The return of Jesus Christ, the end of the world, war, devastating earthquakes, invading space ships, asteroid strikes, the Y2K bug, what do they all have in common? Little if anything really, except that they have all been associated with the coming of the year 2000.
To many in Australia the year 2000 may well be an end, if not the End. To some of those, however, it may also be the beginning of something else most significant. That expectation will now be examined. You will have a conducted tour through war and peace, demonic activity, and aeroplanes crashing and people flying. The subject is how a significant number of Australian Christians understand the end of the world ("The End Times"), most particularly the return of Jesus Christ. Those who hold this view we will call "EndTimers".
That Jesus Christ will return has been the expectation of the church from its conception. The day of Pentecost is usually regarded as the birthday of the church, and a few days before that Jesus ascended into heaven and the astonished disciples who witnessed it were told by two angels that Jesus would return (Acts 1:9-11). An expectation of the literal return of Jesus Christ has been with the church ever since. It being commonly featured in its creeds both ancient and modern. However, some individual Christians do not hold to a literal, physical return, though they would be in the minority. But amongst those who do expect a literal return, there has not always been agreement about its nature.
EndTimers are one group among many, but scattered throughout the Protestant churches. They predict that Jesus Christ will return very soon, indeed, he will return in "this generation". This phrase and many of the ideas commonly associated with it are to be found in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 24. In this chapter Jesus predicts some cataclysmic events, and towards the end of his address, in verse 34, says that they will happen in "this generation". The most natural understanding of this phrase in context is that those events would happen in the life time of his hearers. Indeed, events very much like those described by Jesus did happen in the Fall of Jerusalem about forty years later. Such are the similarities between the two, many Christians with a more liberal view of the Bible see Christ's words as a later construct of the church placed on his lips, and thus as prophecy after the event.
For reasons that are more complex than logical EndTimers regard the phrase "this generation" as referring to the generation beginning at the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948. From that, the events predicted by Jesus are regarded not specifically about a fall of Jerusalem, but about his return and the end of the world. Therefore those who hold this view believe that the End Times will begin within a generation of 1948.
If these EndTimers, then, believe that Jesus Christ will return within a generation of 1948, the first question one has to ask is, "How long is a generation?" In the 1960s and 1970s, even into the 1980s, the common answer to that was "Forty years!". Consequently, a glut of books and videos appeared predicting that the End would begin in the 1980s, and they included such titles as: Will Christ Return by 1988: 101 Reasons Why; 88 Reasons Why Christ Will Return in 1988; and Decade of the 80's: A World in Spasm. But the most prominent and influential of them was Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth, published in 1970. That book is said to be the third largest selling Christian book of all time, with over 20 million copies in print (weep your heart out Bryce Courtney). Most books of this type have been published in America, but were frequently available in Australia. Though this system of belief seems to have had its origins in nineteenth century Britain, American fundamentalists have been its main advocates and developers. As so often happens with American ideas and practices, many Australians have enthusiastically adopted it.
In Australia one of the leading teachers in the EndTimers' camp is Brisbane's Ray Yerbury, though New Zealander Barry Smith through lecture tours and books has probably had more influence here.
The books of Hal Lindsey, Ray Yerbury, Barry Smith and a few other sources will now be used to detail the beliefs of these Australian EndTimers. Lindsey is included because though he is American, Late Great Planet Earth has been a major, perhaps the major, factor in many Australian Christians adopting these beliefs.
The starting point must be the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948. To EndTimers this is fulfilment of biblical prophecy. Lindsey says that the "paramount prophetic sign" concerning the return of Jesus Christ is that "Israel had to be a nation again in the land of its forefathers". As has already been noted, within this scheme the return of Christ must happen within a generation of that occurrence. Lindsey writing in 1970 was bold enough to say a generation was "something like forty years" (Late, 43, 54), and is said to believe that Christ will definitely return before the year 2000. Yerbury, writing twenty years later, had to have other options, and he stated that a generation could be either 40, 70-80, 100 or 120 years (Vital, 11). Now 1988 is well in the past, many EndTimers seem to expect Christ's return in or around the year 2000. However, this belief is not usually held with great dogmatism or precision. Indeed, End Times expectations in Australia have been quieter in 1999 than many would have expected. There has been little banner-waving or overt demonstration. In addition the sale of books about the End Times through Australian Christian bookshops has also been slower this year than expected.
EndTimers commonly believe that further "signs" of Jesus Christ's return include widespread wars, earthquakes and famines. This is based on a particular understanding of Matthew chapter 24. In addition, a decline in Christian moral values (2 Timothy 3:1-4) and a worldwide control of the money markets (Revelation 13:11-18) are also seen as signs that Christ's return is not far away. To what level wars, earthquakes and famines have to rise or moral values decline before they can be considered authentic signs is not usually discussed, but is clearly a difficulty.
Another "sign" of the approaching End is the emergence of a demonic political leader, the Antichrist, also known as "the Beast" (Revelation 13:1-18). With the time scale involved it is necessary to believe that this man, and it always seems to be a man, is alive today, so Antichrist candidates have included the present Pope, the President of a rapidly emerging United States of Europe, Bill Gates, and Prince Charles. Australian leaders do not seem to be considered sufficiently important or frightening to feature as Anichrist candidates. The Bible gives the identification of this "Beast": the number 666. Barry Smith, with neat numerics (a = 6, b = 12, etc.), favoured Henry Kissinger for this role, his surname totalling 666 on Smith's method. Yerbury, with characteristic caution, says that we cannot know his identity at this stage. Another figure that must appear is the Antichrist's henchman, "the False Prophet", a religious leader (Smith, Warning, 22-56; Second Warning, 57-66; better, 170-173; Yerbury, Ultimate, 99-112; Vital, 53-4).
Central to EndTimers' beliefs is the Great Tribulation, a time of terrible war and suffering. The duration of this cataclysm is variously described as being seven years (Lindsey, Late, 42, 137-8; Yerbury, Vital, 42-4) or three and a half years (Smith, Warning, 102-112).
Where does the return of Jesus Christ fit into this? Commonly EndTimers believe that he will return twice, the first time will be immediately prior to the Great Tribulation, the second time will be seven years later. This first return is for a particular purpose: to remove all the "true" Christians from Earth and take them to heaven, in what is usually known as "the Rapture". This is sometimes referred to as "His coming for the saints". On this occasion he does not actually visit Earth; he only appears above it, and "the saints" will literally rise up to meet him in the sky (Matthew 24:37-41; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). But for those remaining on Earth this will all be hidden, that is they will know that their Christian friends and neighbours have disappeared, but will have no idea where they have gone or what has happened (Lindsey, Late, 135-142; Smith, Warning, 150-157; Yerbury, Ultimate, 119-122; Vital, 33-6).
This belief conjures up some extraordinary expectations. A Christian doctor operating on a patient will be whisked away, mid operation. Car drivers will disappear, causing their vehicles to crash. Airline pilots will suddenly vanish with terrible consequences. Indeed, it is rumoured that some American airlines do not allow Christians to be both pilot and co-pilot of the one aircraft. Christians must be teamed with non-Christians, in case the Christian is suddenly "raptured". Though this specific belief may not have as much significance in Australia as it does in America, there is no doubt that it is still held tenaciously by its Australian advocates.
After the Great Tribulation Jesus Christ will return once more, this time actually to Earth. This return is sometimes referred to as Christ's coming "with the saints", for he will bring back the previously taken Christians with him. This will be followed by the fearsome battle of Armageddon, which Christ will win. He will then establish his reign over the whole world, ruling from Jerusalem, in peace, with equity. This reign will last for 1000 years, the millennium of chapter 20 of the book of Revelation. It is normal for EndTimers to perceive this as literally 1000 years, whereas many other Christians, often with very different understandings of End Times events, would see it as symbolic for a long period (Lindsey, Late, 169-178; Smith, Warning, 158-160; Yerbury, Ultimate, 137-149; Vital, 78-101).
Following the Millennium there will be a Satan-led rebellion, but this will be short lived, possibly once more of a seven year duration (Lindsey, 178; Yerbury, Vital, 105-7). God, however, will then triumph over Satan, and wrap up the events of this world and this age, judge its inhabitants, and create a new Heaven and a new Earth, upon which the saved will live with Christ forever (Lindsey, 178; Yerbury, Ultimate, 150-154; Vital, 108-117).
Who in Australia holds the views outlined above? They are held by most Australian Christian fundamentalists and some Christian evangelicals. Who are these fundamentalists and evangelicals and what else do they believe? Both groups hold to the core traditional Protestant beliefs (the deity of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, etc), and are to be found in most, if not all, Protestant denominations in Australia, from the Anglican Church to the more recently formed charismatic churches.
Fundamentalists and evangelicals are not always clearly distinguishable from each other, for there is much overlapping in beliefs between them. But there are, however, some basic differences between the two. Fundamentalists have a very strong emphasis on a literal interpretation of the Bible, frequently interpreting in an unnatural way, often taking metaphors, symbols, and other figures literally. They are also frequently anti-intellectual. Evangelicals, on the other hand, would take a more rational approach to the Bible, giving due regard to the form of the specific writing, and are usually prepared to engage in intellectual debate. Both groups believe that Jesus Christ will literally return, though there is disagreement about the details between and within the two groups.
How many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians are there in Australia? A survey published in 1994 was conducted amongst the attenders of numerous Protestant congregations, and discovered that 48% of those people believed that "the Bible is the Word of God which needs to be read in the context of the times". These, most of them at any rate, would be what have here been termed "evangelicals". Another 21% believed that "the Bible is the Word of God, to be taken literally word for word", and thus would be "fundamentalists" (Kaldor, 45-7). If the survey was anything like accurate, approaching 70% of those attending Australian Protestant churches are either evangelicals or fundamentalists. As it would also seem that there are over 1 million attenders at Protestant churches in Australia (Kaldor, 344), it is probable that there are more than seven hundred thousand evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in Australia.
The specific beliefs outlined in this article are widespread amongst fundamentalist Christians, but also seem to be held by some evangelicals. These Christians can be found in probably all Protestant denominations, though are much more common in charismatic and Baptist churches than in, say, Anglican and Uniting churches. These beliefs are also found in some of the sects outside the mainstream Christian church. The number of EndTimers in Australia is almost certainly well in excess of one hundred thousand, and may be above two hundred thousand.
How do these beliefs manifest themselves in current Australian life? First, one would expect EndTimers to be less concerned about certain issues of social concern than other Christians, and this often seems to be the case. For example, one does not often find them championing the protection of the environment. If Christ's Kingdom on Earth is not many years away, then why worry about such things now? They can be attended to when Christ returns. The important issue is to prepare people for that return.
Another manifestation is the setting of dates for that return, which is probably more common than many realise. Those writers consulted for this study do not predict exact dates for these events. They rely on the more elastic concept of the "this generation" idea. But other people do predict precise dates and times. It is not uncommon to hear individuals, and it is usually individuals rather than movements, predicting that Christ will return on this date or another. They each have their own schemes of interpreting the numerics of such biblical books as Daniel and Revelation. One of the most famous of these predictions was in 1992 when posters began appearing in various Australian towns declaring:
WARNING OF GOD
JESUS is COMING
IN 1am 29th OCT 1992
IN THE AIR (It's the Rapture)
Remember the days of Noah and Lot
Reject the 666 of computer bar code
Repent your sins to God
Ready the 7 years Great Tribulation
This particular prediction originated in a movement in Korea, and, indeed, its leader in Australia was a Korean on temporary residence here. Several of the teachings discussed in this article are indicated in the poster, with the addition of a very precise prediction of Jesus Christ's return. When the day approached, the leader of the Australian wing of the movement was interviewed in newspapers and on TV, and he politely but boldly confirmed his conviction to the Australian public. The Current Affair interview with him the day after the prediction was proved false was especially touching. He apologised with great sincerity to those he had misled, and soon after returned to his homeland.
Ironically, the organisation of which this man was part seems to have left open the possibility of future predictions. It is one of the astonishing facts of this type of endeavour throughout history, that those who predict the end of the world are not discouraged by failure. They just try again. Why? The answers may vary, but central is a strong belief in the certainty of biblical prophecy and the confidence that some have that they know best how to interpret it. It would seem that it would take more than failure to dent that confidence.