Dodge: The End of History

By Kevin Dodge (email)

William Miller was a nineteenth-century Christian teacher who attracted many followers with his message of an imminent apocalypse. Drawing on the Jeffersonian idea that people should discover for themselves what was true, Miller befuddled mainstream clergy by encouraging followers to use common sense to interpret biblical prophecy. By reading the Bible “literally,” one could have a blueprint for the end of history.

Miller drew on an obscure reference in the book of Daniel that “for 2,300 evenings and mornings, then the sanctuary shall be restored to its rightful state” (Dan 8.14). Translating days into years and setting his starting point at the command to rebuild the temple in BC 457, Miller calculated the world would end on March 21, 1843. When this prediction failed, Miller moved his date ahead one year to October 22, 1844. Once again, his prediction failed and his movement collapsed.

As Nathan Hatch has pointed out in his well-regarded book, The Democratization of American Christianity, the implication of Millerism was that any Christian with a Bible could fend off the most learned scholar. By employing the Bible to argue against “human opinion,” anti-authoritarian assumptions seeped deeply into the American church. In the twentieth century, this perhaps hastened the decline of mainline denominations in favor of quasi-independent churches with looser authority structures.

One of the great ironies of our day is that Christian organizations who most loudly declare themselves to be “biblical” are sometimes most at odds with historical Christian teaching. Scores of Christians will never receive instruction on the Trinity, the divine-human natures of Christ, the centrality of the Sacraments or the hope of resurrection. Many Christians reject the Creeds, the central symbols of Christian belief, for being “man-made.” A further irony is that this democratic decentralization may be one reason why Americans are still so religious. By “marketing” religion, some churches have effectively replaced Christian teaching with religious entertainment.

The central problem with the loss of Christian teaching is it inevitably results in a loss of hope. Every week, we declare that “we look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” This is Christian hope in a nutshell.

Those who employ the Bible to peddle certainty about the end of the world are suspect. If history has shown anything, Christians can make the Bible justify all kinds of claims. Whether it’s using the Bible to support slavery, to end prohibitions on usury or to justify the overthrow of King George in the Revolutionary War, the Bible can always be employed to support what we already want to do.

In a postmodern world suspicious of religious claims and hyper-focused on power relationships, this will always be the case. What we must never lose is our hope in the eventual return of Christ since this is the point of prophecy. Prophecy doesn’t exist to dazzle us with “wars and rumors of wars.” Prophecy is there to bring us hope, hope for a world set right by its creator.

Categories: Between Sundays, Uncategorized