An apocalyptic pamphlet written by a radio preacher (and illustrated by a Mad Magazine cartoonist) lit up the imagination of the man who would become my father. Its prophetic message ultimately lured my parents to Southern California in the mid 1960s.
I imagine my father tuning into a radio station in Cincinnati, maybe in his VW Bug after a day of work as a commercial artist at the local office of the McCann Erickson agency. This evangelist on the radio was different from the shallow, milqtoast preachers my dad despised. He exposed the hypocrisy of American Christianity and its conspiracy to suppress the truth about what Jesus really taught. Like my dad, Herbert W. Armstrong started out in the advertising business. He wasn’t much of a theologian (he hadn’t even graduated high school) but he could write a hell of a headline.
1975 in Prophecy was a breathless depiction of Armageddon that featured a revived Germany unleashing nuclear holocaust on the United States and Britain, ultimately enslaving the remnant that survived. Newswire photos anchored the prophecies in current headlines. Basil Wolverton’s grotesque stipple drawings brought to life the the darkest fears of the Cold War.
But there was hope for readers who heeded the message, especially the call to reject false Christianity with its pagan holidays of Christmas and Easter. Those who heard and repented would eventually rule over their unbelieving neighbors in the soon-coming millennial kingdom of God. That’s why my parents moved to Pasadena, to get prepared.
As the year 1975 approached it became apparent the timing implied in the title was a bit off. The booklet was quietly scuttled. Faithful members, with the encouragement of their pastors, destroyed their copies. Today one of HWA’s most influential works is now the most rare. ( A copy on Amazon is listed for $168. ) 1975 in Prophecy supplied the meta narrative for my childhood, but I never saw a copy until I was an adult.
Basil Wolverton was also the illustrator of my childhood storybook Bible, and his apocalyptic cartoons shaped my picture of the future. It was a matter plain fact that I would not live to adulthood in this world. Jesus would certainly return before I had to concern myself with a career, family, mortgage or taxes. My teen years, my earliest career choices, were all predicated on the certainty that Jesus’ return was just around the corner. Like so many of my peers in that church, I stumbled into adulthood accidentally and wildly unprepared.
The probable dates of the apocalypse were less certain as I grew up, but always just over the horizon. Like the Millerites in the 1850s, and countless other failed end-times prophecies, the faithful simply went back to the drawing board to recalibrate their charts and graphs.
The years I remembered with emphasis were 1977, 1979, 1982. Far-off 1996 was the latest possible date, based firmly on Archbishop Usher’s calculation that the world was created in 4004 B.C. and that mankind had been allotted no more than 6,000 years of existence.
Even ordinary kid stuff was framed by the End Times. My church-sponsored scout troop camped often, and we expected that our wilderness survival skills would be especially useful when the church fled to Petra in the Jordanian desert. I was prepared to see Jesus return from the vantage point of a cave in Jordan (yes, we really believed this). I was not as well prepared for a mortgage.
So what, then? I ask myself what’s the point of digging out this dusty pamphlet and putting it on trial, subjecting it to public ridicule, and then going back to work tomorrow. Maybe it’s something like therapy. Or maybe there’s a fundamentalist Baptist out there with whom I have more shared experience than I imagine.
This summer I’m reading a history the Reformation, and it turns out apocalyptic fevers are nothing new. Luther didn’t like the book of Revelation much until he found the Pope in it, dressed up as the Antichrist. Then it lit his fire, too.
. . .
So I’m driving down a winding road to Wal-Mart, past a double row of white horse fences that frame a lush green paddock with a couple of magnificent live oaks on a hill.
I pray as I drive, as I often do. My prayers have become shorter as I grow older. My prayer today is a question that St. Paul condemned. “Lord, do you delay your coming?” If the Bible is inerrant in some sense, then how is it that the apostles expected your return in their lifetime? Did they have to recalibrate their charts, too?
I think of my sister, who passed away two weeks ago. I think of the minister that performed her funeral, his gentleness, his confidence. He’s from the remnant of that old church. They’ve held onto shared history and community even though they’ve rejected the theology of Armstrong. Now they flirt with something that feels close to universalism. It would surely seem comforting after all the theological knife fights, dogmatic certainty and condemnation of the decades past.
And so I pray, Lord where are you in all this? Are you coming as you promised?
A day for the Lord is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day. I am in the crisis of midlife, facing an empty nest, the uncertainty of retirement, the aches and pains of aging. My Lord, do you delay your coming? What if I live another 20 years? If I see you then is that soon enough? Won’t 70 years, or 90, go like a blink of the eye? Another 20 years is a snap of the fingers.
But where are you, Lord? And what should we say to those who ask why we haven’t heard from you in 2,000 years?
I imagine what the Apostle’s Creed might have been like if it had attached a date to the clause about Christ returning to judge the quick and the dead. Thank God they remembered that Jesus said no one knows the day or the hour.
After my own experience, after reading of the experience of others, is it simply incredulous to imagine that someday Jesus will return? Surely some of my friends think so. It is a triumph of optimism over experience . . .
Even so, maranatha.