What more is there for their Expected One to do when he comes? To call the heathen? But they are called already. To put an end to prophet and king and vision? But this too has already happened. To expose the God-denyingness of idols? It is already exposed and condemned. Or to destroy death? It is already destroyed. What then has not come to pass that the Christ must do?
Athanasius, On the Incarnation
As a typical secular teenager, Christianity introduced me to a God who’d interacted with humanity to offer a life greater than myself. This made a lot of sense to seventeen-year-old me. It still does. Christianity in America comes with a lot of baggage, though. Along with the powerful message of the gospel were a lot of strange ideas about the creation and destruction of the world. Depictions of a violent and terrifying end are often portrayed both in Hollywood fiction and from the pulpits of American churches. Christianity seems to, at some point, have conflated faith with magic. Interpretations of end times prophecy became increasingly more embellished over time, incorporating themes from current events into a sort of theological composite that could explain present-day unrest. This ultimately divorced the pattern of a historical Jesus who advocated non-violence with one now seemingly the perpetrator of pointless violence, judgment, and terrifying death.
The concept of a violent and militant Jesus probably had its origins in the medieval period, a thousand years after Christ and hundreds of years after most early church writings to the contrary. Such a notion was first codified at the Council of Nablus in 1120, where Canon 20 permitted a clergyman to take up arms in self-defense without bearing any guilt; this was during turbulent times when Christian pilgrims were often massacred by the hundreds along their journey, leaving their rotting corpses along the roads from Jaffa into the Holy Land. This one concession, intended to be a temporary measure, seeded and ultimately fueled militant movements in Christianity starting with the Papal legitimization of the Templars movement (“God’s Holy Knights”), extremist groups such as Alfonso I’s Brotherhood of Belchite, and eventually spanned a thousand years into modern militant Christian ideals today.
The end times scenarios that play out in many modern churches today attract fringe groups with similar mindsets, and conspiracy groups like QAnon for similar reasons. By providing a foundation for oracle-sourced conspiracy theories that lead to violent, anti-establishment outcomes, today’s end-times theology follows the concept of a violent and militant second coming, abandoning the teachings of Christ and hundreds of years of church fathers about martyrdom, pacifism, and government non-involvement. The obvious contradiction of a Christianity asserting a struggle that is “not against flesh and blood” somehow ending up with a literal war against flesh and blood is the result of a historical evolution that biased how the church interprets scripture and forms doctrine even today. Yet to not have faith in a brutal and imminent end times means, in many churches, that you don’t have a Christian faith at all. This left many Christians of my generation to either go along with the weirdness and ignore the obvious oddities of Christian doctrine, or – worse, to fully embrace them and make one’s Christian identity based on the willingness to blindly accept such dramatic interpretations as fact. The latter was often socially rewarded as “faith”. This was a package deal, though, for many young Christians – who are now adults with a literal end times engrained in them.
Many Christians are still stuck here, as a violent and imminent end of the world is still the only thing many American churches teach today, and in increasingly bizarre and political ways. End-times theories evolve periodically within evangelical churches to reinterpret components of new and significant current events. They are woven together as signs of the times, into the bigger narrative to “decipher” the book of Revelation which, to the average evangelical is a key to understanding God’s future plans. In recent times, theories about masks, vaccines, the World Health Organization, and a new president are constant topics of end-times discussion within churches. Yet a vast majority of church going Christians lack any academic training in interpretation of scripture, nor want it. The idea that anyone can speculate on end-times prophecies has attracted groups like QAnon, which now consumes up to 25% of white American evangelicals. Denominationalism, while having some benefits, has also become a significant enabler of confirmation bias in the church, allowing for tribal systems of beliefs to flourish and go unquestioned, whether it’s a movement within the church or a radical idea taught by a church leader. Beliefs have become more extreme as a result of the social dysfunction created by COVID and the social unrest caused by deep divisions in politics. Ideas about masks, vaccines, W.H.O., and other current topics are now loosely joined to end-times themes of one world government, the mark of the beast, eternal punishment, or any number of other themes in Revelation. Conspiracy theories within the church’s walls have had very real consequences. Extremist groups spent several months planning – on public message boards – to assassinate the incoming president to usher in a new heaven and earth, based on many of these same beliefs about Revelation. While the most extreme of these ideals may belong in small fringe churches, common end-times theories about masks, vaccines, and the Antichrist run deep throughout mainstream evangelical Christianity. As one evangelical pastor put it, “Right now QAnon is still on the fringes of evangelicalism… but we have a pretty big fringe.”
This end-times posture can be walked back to theological origins of the mid-1800s. The interpretive biases that make this theology work have altered Christianity in many significant ways. Yet visions of four horsemen riding across the world, a sudden secret rapture, and seven years of hell on Earth rest upon theological pillars of highly questionable origin, which this post will explore. Such end-times concepts have no support in historic Christianity, and could be dissociated from Christianity altogether; many evangelical Christians, however, don’t realize there are earlier and more supported forms of interpretation. By failing to challenge the incorrect assumptions this belief system relies on, many Christians will deny vaccines and literally die on the basis of the theological system under which they were taught, firmly believing that they are honoring God in doing so. It is a flawed and unfalsifiable system of theology – not Christianity itself – that is to blame. This post will attempt to tease those two concepts apart.