Westmont Magazine Cults, Christians, and the Coming Millennium
As the year 2000 creeps closer, fascination with the new millennium increases. The media is exploring every angle of the story, including the reaction of established and non-traditional religious groups. Westmont Professor Ronald Enroth, a nationally known expert on new religious movements, often gets calls from journalists writing cult-related stories. This year, they are asking him how cults will respond to the calendar change.
“I don’t think there will be a heavy amount of cultic activity surrounding the year 2000,” he responds.
“None of the groups I have studied, such as Scientologists and the Unification Church, have given any signs of reacting in bizarre or inappropriate ways. They just don’t seem to be gearing up for the millennium.”
However, he notes that obscure cults can jump into the headlines overnight. Before the Heaven’s Gate members committed mass suicide in 1997, they were virtually unknown. The tragic standoff between authorities and the People’s Temple, led by David Koresh, is another example. Doomsday scenarios figured prominently in Koresh’s teaching: he predicted the world would end in 1995.
Just this year, Israel deported members of another unfamiliar cult: “Concerned Christians.” Members of this group reportedly traveled to Jerusalem to await the millennium and the second coming of Christ, and Israeli officials feared they would try to hasten these events through violence.
“It certainly wouldn’t surprise me to hear about other groups who surface with claims about the year 2000 and the end of the world,” Enroth says. “But it’s doubtful anyone could identify them ahead of time.”
A sociology professor at Westmont for 35 years, Enroth has written numerous books on cults as well as two works on extreme and abusive churches. He monitors a wide range of religious groups in his research.
While cults don’t seem to be taking an unusual interest in the year 2000, some Christians are giving it a lot of attention. Enroth has seen much more millennial activity within the church than in new religious groups.
Christians have focused mostly on the “millennium bug,” or the inability of some computers to recognize the year 2000. A number of prominent personalities, such as Hal Lindsey, Jack Van Impe, and even Jerry Falwell, have published books or issued statements about the Y2K problem and its supposed relation to biblical prophecy.
For example, Lindsey suggests in “Planet Earth: The Final Chapter” that the Antichrist will rise to prominence because he alone is able to fix the troublesome computer glitch and prevent the collapse of technology.
Michael Hyatt, a senior vice president for Thomas Nelson Publishers, has written “The Millennium Bug: How to Survive the Coming Chaos.” The list of Christian books and articles with similar, alarmist themes is surprisingly long.
Noting that some believers are literally heading for the hills or stockpiling food, Enroth expresses concern about such extreme responses. “I think a lot of Christians are overreacting to the Y2K problem,” he comments. “The real problem in January 2000 may not come from computer breakdowns but from panicked people hoarding food and supplies.”
The year 2000 holds no special significance in the Bible and doesn’t represent 2,000 years since the nativity, as Jesus was probably born between 5-7 B.C. So why the fuss?
“The zeroes in 2000 are very symbolic,” Enroth explains. “There is a kind of mystique about them. A similar fervor occurred before the year 1000 when the Pope announced the second coming of Christ and expected the final judgment. Today people are predicting the end of the world due to the failure of technology.”
“Actually, none of this should be too surprising,” Enroth continues. “Christians have always expected the end of the world and the second coming of Christ. Every century has its own craziness.”
Citing the example of the Millerites, who believed Christ would return in 1844, Enroth notes, “People had the same kind of fears and concerns in 19th-century America.”
“As Evangelicals, we are attracted to apocalyptic scenarios because we believe in the reality of Christ’s second coming. But I think some of us are too preoccupied with eschatology — and Y2K. The fact that Hal Lindsey’s books sell millions of copies says something about Evangelicals.”
According to Enroth, obsessive interest in the end times isn’t tied to intelligence or education but to spiritual deception.
The leader of the Concerned Christian cult deported from Israel illustrates this fact. Once he was an evangelical Christian highly critical of the New Age movement. But today, according to published reports, he believes he can channel the voice of God.
“Some of the Concerned Christians are highly educated people,” Enroth says. “But they are ecclesiastical loners with no ties to an established church, no discipleship, and no accountability. Their need to follow a leader has led them into theological error.”
Enroth believes Christians need to be more discerning. But he finds some believers think they will be unspiritual unless they “just believe.” They fear that asking questions shows a lack of faith.
“The church needs to develop the gift of discernment today,” Enroth states. In particular, he hopes Christians will work on their critical thinking skills. Teaching students to think critically is a major goal at Westmont.
“I also urge Christians to read widely and not limit themselves to Evangelical writers and publications. We need to be informed about our culture and its prevailing views as well as the diversity of opinion within the broad Christian community.”
In addition, he recommends a little skepticism, especially when reading materials on the Internet where anyone can post information easily at little cost.
Finally, he encourages Christians to be involved in a church where the leaders are accountable to a denomination or other organization. Otherwise, the congregation is too isolated and lacks a large enough body to counter any extremist views that members might hold.
The Millennium and the Tribulation
The fact that Christians are paying more attention to the year 2000 than other religious groups doesn’t surprise Robert Gundry, Kathleen Smith professor of religious studies at Westmont. He expected it.
Several years ago, while flipping channels on the television, he saw the title “Left Behind” flash on the screen of the Christian station. Guessing that the program related to the second coming of Christ, he tuned in.
The film that followed was designed to air after Christians had been taken out of the world in the “rapture” so those unbelievers “left behind” would know what had happened.
According to the New Testament, Christians who are living when Christ returns will be “caught up together . . . in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (I Thessalonians 4:17). Jesus will “send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds” (Matthew 24:31).
The people responsible for “Left Behind” believe this gathering will happen before the tribulation that takes place at the end of time. Consequently, only non-Christians will remain on earth to endure the terrible troubles described in the Gospels and Revelation. This view is known as pre-tribulationism.
Gundry has taken both a scholarly and a personal interest in the timing of the rapture. Growing up in a denomination committed to pre-tribulationism, he never questioned the teaching until he started reading the relevant biblical passages carefully. After much study, he became convinced the rapture would occur after the tribulation when Jesus returns to claim victory over the Antichrist. His position on this issue cost him the right to represent his denomination on the mission field and contributed to his decision to enter graduate school and seek a career as a New Testament scholar and professor.
In 1973 he published a scholarly book, “The Church and the Tribulation,” which presented his arguments in favor of post-tribulationism. A highly respected New Testament scholar, Gundry was honored with a book focusing on end-time studies, “To Tell the Mystery: Studies in Eschatology in Honor of Robert H. Gundry” (Thomas Schmidt and Moises Silva, eds., Sheffield, 1994).
After seeing the film “Left Behind,” Gundry thought it likely that some pre-tribulationists would look for the rapture to occur in conjunction with the year 2000. “As the new millennium approaches, I feared we would get more of this craziness,” he explained.
The possibility of upheavals caused by the Y2K computer bug just adds to the speculation regarding the rapture and the tribulation, Gundry believes.
In fact, pre-tribulationists, including Tim LaHaye and Tommy Ice, established The Pre-Trib Research Center in Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s. Their literature proclaims the importance of this doctrine to the church, and says the New Testament places it as the central heartthrob of motivation for Christians.
While pre-tribulationism has increasingly fallen out of favor with evangelical theologians and Bible scholars, a series of novels by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye is reviving popular interest in it. “I think it quite appropriate that this view is being sold as fiction,” Gundry notes.
Persuaded that pre-tribulationism incorrectly interprets scripture, he decided to write a book for popular consumption refuting the idea that Christians will avoid the tribulation. In 1997, Baker Books published “First the Antichrist,” which provides an in-depth analysis of the relevant scriptural passages as well as a review of teaching about the tribulation throughout Christian history. It also updates the arguments in Gundry’s earlier work.
“Telling Christians they will leave the world before the tribulation is feel-good theology that appeals to American culture,” he says. “It is the wishful thinking of some upwardly mobile Christians who want a crown without a cross and who, despite their confessing the Bible to be God’s very word, eagerly if not consciously accept a bending of its meaning to match the comfort of their lifestyle.”
To understand the timing of the rapture, Gundry turns to the Bible and notes there are no explicit statements in the New Testament that Jesus will return before the tribulation. “Now if Jesus really was going to come back before the tribulation for the purpose of taking Christians out of the world, you’d sure expect the New Testament to say so. After all, a pre-trib rapture would affect all Christians more directly and immediately than any other event of biblical prophecy would do. It would be designed solely for them.”
But only a few verses describe the rapture, while many passages discuss the tribulation. “Why does John spend so much ink on describing the tribulation — 15 chapters’ worth (4-18) — if his Christian audience can’t possibly enter the tribulation?” Gundry asks. “The early church fathers regularly warned Christians to prepare for confronting the Antichrist and suffering persecution at his hands.”
As the title of Gundry’s book indicates, Christians should not look for the coming of Christ, the rapture, or the tribulation to signal the beginning of the end of time. The Antichrist must come first.
Gundry encourages readers to decide for themselves the validity of pre-tribulationism. Enroth advises Christians to think critically about issues related to Y2K. Given the issues facing believers, the words of Peter in I Peter 1:13 seem appropriate “Gird your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
— Nancy Favor Phinney ’74