By Michael S. Horton*
Many moons ago, I was absolutely certain that I would not live to see 1980. A leading prophecy expert wrote a book titled Jesus Is Coming Soon, and in it a whole series of signs—from the alignment of planets to the Common Market—heralded the certain return of Christ in the year 1979. The man is still writing prophecy books and, worse still, those books are still being read—more eagerly, perhaps, than the texts he supposedly exegetes.
I remember hearing my Sunday school teacher startle us with stories of the locusts in Revelation being helicopters sent by the government to hunt down those who were too good to take the mark of the beast, but too bad to go up in the rapture. Hal Lindsey wrote, “They’re Cobra helicopters. They also make the sound of many chariots.” The eagle assisting the woman in her escape in Revelation twelve is, according to Lindsey, the Sixth Fleet of the United States Navy and the leading prophecy “expert” further argues that “For eighteen centuries, the mysteries of the Book of Revelation remained largely unexplored. It was not until the nineteenth century that the renaissance of Revelation took place.” However, as we shall see in this article, the fascination with the apocalyptic mysteries has always cast its spell over the masses during times of enormous theological, spiritual, political and socioeconomic crisis.
“You are wisely interested in the persecution of the coming Antichrist, as well as his power and origin,” wrote Adso, Abbot of Montier-En-Der, to Queen Gerberga in AD 950. It seems the intrigue of the Man of Lawlessness held fascination for rogue and ruler alike as Europe approached the second millennium of Christendom.
For seers like Adso, the Antichrist was a literal person, but more often than not, he was the personification of the perceived enemy of the time. For Adso and his contemporaries, Moslems were the army of Antichrist occupying the Promised Land. And yet, a final European ruler would conquer the Moslems and offer a reign of peace, fooling Christendom and letting the filthy races of Gog and Magog in through the back door.
The medievalist Christopher Brooke marks the approach to the year 1000 as “the beginnings of a great religious revival, with a popular religious movement at its roots, at or near whose center lay a new fervor for saints and relics and pilgrimages, whose chief memorial and witness today are the remains of countless churches.” “Then, as on many occasions in the last two thousand years,” Brooke concludes, “many folk confidently expected the end of the world; but they soon found it was necessary to wait a little longer.” As Roman Catholic historian Ronald Knox pointed out, “All millenarian movements outlive the non-fulfillment of their prophecies; Archdeacon Ebel maintained his credit after the fiasco of the ‘marriage feast’ at Easter, 1823, and the Adventists were quick to discover a fault in their own calculations after the successive disappointments of 1843 and 1844.”
History is littered with the skeletons of false predictions and dashed hopes related to the second coming and our day is no different. In this issue, we will be taking a closer look at the biblical teaching on “last things” and in this article, I wanted to point out the larger history of false hopes. The purpose is not to burst bubbles or plant the seeds of cynicism, but to fix our eyes more firmly on the person and work of Christ Himself, including His Second Coming, not on the speculations of end-times profiteers.
There are obvious reasons why the dawn of a new millennium might spark speculations regarding the end of the age. And yet, there is nothing particularly sacred about the turn of a millennium, a period of time determined by custom rather than command.
Where Did It All Come From?
Historically, millenarian movements were labeled “chiliasm” by the Church and were regarded as misleading. Of course, that does not mean that such movements are in error for that reason alone. Nevertheless, it does alert us to earlier confrontations. Montanism, the fountain of such movements throughout church history, gained a massive following in the last quarter of the second century. “The New Prophecy,” as its adherents called it, began when Montanus and two women began to prophesy in Phrygia (now modern Turkey). Christians, Montanus taught, were to abstain from marriage and other worldly pleasures, devoting themselves to prayer and fasting in anticipation of the end. Nevertheless, the Church, after careful consideration, stamped “The New Prophecy” with the label “Phrygian Heresy.” The great father, St. Jerome, quipped of Montanism, “God, having failed to save the world by the first two dispensations came down through the Holy Spirit into Montanus, Priscilla, and Maximilla.” Tertullian, an earnest but legalistic church father, embraced the movement and lent it a credibility which secured a permanent artery running through church history in sectarian and perfectionistic movements.
In the twelfth century, Christendom was besieged by yet another era of end-times speculation with the appearance of the Sicilian mystic, Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202). Unwilling to class himself with the inspired prophets of Scripture, Joachim added, “But that God who once gave the spirit of prophecy to the prophets has given me the spirit of understanding to grasp with great clarity in His Spirit all the mysteries of sacred scripture, just as the prophets who once produced it in the Spirit understood these mysteries.” The most marked feature of Joachim’s eschatology (end times scheme) is his division of history into three dispensations: The Dispensation of the Father (Law), The Dispensation of the Son (Grace), and The Dispensation of the Spirit (Revelation). From Adam to Christ, the Father reigned; the second dispensation began with King Josiah, climaxed in Christ, and continues in Joachim’s day. But the third stage is the long-awaited apex, lingering just around the corner. It is the time of the monastic orders—a dispensation of holiness, purity, signs and wonders, and revelations from the Spirit of God. Through his commentaries on The Revelation, Joachim of Fiore became one of the most revered figures in popular Christendom, although he was condemned as a heretic by the University of Paris.
Upon reading Joachim’s work, one often forgets that what is being read was written in the Middle Ages—it reads like something from the pen of Hal Lindsey or John Walvoord. Allegories and symbolic presentations of the kingdom of God in Scripture are treated as though they held secrets about the future which could be confirmed by the morning news. In this period, each generation saw itself as the truly important, “terminal” generation. Joachim set the date for Christ’s return at 1260.
The Spiritual Franciscans, an order which eventually broke off from the mainline Franciscans, declared itself the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit and proclaimed the Catholic Church carnal. Only the Spiritual Franciscans knew “the day and hour,” and many of their mendicant preachers predicted dates throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Besides orders, revivalists like those of the so-called “Great Hallelujah” focused on end-times events for their conversions. And the end-times were not only an obsession of those on the edges: St. Bonaventure identified the coming of St. Francis of Assisi with the sixth seal in Revelation, and Pope Gregory IX began a bull with the words, “Since the evening of the world is now declining…”
In the fifteenth century, the Italian preacher Savonarola became the moral overseer of Florence and in its enthusiasm to burn paintings, books, poems, cards and dice, and other vanities, he made predictions about the end of the age: “The tempter says, ‘Many claim that a number of the things you foretold have not happened, and for this reason they do not believe the other things you predicted.’ I answer, ‘”Whatever I have publicly preached about things to come has either already taken place or certainly will take place. But note that when I spoke apart and privately, because I am a man and then spoke as a man, perhaps I let slip something that was less true, though I have no memory of such a thing.” After enough “slips” of things that were “less true,” Florence had had it with the guy and they burned him.
During the Reformation
Throughout the Middle Ages, all the way to the dawn of the Reformation itself, the speculation was endless and it intensified just before this event. “The concept of the antichrist was a very meaningful one in the popular consciousness of the Middle Ages,” observes Paul Althaus. Preachers would employ powerful imagery to ‘describe his life and his abuses in individual detail. People were worried that he might come in the near future; and they therefore attempted to compute the time of his coming.” But for the Reformers, the pressing issue at hand was not the identity of Antichrist, nor even the dating of Christ’s return, but the recovery of Christian basics—the Gospel, the Creed, the great doctrines of the faith which lay in obscurity while sensational preachers tickle ears, gather followings, and line their pockets with the hopes and fears of the masses. While the Middle Ages were looking for the Antichrist, the Reformation was looking for Christ Himself and until He came the second time, the Reformers would be content to find Him in the Scriptures, where He willed to be made known. Calvin warned his readers, “We know our flights of ingenuity and how vain curiosity tickles us to know more than we should. He wishes the day of His coming to be so hoped for that yet no one should dare to ask when it will come. He deliberately wished it kept hidden from us, that we should never be so carefree as to neglect our unbroken lookout. The chief part of our wisdom consists in keeping ourselves soberly within the bounds of the Word of God.”
Luther was once forced to endure a dinner engagement with one of the Weiss Preachers, a radical sect claiming that a date for Christ’s return was delivered to Brother Weiss by a vision as he was accidentally locked in a wine cellar. The German reformer, unable to overlook an obvious straight-line, replied, “Oh, yes, I too have had many of my best visions after being locked up in a wine cellar!”
Of course, many more individuals and movements could be cited: some radical Anabaptist sects, the French Prophets of the 18th century, and the American millenarians (the Millerites, Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-Day Saints, etc.). But in the middle of the last century, an Englishman named John Nelson Darby repeated the basic themes of millenarian speculation and enthusiasm. Deeply disillusioned with the spiritual climate of the established church, Darby left both it and his law practice, and became a part of a group of Christians who met for prayer and Bible study in homes. With Montanus, Adso, the Spiritual Franciscans, Savonarola, the Zwickau Prophets, and the French mystics, Darby made sharp distinctions between a Holy Spirit-guided church and the “man-made systems” of the visible church, with its ordained ministry. Eventually, the fellowship of house churches to which he belonged expelled him.
For Darby, the end would come in two stages, the first being in the “rapture of the church,” a concept unknown even to the millenarians of the past. This period would be followed by seven years of tribulation, and the final appearance of the Kingdom of God. Animal sacrifices would be revived along with temple worship and God would accept Israel’s obedience in exchange for their salvation.
In the early part of the present century, dispensationalists were welcome allies against the threat of liberalism, but evangelicals are beginning to realize the underlying perfectionism and dualism of the system.
Today, we stand on the brink of yet a new millennium and wonder with Jeremiah, “The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved” (Jer 8:20). And yet, we know that “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years [i.e., a millennium], and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3: 8-9). The temptation during periods of powerlessness, affliction and anxiety about the future, is to seek an easy way out. And there are plenty of “experts” out there who will make you feel as though you are at the center of history, as though ours is “the terminal generation,” the group that really counts. We feel special. And maybe ours is the last generation. Perhaps Jesus will come within the next few seconds. But if He does not come within the next few seconds, or within my own lifetime, may this mortal life serve to publicize that which is truly important for the salvation and growth of God’s elect.
If you are a dispensationalist, or someone who is attracted to the theories outlined here, read on and mark the way various texts are handled. Like many of you, I always thought that anyone who didn’t believe in a rapture or in other facets of the dispensational system simply had a low view of Scripture. I think you will see that it is dispensationalism which is a “man-made system” imposed on otherwise clear texts. If not, at least we hope you will give us a chance of scratching the surface of a truly mysterious, though profitable, subject.
*Dr. Michael S. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California. He has a B.A. from Biola University; M.A. from Westminster Seminary California; and Ph.D. From the University of Coventry and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Dr. Horton has taught apologetics and theology at Westminster Seminary California since 1998.
In addition to his work at the Seminary, he is the president of White Horse Media, for which he co-hosts the White Horse Inn, a nationally syndicated, weekly radio talk-show exploring issues of Reformation theology in American Christianity. He is also the editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. Before coming to WSC, Dr. Horton completed a Research Fellowship at Yale University Divinity School. A member of various societies, including the American Academy of Religion and the Evangelical Theological Society, Dr. Horton is the author/editor of twenty books, including a series of studies in Reformed dogmatics published by Westminster John Knox, whose final volume (People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology) was published in 2008.
His most recent books are Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church and People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology. He has written articles for Modern Reformation, Pro Ecclesia, Christianity Today, The International Journal of Systematic Theology, Touchstone, and Books and Culture.
Dr. Horton is associate pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, California, and lives in Escondido, with his wife, Lisa, and four children.