Joe, Donald, Daniel, Dragons, Doom and Dispensationalism

Sure, there are conspiracies out there. The travesty of hot dogs sold in packs of eight and buns in packs of six – forcing you to buy 3 packs of hotdogs and 4 packs of buns to balance the equation – is well documented. Just another way ‘Big Sausage’ and ‘Big Bakery’ conspire against us. But then, there’s the one about the satanic paedophile ring that’s mere moments from seizing control of the government, held at bay by Donald Trump, the angel of light. Or the one about the party that orchestrated an election steal across multiple state lines and involving state secretaries, high-ranking election officials and federal justices. This party was able to wield the awesome power necessary to do this, despite appearing hopelessly inept on almost every other occasion. Faceless men. Sinister motives. False flags. Deep states.

Now, speaking as a Jesus follower, I’d love to say that Christians aren’t susceptible to these ridiculous theories. But we all know by now that’s not true. And considering our relatively recent history, it’s not surprising either.

By ‘relatively recent history’, I mean the last 150 years or so, when American Christianity has been caught in the throes of the ‘theology’ of dispensationalism (Yes, American Christianity. Outside America, notwithstanding a few pockets of survivors here and there, it died a merciful death). Dispensationalism (at least the version I grew up with) foresees a coming seven-year ‘Great Tribulation’, during which a one-world government will emerge under the power of the Antichrist (a sexy, silken-voiced hypnotist, who will deceive the entire world), demanding worship from acolytes who will take his mark on their right hands or foreheads, and unleashing dreadful persecution, eliciting a wrathful response from the Almighty. In acts of violent judgement, God will visit waves of Armageddon-2012-San Andreas-Deep Impact-Dante’s Peak mash-up disasters upon the earth, until at last, Jesus returns to take names and kick ass, spilling rivers of blood and banishing every villain to the seventh level of hell.

What’s the connection to conspiracy thinking? For one thing, the entire system of dispensationalism is built on a coded puzzle of biblical texts, awkwardly cobbled together and (mis)interpreted to arrive at the narrative related above. You start with apocalyptic texts like Daniel and Revelation, then you ‘Tetris’ in a few pieces from Matthew, 1 and 2 Thessalonians and maybe even 2 Peter. As you’d expect, the only ones who can ‘see’ how all these texts fit together are the true believers.

Now, there are sound theologians like Ben Witherington, or N.T. Wright, or Craig Keener, or any of a host of others, who interpret these texts and passages in their appropriate contexts and produce far more subdued pictures of the end of days, the return of Christ and the judgements of God. But where’s the fun in that? You don’t generate 16 (!) novels in the Left Behind series without gripping suspense (sort of – I mean, it’s Left Behind, not Edgar Allen Poe), international intrigues, dark conspiracies, and eye-popping supernatural events. And we Christians have loved to imagine ourselves as key players in this kind of riveting tale.

So we’ve spent years scanning the headlines, or listening to so-called prophets and attending End Times prophecy conferences, or reading the latest eschatological gossip from dispensationalist magazines, or trawling the internet, all in search of critical clues that the end is nigh – blood moons, vulture egg numbers in the Middle East, election results, imperceptible shifts in the geopolitical landscape – and marvelling at how ‘it’s all coming together’.

Of course, if it is ‘all coming together’ into a hell-spawned universal dictatorship, there must be a shadowy cabal of bad actors working behind the scenes to orchestrate all of this as we speak, opposed only by the forces of light, God’s chosen and America’s patriots. Unbeknownst to anyone but the watchful, the legions of darkness and the armies of God are moving their pieces into position. The faces of the pieces in this high-octane drama are subject to change. When I was a kid, it was the Soviets who filled the role of the villains, with Gorbachev as the Antichrist (Glasnost didn’t fool us!). Then, it was Muslims. These days, I suppose Democrats are Satan’s blunt instruments and Joe Biden is the Antichrist. Which would make Donald Trump the anti-Antichrist, although when you think about it, the anti-Antichrist is just Christ and while some Christians may have anointed him ‘Jesus’ Special Helper’, even they aren’t ready to presume Trump is Jesus himself. I hope.

Hall of Antichrists

When you consider our years of ingesting the sensationalist theology of dispensationalism, it’s not too difficult to see how we American Christians have been primed to latch on to conspiracy theories about nefarious, all-powerful syndicates pulling strings behind the scenes, about wholesale media complicity, about stolen elections. (Ironic, too, considering the prevalence of the Antichrist figure in this theology, that we’ve so happily lined up behind who preaches these extravagant theories.)

The Warriors of Light

But, as noted above, there are far more sober and indeed orthodox ways to read these texts, most notably, Daniel and Revelation.

These books fall (at least partially) under the genre we call ‘apocalypse’ – from a Greek word meaning ‘to reveal’. Apocalyptic literature isn’t really about destruction; it purports to pull back the curtain on the unseen world to reveal to readers the spiritual realities behind earthly developments.

In both Daniel and Revelation, the speaker sees visions of evil beasts that arise from the sea and the earth, representing great empires of the world (In Revelation, the beast is clearly empowered by ‘the dragon’, Satan himself). The message of Daniel and Revelation is that all empires, all political systems stand against the kingdom of God. But in the end, the kingdom of God prevails:

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”

Revelation 11:5

How does that kingdom prevail? It’s clear in the symbolism of Revelation that Jesus conquers the world’s kingdoms and empires, not through weapons, anger, strength, violence, or brutality, but through his own blood, his own sacrifice, his own word. And his people overcome in the same manner:

But they have conquered [the dragon] by the blood of the Lamb
    and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.

Revelation 12:11

That’s why seeing ‘Christian’ statements asserting God’s support by some participating in last week’s Capitol violence should distress us. More time carefully reading the powerful imagery of Revelation and significantly less time scouring for overblown conspiracies might just help us to remember who we really serve and what that service should look like.


Image Credits:

  1. Feature image: Beast image at https://images.app.goo.gl/awesYCUC96uNZjg69; Donald Trump image and Joe Biden from Wikipedia
  2. Images of Mikhail Gorbachev, Pope Francis, Joe Biden, Ronald Reagan, Tim Tebow, Donald Trump all from Wikipedia.
  3. Image of Mickey Mouse from D23.com at https://images.app.goo.gl/Hb5HjYLFPPwi3CU1A
  4. Image of Gung Ho (G.I. Joe figure) from eBay,com at https://images.app.goo.gl/VqDv9uvYPprneFQj6

6 Comments

    1. Yes! And if I remember correctly, there were a few follow ups. The beauty of these ‘End Times prophets’ has always been that, when their ‘prophecies’ don’t eventuate, they’re in no way discouraged. They simply rearrange and recalculate to show that their timing was just a bit off.

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