Are these the End Times? Are dangerous happenings in Syria and Iran the warning signs of a prophesied final battle? Are current political figures or religious leaders possible Anti-Christs?

What are churches teaching about this stuff, if anything? Should anybody spend time trying to decipher cryptic biblical prophecies about the end of the world?

It seems Christians have argued over these questions for centuries. Some preachers and entire denominations have distinguished themselves as End Times specialists. Others avoid the whole subject, trying to distance themselves from preachers who infamously set dates for the end of the world.

Journalist Billy Hallowell recently researched pastor sentiments on End Times controversies. He found opinions split between evangelicals and mainliners, between the highly educated and the slightly educated, and between younger and older clergy. Hallowell found about half (48 percent) of the ministers espouse premillenialism–a view that supports a looming 1,000-year period during which Jesus reigns on earth after his second coming. Also, about half (49 percent) endorse the belief that the Anti-Christ is a real figure who will appear on the scene.

In his new book, The Armageddon Code: One Journalist’s Quest for End-Times Answers, Hallowell contrasts the views of Rapture enthusiasts such as Tim LaHaye with Bible experts such as Hank Hanegraff. While LaHaye scolds those who “don’t take prophecy literally,” Hanegraff calls some pastors’ teachings “embarrassing” and “irresponsible” when they try to link current Middle East happenings to Old Testament prophecies.

Listen to the intriguing conversation with Billy Hallowell here on the Holy Soup podcast:

So, should our preachers and teachers speculate about and predict modern fulfillment of ancient prophecies? Are all the Last Days sermons, books and films bringing more people into a genuine relationship with Jesus? Or, are they repelling more people than they attract?

Of course, all parts of scripture are worthy to explore and discuss–including the prophetic writings. I don’t think we should avoid certain sections, verses or entire books because they seem too opaque, puzzling or strange. We need to encourage more fearless conversations among God’s people–about all kinds of things. And it’s fair game to wonder why the Bible includes such perplexing passages.

Though it may be alluring to approach the Bible as a cryptogram to solve, I’m not sure that is the intent of prophetic references.

Hallowell concludes that Bible scholar Michael Heiser may have a healthier take on interpreting prophetic writings–to view them as comprehensible only after events unfold. Hallowell writes: “Using the example of Old Testament prophecies about Jesus’s first coming, he (Heiser) said that it is much clearer for us to look back today to see how Christ fulfilled those predictions than it was for people living in Bible times to do so in real time. In a sense, he cautioned that it’s easier to see the narrative after the fact and conclude, ‘Oh, yeah. That makes sense now,’ than it is to cobble pieces together and make definitive conclusions before prophetic events have taken place.”

So, when exploring scripture, enjoy the ride. But spare us the hokey End Times movies.