In 1970, evangelical author Hal Lindsey penned a book that became a staple of Christian end-time table talk. The title said it all: “The Late Great Planet Earth.”
In this book, Lindsey laid out the now all-too-familiar scheme of end-time paranoia, which includes the rise of one world government, the appearance of the anti-Christ, the isolation and attack on Israel, and of course a final worldwide conflagration, Armageddon – the ultimate war to end all wars. The culmination of all this, of course, is the second coming of Jesus and the establishment of a New Jerusalem.
Most of this so-called prophecy is based on a particular reading of the Book of Revelation, the last book found in the New Testament canon. Revelation is an example of what scholars call apocalyptic literature and employs a complex series of symbols and imagery to convey a message.
Most scholars agree that the message embodied in apocalyptic writing was intended for a contemporary audience. But popular authors like Lindsey, and more recently Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins in the ubiquitous “Left Behind” series, have translated Jewish apocalyptic imagery into 21st-century political ideology.
Here comes the fun part.
In Lindsey’s version of the end-time drama, the old Soviet Union is the evil dragon, the 10-horned beast that opposes all that is godly and good in the world. Reading through the lens of Lindsey’s interpretation, the Christian world, mainly represented by the United States, has a divine calling to oppose godless communism because it will eventually be in league with the anti-Christ. There can be no compromise, no dÃ©tente, because the Soviet Union is an evil empire dedicated to the destruction of Christianity.
Sadly, at least for Lindsey and his following, the Soviet Union collapsed. For a brief period serious end-time hand-wringers struggled to find an evil entity of sufficient stature to take its place. But then, Islamic extremists attacked the United States on 9/11 and – voila! – a new evil empire was born.
With a wave of the hand and the adjustment of a few words here and there, Islam replaced the old Soviet Union as the instrument of the anti-Christ. Now, with the help of end-time doomsayers, Islam is the new agent of end-time Armageddon.
A few years ago Elaine Pagels wrote a brilliant book titled “The Origin of Satan.” She detailed how Jewish and Christian groups throughout history used the character of Satan to demonize opposition groups. At different times in history, Satan has been in league with certain Jewish sects, pagans, various Christian heresies and, of course, in the book of Revelation, the Roman Empire.
It would seem that some religious groups have a propensity for identifying their opponents with ultimate evil. A new twist on an old saying: If they are not with us, then they are the devil.
The problem with this thinking should be fairly obvious. Just as all Christians are not saints, so all Muslims are not radical extremists. To make Islam the enemy of all that is good and godly is a gross distortion of reality.
As for the anti-Christ, my own reading suggests that this figure will not be some shadowy political figure that establishes one world government, but rather, as John states in his letters, it is anyone who refuses to follow the teachings of Jesus.
And to quote John, there are already many anti-Christs in the world.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.