With movies, mini-series and hordes of books on end-times themes jostling for attention in the final days before Y2K, we've all got Revelation on the brain. Tonight at 9 p.m. (or check your local listings), we'll also get it on PBS in the newest "Frontline" documentary, "Apocalypse!"

The first half of this two-hour special, from the same people who created "From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians," aims to show viewers how apocalyptic thought evolved over the centuries in which the Bible was written. The second half examines how apocalyptic writings have been interpreted (or, more specifically, misinterpreted) in the centuries since. Throughout, quick cuts between pontificating scholars and authentic Middle East scenes communicate the notion that eschatological concepts did have roots in physical experience, but the magic of television also tempts the viewer to take some shaky intellectual leaps and, like many of the scholars, draw connections that just aren't there.

First, a disclaimer: Not one of the dozen or more scholars interviewed believes the Bible is what it says it is. In their view, the whole biblical text is a disjointed attempt by Jews to constantly reinvent themselves and their narratives to fit their experiences and accommodate outside influences. The Babylonian exile forced Jews to hope, for the first time, that God would one day redeem the earth. Dualism, the eternal conflict between good and evil, was borrowed from Zoroastrianism in about 500 BC. Angels and demons wandered over from Hellenistic myths. Daniel must have been written much later than originally assumed, because some of its prophecies actually came true. Jesus and John the Baptist were on roughly equal footing as apocalyptic preachers, and doubtless they were sorely disappointed when the kingdom of heaven didn't swoop down and turn the world order on its head. Revelation wasn't written by John the Apostle at all, but by an unknown radical preacher who went to Patmos on an evangelistic tour and somehow got stuck there.

So the biblical scholarship leaves a lot to be desired. They could have at least mentioned that other views exist instead of slinging the nebulous phrase, "but modern scholars say … " Anyway, enough of my soapbox.

The second half of the documentary is much better than the first. By chronicling the rise and fall of various Revelation interpretations, it appropriately calls into question ideas a twentieth-century Christian might believe spring "right from the text." Montanus, in about 172, was the first to adamantly proclaim that the Second Coming was coming soon and anyone who didn't agree was blaspheming the Holy Spirit. German mystic Hildegard of Bingen painted the most complete early picture of a monstrous anti-Christ, then other artists of the Middle Ages were the first to depict him as deceptively Christlike. The earliest known dispensation-style chart of history was created by Joachim of Fiore in the late twelfth century.

Augustine, though he fought for inclusion of Revelation in the Bible, had already tried to quell the guessing game by denying that the book was meant to be taken literally. "He sort of puts it on tranquilizers," says scholar Paul Boyer in the documentary. "And this becomes the position of the church historically, and in fact pretty much down to the present." The official church position, yes, but not the position taken by all. From Martin Luther, Thomas Muntzer, William Miller, and John Nelson Darby up through David Koresh and televangelist John Hagee, people have been matching up current events and people with Revelation's predictions. This documentary's sketches of these men's beliefs and their impact are quick, insightful, and less biased than the segments on the Bible and its writers.

If you do catch "Apocalypse!" on TV, I'd suggest keeping Christian History issue 61 (The End) and Christianity Today's most recent Bible issue ("Revelation Now," October 25, 1999) handy. Having those magazines open on your coffee table or your Web browser should help you remember that, no matter how confident the PBS pundits sound, the case is not yet closed on Revelation.

Reprinted with permission from this week's Christian History newsletter. To subscribe to Christian History's weekly newsletter, which also includes "This Week in Christian history," visit www.christianhistory.net.

Related Elsewhere

One of the best things about PBS's shows are its Internet tie-ins, and Frontline's "Apocalypse" is no exception. Its site offers more in-depth interviews with scholars, a pictorial chronology of apocalyptic thought, an online roundtable assessing "apocalypticism and the American psyche," and analyses of interpretations of Revelation and Antichrist.