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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
    Bewilderbeast  March 21, 2019

    “so … well, I don’t know what the future holds!” – Whoa! (*feels a Great Disappointment . . *) 😉

  2. Avatar
    michael_kelemen  March 21, 2019

    If Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who believed that the messianic age was going to come soon, how did Christians manage to maintain their identity as his followers when it didn’t.

    Why didn’t Christianity die around 100 CE? I know about Leon Festinger and have seen his theory of Cognitive Dissonance used to explain this.

    And I’m sure that this has been discussed here before but I must have missed it.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Festinger#When_Prophecy_Fails

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      Yes, his book is amazing and worth reading (When Prophecy Fails). If you want to see one explanation explicitly invoking this theory, see John Gager’s Kingdom and Community. But apart from the theory, it’s always amazing to see how communities change their beliefs in light of their circumstances, sometimes radically (not just in religious issues but also social, political, and cultural)

  3. tompicard
    tompicard  March 21, 2019

    Visions of the End of the World

    Where exactly does Jesus say that the WORLD WILL COME TO AN END ?

    As far as I know Jesus thought the world would change RADICALLY . . .

    does that imply

    a) the world will be destroyed? (there are sufficient earlier biblical verses to think not), or
    b) some kind of supernatural phenomena will occur ? ( universally visible beings appearing on clouds, humans becoming weightless, corpses rising from their graves, etc), and
    c) end to marriage and even human mortality ?

    Ascribing such views to Jesus seems to me to be really really stretching his words, and also even inserting preconceived and not necessarily warranted concepts into the mind of John the Revelator.

    Of course the radical change Jesus foresaw to the earth was God presence becoming a tangible reality in all humans’ hearts (see for example Jer 31:31) .
    How reasonable is it to read more into the prophet Jesus words than that ?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      Yes, “World will come to an end” is really just short hand for saying that everything is radically going to be transformed in the future, the old will pass away and the new will come. It doesn’t mean the planet itself will explode.

  4. Avatar
    bAnn  March 21, 2019

    It is difficult to understand how far flung religious thought has come since Jesus’ time. It seems every generation from the early church fathers to the present have continued to add their own ideas to what Jesus’ message was about. Personally, I am of the opinion that Valentinus may have had some valid insights. I would like to know more about his thoughts. Writing a book about the end of time would make for interesting reading, especially including how earliest Christian thoughts may have differed. (My step-mother actually believed all the Left Behind books were inspired by God.) I believe there is a creator/sustainer who is spirit. Are we a part of a giant experiment? Part human/Part divine? Will we annihilate ourselves (that seems likely)? What would it be like to live in a Spiritual reality? Would the spiritual reality be the result of the end of the physical world? As you can see, I have more questions than answers. Perhaps we are like all the earlier ones who thought these same thoughts and made up their own answers. I appreciate those who make me think. Best Wishes, bAnn

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      Yup, good question! On the first point, I summarize Valentinian thought on the blog: search for Valentinians.

  5. Avatar
    Bwana  March 21, 2019

    Of course, apocalyptic expectations about the End of the World are not limited to Christianity only. Certain Islamic sects seem to share in the lunacy. Most recently we had ISIS reviving a prophecy centered on Dabiq in Syria, where the armies of 80 nations were to gather for history’s final battle that would ultimately lead to the reign of the Mahdi. The similarities with the Armageddon story are pretty remarkable. Perhaps a side chapter on Islamic apocalypticism would make your book even more relevant.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      Yup, I’d assume Muslims picked it up from their Christian predecessors, but I’d be interested in learning more about it.

      • Avatar
        Bwana  March 22, 2019

        For introduction to Islamic eschatology:
        L’Apocalypse dans l’Islam by Jean-Pierre Filiu (I believe an English translation exists.)

        For ISIS apocalyptic lunacy:
        https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-30083303

        In discussions with evangelical fundi’s I sometimes use the ISIS story as an example of how apocalyptic fanaticism can descend into ultimate evil. Doesn’t make much of an impression I’m afraid.

  6. Avatar
    Stephen  March 21, 2019

    How far down the rabbit hole are you going to go? Gog and Magog? Daniel’s “seventy weeks”? Pre-trib, Post-trib, Mid-trib?

    thx

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      That’s always one of the hardest decisions in writing a trade book. Lots of rabbit holes and how far down does one go, when trying to stick to the point and to keep it highly interesting, not just to textual nerds like me….

  7. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  March 21, 2019

    On my recent Ted Talk binge, one of the speakers helped me understand why people (including myself many years ago) become fundamentalists and believe in things like Bible inerrancy and the Rapture. First, we’re superior to other species because of two things: cooperating in large numbers and creating fictional realities. In other words, our imaginations are so highly sophisticated, it sometimes overtakes objective reality. A chimpanzee might trade a coconut for a banana with another chimpanzee, but they won’t exchange a piece of paper (money) for a banana because they operate in objective reality. We can’t threaten a chimpanzee with hell or offer them a reward of heaven in exchange for a certain type of behavior. We, on the other hand, can take a piece of paper or plastic to a complete stranger in a restaurant, anywhere in the world, and get food in return. As a species, we cooperated and agreed to this created system. We invent stories for things all the time—gods, religions, laws, corporations—and believe in them so strongly that they become our reality even though every bit of it is fiction.

    The danger for us, as a human race, is that if a massive number of people around the globe believe the world will fall apart because the Bible says it will, then our objective reality actually succumbs to the fiction. Even if we don’t cause an apocalypse to happen, we’ll create other types of fictional entities for ourselves. For example, some scientists think that video games will be the fiction that will rule our lives.

  8. Avatar
    tompaine  March 21, 2019

    I think this is a great idea for a book. I have long been disturbed by the idea that millions of Americans are living in “End Times” fantasy land and the danger socially and politically that stem from this. Anything you could do that might help some people wake up to the absurdity such beliefs would be welcome.

  9. Avatar
    forthfading  March 21, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    What passage in the New Testament do people look at when interpreting a “RAPTURE “.

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      One in particular: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. (The entire idea is not in the book of Revelation, to the surprise of many!)

      • Avatar
        jhague  March 22, 2019

        Does this verse make it sound like Christians will be with Jesus in the clouds (heaven?) forever rather than a new kingdom on earth?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 24, 2019

          The normal interpretation is that they are going up to heaven to usher Jesus down into his kingdom, just as a town would send out its leaders to greet the emperor who was coming to spend the night with them.

  10. Avatar
    crt112@gmail.com  March 22, 2019

    Bart

    Did you see the 70s film ‘Thief in the Night’ ?
    It terrorised teenagers across the world.

  11. Avatar
    mikezamjara  March 22, 2019

    off topic.

    I am interested in 2 Timothy. 3:16 “All scripture is breathed out of god…”. Since this letter was written probably in the 60s of the first century before the canon was stablished and before the gospels and revelation: What Scripture is the author talking about? Is he talking about only the jewish bible or do you think that he includes the early letters of Paul ?

  12. Avatar
    dankoh  March 22, 2019

    Are you familiar with medieval Jewish eschatology? The most famous, of course, are Shabati Zvi (or Zevi), who probably was sincere (at least until the sultan caught up with him) and Jacob Frank, who was an out-and-out crook.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2019

      Yes, a bit, but not a lot, I had a colleague for years who was an expert on Shabati Zvi.

  13. Avatar
    JohnKesler  March 22, 2019

    On The John Ankerberg Show, Gary Habermas said that even skeptics accept these “minimal facts”:
    1) Jesus died by crucifixion.
    2) Shortly afterward the disciples had experiences which they believed were appearances of the risen Jesus.
    3) The disciples’ lives were transformed. They were willing to die for their belief in the risen Jesus.
    4) The skeptic James, the brother of Jesus, came to believe.
    5) Paul, a scholar and a Pharisee who persecuted Christians, came to believe in Jesus. James and Paul both came to faith in Jesus because they thought they saw the risen Jesus.

    Do you accept these facts? If not, which one(s) do you not agree with and why?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2019

      All except the second part of #3. We don’t know how they died or what they willed. But yes, the others are right. And I don’t think they add up to “proof” in the least!

    • Avatar
      crt112@gmail.com  March 25, 2019

      Interesting points but – the resurrection goes completely against every scientific law we know. We need some pretty strong evidence in order to suspend our scientific mindset. The apostles came from first century Palestine – mostly uneducated an illliterate , and certainly pre-scientific. People believed all sorts of strange things in those days. And coincidentally we dont see any of the miracles today that are claimed in the gospels.
      So yes, you do have some core basic ‘facts’ we all agree on and some were believers transformed into evangelists and some died for their beleifs. But sadly we’ve seen people die for unfounded beleifs many times since then.

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