A History of the Second Coming: Christian History Interview — Hope Beyond the Details
In this issue we've dipped into every era and shown how Christians have thought and acted about the last days. The variety is surprising and the results are sometimes horrifying.
Many books have tried to put this all into perspective, but one of the better ones is Richard Kyle’s The Last Days Are Here Again: A History of the End Times(Baker, 1998). So Christian History talked with the author, professor of history and religion at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas, to find out what we might learn from the history of the end of history.
What prompted you to write a book about the history of the end times?
I was raised in the Plymouth Brethren church, and I knew of only one view—dispensational premillennialism. I didn’t even know there were alternatives. As a teenager, I remember the invasion of Egypt in 1956 with Israeli, British, and French forces fighting together. This stirred up my passions in this area, but I had always been interested in the subject. In my study of church history, I became acquainted with the mainstream Christian views—postmillennialist, amillennialist, and premillennialist.
Then in 1993, I wrote a book on the religious fringe, and I began to see that so many groups had very fascinating views on the end of the world. And as I talked to my environmentalist friends, I began to realize it isn’t limited simply to the Christian community. A look at movies and modern literature shows there are all kinds of end-time themes. It’s embedded in our cultural psyche.
What was the most surprising thing that you discovered as you researched this topic?
Through much of history, people have been looking more for the Antichrist than for Christ. The Antichrist has to come first, before Christ, in most of these views. Also, there’s more interesting speculation about who the Antichrist is.
Also, with my background—I'm still a moderate premillennialist—I associated millennialism with the Christian mainstream. But in most of history, millennialism (in which people expect the world to end soon) has been the view of fringe groups. In the Middle Ages, the mainstream Catholic church held what became known as amillennialism, but the Joachites, Franciscans, and Taborites, for example, were far more millennial. Even when millennialism was popular during the Middle Ages, it wasn’t the official view of the church.
In nineteenth-century America, when most of the country was postmillennial, other millennial views were championed by groups like the Mormons, Shakers, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Millennial views are persistent throughout history, but I don’t want to exaggerate them. It’s like a virus; it may be dormant at times, occasionally situations activate it, and it burns to a fever. And so you have these periods of time when the end-time thinking reaches a much higher pitch.
Since many evangelicals believe in the nearness of the end, has millennialism moved beyond the fringe?
Through much of history, many minority groups who have either been depressed, disenfranchised, or poverty-stricken have held apocalyptic views. But today many millennialists, especially many in the religious right, are wealthy and in seats of power. They almost long for an end because they see the world in such bad shape. According to one theory, they’re millennialists because their views are out of sync with the modern world.
Why did evangelicals mock premillennialism in the early nineteenth century yet embrace it today?
Postmillennialism became predominant in the late eighteenth century because the world seemed to be getting better. Progress was being made, especially in the United States. Jonathan Edwards saw the first Great Awakening as the first robin of spring, and figured the millennium to begin around the year 2000. Even in the Second Great Awakening, evangelists thought they were witnessing the opening shots of the Millennium.
After that, we moved into more pessimistic times, and premillennialism, which has a pessimistic view of humanity, took root. In a century like ours, with more to survive than to rejoice in—two world wars, a depression, Hitler, Mussolini, holocausts, nuclear weapons, environmental crises—premillennialism can thrive in a context like this.
Can postmillennialism make a comeback?
If something in the culture changed. For example, between A.D. 300 and 400, a shift took place: Christianity was legalized and became increasingly the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. So eschatology moved from a vague premillennialism to, thanks to Augustine, amillennialism.
One thing that made dispensationalism popular today was that dispensationalists discussed the return of Israel well before it happened. Israel stands at the center of dispensational thinking. If for some reason, the state of Israel ceased to exist, it could cause a major reinterpretation. However, dispensationalists can make adjustments. When the Soviet Union crumbled, they modified their thinking, even though prophecies about the Soviet Union had been a key feature in their views.
There has been a lot of excitement about the end-times prospects for the year 2000. Have Christians invested too much in the turn of the millennium?
In some ways we shot the works in the 1980s. The real catalyst was Hal Lindsey pinning so much on 1948 and implying that the Rapture would occur in 1988. Such hopes for the year 2000 will probably taper off. It won’t be like the Millerites, with people throwing up their hands in despair and dissolving in embarrassment.
In spite of the fact that so many Christians in so many eras have been wrong about the details of the Second Coming, we still retain a vibrant hope in it. Why is that?
I think it’s inescapably biblical. If you’re any kind of a sober, sincere Christian, you have to expect and believe that Jesus Christ is going to return physically at a particular time.
The Bible hasn’t given us many details about this, and so, unfortunately, the hope of Christ’s return has become the fodder for the curious and for fanatics. But that doesn’t change the essential biblical teaching: Christ will come again.
By Richard Kyle
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #61 in 1999]Richard Kyle is author of The Last Days Are Here Again: A History of the End Times (Baker, 1998), and professor of history and religion at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas
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