By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
To an outsider, the theological differences between traditional and progressive dispensationalism may seem trivial, but the subtle repositioning of the progressives, including Kreider, Bock and Blaising, means that they are now in a crossfire, as disgruntled die-hards on the right add their voices to the clamor from the left. "I think that these guys are not real dispensationalists," says conservative theologian Tommy Ice. Ice is director of a dispensationalist think tank called the Pre-Trib Research Center, which recently relocated from Arlington to Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia. "They think they're making changes within the system, and I think they've changed the system."
The theological debate over dispensationalism may threaten DTS' pre-eminent position in the field, but the popularity of the idea of the Rapture and the ensuing Tribulation period continues to grow. Sales of the Left Behind novels have exceeded $650 million since the first book appeared in 1996, and the series' success has inspired a raft of imitators, all part of a Christian merchandise industry that grew to $4.34 billion in 2004. What's harder to measure is the effect that the growing popularity of Dallas' brand of the Apocalypse may have on religion, popular culture and even world politics.
Professor Emeritus J. Dwight Pentecost first came to DTS as a student in a class of 100 in 1937, when admitting women to a seminary was unthinkable and recruiting international students was unheard of. He came back as a faculty member in 1955 and is now its longest-serving member at nearly 90 years old. His name is real, though it sounds so contrived that it has also been adopted by the guitarist for Slim Cessna's Auto Club, a popular alt-country band from Denver. It's unlikely that the two are ever mistaken for one another, but as the author of 20 books, Pentecost has his own group of fans.
Among them is Hal Lindsey, the author of The Late Great Planet Earth, the best-selling nonfiction book of the 1970s. Lindsey created a sensation by interpreting apocalyptic scripture in a Cold War context. In the late 1950s Pentecost was Lindsey's instructor for eschatology, or the study of the end times, and many saw Lindsey's book as simply a repackaging of the traditional dispensationalism he had been steeped in at DTS. "Lindsey had a very large campaign in Fair Park," Pentecost recalls, "and he saw me in the congregation and asked me to stand up. He said, 'All the eschatology I ever learned, I learned from this man.'"
Pentecost chuckles slightly at the memory as he sits in his cramped second-floor office on campus. Then his smile fades. "I have to say, he came up with some ideas on his own, took positions that I would not hold or that we would not hold here." Among other doctrinal departures, Lindsey predicted that the Rapture would occur sometime in the 1980s. "Lindsey felt that he could predict the date of the Rapture by watching the history in the state of Israel," Pentecost says. "What he did is take a bit of Scripture, misapply it totally and try to draw his conclusion of when the Rapture would come. I would say there's not room for that kind of thinking."
Lindsey was far from the first to engage in such prognostications. Long before the advent of dispensationalism and the Rapture, predicting the end of the world was a thriving industry in America. The influential Massachusetts minister Cotton Mather, for example, saw imminent doom in the horrifying outbreak of witchcraft in Salem in 1692. Another prominent apocalypticist was the Baptist preacher William Miller, who predicted that Christ would return on October 22, 1844. The failure of that prediction, coming on the heels of the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening, was called the Great Disappointment.
"Every generation of prophecy interpreters has seen the events of their own day as somehow fitting the signs of the end," says historian Boyer. After Lindsey's deadline passed, prophets of all stripes began pointing to Y2K as the inevitable end. "I bought two cases of water," Kreider says. "That was my sole preparation. I figured I'm going to use the water anyhow. I did check my computer at 12:01. I watched Bono sing in Paris, and then I checked my computer."
William Miller attracted only about 50,000 followers before his Great Disappointment. How then, in the face of history's repeated prophetic failures, including Lindsey's celebrated error, can the sales of Left Behind books be nearing 70 million copies? The explanation lies in the makeup of the dispensationalist system itself.
Dispensationalism is not a denomination; it's a systematic attempt to resolve apparent conflicts in the Bible. Its best-known idea is the Rapture, but for theologians, that isn't its most revolutionary aspect. The Old Testament book of Daniel, written hundreds of years before Jesus' birth, predicts certain things will happen to Israel, many of them at specific times on a 490-year clock. In chapter 20 of the book of Revelation, written in the first century A.D., the Apostle John relays another promise: Before the final judgment of all mankind, the followers of Jesus would live and reign with Jesus Christ for 1,000 years. This reign is known as the millennial kingdom. In the early years of the church, Christians waited for Jesus to come back and take the reins of power on earth. Because that return was to come before the Millennium, this belief would come to be known as premillenialism.