The books of Daniel and Revelation are of the apocalyptic genre, a unique literary form peculiar to the age in which they were written. Often described as crisis literature, they clearly were spawned during times of great stress in history when the only solution seemed to call for God’s intervention in the affairs of humankind.
The first apocalyptic prophet
The fall of the monarchy, the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple (587 BCE) led Ezekiel (Ch. 1-3; 37) into the apocalyptic because of despair of salvation within history. His anticipation of a new Israel (40-48), the use of four living creatures, eating scrolls, the harlot, measuring the temple and other strange imagery became a precedent for later apocalyptic writings.
After the exile to Babylon and their return home the Israelites were relatively free to practice their Judaism under the rule of the Persian and Ptolemaic empires, but under the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes a program to Hellenize them was instituted. Their religion was banned resulting in a violent persecution that is recorded in I and II Maccabees.
It was at this time that Daniel was written (167 BCE). The four beasts (Ch. 7) stand for the pagan empires of Babylon, the Medes, the Persian, and the Greeks that also was represented in the four metals of the statue in ch. 2. The tenth horn (7:8) stood for Antiochus IV, their oppressor. There are cryptic numerals used which later apocalyptic speculators worked into their scheme of the end time.
First century apocalypticism
The Church emerged in the midst of an apocalyptic boom. In the first century there were eighteen or more Jewish books written in that genre read by both Christians and Jews. The Dead Sea scrolls contained their end of the world scenario.
Palestine was under the domination of Rome and was looking for a Messiah to bring freedom. The writings of the Church (Gospels and letters) clearly reveal a Messianic expectation (Parousia). Mark 13 (parallels Mt. 24 and Lk. 21) has been called the little apocalypse and the sayings are attributed to Jesus. Many scholars believe that it was circulated as a separate tract and the evangelist added it to his Gospel reworking it into its present form, then attributing it to Jesus. The letters of Paul reveal his anticipation of the parousia.
Revelation was written shortly after the brutal Neronian persecution. It presents in cryptic words a partial history of those terrible times. Nero was the Antichrist, 666 (13:18). It promised the parousia was at hand! It didn’t occur. From then on the Church was content to accept Jesus’ spiritual presence (realized eschatology).
Reformers and open season on the Bible!
During the Reformation the reformers declared open season on the Bible. All restrictions and guidelines were removed. Over the years there were many false prophets with their scenarios of the end-time based on millenarianism. In the U.S. a Baptist layman, William Miller, using Daniel and Revelation, set the date for March 31, 1943. He was wrong! He then placed all bets on October 22, 1944. You know the answer! The Seventh Day Adventists grew from this. Joseph Smith said that the Latter Day Saints would reign with Christ a thousand years on earth. This form of millenarianism is present in most apocalyptic scenarios. The Russellites (Jehovah Witnesses) expected the end in 1918. They have set several dates since. The Assemblies of God in their Pentecostal Evangel (Nov. 28, 1925) expected the end in 1934 and again in the 1980’s.
The invention of the Rapture
If one accepts Revelation as a literal scenario of the end times, there is only one reference to the second coming of Christ and that occurs after all the calamities and catastrophies occur (19:11-16). All believers and others must go through these horrible events.
A startling new angle to the end-time scenario was introduced by John Darby, an ex-Anglican cleric. On several trips to the U.S. from England in the 1850’s, he argued that there would be a secret lifting up of the believers to heaven based on Mt. 24: 40-42; 1 Thess. 4: 16-17 thus escaping the calamities of the end. These passages refer to the parousia. The Left Behind books are based on this false doctrine which is rejected by the Church and most Protestant churches and scholars.
Lindsey in the Late Great Planet Earth predicted the end for the 1980’s. Billy Graham said in 1950, “We may have a year or two to work for Christ, and then it will be over.” Falwell’s Liberty College spreads the rapture myth. Pat Robertson said in June 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon that Russia would attack Israel and the world would be in flames. “It’s all in the Bible!” The year 2000 produced the Y2K scare and other doom sayers.
There has also been the lunatic fringe such as Koresh and the Waco, Jim Jones and the Kool-Aid cocktail, the Heaven’s Gate sect, and other misguided victims.
The Roman catechism says these teachings “are the Antichrist’s deception” and rejects all forms of millenarianism (paragraph 676).