The recent publicity given to a failed prophecy about the Rapture brought up some memories for me about my own brief involvement in a prophecy project. I got a fairly early start in the business of prophesying about “end times.” And for me it really was a “business”—I actually earned some money at it when I was fifteen years old.
An evangelist came to town for a mini “crusade”—three evening meetings in a row—at a local church. The pastor of that church was a friend of my parents, and we attended the meetings. This evangelist—a man, I would guess in his late twenties—had two specialties that he featured at his meetings. He not only preached about “Bible prophecy,” but he could also play twelve musical instruments. He would play the piano while using his feet on a drum, and he had a set-up that allowed him to switch to a trumpet or a trombone, and also a flute and piccolo, and so on. He was rather deft at doing the whole thing without breaking his rhythm or the flow of his tunes.
We had a social time with him at the pastor’s home after that first service, and the pastor bragged me up a bit as also possessing some musical talent: I had been taking violin lessons for ten years, and often played in church. My mother immediately expanded on my credentials, informing the visiting evangelist that I could also play the baritone horn and the harmonica. This led to an invitation for me to join him in the next two services, adding three more instruments to the mix. And then, since this was the beginning of summer break from school, I was cajoled into traveling with him for the next two weeks as his paid (not much!) assistant and accompanist, doing services at a series of towns in New York and Massachusetts.
Now for the prophecy part. We would come into town where he had arranged for the use of a church sanctuary, and we would hang posters and distribute fliers for the evening service. His opening message was always the same: “Are Hitler and Roosevelt Really Dead?” He would observe that Hitler’s dead body was never seen, and that Roosevelt’s coffin, when on public display, was closed. My evangelist believed that the two of them were alive, and together somewhere in South America, plotting a “one world government.”
I think it is safe to say by now that his prophetic scenario failed to materialize. More importantly, though, his more general prophetic framework has clearly fallen apart. And it was a framework that was widely used in those days, even by folks who had no specific conspiracy theories about the continuing influence of Hitler and Roosevelt. The scheme went like this: when the Bible, in books like Ezekiel and Revelation, mentions “Gomer” it means Germany, “Meschech” is Moscow, “Gog and Magog” is a reference to Russia, and so on.
That classificatory scheme no longer applies to major scenarios in our world. I haven’t kept up on all of the new applications, but I do know that “Meschech” and “Gog and Magog” are now viewed as references to Islamic countries—with Gomer somehow slipping off the prophetic map.
Some might expect me at this point to make a few jokes about all of that, using some humor to signal that I have outgrown my brief excursion in traveling-evangelist Bible prophecy. But I don’t really disown the whole picture. I still look to the Bible for the “signs of the times.” My evangelist companion was completely off-base about the Hitler-Roosevelt scenario, but—leaving Roosevelt out of the picture—he was not wrong in identifying Hitler and his horrible machinations as a kind of “anti-Christ” presence in human history. The same for Stalin. And the same for leaders like the one who presently runs things in Iran—to say nothing of the North Korean dictatorship.
For me, the one “Bible prophecy” scenario that I take with utmost seriousness is the reference to “the lawless one” in the second chapter of Second Thessalonians. Before the coming of “the day of the Lord,” the Apostle instructs us, a special kind of “lawless rebellion will occur,” and then “the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction.” In one sense, of course, lawlessness—an open spirit of rebellion against the will of God—has been with us since the rebellion depicted in Genesis 3. But there have been special outbreaks of lawlessness in history, and my reading of the Scriptures tells me that we are moving toward a day, before the End-time, when that lawlessness will take widespread and concrete forms.
This calls for a special kind of cultural discernment. It is not our business to keep trying to identify this or that individual who might qualify for the role of “the lawless one.” Our job is to be on the constant lookout for emerging patterns of lawlessness—and this includes not only in the political or legal realm as such, but also in patterns that promote economic, moral, spiritual, and even ecclesiastical lawlessness.
That kind of cultural discernment takes, among other things, careful study. And at least some of us need to be working hard at that aspect of the task. What we are doing at Fuller Seminary qualifies, I believe, as the kind of overall cultural discernment that helps us to read “the signs of the times.” Which is why I personally long ago stopped putting up posters about traveling evangelists—and also, by the way, why I decided to concentrate on doing other things instead of practicing on my violin.