Color Wheel, Summer/Autumn 2005
I was only a little kid, maybe six or seven or years old, when I found out that the world was someday going to end. It was at my grandparents’ house and we were watching a program speculating how and when our planet was going to cease to exist, and, upon realizing the magnitude of this revelation, I turned to Grandpa and asked him if it was true. He said that it was, but not to worry because it wasn’t going to happen for a long, long time, long after we’re gone, which is about when I also realized not only my own mortality, but that someday we were all going to die.
Ever since that day I’ve had recurring dreams about the end of the world and sort of a morbid fascination about how it is going to happen. I particularly enjoy books and movies that deal with the end of the world as we know it—The Day After, The Stand, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to name a few—and have myself attempted to write a short story in which planet Earth has reached its final hour when all living things have perished, but the machinery of humankind has continued to run on auto-pilot until finally a couple of humane aliens arrive to pull the plug and put Earth out of its misery for good. Then I started getting in over my head trying to incorporate Einstein’s Theory of Relativity into the story and other such things that Stephen Hawking hasn’t even figured out yet, and finally I got a really bad headache and haven’t looked at it for several years now.
Needless to say, when the glossy brochure for “The Prophecy Code” seminar came in the mail, I was intrigued:
The Prophecy Code: Bible Secrets Unleashed!
Learn how prophetic symbols reveal the future!
Now, I am not a religious fellow and don’t know much about the Bible, nor was I a Dungeons & Dragons geek in high school, but the fantasy novel illustration on the front of the pamphlet intrigued me. There standing on a planet Earth pimpled with mushroom clouds is a giant knight or wizard of some sort brandishing a sword in one hand and an hourglass with time running out in the other. He has a mane of white hair flowing out of a crown atop his head and a matching and meticulously trimmed beard, and he is wearing a smart white tunic with little fringes at the bottom and a plated vest of armor with some sort of control panel on the chest. There is a large red snake wrapped around his lower body with mouth open and serpent tongue sticking out between some very sharp teeth, and behind him stranded on the moon is a giant damsel in distress, a beautiful young maiden wearing a glowing white gown looking over her shoulder knowing that her knight in stylish armor is Earth’s only hope.
The future… will we survive? Bible prophecy has the answers!
On the back there is an illustration of a heavily air-brushed Jesus with hands cupped together offering a globe of intense light beaming out in all directions, and behind him Earth looks calm and peaceful. Inside the pamphlet, however, are terrifying images intended to represent our present-day society. There is blatantly contrived picture of a television newscast with screaming kids running from an exploding house and a sidebar on the screen tallying the grim totals:
Hostage Situation: Richardson Elementary
The backdrop of the rest of the page is a collage of fighter jets, army tanks, a soldier wearing a radiation suit, and the upper portion of Homeland Security’s national terror alert chart highlighting the red, orange, and yellow levels. There is also a scroll written in Hebrew, an Israeli flag, and a chart of the New York Stock Exchange with a line at the end that drops straight down to oblivion. These frightening images are running through the mind of a young man at the bottom of the page posing in what looks like a distressed interpretation of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, and hovering over his head are the words Israel, Antichrist, Apocalypse, Armageddon, Rapture, 666, and Revelation.
On the next page we are introduced to Pastor Doug Batchelor—speaker, author, and radio and television personality—known and loved by millions for his engaging style and clear teaching of Bible prophecy. His picture looks more like the standard Sears portrait studio photograph adorning the business card of a local ReMax agent than that of a beloved American propheteer; he is mostly bald with a crown of brown hair and a thin mustache, and his smile seems a little too friendly to scare the masses into believing that the world is coming to an end. But he wants us to believe that all the horror in the world today are signs that the apocalypse is upon us, so he is having a three-night “Bible Prophecy Seminar” this coming weekend to teach us how to prepare for it. The seminar will be originating from the borders of our nation’s capitol and broadcast via satellite to select locations throughout the surrounding area. Admission is free, and each night will cover a different topic:
Friday, March 4: Prophecy’s Final Countdown
Saturday, March 5: Revelation’s Rapture
Sunday, March 6: The Dragon’s Egg
There is also a website with a bio page on Pastor Batchelor that briefly chronicles his descent to the proverbial rock-bottom and his rapid ascent to the top of the Biblical prophecy game. He was born into a wealthy high-society family in New York City but grew up as a troubled rich kid who turned to drugs and crime before moving into a cave in the mountains above Palm Springs. In that cave he found a Bible left by a previous dweller, and once he opened that Good Book, he never closed it again. Today he is the president of an organization called “Amazing Facts,” which Reaches the world with God’s end-time message. They sell books, CDs, and advertising space, and they also host seminars, run the Amazing Facts College of Evangelism, solicit donations, and gladly accept Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover, all for the purpose of helping Christians everywhere prepare for Armageddon.
By now I have a hunch where this is all leading, but still I’m curious. Who, exactly, is their target audience? I can’t really see the more conservative Christian denominations buying into this rather sensational form of Bible interpretation (unless it is some kind of Christian entertainment), and I don’t really see the Dungeons & Dragons crowd buying into it either (having known a few dungeon masters back in high school, I know how particular they are about what is cool and what is cheesy, and the cover of this pamphlet would surely be seen as generic and fall under the category of the latter)—so who is gonna show up to this thing?
* * *
I arrive at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Westminster fifteen minutes early for the “Prophecy’s Final Countdown” program on Friday evening. Fortunately there was a convenient “Prophecy Code Site Locator” on the Prophecy Code website that found a satellite location a mere 12.2 miles from my zip code here in central Maryland, but the directions provided told me how to get there from an entirely different part of the state, which made their claims of prophetic insight a little suspect. I then consulted MapQuest and the correct directions came right up, so I tried getting directions to “Doomsday” as well, but fortunately my search did not match any locations in their database.
The church is rather small and the parking lot doesn’t look like it could hold more than thirty cars, yet there are two guys wearing orange reflector vests directing incoming traffic with flashlights into open parking spaces like they do at concerts and sporting events. Inside I am greeted warmly by several people wearing nametags and am asked to fill out a “registration ticket book” that looks similar to the raffle books I used to sell in Little League. The lady sitting at the table who hands me the book says there will be a drawing for a prize after the broadcast, but she fails to mention what it is. Preferring to remain the anonymous “Resident” to whom the pamphlet that came in the mail was addressed, I fill in “A. Resident” as my name and write down a spurious address and phone number and tear off what I hope will not be the winning ticket from the rest of the book.
I am then directed into the cathedral, which is small and very red—the carpeting is a rather foreboding crimson, while the padded cushions on the pews are a more cheery strawberry. The lighting is dim and there is a woman playing soothing melodies on the piano up front that are perhaps a little too relaxing. In the very last row there is a television monitor and electronic equipment, and up front a movie screen is hanging from a ceiling beam. I take a seat in one of the middle rows of pews to the far right next to the window where I figure I would be most concealed when the place fills up so I can take notes without attracting too much attention. The majority of people in attendance look like they are in their fifties and sixties, and more than a few are sitting by themselves. Except for two young couples sitting together who look like they’re out on an inexpensive date, there doesn’t appear to be anyone else under thirty.
A few minutes before the broadcast is scheduled to begin, a man wearing a name tag that has the name “Stephen” written on it heads up front and says that they are just about ready to get started. He also tells us to be sure to hold on to our tickets for the drawing after the broadcast and then says a little prayer asking the Lord to bless all of us who showed up tonight, and also the satellite equipment. Afterwards he looks at us like he is about to ask each of us to stand up and introduce ourselves, but fortunately he just thanks us for coming and tells us to enjoy the broadcast, to which I let out a little amen.
The broadcast opens with a guy named John Lomacang from Indiana singing the theme song that Pastor Doug Batchelor wrote himself, “Jesus Will Come on Time,” the sheet music of which is downloadable in PDF format on the Prophecy Code website. Lomacang signals the Silver Spring audience to rise while he is singing, and we too rise here in Westminster. The song is simple and only consists of a chorus, and during Lomacang’s first run through the song the lyrics appear on the screen like they do on a Karaoke monitor. Little do we know, however, that we were supposed to memorize the lyrics because he asks everyone to join him in singing, but this time the lyrics do not appear on the screen. None of us thought to print up the sheet music and we weren’t handed any lyric sheets, so we are all standing dumbly except for a few people who are attempting to sing along by either trying to anticipate what the next lyric will be or by repeating as quickly as they can the lyric that Lomacang has just sung so that they are a beat behind and really would have been much better off if they had just kept quiet so the rest of us could better enjoy the talent of this gifted singer.
After the song everyone sits down and out comes the man himself, former juvenile delinquent of New York City’s upper-crust and caveman of Palm Springs, Pastor Doug Batchelor. He tells us that they are broadcasting from “Silver Springs,” MD, just outside of D.C., and for the rest of the broadcast no one bothers to inform him that the actual name of the town is “Silver Spring,” which he seems to be confusing with “Palm Springs.” Pastor Doug is wearing one of those really slim and barely visible headset mouthpieces that savvy customer service reps and chopper pilots wear, and he has on a tasteful, well-tailored suit that is not so flashy that it will distract the audience or draw attention away from them. He reminds me more of an infomercial host than a pastor, but his style is much more relaxed and down-to-earth than the in-your-face style of Billy Mays of Oxi-Clean fame. He seems very likeable and, despite the chaos in the world today, he has a very tolerant sense of humor, which he attributes to the chaos he has experienced in his own life and his clear understanding of things to come.
The stage is decorated with a couple of props: a giant unrolled scroll with Hebrew lettering and a ten foot Bible with a big keyhole cut in it. There is also a teleprompter that Pastor Doug explains is not working, so he hopes that we don’t think him overly pretentious for using the aid of a Palm Pilot during his presentation and says, “Amen for the Palm Pilot!” The satellite network is called “Hope Live,” and on the upper left corner of the screen is the “Hope Live” logo that makes it look like one of those cable televangelist networks that is usually lumped together with the home shopping and public access channels. The audience in Silver Spring is much larger than our little group of fifty or sixty here in this little church, and besides one woman caught fast asleep during a camera pan of the crowd, they are much livelier. A few people here in Westminster are saying “amen” to some of the points Pastor Doug is making, but they are rather subdued amens, except for the guy sitting to down at the other end of the pew to my left who is saying it in a loud and purposeful baritone so that the rest of us will be well-aware how devout he is.
After his opening monologue, Pastor Doug’s wife Karen joins him on stage. She is wearing a very blue dress and is holding a stack of index cards with FAQs on them that she reads to Pastor Doug, who answers each in full detail. It doesn’t take long for the biggest shock of the evening when we find out that this is not a three-night seminar that we can pick and choose which programs to attend, but is actually the first of TWENTY nights of intensive Bible study intended to scrutinize passages in the Book of Revelation that indicate that the end is near and Jesus is coming. The programs will be held every night except Mondays and Thursdays, which they have found to be the lowest attended nights of the week because people tend to have classes or other such things going on during those nights, but they make up for it by having two programs on Saturdays. Each night has a unique program, and a syllabus is passed out to us with the date and title of each:
1. Friday, March 4: Prophecy’s Final Countdown
1. Friday, March 4: Prophecy’s Final Countdown
2. Saturday, March 5: Revelation’s Rapture
3. Sunday, March 6: The Dragon’s Egg
4. Tuesday, March 8: Blood on the Throne
5. Wednesday, March 9: Israel’s Temple in Prophecy
6. Friday, March 11: The Two Witnesses
7. Saturday, March 12: The Richest Caveman
8. Saturday, March 12: History’s Greatest Hoax
9. Sunday, March 13: Revelation Reveals the Antichrist
10. Tuesday, March 15: 666 and the Mark of the Beast
11. Wednesday, March 16: The USA in Bible Prophecy
12. Friday, March 18: Drowning the Old Man
13. Saturday, March 19: Deadly Delusions
14. Saturday, March 19: The Lake of Fire
15. Sunday, March 20: The Devil Chained
16. Tuesday, March 22: God’s Health Plan
17. Wednesday, March 23: Clothed With Light?
18. Friday, March 25: The Truth About Israel’s 144,000
19. Saturday, March 26: Above the Crowd
20. Saturday, March 26: The Lion and the Lamb
As if this revelation wasn’t mind-boggling enough, Pastor Doug says that this is actually a condensed version of the thirty-two night seminar he used to host back in the late 1990s when Biblical prophecy experienced a surge in popularity at the approach of Y2K, which he now refers to as “The mother of false alarms.” The popularity was expected to drop after no serious complications had arisen, but that hasn’t happened; in fact, it is more popular than ever, as evidenced by bestselling books such as The Da Vinci Code and the Left Behind series.
The whole idea of prophecy is driven by the belief that God is about to do something. Instead of believing all the fantastic malarkey usually associated with the Second Coming, however, Pastor Doug is going to take a more common sense approach by analyzing key passages in the Book of Revelation. He dispels the sort of prophecies you see on tabloid covers in the supermarket checkout lines (while admitting that he has self-consciously purchased such publications in the past just to see how ridiculous some of their prophecies are), and, besides the tabloid prophets, he also dispels palm readers, psychic hotlines, crystal balls, and Nostradamus. He does admit that he is a “televangelist,” a word that is generally associated with disreputable stereotypes (which is true, because as soon as he says “televangelist,” the names Jim Bakker, Oral Roberts, and T.D. Jakes come to mind, as does Steve Martin in Leap of Faith, which was actually carnival tent evangelism, but still the same idea), and that many of these guys are “kooks,” which gives the audience a laugh. But he is not like them; all he wants to do is teach us the Bible.
When the husband-and-wife sketch is over, John Lomacang from Indiana comes back out and sings another song, but this time nobody stands or sings along. Afterwards Pastor Doug retakes the stage, but before going into the main part of his presentation he encourages the audience to jot down any Bible passages that he may refer to so that we can look them up ourselves when we get home. A few people in Silver Spring already have pens and paper out, which makes me a little less self-conscious of my diligent note-taking, but not much because I still remain the only one in Westminster doing so. Then for the next forty-five minutes or so he talks about Jesus and the Bible and gives what sounds like a rather straightforward Sunday morning sermon, which is not what I came to hear. I’m waiting for him to start talking about the ground opening up and swallowing continents whole or plagues that will wipe out humanity or maybe even globalthermal nuclear war, but then, as if talking directly to me, he says, “If you came to this seminar hoping that I will tell you when the world is gonna end—well, I’m not gonna tell you that. I’ll only tell you that it’s near.” Suddenly I become a little more aware that the padding I am sitting on is only doing so much to cushion my ass from the hard pew and that the two cups of coffee I had before leaving the house are now pressing against my bladder. “The central theme is to point you to Jesus,” he continues, and I know I’m in trouble because I don’t want to get up and risk missing something exciting, but I have no idea how much longer the program is supposed to last or how much longer my bladder is going to hold.
Finally, about an hour into the presentation, a sword appears on the screen and Pastor Doug explains that this is a symbol of The Word of God. There are other symbols as well, such as “woman” symbolizing church, “dragon” symbolizing Satan, “lamb” symbolizing Jesus, etc. Then he gives us a preview of some of the Bible passages he will be scrutinizing during the next nineteen sessions, but even a quick read will reveal how obvious the signs are that Jesus is coming and that the end of the world is fast approaching:
Matthew 24:6: And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars…
It is certainly true that we hear of wars and rumors of wars on the news every day—but hasn’t this been the case since Jesus was born and even long before that?
Matthew 24:7: For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences,and earthquakes in various places.
War, hunger, AIDS, and earthquakes. Pastor Doug pulls up a chart showing the dramatic increase in earthquakes over the past few years, and this data prompts the biggest gasp of the evening.
Revelation 11:18: And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.
Basically, the leaders of nations and giant corporations who have destroyed the earth with their wars and pollution will be destroyed themselves, while the God-fearing servants, prophets, and saints will be rewarded.
Daniel 12:4: …many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.
Pastor Doug explains that this is a prophecy for an increase in world travel and the discovery of “great scientific knowledge,” both of which have clearly happened, particularly in the last century.
Matthew 24:14: And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.
The gospel will be preached to the darkest corners of the earth via the Internet and then the world will end.
Matthew 24:4: And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.
This one I find curious, and I wonder if this selection is really the conscious of a prophetic caveman speaking or if Pastor Doug is just taking a shot at his rivals.
Luke 21:25: And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring…
This one he attributes to the devastating tsunami in Asia this past December, which he has already mentioned several times throughout the evening. The tsunami was perhaps the biggest sign yet of things to come.
Matthew 24:22: And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.
If Jesus doesn’t come soon, man is going to destroy himself. Pastor Doug mentions 200 missing nuclear warheads from the old Soviet Union, and then what about all those nasty chemical weapons and dirty bombs we keep hearing about? It is only a matter of time…
Apparently, every bad thing happening in the world, and perhaps even not-so-bad things such as technology and prophecy seminars, are all signs that Jesus will be here any minute now.
“Jesus has to come!” Pastor Doug exclaims with a little laugh, as if it is preposterous to believe otherwise.
After putting the fear of God into the audience, he lightens the mood with some you-know-you’re-living-in-the-21st-century jokes that I remember being spammed around several years ago: “You know you’re living in the 21st century when you enter your password into the microwave… You know you’re living in the 21st century when you e-mail the person sitting next to you…” Although these jokes are humorous and have been known to induce chuckles in office cubicles and computer dens throughout the world, the fact remains that technologically is a clear sign that Jesus is coming. Just a couple of days ago, Steve Fossett’s historic nonstop flight around the world—another sign. Martha Stewart being released from prison, the Pope’s tracheotomy, the cancellation of the NHL season, and, God forbid, the huge success of Desperate Housewives—it is quite clear that the end is near.
“We need to get ready for Jesus,” says Pastor Doug, and John Lomacung from Indiana comes out and sings one more song.
After an hour-and-a-half, my ass has fallen completely asleep. Pastor Doug begins his closing commentary by reminding us that the Lord has brought us together this evening for a reason, and then he starts talking about the tsunami again, a tragedy of Biblical proportion that has been a boon for the prophecy industry. He tells us the story of a guy he knows who owned a resort on one of the islands that got hit hard, and, having grown up in Hawaii and knowing the signs of a coming tsunami, this guy knew exactly what was about to happen after feeling the tremors and seeing the ocean recede. Clueless tourists started wandering out onto the sea floor picking up shells where the ocean had been only moments before, so he ran out frantically yelling for everyone to run for higher ground, but most of the people thought he was just crazy and did not heed his warning. These people were not saved. Pastor Doug says that his warning is no different and that the signs are as obvious as a receding ocean. To that the guy sitting to my left gives his loudest amen of the night.
“We are so close to the end,” Pastor Caveman says in a rather convincingly somber tone. “Jesus is going to be on time.”
Jesus also wants us to attend the next nineteen meetings, and that we should bring our friends and enemies because afterwards our enemies will be so appreciative that they may very well become our friends. Pastor Doug mentions that it is not too late for anyone not here tonight to get with the program because if we were to pick any night to miss, this was the one because it was just sort of an overview. He then closes the broadcast with a brief prayer before fading into a test pattern, and the lights come back on in the cathedral.
Stephen comes out and says that whoever’s name is drawn tonight will get to choose one of a large selection of books spread out on the table up front, and that anyone who makes it to just ten of the programs will get a free Amazing Facts DVD. Then he holds up the grand prize, which will go to the person who attends the most nights: an authentic Thomas Kinkade leather-bound Lighting the Way Home family Bible with a painting by America’s most collected artist on the cover and a retail price of $89.99, a one-of-a-kind keepsake that is an ideal “turn-of-the-century” heirloom for anyone’s Christian library. This prize gets some gasps, and I begin to wonder if in the minds of a few followers that this seminar has suddenly changed from an enlightening forum of answers into a quest for Kinkade.
Though I have never won any kind of drawing in all my life, I am a bit worried that A. Resident’s ticket is going to be pulled from the little wicker basket for the book prize. If it is, I am surely not going to claim it, which could lead to a potentially embarrassing situation if the lady who was sitting at the table while I was filling out the ticket book remembers me. Fortunately, however, someone else’s name is called and he goes up front and picks out his book.
Finally the seminar is over, but now I have to patiently wait for the people in front of me to file out. Eventually I reach the tiny crowded hallway and get stuck trying to squeeze between the lingerers to get to the exit. I have to pee really bad, but I’m not going to wait on line here and risk being recognized as The Guy Who Was Taking Notes the Whole Time. There is a man to my right handing out additional study pamphlets and I hear him say, “I’m not letting you out of here until you shake my hand.” At first I don’t realize that he is talking to me, but, after not hearing anyone else respond, I turn and see him looking right at me, so I take his pamphlet and shake his firm grip and thank him. Further up the hallway a woman grabs my forearm and says, “We’ll see you tomorrow night,” to which I nod and wish her a good evening. Up ahead there are two rooms filled with children, which is good to see because their young minds do not need to be burdened with the fear that the world is coming to an end as mine had been, which may very well be the root cause of me coming here tonight in the first place. I am also relieved that there is no food or refreshments so that no one will try to talk me into staying for a quick Danish, and I make it out the door without further incident.
* * *
The very next day, perhaps the most alarming sign that The Great Event may be near comes across the AP wire. Former Korn guitarist Brian “Head” Welch, who quit the band several weeks ago because the sex, drugs, and rock & roll lifestyle he had been living for so many years resulted in an unhealthy store of pent-up anger that made him want to hurt people, was baptized in the Jordan River, the same river where Jesus is believed to have been baptized.
“My songs are God saying things to me, him talking to people,” Welch said. “He’s going to use me to heal people and people are going to be drawn to it, just watch, they will be.”
Now I’m a little worried. ▪
Color Wheel was a literary journal based in the northeast, Maine, I believe. Before they accepted this essay, however, a big debate took place in the conference room of a Christian literary journal in Texas that was considering publishing it to expose this as the kind of thing that made their religion look bad, but the nays won the day and they rejected the piece, perhaps because it was a little too snarky. Then I sent it to Color Wheel and they loved it and, unfortunately, I seem to have lost the original print copy they sent that had a cool cover image, and all I was able to find was the cover from the low-res PDF edition.
The description of the essay in Color Wheel:
Richard Daub visits an over-hyped seminar that promises to reveal prophetic symbols about the end of the world that appear in the Bible. His account is documentary and perhaps slightly cynical, but includes a pinch of admiration for both the evangelical and the marketing skills he sees displayed.