David Kordahl

Apocalypse Hal

In Politics, Pop Cultue, Religion on 2011/01/08 at 6:21 am

My father once told me a story about his college days that I, today, find so incredible and strange that it seems nearly unbelievable. Apparently, he and his group of college friends, members of the Concordia College “outreach teams” [1], decided one semester that Jesus was going to return to earth right away. Specifically, that Jesus was going to arrive before final exams. And so instead of studying, they prayed, they confessed, they got ready. They waited. And waited…until the sorely disappointing days right before finals, when they suddenly had to de-escalate and pull consecutive all-nighters to catch up on about a half-semester’s worth of missed material. “It wasn’t my best semester, academically speaking,” Dad admitted, hastening to add that I’d better not try such a stupid thing during my time at college.

What, why, who, you might ask, could cause a person to believe such stuff? Two words: Hal Lindsey. To which, if you’re like most inhabitants of the 21st Century, you’ll ask: Hal Who’s-He? OK, let me explain.

Lindsey, who is still alive and waiting for the end somewhere in Southern California, advertises himself as the “best-selling non-fiction writer alive today,” and I believe him—granted that we’re a little liberal with the term non-fiction. If we are, he’s not only the best-selling non-fiction writer alive today, he’s also the author of the 1970s’s best-selling non-fiction book: The Late Great Planet Earth. I.e., the book that fell into the wrong hands at Concordia College almost forty years ago and convinced those impressionable young people that Jesus might interrupt them on the way from the chapel to the cafeteria.

LGPE, I admit, isn’t a book I’ve read [2]. Luckily, I didn’t have to: there’s a movie! That’s not surprising; a lot of books that sell over 28 million copies get turned into movies. What is surprising (and unexpectedly wondrous) is that it features a late-period Orson Welles as the narrator [3], hamming it up with all his might. Here it is…

If you didn’t spend your last 1.5 hrs watching that, let me fill you in. What Lindsey & Welles argue is that the Biblical prophecies are finally being fulfilled in the 1970s [4]; you need only look around to you to see the signs, which are clear and certain.

In retrospect, their rhetorical strategy looks a little too extreme. The film starts with an action sequence: an old greybeard is chased along sandstone ridges, higher and higher, until a few young men corner him, bash his head in with a rock, and push him off a cliff. After the poor guy hits the bottom, fellow patriarchs drop boulders on him until he’s buried. Pan to Orson, who informs us with heightened gravity that the false prophets in Israel were stoned. He picks up a skull, a supposed piece of evidence from an archeological dig that proved this. “There was no room for error,” he says—the implication being that the guys left over were probably pretty darn accurate and worth listening to [5].

From there, prophets are name-checked, accurate guesses tabulated. Welles informs us of the fulfilled predictions of Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Jesus to get us in the believing mood, and then we’re offered a literal, low-budget rendition of John receiving his Revelation on Patmos [6]. He sees an overexposed white-screen that cuts to some gulls flying (“One as a Son of Man!”), a lady who very sloppily ingests grape juice (“the Whore of Babylon—drunk with the Blood of Saints!”), and some stock battle footage followed by an A-bomb explosion (“ARMAGEDDON!”). Welles: “70% of the visions have already been fulfilled. The rest of the prophecy is expected to come to pass in our lifetimes.

This is where Hal shows up, a compact man with a short moustache wearing a tight polo. He explains that prophecy is “like a jigsaw puzzle,” inasmuch as you can’t know which historical pieces fit where until they’ve already fallen into place. But once they’re there, he posits, it all resonates. The major “fulfillments of prophecy in the present era” are mostly Israel-related—the post-WW2 establishment of the Israeli state being the big one—but he finds others. He interprets a line to the effect of ‘Jerusalem will be trodden upon by Gentiles, then regained’ as having been fulfilled by the Six-Day War, and even the oil crisis is reinterpreted in terms of Biblical prophecy, via a line about Jerusalem as a “burdensome stone” [i.e., Western backing of Israel, in defiance of the wishes of some Arab states, might become increasingly difficult as oil supplies diminish]. The sole remaining caveat preventing the apocalypse from coming tomorrow is the Dome of the Rock still sitting on Jerusalem’s Mt. Moriah, though Welles points out that this could easily be removed with the cooperation of a divinely localized earthquake.

All this is pretty standard stuff, as far as eschatology among fundamentalists goes, and even Hal Lindsey knows better than to set any firm dates. What he needs to bolster his claims, then, is to enlist some outside help. And everyone knows that nothing is better for upping the cred of your enterprise than Scientific Experts. In they come—a parade, surprisingly, that includes heavyweights like Norman Borlaug, George Wald, and Desmond Morris, just to name the supercelebrities [7]. The use of Experts to demonstrate the apocalyptic potential in a variety of messes (e.g., nuke stockpiling, overpopulation, food shortages, pollution, ozone layer depletion, Brazilian killer bees, planetary over-alignment, etc., etc.) is pretty convincing, and to hammer the point home, each time the Experts finish speaking, we’re offered a ‘man-on-the-street’ montage to highlight how misinformed the rest of humankind is, comparatively.

It’s refreshing to see environmental concerns taken seriously in a conservative context (though, as you’d expect, the claims that scientists are trying to make and the claims that the narration wants them to make often diverge wildly), but all this, too, is funneled into the framework of Biblical prophecy. Contrary to what we saw in the campy ‘John on Patmos’ sequence, H.L. seems to think that John literally saw the future and that much of the poetic language of John’s Revelation is merely an attempt to transcribe his observations of the modern world into the language of his times. When John talks of “flesh eaten off bones” and “fire rained from heaven,” Lindsey’s interp is that John saw the (still future) nuclear holocaust and was acting more as a reporter than a bard.

After a quick tabulation of false prophets in the world (Sun Mung Moon, Astrologers, and T.M. instructors), the film finally arrives at its juicy dish: attempts to predict the Anti-Christ. “Prophecy” predicts that the guy will get killed and rise from the dead to lead an all-world gov’t, but reasonable guesstulation leads Hal to believe that a fellow capable of such a stunt will be an agnostic humanitarian, probably someone on the world stage right now. 666 has something to do with it, too; they try transliterating the names of suspects into Hebrew and adding up the number-equivalents of the letters (Jimmy CARTER = 390; Ronald REGAN = 276; Alexei KOSYGIN = 600; Bobby BROWN = 432; Ted KENNEDY = 468), but this doesn’t yield any definite conclusions.

For definite conclusions, you have to scroll over to around 78 min., 50 sec. (Do it!) After a predicted seven years of peace, an absurdly detailed battle scenario is fleshed out, given a few questionable name replacements (Gog–>U.S.S.R., unspecified army of 200 million–> China). This acts as a lead-in to the extended stitch-together of no less than five minutes of explosion footage and plane take-offs that culminate in A-bomb ‘splosions—a filmic interpretation of the showdown at Meddigo, I think. Cut to images of running volcanic lava set to a vaguely dissonant soundtrack. Blackout.

Welles finishes up the film by reading the evocative passage about a “new heaven and a new earth,” which gives the director a chance to show shots of ice, melting ice, foliage, sped-up blooming foliage, and (to top it off) a scaled-back 2001 sort of acid-trip rendition of suns within suns and exploding galaxies &c. O.W.: “This generation shall not pass until these things take place…Truly, I tell you: heaven and earth will pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” Roll credits.

Well. 32 years later, and we’re still trudging along, with no sign of a returned Christ in sight…but what has happened to Mr. Lindsey? Has he grown sad and bitter? Has he cursed God and died?

Au contraire, mon frère. Hal Lindsey has ridden the gravy train of American evangelicalism and has flourished. It turns out that Obama is as good an Anti-Christ candidate as any, and if you like your news re-interpreted with a prophetic spin each week, The Hal Lindsey Report is a one-stop shop. If you prefer your Hal in written form, his most recent book articulates a brave stance against Islam, and he’s a regular columnist for WorldNetDaily, a website that appears to share his passion for news reinterpretation. The more I hear about the life and times of Mr. Lindsey, the more it seems to me that prophetic interpretation is a fine, stable career that can be recommended to all children—a career, in fact, that is ingeniously recession-proof. If you know someone studying to join such a profession, however, please warn him not to expect the prophecies to occur before finals.

[1] Outreach Team [n.]: Singing evangelism group that vectored out to spread the love and preach the gospel to area Lutherans, at their own local churches. I have no idea if these sorts of groups still exist in the vicinity of Fargo, ND, but in my imagination they look very much like the Mormon missionaries that live in my apartment complex, except that they still wear bellbottoms and have slightly shaggier hair. Up.

[2] I intended to read it—really! I ordered a copy in the mail and everything!—but listen, folks: sometimes life is just too short to waste on crap…unless that crap is a movie, in which case, I’m a sucker. Read on! Up.

[3] Fun fact: if you check out the list of films featuring Welles’s smoky baritone, you’ll soon discover that Welles reprised the role as Truthier-for-Hire in a Nostradamus doc that came out two years after LGPE. Up.

[4] Another Dad Anecdote: Rev. K. went to see H.L. live, at some point, and on that fateful day H.L. remarked that he laughed when he signed a 30-year mortgage, implying that there was no way that Christ could be so pokey as to lag another 30 yrs. Of course, Mr. Lindsey has probably paid off his mortgage by now—though with all those book sales, he probably still has reason to laugh. Up.

[5] I will try not to bash you over the head with the irony of this, except to emphasize that whatever his myriad faults, I do not think Mr. Lindsey should be executed for his inaccuracies. Up.

[6] ‘John’ looks suspiciously like the guy who got stoned at the beginning of the film, but apparently he’s now stoned in a different, friendlier manner. (IMDb neither confirms nor denies this theory.) Up.

[7] The era of scientific big-shots getting duped into participating in shoddy documentaries isn’t over, BTW. Here and here are two recent offenders that come to mind. On the flip side, “real scientists” can sometimes act in flat-out poor judgment, too; madly prolific science writer John Gribbin is shown in LGPE stating that in 1982, volcanoes around the world will explode due the gravitational pull from planetary alignment. Up.

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  1. Great article! I to be honest I have a guilty pleasure of reading end of times liturature and whatching Nostradamus documentaries. I think the most ironic thing is that the 666 in the Bible doesn’t even mean ‘the beast’ it’s just an arimaic code for the early church. Emagine the impact that has on horror films and end of times junkies? Well here’s to being cinical my friend!

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