I have an embarrassing confession to make. For a person who analyzes forged sacred texts as a hobby, I have to admit that until Pope Benedict XVI resigned, I had never even heard of Saint Malachy’s “Prophecy of the Popes”. If you’re like me and don’t normally associate with crazy conspiracy theorists, then it might be news to you too. Basically, the so-called prophecy is a series of 112 supposed predictions about future popes first published by a Benedictine monk in 1595 but attributed to a 12-century Irish archbishop. Most likely, the prophecies were forged in the 16th century as part of a cardinal’s campaign efforts to gain the papacy. Like a typical “found” prophecy–say, the Book of Mormon–the descriptions are remarkably accurate up until the time it was claimed to have been discovered, and then become noticeably vague immediately thereafter. The last pope in the list is ominously apocalyptic:
“In the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there will sit Peter the Roman, who will pasture his sheep in many tribulations, and when these things are finished, the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the dreadful judge will judge his people. The End”
Coincidentally, this 112th pope would correspond to whoever becomes Benedict’s successor, and now the prophecy’s proponents have gone wild over “Petrus Romanus”, or Peter the Roman, as heralding the end of the world. Frankly, it makes Mormonism look rather rational by comparison. The Roman Catholic Church, scholars, historians, and logical people all dismiss it as a forgery, but strangely an unlikely segment of the Evangelical community have become the most vocal doom prophets. Striking while the iron is hot, they’ve cashed in on hastily written anti-Catholic books (ironic since they’re exploiting a prophecy that originated within the Catholic Church) and google-bombed every corner of the internet with this nonsense.
Why are Bible-believing Evangelicals so susceptible to such an easily refutable, unbiblical fraud? Eschatology has ballooned into an Evangelical obsession that consumes an undeserved amount of the church’s time, energy, and resources. It was inevitable because Apocalypse-obsessed Christianity is the ultimate expression of the “Me” Generation’s faith. Not content just to have a book from God to them, these believers want the Bible to be a book about them. The easiest way for them to insert themselves into the text is to contextualize Biblical prophecy into the present day, and no book better serves this self-involving purpose than the book of Revelation. Stories about Moses, Elijah, or Jesus from 2,000 years ago in another hemisphere fail to satisfy post-Baby Boom narcissism; the “Me” Generation needs to be able to see present-day America (ie: themselves) as an active participant in their religion.
For instance, the Seven Asian Churches in Revelation 2-3 are almost never taught to be the actual churches described in that context, but are most often interpreted to mean chronological church “ages”. Throughout history, however, all believers to have held this dispensationalist view have conveniently always interpreted themselves as the last age, or the Laodicean church. Wishful anticipation of being in the “last days” seems to drive this interpretation rather than any sound exegetical method. The worst casualty of this motivated eisegesis is the neglect of the fundamental moral and spiritual messages to the preceding six churches. In trying to find themselves in the scheme of Biblical events, these Christians can very often miss the entire point, message, and application to be found there for them.
Despite rampant Biblical illiteracy, Christians who in reality know very little about the Bible or Christianity still have strong opinions on the end times. As many as 40% of Americans will always be confident that Jesus Christ will return in their lifetime, even if less than half of them can name the four gospels. Ignorance on the life and teachings of Christ pervades even among the devout, yet apocalyptic expectations of the mark of the beast, the rapture, and the anti-christ have attained a folk level of awareness. Believers and non-believers alike are probably more familiar with the terms and images of Revelation than other parts of the Bible. This is unfortunate, because Revelation is perhaps the most reference-dense book in the New Testament, depending predominately on an assumed understanding of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Anyone not versed in the Hebrew prophets is unlikely to hold an accurate knowledge of Christian eschatology.
Historically, the Jews and subsequently early Christians did not hold to a “flat” canon as is common today, at least in the Evangelical sphere. The Hebrews esteemed the Torah more than the rest of the writings, poetry, and prophecy in the Bible, and scriptural canons varied somewhat among the Church Fathers. The Book of Revelation in particular was controversial in the early church, omitted altogether by some, questioned by others, and never incorporated into the liturgical calendar. I say this not to cast doubt on its canonicity, but rather to emphasize that not all scripture was intended to be transmitted equally. Christians wouldn’t try to use the Song of Solomon as an evangelization tool, yet they will inappropriately misuse the Apocalypse of John of Patmos with great enthusiasm.
Evangelicals in particular tend to treat Revelation like a March Madness bracket, filling it out with contemporary figures, nations, and organizations in the various slots for horsemen, prophets, or beasts. When one world leader dies or an empire wanes, like the head of a hydra another takes its place, always shoehorned to the current preferences and tastes of contemporary evangelical culture. For instance, an actual communist dictator like Hugo Chavez could never have rated as a possible antichrist to anglo-centric American Christians, whereas Barack Obama is suspected by 24% of Republicans as being the antichrist. This has less to do with any real or imagined threat of him actually being such, because Obama would be the “Me” Generation’s favored choice simply because he’s American and also not Republican. Candidates who could arguably make more sense in that role like Kim Jong Un just don’t rate as high with them because, despite his abundant church persecution and human rights violations, he has little direct involvement in their lives. The faithful just ignore their track record of 100% failure in this scheme of understanding Revelation, and question the faith of anyone who doubts their then-current interpretation, even though they will eventually bench President Obama just like they have other former players in the past.
Despite these eschatological shortcomings, evangelicals are usually given a free pass. After all, they’re not claiming to be actual prophets receiving private revelations in the embarrassing league of failed end times predictors like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Or have they crossed that line? I dare say in the short span of Harold Camping’s twice-fold Second Coming failures and now the rising hum of “Petrus Romanus” conspiracy theories, evangelicals are progressing beyond the point of no return. Apologists may argue that only a fringe minority of his radio audience actually followed Camping to the point of throwing away their life savings, yet the same could be said of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 70’s. In fact, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society effectively covered their backs by never explicitly printing their much-hyped 1975 prediction, whereas the same cannot be said of Camping’s visibly damning paper trail. Fellow evangelicals may have ridiculed Harold Camping and his followers, yet some of these scoffers were the first to jump aboard the next crazy train after the Pope resigned and a 400-year old forged “prophecy” was suddenly in vogue.
Sadly, anyone raised in an Evangelical background these days would automatically assume this is the only way the book of Revelation could be understood. Idealist, Preterist, and Historicist possibilities are marginal if not entirely unknown. The biggest problem with this Futurist tunnel-vision is that it invalidates the book of Revelation to all previous generations. If one can only see it as a coded “sign of the times” for those in the last days, then the book wasn’t applicable to anyone who’s ever died before its fulfillment. That also means if you devote your life to such a reading and you die before the Second Coming, then all that eschatology study was pretty much wasted time and energy. I’m not actually suggesting that all Futurist interpretations should be abandoned, or making a case for any of the other views in its favor, but I would simply suggest that Christians look for meaning in Revelation that is both relevant and applicable even without a prophetic fulfillment within their lifetime.
As the sensationalist description for Thomas Horn and Chris D Putnam’s conspiracy theory-laden book, Petrus Romanus: The Final Pope Is Here, says: “the time for avoiding Peter the Roman just ran out.” This is unfortunately true, albeit only in the sense of a self-fulling prophecy. For the duration of the next papacy, an unquantifiable army of fanatical Christian soldiers will be bunkered down in Apocalypse-now mode. These easily misled lunatics and disruptive village idiots are not withdrawn from society, however; they actively vote, petition, protest, blog, and anything else to exert disproportionate influence and prioritize their insane agenda above more pressing national and global interests. With the usual cultic bullying tactics of an “end is near” street prophet, they dismiss every voice of reason as part of the conspiracy and declare their fellow Christians apostates just for rejecting their apocryphal eschatology.
In fact, I can already hear the predictable objections from the crazy choir: “You’re not a real Christian if you can’t see that we’re living in the End Times!” or “Only a godless liberal would defend Obama”, regardless of how ridiculous the accusation (conservatives never seem to understand how spreading falsehoods like birtherisms about the president forces those of us who value the truth more than partisanship into his defense, whether we even like him or not).
Now more than ever, it’s important that any of the few remaining rational Evangelicals shut out these voices loudly and vehemently before they consume and poison the whole movement. If such a belief is permitted to spread, it could be more damaging than any of the other recent Evangelical embarrassments. After all, President Obama will cease to be a plausible candidate for the antichrist in a few years when he leaves office, but the next pope could be around for decades. An entire generation could be faced with disillusionment when this ultimately fails, and it will. As the prophecy’s proponents draw a line between them and the rest of us, we should allow them to recluse themselves from the mainstream community, or risk being the laughingstock by association. To them, it never gets old, like the Mormon church calling themselves “latter day” saints for the last 200 years. Logic and reason are already lost on the firm believers of such conspiracy theories, but no matter how marginal or fringe they may be, they must not be permitted to define a generation of Christians.