In this time of global uncertainty, terrorism, sniper attacks, and threats of war, one style of religious writing has catapulted to the top of best-seller lists. Known as the Left Behind series, these fictional works proclaim that the end of the world as imminent. This apocalyptic view is "straight from the Bible," assert authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. They've sold over 34 million copies.
But is Left Behind "straight from the Bible?" Many critics say no. The series relies heavily on a doctrine known as premillennial dispensationalism. And LaHaye and Jenkins are not the only proponents of the doctrine. It underlies some of the fundamentalist views of mid-east politics as well.
Premillennial Dispensationalism as the Stepchild of Protestantism
Premillennial dispensationalism is the creation of the nineteenth century fundamentalist C.I. Scofield (1843-1921), known chiefly for his authorship of the Scofield Bible. Scofield codified and thus popularized the earlier ideas of J.N. Darby (1800-82) who first introduced the doctrine.
Taking a broader view, premillennial dispensationalism is a recent stepchild of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther's protest against Rome championed the concept of sola scriptura (scripture alone) as a means for restoring apostolic authority over the claims of an increasingly autocratic Roman magisterium and other problems at the time.
Modern corruptions of sola-scriptura reduce Luther's concept to mean that no reference to the past and thus no enduring Tradition is necessary for biblical interpretation. The claim that the Bible alone is sufficient for the Christian life asserts that every believer possesses the capacity to understand the correct meaning of the scriptures on his own.
A second characteristic of the Protestant Reformation was the bifurcation between grace vs. law, which led to the conflict between faith and works. Martin Luther interpreted the Apostle Paul's references to the law, particularly in Romans and Galatians, as pertaining to a cosmic moral law, rather than the Law of Moses. As a result, the "works of the law" that were nullified by faith were understood to mean the works of moral effort rather than the works required by the Mosaic Law. Fundamentalist Protestantism has taken the Lutheran dichotomy to mean that man is completely passive in his salvation.
Premillennial Dispensationalism: Standing Scripture on its Head
Premillennial dispensationalism embraced the two traits of Protestantism with a vengeance. Maintaining that the Scriptures reveal seven distinct dispensations (periods of time from creation to the end of the world and beyond), Scofield offered fundamentalism a new "tradition." The scriptures are rearranged in a schema (his dispensationalist model wrenches verses from their native context) where verses from Daniel and Zechariah are juxtaposed with verses from 1 Thessalonians and Revelations. Within this new tradition historical and literary context mean nothing. Today, bible bookstores even sell charts that purport to explain the mysterious ways of God from the beginning of history to its end.
Startling and troublesome claims arise when Scripture is dismembered according to the Scofield schema. Especially alarming is the conviction of premillennial dispensationalists that American foreign policy in the Middle East should be governed by this odd interpretation.
As early as 1916, Scofield claimed that Israel must be reestablished before the end times could begin. The emergence of Israel as a nation state in 1948 was taken as a fulfillment of this promise and proof that premillennial dispensationalism was a valid interpretation. The Israeli victory in 1967 according to end-times author Hal Lindsay marks the beginning of the final generation of man on earth. The Israeli displacement of Palestinian villages (Christian and Muslim) is celebrated as a necessary part of God's plan.
Second, premillennial dispensationalism maintains that wars and disasters will increase before the end. Since premillennial dispensationalists believe that we are in the last days, they argue that all current efforts for peace (especially in the Middle East) are pointless. When asked about Jesus blessing the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9) they respond that these words do not pertain to the "dispensation of the Church." Christians, it seems, are not expected to live by the Beatitudes.
The belief in the premillennial dispensationalism can lead to extreme views. Todd Strandberg, webmaster of the Rapture Ready website (www.raptureready.com), stated that September 11 made him "joyful" that the end was near. "A lot of prophetic commentators have what I consider a phony sadness over certain events. In their hearts they know it means them getting closer to their ultimate desire." (Time, July 1, 2002, p. 44). An upside-down Christianity emerges with premillennial dispensationalism. It creates a skewed view of the Christian faith that welcomes war and disaster, while dismissing peace efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere--all in the name of Christ.
Third, premillennial dispensationalism believes that Israel, not the Church, is the key player in salvation history. Based on a single comment in 1 Thessalonians, they believe that the Church will be "raptured" (taken up into heaven) out of history before the Great Tribulation (an extended period of suffering on earth, and the final battle of Armageddon. Christ will appear at the Second Coming as the Jewish Messiah and at which time the Jews will accept Him either voluntarily or by force.
How to Respond?
We ought not dismiss the dispensationalist view as marginal, as one that poses no threat to traditional Christian teaching. Time magazine reports that 59% of polled Americans believe the prophecies of the book of Revelation will come true, presumably in a literal fashion, while 36% of those polled support the present state of Israel because of their view of biblical prophecy.
In this view, not only are Palestinians of no value, but the sole reason for Jews to return to Israel is to hasten the slaughter that triggers the return of Christ.
Misinterpretation, however, is not a new phenomena. The Church Fathers faced it too. In his book, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, Professor Georges Florovsky recalls the image by the second century Bishop Irenaeus which bear an uncanny resemblence to our current "battle for the Bible."
St. Irenaeus described an artist who made a beautiful jeweled mosaic of a king. Another came along and took apart the pieces of this beautiful mosaic, rearranging the tiles to create an image of a fox. This second person then claimed that the image of the fox was the true one, as the mosaic pieces were all "authentic".
This is what heretics do to Scripture, St. Irenaeus maintained. They claim that because they use the words of Scripture, the doctrines they teach are true. But heretics ignore the design, the rule of faith--the Tradition--which the Church has always used to test interpretations of the Bible.
St. Irenaeus' words indict premillennial dispensationalism. Without the Tradition, these fundamentalists pull the text apart and rearrange the verses to create a picture that is at odds with the received Tradition. Christ is replaced by a figure that celebrates the sorrows of our time and despises the efforts to create peace.
Professor Florovsky states, "...the point which St. Irenaeus endeavored to make is obvious. Scripture had its own pattern or design, its internal structure and harmony. The heretics ignored this pattern, or rather substitute their own instead. In other words, they re-arrange the Scriptural evidence on a pattern which is quite alien to the Scripture itself."(p. 78). Isn't this precisely what premillennial dispensationalism, with its pseudo-biblicism, is doing in our day?
To rejoice in the sufferings of our age is to take Christ's name in vain. Christians are to see the face of Christ in the faces of all the suffering people in this world. We don't rejoice in suffering but are called to feed, visit, clothe, them and to seek peace.
Dr. David Carlson is Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin College, Franklin, Indiana, and amember of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, Indianapolis, Indiana
Copyright © 2003 David Carlson. Reprinted with permission of the author.