One thread in the journey of my life has been a fascination with end-of-the-world issues. This began already in my teens. In the small, inner-city church in which I grew up, we would occasionally have guest teachers come in for series of Bible studies. Those I remember most vividly are the ones having to do with biblical prophecies, especially the books of Daniel and Revelation. I was fascinated as teachers would hang up long sheets of timelines, with all of the seven this’s and seven that’s on them.
Then in the seventies we had the book, The Late Great Planet Earth, which spread like wildfire through churches. This book contained an even more detailed outline of all the biblical prophecies, how everything fit together. Of course, this ignited fierce speculation on how all these prophecies would be fulfilled in our day.
When I attended seminary in the early eighties, I took courses on Revelation and other biblical prophetic literature. Here I was able to attain a much more balanced and clear-eyed view of what role the biblical prophecies actually played in the life and history of the Church. Working as an associate pastor I even taught a course on Revelation. I was still enthralled with these apocalyptical writings, but now was seeing them with a calmer perspective.
While I had come to a much saner outlook on biblical prophecy, it continued to fascinate me. I would read novels about the end of the world; I loved movies dealing with the topic. I continued to keep all these ideas in the back of my mind, always wondering how all this would turn out, how things would fit together at the end of time.
As I moved through the nineties and into the double-aughts decade I began to encounter writings and lectures on 2012. Here were prophecies from other cultures, chiefly the Mayan, but also other ancient societies, which dealt with end-of-the-world events. And all from very different perspectives. Speculation was growing that the year 2012 would somehow be the culmination of human history upon this planet. My thinking, as I was exposed to these other views, was that all of this new stuff had to somehow “fit” in with the old stuff I had learned earlier in my life from the Bible.
As I sit here writing this at the beginning of the year 2012, I still wonder how it will all “fit” as this year’s end approaches. I certainly no longer believe all the old ideas about how biblical prophecies will be fulfilled. I believe that the biblical apocalyptical writings had specific messages for their own audiences, in first century Palestine and before. And I still consider them relevant writings for us today.
But I certainly do not believe that we can take them in any sense literally. They were not “literally” intended to be taken literally! Their language was highly symbolic. Their references were veiled in apocalyptic language. All of the symbolism in them pertained to their own day, and to their own audiences. All of the visions and cataclysmic scenes were for them, primarily. They were not written for us. We can learn from them, but they do not outline modern history. I have heard way too many biblical preachers go through way too many sorts of intellectual gymnastics trying to fit things in to current events to give any of it much credence.
Another aspect to this thread as it works its way through my life time, is going to be dealt with in another chapter. This has to do not so much with apocalyptica, but with new interpretations of scriptures for today.
But before I move entirely away from this topic, there is one stream of apocalyptic writing which I want to deal with separately, in the next chapter. While it stems from prophetic writings, it has not to do as much with end-of-the-world topics as it does with lessons we can learn about today’s world.