Martyn Whittock is a historian and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. He has just published a fascinating history of the interpretation of ‘end times’ ideas, The End Times, Again? 2000 Years of the Use and Misuse of Biblical Prophecy, and I was able to ask him about his book.
IP: You are by training a historian. So what made you want to explore the more theological idea of ‘the end times’?
MW: As a Christian and a preacher (I am a Licensed Lay Minister in Salisbury diocese) the promise of the return of Jesus (the second coming) and the creation of a new heaven and earth is, personally, a very significant belief. So, I start from the point of having personal faith in history having a purpose and an end-point and that God has revealed enough of this through scripture to give us confidence in this fact. However, I am also very aware – again from personal experience – that this is a belief that can, in some forms, seriously impact on (even distort) outlooks and can become something of an obsession.
In the 1970s I read The Late Great Planet Earth and the like, and my outlook was greatly influenced by the idea that we were living in the ‘last days.’ I even contributed an article to a rather obscure periodical called Prophetic Witness, in which I sought to identify Eastern European nations with tribes mentioned in the Old Testament (Gog, Magog, Meshech, Tubal, etc). So, end-times beliefs are both part of the faith tradition of which I am part; but also, is an area where I have a very particular personal (and at times rather alarming) back-story of involvement. I say ‘alarming’ because I realise now that I was part of a whole outlook (much of it originating in the USA) which was, in effect, a spiritual counterpart to Cold War politics. In short, it said more about geo-politics than theology, although that is certainly not how I viewed it in the 1970s.
Furthermore, it is undeniable that this belief has a track record of being wrongly (though sincerely) used in church history to justify the most extraordinary things. I became aware of this at Bristol University, where I read politics and my dissertation was on radical Christian millenarians of the 17th century. Sitting in the British Library and studying pamphlets written by so-called ‘Fifth Monarchy Men’ (they took the name from an interpretation of Daniel chapter 7) made me realise that they passionately held versions of beliefs which were like ones I had held in the mid-1970s. This study gave me an historical perspective and an academic interest in the application of end-times beliefs over the centuries.
As a result, I wrote When God Was King: Rebels and Radicals of the Civil War and Mayflower Generation. I came across the same confident 17th-century end-times beliefs when I wrote Mayflower Lives, and when I explored the deep roots of the current US evangelical-right and the Trump phenomenon in Trump and the Puritans. I should, at this point, say that I describe myself as an ‘evangelical.’
It was also clear that applied eschatology has been hugely influential throughout Christian history. I came across the Magyars and Vikings being identified as end-times actors by 10th-century commentators when co-writing The Vikings: From Odin to Christ.
Then I came across a heightened (and highly dubious) presentation of the subject during the turbulence of the 2016 EU Referendum; and it has had an impact on US foreign policy under Trump. Forms of it continue to influence a sizeable number of believers in their assessment of Middle Eastern politics, climate change, and Covid-19.
It was this combination of personal experience, historical fascination, and current concern, that led to me writing an overview of end-times beliefs and their application in: The End Times, Again? As well as being a dramatic and extraordinary history, I feel that modern Christians would handle their interpretation of prophecy more cautiously if they knew more about the history of mistakes.
IP: You offer an interesting list of biblical passages, from both Testaments, which give the background to ‘end times’ thinking. But it is noticeable that this isn’t really a dominant theme in the Bible—at least not in the way that many people think about it today.
Why do you think ‘end times’ thinking is so appealing? Does it have a particular appeal in the time we live in—or has this always been the case?
MW: It has always influenced Christian outlook over the centuries, even when it has not been the dominant topic of conversation. However, it is particularly prevalent at times of stress and turbulence.
It can be argued that the church in the 4th and 5th centuries sought to defuse it by increasingly viewing prophetic texts as allegorical. They had had their fingers burnt by the activities of Montanist heretics and other radical millenarian sects of the late Roman Empire. This helps explain some of the reservations in the eastern church regarding the Book of Revelation. Other factors led to the shift in outlook too, but this became the official stance until the Reformation.
However, it didn’t prevent outbursts of very specific identifications and speculation. I have already mentioned the Magyars and the Vikings. Other explosions occurred during the Crusades. Political stress could trigger it too and we see the accusation of being the Antichrist being thrown back and forth between popes and emperors in the Middle Ages. Then the Reformation fracturing of Christendom created a tsunami of end-times activism at all levels of the Protestant movement, that lasted for two centuries. [See above an illustration by Lucas Cranach of the whore of Babylon in Rev 17 wearing a papal tiara in Martin Luther’s 1534 translation of the Bible.] Some of it got very bloody indeed, as radicals sought to create ‘New Jerusalems’ or extirpate those they regarded as being allies of Antichrist.
This association of the popularity of end-times beliefs and societal stress, turbulence and uncertainty continues today. We see it in the response of some to Covid-19. The same thing occurred during the 14th-century Black Death. In the USA tens of millions of Christians view domestic and foreign events through an end-times lens. A Russian orthodox tradition is re-emerging in Putin’s Russia which frames the West as representing the forces of Antichrist. This is all consistent with much past behaviour regarding end-times thought.
It can also give validation to those who feel threatened or who are creating an identity at a time of upheaval. In North America the self-confident Puritan outlook fed into the cultural DNA of what became the USA. Later, it became a spiritual dimension to Cold War politics among many Western evangelicals (not just in the USA). As the modern US evangelical community shrinks in size it is increasingly using eschatological outlooks to buttress its identity and frame its view of the world. One has only to read Franklin Graham’s eschatological dismissal of the threat of climate change on twitter, last November during COP26, to see this in action.
It can also be used in an attempt to put things outside the realm of critical debate. In 2016, I debated with UK Christians who were convinced that the EU is the fulfilment of prophecies in Daniel and Revelation. This is an adaption of a belief with which I was very familiar in the 1970s. Some of the ‘prophetic maths’ has changed; the accusation of it being a ten-nation-confederacy in fulfilment of Daniel 7:24 and Revelation 13:1 has gone rather quiet. But, overall, the old arguments have been adapted, rebranded and reissued. It feels like an endless game of ‘eschatological whack a mole.’ In this particular area of debate, I think that it has become a way by which Christian nationalism in the UK can be presented in spiritual terms.
IP: You very helpfully list some features of ‘end times’ reading of biblical texts—and it isn’t a very flattering list! Texts are pulled out of their textual context, put together in odd ways, and removed from their historical context. Is there a case for simply saying ‘We need to learn to read the Bible better’—or is the issue deeper than that?
MW: Actually, I think that just about sums it up. We need to learn to read the Bible better. The misuse of prophecy (as I would term it) rests largely on very poor biblical exegesis. Verses taken out of context and bolted onto other passages, also taken out of context; and then treating the composite result as a coherent piece. Jumping from literal to figurative interpretations (particularly shaping interpretations of any passage with a number in it). Little or no allowance made for the genre of the type of scripture or the context of original composition. Reading passages with a highly imaginative lens, that is coloured by pre-existing political and cultural ideas. There is a lot of that.
My study suggests that much end-times speculation rests on these shaky foundations. But the approach is enormously influential. One only has to think of the belief in ‘the Rapture.’ I don’t think that there is any persuasive scriptural foundation for it and, as my research shows, just about nobody believed in it before the middle of the 19th century. Now it is a mainstream belief for tens of millions of Christians. And, in my opinion, it is based on an extremely questionable use of scripture.
IP: You offer us a long list of apocalyptic/eschatological movements in the history of the Christian faith. Which of these surprised or interested you most? Which ought to be better known?
MW: Well, there are certainly a lot! If I had to pick one, it would be the ‘Fifth Monarchy Men.’ Extremely influential in the 1650s, their membership spread across many kinds of Puritan congregation (just as eschatological beliefs cross denominational boundaries today). They included high-ranking members of the Parliamentary army and were a significant minority within the so-called ‘Barebone’s Parliament’ (also called the ‘Nominated Parliament’) of 1653. This was a unique attempt to create a theocratic parliament in Britain.
I get the feeling that this is something like what the more extreme among US eschatologically-motivated white evangelicals would like to see imposed on their nation (regardless of democratic norms). The FMM show how, in a time of turbulence and conflict, extremely radical ideas can become highly influential. That is a warning to all of us.
Incidentally, members of my own family were implicated in the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, in which the last outpouring of FMM ideology was bubbling beneath the surface. The rebellion failed.
IP: There are some obviously negative effects that some of these movements have had—but in fact it is not all bad news. What do you see as having been the more positive outcomes of ‘end times’ hope from different periods of history?
MW: Despite the worrying manifestations – due to human error – the persistence of this Christian belief reminds us that end-times belief has, at its core, a positive trust in God. The end-times hope is, in essence, a positive belief. It insists that God is sovereign; history has a purpose; a broken and fallen creation (however we understand that) will be restored; injustice and suffering will end; God will be experienced at the heart of a transformed human community. The second coming of Jesus, which will enable all this to occur, is a wonderful hope. This is found in all the movements – even though it is often terribly distorted in practice.
IP: Some important movements for change and reform have had a strongly apocalyptic feel to them—not least the Reformation itself. To what extent has eschatology been integral to these moments of change—or do you think misreading of the apocalyptic hope can be separated out?
MW: I think it has often been a very significant feature. Although the ultimate expectation of imminent cosmic change proved to be incorrect in all these movements (so far), I still think it made a vital contribution to many movements which desired to see the Kingdom of God implemented on earth and kingdom business furthered. While they were wrong in the short term, many had their hearts in the right place in terms of long-term goals.
MW: We need to engage with scripture carefully; and explore end-times texts within the wider context of scripture and taking into account their genre, complexity, and the context and intention of their composition.
Essentially, trust in God, get on with day-to-day ‘kingdom business’ and loving transformation; and don’t speculate about the imminence of the second coming. Live in the light of that hope – but leave the timing to God.
An event (like climate change) might be part of end-times processes (I don’t know) but we are still responsible for how we behave regarding it. Indifference to it can never be justified eschatologically.
Also, just because something may be a prophetic fulfilment does not mean it stands outside of being assessed by gospel standards and principles. Nor does it mean that Christians are bound to offer it unquestioning support. I am thinking here about the Middle East.
IP: Thank you, Martyn. You do offer a fascinating insight into the way the eschatological movements have had a surprising and significant influence at key moments in Christian history—very helpful indeed!
Martyn Whittock is a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. As an historian and author, or co-author, of fifty-four books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for several print and online news platforms; has been interviewed on radio shows exploring the interaction of faith and politics; and appeared on Sky News discussing political events in the USA.
His books, that include exploration of end-times beliefs in action, are: When God Was King: Rebels and Radicals of the Civil War and Mayflower Generation (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2018); Mayflower Lives: Pilgrims in a New World and the Early American Experience (New York: Pegasus Books, 2019); and Trump and the Puritans: How the Evangelical Religious Right Put Donald Trump in the White House (London: Biteback, 2020).
The recently-published exploration of 2000 years of end-times thinking and activity is: The End Times, Again? 2000 Years of the Use and Misuse of Biblical Prophecy (Eugene, Oregon, USA: Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock, 2021).
How do we make sense of ‘end times’ language in the New Testament? Should we be looking for ‘signs’ and predicting dates—or is there a better way to think about these things?
You might also be interested in my Grove booklet Kingdom, Hope, and the End of the World.