John's apocalyptic vision in the Book of Revelation first caught my attention as a young student at UCLA in the late sixties. It was a wild, wonderful, worrisome time to be in school. The war in Vietnam was raging, and war protests regularly punctuated a day at the university. I remember the daily hum of police helicopters hovering over hot spots in Westwood, periodic sweeps by the Los Angeles Police Department across campus, and the agitated, turbulent, urgent words of speakers on the free-speech platform just off Bruin Walk. The issue of the day might be the war itself or it could range across topics from economics and politics to philosophy, music, or sex.
What I most vividly recall, though, is the deeply felt urgency of the times. Many students sensed they stood on the edge of history; discussions and debates, religious or not, often had an apocalyptic tone. The world seemed tilted on edge, off-kilter, out of balance. The conflict over the war in Vietnam revealed cracks in American moral underpinnings, at least from the perspective of the young. Students opposed to the war insisted that it end immediately. Others felt just as strongly that those opposing the war were disloyal, cowardly sentimentalists, unaware of political realities. Whether for or against the war, many students sensed that life in America was changing: politically, morally, spiritually.
It was a time of extremes, of deep darkness and bright light and, surprisingly, of opportunity for the gospel, for unexpectedly, in the midst of this screwy, sexually overheated, violent world the gospel found a ready audience. Where? Precisely among young people who were longing to find a point of moral and spiritual clarity and stability, a rock in the midst of the storm, truth in the midst of the falsehoods of both the Right and Left, forgiveness in the midst of an increasingly jaded culture. Christ presented himself in the guise of street preachers such as "Holy Hubert" at Berkeley and singers like Larry Norman in Los Angeles. More conventional ministries, such as Campus Crusade for Christ, attracted some. Some less conventional groups, such as the Christian World Liberation Front at Cal, reached others. The revival known as the Jesus movement broke out on college campuses and rippled through the counterculture.
What I learned from Hal
I first heard the gospel in a context, manner, and form I could understand from a former tugboat captain named Hal Lindsey. Every Wednesday night, students from UCLA gathered at the Light and Power House, a former college fraternity house on the fringes of the campus, to hear Hal teach the Bible. Some students came from evangelical backgrounds. Many more were from nominal Christian or secular homes. Hal, often dressed in a tank top, blue jeans, and leather boots, walked us through the Bible. I recall, almost wistfully, the sense of excitement, intensity, and urgency we felt as Hal linked the Scripture to our world, our dilemmas, our questions. He possessed a gift for linking the simplicity of the gospel to our longing for truth and our interest in discerning how Christ's work and words were connected to life in the wacky world of the sixties. And of course, Hal's interest in biblical prophecy fed into the wider apocalyptic fervor of the youth culture and American culture at large.
As a young Christian, I possessed only vague recollections from childhood that Jesus had said he would come again. Words, phrases, and symbols such as Rapture, Great Tribulation, pretribulation, posttribulation, millennium, Antichrist, Beast, and 666 were entirely new to me. As Hal interpreted apocalyptic images from Daniel and Revelation, a new world opened up—a world that God controlled, even in its worst moments, and promised both to redeem and judge. Tremendous hope and fervor enveloped me and other students.
As Hal explained matters, Jesus could come at any time for his church. Indeed, Hal argued, the signs indicating the imminent arrival of the last times had been fulfilled when Israel regained its status as a nation in 1948. The retaking of Jerusalem in the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab enemies only further confirmed God's timetable. And this had just occurred! Soon, according to Hal's timetable, the Rapture would occur, the Antichrist would be revealed, the Great Tribulation would break out, and finally, Christ would return to establish his millennial kingdom for a thousand years.
The ideas we first heard from Hal on Wednesday nights at the Light and Power House soon made their way into print in The Late Great Planet Earth, which now has more than 35 million copies in print (The New Millennium Manual, Baker). Only the Bible itself has outsold Hal's simple, dispensational, premillennial explanation of the church's hope for Christ's return. Hal had unexpectedly uncovered a deep vein of eschatological and apocalyptic longing in the fundamentalist/evangelical subculture and in American culture at large. More important, perhaps, he knew how to package the dispensational eschatology he had learned at Dallas Theological Seminary in a fashion that Americans, many of them young, countercultural types emerging from the turbulent sixties, could understand and embrace.
What the Fathers taught me
What I didn't realize was that elements of Hal's premillennial perspective minus dispensational emphases—such as the distinct separation of Israel from the church in God's economy and a pretribulational Rapture—represented a distinguished though minority perspective in the history of Christian exegesis. Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist and martyr writing in the midsecond century A.D., was convinced that Christ was soon to return in triumph. This "great and terrible day" would include Christ's judgment of the entire world, his appearance in Jerusalem, and the destruction of "the man of sin." Why the delay in the return of Christ? Justin argued that "the number of the just" to be included in the kingdom was yet to be completed.
Christ's return, as understood by Justin, would result in great blessing for the saved, a beatitude to be enjoyed successively in two stages. First, believers in Jesus would possess and inhabit the land of Canaan, reigning there for one thousand years. Second, upon the completion of the thousand years, "the general, and, to put it briefly, eternal resurrection and judgment of all will … take place." Other passages in Justin seem to indicate that after this second resurrection the saints would eternally possess the Holy Land.
Significantly, Justin was convinced that the reality of Christ's coming and its attendant, severe judgments should be a spur to faithful, sober Christian living as the church waited for its Lord. Brian Daley, author of The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology, comments that he was convinced that Christians should be "marked out from the rest of pleasure-loving human society … by their conviction that the wicked will be punished in eternal fire, and the Christ-like just united with God, free from suffering. This is the reason Christians are truthful in affirming their faith, as well as the ground of their good citizenship and their ultimate fearlessness before the threat of persecution."
Irenaeus of Lyons, another church father writing in the late second century, also represents a broadly premillennial perspective, describing a two-stage resurrection in his great work Against Heresies. Stages were necessary, Irenaeus argues, because "it is fitting for the righteous first to receive the promise of the inheritance which God promised the fathers, and to reign in it, when they rise again to behold God in this creation which is renewed, and that the judgment should take place afterward." Daley points out that Irenaeus supports his interpretation on the basis of "many biblical passages that promise salvation to Israel in typical terms of peace, prosperity and material restoration, and he insists that these may not be allegorized away"—hence, the necessity of a 1,000-year period (see Rev. 20), followed by a general resurrection. God will cast the resurrected unbelievers into Gehenna's eternal fire and create the habitation of the saints, "a new heaven and a new earth."
As a young believer birthed during the Jesus movement, I knew nothing of Justin or Irenaeus. The model of exegesis I received, and in turn practiced myself, was a highly individualistic affair. With the help of a gifted teacher—in this case, Hal Lindsey—and supplementary interpretive tools, I felt prepared to unlock the eschatological mysteries of Daniel and Revelation. I was shockingly unaware of the Christians who had read, pondered, and interpreted these texts before me. In deed, a crippling aspect of the Jesus movement as a whole was its drastically shortened exegetical perspective, a theological and historical amnesia that continues to trouble sectors of the evangelical world. The idea of biblical interpretation as a communal, ecclesial function and practice never entered my mind. I am ashamed to admit that many of those who excitedly discussed prophetic time tables throughout the week, myself included, were asleep in bed on Sunday mornings. We simply saw little need for the church.
The teaching I received at the Light and Power House taught me much about Christ, grace, salvation, sin, human nature, and the great eschatological hope of the Christian, Christ's return. The dispensational substructure of Hal's eschatology, however, left little room for a developed ecclesiology. Most dispensationalists saw the church as a theological surprise, the unexpected result of Israel's rejection of the Messiah, a temporary characteristic of the interim "church age." It would be raptured before the Tribulation. Then God's salvific dealings with Israel would recommence during the Tribulation.
I ended up assuming that God's primary concern was with me and my personal salvation. The idea that my salvation was part of a larger, grander story, the formation of Christ's body the church—Christ's hands and feet in history and in the future—went largely unrecognized and unexpressed.
And so we waited, fine-tuning our prophecy charts but cut off by a short-sighted ecclesiology from the character-forming community of the church. Dispensational theology alone cannot be blamed for our anti-institutional bias. Many of the Jesus movement's new converts entered the kingdom deeply suspicious of institutional authorities. The great irony is that while we eagerly awaited Christ's return—an event that beckoned church fathers such as Irenaeus and Justin to issue a call to holiness and devotion—many in the Jesus movement in Los Angeles increasingly drifted into the abyss of self-indulgence: lax sexual conduct, materialism, divorce, substance abuse.
I myself battled nightmares over the divorce and remarriage of an admired teacher to a close friend. And yet my own life was in danger of drifting into moral anarchy. Eschatology and ethics had split apart. While we awaited the end, we had little idea of how to live in the present. We expected to be transported momentarily into the heavenly realms in a pretribulational Rapture, while we were simultaneously firmly nailed to this earth.
Church fathers, whether premillennialists such as Justin or Irenaeus, or amillenialists such as Augustine, would at best have been puzzled by this state of affairs—or, more likely, horrified. How could one simultaneously affirm the imminent return of Christ and live as though this world were a permanent residence rather than a pilgrim's way station? Augustine, in fact, contended in The City of God that the premillennialism advocated by earlier Christian teachers too easily fed the desire for material rather than spiritual delights. He clearly felt uncomfortable, probably because of his immersion in Platonic philosophy, with eschatological expectations that fed a desire for pleasures rooted in the material world. In referring to "Chiliasts," the ancient forerunners of the modern premillennialists, Augustine wrote:
that those people assert that those who have risen again will spend their rest in the most unrestrained material feasts, in which there will be so much to eat and drink that not only will those supplies keep within no bounds of moderation but will also exceed the limits even of incredibility. But this can only be believed by materialists; and those with spiritual interests give the name "Chiliasts" to the believers in this picture, a term which we can translate by a word derived from the equivalent Latin, "Millenarians."
Augustine, then, distanced himself from the premillennialism of Justin and Irenaeus, arguing that John's one thousand years "can be interpreted in two ways." The first possibility was that the thousand years represented the sixth day, or sixth millennium, based upon the Roman conception of history as "a cosmic week" of six ages. The second possible interpretation, one that Augustine himself seems to have supported more strongly, was that John "may have intended the thousand years to stand for the whole period of this world's history, signifying the entirety of time by a perfect number." As Brian Daley summarizes Augustine's thought, the thousand years come to represent "all the years of the Christian era." Most significantly, Augustine comes to identify the kingdom of God with the church in the world. During this thousand years the church struggles "against the forces of evil both outside and inside her own ranks."
Augustine's ecclesiological interpretation of Revelation 20 became the majority interpretive position, leading, as Daley puts it, to the "widespread tendency of later Latin theology to identify the Kingdom of God, at least in its first stage of existence, with the institutional Catholic church." Hence, while in dispensational premillennialism the church seems peripheral, in the development of Au gustinian amillenialism the church becomes identical with God's reign itself.
Among all the church fathers, though, whether the premillennialist minority or the amillennialist majority, unity ruled in the call to believers in the light of Christ's imminent coming. John Chrysostom, for example, archbishop of Constantinople in the late fourth century, firmly believed that Jesus' return to Earth was soon to take place. He identified the preaching of the gospel throughout the world as a sign of Jesus' imminent return. Chrysostom warned, though, of the dangers of an eschatological curiosity divorced from a life centered in the gospel. He reminded his listeners that with the consummation of the age would come the consummation of their own lives. Were they prepared to greet their Lord? Had their words and lives faithfully reflected the life of the One they so eagerly awaited? A life of Christian integrity far outweighed the value of a detailed prophecy chart. "Is not the consummation of the world, for each of us, the end of his own life? Why are you concerned and worried about the common end? … The time of consummation took its beginning with Adam, and the end of each of our lives is an image of the consummation. One would not be wrong, then, in calling it the end of the world."
The great divorce
Over a period of years, the energy of the Jesus movement spent itself, I think, largely because of the failure to develop structures to accommodate and nurture the thousands coming into the kingdom. Also, significant moral confusion characterized the movement as a whole in its waning years. We had spent countless hours analyzing and identifying the time of the Tribulation, the identity of the Antichrist, and whether the church would be raptured before, during, or after the Tribulation.
Important questions all, but deadly if contemplated ahistorically or in the midst of moral confusion. What was most significant, we had cut ourselves off from the very community—Christ's body the church—that could teach us how to live wisely and sanely as we waited for our Lord and provide the social context necessary for the developing, nurturing, and shaping of Christian character. We wanted our cake (Jesus to return) and to eat it too (to live however we wanted until he came back). Finally, this divorce between eschatology and ethics blew up in our faces.
Some walked away from the experience deeply conflicted and disillusioned. A few rejected the faith entirely. Others, after the healing of time, were able to recognize God's grace in the midst of our many mistakes and frequent hubris. Some, pastors such as Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel and Ray Stedman at Pennisula Bible Church, reaped lasting fruit, notably because of their commitment to the church built as the hub of biblical exposition and moral development.
I, for one, will always be grateful for the ex-tugboat captain who cared enough to take a wounded bird under his wing to share God's grace with him, even if I would later turn to other teachers and models—many from the earliest years of the church's history—to learn how to live in light of Christ's imminent return.
Chris Hall is associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Eastern College, Saint Davids, Pennsylvania, associate editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and author of Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (InterVarsity Press, 1998).
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