There has been a long history of people misunderstanding and misapplying biblical prophecy. The Jews preceded the church in misapplying prophecy. Convinced that a God-anointed King (Messiah) would lead them to military victory over the Romans and establish a dynasty that would bring Israel’s story to fulfillment, they ignored the warnings of both John the Baptist and Jesus that national repentance and purification would have to precede national restoration. Consequently they supported numerous military leaders and false messiahs
1 during the first and early second centuries, leading to the disastrous wars of AD 70 and 135.
In the second century, a Christian sect believed itself gifted with new revelation from the Holy Spirit. Montanism claimed that the end of the world was at hand and that the heavenly Jerusalem would be established in Phrygia (the base of the movement). Believing that the end of the world had almost arrived, this sect practiced extreme asceticism and became a serious threat to the life of the church.
As time continued, Christians repeatedly mistook the conditions of their day as the fulfillment of endtime prophecy and this continues to this day. Every generation of Christians rightfully thinks of itself as significant to God’s plan, and when unusual conditions arrive—especially periods of warfare, calamity, or any major cultural change or social upheaval—they usually see circumstances and individuals of their day fitting remarkably well with the symbols and images of biblical prophecy.
In the late Roman period, Attila’s Huns and the Germanic Goths were viewed by terrified Christians as “Gog and Magog,” and after the great defeat of the Roman Army at Adrianople, Bishop Ambrose of Milan declared: “The end of the world is coming upon us.”
The Crusades were a period of great eschatological expectation. The Encyclopedia Britannica states:
The eschatological strain of the Crusades can be noted in the Crusade sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux in 1147, who kindled enthusiasm to liberate Jerusalem with reference to the pressing terminal dates of the endtime.
During the Crusade period, many believed that Frederick II (who conquered Jerusalem in 1229) would usher in the millennium. Even after his death, people continued to believe he would return from the dead to establish the kingdom of righteousness (Frederick redivivus). Historian Paul S. Boyer writes that during this time period:
Manuscripts . . . complete with illustrations and elaborate charts (a staple of later prophecy writers as well), circulated through Europe and England, stimulating apocalyptic speculation. Further, . . . the material . . . linking the Jews explicitly to Antichrist helped to fuel an upsurge of anti-Semitism in late-medieval Europe (When Time Shall Be No More, p. 53).
During the early Reformation, large groups of Taborites in Bohemia and Anabaptists in Germany and the Low Countries held fanatical views of the imminence of the endtimes that resulted in armed rebellion against the religious and secular authorities, and some of the most horrible episodes of violence in Western history.
The major reformers too perceived themselves as standing on the verge of the apocalypse. They viewed the pope as an “internal antichrist” established in the temple at the holy place and the marauding Turkish Muslims as the “external antichrist.” During the 17th century, England was awash with prophetic speculation.2The English colonies in North America were also preoccupied with the endtime:
Puritans who traveled to America in the 17th century and Quakers, Baptists, and Methodists in the 18th century believed that America was the “wilderness” promised in the Revelation to John. William Penn gave the name Philadelphia to the capital of the woodland areas ceded to him (1681) because he took up the idea of establishing the true church of the end time, represented by the Philadelphia community of the Revelation to John. A great number of the attempts undertaken to found radical Christian communities in North America may be viewed as anticipations of the coming Jerusalem (Britannica, vol. 16, p. 301).
A cluster of radical apocalyptic movements appeared in the United States and England in the early to mid-19th century, leading to the rise of the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons, along with other cultic groups that are still large and growing today. Also in the mid-19th century, a heretical Christian cult took root in China, resulting in the Taiping Rebellion (1845–1864). The prophet/leader of this movement, Hong Xiuquan, combined social reforms with authoritarian, visionary leadership to create the largest uprising in human history, creating an army of over a million and directly bringing about the deaths of approximately 20 million people.
A large number of political, religious, and military circumstances in the early to mid-20th century made it appear almost certain to many premillennial observers that all the circumstances were in place for the imminent rise of the Antichrist, the false prophet, the rapture, and the beginning of the 7-year tribulation period. However, from the vantage point of the beginning of the 21st century, it is obvious that many of the boldly projected prophetic scenarios didn’t occur.
Evangelicals who have lived through these changes have learned through several generations of experience how misleading it can be to reach sweeping conclusions through prophetic interpretation of current events and how important it is to avoid dogmatism and undue speculation while remaining open to the possibilities. Today, the astonishing power of international bankers and corporations, the unprecedented rapidity of technological development, and the international tendency towards a world government offer many opportunities to speculate about the relationship of current events to biblical prophecy. Yet, given the mistakes made by Christians in the past, we would be wise to dedicate our time and energy to Christian witness rather than eschatological speculation.
(See the ATQ article, Can We Know If Current Events Are the Fulfillment of Prophecy?)
- “In my name (epi toe onomati mou). They will arrogate to themselves false claims of Messiahship in (on the basis of) the name of Christ himself. Josephus (Wars of the Jews VI, 54) gives their false Christs as one of the reasons for the explosion against Rome that led to the city’s destruction. Each new hero was welcomed by the masses including Barcochba. ‘I am the Messiah,’ each would say.” (Robertson’s Word Pictures, Matthew 24:4-5) Back to Article
- From 1642 to 1660, as England experienced civil war, regicide, a commonwealth, and military dictatorship, end-time anticipation ran rife. John Milton, the poet of Puritanism, was but one of many who invested these events with high eschatological significance, viewing them as the prelude to the moment when “the Eternall and shortly-expected King shall open the Clouds to judge the severall Kingdomes of the World.” The urgent apocalyptism of these years can scarcely be overstated. One William Sedgwick, drunk on the Millennium, predicted the end in two weeks, a rash venture in date setting that earned him the lifelong nickname “Doomsday Sedgwick.” The coming “day of doom,” reported an observer in 1647, was “the common talk about London.”
The career of Milton’s teacher Joseph Mede (1586–1638), a prophecy scholar and fellow of Christ College, Cambridge, illustrates the ubiquity of prophetic interest in these years. While he sometimes indulged in the prevailing tendency to interpret current events apocalyptically, Mede’s larger objective was to integrate the Bible’s various prophetic and apocalyptic sections into a single, synchronous end-time narrative. So impressive did English Puritans find his 1627 work, Clavis Apocalyptica (Key to the Revelation), that the House of Commons ordered it translated and reprinted posthumously in 1643. This and Mede’s other prophecy writings, collected in Works of the Pious and Profoundly Learned Joseph Mede (1672), circulated widely in England and America. Influenced by Alsted’s eschatology, Mede embedded a future Millennium firmly in his prophetic scheme, stimulating a revival of this doctrine in the English-speaking world.
With the defeat of Charles I in 1646 and his beheading in 1649, apocalyptic speculation surged among English radicals, largely drawn from society’s lower ranks, who saw an egalitarian new order on the horizon. Like the Taborites and early Anabaptists, they invoked Bible prophecy to validate their expectations. (Paul S. Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More, pp. 64-65) Back to Article