Toying with the Apocalypse

History abounds with unsuccessful predictions of earthly doom - many based on interpretations of biblical prophecy. If there is any one moral to be gleaned from the volumes of forgotten forecasts, it is that apocalyptic prediction is a very precarious enterprise. It gets even more precarious when biblical prophecies are applied literally to modern events.

Yet apocalyptic speculation again is rife, particularly among TV evangelists. And that worries a growing number of churchmen and Bible scholars. They fear that, far from fostering a balanced, sober understanding of the biblical writings and world events, today's apocalypticism is giving people a fanciful worldview in the style of a Cecil B. de Mille.

One recent forecast, Newsweek reports, has been beamed by satellite to millions of TV viewers in 16 countries by Marion (Pat) Robertson, director of the Christian Broadcasting Network. In it, the Soviet Union gets the part of ''Magog,'' an enemy of ancient Israel denounced by the prophet Ezekiel nearly 2, 500 years ago. Modern Israel becomes the stage for an imminent, world conflagration with the ''Magog factor.'' The ''anti-Christ'' figure from the Book of Revelation is cast as a future European dictator who appears after an invasion of the Saudi oil fields. And all this sets the scene for Revelation's ''battle of Armageddon,'' culminating in a victory of the returning Christ over the anti-Christ supposed to usher in Christ's thousand-year reign. (Conveniently , the climax is forecast as taking place in the year 2000, based on a numerological reading of biblical prophecies.)

That script is but one of a welter of latter-day variations on the old apocalyptic themes. Just keeping all the plots straight is no easy task, says longtime observer James Dunn of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.

The search for biblical assurances for our troubled times is understandable. (Indeed, the Bible's apocalyptic literature was originally written to encourage people facing severe oppression.) But, as Mr. Dunn and others suggest, the difficulty lies in the misbased fears and confusion engendered in the public mind when modern politics are viewed through the lens of biblical literalism. Yale's emeritus professor of biblical theology, Paul Minear, recently cautioned, ''This plucking of apocalyptic prophecies out of their biblical contexts, applying them to US-Soviet rivalry, to modern Israel's invasion of Lebanon, to expectations of a catastrophic World War III - it's all feeding on Americans' fears and anxieties, not on the real biblical messages of peace and hope.''

The ''apocalyptic'' style of literature, says Harvard Bible scholar Krister Stendahl, was born in times of crisis when people felt their own smallness and helplessness before daunting human events - a feeling many share today. In times like these, he says, the apocalyptic models tend to ''suggest themselves very, very strongly.'' Other theologians see biblical forecasting as a blatant attempt to lend religious justification to the political attitudes of the so-called ''religious right.'' Still others see those attitudes more as the offshoots of the apocalyptic worldview than the cause of it.

In any case, today's apocalypticism arouses the deepest concern. Will it spur people to being more realistic and compassionate in facing human needs? Or will it merely heighten fear and escapism? The latter trend is already far too much in evidence, according to Mr. Dunn: ''People are getting so caught up in this apocalypticism that they fail to face head on, open-eyed, sleeves rolled up , the responsibiltiies of our day.''

One shudders to think of the consequences if today's doom-saying went so far as to feed a sense of fatalism and affect world efforts to control nuclear arms. On the other hand, something beneficial could emerge from rethinking what the apocalyptic literature has to say about standing firm in the face of oppression, persecution, and turmoil. ''The apocalyptic literature was not meant to appeal to men's fears by increasing anxiety about an Armageddon ahead,'' argues Dr. Minear. ''It expressed ways of meeting human anxiety, of expressing trust that from a spiritual point of view nothing is ultimately without hope.''

To reexamine biblical prophecy for resources like these may not provide scintillating material for TV broadcasters. But it could help mitigate fears and political confusion for millions. That in itself would be no small step toward resolving the anxieties of these "latter days."

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