June 15, 2006
Caption: Seamus McGoogle urges people to remain calm.
This is the fourth post in a series on America’s current fascination with end times religion and its historical background.
The current booming end of times religious industry in America owes much of its success to the novel views of a little known English preacher named John Nelson Darby who lived between 1800 and 1882. His views gained little attention in England but had much influence in the United States. Indeed, his views almost constitute a new religion that might more accurately be called Darbyism.
Originally an Anglican clergyman, he later joined the Plymouth Brethren and developed a new schema for the end of the world based on a series of Dispensations of God’s revelation.
While Christians have always affirmed the second coming of Christ as an article of faith (which has been interpreted in a variety of ways), Darby, through an interpretation of diverse scriptures joined by contextual contortions, asserted that there would be essentially two second comings.
In the first, which would occur before a terrible period often called the Great Tribulation, he argued that true believers would disappear from the earth and be literally transported to heaven. This came to be called the Rapture.
Meanwhile on earth, a terrible period would ensue of plagues, war, famine, false religion, and the rule of the Antichrist. It would culminate in the battle of Armageddon, at which point Christ would physically return and rule on earth for 1000 years. After that, there would be a final struggle with Satan, followed by the final judgment, and the creation of a New Heaven and New Earth where the faithful would live in the New Jerusalem.
Since the Rapture has become a fixed idea for literally millions of Americans, it is important to realize that this doctrine was completely unknown in Christian communities until Darby proclaimed it in the mid 1800s.
It is not to be found in the earliest Church fathers such as Irenaeus, Ignatius, or Justin Martyr or in the teachings of Christian leaders of the later Roman period in the eastern or western churches such as Basil, Augustine, or Athanasius; it was unknown to medieval theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, or Abelard; it formed no part of the Reformation theology of Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli; it was unknown to the Wesleys or to such American firebrands as Jonathan Edwards.
What many people believe to be the centerpiece of Old Time Religion is really a new dogma.
Darby’s innovation got a major boost with the publication of Cyrus Scofield’s Scofield Reference Bible in the early 1900s. Here Darby’s interpretations, timelines, and cross-references appear along with the words of the Bible and seemed to many to be part of the text rather than an interpretation.
In the 1970s, Hal Lindsey’s bestselling (and often revised) Late Great Planet Earth gained a wide following and reached a mass audience at a critical time. Similar views were promoted in other books, in pulpits, on the radio and through the broadcasts of televangelists.
In the scenario envisioned in earlier editions, the Antichrist would rise to power in Europe (the 10 headed beast in Revelation was thought to be 10 European nations involved in what was then the European Common Market). After the Rapture, Armageddon would come when the Soviet Union and Chinese Communist troops would invade Israel.
Since the Soviet scenario didn’t pan out, Darbyites continually changed the script to keep up with the headlines. Around the two Gulf Wars, Iraq was the center of focus. The hot current franchise for some is promoting the US conflict with Iran regarding nuclear energy and the first steps to Armageddon which would again draw Russia into the final battle.
Darbyism is the frame (the details change with the headlines) behind the enormously popular Left Behind series by LeHaye and Jenkins. The title refers to those who were not raptured and must live through the tribulation.
It is important to remember that since the 1980s and especially today, Darbyites influence those who make US foreign policy. Now that’s a cheery thought. As the Jewish Virtual Library wisely puts it, "It is precisely when the belief in the Messiah's coming starts to shape political decisions that the messianic idea ceases to be inspiring and becomes dangerous."
One of many problems with Darbyism is that it is like a kind of theological kudzu, an exotic plant which, once introduced, chokes out other plants or in this case the fruits of Christianity. “Combat faith”, and getting ready for the rapture become the main focus and trump what Jesus called the weightier matters of justice and compassion or Micah’s call to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”
Next time: concluding reflections on the apocalyptic imagination.
GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED
by El Cabrero