When was the last time your priest talked about the fires of hell and gave you a good scare, or compared America to Sodom and Gomorrah and suggest that it’s headed for the same fate? The Church today is too nice. God must have gone through anger management classes because He might be all nice and warm today, but He could be very angry and vengeful in biblical times. The phrase “doom and gloom” is used to deride those who tell you unpleasant things you’d rather not hear; it is a decidedly pejorative phrase. Purveyors of gloom are also scorned because they often use it to make a lot of money.
What comes to my mind is Hal Lindsey’s 1970 book with the ominous title, The Late Great Planet Earth. It’s an interpretation of biblical prophecies about the end times, but heavily influenced by dispensationalist theology. Dispensationalism is a common belief among evangelical protestants which holds that God interacts with man in different ways during different dispensations (periods of time in history). From Abraham to Noah was a dispensation, as is the time from the birth of the Church to the Rapture, (the point in time when Christ takes all Christians to heaven before all hell breaks loose–Armageddon). For Lindsey, the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 triggered the beginning of the end times, it fulfilled the prophecy of the return of the Jews to Palestine and he took it from there. The biblical basis for all this is, in my view, scant, and in conflict with Catholic eschatology (the study of end times). The problem has been, needless to say, Lindsey’s predictions, which were specific scenarios of the future geopolitical events which turned out to be hit and miss (more miss than hit), and often readjusted.
But here I’m suggesting that it’s the book and not Lindsey himself that contributed to giving our poor friends Gloom and Doom a bad name; I don’t think that Reverend Lindsey was about getting rich, but about saving souls. It seems to me that when the initial Christian book publisher sold the rights to a secular publishing house, who obviously saw a chance to make big money by excessively hyping the fear, the Faustian deal was then made (it sold 30,000,000 copies). They even made a movie about the book, and with none other than Orson Wells as narrator. Selling fear is nothing new, but because of the profit motive (as opposed to the prophet motive) Lindsey’s book may have had far-reaching negative consequences for attitudes toward the study of biblical prophecy. This is what happens when there is no central authority, you end up with thousands of protestant denominations with just as many theological viewpoints.
But let us as Catholics admit, Lindsey might have been on the right track, the Bible can be scary, especially when it comes to the last days, as is also the Catechism. Eventually, some generation or two, or three, will have to endure a society that has broken down, and become physically hostile toward Christians. We Catholics understand that we won’t avoid it by being air-lifted to heaven ahead of time. Just like Christians in certain parts of the Middle East and Africa today, Catholics in the West will, at some point, and in some way, share their experience of persecution.
The book I wrote on St. Hildegard’s vision of the last days, The Five Beasts of St. Hildegard: Prophetic Symbols of Modern Society, has two similarities to The Late Great Planet Earth: it presents a series of end-time prophecies, attempting to prove that some of them have been recently fulfilled. Secondly, the era to come, and perhaps soon, is described as a time of extreme unpleasantness. But that’s where the similitude ends. Lindsey’s fallacious dispensationalist assumptions led to a misinterpretation of certain biblical passages like those he thinks describe a “Rapture”. Dispensationalists are also oddly determined to read the Bible in a purely literal sense, even when allegory is used. You might remember another dispensationalist, Harold Camping, who had publicly declared that the Rapture would occur on October 21, 2011, subsequently resulting in nothing but an outpouring of derision.
Yet Rev. Lindsey had, and still has, a zeal for evangelism. Back in the 1970s he took his book on the road; he would fill large auditoriums using the same approach as a Billy Graham Crusade: he got as many churches in an area as he could to support the program, and insist that everyone bring as many non-believers as they could. After Lindsey’s presentation, which was powerful, emotive, and scary, he would invite anyone who felt the call to come to the auditorium floor, where there would be people waiting for them who would help them pray a prayer accepting Christ as their savior. As a teenager, I was one of those who felt that call. I was lucky, my life was not going in a good direction. Ten years later I followed another call and was received into the Roman Catholic Church.
Now, like Lindsey, I’ve written a book on prophecies of immanent doom and gloom, which I also intend to take on the road (small Catholic venues). I think I will also ask those interested in attending one of my presentations to bring somebody, a family member, perhaps, who’s fallen away from the Church, or someone else, and let St. Hildegard, a Doctor of the Church, put a little fear in them. Hey, it worked for Hal!
Funny, the way life goes sometimes.