Doomsday: The Latest Word if Not the Last ... quote ...

WORD spread quickly in some conservative Christian circles when Israeli troops captured the Old City of Jerusalem from Arab forces in June 1967. This was it: Jesus was coming.

But Jesus did not return that day, and the world did not end with the culmination of that Arab-Israeli war.

Neither did it end in 1260, when Joachim of Fiore, an influential 12th-century Italian monk calculated it would, nor in February 1420, as predicted by the Taborites of Bohemia, nor in 1988, 40 years after the formation of Israel, nor after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But after last week's devastating earthquake in Pakistan, coming as it did after a succession of recent disasters, the apocalyptic speculation, bubbled up again with impressive fervor on many Christian blogs, in some pews and among some evangelical Christian leaders.

Combined with fears of a global pandemic of avian flu, the calamitous flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina and last year's tsunami in Asia, the predictions of the end of the world are to be expected, religious historians said. After all, Christians have been predicting the end of history since the beginning of theirs.

"The doomsday scenarios are fairly cyclical," said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College. "The theology they are based on is a very linear view of history. They believe we are now ramping up to the end of time."

To paraphrase: "Look at these dopey Christians, getting all Apocolyptic again."

But, then the tone changes. Say what you will about the New York Times, they are thorough ... as evidenced by this ...

Fascination with the end of days is seemingly everywhere, in popular television ministries (like Pat Robertson's), on best-seller lists (the "Left Behind" series) and even on bumper stickers ("In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned").

What could be behind this fascination? Many church leaders and theologians, including evangelicals, give little effort to trying to interpret natural disasters and other events that might portend the end of history. The preoccupation these days stems mainly from the outsized influence of a specific, literalistic approach to biblical prophecy, called dispensationalism, which only came to occupy a dominant place in American evangelicalism relatively recently.

"Dispensationalists have never had the kind of public exposure and the kind of political power that they have now," Mr. Weber said. As a whole, evangelical Christians are united in their belief that Jesus will come back in human form at some point in history. Where they, as well as members of other Christian groups, have differed is precisely how this will occur, depending on how each interprets a single verse in the 20th chapter of the Book of Revelation and its allusion to a 1,000-year reign by Christ.

This difference, in large part, Mr. Weber said, shapes how much they are "players in the end-time game."

Some theologians read the passage and Revelation less literally. Drawing on references elsewhere in the Bible, they say the verse means that Christian influence will grow in the world until it is completely evangelized, leading to a millennial period of universal peace and prosperity. Because they believe Christ will return after the millennium, they are called post-millennialists.

Others, called amillennialists, believe that the millennial age is unfolding now, through the church, but that evil continues to exist and will only be eradicated when Christ returns.

It is those who read the passage most literally - the so-called pre-millennialists - who hold the most pessimistic views. They believe history is irrevocably deteriorating, on its way toward a period of terrible suffering, called the tribulation, which will only be broken when Jesus returns and rules for a thousand years.

Dispensationalism emerged as an offshoot of this last school, owing its spread in large part to the work of a 19th-century British evangelist, John Nelson Darby.

I really appreciate this. Yes, the NY Times is a commie rag (and I mean that in the nicest possible sense), but this is thoughtful tackling of a theological issue that doesn't gloss over the difference between committed, Bible-believing Chrisitans ... from a secular publication, no less. My favorite part ...

Until the mid-19th century, most American Christians were actually post-millennialists. Their fervor for hastening Jesus' return animated many of the era's social movements, like the abolitionist movement. But the Civil War and the succeeding waves of industrialization, urbanization and immigration - and the social problems that came with them - helped cripple post-millenial optimism. Darby, however, won some important converts, including the evangelist, Dwight L. Moody, and his ideas began to catch on. Dispensationalism's tenets were eventually memorialized in the Scofield Reference Bible, which became a best-seller.

... and ...

But the (dispensational) theology has drawn fire from other evangelicals for its narrow reading of the Bible and its tendency to ignore social problems. "It's still considered by many theologians to be somewhat ahistorical and theologically suspect," said Mr. Cizik, who criticized anyone who would interpret the recent calamities as a sign of the end.

"History has taught us not to predict," he said. "I think it's sheer speculation for anyone to place a whole lot of stock in any one particular earthquake or pestilence."

Not that that will stop the prognostications.

Again, is there a better tactic to paralyze the Church than to say things are going to get worse and worse and there is nothing God's people can do about it?