The End Is Near

Famine, pestilence, war, death--at Dallas Theological Seminary, the Apocalypse is the horse to bet on

But the 490-year clock eventually ran out and Jesus didn't reappear. Rather than believe Jesus had stood them up, many Christians decided that they had simply been waiting in the wrong place. The Millennium, they decided, actually started with Jesus' resurrection and ascension to heaven, where he was already sitting on the millennial throne. This conclusion that there would be no earthly kingdom reigned over by Jesus is known as amillenialism, and it is the accepted doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.

With the Protestant Reformation, begun in 1517, a wider group of people began to study the Scriptures, and other interpretations emerged, especially postmillenialism. This was the belief that the millennial kingdom would be here on earth, but that society would be gradually improved by the church to achieve it. This sleeves-rolled-up eschatology was popular with many Protestant denominations and was a crucial influence behind many social movements in the United States such as the abolition of slavery.

As evangelical Presbyterians and Methodists waged their campaigns of reform, however, they came increasingly to apply the principals of modernism, including scientific ideas. This was unsettling to conservative Christians, who in the post-Civil War era called for a return to early church practices. This return included revisiting premillenialism, which meant resurrecting the old question: Why hadn't Christ come back?

A sculpture on the grounds of Dallas Theological Seminary depicts the women who found Jesus' empty tomb.
A sculpture on the grounds of Dallas Theological Seminary depicts the women who found Jesus' empty tomb.
Dallas Theological Seminary Professor Darrell Bock has been one of the leaders in developing progressive dispensationalism. "It's a more holistic approach, "he says.
Dallas Theological Seminary Professor Darrell Bock has been one of the leaders in developing progressive dispensationalism. "It's a more holistic approach, "he says.

That was the question that a British preacher named John Darby had sought to answer in the mid-1800s when he came up with the basis of what would become dispensationalism. The standard Christian line was that the church had supplanted Israel--the Jews--as God's chosen people. Darby, in contrast, suggested that the church is, in fact, a separate nation, distinct from Israel, and therefore the political promises made to Israel did not apply to the church. This opened the possibility that when Christ was resurrected, Israel's 490-year countdown was put on hold--just seven years before its conclusion--so that the current "Church Age" could occur. After the Rapture, when the church is taken up to heaven, Israel's countdown would begin again for the seven years of the Tribulation, and the unfulfilled earthly predictions for Israel would finally come to pass.

This posed another problem: If Israel and the church were separate, the church couldn't be around while Israel's destiny unfolded; Christians had to go somewhere. Darby found an answer in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, which says, "Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so shall we ever be with the Lord." "Caught up"--the Rapture.

Darby organized his system by biblical eras called dispensations, a concept long used among theologians. He reasoned that the pausing of Israel's clock was simply a sixth dispensation, to be followed by the seventh and final period, the Millennium.

The framework Darby developed offered a resolution for apparent conflicts in biblical prophecy, making dispensationalism popular among evangelicals who believe in biblical inerrancy. It also meant that the Tribulation was still on the way for Israel and other non-Christians.

Acceptance of dispensationalism spread among conservative evangelicals, especially after Cyrus Scofield produced his Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. Scofield's innovation was to print the Scriptures and their dispensationalist interpretations side by side.

Dispensationalists began to keep one eye on the news and the other on their Bible, looking for signs that the biblical prophecies of alliances and wars centered on Israel might be close to coming true--just as Jesus told them to in the book of Matthew. "The Rapture and the Tribulation and the Antichrist, it's this exciting stuff," Boyer says, "and it's tailor-made for the mass media. The liberal churches with their social justice just can't compete." Spirited debates began on the identity of the nations of Gog and Magog that the book of Ezekiel says will unite with Persia, Libya and Ethiopia to attack Israel. Before World War I, the leading candidate was the Ottoman Empire. After its dissolution, attention turned to the Soviet Union.

Yet it was all strictly theoretical, since Israel as a political entity had vanished in A.D. 70, crushed by the Romans. "Before Israel came into existence as a nation, the dispensationalist scenario seemed a bit surreal," Bock says. "You didn't have a nation of Israel on the map...around which events could swirl."

In 1948, that changed with the establishment of the modern state of Israel. "All of a sudden, a dispensational reading in which history and politics could rotate around the Middle East becomes very plausible," Bock says. Interest in dispensationalism soared and with it, DTS' theological influence.

After Israel beat back Arab assaults in 1967 and 1973, it wasn't just DTS graduates like Hal Lindsey who were offering predictions about Israel. Even the school's president, respected eschatological scholar John Walvoord, published a book in 1974 called Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis, which echoed many of Lindsey's ideas. As events seemed to fall in line with a Rapturist view, Israelis found themselves enthusiastically befriended by American evangelicals eager to set the scene for their impending Rapture.

The United States boasts the largest Jewish population of any country in the world, and other cultural similarities to Israel mean that dispensationalism is far from the only source for Christian Zionism. The September 11 terrorist attacks added yet another. "I actually think that since 9-11 we understand a little bit better what Israel has gone through," Bock says. Jerry Falwell has gone further, telling CBS in 2003, "It is my belief that the Bible Belt in America is Israel's only safety belt right now."

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