Eschatological Thieves in the Night

Undergirding my childhood eschatology was Charles Anderson’s now-famous painting, which was commissioned in 1973 by Leon and Ruth Bates of the Bible Believers’ Evangelistic Association. “The Rapture” depicts a glorified Jesus hovering over a city skyline. White-robed Christians are painted in mid-rapture*, which results in empty graves (presumably verified to be empty upon inspection by unsaved family members) and vehicular carnage as Christian drivers and pilots are whisked away to meet their Savior in the sky.  When “other-worldly” images such as these – or, alternatively, bad Christian novels adapted into bad Christian movies staring Kirk Cameron – pervade the Evangelical church, it is quite easy to see why so many Evangelicals retain the premillennial, pretribulational eschatology with which they were first fed.  The visually-striking mind-pictures conjured up by this eschatological paradigm can be extremely powerful, so much so that any competing eschatology is dismissed immediately as unbiblical.

Like the entire creation/evolution debate, eschatology was not heavily stressed in my home.  Perhaps it was because my father was somewhat agnostic at the time as to the timing of the Rapture in relation to the Great Tribulation.  (Later on, in my still-pretrib college years, he surprised me with a paper he wrote for one of his seminary classes that argued for a midtribulational rapture.)  Nevertheless, none of the churches which I attended as a boy did anything to provide me with a more comprehensive understanding of various End Times scenarios.  From Winnetka Bible Church in the Chicago suburbs to Bloomington, Indiana’s Evangelical Community Church to South Church (formerly South Baptist Church) of Lansing, Michigan, never once did I ever encounter a discussion during the weekly sermon or Sunday school class that treated me to an objective look at eschatological systems that competed with their belief in the premillennial return of Jesus.  (I can certainly understand why, for such a study would consume a massive amount of time – time better served protecting flocks against theological paradigms that their spiritual shepherds believe are incorrect and spiritually damaging.)

Aside from various mentions in Sunday school of Jesus’ imminent return at Winnetka Bible Church, my first detailed exposure to eschatological occurred at the age of eight while attending Sunday school in Bloomington.  I remember very distinctly one of my childhood friends giggling uncontrollably while pointing out various mentions of women’s breasts in the Song of Solomon.  What a find!  However, he also pointed out something even more exciting than biblical mammary glands:  a detailed description in Revelation 13 of a seven-headed, ten-horned Satan!  Although I know now that my friend was incorrect in identifying who (or what) was being spoken of in this passage, it was a very formative moment – one that underscores the extreme influence passages removed from their cultural and canonical contexts can have on young, formative minds.  (For that matter, I certainly never forgot where those sacred boobies were located.)

It wasn’t until a year later – after our move to Michigan, and about the time my father piqued my interest in biblical studies by presenting me with Henry Morris’ commentary on Genesis, The Genesis Record – that I was exposed to more systematic approaches to the End Times.  In addition to borrowing a copy of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth from a friend, Morris’ commentary on Genesis also provided me with a healthy (?) dose of premillennialism in its attempt to intimately tie its young-earth creationist treatment of Genesis with the book of Revelation.  Further immersing me into premillennial eschatology were the occasional viewings at my church of the 1972 film A Thief in the Night and its three sequels: A Distant Thunder (1978), Image of the Beast (1980), and The Prodigal Planet (1983).  Despite the cheesy production standards, the series’ writer, Russell S. Doughten, did a phenomenal job impacting a generation of believers by weaving scattered and unrelated eschatological passages into a horrific, violent narrative that potentially exists just over history’s horizon.  Enhanced by a significant amount of imaginative material designed to fill in the “blanks” that exist in premillennial eschatology – well, those images became seared permanently into my eschatological psyche.  Even today, there is still something inside of me that is allured by such grandiose storytelling.

I have a question for my readers who have rejected and moved beyond premillennial eschatology as I have:  Do you also find yourself strangely attracted to such End Times scenarios despite your intellectual and spiritual aversion to them?

* Rapture is a term derived from the Latin verb rapere, which translates the Koine Greek verb ἁρπάζω (harpazo), which means “to snatch away, to seize hastily.”  First Thessalonians 4:17, the verse that inspired Anderson’s painting, uses the verb form ρπαγησόμεθα (harpagēsometha).

10 Comments

Filed under eschatology, futurism

  • http://www.facebook.com/djeaton Daniel Eaton

    I remember those horrid movies and books as well. And it’s been years since I’ve seen that painting, but I’m familiar with that too.

  • Mitchell Wyatt

    I was raised with a premillenial view, read those same books and, to be honest, I haven’t really been exposed to anything else. I will say that after wrestling with the creation/evolution issue and embracing a changed perspective I am certainly more open to hearing and understanding alternative eschatological views. Whether or not the images I’ve grown up with will continue to pull at my mind I can’t say.

    • http://www.rethinkingao.com Mike Beidler

      Mitchell,

      Glad to year that you’re open-minded to learning about alternative eschatological positions. Of course, my story is “bass ackwards” from yours: My wrestling with eschatology allowed me to be more open to other views on creationism and evolution. I guess that can be said for anyone who’s undergone a major theological paradigm shift.

  • AMW

    I remember watching those movies as a kid. I’d be interested to go back and see them again, 20+ years after my first viewing. It’s amazing how evangelical parents, who tend to be highly protective of what they let their kids watch, will just drop all the shields when the subject matter is End Times. People are getting sent to the guillotine in those movies, for crying out loud!

    In any event, no, I’m not still attracted to premillenial eschatology. I’m like the ex-smoker who can’t stand the smell of cigarettes.

    • http://www.rethinkingao.com Mike Beidler

      AMW,

      I think those movies are readily viewable on YouTube, albeit probably chopped up into parts. It would, as you say, be an interesting experiment to rewatch those movies in light of my current eschatological position.

      If you don’t mind me asking, where have you settled in terms of eschatology?

  • Anonymous

    I was raised a premillenialist and was taught it in seminary, but after 11 years of studying Revelations, I’ve become a post-tribulationist, specifically pre-wrath.

    • http://www.rethinkingao.com Mike Beidler

      Antwrites,

      I was a temporary convert to pre-wrath about 10 years ago. If I were to ever abandon my preterist eschatology and return to some form of futurism, pre-wrath would be it. But, alas, I don’t think I could ever go back. (More on my experimentation with pre-wrath in future blog posts.)

      Where did you attend seminary, if you don’t mind me asking?

  • Sarahearl67

    i cannot remember who had this painting when i was a kid. i am watching a thing on netflix about religion in appalachian, and they flashed this image. i am so glad to know the background on it. my dad was a minister, and i am an atheist. images like this scared me into religion. but that only lasted so long.

    • http://www.rethinkingao.com Mike Beidler

      Sara,

      If you don’t mind me asking, what prompted you to adopt an atheistic paradigm?

  • http://twitter.com/abitchintime Nicole

    That painting hung in my grandparents living room. Freaked the hell out of me.