As recently as 1898, the French dictionary Nouveau Larousse Illustré could say: “Astrology has hardly any adherents other than swindlers who play on public credulity, and even these are fast disappearing.” False hope! Two world wars and economic instability have helped to revive interest in predicting the future. Every day, over 50 million Americans consult readings in 1,200 newspapers. For that day they can find a prediction that is determined solely by the arrangement of planets on the day of their birth. There are now supposed to be 10,000 full-time astrologers in America and 175,000 working part-time.

“Astro-philosophers” claim the stars impel but do not compel. This does not, however, change the fact that astrology propounds a thinly veiled fatalism. People want to know what will happen to them more often to escape responsibility for their behavior—marred as it is with frustration and failure—than to be spurred on to great moral efforts. What will be will be, so let us make the most of it—this is the gospel of astrology.

Prophets forecasting doom and destruction have always abounded. But during the 1960s some were taken seriously and began making the news. In 1965, Ruth Montgomery’s book on seer Jeane Dixon, A Gift of Prophecy, stayed on best-seller lists for months. Mrs. Dixon is most famous for her prediction in 1956 that “a blond Democratic president will be elected in 1960 and will die in office.” Rather unspecific, but not bad as prophecies go. Edgar Cayce, who died in 1945, was another prophet who came to prominence in the 1960s. No fewer than five books were published in that decade on this sleeping prophet, who had been able to diagnose and treat all kinds of illnesses while asleep. His Association for Research and Enlightenment, a hospital and school in Virginia Beach, Virginia, has attracted thousands in recent years. Last but not least, biblical prophets have been given a fresh hearing—and not only by Christians. Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, published in 1970, has sold more than six million copies in six years.

Is pragmatic, hard-headed America turning into a nation of mystics? Can such a practical people give serious attention to prophets? Do we really believe the astrological creed that “certain vibrations inbreathed by a newly born babe endow the tendencies of character it will manifest” (Llewellyn George) and that a decisive influence on the earth is exerted by the stars? Perhaps this is a part of the current interest in Eastern thought. For in Asia, astrology is a natural corollary of the prevailing world view. There is a feeling for the underlying harmony of all things, a harmony all men wish to share. All of this is attractive to Western man as he tries to pull together the fragmented strands of his existence.

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But this Eastern influence does not account for the phenomenal recent interest in predicting the future. To understand this we must look into history, and take the time to reflect on some lessons it suggests. There have been two periods of history before our own when this fascination for astrology has been felt: the late Greek or Hellenistic period, and the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The first time this essentially Eastern preoccupation came into our Western tradition was in the Hellenistic period of ancient Greece (c. 300 to 200 B.C.). It is instructive to notice the conditions under which this took place. By the time of Plato (d. 347 B.C.), traditional religion in Greece was dying. The people had lost touch with their classical mythology. No longer were there gods to turn to who had struggled and suffered like men and who thereby lent meaning to human striving. Encouraged by the Platonic philosophy, people turned to the worship of heavenly bodies. With the rise of Macedonia, the social structure of the city states disintegrated; and while the empire of Alexander was at its zenith, the social and spiritual vacuum was the most threatening. The Stoics and Epicureans bravely fought against the rise of superstition, but in vain. During the reign of Alexander (336–323 B.C.) the first instruction in astrology took place. Of course, the astral theology of the Platonists had prepared the way, but it was Persian influence that introduced the worship of the seven planets. By the early second century, astrological manuals abounded.

What was happening? As E. R. Dodds explains it, empty thrones were calling out to be filled. Religion in the traditional sense still existed, but, much like Christianity (and Judaism) today, it was routine and without influence on the values of life. And as G. K. Chesterton has said, when a man ceases to believe in God (or gods), he doesn’t believe in nothing—he believes in anything.

Another way of looking at this is to say that the Greeks experienced a failure of nerve, as Gilbert Murray suggests in The Five Stages of Greek Religion. Man saw himself alone in a world in which he had no allies. There were no more gods appreciative of human effort. It was natural that astrology, which is essentially a surrender to chance, should become popular. Murray comments on this in a way relevant to modern America; “It is worth remembering that the best seed-ground for superstition is a society in which the fortunes of men seem to bear practically no relation to their merits and efforts.” Such is the feeling of man standing alone, stripped of the comfort of faith. Dodds concludes that the individual turned tail and bolted from his own freedom.

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Early Christianity fought this religion of fate. It is possible that Paul’s reference to the stoicheia (elements) in Colossians 2:8 may refer to the mystic signs of the planets. Some early Christians, however, took more interest in the stars than was healthy, though the early Church Fathers inveighed against the practice. Augustine denounced belief in the influence of the stars as inconsistent with the Christian view of God and man, and his view became official in the Church.

The Church in the Middle Ages did not keep itself completely pure, however. As a result of the barbarian invasions, the Teutonic belief in fate penetrated medieval theology. In a celebrated incident occurring in 1108, the archbishop of York was refused Christian burial because a book of astrology had been found under his pillow. Thomas Aquinas and Dante, while preserving human freedom, allowed the stars some influence over man’s activities. Since much of classical antiquity was rediscovered through Arabic sources, a great deal of astrology was imported along with it. Chairs of astrology were established in all the leading universities, and strange and terrifying prophecies abounded.

That the sixteenth century marked the peak of this second great rise of astrology and prophetic speculation is not without significance. Even the most religious men included the influence of the stars in their creed. It was a day of synthesis when neo-Platonism, Greek mythology, and Christian theology were joined in uneasy alliance. Philip Melanchthon, the famous disciple of Luther, occupied the chair of astrology in Wittenberg. How Christians could allow such superstition can be illustrated by a treatise from the period called Astrology Theologized: The Spiritual Hermeneutics of Astrology and Holy Writ. In this treatise, astrology is equated with the light of nature that belongs to our present earthly life, whereas theology is seen as a spiritual understanding, arising from within by the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

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But why should this revival of prophetic interest have occurred in the sixteenth century? Wasn’t that the period of the rebirth of learning and scholarship? The Renaissance was that, but it was more. As in ancient Greece and in our own day, the outward splendor merely concealed a deep-seated spiritual crisis.

Medieval man had sought and found a harmonious hierarchical system in which each part of life and the world had meaning in the grand scheme of salvation. His world view, imaginatively captured in Dante’s Divine Comedy, was like a journey in which all the stages reassuringly fit together. With the Renaissance and the Reformation, the unity was broken: strange new factors called for attention, and man’s place in the scheme of things was no longer secure. Violent social upheavals, manifested in peasant wars and the sack of Rome in 1527, threatened the whole social structure. With the rediscovery of classical form, humanists proclaimed a new day for the individual man, but it was a solitary man facing life without the traditional supports. As in our own day, the Christian faith, while still accepted in principle, ceased for many to be a vital principle of living. In the uncertainty many more began to look to the stars.

The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century heralded the end of astrological speculation. Man was coming of age, comfortable in this world and unconcerned about the next. Strange, then, that in our own highly sophisticated century we should again wish to believe in the influence of stars. Wars and economic collapses have called into question the humanistic ideals of the Enlightenment, and for a third time the question has become insistent: Who am I and what am I to make of myself?

It is the Christian view that history leads somewhere and has an end. The Christian view proposes, moreover, that a personal and loving God directs history’s course, has acted decisively in it in Jesus Christ, and stands at its end. For the believing Christian, then, it is precisely because an all-wise God is directing history that the moral and scientific efforts of man make any sense. Because we live in a moral order that has direction, we can work for truth and goodness. Since Hegel (mediated by Marx and Darwin), our Western view of progress has been secularized. We cannot bring ourselves to believe history is going nowhere (that it is cyclical, for example, as the Greeks believed). Yet, if there is direction, either it must be implicit in the whole process (determined) or it must be provided by ourselves.

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Alvin Toffler has predicted a future of ever-increasing change and transience, assuring us with the certainty that only a prophet with credentials would claim: “The nature of what can and will be done exceeds anything that man is yet psychologically and morally prepared to live with.” Whatever the exact shape of the future, it is coming. And Toffler, in true prophetic style, writes to help create the consciousness man will need to guide his evolution. Charles Reich sees the dawning of “consciousness three” as the next (final?) level. George Leonard, in The Transformation, sees man advancing into a state of higher being, of oneness with all existence. The keynote of all these excursions into the future is inevitability. One may join the march or not, but that it has direction is sure. Leonard’s book is significantly subtitled “A Guide to the Inevitable Changes in Mankind.”

It was precisely this point that bothered poet Archibald MacLeish at the beginning of World War II. He felt himself living in a generation of prophets. They were all prophets of doom. But this bothered him far less than their fatalism. “Our generation fled to fate,” he explains, “not by opposing it … but by searching it out in order that we might yield to it … not only our responsibilities but our will.” Then with a perception that recalls the decline of faith in ancient Greece and our own secularism: “We fled to fate—we invented a fate of our own—to escape a world which had grown too large for us, a world too complicated to understand, too huge to know.” No science or education has equipped us to deal with the world’s complexities, and real faith has become inoperative.

Against this background, the revival of interest in biblical prophecy is to be seen. As MacLeish was writing, many Christians were busy identifying Mussolini with the Antichrist of Revelation and the Axis powers with the revived Roman Empire. Charts of biblical events were prepared to show how God was working out his program. It is, of course, a great comfort for the believer to trust in God’s direction. But great comfort can easily become a crutch or even an escape. If it is true that prophecy is concerned only with the actions of God, it can easily follow in our thinking that what we do does not really matter. The biblical view is that what God does is always vitally related to what man does. Prophecy is not merely prediction; it is judgment and it is promise.

We have noticed that the rise of astrology and prophetic speculation has its origin in the feeling of helplessness. Events that occur around the individual seem to bear no relation to his efforts. Astrology offers the perfect ritual for such a “theology.” But the danger is that Christians, experiencing this same sense of helplessness in the face of world events, may replace astrology with biblical prophecy. Unknowingly, they may simply be giving fatalism a Christian veneer.

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In 1958, when the current interest in prophecy was growing, a prominent popular magazine ran a series on biblical prophecy written by theologians of different persuasions. The evangelical contribution concluded with this paragraph: “The study of Bible prophecy is difficult but rewarding. God has revealed many facets of His plan. How thrilling it is to watch events as they unfold, and see the working of His mighty hand.” “Watch it coming”—an admonition very different from that of the Apostle Paul: “But as to times and seasons, brethren, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:1–2).

It is no coincidence that the publication of Hal Lindsey’s first book on prophecy coincided with the greatest revival of astrology in three hundred years. (It is interesting to note how often his book appears in bookstores alongside astrology manuals.) Man can escape as easily into prophecy as into astrology. In either case, he is a pawn and thus relieved of moral responsibility. That this was no part of Lindsey’s purpose is clear from the final pages of his book. Certainly God has used his treatment to lead many to a commitment to Christ, and for this God is to be praised. But we must be careful that our longing for Christ’s return is not motivated by a desire to escape responsibility.

One writer, in castigating all prophetic, optimistic views of the future, makes a statement that Christians would do well to ponder: “Those with a vested interest in … Armageddon, like any devout fundamentalist, find comfort in the thought of an approaching dies irae (day of wrath) on which the faithful will at last be recognized when and where it really counts.” How often one hears: “Praise God, the end is coming soon” with just such an implication.

Once I was approached after a service at which I had preached by a member of the congregation who exclaimed: “What a joy to think Christ is coming soon and the last battle will take place!” “Can you really say that gladly,” I answered, “when you know that battle will send thousands or millions to a Christless eternity?” “Well,” he responded, “it’s inevitable, isn’t it?”

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That, I believe, is fatalism and not Christian truth. Indeed the end is certain, and we yearn to see Christ, but we do not long for his judgment. Nor is judgment “inevitable”; one has only to recall the story of Jonah and Nineveh. Above all, the thought of Christ’s coming should motivate us to compassion, to a more diligent gospel proclamation, and to greater righteousness.

It is important to remember that the New Testament was written at a time when belief in fate was widespread. The geocentric view of the world led to a common acceptance of the belief that events were governed by the stars. Ralph P. Martin believes that the great passage Philippians 2:5–11 was addressed to people living in just such an atmosphere. He writes: “It assures us that the character of the God whose will controls the universe is to be spelled out in terms of Jesus Christ. He is no arbitrary power, no capricious force, no pitiless indifferent fate. His nature is love. His title to Lordship can be interpreted only in terms of self-denying service for others.”

This Person is the same today as when Paul wrote these words, and his continued Lordship provides meaning not only for our evangelism but also for our moral, educational, and scientific endeavors, for all of these reflect his glory.

Clearly, the escape into prophecy and astrology reflects the identity crisis brought about by a spiritual vacuum. Never has this vacuum been more evident than today. The proper response is not to offer an escape—even if it is into a quasi-Christian view of the future—but rather to proclaim the Christian view of man. Here, Christianity provides for a vital present relationship with the living Christ, and a day-to-day dependence on him. Only in this context can we sincerely pray the prayer of Revelation: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” For the Person who offers personal fulfillment is the Lord of the future.

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