Prophecy and Patterns

Prophecy and Patterns
When I was a kid, every classroom I was in had maps and charts that pulled down in front of the blackboard at the front of the room. Whether it was a Sunday School room or a classroom at the Christian school I attended, there was one chart I remember seeing most. It was a timeline of history that focused on the end of time – the “tribulation,” as we called it.

I grew up in the heart of Dispensationalism. I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. We didn’t often talk about it by name. We just read the Bible the “right” way and “took it at its word.”

Dispensationalism was the first attempt at constructing a “biblical theology” – which doesn’t mean a theology based on the Bible so much as a theology which takes the whole Bible into account. But what we focused on most was “eschatology” – the study of the end times, particularly from the book of Revelation.

Dispensationalist eschatology tells a story, and a gripping story at that (as the success of the “Left Behind” series of books that was based on it illustrates).

There will come a time when a political leader will arise who is the very antithesis of Jesus – the “Antichrist.” He will convince people, including the people of God, that he is committed to their interests, and they will be grateful for him. But there are forces of evil behind him, and the people of God (along with everyone else) will be destroyed, except a remnant of those who resisted him and will be saved by Jesus in the end.

The Antichrist is a deceiver and manipulator who presents himself as a savior. But he is a false savior who is the very opposite of Jesus.

In the version of Dispensationalism I was taught, all the true believers would be raptured up into heaven before things got that bad, but the “rapture” isn’t part of the story Revelation tells.

The Antichrist was the boogeyman of my childhood, which is not to make light of him. He was (and is) a deeply scary figure to be taken very seriously.

Which is why I have been baffled to see so many of the folks who taught me about him support or at least defend Donald Trump over the past months.

I am not saying that Donald Trump is the Antichrist who brings about the end of days. The Bible speaks of multiple antichrists – false saviors – who will come. And Revelation is a unique genre of writing called “apocalyptic literature,” which should not be understood as straightforward prophecy in symbolic language.

More than a road map for the End, Revelation is describing a pattern for how God’s people – as well as everyone else – will be deceived and destroyed. Such leaders have come before, and they will come again.

I’ve just never seen a political figure in my lifetime fit that pattern like Trump. In his personal behavior, leadership, and in the powers behind him, what I was warned about is clearly on display, supported and defended by the very people who warned me. (And he hasn’t even tried very hard to cater to them.) He is a deceiver, ready to turn justice, right, and truth upside down and inside out to serve his own interests.

I don’t believe we are fated to see the pattern play out, though.

The other message of the Book of Revelation, the more central message, in whatever way you interpret the book, is that Jesus is King. Jesus is the Victor.

Jesus is the good news in a book full of dire warnings and deadly news.

And the people the Bible calls “the Body of Christ,” those who are willing to be “little Christs” (the original meaning of the word “Christian”) in this world, can be that good news in the face of any Antichrist that shows up.

Defending the voiceless and the vulnerable. Speaking truth in the face of power and privilege. Standing up for the kind of love Jesus exemplified – “to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to deliver those who are crushed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19 quoting Isaiah 61:1-2).

The pattern will always repeat. But so does the good news.