“Between 1800 and 1820 more than 20,000 people emigrated from Württemberg to Russia…hastening to meet the coming Lord and to find on Ararat in the Caucasus the place of refuge at the end of the world. Johann Albrecht Bengel had calculated that Christ would come again and that the Thousand Years’ empire would dawn on Sunday, 18 June 1836. The ‘brotherly emigration harmonies’ emptied the villages round Tübingen.”
The history of Christianity is littered with such apocalyptic movements, which foretold the fulfilment of long-predicted events and caused people to make rash decisions, due to factors that may have occured simultaneously or in succession.
A prophetic calculation that pointed to 18 June 1836 as the day of Christ’s return was the factor that caused the migration of Germans to the East in the 1800s. A prophetic reckoning was also the basis of the Adventist movement in the USA, when about one hundred thousand people waited for Christ on 22 October 1844, relying on the interpretation of the Baptist preacher William Miller.
Another trigger for apocalyptic movements is the emergence of a charismatic figure who persuades people to accept teachings in which the leader identifies with a particular biblical figure. This was the case with David Koresh (1959-1993), who claimed to be descended from the line of David, the ancient king of Israel, and considered himself to be the Messiah. In 1993, Koresh was tragically killed, along with some of the group he led, during a raid by US federal forces on the compound where the insurgents were holed up.
The third factor worth mentioning is religious persecution. Ever since the time of the Roman persecution of Christians, there have been reports of heightened eschatological feelings and the birth of apocalyptic proclamations. Eusebius says of the persecution under the emperor Septimius Severus (193-211) that it “threw many off balance.” He mentions a certain Judas of whom Jerome writes: “He argued violently about the seventy weeks of Daniel. He was accused of having made the mistake of saying that the coming of the Antichrist would be in his own time; but he did so ‘because the severity of the persecution made the untimely sunset of the world seem imminent.'”
Finally, the fourth cause of apocalyptic unrest is natural disasters and pandemics. Whenever they have occurred, these events have increased the intensity of eschatological expectations. This was the case with the Black Death, which struck Europe in the 14th century and made people feel that the world was coming to an end. “And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed that it was the end of the world.”
What do apocalyptic movements have in common?
Hippolytus, in his commentary on the biblical book of Daniel, recounts an event around 200 A.D. A church hierarch preached the imminent arrival of the end of the world, causing many to make rash decisions. The man was faithful, sincere, and respectful, but he deceived himself and those who listened to him and started an apocalyptic movement.
In general, such a movement is characterised by three features: the emphatic proclamation of an eschatological event (“The day of the Lord is imminent!”); risky behaviour on the part of the followers (“And he led the brothers to such fear and terror so to allow their lands and fields to be desolate, and the wealthy to destroy their possessions”); and, after the expected event fails to materialise, a growing scepticism towards the Bible and, above all, towards biblical prophecy (“If it does not happen just as I said, do not believe the Scriptures anymore but do whatever each of you wishes”).
Repeated disappointments in history have led many to lose faith in the apocalyptic message of the Bible. Should we abandon biblical prophecy forever? Or are there still reasonable grounds for believing in the apocalyptic message of the Bible, beyond the tendency to scepticism that apocalyptic movements provoke?
A chance for biblical prophecy
Christianity is a religion with profound eschatological characteristics. If we remove from Christian theology the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ and His return in glory, we are left with a set of moral, ethical and social precepts, without the core that gives substance to this religion. If we exclude the eschatological creed, Christianity is no longer conceivable.
In order to regain faith in apocalyptic prophecy, however, we must first of all free ourselves from the innumerable exaggerations or speculations in which it has been shrouded.
It makes no sense to say that a tool is inoperable because it was used by someone who did not follow the instructions. It is well known that people tend to stop thinking critically and react emotionally when faced with crises of all kinds, or when captivated by the charisma of a leader. It is therefore wrong to conclude that apocalyptic prophecy is not relevant because of the emotional reactions of many who have had exposure to it.
Secondly, it is important to point out that Daniel and Revelation, the two biblical books that contain prophetic messages, are not trivial writings that mix piety with mythology, and were not designed to induce psychosis. The elements of apocalyptic prophecy are well calibrated and loaded with deep theological meanings that can be found in the highest and most refined biblical teachings of the Old and New Testaments.
Third, the case for the relevance of biblical prophecy must take into account the historical evidence for the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. The announcement of the succession of hegemonic empires hundreds of years earlier in Daniel is well known. Then, the time of the Messiah’s coming and his violent death were accurately foretold in the book of Daniel (chapter 9).
Fourthly, in order to discover the value of biblical prophecy, a correct method of interpretation is also required. We have already seen that an honest but wrong interpretation is one of the triggers of apocalyptic movements. Therefore, we must seek the method suggested by the prophecy itself in order to use it as the key to understanding the prophetic message.
An interpretation required by prophecy
Over time, various methods of interpreting biblical prophecy have been proposed and advocated, but it is the internal clues of the prophetic text that lead us to the outline of an appropriate hermeneutical method.
First of all, the prophecy itself offers the keys to interpretation. For example, Daniel 2 explains that the metal statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream represents the various empires that will successively dominate the world. The various horns in both Daniel and Revelation are, according to the interpretation of the biblical text itself, symbols of kings or kingdoms that are prominent at a particular time (Revelation 17:12).
Secondly, the prophetic oracles are loaded with allusions and paraphrases of Old and New Testament Scriptures. Revelation chapter 13 cannot be understood without reference to Daniel 7 and 1 Kings 18. So the prophecy must be deciphered in the larger context of the whole Bible.
Thirdly, the periods of time that appear in the prophecy are deliberately expressed in cryptic form: 1,260 days, 42 months, 2,300 evenings and mornings, 70 weeks, etc. This variety in the expression of time obviously points to a figurative understanding. From time immemorial, Jewish and Christian interpreters have understood that these periods must be deciphered according to the hermeneutical principle of 1 prophetic day = 1 calendar year. So 1,260 days become 1,260 years, not just 3.5 years, which would be the sum of 1,260 days taken literally. In the same way, 2,300 evenings and mornings, i.e. 2,300 days, indicate a period of 2,300 years. The prophecy of the seventy weeks in Daniel 9 only points to the time of the coming of the Messiah if we understand it as 490 years (70 weeks x 7 days = 490 days = 490 years).
The interpretation that takes into account these internal clues of the prophetic text is called the historicist method. This method takes into account the intention of the prophets to convey a picture that includes historical elements: kings and kingdoms, divine intervention, and periods that span a wide historical range. The historicist interpretation leads us to conclude that biblical prophecy involves and concerns us in some way.
What kind of future does Bible prophecy predict?
The interpreter of prophecy must respect the authority of the text to predict the future. Daniel and Revelation are not divination tools like horoscopes or palm reading. Although in their texts we encounter dragons and mutated creatures, terrible persecutions, and divine punishments, the whole apocalyptic landscape is dominated by the image of the creative Father interested in the good of humanity and the image of the Lamb sacrificed for our salvation. The bright side predominates in prophecy, and the dark elements are figurative descriptions of entities and events, and are not introduced to enrich the mythology and fantastic imagery. Bible prophecy contains no elements of religious sensationalism and says nothing about chip implantation and nanotechnology. And, to the disappointment of some, the COVID-19 pandemic is not mentioned in Revelation.
Bible prophecy reveals historical events concerning God’s intervention in the world for its salvation. God has revealed, in broad terms, the experience of the chosen people—whether Israel or the Church—in their journey on earth. He has shown the tortuous path of the Church, with the moral struggles it has experienced throughout history. Biblical prophecy is an act of revelation, like pulling back a curtain to reveal the main characters on the stage. In addition to God and the Church, the devil and his allies are on stage. Thus, biblical prophecy is above all a symbolic dramatisation of the struggle between good and evil, between Christ and Satan, between the children of God and the followers of the devil. At the same time, Daniel and the Apocalypse point to the glorious outcome of this struggle, when Christ, by the power of His love, will defeat hatred and wickedness forever.
It is only by approaching apocalyptic prophecy from this perspective that we can expect a meaningful reading, a reading that gives us direction and saves us from emotional and decisional haste.
One of the most enlightened minds to study biblical prophecy was Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727). The English scientist spent more time studying prophecy than physics and wrote a commentary on the books of Daniel and Revelation. It is fitting to conclude this article by referencing the great scientist who said that a fundamental characteristic of the true Church is to listen to the prophets, because God has arranged the prophecies so that in the last days the wise will understand (see Daniel 12:9-10).
Four methods of prophetic interpretation
The historicist method
This method is based on the principle that prophecies are fulfilled in the course of human history, beginning with the time of the prophets who wrote them. Revelation was meant to guide and encourage the early Christians in the midst of the turbulence they experienced, and at the same time it expanded its prophetic picture beyond their timeline to the final victory. The basic principle of historicism is that God has entrusted the mysteries of history to the prophets in symbolic language, and that the prophecies reveal the major events through which God’s people will pass from ancient times to the final restoration. The ancient Jewish scholars, the early Christians mentioned in the New Testament, most of the Church Fathers, and the Protestant Reformers all understood biblical prophecy by explaining it in historicist terms. This is the interpretation used by Seventh-day Adventists today.
The preterist method
Preterism sees the book of Daniel as focusing on the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and the book of Revelation as focusing primarily on the reign of Nero. The preterist school thus focuses on the past. Those who take this approach find meanings in Revelation that apply only to early Christianity. In essence, this method places the fulfilment of prophecy in the events of ancient history. The first interpreter to use the preterist method was Porphyry of Tyre (234-305). The Jesuit monk Luis de Alcazar (1554-1613) established it among theologians, and today it is the preferred method of liberal theological orientations.
The futurist method
Futurist interpretation places the most important meaning of apocalyptic prophecy in the future. The futurist method holds that only the first three chapters of Revelation refer to the time of the apostles, and that the rest of the book will be fulfilled in an eschatologically distant future. Futurism places the fulfilment of the prophecies primarily in the last seven years of earth’s history. Although some Futurist views can be found in the writings of some Church Fathers, the structure of the system was developed by the Jesuit Francisco Ribera (1537-1591). Today, the Futurist method is advocated by evangelical dispensational Christians of Anglo-American origin.
The idealist method
The idealist method is the fourth approach to deciphering the prophetic message. Unlike the other three schools, which see biblical prophecy as describing historical events in symbolic language, the idealistic method proposes a moralistic meaning of prophecy that applies to every Christian. It virtually nullifies the prophetic character of the biblical text, considering it merely a dramatised account of Christian spiritual experience. The first interpreter to use this method was Origen (185-254), a prominent theologian of the early church.
Iosif Diaconu considers that prophecy is a fundamental element of Christianity that cannot be abandoned except by altering the Christian confession. He is therefore interested in discovering approaches that preserve biblical prophecy as an integral and relevant part of the Christian message.