How Will It All End?
This Tuesday the grand finale to Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' best-selling Left Behind novels went on sale at bookstores across the nation. Glorious Appearing tells the tale of Jesus's return to crush the Anti-Christ and inaugurate his millennial reign. It's a finish filled with plenty of drama to top off a series that's engrossed millions of readers—the first 11 novels have sold more than 40 million copies, leading LaHaye and Jenkins to edge out John Grisham as the most popular novelists in America.
Just what's driving this literary phenomenon? The way LaHaye tells it, Left Behind taps into growing anxiety over global political and religious instability. "The fact that we're seeing some of those things happen right now must be a wake-up call to some people to say, 'Hey, we may be closer than we think.'" On the official Left Behind website, LaHaye notes, "The true account of the Rapture and the subsequent seven year Tribulation period—as described so graphically in the Book of Revelation—has to be the greatest story in the two thousand years since Christ ascended to His Father."
LaHaye's language reminds me of the hype that called Mel Gibson's Passion the greatest Christian outreach opportunity in two millennia. But LaHaye hardly has a monopoly on interpreting the Book of Revelation. A brief overview of Christian end-time schemas from Christian History's Issue 61: The End. A History of the Second Coming should prove the point.
A Perplexing Apocalypse
The Revelation of John has bred a plethora of end-time interpretations. For example, first-century Papias (c. 60-120) believed that Christ's resurrection had already inaugurated the new millennium, while Justin Martyr (c.100-c.165) believed that the church would reign with Christ after his second coming (a view typically referred to as pre-millennialism). Justin admitted that "many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise." As Roman authorities increased their persecution of the church, Christians like third-century Hippolytus began making end-time predictions—Hippolytus expected Christ to establish his millennial reign in 496. Other Christians, like Alexandria's foremost theologian Origen, preferred to interpret Revelation allegorically, rejecting detailed schemas altogether. (For a more in-depth discussion of this, see Dana Netherton's "Taking the Long View.")
The great fourth-century theologian Augustine did the most when it came to forming the Church's "official" interpretation of Revelation (see David Wright's "Millennium Today"). Augustine believed that the thousand years in Revelation 20 began not at some future date but with Christ's birth in Bethlehem. To those who would counter that evil has no place in the millennium, Augustine said the Devil is "not permitted to exert his whole power of temptation, either by force or by guile to seduce people." Yet Augustine's was no political millennium—during his lifetime, Rome fell to barbarian invasions and Augustine got busy distinguishing the kingdom of God from the kingdom of men. His "amillennial" interpretation would rule as Church orthodoxy on through the Middle Ages.
The Reformers mostly accepted Augustine's position, though Luther came to believe that the pope had set himself up as the Anti-Christ. For centuries, the heirs of the magisterial or "mainstream" Reformation generally refrained from constructing end-time schemas or speculating on when Christ would return. But in the eighteenth century, a new interpretation of Revelation arose. As a first-hand witness to the Great Awakening, theologian Jonathan Edwards yearned for the fulfillment of Christ's Great Commission—and envisioned a millennium brought about "by the preaching of the gospel, and the use of the ordinary means of grace." In this way, Christ's kingdom "shall be gradually brought to pass."
Edwards helped set in motion a new way of interpreting Revelation, which we know today as postmillennialism. (See Steven R. Pointer's "Seeing the Glory.") The engine of America's "great century" of missions (essentially the nineteenth century) was the church's optimism that Christians actively spreading the gospel could bring in the millennium. Revivalist Charles Finney purportedly claimed "if the church will do her duty, the Millennium may come in this country in three years." But the carnage of the Civil War and industrialization in the North tempered these hopes; by the time war broke out in Europe in 1914, postmillennialism was all but dead.
Historian George Marsden calls this turn from postmillennial activism to premillennial pietism the "Great Reversal." Evangelicals laid down their role as reformers of society to take up more "spiritual" concerns. James Gray, for instance, who served as president of Moody Bible Institute around 1900, explained that he was "not expecting the millennium to be brought about by moral and political reforms." Gray was pessimistic about the current state of affairs in America, noting the "crowded tenements in our cities," the "brothels and gambling dens open in multiplying variety," and the defiance of the law by municipal and state officers "to the demoralization of both public and private standards of right and wrong."
But what about the schema that Left Behind draws on so heavily? John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) gets the credit for constructing the complicated set of events that drives LaHaye's plot. An Irish lawyer, Darby converted to Christianity and became a priest of the Church of England in Dublin in 1826. But he left the Established Church soon after the Anglican archbishop denounced Roman Catholicism on the grounds that Catholics were opposed to the government of England, a decision Darby felt was contrary to Scripture. In 1827, he joined a group that later became known as the Plymouth Brethren, during which time his dispensational theology took shape.
Along with popularizer C.I. Scofield, Darby divided human history into seven periods. In each of these, God deals with the problem of human sin differently (see Timothy Weber's "The Dispensationalist Era"). Darby's main innovation was his idea of the "rapture," which snatches the believing Church out of the world, marking the official beginning of the Great Tribulation. During the Tribulation, 144,000 Jews who had not yet accepted Christ as their Savior would do so, and these then would becomes apostles of the faith. They would be persecuted by the Anti-Christ, and a few of them would endure martyrdom. The horror of the Tribulation would end with the battle of Armageddon at Megiddo (Israel), after which Christ would return and cast Satan into hell and the rest of the Jewish nation would recognize Christ as its messiah.
In America, dispensational theology spread through seven trips made by Darby from 1862 to 1878. While a few Episcopalians and Lutherans were attracted to the new teachings, most of the members embracing dispensationalism were from the "revivalist" denominations—Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. Presbyterian minister James H. Brookes and evangelist Dwight L. Moody supported the movement, and William Blackstone further popularized it in his tract, Jesus Is Coming. As Weber notes in our issue, dispensationalism went from a "once-mocked idea" at the beginning of the nineteenth century to dominating twentieth-century evangelical Christianity.
A New View of End Times?
The popularity of Left Behind is sure to spawn other end-times novels. Author Neesa Hart has already penned her first political thriller, using the Rapture as her muse. And considering the overwhelming success of Gibson's Passion, Hollywood may entertain overtly religious films in the future, possibly opening the door to series like Left Behind.
Of course, LaHaye and Jenkins have plenty of critics, including many Christians. This month, Westview Press will be publishing a book by Barbara Rossing titled The Rapture Exposed, in which she argues that the Left Behind novels "distort the Bible's message, are disingenuous, and are just flat out wrong." Last year, Illinois' Roman Catholic bishops condemned the Left Behind books, arguing they do not square with Catholic teaching on Christ's second coming.
But for now, Left Behind's thrilling end-time scenario seems unassailable as American Christians' favorite interpretation of John's Revelation. If Rossing and others really want to challenge dispensational theology, they might do better to start crafting a New York Times bestseller of their own.
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