In light of all the cultural upheaval in the United States over the last few weeks, I hear many people say things like, “The church is being persecuted,” “The end is near!” and “The rapture and great tribulation is on the horizon.” As a pastor, I would like to offer both a word of caution and an interpretive alternative to popular “end times” predictions.
First, out of respect for Christians who have been and are being tortured, terrorized, and murdered for their faith, we should be very careful how we use the word persecution. As I understand it, persecution involves taking away people’s rights to practice their religion and then trying to force them to recant their faith or face imprisonment, torture, and/or death. Giving someone else legal rights to do something that you find morally objectionable is not persecution. Living in a country where the courts do not legislate your interpretation of the Bible and personal moral code is not persecution. You might find recent legal decisions to be morally objectionable and interpret them as an indication that our country is moving in the wrong direction. But to call it persecution seems disingenuous to me in light of Christians who over the past 2,000 years have been arrested, tortured, and executed (sometimes as public sport) because of their conviction that Jesus is Lord. This includes the Christians being beheaded in the Middle East and the black churches that have recently been burned to the ground by hateful racists. Most of the claims of persecution coming out of the conservative camp of the church in America are based on the false assumption that we live in a Christian country. We do not live in a Christian nation. We live in a diverse, liberal democracy that happens to be inhabited by many Christians, but whose constitution legally protects the freedom of religion for all people, including those who are not Christians and who choose no religion at all. For more on this topic, see Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church.
Second, before you start talking about current events in light of a “Tim LaHaye interpretation” of the book of Revelation, please read what credible biblical scholars say about this perplexing text. Popular, futuristic readings of Revelation might dazzle our imagination and make for very bad movies (sorry Nick Cage), but this does not mean that this way of understanding should be naively accepted as “God’s Word” without critical thought. The scholarly consensus is that that the Book of Revelation is a piece of apocalyptic literature that was written to encourage Christians in the early church who experienced sporadic persecution under the rule of Emperor Domitian. The author never intended it to be read as a futuristic prophecy predicting events to be fulfilled 2,000 years later. Christians who are genuinely being persecuted can find much encouragement in the book of Revelation interpreted in its own historical-cultural context, but to claim that it is a series of oracles finally being fulfilled by recent shifts in our American context is a misreading. If you are interested in a short introduction to Revelation that will help you understand this strange conclusion to the Christian canon, I suggest James Efird’s little book, Revelation for Today.
Tensions are high and if we capitulate to our fears then we will do things to escalate and intensify the “sky is falling” mentality, which makes true faith difficult. Instead of allowing ourselves to be swept away in the stream of pessimism, anxiety, and doomsday end-of-the-world predictions, let’s take a deep breath and meditate on God’s constant presence so that we can be a healing, peaceful, and loving presence in the world.