The End Is Near

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

Yet research suggests that even these apparent flops may find a species of immortality. Amy Frykholm, author of Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America, spent three years interviewing readers of the series. She found that an astonishing number had also seen a low-budget 1972 Rapture flick called Thief in the Night, which had disappeared with barely a ripple from mainstream consciousness. "I showed it to my students at Duke University, and they just flipped," she says. "They couldn't believe it--it was so far from their conception of popular culture." Yet most of her interview subjects saw nothing unusual at all about having seen the film.

One reason for the cultural disconnect is that the intended value of these apocalyptic entertainment products usually lies in their message, not in their artistic quality. This is especially true with the Left Behind series, which from a literary perspective is clumsy at best. "Even people who professed themselves as avid fans admitted to getting bored by the third or fourth book," Frykholm says. The low quality of writing in the series is enough to stop most casual readers dead in their tracks.

But many readers of Left Behind, Frykholm found, were far from casual. "Left Behind also attracted this other audience that didn't read very much, that didn't read anything else," she says. "That gave the books that much more power because they had filled in the gaps with their own imaginations, their own ideas, their own intentions--their own characters, practically. They had made these relationships, which to me looked like paper dolls, into these deep, rich, meaningful relationships."

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.

The movies that have been made of the first three books have all of the books' drawbacks with none of their advantages. "Movies do a lot of that imaginative work for you," Frykholm says, "and people aren't interested in having that work done for them when it comes to something like the Rapture." One reviewer described the films as "bad enough quality-wise to be bad, but not enough to be brilliant in a wacky, Ed Wood sort of way."

Once the Left Behind books had engaged readers' imaginations, their Rapture radar could not be turned off, Frykholm found. "When we bombed the Chinese embassy by accident, that was evidence of the end of the world," she says. "When the King of Jordan died, and his son who was very handsome and charismatic took his place, that was evidence." Frykholm did find one area where Rapture fans fit perfectly into mainstream thought. "Because of consumer culture, we know that we're not living in a way that's going to sustain the earth," she says. "We know that we're headed for destruction. If you talk to an environmentalist and you talk to a dispensationalist, that's something that they're going to share." They may differ, however, on whether that's necessarily a bad thing.

Conservative dispensationalists acknowledge the criticism of their system, though often not in a way their critics would like. "I think it's true that traditional dispensationalists have not been socially and politically active," Ice says. "There are exceptions, such as Tim and Beverly LaHaye. I mean, who has been more socially and politically active than Tim and Beverly LaHaye? Just ask the people on the left wing."

"It's not hard to find examples of dispensationalists who have had a pessimistic worldview or a very escapist, fatalistic worldview," Darrell Bock says. With fellow DTS graduates Craig Blaising and Robert Saucy, now a theology professor at the dispensationalist Talbot Theological Seminary in Los Angeles, Bock set out to find a biblical basis to address this apparent shortcoming in the system. "People have said, 'You don't polish the brass on a sinking ship--why bother?'" Bock says. "Well, the really simple answer is we bother because God tells us to."

The reconsideration of dispensationalism was spurred on by the popularity of Hal Lindsey's book. Among its fans was Ronald Reagan, who arrived in the White House in 1981. "The media were concerned that Reagan was reading dispensationalist literature and this might somehow affect public policy," Blaising recalls. "Time, Newsweek, all the magazines were talking about dispensationalists--'Who are these people?'--so that led us to get together and figure out who we were."

Through a study group associated with the Evangelical Theological Society, leading dispensationalists debated the direction of their discipline. Saucy, Blaising and Bock hammered out a new view of dispensationalism that they called progressive, a term they introduced at a Society meeting in 1991.

The differences between the traditional and progressive schools are relatively small. Both still champion a pre-Tribulation Rapture, both believe that God's political plan for Israel is on hold until the Rapture and both envision a millennial kingdom on earth ruled by Jesus. The progressives differ in two key respects: One, they see Israel and the Church being redeemed together as one people, and two, they think Christ is already on his millennial throne in heaven, waiting to transfer it to the earth. Blaising downplays the distinction. "People are not shooting one another," he says with a smile. "It's more of a disagreement on some things that look rather esoteric to the general public."

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