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A Message of Fear That Turns a Profit

Faulty theology notwithstanding, the end of the world is pretty good business just now.

And why wouldn’t it be? The Left Behind fiction series by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye—now at 10 books and counting—is selling more than 3 million copies each. Lest we forget, their smoldering black covers peep out from the magazine aisle at Wal-Mart, and in many church libraries. And with events in Afghanistan and the Middle East seeming to cooperate and coalesce in rather alarming ways – at least enough to get the end-times prophets into high dudgeon—who wouldn’t be just a little concerned that the official end times are indeed upon us?<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
Of course, people have thought the end times were near ever since Christ vanished into a cloud 2,000 years ago. Apparently, however, few seem to have heeded his admonition about trying to conjure the time and place of his return. From the earliest eras, this has been something of a cottage industry among hard-shell acolytes of doom. From the apocalyptic bastions of the Middle Ages to the mathematical proofs and timetables wrought from books of prophecy—not all of them biblical—this fear of the last days has followed us in many forms. That such work should also turn a profit for its purveyors, though, seems to be a phenomenon entirely of our own age. Jenkins and LaHaye, according to Time magazine, each have earned about $50 million from the total 36 million copies sold of their books. LaHaye stands to earn a like sum from another series of books he is planning.
More alarming than this, however—or the liberties books like Left Behind take with Christian eschatology—is the twist this doom-telling has put on Christian evangelism. Instead of appealing to seeking souls with Christ’s message of love, conversion and nonviolence, a combined message of fear, militarism and eternal damnation has been given priority. And do not be deceived, as some of these evangelists are fond of warning. Beneath the surface of some of these appeals lurk strident anti-Semitism and other blights Christians should have no truck with.
This is a miscarriage of the Christian message. Nowhere in his ministry did Christ attempt to frighten anyone into believing, nor did he tell any of his apostles to use scare tactics to win souls. He certainly did not encourage far-flung readings of prophecy or omens. Indeed, his message did away with all of that, and was consistently a gentle one of love, discipleship and voluntary change of heart—even while warning of the consequences of an unfaithful life.
The innovation of fear-mongering, along with making a profit from self-styled end-of-the-world “prophecy,” also seems to be a product of modern times, placing empty, frightened professions of faith ahead of changed lives embracing the positive, redemptive Christ. Curiosity about when Christ will return, especially with the wars and calamities we’ve witnessed in the past century, is understandable, or at least predictable. It is certainly natural for people to look on with trepidation, fearing they do not somehow measure up to heaven because of their sins. But again, this is not Christ’s teaching. Christ lived a life of divinity and exemplary mercy, and opened the door for all to follow him. This is not a cause for fear but an invitation to aspire to a deeper, more spiritual life. Christ did not teach a judgmental or harsh gospel, but one that embraces all who repent and follow him and casts a guiding light before all on the path.
Who needs to worry then—about end times, confusing calamities or signs in the sky—if we have accepted the truth of Christ and seen our lives, and those of others, transformed by it? Nothing will be gained by shouting down the heathens with omens of doom—be it from the Sunday pulpit, the street corner or the upper reaches of the bestseller charts.
Reprinted with permission from the Mennonite Weekly Review.