VISIONS OF THE APOCALYPSE

BYLINE:    STEVE GUSHEE

Palm Beach Post Religion Writer

DATE: October 21, 1994    PUBLICATION: The Palm Beach Post  EDITION: FINAL   SECTION: ACCENT  PAGE: 1D

 

Don't make any long-range plans. The doomsday prophets are convinced the world is going to end.

 

Why? Because it's almost the year 2000 - not just the end of the decade, but also the end of the century and the millennium (1,000 years). This, they say, is an irresistible opportunity for God to usher in the golden age. Some advocates of the apocalypse are dangerous cult leaders - like Luc Jouret and David Koresh - who use the message to enslave followers.

 

But many others are earnest evangelical Christians preaching end-time tidings to free the faithful from the chaos they believe surrounds them.

 

Much apocalyptic preaching draws on a flawed reading of the Bible or a one-sided interpretation of Christian teaching, according to the Rev. Dr. Richard Nolan, retired professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut and assistant at Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Palm Beach.

 

“‘Traditional’ Christianity does not expect an imminent, scheduled, miraculous end-time transformation of the world's distress into triumph. Nonetheless, Christianity does share with apocalyptic prophets a firm faith that the will of God shall ultimately be done,” he said.

 

Christianity insists on a linear sense of time with a beginning and an expected end. We don't know when that will be, Nolan said. The time that the kingdom of God will be restored is not for mortals to know, according to Jesus in the New Testament book of Acts.

 

“I don't know how or when it's going to end, and I don't care. I trust God to do it,” Nolan said, adding that average churchgoers accept that inevitable end “on a mythological level that has no decisive impact on their lives.”

 

End-time churches disagree strongly and expect the close of the age soon. The standard scenario for many apocalyptic preachers is a confused, corrupt world beyond human remedy, Nolan said. They believe God alone is able to redeem a lost creation, and the process will be violent. Some will survive. Many will not.

 

A growing sense that the world is a terrifying place fuels interest in doomsday prophecy, said William Dinges, professor of religion at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

 

Famine in Africa, earthquakes in San Francisco, wars and rumors of war in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti and Korea are evidence of approaching doom and dawning salvation for Ric Swaningson, evangelist of the New World Order crusade taking place this week at the First Seventh-Day Adventist Church of West Palm Beach.

 

Sexual license, particularly homosexuality, religious confusion and pestilence like cancer are preludes to the end, as described in the apocalyptic chapter of the book of Matthew, Swaningson said.

 

``Every light on Earth is blinking a warning of the end, urging you to read God's word. We are living in the last seconds of the last days,'' he said.

 

The Seventh-Day Adventist church of today was formed after a failed prediction that the world would end on Oct. 22, 1844. Followers of William Miller, the mistaken prophet, continue to wait and prepare for the end, but they no longer set a date.

 

The quasi-religious research organization with 6,000 members calculates the world is 5,998 years old, based on a divine pattern God showed Moses in the Sinai desert and then revealed in 1931 to Henry Clifford Kinley, founder of the institute.

 

God created the Earth in six days. A day in God's sight is like 1,000 years, according to a New Testament verse and the Psalms. Six days are therefore 6,000 years, the institute teaches. That math and other calculations determine that the Earth will end 6,000 years after creation, said Lamar Greer, international public relations director at the institute's Los Angeles headquarters.

 

“The entire creation will be dissolved in the twinkling of an eye. All will go to a lake of fire or to a heavenly existence. There will not be enough time to think,` Oh, maybe I should have . . .','' he said.

 

Jehovah's Witnesses believe the end will not be a destructive process. They point to the year 1914 as the beginning of the end of time, which can occur any moment. That event will be a harsh cleansing that will last for 1,000 years, initiating eternal paradise on Earth, said Michael Smith, city supervisor of the Jehovah's Witnesses in West Palm Beach.

 

``Christians are urged to live each day as if it were the last and be as kind to their fellow man as possible,'' he said.

 

The world will end in the year 2,000, according to Jack Moore, a self-proclaimed leader and a vocal member of the Church of God, Seventh Day, in Merritt Island. That end-time church is an independent spinoff of the Seventh-Day Adventists. Church leaders deny that Moore represents the faith accurately, but he is adamant.

 

Moore combines his interpretations of the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation with a fertile imagination to conclude that Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, is the anti-Christ and the last descendant of the heir to Alexander the Great's reign in Israel in 300 B.C. Beginning in May 1996, Arafat will reign in Jerusalem until Jesus defeats him in battle at the turn of the century.

 

The books of Daniel and Revelation are favorites of extreme Christian groups. They fall into biblical idolatry and violate their own theology, said Frank Flinn, adjunct professor of religious studies at Washington University in St Louis. Many people have a political ideology and find a satan to fit it, he said.

 

Apocalyptic schemes in this country often have a political agenda, according to Dinges, the Catholic University professor. ``They link apocalyptic thinking with American exceptionalism. America's enemies are God's enemies,'' he said.

 

There are many dark ends that end-of-the-world theories can serve. Some malignant would-be prophets use presumed knowledge of the last days as a weapon to drive followers into submission.

 

Leaders of end-time cults like Luc Jouret's Solar Temple and David Koresh's Branch Davidians employ apocalyptic fear to demand absolute obedience. Members of Jouret's cult were told that those who joined would be saved from perdition, investigators said. ``The present world order is not by chance. We have arrived at the hour of apocalypse,'' Jouret reportedly recorded on a tape mailed shortly before he and his followers committed mass suicide.

 

``Apocalyptic visions serve the purpose of manipulation for recruiting, making bizarre demands and pushing you into the group without thinking it through,'' said the Rev. Richard Dowhower of All Saints Lutheran Church in Bowie, Md., who has worked with cult victims for many years.

 

The impending end of the world imparts a sense of urgency and encourages extreme measures, he said.

 

In the face of real - or imagined - external forces, that can backfire, triggering a panic that can lead to suicide or murder. The leader must deliver on his contract to preserve the group from the evil of the world and take them into the next world, Dowhower said.

 

That may have happened to Koresh and Jouret, said Flinn. ``The combination of persecution paranoia in the leader and apocalyptic expectations in the group may jump-start the millennium,'' he said.

 

That doesn't happen in most Christian communities. “We don't have to ask what the world is coming to or when. We know in the end God's purpose will prevail. The battle of good over evil has already been won at the cross,” said Nolan of Bethesda-by-the-Sea.