But what exactly does Revelation reveal about the end?
"Revelation doesn't say all the things you've been told," says Barbara Rossing, associate professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. "It's not a script for the end time."
The book has only recently been interpreted this way. The Revelation to John was written to give hope to late first-century Christians who were persecuted under Emperor Domitian in what is now Turkey. "It's clear John is writing a critique of Roman imperialism," Rossing says. "The message is: 'Whom do you worship? Caesar or God?' "
Christians throughout history have found hope in Revelation's message that God, through Christ, ultimately triumphs over evil.
But the message changed in the 1830s when John Nelson Darby created "dispensationalism," a system for interpreting the Bible that introduced the "the rapture."
Dispensationalism says neither Christ nor the church has completely fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. Instead, Darby said, when Christ returns he alone will conquer evil in the world and usher in the millennium -- his 1,000-year reign.
Darby, reading parts of Scripture literally, said true believers will physically ascend in the rapture before Christ's final, literal battle with the Antichrist. Nonbelievers will be left behind, most likely to perish in the battle.
The idea of the rapture, which is not part of [mainline Protestant] teaching, comes from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Paul comforts believers who are anxious about what will become of loved ones who die prior to Christ's return. Paul assures them that the departed and the living will be reunited with Christ in the end.
Dispensationalism, popularized by The New Scofield Reference Bible, has been aggressively marketed in the last two centuries. It's the bread-and-butter of Christian TV evangelists who feature end-time prophesy.
In 1970, Hal Lindsey dramatized this view in The Late, Great Planet Earth, which has sold more than 15 million copies. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins fictionalized it in their best-selling Left Behind action novels, with sales exceeding 7 million since 1995.
The Left Behind novels feature a hero who comes to faith after he is left on earth when many of his family members are raptured. With millions of believers suddenly vanished from the earth, those left behind wander through burning neighborhoods, wreck-strewn and corpse-lined highways.
But the hero, now fighting as God's soldier, battles the Antichrist on the decimated earth -- and prays he will be chosen to kill Satan's agent.
"I ask, 'What are the Christian behaviors exemplified by the characters in the novels?' I look in vain for a passion for those things that Jesus lifted up in Matthew 25 as his view of the end time. Where are the values (forgiveness, mercy, love of enemies, humility, purity of heart) of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)?"
Smith says the novels' views may convert people to a misguided faith that feeds on a few Old Testament passages with little regard for the heart of the gospel -- the good news of God's love. In the crucified Jesus, we see that God does not exclude or destroy enemies but embraces them while they are yet enemies.
Smith points out that the books parallel real-life teachings, such as TV evangelist Pat Robertson urging the U.S. government to send hit squads to kill Saddam Hussein.
"This form of Christianity ignores the teachings of Jesus," Smith says. "Jesus said, 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.' This kind of teaching diverts attention from issues that confront all of us."
Smith says premillennialist views obscure the hope-filled final message of Revelation: salvation for the human family and creation as God is victorious over evil.
"Revelation drives us to self-examination," he says. "Liberation theologians are rediscovering it because it can be of value in a modern critique of oppressive governments and economic systems."
Rossing agrees, saying Revelation's message for people today is that the poor are the ones being left behind in a materialistic world. "We have the challenge of not worshiping the marke," she says. "Revelation is a critique of our situation today."
If Revelation isn't taken literally, we can't expect it to reveal the exact date of Christ's return -- something Jesus refused to predict
Walter Taylor, professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio, says such use of Scripture begs the question: "Who is in charge? For example, who decided that the year 2000 is the beginning of the third millennium?"
"People did," Taylor answers. "It's not ordained by God."
Although Taylor disagrees with premillennialists' interpretation of Revelation, he carefully points out that all Christians are sisters and brothers in Christ.
"I think they're dead wrong," he says, "but I don't want to give the impression that these people are evil or you should kick them out of your church. We have to be able to have dialogue. It's important to understand that there's tremendous anxiety that the world is going to hell."
Or that some will be left behind.
Rossing recalls a seminarian who, as a child, came home from school one day and found his mother wasn't home. He was terrified because he believed his mother had been raptured and he had not.
That is precisely why Rossing and others say Christians must understand Revelation not as a literal time line but as a hope-filled vision of God dwelling with humans.
"People shouldn't be scared of Revelation," she says. "It's an invitation to live with God in the New Jerusalem, [and that's] not just a vision of heaven but a different reality of here-and-now."