Monday, December 03, 2007

Apocalypse... Ow!

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the Book of Revelation. For the benefit of any readers who may be godless and/or hellbound, Revelation (sometimes called The Revelation of John, or Revelations by people who can't read) is the last book of the New Testament. It was written by an early Christian named John who had been exiled to the island of Patmos. (Some folks think this was the same John who was an apostle to Jesus, while others insist they were two separate people.)

Anyway, while John was doing hard time on Patmos, he received a couple of visions. The first was simply the "Son of man" asking John to deliver messages of warning and/or hope to the seven church of Asia. And had he stopped there, we might have been spared a bunch of really horrible books by Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye.

But John went on to have a second vision that was, not to put too fine a point on it, batshit crazy. Even if you've never cracked a Bible in your life, you've no doubt come into contact with some of these bizarre prophecies, such as the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (Plague, Famine, War, and Death), or the Mark of the Beast ("six hundred, three-score, and six," or 666).

John basically prophesied that a Beast with seven horns and ten crowns would rise from the sea and join forces with the Whore of Babylon. Faced with the horrors of plague, famine, war, and death (not to mention all other kinds of weird crap, like locusts with the faces of men and the stings of scorpions), most of the people on Earth would turn from God and begin worshipping the Beast. Then Jesus would come back with His angelic army and throw the Beast into the Abyss.

I was ten years old when I first heard about this! After all those years of listening to stories about Daniel in the lions' den and Noah's ark and how Jesus was knocking on my heart so I could let Him in, I was amazed to find out there was something this cool in the Bible! I mean, holy shit!

(They didn't actually teach the Book of Revelation in Sunday School when I was that age. I heard about it from one of the teachers, who casually mentioned that there was a book in the Bible that "told the future." When I first tried to read Revelation, I was actually just skimming through to see if I recognized anybody's name. But I digress...)

Back in the 1970s, there was a hack writer named Hal Lindsey who wrote roughly 4,000,000 books about the prophecies of Revelation. In his most famous, The Late, Great Planet Earth, he claimed to have been divinely inspired by God to explain to everybody just what all the symbolism meant. He claimed that the European Economic Community (the forerunner of the European Union) would become a "United States of Europe," with ten members (represented by the Beast's ten crowns) that would be ruled by the Antichrist (a generic term that has since come to be applied to the Beast). Lindsey claimed that the Soviet Union would be a major player in the final apocalyptic war between Israel and the rest of the Middle East. Lindsey also insisted that all of this would come to pass within a generation of Israel's rebirth (or no later than 1988).

If Lindsey truly was taking dictation from God, he wasn't paying very close attention because very few of his "prophecies" came to pass. The European Union ended up with far more than 10 members, the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and the 1988 deadline came and went without an apocalypse.

Actually, Lindsey wasn't the first to come up with this particular interpretation of the biblical prophecies. Herbert Armstrong, a freak in his own right, had made very similar predictions in 1956. He predicted that the German dictator of the United States of Europe (the Beast) and the Roman Catholic Pope (the Antichrist) would lead the nuclear attack against Israel in 1975. However, Lindsey was the first to popularize the concept of... THE RAPTURE.

You see, there are two different descriptions of Christ's return in the Bible. One says that He'll return "like a thief in the night" and all the believers will be taken into the air to meet Him. The other says His return will be witnessed by everyone on earth and accompanied by blaring trumpets and singing choirs and hand puppets and stuff. To reconcile these differing accounts, the concept of the Rapture was born. The theory is that before everything turns to shit on Earth, Jesus will come back and take all the believers into Heaven.

Yeah, I know. It seems kind of silly. But, as always, you'd be surprised how reasonable it all sounds when you've had your head held underwater for four minutes.

So anyway, thanks to Lindsey, churches all over the country (or at least in the red states) began considering the Rapture as canon. The Late, Great Planet Earth became required reading for all Southern Baptists. In fact, I'm pretty sure many of them simply stapled it to the back of their Bibles.

(Lindsey actually defined the Rapture as a time when Jesus would snatch all the believers into Heaven to be with Him. Because of this, he often referred to the Rapture as "the Great Snatch." I swear, I'm not making this up. Over and over again in The Late, Great Planet Earth, he refers to the Great Snatch. The preacher at my church adopted the same nickname and was using it as late as 1985. I remember sitting in the congregation and snickering when he would ask us, in all sincerity, "Will you be ready for the Great Snatch?" But again, I digress...)

By the time I was 12 or 13, I had a head full of this stuff. I had read The Late, Great Planet Earth and There's a New World Coming (Lindsey's follow-up, where he goes through Revelation verse by verse and explains what it means). I had read several Jack Chick tracts that not only vilified the Catholic Church as an instrument of the Antichrist, but offered up totally bitchin' pictures like this one...

I also remember a movie that they showed us at some youth function about that time. It was called "A Distant Thunder," and it was about a girl who was living in the world after the Rapture. There's this really horrifying moment when she's betrayed by her friend (who has the Mark of the Beast on her hand) and handed over to the world government (which was the United Nations, if I remember correctly). The movie ends with her being taken into a room with a guillotine. I swear, that fucking movie gave me nightmares for a week!

(I don't know what the obsession is with guillotines in all these things, but that seems to be the de facto means of execution. Apparently the Antichrist has some kind of severed head fetish. But once again, I digress...)

It didn't occur to me that these were all simply interpretations of Revelation. I accepted it all as the literal, gospel truth. I just assumed it was a tenet of Christianity, and doubting any of it would be just as bad as doubting the stories of Jesus or Adam and Eve or that one where Balaam's ass(!) spoke to him. In fact, when I was in the 8th grade, I remember getting into a heated discussion with my friend Neal (who is now a pastor for the Church of Christ). Neal tried to convince me that Revelation was a symbolic fable, which just flew in the face of everything I'd come to believe. I was astonished by his blasphemy, and became worried that one of my friends wasn't going to make it into Heaven when the Great Snatch occurred.

It wasn't until I got to college (in 1985) that I learned the truth. There were several different interpretations of Revelation amongst Christians, and mine wasn't even the most popular!

I had been taught the pre-millennial dispensationalist point of view. Basically, these guys believe that the Book of Revelation is a prophecy of the end times. At some point, Jesus will come back and Rapture the believers into the air. Then, a seven year Tribulation will begin in which those left behind will be subjected to plague, earthquakes, famine, demon locusts, etc. The Beast will rise to power, issue his Mark, and declare himself God. Then Jesus will return yet again to kick the Beast's ass into the Abyss. There will be a thousand years of peace on Earth known as the Millennium. Then the Beast will be released for a short time to try and tempt as many people as he can. Finally, God will sit in judgement on all of mankind. The Beast and his followers will be cast into Hell, and the rest will be taken into Heaven for eternity.

This particular point of view became somewhat mainstream during the 1970s, and was further popularized by Tim LaHaye's godawful Left Behind series in the 1990s. This is also the belief held by George W. Bush, which is why so many people got nervous when he began declaring war on nations at random in the Middle East, referring to the conflicts as "crusades" and "God's work."

Another point of view is post-millennial, which was quite popular prior to World War I. I'm not very familiar with this one, but my understanding of it is that, at some point in time, God started counting the Millennium. Over the course of the next thousand years, life would get gradually better and better until we finally achieved Heaven on Earth. But World War I disillusioned a lot of people, who realized the world was getting worse, not better. There are still some adherents, but they're definitely in the minority these days.

The most prevalent point of view among Christians these days seems to be amillennialism. The amillennialists believe that the imagery in Revelation is symbolic, and that most of John's prophecies have already come to pass. They believe that the Beast was a veiled reference to the Roman Empire, and that John's missive was written to encourage early Christians and give them hope in the face of their persecution. It all sounds quite reasonable, actually. I wish somebody had fucking mentioned it to me when I was 10!

(Okay, last digression. Back in 1990, I was having a discussion with one of my fraternity brothers who was decidedly pre-millennial. I remember him explaining things to me:

The world is only going to exist for 7,000 years total (because that's a nice, round number that has a 7 in it, and everybody knows God is all about numerology). Since the world was created in 4000 B.C. (somebody did the questionable math long ago), that means it's going to end in the year 3000. Which means the Millennium has to begin in the year 2000. Which means the seven year Tribulation and the rise of the Antichrist will begin in 1993. Which means (if you're still with me) that whoever gets elected in 1992 will probably be the Antichrist.

Which I guess could be the *real* reason that Clinton was so unpopular in the red states.)


scarletvirago said...

Soooo... sounds like they're makin' with the wacky tobaccy on that Patmos island.

I'd go, but that's a little more paranoia than I usually like in my illicit substances.

Farrago said...

Heh. Nice finish! Unfortunately, my atheist beliefs pre-empt any thought of or belief in an "anti-christ." Our president is just a stupid son-of-a... nah. I like Babs. She seems a nice lady, despite being married to Mr. Read-My-Lips, and the fact that she spawned a complete fucking moron who then fell into the power trough.

Wonder Woman said...

It's a good thing I'm not the only one who fnds this Hella funny.. Although, I'm prolly the only one with the Antichrist for a Sister though...Yup I'm related to the Beast herself! I got Screwed...

Irb said...

Scarletvirago: Please open your Bibles to Revelation 4:20...

Farrago: Patton Oswalt summed it up pretty well: "I don't think George W. Bush wants to be president... I think he wants to be THE LAST PRESIDENT!"

And I never was a huge fan of Babs, despite the startling resemblance she bears to George Washington...

WW: Your sister sounds worse than the antichrist. I bet, if you shaved her head, you'd find 4 sixes there!