The beast is on the move, ladies and gentlemen, but it's not too late to prepare for the eschaton, the end of the world.
That's the message I brought home last weekend from “Startling Prophecies for America,” a three-part seminar on the apocalypse as referenced in the Bible, presented by pastor Steve Wohlberg, in, of all places, the Whitmore Community Center, out here in eastern Shasta County in the middle of nowhere where I live.
I'll be honest. I'm not a practicing Christian. But things sometimes get a little boring out here since we've gotten rid of the satellite dish, and I figured a little fire and brimstone might do me some good.
But just a little. I watched all three parts of Wohlberg's presentation on YouTube prior to the event but attended only the second session, “America in Bible Prophecy,” in person at the community center Saturday afternoon. The longer you hang out with Christians in real time, the higher the risk of attempted conversion, and I'm not presently in the market.
The center was full-up with about 70 people, men and women, most of whom I guessed were from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church just down the street in Whitmore. Wohlberg is an Adventist pastor who also runs White Horse Media, which specializes in apocalyptic literature and videos. The audience members were mostly older than my 57 years and dressed nicer, like they'd just come from Saturday service. About half of us were armed with pens and notebooks, as Wohlberg covers a lot of biblical ground in his presentations, which are more history lesson than sermon.
Drawing upon the words of the New Testament prophet John in Revelation 13, as well as Daniel 7 from the Old Testament, Wohlberg makes the case that we're mistaken if we picture “the beast” or the “anti-Christ” as an individual entity, à la Damien Thorne in those Omen movies. Instead, the two beasts that arise in Revelation 13, one from the sea and one from the land, represent religious and political entities that threatened God's kingdom on earth, circa 600 BC to 100 AD. Here are the relevant passages:
Revelation 13:1: And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.
Revelation 13:11: And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon.
The first beast, the one with the seven heads and ten horns, is also mentioned in the book of Daniel in the Old Testament, which takes place some 150 years before Christ.
Daniel 7:8: While I was thinking about the horns, there before me was another horn, a little one, which came up among them; and three of the first horns were uprooted before it. This horn had eyes like the eyes of a human being and a mouth that spoke boastfully.
In Wohlberg's interpretation, this little horn with eyes and a mouth like a human being is none other than the pope, which, by extension, makes the first beast, the one that rose from the sea, the Roman Catholic Church. This is by no means an original interpretation. It goes back more than a 500 years, predating the Protestant Reformation, as I'll discuss below.
Squeezing the United States out of Revelation's second beast requires a little more scriptural artistry, but Wohlberg is up to the task. The “land” the second beast has arisen from represents the frontier. The fact that there are no crowns on its horns (as on beast No. 1) means it's not a monarchy. We're getting warmer. The two horns themselves represent the separation of church and state. Glory, hallelujah! America is in the Bible!
To demonstrate how the prophecy is playing out in real time, Wohlberg points to former President Barack Obama's 2015 endorsement of Pope Francis' encyclical on climate change, which in Wohlberg's view granted the pontiff “full moral authority” over the entire planet. President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord is therefore seen as a positive development by Wohlberg, even though he believes we're definitely still living in the end times.
Thus the apocalyptic vision informs the worldview of Wohlberg, and who knows how many other Christians. Such beliefs may seem arcane to non-believers today, but as historian Arthur H. Williamson points out, not too many centuries ago, they helped overturn the tyrannical rule of the Holy Roman Empire and spark the Enlightenment.
“Today, few people accept the notion that the world is about to end through a prophesied supernatural act,” Williamson writes in Apocalypse Then: Prophecy and the Making of the Modern World. “And yet this has not always been the case. Between 1500 and 1800, many of Europe's and America's most creative minds (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish) believed that they were living in the latter days of the world and the culmination of human history.”
Full disclosure: Williamson is professor emeritus at California State University, Sacramento, where I once took his popular European history course. We've stayed connected over the years. Author of six historical books, his work is about as secular as it gets, which may make his primary conclusions about apocalyptic prophesy and its role in our cultural history appear counter-intuitive.
“The apocalypse underwrote the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the British Revolution in the seventeenth century, and the American Revolution in the eighteenth century,” he writes. “Moreover, it proved a crucial catalyst in the emergence of liberal values, political democracy, and even modern science. There is nothing in the least liberal, democratic or scientific about the apocalypse, but none of these developments would have occurred without it.”
As Williamson notes, the prophecies of Daniel in the Old Testament and John in Revelation played important roles in these developments. Daniel channeled an ancient Babylonian king to add historical depth and veracity to his vision of beasts and falling empires followed by the arrival of a messiah and a millennium of peace. John was clearly referring to the prophesied (by Daniel) fall of the Roman empire—by no means holy in the first century—in the immediate decades following the resurrection.
I'm over-simplifying more than a little bit, but this notion of civilization's fall at the hands of a political or religious power, followed by the rise of a new, improved civilization, eventually came to inform our notion of historical progress. Prior to that, during medieval times, we were captives in the Great Chain of Being, flies trapped in the amber of its fixed hierarchies of God, clergy, nobility, peasant. Change was impossible.
Martin Luther, the Gutenberg bible and increasing literacy among elites and the general population eventually helped overturn the old world order 500 years ago. As Williamson points out, illustrations depicting the multi-headed beast with its horns and papal crown—like the woodcut heading this article—were the memes of their time, effectively communicating the Holy Roman empire's ungodliness to the general public.
Five centuries later, with the Catholic Church now in a much diminished role historically, you'd think Protestants, especially newer denominations like the Seventh-Day Adventists, would have gotten over the whole, “The pope is the anti-Christ” thing. Apparently, we're in no such luck. Heck, they're all still arguing over who moved the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday.
I've got no dog in that fight, but I've kind of taken to Wohlberg's interpretation of America as the second beast mentioned by John in Revelation 13, with horns like a lamb and the voice of a dragon.
While the lamb signifies that this nation rising at the end of time is Christian-friendly, in the Bible, the beast is always a hypocrite.
“Our country is making high claims, but its actions are quite different,” Wohlberg says.
But instead of separation between church and state, might not the two horns on this seemingly pious beast's head—I imagine it covered with long, fine, golden fleece, like our president's—represent our two morally bankrupt political parties, that speak singularly in the dragon's forked tongue?
That sounds like a fairly accurate description of where America is today to me. Who knows? This prophecy stuff may turn out to be more accurate than it's cracked up to be. At any rate, as we approach our first Thanksgiving with President Trump, it does indeed sometimes feel as if we're living through the end times. If history is any guide, we will survive this time period and come out the other side the better for it.
In the meantime, a little praying probably wouldn't hurt.