Predicting the Apocalypse: An American Tradition Since 1697
Just for fun, I perused the Wikipedia article on “List of Dates Predicted For Apocalyptic Events”. (I know, my idea of fun is probably different than your idea of fun, but at least mine doesn’t include Pokemon Go.) As I scrolled through the long list of failed predictions, most of them related to the second coming of Christ, I noticed a pattern: most of the people who made these predictions were American.
That’s not to say that people didn’t predict the world would end/Jesus would return before America existed because they did. Various church fathers, including Hippolytus and Irenaeus, took a stab at dating the apocalypse. Some famous Pastors like Martin Luther and John Wesley, along with assorted Popes, also made specific end times predictions. Even Christopher Columbus tried a few times, as did Isaac Newton (Newton still has one outstanding prediction that Jesus will return in 2060). However, the list on Wikipedia grows exponentially during the 18th century on, and most of those contributors hailed from the good old U.S of A.
Before I go on to make any overgeneralizations, let me acknowledge a few caveats. There might have been more end times predictions in bygone centuries that have been lost to us because we don’t possess as much information from those eras. Additionally, going by population growth alone, we’d expect more predictions now than we’ve had in the past. And as my third-grade daughter keeps telling me, Wikipedia cannot be used for research purposes.
Alright, now to the overgeneralizations. I think predicting the rapture is kind of an American tradition. More than that, what we understand as the rapture – Jesus whisking away his church in secret before the antichrist is established and real trouble on earth begins – is also somewhat of a distinctly American belief. Fewer Christians outside the United States hold to such a structure of beliefs about the end times.
Additionally, if you study the development of Christianity in America, you’ll find that we’ve always thought of ourselves as people living on the brink of history. From the late 17th century when the Puritans stared into the wild, New England wilderness and Cotton Mather (an awesome name, by the way) became the first American to put a date on the arrival of the apocalypse, American Christians have thought of ourselves as inhabiting some unique aspect in the economy of salvation. Many believed that the American revolution would bring the millennium, Christ’s thousand-year reign on earth. And if the not revolution, then the Civil War, or any other war we’ve participated in. People even thought the French-Indian war might bring the millennium, and most of us probably don’t even know what that conflict was about! Really, this phenomenon is just the spiritual version of the long-standing American belief that our country is the center of the world and what happens to us is way more important than what happens to everyone else.
So if I’m right, what does this mean? For starters, it means that American Christians will more readily believe specific rapture predictions. I believe it also means American Christians will tend to interpret current events as an eschatological struggle between good and evil, which probably explains why Christians in the US sound so paranoid about current events. Instead of contextualizing our struggles by taking a cursory glance at the history of the church, we assume everything that happens to us has some apocalyptic meaning.
There’s a threat to our national security originating from the middle east? I’m pretty sure we’ve seen that before. (Go ask the European church in the middle ages or churches in Asia Minor in the first millennium that have long since gone extinct about what a threat from the middle east really looks like.) We have a president that many of us feel doesn’t speak for our values? Doesn’t mean he’s the antichrist. (Again, however you might feel about Obama, we’ve seen far worse before, and will see far worse again.) I think you see where I’m going with this. The church has faced similar – if not greater – challenges in the past than we face today. But we’ll ignore that fact if we view ourselves as some totally unique development within Church history, as opposed to just another part of the unfolding story of God. The sky is probably not falling, yet. So chill out, stand strong, and do good while the light is still shining.