“Insufficient facts always invites danger ...” (Spock, from an episode of “Star Trek” titled “Space Seed”) In the science fiction genre, it is quite common to speculate on the nature of humankind’s supposed end, or at the very least, the end of current human civilization. Some sources may even theorize beyond that narrative, in which humanity somehow perseveres or even achieves a certain immortality or endurance.
In the “Star Trek” mythos, there is a generally Utopian sense of future
history, portraying a perhaps overly optimistic faith in our species’ ability to overcome existential challenges through its own capacity. Even so, in keeping with an acknowledgment of humanity’s frailties and failings, there exists in “Star Trek” lore the events of the “Eugenics Wars” (from which we get the memorable character of Khan, one of Captain Kirk’s most notable nemeses) which is supposed to have occurred in the late 1990s, leaving behind a degree of global devastation. Keep in mind, the original television series was produced during the 1960s, projecting a futuristic society occurring in the 23rd century (2200s), and so the 1990s was considered sufficiently “future” enough for the purposes of its time. Thankfully, in real life humanity managed to avoid such a fate (for now). It is always interesting to observe the differences between speculations of the future, fictional or otherwise, and our actual current experience.
Of course, a sense of foreboding is not the exclusive purview of science fiction. Many people, even non-believers, understand that the Bible also addresses the idea of the future fate of humankind with some combination of woe and wonder. It is perhaps not surprising that throughout time there have been numerous attempts to analyze and hypothesize the exact details of some of the prophetic text present in Scripture.
Many individuals -- including some Christians -- are responding to the current pandemic situation and the general civil unrest by resorting to conspiracy theories to somehow explain and warn everyone that this is yet another indication of the end times. While it may indeed be the case, this is, of course, nothing new. As anyone who has paid any attention to both history and current events will attest, doomsayers and prognosticators abound everywhere and at all times.
In 1988, former NASA engineer Edgar Whisenant wrote a book titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988 (the Rapture is the presumed sudden removal of believers from Earth). With detailed descriptions and expositions of not only Bible passages but seemingly innocuous facts such as the boiling point of water and the then current session number of the U.S. Congress, he narrowed it down to between September 11 and 13, coinciding with the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana at the time. It would be something of an understatement to conclude that Mr. Whisenant miscalculated.
In 2011, evangelist Harold Camping insisted through his radio broadcasts that the Rapture would occur on May 21 of that year. This was actually a prediction he had made back in 2005, which, interestingly, was itself a revision of a former prediction that the second coming of Jesus (which would include, according to the self-proclaimed prophet, not only the Rapture but Judgment Day as well) was supposed to occur in 1994. After May 21, 2011, passed without any of the anticipated events transpiring, Mr. Camping, true to form, revised the prediction yet again to indicate October 21 as the actual date. Alas, for Mr. Camping, October 21, 2011, proved to be yet another non-event, and so the consistently imprecise prophet retreated back into minor obscurity. (With respect, one should note that Mr. Camping passed away in 2013 and is hopefully enjoying time in the Lord’s presence, assuming he was a believer, having managed to, presumably, prematurely avoid the actual Rapture. No offense to him or his family is intended.)
Quite frankly, I hesitate to mention such unreliable teachings because, honestly, I do not want to provide any amount of credence to the absurdly inaccurate forecasting and convoluted Biblical scholarship (or lack thereof). I only include them as prime examples of the kind of confusion and misunderstanding that occurs regularly regarding the Bible and its prophetic content. There can be great value in taking Jesus at his word when he said, regarding his return: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Matthew 24:36)
“...It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority;” (Acts 1:7)
While one might be inclined, out of generosity, to attribute sincere or benign motivations behind such misguided efforts, it is also difficult to avoid some of the negative ramifications. The primary and obvious risk of relying on “scare tactics” or coercive methods to generate converts is that, when these portents do not actually materialize, those who had based their acceptance of the Faith on these erroneous assumptions are often prone to abandon their now precarious convictions.
So then, how should we approach actual Biblical prophecy? Any study of Scripture reveals that part of its initial and primary intention is to provide relevancy to its original audience (those who would have been present around the time of its writing or dissemination), while simultaneously offering significance and insight to future readers (e.g., you and me). The Bible possesses an impressive quality of historical immediacy combined with potent timelessness.
Much is made of what we call the book of Revelation, the last document in the New Testament canon. Very often, this letter -- written, it is believed, within the first century after Jesus’ ascension, addressed to a number of regional assemblies located in the far western territory of what is now modern Turkey -- is perceived as something akin to a typical doomsday plot.
Indeed, the letter’s construed focus on calamity and Armageddon has become such a widespread assumption that the term “apocalypse,” from the Greek title of the letter, has come to be synonymous with these themes, even though the word itself just means, as it says in English, revelation in a broad sense -- that is unveiling or revealing that which was hidden. The current connotation of this apocalyptic chronicle is that it seems to focus almost exclusively on war, pestilence, and tribulation.
A potentially useful approach to reading Revelation, as with most writing, is to identify its purpose. The first sentence of the letter states:
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; ...” (Revelation 1:1)
A couple of verses later, we read:
“Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.” (Rev. 1:3)
And, just to reinforce the thought, near the end of the letter it is written:
“... Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.” (Rev. 22:10)
An emphasis can be surmised from the phrases “must soon take place” and “the time is near.” The writer, John, was reaching out to Christians who had already suffered persecution, and most likely would continue to do so, amidst a society and culture which was experiencing political, social, economic, and religious upheaval. As with most New Testament letters, the objective of this communication was to exhort and comfort believers, and ultimately, further proclaim and affirm the gospel message of redemption and reconciliation with God and with our fellow human beings.
Yes, Revelation contains sometimes stark and severe imagery and symbolism that appear at times to describe harsh and cataclysmic events to be visited upon the population of the planet. This seems to be in keeping with what John had observed in his lifetime already and with, presumably, what Jesus was revealing to him in anticipation of that which would be soon transpiring. We know from historical records that coincide with the likely time frame of the letter that Christians indeed had suffered some amount of persecution from both theological and sectarian rivals as well as political and authoritarian oppressors. Given the presumed time of writing, it appears that much of what John described did indeed occur within a number of years from the letter’s initial circulation.
Can the book of Revelation be considered applicable to us today? Certainly, insofar as all of Scripture can be considered applicable in some way. What does Revelation actually say that could prove to be relevant to our current circumstances? Remember, it was written to first century Christians and
mentions various types of challenges and ordeals that they and the world at large would come to face, such as conflict, disease, and persecution. Certainly, as much as the target audience of the letter was being exhorted to endure such imminent adversity with faith and trust in God, this same counsel can be readily applied to our contemporary context. Again, the Bible speaks across time and space, across generations and geography.
Indeed, from our current vantage point, some of what Revelation describes can seem quite germanely modern. Ongoing skirmishes in the Middle East and throughout the globe exemplify the recurring threat of war; a coronavirus pandemic, which is just the latest in a series of pestilences in recent history, challenges our physical and social well-being;
persistent persecution and suppression of Christian believers at the mercy of oppressive governments constitute the grim reality of tribulation faced by members of the Body of Christ. All these and more could readily be identified as “evidence” that the calamities of Revelation are being fulfilled
before our very eyes.
For those who may wonder if we are indeed living in the “last days,” a good perspective to consider is that of the disciples of Jesus, who pondered this very question themselves. Their answer was provided by God himself in the form of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, as recorded in the second chapter of Acts.
“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” (Acts 2:4)
“but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel: ‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘That I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; ...’“ (Acts 2:16-17)
It would not be unreasonable to deduce from this that, in many ways, the “last days” began at this particular observance of Pentecost in Jerusalem, some days after Jesus’ ascension, when the Holy Spirit began to directly indwell
believers and move them to begin fulfilling Jesus’ commission to spread the gospel; and even to begin fulfilling Jesus’ own prognosis of the end times:
“This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)
Ultimately, believers are meant to be accomplishing their appointed task of sharing the gospel, regardless of circumstances. It should not matter if we are under threat of military engagements, viral outbreaks, or political maltreatment; God promises that he is our strength and source of salvation.
In the words of Revelation:
“He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.” (Revelation 21:7)