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Fundamentalist Visions of the End of the World

I have started to explain what I’m hoping my next trade book will be, focusing on the book of Revelation and its effect on modern thinking about the End of the World soon to come.   I’m tentatively calling the book Expecting Armageddon, and it would roughly cover three areas:  the religious expectation that God’s judgment is right around the corner – for example in the fundamentalist belief of an imminent “rapture”; the secular versions of this idea, that the world as we know it is soon to be destroyed in one way or another – for example, through nuclear holocaust (as portrayed, e.g., in novels and film), and the political implications of these beliefs (e.g., in understandings of the Second Amendment; environmental legislation; and the U.S. support for Israel) (! Who would-a thought?); and the demonstration that all this perspective is based ultimately on a certain understanding/way of reading the book of Revelation, a mode of interpretation that scholars have long argued is untenable.

I’m pretty pumped about the possibility of the book.  But I haven’t proposed it to a publisher yet, so … well, I don’t know what the future holds!

Here is the next bit of the description that I’ve written for myself, based on yesterday’s post about the end-of-the-world predictions of Edgar Whisenant, widely accepted in some circles of Christian fundamentalists, who discovered, to their dismay, that he had been completely wrong in every way.

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Most people find such futuristic scenarios bizarre, troubling, and fringe.  But they are not all that fringe.  No better evidence can come than from one of….

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Secular Versions of the Coming Apocalypse
Expecting the Apocalypse: My Idea for the Book

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    dennislk1  March 20, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    There is a conflict with the story in Revelation that I have yet to hear anyone address to my satisfaction, yet goes far in allowing the reader to understand. To be born again, as I understand it, one must be judged worthy. The great battle occurs after the remaining humans are born again (some are born again earlier to reign with Jesus 1000 years and will not die the second death (being cast into thelake of fire)). That is, the participants in the great battle are all born again (have been judged worthy of the kingdom of heaven). Those who rebel against Jesus in the kingdom of heaven will be thrown in the lake of fire. But Jesus promise of the kingdom of heaven is that those there will live forever and there will be no suffering. Those in the lake of fire will live forever (their seed will not die) but they will not suffer for that is the promise of the kingdom of heaven.

    The book of revelation, like all books of the Bible is a book written by and (for the most part) for the Jews (in my opinion). And therefore there are three “holocausts” in the end times: the holocaust of the Jews (World War II and the murdering of 6 million Jews that led to the creation of the country of Israel (as predicted in the Bible)), the holocaust of the end of the earth (the destruction of the planet earth) which is just after Jesus comes again to save the righteous (the rapture), and the holocaust in the kingdom of heaven (when those who are unable to accept Jesus’ vision for the kingdom of heaven will be cast into the lake of fire). The Bible doesn’t say much about the Antichrist, but if someone should be given that label, then the Antichrist was Adolph Hitler; for to be Antichrist means to be anti-jew. But like all prophecies concerning the Jews, it was meant to be recognized and understood after it occurred and not before or during.

    But Jesus’ 1000 year reign is the puzzle piece that once understood allows the whole story to begin to be understood. It would be interesting to hear your opinions of Jesus’ 1000 year reign.

    Dennis Keister

  2. Avatar
    Nichrob  March 20, 2019

    A book title I’m stealing from James Tabor, but could be good for your new book: “Dead Messiahs That Never Return”. (Come on, you got to laugh at that one… It’s a GREAT title….!)

    • Avatar
      thebigskyguy  March 24, 2019

      And would also be a great name for a rock band!

  3. Avatar
    lmabe10  March 20, 2019

    Bart,

    Is it your view that the book of Revelation is simply just not reliable as a predictor of the future (obviously), or do you believe that, in addition, fundamentalists have poorly interpreted what the author is actually trying to communicate?

    I guess my question boils down to: if somehow it was indeed inspired by God, is there a more accurate reading that tells us something different than what fundamentalists traditionally infer?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      My view is that Revelation was not trying to predict what would happen millennia later (in our day), and that fundamentalists completely misunderstand it (because they think it does).

  4. Avatar
    Hon Wai  March 20, 2019

    Expectations of imminent End Times seem to be found only in Protestant traditions. The notions of Rapture, dispensationalism, amillennialism, premillennialism, postmillennialism seem to be the unique preoccupations of strands of Protestantism. Why do contemporary Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians refrain from interpreting Book of Revelation as prophecies about the near future? It seems Christian denominations with strong emphasis on the social gospel (as some Catholic traditions do) – actively bringing about God’s kingdom to earth by tackling global poverty and injustices and environmental degradation – tend to pay a lot less attention to the imminent End Times. In contrast, if one believes the apocalypse is around the corner, it is futile to spend effort on improving conditions on earth for humans and other sentient living beings we share the planet with.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      Historically, of course, there were plenty of Christians imagining the end was coming in their own day before the Reformation! (From Montanists to Joachim of Fiore and onward). But yes, the rapture/millenialist debates are decidedly Protestant.

  5. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  March 20, 2019

    Having noted your citation of growth among “conservative communities”, it might nonetheless be interesting to see what percentages the Pew survey would yield today as Millennials come of age.

  6. Avatar
    AstaKask  March 20, 2019

    There are at least two filmatizations of “Left Behind” – one with Kirk Cameron and one with Nicolas Cage. Not even the Cagey one could save that movie, and he can usually make even bad movies watchable. I believe the Cinema Snob has reviewed at least one of them.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      Yes, one wonders why he takes on the parts he does….

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  March 22, 2019

        Cage? He was under a court injunction to take any role he was offered at that time. Something about a divorce or alimony or something like that. He played the role like he was on Xanax.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 24, 2019

          Really? Wow.

        • Avatar
          dynamis878  March 25, 2019

          Nick Cage is just prolific and weird. I don’t think he was required to do any roles.

  7. Avatar
    rivercrowman  March 20, 2019

    I still have a paperback copy of Hal Lindsey’s “The Late Great Planet Earth.” Had to salvage the binding with duct tape! Think I’ll gift it to my born again neighbor. … See his reaction.

  8. Avatar
    AstaKask  March 20, 2019

    Second thought: In Rev 13:16, the beast gives everyone his mark “on their right hands or on their foreheads”. I’ve always thought that meant ‘in their deeds’ (hands) or ‘in their thoughts’ (forehead), but a lot of apocalypticists interpret it as a physical mark, a tattoo or RFID chip of some sort. What is your interpretation?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      My sense is that it’s a physical mark of some kind. But somehow I don’t think it’s an embedded computer chip….

  9. epicurus
    epicurus  March 20, 2019

    I’m in Canada and the previous govt. which was conservative had many evangelicals in it including the Prime Minister Stephen Harper. After many positions favoring Israel and even a statement by Harper that Canada will always stand by Israel, I watched a national news panel wonder why he was so adamant about it when Canada had previously been more neutral. Either they didn’t know Israel’s place in Evangelical thought or didn’t want to bring it up. But to my mind it had to be the main explanation.

  10. Avatar
    jbskq5  March 20, 2019

    I was recently told by an apologist that Mark 9:1 and 13:30-31 should not, in fact, give anyone an expectation of an imminent second coming, and that the Greek indicates something completely different. I wasn’t willing to start arguing about Greek, a subject that i know nothing about, so I conceded the point. I imagine these passages will come up in the book you’re previewing now. Can you give a short summary of your take on these passages and what they entail?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      My view is that they definitely predict that the disciples will be alive when the end of history arrives. And you can see why Christian apologists would place a high priority in claiming they must mean something else. But the Greek is as clear as the English (the apologists usually play with the term “generation” in 13:30-31, saying it can mean something like “race”; but that’s not the normal meaning of the term, and their reading makes absolutely no sense in the context)

      • Avatar
        jbskq5  March 22, 2019

        I was provided with a screenshot from Strong’s concordance in this conversation showing the definition of “generation” to mean “race”. Is there a way to summarize why this wouldn’t apply to those verses, or does it merit a longer and more technical discussion?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 24, 2019

          It’s a long discussion. But if Jesus wanted to explain when the end would come, what would be the point of saying that it will come while the Jewish race still existed? That doesn’t answer the question he was asked (since neither he nor anyone else thought the world would ever be without the Jewish race).

          • Avatar
            brandon284  June 20, 2019

            What are other reasons that you think race isn’t the applicable term in this passage?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 23, 2019

            Apart from the fact that it doesn’t make much sense? That’s certainly the main reason: the way we understand what words mean in a sentence is based on what makes sense…

      • NulliusInVerba
        NulliusInVerba  March 22, 2019

        Apart from the verses of Mark mentioned above and those within the Book of Revelation (as cited in your textbook), can you think of any other NT verses that indubitably predict the Imminence of the Apocalypse? More is better! Thank you.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 24, 2019

          It’s presupposed in 1 Corinthians 15:50-5 (“WE” will be changed) and 1 Thess. 4:13-18 (“WE who remain”); and yes, the idea that it is “soon” is around a lot (also 1 Thess 5, e.g.)

  11. Avatar
    Apocryphile  March 20, 2019

    Belief in an imminent end of the world is one of the strangest things to have arisen in the history of human thought, and one of the scariest, as the statistics you quote point out. It becomes particularly dangerous when these ideas are held by those with political power and influence. *Our* world may indeed end through our ignorance and lack of proper stewardship of our planet, but it will have nothing to do with the rapture or second coming of JC.

    I think this is a great idea for a trade book, and I hope you do it. Anything that mitigates the rampant ignorance of the American public these days is laudable, and you have a gift for simplifying and clarifying often complex ideas and making the history behind them interesting.

  12. Avatar
    fishician  March 20, 2019

    I attended one of the fundamentalist-type churches that had a conservative view of Revelation and did not buy into the rapture concept. Still, people often wanted to study Revelation, and quite a few got into the Left Behind series. These apocalyptic ideas are just more fun than the real thing for most people. Too bad people aren’t as enthusiastic to study Jesus’ teachings on things like forgiveness, caring for the needy, turning the other cheek, etc.

  13. Avatar
    darren  March 20, 2019

    Fascinating topic! Would this be your first foray into writing something not entirely focused on ancient Christianity? I’d be curious to know whether end of times scenarios have lost their power after so many false predictions (2012, 2000 and remember when everyone thought Reagan was the anti-christ because each of his names has six letters?) As friend once told me, the thing about predicting the apocalypse is you only have to be right once!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      Yes, except for God’s Problem. But see today’s post. As to your friend’s comment — I suppose so! Unless we go out with a peaceful whimper, gradually and non-reluctantly, the way we came in.

  14. Avatar
    Brittonp  March 20, 2019

    As we approach the 2000th anniversary of Jesus’ death I suspect there will be an increase in predictions of his second coming. This would be entertaining except for the many who will believe these predictions and quit their job, sell their home, etc.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      If we only knew what year he died!! (Of course not knowing the year of his birth didn’t put the brakes on Y2K)

      • Avatar
        jhague  March 22, 2019

        Would non-apocalyptic people in the first century find the apocalyptic folks to be odd?

      • Avatar
        dankoh  March 22, 2019

        Well, to be fair, Y2K had nothing to do with Jesus or the rapture. It’s the turning of a new century; if computers had become popular in 1865 instead of 1965, we’d have had this same problem on Dec. 31, 1899. (I was one of the people heavily involved in fixing it.)

        • Bart
          Bart  March 24, 2019

          Actually, it was partially about Jesus, because of the belief that the world started in 4000 BCE, Jesus was born in 0 (he wasn’t, actually, since there was no year 0), and the end would come in 2000 — 6000 years because creation in Genesis took 6 days and each day with the Lord “is a thousand years”

          • Avatar
            dankoh  March 24, 2019

            Difference in perspective: to me, “Y2K” was the critical problem of using 2-digit year dates in computer programming, which would cause MAJOR disasters when we rolled around to a new century. (And typically for humans, the first programmer to seriously point this out, in 1984, was fired because he wouldn’t shut up about it.) Companies started to get concerned around 1998, and it cost literally billions of dollars to fix. My group alone spent 18 months getting it right.

            So when I hear “Y2K,” for me its only association with “Jesus” is when someone swore at a computer screen!

          • Bart
            Bart  March 25, 2019

            Maybe so. But you probably don’t live in the American south….

  15. Avatar
    flshrP  March 20, 2019

    All of these end-times “prophets” exhibit the classic “cognitive dissonance resolution” phenomenon. Their pet belief is thoroughly disconfirmed by incontrovertible evidence (usually, the prophesied date of Armageddon has come and gone and the World keeps on a turning). So the true believers double down, tie themselves in knots, and rationalize the failure as actually an expected outcome because God, working as usual in His mysterious ways, has postponed that dreadful day, which would have happened as originally prophesied accept for this Divine Intervention.

    Just another example of good old American religious fantasy and magical thinking.

    The Doobie Brothers nailed it in 1979:

    What a fool believes he sees.
    No wise man has the power to reason away.
    What seems to be is always better than nothing at all.

  16. Avatar
    godspell  March 20, 2019

    Looking at the people who are most adamant and vocal about the Great Change coming anytime soon–most of them sure don’t act like they believe it.

    By which I mean they seem more interested in what’s going to happen to everybody else, and far less worried about the logs in their own eyes.

  17. Avatar
    Ask21771  March 20, 2019

    How many scholars besides you believe that the gospels are not accurate

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      Apart from fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, virtually all scholars agree that there are inaccuracies — some think a few, and some think a lot.

  18. Avatar
    jogon  March 20, 2019

    Bart, what’s the root of the obsession with Russia invading Israel? I remember this from my own fundie upbringing!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      Cold War fears connected with Soviet dominance and the need to control oil in the Middle East. Why Israel then, since there’s no oil there? Because the rhetorical is based on the Bible for which Israel is central, not peripheral.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  March 22, 2019

        And because Russia is to the north of Israel; from where danger always comes. I believe it has to do with the geography of David’s Jerusalem; the northern side was the most vulnerable.

        • Rick
          Rick  April 4, 2019

          Perhaps because most invading nations were out to invade Egypt and had to come through the Levant from the North?

  19. Avatar
    mannix  March 20, 2019

    The most troubling thing to me about these “fundies” is their eligibility to vote!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      One person one vote. It’s why, for me, it’s important for people to be informed rather than ignorant (not just about politics but also about assumptions and views lying behind their politics)

  20. Robert
    Robert  March 20, 2019

    I’m going with Isaac Newton (2060 CE). That sounds about right to me. After all, he was a scientist and so far he’s been completely right. The end hasn’t happened yet so he must be right. And I’ll probably be dead by then anyway so I’ll never know if he was wrong. That settles it. 2060 CE!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      You got it! And he could say it with all the assurance that I myself could claim it will be 2460!

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