It was the first week in August, and I was at junior-high Bible camp. The sun was just setting over the end of the lake at the close of a beautiful day. About thirty of us sat in a scattered circle around a campfire. The camp leader, a guitar hanging from his shoulder, led us in songs and choruses as the logs popped and sparks flew off into the dusk. The last song was one I had sung many times before:
“I wish we’d all been ready,
There’s no time to change your mind,
The Son has come
And you’ve been left behind.”
“Do you know what the song is about?” the leader asked us. He went on to tell us about the Rapture. “What if Jesus were to come back tonight?” he asked. “If the Rapture happened tonight, would you go to meet Jesus in the air?” Afterwards he prayed and invited us to stand up if we had made a decision for Jesus. “You don’t want to be left behind. This may be your only chance.”
I was raised in a family that stressed the need for personal salvation, the imminent return of Jesus Christ, and the impending doom of the Great Tribulation. We were Fundamentalists, although we never used the term. Instead we called ourselves “Bible Christians.” And our Bibles told us about the coming Rapture, the subsequent seven years of Tribulation, and the victory of Christ at Armageddon.
I grew up during the 1970s when the Cold War was raging, the energy crisis was escalating, and the European common market was coming together just as the book of Revelation said it would, at least according to the preachers we listened to and the books we read. While in junior high I read Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and There’s A New World Coming. I marveled that so many people, including Catholics, could not see the coming of the Great Tribulation. Many sermons and Bible studies focused on the approaching Rapture, the return of Christ “in the clouds” to take his church, consisting of “true believers,” secretly up to heaven. Most mainline Protestants were not “true believers,” and as for Catholics-they were both brainwashed and ignorant of the Gospel.
The belief in the Rapture is rooted in the fourth and fifth chapters of 1 Thessalonians, which are placed into an elaborate chronology of “end-time” events based on other passages from Revelation, Daniel, and Matthew 24. Often the Rapture was called the “day of the Lord” which would come like ” a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2). After this secret removal of believers would come the rise of the Antichrist and the implementation of the “Mark of the Beast” during seven years of Tribulation. At the end of those seven years would take place the second coming of Christ and Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil.
Particular attention was given to modern-day Israel, since it was believed these great events would finally come to pass in the generation immediately following Israel’s reemergence as a nation. Then, after his Second Coming, Christ would set up his kingdom in Jerusalem and reinstate the sacrificial system of the Mosaic covenant, including the sacrificing of animals in the Temple. This millennial reign would last a thousand years.
For most Catholics, such beliefs about the future seem bizarre. Many are aware that certain Evangelical and non-denominational Bible churches hold puzzling views about the end of the world, but Catholics usually ignore them. Most people, regardless of denomination or church affiliation, are unfamiliar with the term “dispensationalism.” Yet it is the common source for those groups who believe in the Rapture, the seven-year Tribulation, and the literal thousand-year reign of Christ. Dispensational assumptions permeate much of American Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism and have shaped conservative American Protestant views of “church” and “organized Christianity” to an enormous degree. In addition, dispensational methods of scriptural interpretation have left an indelible mark on millions of American Protestants.
Most people who hold dispensational beliefs assume they are based in the Bible and have ancient roots. But dispensationalism has been around less than 200 years. The father of dispensationalism is John Nelson Darby, a Protestant Irish lawyer who left his successful practice to become an Anglican priest. Born in 1800, Darby was a contemporary of John Henry Newman, the famous leader of the Anglican Oxford movement in the 1830s. But while Newman would later become a Catholic priest and eventually a cardinal, Darby’s studies of Scripture-coupled with a disenchantment with mainstream Christian churches-led him to develop the idea of a “true church” and the apostasy of the established churches, especially the Catholic Church. He believed this true church was spiritual in character and should have no involvement in earthly affairs. He wrote that “the church is properly heavenly, in its calling and relationship with Christ, forming no part of the course of events on earth. . . . Our calling is on high. Events are on earth” (quoted by Harold Bloom in The American Religion, 22).
In 1827 Darby left the Anglican priesthood and by 1831 was among the leaders of the Plymouth Brethren, a non-denominational movement which denounced mainline Christianity. He began to teach that the true church would need to be removed from the earth in order to make way for the completion of God’s dealings with the Jews. He named this secret removal of the church the Rapture. This belief was something completely new in Christianity. No previous Christian, neither Catholic nor Protestant, had ever proposed or taught such an thing.
Darby created a timeline that divided history into “dispensations,” either six or seven in number. These indicated various ages in which God dealt with humans in distinct ways. Dispensations were “administrations” through which God tested humans and proved their utter sinfulness before him. According to Darby’s scheme we live in the dispensation of the Church, which began during the ministry of Paul. For Darby the Church forms a “parenthesis” between the dispensation of the Gentiles (before Christ) and the coming dispensation of the Kingdom. It is an era of grace in which the rejected Messiah is building up his heavenly people, the Christians. Meanwhile, God’s real issue in human history is with his earthly people, the Israelites. The Rapture will be the necessary removal of the heavenly people from the world so that God’s work with the earthly people might be finished.
Ken was one of the elders in our little church, along with my father and two other men. He was outgoing and friendly, with a great sense of humor. But he was very serious when it came to the Rapture and the approaching Tribulation. Many of his sermons explained the sequence of end-time events, from the Rapture through the end of the Millennial Kingdom. On the dashboard of his battered yellow truck was a faded sticker: “Warning: The Driver of This Vehicle May Vanish at Any Moment. Ride at Your Own Risk.”
Ken explained to me that the Rapture would cause great confusion on the earth. “Imagine how many car wrecks and airplane crashes there will be when Christians are taken up in the Rapture,” he remarked matter-of-factly. This image of deadly chaos was further imprinted in my mind by a painting in our church library. It was of a large city at the moment of the Rapture. The saved believers, clad in white, rose above the earth as driverless cars veered into one another, into buildings, and even into pedestrians. High above was Jesus, waiting patiently, fixed in an aura of white light.
Internal conflict and division marked the history of the Plymouth Brethren in England, but their belief in the Rapture and opposition to apostasy attracted followers. This influence spread to America in the mid-1800s, where the Brethren’s stance against the growing liberalism within Protestantism took immediate root. They affirmed a strict, literal reading of Scripture and taught with a strong evangelistic fervor. Darby visited the United States and Canada several times between 1862 and 1878, and his lectures and writings became quite popular. Especially important was his influence among established denominations such as Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists.
The weakness of doctrine in mainline Protestant churches allowed dispensationalism to become non-denominational, and it spread rapidly throughout America. A series of Bible studies developed in New York state and eventually gave rise to the Niagara Conferences, which convened between 1883 and 1897. These conferences were attended by people from a variety of denominations who came to study the Scripture, particularly biblical prophecy. American and British leaders of the loosely knit dispensational viewpoint presented their respective views about biblical prophecy, the dispensations, and the Gospel.
Dispensationalism at the end of the nineteenth century still possessed a variety of viewpoints, with many key issues still unresolved and heavily debated. Cyrus I. Scofield, a Kansas City lawyer, would change that by cementing the way dispensationalism would be understood for the next few decades. Having gained a reputation as a speaker during the Niagara Conferences, Scofield (who had no formal theological training) decided he would create a “study Bible” containing extensive notes, cross-references and commentary so that the “scientific” nature of the dispensations and biblical prophecy would be evident to the average layman.
After several year’s labor and with the assistance of a group of editors, the Scofield Reference Bible (King James Version) was published in 1909. Presented in a neatly organized and systematic manner, its dispensational premises regarding key passages of Scripture-especially books like Daniel and Revelation-entered into the mainstream of conservative American Protestantism. In the first thirty years following its publication, Scofield’s reference Bible sold about two million copies. It is still used widely today, along with the updated version, the New Scofield Reference Bible.
Scofield largely followed Darby’s teaching in outlining his seven dispensations: Innocence (Adam), Conscience (to the Flood), Human Government (Gentiles after flood), Promise (Abraham to Moses), Law (Moses to Christ), Grace (Church), and the future Kingdom.
Scofield taught that Scripture contains passages meant for each respective time period and therefore that many passages had nothing to do with present day Christians in the “Church age.” This meant that most of Christ’s teachings, including the Sermon on the Mount, were for the future Kingdom age, not for the Church. This was another radical break from nineteen hundred years of Christian teaching. For the dispensationalist, the writings of Paul became normative for the “Church age.” (In this regard, Scofield’s teachings bear a strong resemblance to those of Marcion, the third-century heretic who insisted on an absolute break between the Old and New Testaments and who held Paul’s writings to be the central works of Christianity.)
After Scofield’s death in 1921, his pupil and colleague Lewis Sperry Chafer took up the dispensational torch. Like Scofield, Chafer had no formal theological training, a fact he took apparent pride in. He also was a popular speaker and was tireless in his efforts to spread dispensational beliefs throughout America. In 1924 he helped found what would become Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas, which, along with Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, was to be a major center of dispensational teaching.
Chafer’s eight-volume Systematic Theology was an attempt to relate every area of theology to the dispensational understanding of such distinctions. He believed this was imperative if the Gospel was to be preached correctly. Chafer insisted that unless a person held dispensationalist beliefs he was doomed to teach a false Gospel: “How many even sincere men can preach an uncomplicated Gospel sermon? No man can be trusted to do this until he is dispensationally instructed. . . . The great expositors of this and past generations are such because they are thoroughly established in these essential distinctions” (“Gospel Preaching,” Bibliotheca Sacra 95, July 1938, 343). This provided the basis for a consistent anti-Catholic perspective which ran through Chafer’s writings, as indicated by his references to “Romanism” and “Romish” beliefs.
After Chafer’s death in 1951 Charles Ryrie, a popular professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, became the leading dispensationalist voice in America. Ryrie wrote several books on a variety of topics, but the most important was his 1965 apologetic for the dispensational movement, titled Dispensationalism Today. In large part it was a response to some severe attacks on dispensationalism by various Protestant writers. Ryrie stressed the distinct interpretative method of dispensationalism. He popularized the unique method of biblical interpretation Scofield had outlined in his writings.
Defending his stance regarding the Church and Israel, Ryrie wrote: “This distinction between Israel and the Church is born out of a system of hermeneutics which is usually called literal interpretation. . . . The word ‘literal’ is perhaps not so good as either the word ‘normal’ or ‘plain’, but in any case it is interpretation that does not spiritualize or allegorize as nondispensational interpretation does” (Dispensationalism Today, 45-46).
This so-called “literal” approach to Scripture is still appealing to many people. The complexity of Scripture is apparently simplified by the dispensational method. Each portion of Scripture is matched with its corresponding dispensation, allowing the reader to focus on those passages meant for them as Christians in the current dispensation of grace. And the events of the “end times” are supposedly made clear and understandable for everyone, if only they will listen.
One night our youth group watched a movie titled The Thief In The Night. It was about a man who hadn’t been saved when the Rapture came, but after the disappearance of several friends he realizes his mistake and sees the horrible truth: He is experiencing the Tribulation. Because of this realization he becomes a Christian. But Christianity has been outlawed and is punishable by death. Everyone is supposed to receive the Mark of the Beast on their forehead, otherwise they cease to exist as far as the government is concerned. They are unable to have bank accounts, be employed, or buy food. The man is chased and persecuted for his belief in Christ.
After the movie we talk about how the Mark of the Beast will change people’s lives. “It’s coming soon,” the youth leader said. “I know the Lord will be returning in my lifetime because the Bible says so.”
Anticipation of the Rapture and the beginning of the end grew in the 1940s and fifties. And the upheaval of the late sixties and early seventies presented a ripe opportunity for someone with a skill for popular writing and a background in dispensationalism to focus on “end times.” That someone was Hal Lindsey, a former Dallas Theological Seminary student. Beginning in the early seventies Lindsey published a series of books, including The Late Great Planet Earth, Satan is Alive and Well, and There’s a New World Coming. These books contained his version of soon-to-occur apocalyptic events as seen through the lens of a popularized dispensationalism. Although some dispensationalists were not entirely supportive of Lindsey, his were among the best-selling books of the decade (35 million copies) and also among the most influential.
Lindsey used a canny mix of paranoia, current events, selective use of Scripture, and a science-fiction style to convey his vision of impending doom. Lindsey claimed that many biblical prophecies were being fulfilled right before our eyes: the restoration of Israel as a nation, the “apostasy” of mainline churches, the collapse of morality, and the frightening realities of the Cold War. He interpreted the destructive images of Revelation as scenes of nuclear war. Unlike dispensationalists of the past, Lindsey did not locate the Whore of Babylon in the Catholic Church (he largely ignores it); the Whore of Babylon was instead a global network of New Age religions consolidated under the Antichrist.
Lindsey stayed true to the Darbyite view of the Church and emphasized the non-denominational “real” Christianity. He claimed that the word “church” referred to a “group of people that is called together for some special purpose. . . . Sometimes it refers to all true believers in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t make any difference what religious ‘brand’ they’re under as long as they’re in a living union with Christ through a personal faith in him as their Savior” (There’s a New World Coming, 41). Any understanding of the Church as having a visible presence and structure is ignored or rejected, replaced instead with the individualistic and subjective stance so common in Fundamentalism.
The seventies and eighties witnessed a proliferation of books and tapes presenting elaborate explanations of current events in light of biblical prophecy. Intricate and convoluted arguments were used to locate the true Antichrist and to diagram the involved military actions leading up to Armageddon. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union and with the global politics rapidly changing, people like Lindsey had to revise their futuristic blueprints. The changes brought on by a computerized world linked through Internet technology have become their focus for calculating possible end-time events. Lindsey continues to put out books and has a regular television program which focuses on the Y2K bug as the most likely trigger for his end-times scenarios. His subjective and dramatic style has been copied by numerous writers and speakers, such as Pat Robertson in his early days and current-day Dave Hunt, each claiming to have the key insight into the final days of the world.
In the last few years sharp attacks on dispensationalism by reformed Protestants and a variety of Evangelicals have put the movement on the defensive. One common response by dispensationalist leaders over the past century has been that the early Church was dispensationalist, although in a “seed” form. They appeal to the fact that certain early Church Fathers were premillennialists, believing in a literal thousand-year reign of Christ.
Though it is true that some of the Church Fathers were premillennialists, including Irenaeus and Justin Martyr, they were not dispensationalists. They viewed the Catholic Church as the New Israel. Perhaps most importantly, they did not understand the Church to be an invisible, spiritual entity that would be taken secretly from the earth before the final events of the world. The idea of this kind of Rapture would have been completely foreign to them. In addition, premillennialism was never a universal teaching of the Catholic Church, and by the fifth century it was no longer held by any of the Fathers.
A rift has developed in dispensationalism. Its academic element pursues a more moderate and traditional understanding of end-time events and biblical interpretation. But most non-academic dispensationalists, consciously or not, view the Catholic Church and Protestant mainline churches just as Darby did. Darby’s distrust of organized Christianity struck a deep chord with Americans that continues to resonate. Because Darby’s “true” Church was spiritual, it had no need for creeds, organization, or ritual. This worked very well in a young country where tradition and ecclesial roots were shaky or nonexistent. It especially appealed, and still does today, to people who wished to be separated from institutions they believed corrupt or unsuited to their tastes. The Rapture was a logical step in Darby’s pessimistic outlook and it remains an enticing promise: escape from earthly troubles for the few who are true and spiritual while the unrepentant and unsaved suffer terribly.
“Why aren’t Catholics and Lutherans saved?” I asked my mother.
“There are many reasons,” she replied. ” But one is that they don’t believe in the book of Revelation. They deny it is the Word of God.”
“What do you mean?”
“They say that it isn’t true,” she said. “They believe it is only symbolic and has nothing to do with the end-times.”
“But don’t they have the same Bible we do?” I asked.
“Maybe,” she shrugged. “But they don’t believe in it.”
The dispensationalist idea that the Church is a temporary insert in the flow of history is contrary to Catholic teaching. The Catechism of Catholic Church states that “God created the world for the sake of communion with his divine life, a communion brought about by the ‘convocation’ of men in Christ, and this convocation is the Church. The Church is the goal of all things” (CCC 760).
Catholics believe the Church is not just invisible, but also very visible, active in the world: “The Church is in history, but at the same time she transcends it. It is only ‘with the eyes of faith’ that one can see her in her visible reality and at the same time in her spiritual reality as bearer of divine life” (CCC 770). She must be visible on earth in order for her unity to be seen by humanity. Men and women, who are both physical and spiritual in nature, are called to enter the Catholic Church, which is earthly and whose members are sinful, but which is also heavenly and whose members are saints. The Church is at one and the same time a pilgrim Church, in exile on earth, and also the “spotless bride of the spotless Lamb” (CCC 769, 796; see Rev. 22:17; Eph. 1:4; 5:27).
Dispensationalists often criticize the Catholic Church for claiming to be the Kingdom of God. But Catholic doctrine is more nuanced than that. The seed of the Kingdom exists in the Church, but is not yet realized here on earth: ” Now the Father’s will is ‘to raise up men to share in his own divine life.’ He does this by gathering men around his Son Jesus Christ. This gathering is the Church, ‘on earth the seed and beginning of that kingdom'” (CCC 541). The Kingdom has begun, but has not been fully revealed. It is a mystery which has yet to be completely known: “The Church ‘is the reign of Christ already present in mystery'” (CCC 763).
In breaking away from the Anglican Church and forming his mistaken doctrines, Darby was merely following the centuries-old tradition of separatist sects like the Montanists and the Anabaptists who could find good only in themselves and their own teachings. He was also following the general pattern of men like Luther and Calvin in the sixteenth century who declared themselves final arbiters of Scripture and Tradition. The culmination of this attitude can be seen in this statement by Ryrie: “The fact that the church taught something in the first century does not make it true, and likewise if the church did not teach something until the twentieth century, it is not necessarily false” (Dispensationalism Today, 14).
Ryrie’s assertion fails to explain how it is that we can accurately interpret the Bible in a way totally different from the previous eighteen hundred years of the Church’s understanding of it. He ignores the fact that Scripture calls the true Church “the household of God” and “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). If the church cannot be counted on for correct teaching, who can? The individuals who make up the church? In responding to the criticism that dispensationalism is a recent theological innovation, Ryrie writes, “Some who use this device to discredit dispensationalism are honest enough to admit that history is never the test of truth-the Bible and only the Bible is” (Dispensationalism Today, 13).
This raises an important question: If Scripture can be read “plainly” and is for all people, why did it take eighteen hundred years for someone to figure out what it really means? In this claim dispensationalists resemble the Latter-Day Saints, who believe that the truth was lost for eighteen centuries.
Catholics should recognize the irony of this position. We agree that the Bible is the source of inspired, inerrant truth. But where did the Bible come from? And who defined the canon of Scripture? And who interprets what Scripture means, especially books like Daniel and Revelation, which are among the most difficult? The dispensationalist relies upon his interpretive method, which is based on a tradition not even two centuries old.
This extreme form of sola scriptura, coupled with a dislike for the examination of history, is a telling weakness in the dispensational approach to truth. The Catholic rests on the assurance of Christ that “the gates of Hell shall not prevail” over the Church founded upon Peter and the Apostles. Our view of the Incarnation and our trust in Christ’s words show us that God works infallibly through the Church in interpreting Scripture and in guiding believers on earth.
The Incarnation also shows us that creation is good and that the logical study of the created order is healthy. While God reveals himself in a unique and singular way in Scripture, the truth about God is also shown through the use of reason and the study of history (see Romans 1). Catholics are not bound to a fatalistic and pessimistic view of history. Rather we have hope for the future, just as Pope John Paul II continually says: “Be not afraid!” But this attitude is rare among dispensationalism, which possesses a kind of neo-Gnostic view of history and the created order.
Recognizing the language of dispensationalism when talking with Evangelicals and Fundamentalists will help you understand what they likely believe about the future, the Church, and the interpretation of Scripture. If they profess belief in the Rapture, you know they probably have a low view of the Church and are pessimistic about the future of humanity. Ask them if they know where that belief came from. Question them about where the term “Rapture” appears in Scripture or when it first appeared. Share with them the vision of the Catholic Church for the world and mankind, especially as we prepare for the third millennium and the Pope’s call for renewal.
We agree with dispensationalists that our final hope is Christ. But we can help them see that the Church, as the Body of Christ, will not fail or be “removed,” but shall one day be revealed as the Kingdom.