Living in the Last Days


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Living in the Last Days

By Bobby Neal Winters

Sometimes our moments of epiphany are vivid. During the month of June in the year 2000, I was visiting Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Republic of Buriatia, Russia. They had been having a drought, and everything was dry. I sat with my host on a hill that overlooked a valley at a little place that served shish kabob. Due to the dryness, there were forest fires in the area, and the smoke particles had made the moon a deep red color. Such a sight in such an exotic locale gave me a flashback to my youth when the end of the world and the Day of the Lord had been preached Sunday upon Sunday.

I've found three references in the scripture about the "moon turning to blood." They are in Joel, Acts, and Revelation, and each time is a reference to the "day of the Lord." The quote from Joel 2:30-31 is as follows:

I will show wonders in the heavens
and on the earth,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.

I had been hearing these scriptures read from a pulpit since I was a young boy in an obscure Oklahoma town, but at that point, while sitting with the Minister of Economics of the Republic of Buriatia, eating shish kabob and drinking beer, I felt that I truly understood the symbolism for the first time.

When I was I boy, I had taken the sermons about the "Rapture", the Second Coming, and the End of Time all at face value. I believed, and as the book of James said, I trembled. Because of the Left Behind series, there are many more people today who are aware of this type of eschatology than there were when I was a boy. The obscure, cryptic language of books of prophecy in general, and the Book of Revelation in particular, purposely lends itself to multiple interpretation. The images of various beasts give the book a fantastic quality, which no doubt explains why so many are drawn to it. The ­Left Behind series has taken a rich folk mythology that has become attached to the interpretation of Revelation, put it in print, and added to it.

This is a shame because this sort of thing tends to make these books of prophecy unreal, and they are as real as anything in the Bible, and I understood that fully during one moment in Ulan-Ude.

As we see in our quotation, the prophet Joel had recognized the connection between fires, billows of smoke, and a blood-red moon, even though he might not have known the physics behind it. The ancients might have been missing a detail here and there, but they were by no means stupid. The blood-red hue of the moon was a sign of the hunger that would come because of a smaller harvest due to drought.

This prophetic language is not based in the fairy-tale of Left Behind, but in the reality of a peasant farmer in the Levant. As is often the case, there are two dangers in the interpretation of prophecy, that of taking it too seriously and that of dismissing it entirely.

I believe the Book of Revelation is true, and I believe that everything in it has happened with the exception of the Second Coming of the Lord, but I do not mean to say that the Second Coming is imminent, though it might be. I do mean to say the writer of that book was writing in the future tense about disasters that already had happened when he wrote them. ­Revelation is prophecy, not fortune telling. Prophecy is a message from God, while fortune telling is a scam.

If I could get the fans of Left Behind to believe this, then they would no longer be interested in Revelations because it is the fortune-telling they want, not the prophecy.

Indeed, if this is the case, why should anyone be interested? Most people find history boring enough. History encrypted in prophetic language could make one comatose. Why endure it? Well, because while it is not fortune-telling, it does make predictions. It says, "We have survived the hard times, and in the future we will thrive because of the hard times we have endured."

I was fortunate a few years ago for Rodney Stark's The Rise of Christianity to come into my hands. Stark tackles the problem of how a small sect of Judaism became the predominant religion of the Roman Empire. I cannot do the message of a book justice in a sentence, of course, but one might say that Stark's thesis was the practices of the Christian religion gave Christians a better chance of survival than non-Christians of that era. While many Bible-believing Christians might balk at the terminology, this is Darwinian.

I would like to state this in a simple phrase, "That which dies is gone, but that which lives survives."

We might think of the Christians and the non-Christians of the early centuries AD as competing species. There were droughts, famines, plagues, and other disasters. Much like those talked about in Revelations. Christian practices such as sharing food, tending the sick and so forth helped their survival as a group, while communities that lacked these practices did not flourish.

One might draw a parallel between the disasters faced by the early Christians and the asteroid that is credited with wiping out the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs lacked a genetic quality that those who survived the disaster did not. The Christians had a quality those others whose religion lives only in myth lacked. The difference being that genes were passed on in the case of the dinosaurs, while teachings were passed on in the case of the Christians.

Disasters—times of dying—serve as endings but also as beginnings. When the dinosaurs died out, something else came along to take their place. In Nature, the survivors compete for the top spot, the place with the greatest chance of surviving the next disaster and so on.

The Last Days are not necessarily the very last, but simply the end of what was going on before. The world came to an end and renewed with the Coming of Jesus and has ended and started over a few times since. One might even say, in various regions around the planet, the world is always coming to an end.

Africa is dying of AIDS. Those groups who engage in sexual promiscuity will die, and those who are chaste will live. That which dies is gone; that which lives, survives. There is no magic here, no fortune-telling; there is just reality.

I was reading the other day where there are more Roman Catholics in England than Anglicans. Indeed, there may be more Muslims than Anglicans. This is interesting because one might read the break of the Church of England with the Church of Rome as a disaster for the Catholic Church in England, yet in the long run, that has not been the case. (Though recently the Roman Church's numbers in England have been lagging too.) Whatever "advantage" given to the Anglicans by being the established church was taken away by something else.

Disasters can be so subtle, or pleasant, as to go unnoticed. For example, in the United States, the upper economic stratum is undergoing a disaster. By this I mean their birthrate has declined to 0.9 per family. Another way to say this is with each generation they cut themselves in half. This is somewhat simplistic as there are people who gain economic success by their own efforts, rather than by birth, yet this is a shocking statistic nonetheless. Those who can most afford to have children are not having them.

The idea behind this is simple. One can increase the status of one's offspring in the future by doubling his or her financial assets. In the short term, this might make sense, but in the long term, it is putting more eggs into a diminishingly smaller basket. On a religious level, it runs counter to the promise God gave Abram that his seed would be like the stars in heaven. It seems that affluence is just a pleasant sort of disaster.

Currently, the birthrate in the United States is just about what is necessary to maintain population, though immigration does cause our population to increase. There are strata in the United States whose birthrate outstrips those of what has been the "ruling class." If relative rates of birth remain constant, there will be a marked change in our country.

I believe, however, the dangers here are subtle and deserve a deeper glance. Within this upper-class stratum, there is something akin to contempt for large families, i.e. with more than two children. Those within lower classes, envying the upper-class, tend to imitate the actions of those within it. More than once, upon commenting about the financial challenges involved in raising three children, I have been informed by peers, “That was your choice.” Indeed it was, and one I would make again.

However, these sorts of attitudes percolate throughout society, and one hears of groups with a high fertility rate as, “Breeding like rats.” However, those who make those comments might do well to reflect on the fact that rats are still around, and though, as individuals they are easy to kill, in the collective they are hard to get rid of.

Yet we try. We make abortion legal, accessible, and provide funding for it. In recent years, in the State of New York, there have been occasions where there have been more aborted African-American babies than live born ones. While to many that is “choice”, to others it looks like extermination.

Beyond this, there is the desire to teach sex education as a means to prevent the “breeding like rats,” and since it is felt abstinence from sex is completely unreasonable, methods of artificial birth control are taught. Visual aids such as condoms on bananas are used. Am I alone in seeing this as an eschatological symbol of some sort?

Fertility is a means of keeping the teachings of a group alive, but it is not the only means. Teachings are the genes of a religion, and part of a religion's business is to spread those teachings. When Christians do this, we call it evangelism, and since its very beginnings Christianity has spread itself and its ideas through evangelism. We are called to go forth and make disciples, and the bonds we have with these disciples are close. Indeed, Jesus counted his disciples to be at least as close as his family.

However, evangelism, the making of disciples, has fallen upon hard times among the mainline protestant churches in the United States. Between the prevalent low birthrate and a lack of evangelism to compensate, these denominations are declining in numbers and some of them precipitously. In short, it is a disaster.

And more than that, it is a shame. These are churches with long, vital histories in the service of God and Man. They have much to teach about love, civility, and charity. However, they seem to be lost in their genetic makeup, i.e. their teaching, whatever it is that is needed to survive.

It is more than ironic that many of the fundamentalist sects upon with the mainline denominations look upon with utter, and often deserved, contempt are flourishing. Little independent churches, pastored by men who are qualified to preach by having woken up with a hangover in a motel room and read a Gideon Bible, have spread around the country like dandelions. While denominations whose churches are pastors by men of letters wither on the vine.

That which dies, is gone, that which lives, survives.

The handwriting is on the wall, the moon has turned to blood, and the condom is on the banana. We are in for times of change. Schools of thought that have abandoned some worthwhile principles of survival will be gone.

It could be that the preachers of my boyhood were right, and we are living in the Last Days, but in a different way and for different reasons than they suspected. Come, Lord Jesus.
I like the way you identify the symbolism of a "blood-red moon" - that's a very astute observation. Thanks for that. :)

As for Stark's comments on the difference between Christian and Roman - I'd still like to put it down to far more radical issues of belief - Christianity as a like a form of spiritual communism, unheard of before Evangelism. The notion of Roman Infanticide is an issue I still consider exaggerated and sensationalised - when I feel I have a free moment I really should get around to writing my polemic against generalised interpretations of infanticide being common during the Roman Empire. :)
Infanticide is just a part of Stark's argument. More important is the principle that teachings which effect relative numbers will have a bearing on survivability.