Most of us are familiar with the best-selling Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. First published in 1995, the series has sold more than seven million books. These fictional stories give flesh to a complicated end-times theology that began only about 175 years ago.
This strange biblical interpretation, known as rapture theology, began in the 1840s when an Englishman named John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), who had been ordained in the Anglican Church of Ireland, founded a sect called the Plymouth Brethren. The new sect was based on a bizarre set of ideas developed by Darby called “premillennial dispensationalism.”
Premillennialism is a misguided belief that certain apocalyptic visions found in the book of Revelation and other biblical books signify that Christ will someday personally return to earth, will establish an earthly kingdom with its capital at Jerusalem, and will reign over the earth from that city for exactly one thousand years.
Darby’s peculiar contribution, called Premillennial dispensationalism, builds on this strange concept with the unsubstantiated notion that human history can be broken down into six periods, which Darby called “dispensations.” He claimed that three of these ages could be found in the book of Genesis—the age of paradise in the Garden of Eden, the period after the Fall, and the era after the Flood. Darby claimed the fourth age was initiated when the Law was given to Moses on Sinai and the fifth began with the birth of Jesus. The current age, according to Darby, began with the Resurrection, and is the sixth dispensation, or “church age.” Darby claimed this current age was marked by increasing apostasy (meaning “renunciation, criticism or opposition to one’s religion”) and by the erosion of Christian morality.
Darby believed that the church age will be followed by an event called the Rapture (derived from a misreading of a passage in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians), when all saved Christians will ascend into the sky to meet Christ and will be safeguarded from the Great Tribulation, a time of tremendous persecution and violence presided over by an Antichrist, whose followers will be marked by the number “666” on their foreheads and hands. The Tribulation will end with the battle of Armageddon in the Middle East, when Christ will arrive with heavenly armies to defeat the troops of the Antichrist. (Apparently, this theology is the answer to the bumper sticker question, “Who would Jesus bomb?”)
According to Darby, Armageddon will mark the beginning of the last dispensation—the age of the Spirit. Christ will then re-establish the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and will begin the period of the Millennium, a triumphant thousand-year reign on earth. At the end of the Millennium, Jesus will conduct the Last Judgment, consigning all those who have ever lived to either heaven or hell. At that point, human history will end. The great drama that began in the Garden of Eden will come to its close.
These misguided and erroneous concepts didn’t start with Darby. The roots of Premillennialism go back throughout Christian history. During the first three centuries of the church, a few Christians began to believe that an Antichrist would soon appear on earth initiating a seven year period of Tribulation. Then Christ would return to earth to conquer the forces of evil in a violent battle and would rule for a thousand years. The faithful would live during this millennium of peace in Jerusalem, while occupying spiritual bodies. After this period, all people would be judged. The faithful would then spend eternity on a new earth, (not in heaven).
After Christianity became the official religion of Rome in the fourth century CE, this theory was declared a heresy and suppressed.
St. Augustine (354-430 CE) developed a new theory known as “amillennialism” which was adopted as a formal church belief for centuries. It remained the generally accepted system throughout Christianity until the nineteenth century. Augustine believed that the Reign of God was already present in the world through the presence of the heavenly reign of Christ, the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and the institutional church. Both good and evil would continue in the world until Christ returned, when the redeemed would be transported to heaven where they would adopt spiritual bodies. At the same time, the unfortunate majority of humanity would be sent to Hell for eternal punishment. The earth would then be abandoned and history would end.
Darby’s creative imagination put Augustine’s mind trip to shame. In Darby’s writing, the story became much more complex and much more violent. His apocalyptic, fearful, wrath-filled theology first took root in England and Ireland, but soon became a uniquely American phenomenon. It spread rapidly in largely uneducated rural America in reaction to the perceived threat by modernity on traditional Christian beliefs.
the rise of modernity
In the late eighteenth century, some notable Enlightenment thinkers—including Thomas Jefferson—felt empowered by scientific inquiry and the new rationalism to re-read the bible. They began to question the literal truth of biblical miracles, the virgin birth, and even the divinity and resurrection of Jesus. In the universities of Germany, biblical scholars began to use the tools of historical research and textual analysis—usually called higher criticism—to separate the Bible’s historical elements from what they perceived as later legendary additions. They began to look beyond the Christ of faith to the earlier Jesus of history who they believed had been obscured by layers of Christian preaching and teaching, including the accounts found in the gospels.
Then, in 1859, Charles Darwin, a deacon in the Church of England, published Origin of Species which introduced radically new ideas about the evolution of life that challenged conventional Christian belief in the literal truth of the biblical creation story.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the findings of Darwin and the Higher Critics had been embraced by many educated Christians and by influential figures in the media, universities and seminaries. The largely upper-class and urban people who accepted the new learning became known as modernists or liberals.
the fundamentalist reaction
Millions of other Americans saw their historic faith threatened by the spread of these ideas and began to engage in a great cultural war with modernity and the movement toward secular humanism. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a movement began that opposed modernism vehemently and affirmed the literal truth of the Bible. Building on a long tradition of anti-intellectualism on the American frontier, these Christians would come to be known as fundamentalists because they affirmed five fundamental beliefs put forth in a series of pamphlets:
- biblical inerrancy
- the virgin birth
- the miracles of Jesus
- the bodily resurrection of Jesus
- the doctrine of substitutionary atonement
It was among these people, primarily in rural areas and largely in the South, that Darby’s ideas found fertile ground.
Then, in 1909, a Texan named Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921), published the Scofield Reference Bible, a King James Version that contained extensive footnotes demonstrating how various biblical passages supported the ideas of premillennial dispensationalism. It became a best-seller. It was largely through the influence of Scofield’s notes that dispensationalism became influential among fundamentalist Christians.
In 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Baptist preacher in New York city, claimed that the fundamental thing about fundamentalists was that they were opposed to change, history and progress.
In 1925, the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee became a public contest between modernity and its theory of evolution and the pre-modern worldview and its literal acceptance of the creation accounts in Genesis. After the trial, the fundamentalists became embarrassed by nationwide ridicule and negative publicity and began a period of relative seclusion that lasted for nearly fifty years.
the revival of rapture theology
Then, in 1970, a new book was published that re-energized premillennial dispensationalism. The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey applied current events to end-times theology. Lindsey proposed that the end times were near due to the fulfillment of certain prophecies.
The state of Israel had been established after World War II and Jerusalem was now under Israeli control, fulfilling one so-called biblical “prophecy.” The Soviet Union had emerged as a great northern power and seemed to fit another so-called “prophecy.” The Arab nations were moving to liberate Palestine under Egyptian control, seemingly fulfilling still another “prophecy.” According to Lindsey, Armageddon was clearly on its way in the Middle East. Of course the “prophecies” Lindsey quoted were ambiguous enough so that any writer at any point in the last two thousand years could have made a similar case for the current events of their particular time. Still, The Late Great Planet Earth sold more than ten million copies to gullible Christians.
Since the appearance of Lindsey’s original book in 1970, the world situation has changed dramatically. The Soviet Union, a key factor in his prophecy, has ceased to exist. The Egyptian government no longer spearheads a pan-Arabic anti-Israel movement. Recognizing this, Lindsey came out in 1994 with another book, Planet Earth – 2000 A.D., which replaced the prophecy-fulfilling events of an earlier generation with more recent happenings. Specifically it replaced Communism with another great international evil, “religious zealotry.” By this Lindsey didn’t mean the zealotry of his own legalistic premillennial fundamentalism—he meant Islam.
Rapture theology pervades the Assemblies of God, Pentecostal and other charismatic churches, as well as the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention and countless so-called Bible churches and the non-denominational evangelical megachurches. It can also be found in the conservative wings of the mainline Protestant denominations including Presbyterian, United Methodist, and Lutheran congregations. It’s estimated that at least one out of every 10 Americans is a devotee of this cult.
Proponents of dispensationalism claim to be biblical literalists. However the highly debatable and even fanciful interpretations of obscure apocalyptic passages have led many mainstream biblical scholars to insist that this interpretation is anything but literal. Still it has caused millions of American Protestants to read the bible as if it were a bizarre puzzle containing clues to God’s future timetable. Premillennial dispensationalists essentially treat the Bible as a book of predictions (which it is not), with particular focus on the apocalyptic passages.
The focus of their study is on apocalyptic texts like the books of Daniel, Zechariah (chapters 9-12), Ezekiel (chapters 37-38), and Revelation. In any period of persecution, apocalyptic thinking and writing flourishes among persecuted people. The books of Daniel (Old Testament) and Revelation (New Testament) were written during times of intense persecution under Greek and Roman rule, respectively. In coded symbols, the authors told their readers to resist the violent, coercive, and seductive power of empire and to have faith that God would soon intervene to end their persecution and vindicate the martyrs who died to maintain their faith. Images of a battle between forces of good and evil are always part of the apocalyptic mindset.
Brief apocalyptic passages also appear in the gospels in Mark 13 and in Matthew 24 (which is derived from Mark and expands on it). By the time these gospels were written, forty years after the death of Jesus, Jewish Christians had experienced a terribly devastating war with Rome and the resulting destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and were now experiencing intense personal persecution in the Pharisee-led synagogues.
After the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Roman troops in 70 CE, the Jewish priesthood and the Sadducees faded from history. The Pharisees now became the leaders of Judaism and began to establish an orthodoxy to guide Judaism for the future. Christian Jews were no longer seen as members of a harmless Jewish sect, but were viewed as heretics who were a danger to the development of the new Jewish faith. They were silenced and driven from the synagogues. The schism divided families and communities. Jewish Christians felt persecuted, abandoned and alone. The apocalyptic sayings of Jesus in Mark and Matthew reflected these cataclysmic events in the life of the early church.
Paul and the rapture
The event that fundamentalists call the Rapture is described by Paul in First Thessalonians 4:13-18. The Greek word that Paul uses to describe the future coming of Christ is parousia—a term used to describe the arrival of the Emperor into a town. The word Paul uses to describe the people meeting Christ in the air is apentisis—which was normally used to describe the people of a city going out to greet the Emperor as he came in. Because Roman cities had the tombs and sepulchers along the road outside the town, the first thing an Emperor would encounter would be the dead of the city.
Paul creates a parallel in his letter to the Thessalonians. When the Lord returns, Paul declares, the dead will rise first from their graves. Then the faithful living and dead together will rise in the air to greet the Lord, who is on his way down. Paul does not say that the faithful will be taken to heaven. He describes an event in which the faithful will rise up from the earth to greet the descending Christ. Then all will come back down to earth to enjoy the earthly resurrection of the dead. Whether Paul believed this would literally happen is not clear, but he wrote it to encourage the living faithful that the dead would not be forgotten when Christ returns, which Paul expected to happen very soon.
refuting rapture theology
In The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, author Barbara Rossing, who teaches New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, boldly debunks the Left Behind series and makes the case for reclaiming Christianity from the destructive, rapture misinterpretation of the Book of Revelation. Rossing contends that the Left Behind novels not only dangerously distort Christian ideas, but are “flat out wrong”.
Instead, Rossing offers a positive, creation-affirming interpretation of the biblical book of Revelation in which the world is not “left behind.” She argues that tribulation is something that has happened and is happening today for many of God’s people in the world. God saves his people not by snatching them out of the world, says Rossing, but by coming down to be with them.
Today rapture theology has enormous influence in American politics through the close relationship between Christian fundamentalists and the Republican Right. Rapture theology shaped both domestic and foreign policies in recent Republican administrations.
For instance, policies concerning the environment are increasingly effected by a theology that hopes for a rapturing away from a doomed earth. Reagan-era Secretary of the Interior James Watt told US senators that we are living at the brink of the end times and implied that this justifies clearcutting the nation’s forests and other unsustainable environmental policies. When he was asked about preserving the environment for future generations, Watt told his Senate confirmation hearing, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.”
This confluence of theology and ideology is truly disturbing. But what is even more frightening is the impact on foreign policy in the Middle East.
Barbara Rossing reports in a chapter called “The Rapture Script for the Middle East” that a Time/CNN poll found that 59% of Americans say they believe the events in Revelation are going to come true, and nearly one-quarter think the Bible predicted the September 11 attack.
Time magazine’s July 1, 2002 cover story on “The Bible and the Apocalypse,” reports that 36% of Americans polled who support Israel “say they do so because they believe in biblical prophecies that Jews must control Israel before Christ will come again.” This leads them to support a particular Middle East political scenario, including U.S. military and political aid to Israel, and expansion of Israel’s settlements into the West Bank.
Christian Zionism is a relatively recent expression of rapture theology, growing in importance and influence since the 1990s. It sees the modern state of Israel as the fulfillment of Biblical “prophecy” and thus deserving of political, financial and religious support. Christian Zionists work closely with the Israeli government, religious and secular Jewish Zionist organizations, and are particularly empowered during periods when the more conservative Likud Party is in control of the Knesset. They support Israeli expansion and the relocation of Palestinians to Arab nations. Christian Zionists are hostile toward Palestinian Christians and generally detest Muslims as evil forces worshiping another God.
Recent comments by Christian Zionists such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham (the son of evangelist Billy Graham) have added to the suspicion with which many Muslims view the Christian West.
The site of the former temple in Jerusalem is occupied today by the Muslim grounds of Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, that encloses both the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque. Christian Zionists believe that the Muslim holy site must be destroyed to make way for the rebuilding of the temple, so they raise funds to provide financial support to Jewish Zionist zealots in Israel who have made armed assaults on the mosque.
what’s love got to do with it?
How does rapture theology fit with the image of Jesus as the prince of peace? How does it fit with Jesus’ call to “love your enemies” or “to pray for those who persecute you?” Why is it, in rapture theology that a violent, wrathful Jesus wins out in the end? Is it really biblical?
Author Bruce Bawer in his book, Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, writes,
“At no point in The Late Great Planet Earth does Hal Lindsey ever answer (or even ask) the question, What exactly is the reason for, and the higher meaning of, the Rapture and the Great Tribulation, and so forth? If God wanted us to know about and believe in this comic-book scenario, why did God scatter the details around in various books of the Bible like pieces of a puzzle? What kind of a God plays such games, makes up such puzzles? What kind of a God saves people because they embrace a particular scenario of the End Times and damns others because they don’t? Where is the morality in that? Why on earth should the meaning of life come down to such silliness?”
“Where does love fit into this picture? Nowhere. In dispensational theology, the kingdom of God that Jesus described in the gospels as something that exists already in our midst and that can be attained through love for God and one’s neighbor was thoroughly banished from the picture and replaced by an exclusive future kingdom to which one can gain entry in only one way: by subscribing to dispensationalist theology. What’s love got to do with it? Absolutely nothing.”