Sunday, April 11, 2021
According to a well-positioned and entirely reliable informant, a popular theology instructor at a local educational institution once believed that Jesus Christ was likely to return to Earth before the end of 1988. Someone had convinced him that the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 meant that Jesus could return anytime, but likely no later than 1988. When he returned, Jesus was to take the worldwide Church upward from Earth in an event called the Rapture; and that astonishing event was supposed to transpire no later than the end of 1988. Yet while that year came to pass, the expected Rapture of the Church did not. And now the year 1988 recedes further and further into the past. In retrospect, that same popular theology instructor now looks to that unfulfilled date with both chagrin and wisened dismissiveness — chagrin that he was naïve enough to believe such a silly, errant “the-end-is-nigh” prediction, and wisened dismissiveness for anyone who would again presume to promote speculative eschatology.
Nonetheless, in spite of repeated misses, the speculators and predictors continue to predict Jesus’ imminent return. And some of them even dare set hard deadlines. Who would be foolish enough to do such a thing? Who would presume to set dates for Jesus’ second coming and promote speculative end-time predictions? If and when the end-of-the-world date-setters are proven wrong — as they invariably are — they make themselves look immensely foolish. They set up themselves and their gullible followers for public ridicule and derisive scorn. And yet one doomsday predictor after another invariably steps forward. They just keep on coming along, predictably mis-predicting that the end is near because Jesus is once again about to return.
Okay, zany apocalyptic preacher, exactly why should we believe yet another doomsday prediction? What makes you right, unlike everyone who came before you? Is the sky actually falling this time, Reverend Chicken Little?
Somewhat surprisingly, one of the most famous or infamous of the doomsday-predicting preachers is still active in the ecclesiastical eschatology-speculation business, after fifty-one years of date-setting miscalculations and subsequent adjustments. Yes, although he is now in his early 90s, this particular predictive preacher is still actively at it. He is considered by many to be the very epitome of repetitive eschatological error. And exactly who is this man? At the pinnacle of the heap of nefarious doomsday preachers stands a mustachioed Oklahoman named Hal Lindsey.
Here, though, is the twist and the kicker. It is something I should perhaps hesitate to admit: I kind of like Hal Lindsey, even respect him. When he speaks about the Bible (even about portions of the Book of Revelation), what he has to say is sound — at least what I have heard. Admittedly, I have only heard and read a little, and should listen to more of what he says. But what I did hear from Hal Lindsey demonstrated real depth of insight. I would even use the descriptive word profound for the recent sermon I watched online. He did not sound like the speculative, slick villain I had been expecting. Yet many Christians have nothing good to say about Hal Lindsey whatsoever.
Let me tell you why. Back in 1970 Hal Lindsey and a co-author wrote a best-selling book entitled The Late Great Planet Earth. It ranks as the 55th best-selling book of all time. And it was on basis of The Late Great Planet Earth that many prophecy-speculators began to believe that Jesus would probably (or definitely) return by 1988. However, this particular speculation fell flat. What Hal Lindsey suggested might someday happen did not happen, and seemingly cannot happen any longer, simply because the global political scene has changed so much since the 1970s. Over the last fifty years, Lindsey has consequently needed to make some adjustments to his prophetic political scenarios. And after a while, many have tired of such adjustments.
Yet when he speaks on the Bible, Lindsey is learned, sound, and even profound. How can that possibly be? And what does someone do with that? Someone explains why it is so. In my estimation, the main reason Lindsey has gotten Revelation wrong through the years is because he insists on reading and interpreting Revelation too literally.
If you understand his determination to interpret Revelation as literally as possible, Lindsey makes understandable interpretive mistakes. I would argue that Lindsey makes forgivable interpretive mistakes. Lindsey takes Scripture very seriously, and has been doing his best to make sense of Scripture for over fifty years. But his best-selling book made some errant speculative predictions. In the minds of many, it now stands as a massive embarrassment within Christianity. By virtue of at least one major errant speculation, Lindsey (and his interpretive scions) have given end-times eschatology a bad name.
That all said, at least some of what Lindsey wrote needs to be given re-consideration. If you understand why Lindsey suggested that Jesus might return by 1988, it actually makes a lot of sense. No, of course, Lindsey wasn’t right about it. And history has long since disproved his speculation. But his argument makes sense, nonetheless. Based on some of Jesus’ cryptic actions and explanations, Lindsey reasonably suggested that the generation that witnesses the re-establishment of the State of Israel must be the generation that sees the return of Christ. Since Israel was re-established in 1948, and since a biblical generation is 40 years (or so Lindsey once believed), Lindsey speculated in The Late Great Planet Earth that Jesus Christ would necessarily return by the end of 1988. To be fair, Lindsey was very careful to hedge his speculation about that particular date. But others after him were not as careful. If Lindsey had been writing in a sad old commentary somewhere, his errant speculation would be just a trivial curiosity. But to date, Lindsey’s book has sold well over 15 million copies. And it has even inspired a unique apocalyptic niche in literature and film.
Sometimes people will say that Lindsey is a false prophet. In my estimation, that is much too harsh. Lindsey is instead a slightly misguided biblical interpreter. He made and continues to make an honest effort at interpreting some very difficult sections of Scripture. By defaulting to a literal approach in interpreting symbolic prophetic material he and like-minded interpreters continue to bend the scenes from the Book of Revelation to unfolding or expected political events. Sometimes such interpretations may in fact work. Alternatively, such speculative interpretations can be (and have been) disproven by ensuing historical events.
Finally and affirmatively, I must say that I side with Lindsey more than many other Revelation scholars, insofar as I do believe that the Book of Revelation actually does predict the future. It actually does give specific details about future characters and events, and especially those in the political realm. I just believe Lindsey is too intent on defaulting to a forced literal reading of Revelation, when a figurative, symbolic reading actually yields a more coherent message.