I try not to get caught up in the all-too-popular sport of Pat Robertson-bashing. For one thing, the few times I have met with the Evangelical leader—one of those times for a leisurely luncheon meeting in his office at Regent Univeristy—I have found him to be an engaging and gracious conversationalist.
Yet I have sometimes wanted to argue with him about one or another of his public comments. Why would he suggest, for example, that New Orleans got what it deserved from God in the destruction brought about by Katrina? How does he square that verdict with the fact that a wonderful Catholic convent there was destroyed while the Hustler Club suffered no damage at all? I’d like to know how he interprets that kind of outcome theologically.
On one of his more recent alleged gaffes, however, I would only push him for some slight nuancing. Regarding the Snowden revelations about government surveillance, Robertson observed that these practices were setting the stage for the “End Times.” We seem to be approaching an epoch described in the Bible, he said, where “there is no freedom” and where “Big Brother monitored everything.” The Bible points out, he went on, that there will be a day “when you can’t buy or sell without the Mark of the Beast, you have to be part of that world system and a very, very few can escape because right now they can go down into the bush in the darkest Africa and hunt you down.”
That is a bit overstated. (The American forces trying to find Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan caves might have wished “hunting down” were as easy as Robertson suggests.) But Robertson was not completely misguided in his comments about surveillance and Bible prophecy.
Around the time that Robertson’s comments were being ridiculed, I was re-reading some of the presentations given at the 1971 Jerusalem Conference on Biblical Prophecy, organized by Carl F. H. Henry, who also edited the volume Prophecy in the Making, which contains the proceedings. The presentations covered the spectrum of Evangelical views on what the Bible might tell us about issues in the Middle East: dispensationalism, Messianic Judaism, and classic Reformed theology, among others.
One of the most insightful addresses was by James M. Houston, who was on leave at the time from his position as University Lecturer in Geography at Oxford to serve as principal of the newly founded Regent College in Vancouver. Houston reached beyond questions of Middle East politics to warn about some dangers associated with “the growth of technology in a postindustrial age with its temptation to substitute rational, mechanical order for the life of the spirit, and for what is personal and of God.”
He connected this danger with the vision, in Revelation 13, of a beast rising out of the sea with ten horns and seven heads—thus giving the appearance of omnipotence and omnipresence. Under the rule of the apocalyptic Beast, said Houston, “there are no secrets . . . the inner shrine of being must be invaded.”
Fearing a drift into oppressive “technocracy,” Houston pleaded with his audience to “far more seriously turn our minds, our scholarship, our practical concerns, to know how future man can be defended against the impersonal forces, the manipulations and other pressures of the complexities of life in these closing decades of the twentieth century.”
James Houston and Pat Robertson were both looking for biblical guidance for what we might expect to see in the unfolding capacities of advanced technologies in our world. I wish Robertson had encouraged the same corrective strategies that Houston recommended four decades ago. One important way of countering the “beastly” threats of our time is to engage in the kind of activities Houston proposed, especially a mindful Christian scholarly focus on the practical concerns that advanced technologies raise.
I also appreciate Houston’s mention of “complexities” in assessing technological development. Apocalyptic warnings, however legitimate, should not encourage the over-simplifying (to say nothing of the conspiratorial mentality) that often shows up in Christian circles. “Technocracy” is certainly a real threat. But it is a perverse overreaching of capabilities that can serve us well if kept in their places. Pat Robertson surely knows this: His own version of “surveillance” technologies allows him to access donor lists, to broadcast to millions of TV watchers, and to communicate his message around the world—even to people of “the bush in the darkest Africa.”
By all means, let us issue our warnings against “the Mark of the Beast.” But let us also back up those warnings by taking seriously James Houston’s call to nuanced, mindful explorations of both the blessings and the dangers posed by the expanding reach of advanced technologies.
Richard J. Mouw is Distinguished Professor of Faith and Public Life at, and president emeritus of, Fuller Theological Seminary.