Some weeks earlier, Jonathan Weber was enjoying the morning drive to his office at Harvard. It was May Day in Massachusetts – though hardly a distress call, he mused, in one of his less successful attempts at humor. He was piloting a blue BMW Z4 convertible through balmy air along the Charles River; the car was the one big luxury he had allowed himself since his book Jesus of Nazareth became an international best-seller. But should a man holding the distinguished Reginald R. Dillion Professorship of Near Eastern Studies at Harvard University be sporting about in a transportation toy that better suited a pampered college undergrad?his Lutheran conscience inquired.
Ah, there it is, he reflected, the proper sense of guilt so befitting a Lutheran. No one celebrated divine grace and forgiveness better than Lutherans, but the celebration was always more exquisite when preceded by a decent dose of guilt. When an adoring coed remarked that the blue of his BMW perfectly matched his eyes and that he looked like a maturing Robert Redford, Jonathan Weber worried that he may innocently have flirted with her. Still, he had finally learned to talk back to his nagging conscience and enjoy more of life on its own terms.
That morning, the drive to Harvard from his home in suburban Weston had taken exactly a half hour – right on schedule. Crossing the Charles River, he headed northward on J. F. Kennedy Street, carefully maneuvering through the trademark traffic radiating out of Harvard Square. His Beamer was doubly safe, he knew, because of its superb German engineering and his own meticulous care while driving. Not the faintest scratch had marred its enameled surface since he took delivery. At Mount Auburn Street, for example, he gave no thought whatever to outrunning the light that had just flashed yellow, but braked defensively to a stop. And that my have been his undoing.
Brakes shrieked, and a shattering crash from behind hurled Jon into his cream leather seat, then whipped him forward in reaction. Fortunately, he was wearing a seat belt and was only stunned, not injured. The same could not be said of his Z4. The rear-ending had driven its tail end into a configuration not intended by the engineers in Munich.
Storming out of his car, Jon saw a lanky, red-faced lad climbing out of the gray PT Cruiser that had assaulted him. A woeful look of anguish twisted the young man’s features – and, of course, his grille. Before any confrontation, Jon walked to the rear of the Cruiser to record its license number. It was then that he noticed a large white sticker with red lettering on the back end of the car just above it’s plastic bumper: WARNING: IN CASE OF RAPTURE, THIS CAR WILL BE LEFT DRIVERLESS!
“So,” Jon snapped at the driver. “Apparently your car is driverless: have you just been raptured? And if so, what in blazes are you doing back here on earth?”
“I’m…awfully sorry about this,” the youth drawled. “I was looking over the river – it’s such a beautiful day – and I just… couldn’t stop in time.”
After exchanging the usual insurance information, Jon tried a few pleasantries to calm the shaken fellow, obviously a university undergrad. He really wanted to ask him why anyone would want to buy such an ugly imitation retro as a PT Cruiser, but thought better of it. “That bumper sticker of yours,” he said. “Do you really believe that bit about being ruptured out of your driver’s seat?”
“I sure do!” The lad brightened, adding, “I’ve read all the books in the Left Behind series, and I think that – “
“But they’re fiction!”
“Yes, but they’re based on fact – on what Christians believe will surely happen during these end times.”
“Not this Christian!” Jon objected. “Here’s my card. Why not come to my office sometime and we’ll talk about it?”
“Love to,” the young man replied, finally managing a sheepish smile. “Again, I’m awfully, awfully sorry about this!”
By the time he reached his office, not far from Harvard’s immortal Yard, Jon was angry – less about his wounded BMW and more about how end-times mania had beset the minds even of university undergrads, or at least one poor driver among them. He was scheduled to have an interview with a journalist form Newsweek later that morning, during which he had every intention of being cool, dispassionate, and tolerant. Now he wondered if he could actually manage it.
At exactly ten-thirty there was a knock on his office door. There stood the tall, distinguished figure of Kenneth L. Woodward, Newsweek’s veteran religion editor, who had come to Cambridge to interview Jon for a cover story on the end-times mania sweeping the nation. The two were well acquainted form previous interviews.
“You know the drill, Jon,” said Woodward, while opening his attaché case, pulling out a tape recorder, and placing it on a small table between their chairs. “I’ll let you see my copy before we publish. We hardly ever do that, but I make special exceptions in the case of persnickety professors!”
Jon chuckled. “Just be sure you translate my comments into English, Ken!”
“Always difficult in your case.!”
“I’m sure! But why me? How do you think I can help your story?”
“Well, isn’t that obvious? Aren’t you The Man Who Saved Christianity by exposing that ‘skeleton in God’s closet’ several years ago? The Christian world’s been grateful to you ever since, so your input on our story should have rather strong impact.”
Jon held up his hands to object. “I’ve never known you to exaggerate, Ken. Why start now? But let’s unpack what you have so far.”
Woodward cleared his throat and began. “Well, you can guess where we’re going with our end-times feature, and I’m sure you know the stats: millions upon millions of copies sold in the Left Behind series and end-times fanaticism abounds.”
Woodward paused for effect, then continued, “There hasn’t been a flurry like this since Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. That book, you’ll recall, was the number one international bestseller throughout the 1970’s – after the bible itself.
“What we want from you, Jon, is a critique of the whole end-times thinking – fact and fiction. The authors of Left Behind based their series not only on their own nonfiction works on prophecy, but also on the writings of Hal Lindsey, Jon Walvoord, and other prophecy specialists.”
“Okay, I’ll have at it,” Jon said. “But you may have to tone down what I say. You know I have an overactive tongue in an over opinionated mouth.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll run it by our layers.”
Jon proceeded to summarize the popular claims of the prophecy enthusiasts as fairly as he could. At the start of their end-times scenario, so they taught, true believers would be physically taken up to heaven in a Rapture that would leave their non-Christian relatives and friends behind for a second chance at genuine faith. A seven-year period of Tribulation would follow, during which terrible things would afflict the new believers and unbelievers alike, many of them caused by an Antichrist figure at the summit of a one-world government with a single currency, would lord it over subjects branded with “the mark”. (Other prophecy specialists argued that the Rapture would take place in the middle of the seven-year Tribulation period or at it’s end.) Next, a final, horrendous battle at Armageddon would follow, and only then would Jesus return in His second coming, bringing on the Millennium – a thousand-year period of His reign – ending with the Final Judgment. The whole scenario would also be people with mysterious witnesses, beasts, demons and apocalyptic figures mentioned in such biblical books as Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation.
“Christians agree on the Second Coming itself,” Jon continued, “but they disagree on the rest of these claims. They’re really based on over literal interpretations of what’s clearly symbolic material in the Bible. Much of the material published these days is also mistranslated, misunderstood, or misapplied by projection form the first century into the twenty-first. Just a second, Ken…se if this helps.”
Jon walked back to his desk, pulled out a large plastic card form the center drawer, and handed it to Woodward. “You really can’t keep the prophecy claims straight without a scorecard.”
“The version on top – what’s called dispensational per millennialism,” Jon continued, “is the current rage, with most of the prophecy specialists teaching that chain of events. Those farther down, in my estimation, get more and more biblical until we come to amillennialism – nonmillennialism. This is arguably the traditional view of the church ever since its founding: the belief that ‘the thousand years’ is merely symbolic for the age of the success of Christianity. But take it literally? Why? A thousand years is just a drop in the bucket against the background of eternity!”
“Can you attach numbers to those vies, Jon?” Woodward wondered. “how many Christians believe which scenario?”
Jon thought for a moment, then shook his head and said, “I can’t give you exact figures, but the great majority of Christians across the world believe in the uncluttered version at the bottom: amillennialism.”
“Really?” Woodward’s face registered surprise.
“Roman Catholicism will have no part of millennialism, and that’s a billion for openers, half of Christendom. Now will Eastern Orthodoxy, another 350 million. Nor will Lutherans. Nor will Episcopalians or Reformed or Presbyterians. Not will – “
“Okay, point taken. By the way, is it true that some prophecy specialists have actually changed their earlier predictions in later editions of their books after their forcasts failed?”
Woodward frowned for a moment, then asked, “Well, what’s the antidote? Why don’t you write a book blasting such shoddy tactics?”
“Already been done. There are a number of excellent books out that skewer the more bizarre claims on the basis of proper biblical evidence and sound scholarship.”
“Anthony Hoekema’s The Bible and the Futur, Gary DeMar’s End Times Fiction, and Jerry Newcombe’s Coming Again – But When? for openers. And, of course, the prophecy mania doesn’t do too well in my book on Jesus.”
“Has Christianity always had these alternative views about the end times?”
“Oh, anything but! Dave MacPherson’sThe Rapture Plot shows how dispensationalist Rapture theology is only a recent novelty when it come to church history.”
“Recent?” Ken pursued. “How recent?”
“A little Scottish girl name Margaret MacDonald claimed a revelation in 1830, and a traveling evangelist named J. N. Darby took it as his own and marketed it successfully to the nineteenth-century American church – to our detriment ever since, in my opinion. An American preacher, Cyrus Scofield, edited a Bible that amplified Darby’s views – and many evangelicals have yet to pull out of this eschatological blind alley. I guess they figure the church had it all wrong during its first eighteen centuries!”
Both men chuckled. The a lingering grin crossed Ken’s face as he asked, “What about that southern evangelist with the big following, Dr. Mel Merton? You haven’t mentioned him.”
“Melvin Morris Merton!” Jon groaned. “Three Ms for the Master! He’s the one who called me the Antichrist during the Rama crisis in Jerusalem! Merton Ministries has made a cottage industry out of the end times: syndicated TV, radio, books, journals, tapes.”
“In Merton’s latest book, he claims that you deny the second coming of Christ.”
“No, just Merton’s timetable for the same. That’s a standard response for the prophecy crowd whenever you question their scenarios. Most of them begin with the dire things Jesus predicted on the Mount of Olives while overlooking Jerusalem and claim they will soon take place, probably in our generation. Wrong! They already took place when the Romans conquered Jerusalem. ‘This generation will not pass away until all these things are accomplished,’ said Jesus around A.D. 33. Jerusalem was indeed destroyed thirty – seven years later in the year 70. Perfect fulfillment! But the prophecy pack transfers most of this from the first tot the twenty-first century! You have to interpret all biblical prophecy passages in their historical context, and not project them two thousand years later.”
“All right,” Woodward probed, “if the bad things Jesus prophesied took place when Jerusalem was destroyed, what about the good things He predicted for believers – salvation, a new heaven, and a new earth?”
“All of them, including the Rapture, are part of the general resurrection of the deal at the end of time when Jesus returns. The church has always had it right in the Creed: ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Amen!’ There it is: pure sublime, and simple…no additional clutter necessary from overactive imaginations in the last two centuries.”
“What about Merton’s prediction that the Rapture will take place on New Year’s Day three years from now, and that Jesus will return exactly seven years after that?”
“Not worthy of comment. They had false prophets in biblical times, and we have false prophets today. Someone has counted 1,338 predictions of Jesus’ ‘imminent return’ across church history, all of them wrong, obviously. Remember, it was Jesus who said, ‘Of that day and of that hour no one knows: not the Son – not modern doomsday prophets – but the Father.’ “
“One of those phrases I don’t recall from the Gospels,” said Woodward, with a wink. “So, would ‘false prophet’ be a good label for Merton?”
“Of course! But if you quote me, better make that my opinion, not my statement of fact. Otherwise Merton may sue my pants off. He once called me ‘the Apostle of Arrogance’ – though he could well be right about that!”
Woodward chucked and said, “Well, Jon, I certainly have enough material here. Any final thoughts?”
“Just this: ordinarily, I’m very tolerant of differing biblical interpretations among genuine scholars, but not in the case of a pseudoprophet like Meton. His kind hurt Christianity – in several ways. First, people get so hung up on apocalyptic predictions that they panic and prepared for the end when there is no end. Remember the lunacy that took place toward the close of 1999? Even some respectable Christian leaders warned believers about ‘the great Y2K menace,’ advising tem to store up survival supplies. And in the Ruby Ridge tragedy in Montana, a lot of alarmist prophecy literature was found inside the home of Vicki and Randy Weaver after the FBI raid – “
“Which may explain their doomsday outlook,” Woodward commented, while scribbling on this notepad.
“Okay, that’s one couple,” Jon resumed. “But how about whole movements, like the ‘Israel First Millennialists’ who are totally pro-Israel and anti-Arab, even though most Christians in the Holy Land are Arab? They want to see a new Jewish temple built in Jerusalem so that the Antichrist can sit inside it. This will supposedly bring on the last days and Jesus’ triumphant return. As though poor Jesus needs us to help Him along!”
“Fair enough. Other reasons?”
“Secondly, what happens when prophecy believers see such prophecies fail? Some become disillusioned and abandon the faith entirely, all for the wrong reasons. Thirdly, the heart of Christianity the gospel of Jesus Christ – gets displaced in favor if amateurish forecasting of the future. And finally, most of these wrongheaded prophecies are an insult to our intelligence. What thinking person can believe in a god who gleefully watches airliners crash because he has raptured Christian pilots out of their cockpits? Or credit a scenario in which Russia attacks Israel, yet its bombs explode harmlessly? Or believe that the United Nations headquarters will be transferred form New York City to Babylon, the archaeological ruin in Iraq? Or find millions destroyed by demonic –“
“All right, all right!” Woodward held up his hands. “I didn’t write that stuff!”
“Sorry, Ken! I got carried away.” Jon chuckled. “I’ll stop preaching to the choir!”
Woodward smiled, put down his notepad, and said, “By the way, can you think of anything positive to say about the prophecy crowd? Just to balance the record?”
“Sure,” Jon said, nodding. “I believe they’re all genuine Christians, after all. And people like Lindsey, LaHaye, and Jenkins have more than proved that Christian authors are no longer limited to some evangelical ghetto, as used to be the case…not when their books reach the number one spot on secular best-seller lists!”
“True enough. Well, I think that’s a wrap, Jon.”
“Good. Oh, and by the way, this time you don’t have to send me copy first.”
“Thanks for the not of confidence! And for the interview, of course.”
Three weeks later, the Newsweek story appeared. “Near the End?” was featured in bold lettering across the top of the magazine’s cover, with artistic sketches of beasts, monsters, the Antichrist, exploding volcanoes, falling stars, assorted demons, and the faithful in tribulation. Woodward had done a masterful job in writing up the story, Jon thought, citing authorities both for and against the current prophecy claims. With a touch of personal vanity, he was pleased to note that his own comments formed much of the core of the article. Woodward had reproduced his critique accurately, though without any colloquial references to Melvin Morris Merton.
Over the next few days, phone calls, voicemails, e-mail, faxes, and letters streamed into Jon’s office, nine to one in favor of his views. One of the earliest responses was a call from his father Erhard Weber, pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Hannibal, Missouri. A slender, white-haired patriarch, Erhard scoffed at any idea of retirement. Fortunately, his congregation agreed that the ever-active cleric should remain in harness despite his septuagenarian status, and even refused his offer to retire. Proud of his son Jon’s accomplishments, the elder Weber was still ready to criticize anything he found amiss in Jon’s theology or practice.
“Thanks, Jon, for the way you took on the prophecy crew!” he said on the phone. “I’ve really had my fill of them!”
“Getting tired of end-times mania out there, Dad?”
“Yes! Ever since 9/11 and the other terrorist attacks across the world, the Tribulation-Rapture fever is higher yet - even among some of our members who ought to know better. Last Sunday I preached on ‘Last Days Lunacy,’ and even so hard-core a Lutheran as Irma Fischman tried to argue about it with me after worship. She’s been attending and interdenominational women’s Bible study group, ands some of the ultras there started the contagion.”
Among the chorus of affirmation that Jon received, a few discordant notes were heard. Those who disagreed with him often began their letters with an amiable “Dear Spawn of Satan,” “To the Sacrilegious Scoffer n his Citadel of Unbelief,” and other endearing phrases. At least a solid majority of normal Christians were out there, thought Jon – enough consolation for someone who wasn’t particularly looking for any solace.
What he was looking for was a word from Shannon Jennings, who had held him in thrall form the moment she stepped into his life at an archaeological dig in Israel several years ago. She was a brilliant excavator, a delightful friend, a passionate lover – in a word, a genuine soul mate.
Shannon was back in Israel writing an addendum to the final report on an excavation she and her father had conducted at a site north of Jerusalem called Rama, the same dig that uncovered a 2,000 year old skeleton and catapulted Jon and Shannon into a very harrowing experience. Jon had told her to pick up a copy of the overseas edition of Newsweek when it hit the stands. Finally, a not appeared in this e-mail that revealed she hadn’t forgotten.
Why didn’t they put your picture on the cover, Jon rather than all those dreadful beasties?! What’s one demon, more or less?! I’m glad you put the “prophets” in their place, although I think you were too easy on them. For instance, I would have called them sensationalizing seers or odious oracles. Maybe pathetic prognosticators? I’m sure, though, that they’re crying all the way to their respective banks. I just can’t understand why anyone with and IQ over 65 buys their stuff in the first place.
It was sad, thought Jon, that Shannon was so reticent about her opinions. If only the girl would speak her mind!
Several weeks later, a squat, swarthy individual with an augmented waistline appeared at Jon’s office door. With a forced smile, he asked if he was addressing Dr. Jonathan P. Weber.
“I confess: I’m Weber,” Jon replied.
The man plopped two documents into his hand and said, “You have just been served with this summon from the First Judicial Department of the State of New York, as well as the attending complaint. Good day, sir!” The process server quickly turned about and left.
Jon opened the documents: Melvin Morris Merton was suing him and Newsweek for libel, slander, and defamation of character in the amount of $38 million.