A Quick Guide to the Book of Revelation in History: Some context for the May 21 Rapture thing

This is something I vaguely remembered writing a while back after a conversation about the Book of Revelation and predicting the End of the World. I thought I’d post it here, as I’m getting the impression that, in the wake of the whole Harold Camping thing, that people are starting to think the ‘Rapture on May 21st’ is mainstream Christian thinking. It’s not, and I’m not going to be embarassed tomorrow if/when it hasn’t happened. There’s a whole bunch of history behind this, and if you’re interested I’d recommend checking it out from that perspective, but like I said, here’s just a quick overview that might help put things into a bit of context:


The Early Church believed that the Second Coming was imminent; they were being persecuted by the Roman Empire and with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70AD, the idea that they were living in the Last Days was powerful.

However, Jesus didn’t return, and in 313AD, the Emperor Constantine put an end to the persecution of the church. Suddenly the persecuted church was mainstream and the end of the world seemed a lot further away. The idea that Revelation was about current affairs declined and gave way to a spiritual interpretation – it’s all about the idea of good vs evil, God vs Satan, prior to the Second Coming. This became the standard Church interpretation of Revelation for hundreds of years.

The medieval period saw a gulf develop between the church authorities (who were increasingly abusing their power) and the general public. Life wasn’t exactly a bed of roses, and this lead to people reclaiming a ‘physical’ interpretation of Revelation – the Antichrist walked the world, in the form of the Catholic church, or Jews, or Muslims, or whoever else was considered an enemy, feeding off the same issues that lead to the Reformation.

When the Reformation kicked off, people like Martin Luther and John Calvin were wary of Revelation – Calvin ignored it when writing his commentaries on the Bible, and Luther thought the whole thing was “neither apostolic or prophetic”. However, Luther eventually decided that the Pope fit the criteria for the Antichrist, and, in Protestant circles, the interpretation stuck. Officially, the Protestants stuck to a symbolic interpretation, but the propaganda value of being able to call your enemies ‘Antichrist’ was popular…Apocalyptic thinking went through a period of popularity around the mid-1600’s, but declined in Europe after that; it shifted more towards America with the establishment of the Puritan colonies there.

Then came the Enlightenment. The metaphorical interpretation of Revelation declined, partly due to a growing faith in science and our ability to measure and categorise things. A more literalist interpretation became popular, although unlike the Early Church, Christians weren’t waiting for the Second Coming to save them from persecution; rather, the Enlightenment belief in continual progress meant that they believed the Church could establish God’s kingdom here on Earth and lay the groundwork for Christ’s return, whereupon he could finalise the work started by the Church. This interpretation coincided with the settlement of America, and so became a major factor in the development of the United States and its national character.

Unfortunately, as time went on, it became more and more obvious that things weren’t getting better, and the American Civil War (1861-65) and the First World War fifty years later pretty much ended the idea that God’s kingdom on Earth was being established. This view really took off in the sixties and seventies, and forms the background for the latest End Times popularisation with the Left Behind series.

Which neatly takes us to May 21st

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