Growing up in the Evangelical church, I was exposed to eschatological preaching which purported to divine the future. Based on a literalistic interpretation of the book of Revelation, Evangelical preachers tell of a day when Jesus will come to rapture (remove) Christians from the earth. After the rapture, God will, for seven years, pour out his wrath on the earth. This period of divine slaughter and judgment is called the Great Tribulation.
During the Tribulation, the Antichrist, a powerful figure who wages war against God, will rise up and exert dominion over the earth. While Evangelicals have multiple interpretations of who and what the Antichrist is, all agree that he is one of the central figures of the Tribulation drama. According to the book of Revelation, the Antichrist will ultimately be defeated by Jesus and cast into the Lake of Fire.
Most Evangelicals believe the Antichrist is a real person. This belief has led to speculation about this or that person being the Antichrist. Some Evangelicals believe the Antichrist is alive today and could be someone such as Barack Obama or Pope Francis. What is interesting about these predictions about who the Antichrist might be is that the potential Antichrist always has political views opposed by Evangelicals. This is why some Evangelicals find it quite easy to label President Obama as the Antichrist, even more so of late since it has been reported that Obama might head the United Nations after he leaves office. (Many Evangelicals believe the United Nations will be used by the Antichrist to take over the world.)
According to many Evangelicals, during the Tribulation the Antichrist will take control of the world’s economy. No one will be able to buy or sell anything without having the mark of the Beast. The Biblical basis for this belief is found in Revelation 13:16-18:
And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.
Prior to the modern technological era, many Evangelicals believed that the mark of the Beast was a tattoo of the number 666 on the hands or foreheads of the followers of the Antichrist. In recent decades, Evangelicals have suggested that the mark of the Beast could be some sort of bar code, a mark that can only be read by using a certain type of light, or an embedded chip. I remember one preacher who was certain that supermarket scanners were paving the way for the Antichrist and the mark of the Beast.
While the character of the mark has changed over the years, the importance of it has not. Anyone receiving the mark of the Beast will be doomed forever. Revelation 14:9-11 states:
And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.
According to these verses, anyone who takes the mark of the Beast will face the fury of the wrath of God. Suffering and painful death await all who take the mark.
The 1970s and 1980s were the heyday for literalistic interpretations of the book of Revelation. Evangelical pastors regularly preached sermons on the end-times, featuring subjects such as the rapture, the Great Tribulation, the second coming of Christ, the millennial reign of Christ, and the great white throne judgment. Filled with illustrations from newspapers, these sermons inflamed the passions of Evangelical church goers. As the headlines changed, so did the sermons, but the focal point remained the same: Jesus is coming soon.
After the 88 Reasons Why the Rapture will be in 1988 debacle, Evangelical passion for future events cooled. I am of the opinion that the rise of the religious right, a political movement with plans to take over America for Jesus, turned Evangelical attention from the future to the present. Instead of seeking after the kingdom of heaven, Evangelicals began to focus on building God’s kingdom on earth. Gone, for the most part, are prophecy conferences and literalistic sermons from Revelation and Daniel. Instead, pastors focus on felt-needs and personal fulfillment. There are certainly Evangelicals pastors who continue to preach newspaper headline sermons, but such preachers are on the fringes of Evangelicalism (most often found in charismatic, Pentecostal, and Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches).
As I came of age in the 1970s, I heard frequent end-time sermons. Preachers warned that we were the last generation, those who would see the second coming of Jesus Christ. Men such as Jack Van Impe predicted Russia would invade and take over the United States, thereby ushering in the Great Tribulation. Many preachers believed that the rapture and the second coming of Christ would take place sometime between 1984 and 1988. The thinking went something like this: Israel became a nation in 1948, a generation is 40 years long, thus, at the very latest, Jesus would return to earth in 1988.
In the late 1970s, I was a pastoral assistant to Jay Stuckey, pastor of Montpelier Baptist Church, a General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) congregation. Stuckey, as many preachers of his era, was obsessed with prophecy, the Illuminati, and numerous other conspiracies. Calls to evangelize were driven by Stuckey’s belief in the imminent return of Jesus; imminent meaning, at any moment. Forty years later, Stuckey and I are no longer in the ministry, Montpelier Baptist, a church that one time had over 500 in attendance, is closed, and those who were once obsessed with the soon-return of Jesus have turned to more earthly matters such as marriage, children, jobs, houses, and economic prosperity. While these people still tacitly believe that Jesus will someday return to earth, their lives are no longer dominated by eschatological thoughts. In other words, they grew up.
Were you once part of a church that was obsessed with the end-times? Please share your experiences in the comment section.
I am well aware of the fact that Evangelicals are not in agreement about how the books of Daniel and Revelation should be interpreted. That said, it is not hard to find Evangelical blogs, websites, and news services promoting the eschatological beliefs mentioned in this post.
You can read the complete text of 88 Reasons the Rapture Will Be in 1988 here.