The End Is Near

Room 115 in Stearns Hall on the campus of Dallas Theological Seminary could be a classroom at any American college. The long, pale blue countertops dotted with laptop-friendly outlets are arranged in tiers rising away from the lectern at the front of the room. Most of the 70 padded seats are filled with students, somewhat dressier than a normal college class but otherwise unremarkable. Only the light fixtures on the walls, whose clean metal pieces form stylized crosses, hint at the fact that this lecture hall is part of one of the most conservative institutions of American evangelicalism.

The course instructor, Associate Professor of Theological Studies Glenn Kreider, speaks softly and with frequent pauses, occasionally crossing his arms over his stout torso or stroking his graying goatee. At the moment, he is expounding on one of his favorite subjects: Bono, the outspoken front man of the Irish rock group U2. "In post-9-11 2001," Kreider says, "Bono became America's pastor." A few chuckles are quickly stifled, because Kreider is dead serious. He explains how the singer used the song "Walk On" to deliver a message of hope to a country reeling from the terrorist attacks only days before and then goes on to play the music video from his computer onto a big screen.



Bono is best-known as a rock star and social activist but, along with most of his bandmates, he also claims to be a devout Christian. It's a claim that some American evangelicals would dispute, those who take exception to being harangued about their faith's inaction on AIDS and Third World debt by a man who, by all accounts, hasn't attended a worship service in decades.

Kreider's use of Bono to illustrate his points is apt in more ways than one. The theologian is a huge U2 fan, and as a professor he is always looking for ways to engage his students. But on another level, Kreider and a group of his fellow DTS professors are, like Bono, confronting skepticism from their fellow believers--in this case, believers in an influential framework for interpreting the Bible called dispensationalism.

Outside of the conservative wing of the evangelical movement, dispensationalism is virtually unknown, but some of its tenets have captured the imagination of a broad swath of the American public, most notably the idea of the Rapture. Based on the Latin word for abduction, raptio, the Rapture is the concept that the Christian faithful will suddenly disappear from the earth as a harbinger of the end times--a spectacle to be followed by seven years of horrific warfare known as the Tribulation. First popularized by DTS graduate Hal Lindsey in the 1970s, the idea found its biggest venue in the Left Behind books, the blockbuster Christian fiction series conceived by dispensationalist preacher Tim LaHaye. A 2004 Newsweek poll showed that 55 percent of Americans believe in the Rapture.

Dallas Theological Seminary has long been the premier center of dispensationalist thought, exercising an intellectual influence far out of proportion to its relatively small size. The Scofield Reference Bible, dispensationalism's seminal text, first published in 1909, was the work of colorful Dallas pastor Cyrus Scofield, whose protégé Lewis Chafer founded DTS in 1924. DTS graduates are at the helm of many conservative Christian churches and schools such as Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Prominent dispensationalist and DTS alumnus Craig Blaising is now provost of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, the largest Protestant seminary in the world.

More important, the conservative dispensationalist views taught at DTS have been adopted by influential figures, from Jerry Falwell to U.S. Representative Tom DeLay. Among the roughly one-third of Americans who are evangelical Christians, it has become the majority view, whether they know it by name or not. "We might have a class on [dispensationalism], but I'm not sure it's a pulpit topic," says DTS graduate and Dallas pastor Neil Curran. "It wouldn't pop up on a Sunday morning, probably."

But even as dispensationalist ideas have gained stature in the popular realm, they have attracted harsh criticism from mainstream theologians and social activists. "It sounds biblical, but it's a made-up framework," says Barbara Rossing, a Lutheran seminary professor from Chicago. Rossing says that dispensationalists distort the meaning of a handful of Bible verses to justify wild theological conjecture. A common charge is that dispensationalists' obsession with end-times prophecies makes them look forward to wars and disasters rather than work to prevent them. Comments by dispensational televangelists such as Falwell and Pat Robertson suggesting the terrorist attacks of September 11 and Hurricane Katrina were acts of divine judgment drew public fury, but in some quarters there was quiet agreement. "It's not a very productive worldview, if your objective is to solve problems via compromise and negotiation," says social historian Paul Boyer. "None of those things are encouraged by the apocalyptic worldview."

In response, over the last 20 years a group of DTS dissidents led by Blaising and Darrell Bock have developed a variation of the system that they call progressive dispensationalism. Progressives argue that, in spite of the Rapture, Christians still have a stake in earth's future. "I think what you're seeing in the recent dispensationalism is a more reflective kind of engagement," says Bock, a DTS professor, "even a more nuanced kind of engagement with current culture in which it isn't all necessarily seen as bad, even though there is a lot to criticize."

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.

On a warm January day, a few Dallas seminarians gather between classes to toss a Frisbee around on the grassy quad. The surrounding campus is far from opulent, but the landscaping is meticulous, the facilities are up-to-date and the number of students, now at more than 1,900, is growing. The Frisbee trio includes two female students, one of them of Asian descent. The group reflects the inexorable forces of change even at this famously conservative academy.

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.

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?

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."

But the complexity of the situation makes Bock and other theologians uncomfortable. "The church never wants to get in a position of defending Israel at the expense of at least some Palestinians who are Christian," Bock says. In 1984, mainstream Christian denominations formed the group Churches for Middle East Peace, hoping to heighten awareness of Israel's responsibilities to the Palestinians. "The Christian evangelist [sic] movement takes over large numbers of people, and they have large rallies celebrating Israel in the streets," says Corinne Whitlatch, the group's director. "I think that's very comforting to the Israelis, and I don't think they're aware of--or even care to know about--some of the dark side." That would be the part where, according to one literal reading of the book of Revelation, a group of 144,000 Jews would be set aside before the Tribulation to serve God while the rest would be left to convert or die.

Pat Robertson suggested Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke on January 5 was God's revenge for ceding land to the Palestinians. At DTS, Pentecost believes that Robertson had a point. "We have said all along there will be no peace until Israel submits to the Prince of Peace," Pentecost says. "So here it looks as though things are developing contrary to what the Bible pictures, and then suddenly that whole thing blows up. Now I'm not anticipating or saying when the Messiah will come, but things that would seem to make his coming unnecessary, that Israel was going to establish its own peace, current events have shown they can't do it."

"I call it a theological racket," says Barbara Rossing, an edge in her voice. The Lutheran theologian has little patience for dispensationalism. The basis cited for its concept of the Rapture is just as summarily dealt with. "If you look closely at that passage, Jesus is descending from heaven," Rossing says. "Yes, to be sure, Paul says people will be snatched up in the air to meet Jesus, but it never says that Jesus turns around, switches direction and goes back up to heaven for seven years. They have to insert that. They have to make that up because it's not in the text."

The claim to literalism is one of the most cherished aspects of dispensationalism. The underlying rationale for Darby's system is that all Scripture, including prophecy, should be taken as literally as possible, using one hermeneutic, or system of interpretation. "We are using that normal hermeneutic used by Protestants to interpret the Bible," says traditional dispensationalist Tommy Ice. "Dispensationalists simply applied it consistently to eschatology."

Dispensationalism is the sum total of the leaps of logic it takes to make that literal reading possible. There is, however, one drawback: The canon of the King James Bible, the most popular English version and the basis for the Scofield Reference Bible, was not decided until the early 1600s. Before that, which Scriptures were included varied widely. As religious studies professor Bart Ehrman notes in his book, Misquoting Jesus, one of the most popular stories in the Bible, about a woman accused of adultery that Jesus saves from stoning by shaming her would-be executioners, was likely added to the Gospel of John by an anonymous scribe in the 12th century. Progressive dispensationalists like Glenn Kreider see the dilemma. "Sometimes defenders of the system have argued too much from the text, from a word in the text, rather than reading the Scripture as a whole," Kreider concedes.

"It's become kind of a political racket now in the sense that Lindsey and LaHaye and others are heavily involved in right-wing political causes," Rossing says. "They're trying to get their theology to be the policy of the United States, particularly Middle East policy, and I think that's very dangerous." Some evangelicals aren't shy about their political aspirations. Falwell, for example, titled a 2004 article on Iraq for a Christian Web site, "God Is Pro-war." The theologians at DTS are more circumspect. "Eschatology for me is kind of knowing where the end of the story is heading, but it's not my role to help get it there," Bock says.

Exactly how much pull dispensationalists have with the White House is the subject of debate. President George W. Bush is a self-identified evangelical Christian, but he has carefully avoided specifying a denomination, even when he speaks to evangelical groups. Yet Falwell openly flaunts the access he gets to the White House as a member of the Council for National Policy, a lobbying committee for right-wing evangelicals (LaHaye was the group's first president). "We often call the White House and talk to Karl Rove while we are meeting," Falwell told Vanity Fair last year. "Everyone takes our calls."

Such are the political perks of running a $200 million mega-ministry, or in LaHaye's case, co-writing a series read by an estimated one in 10 Americans. But the runaway success of Left Behind and its illustrious predecessor, The Late Great Planet Earth, isn't easy to duplicate. A much better-written trilogy of apocalyptic novels by James Beauseigneur called the Christ Clone Trilogy has developed only a modest following. Novelist Frank Peretti won critical acclaim with his Christian thrillers in the 1980s but garnered only a fraction of LaHaye's audience. Even a big production and promotion budget is no guarantee: Last year, NBC's lavish new Christian-themed mini-series, Revelations, was quietly canceled amidst resounding indifference.

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."

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."

Some traditional dispensationalists, such as Ice, say otherwise. "They've destroyed the church and thus undermined the whole purpose for the Rapture," Ice says indignantly. "Why do you have a Rapture if the church is a form of the kingdom?" Ice thinks the progressives have thrown literal interpretation of the Bible out the window. "Progressives were dispensationalists who were educated at universities in Europe, who got Ph.D.s in Europe and who started applying what I would call liberalism, critical-type scholarship, to interpreting the Bible," he scoffs.

Indeed, Bock and Blaising both hold degrees from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Even a theologian of J. Dwight Pentecost's stature seems wary of the European influence. "Some of those who have advocated the progressive view have second doctorates from prestigious universities in Europe, and that gives them a lot of leverage with students," he says. "I don't have that same thing because I never studied in Europe." Pentecost rejects the progressives' interpretations, but he seems disposed to let his colleagues slide on a technicality. "Those fellows still have to sign our doctrinal statement," he says, "but that area [of disagreement between progressives and traditionalists] isn't covered in our doctrinal statement, so they can sign the doctrinal statement and still be on our faculty."

Tommy Ice is not so accommodating. He looks back fondly at his student days at DTS. "It was wonderful and I loved it," he says. "But to see it 25 years later, 30 years later to be so different..." Ice trails off and starts again. "Dallas Seminary has changed. I really don't consider that to be much of a source now for dispensationalism." As director of the LaHaye-financed Pre-Trib Research Center, Ice is ready to take up the torch. "We probably are the main defenders of traditional dispensationalism now," he says.

Bock isn't sure that dispensationalism needs defending. "We recognize that we have a common belief, a common goal, and we have fun playing with the nuances," he says. "It's like we're siblings in a family. We may sound like we're on each other's nerves, but when push comes to shove we know what family we're part of." Kreider, who counts himself among the progressives, believes the shift will make dispensationalism stronger. "I really do share the perspective of critics of dispensationalists for our lack of emphasis on our responsibility for social issues and for environmental concerns," he says. For the first time, dispensationalism can now include the present world in God's plan for mankind, a message Kreider plans to pass on to his students. "I want them to take social justice seriously and to take the environment seriously," he says. "I work hard at that."

Scofield Memorial Church on Abrams Road proudly bears the name of its former pastor, Cyrus Scofield, the disseminator of dispensationalism. In 1924, Scofield's successor at the church, Lewis Chafer, founded Dallas Theological Seminary. Scofield's current pastor, Matthew St. John, and associate pastor, Neil Curran, are DTS graduates. "We are linked to DTS forever," Curran says.

The 10 adults gathered in the brightly decorated classroom just after nine on Sunday morning seem more intent on linking up with the banana-nut bread and coffee. Eventually, however, Steve Ackley, the Bible study group leader, gets the session rolling. Sure enough, the topic is pure dispensationalist fare, the difference between law and grace in the governing of Christian behavior. All evangelicals follow some variation on the theme, but only dispensationalists believe the two form the fifth and sixth dispensations, respectively.

Ackley, natty in a sweater vest and sharply creased pants, is warming to his subject. "They will know us as God's children by our love, not by our degrees or our theology or our eschatology," he says, his voice radiating goodwill. Then Ackley picks up a leather-bound copy of former DTS professor Charles Ryrie's tome on dispensationalism. Even at Scofield, this is a little heavy for Sunday morning, but Ackley is just making a point. "It's written in English, but as much as I love Dr. Ryrie it might as well be written in Hebrew," he says ruefully.

Ackley's message is clear: The theological minutiae of dispensationalism that are hotly debated by DTS faculty mean little to those in the congregation. "They would all know about the Rapture," Curran says. "Probably the most distinctive thing about dispensationalism is the difference between Israel and the church, and I think they would understand that." Beyond that, Curran says, he just sticks to the Bible and lets the theology take care of itself.

That's also the attitude he's taking toward the progressive split at DTS. Curran takes his cue from his former mentor at DTS, the late John Walvoord, an expert in classical dispensationalism. "Walvoord was friends with Blaising and Bock," Curran says. "They agreed they had some nuances that were different, but it wasn't a big deal to Walvoord, and if it wasn't a big deal to him it's not a big deal to me."

Yet it would seem that Curran, of all people, would take eschatological distinctions very seriously; after all, during his previous career as a Louisiana advertising executive and Republican activist, he came face-to-face with the Antichrist. Or at least, an antichrist. "I think Satan has people in place throughout time that could be the Antichrist, because he doesn't know either when Christ is coming back, so he's always got someone ready," Curran says. "People like Hitler--people like David Duke."

Curran first met the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after Duke had been elected to the Louisiana state legislature in 1989. The more Curran learned about Duke, the more horrified he was. "This was a guy who celebrated Hitler's birthday every year in his living room--with a cake," Curran says. "You tell normal people that and they look at you and say, 'You're not serious, are you?' But there were plenty of people that were at those things."

As a fundamentalist Christian and Republican Party official, Curran took up the task of thwarting Duke. "I called for the state central committee to censure him and remove him from the Republican Party--with Duke standing in the back of the auditorium, looking at me with daggers in his eyes." The censure motion failed, and Duke went on to a place in a runoff election for the Louisiana governorship in 1991. Duke began touting himself as a born-again Christian on the campaign trail, and Curran was chilled by the parallels to the false prophet described in the Gospel of Mark. "Somebody had been giving him Christian lingo to use as a political tool," he says. "I could see it happening on a larger scale." Curran initiated a series of radio ads that he believes helped turn the tide against Duke.

Curran's real-life brush with the Apocalypse was involuntary, but there are legions of eschatology buffs in America who draw liberally from end-times theology to fuel their beliefs. Among them is the co-owner of RaptureReady.com, Todd Strandberg. Along with Arkansas-based partner Terry James, Strandberg, who is in the Air Force and stationed in Nebraska, maintains a clearing-house of end-times information as well as the Rapture Index, a gauge of apocalyptic indicators such as "False Christs" and "Drug abuse." "That's the most popular feature of the site," Strandberg says. He has been tracking the index since 1986. "For some reason it just appeals to people. It's not a predictor, really, it's more like a speedometer of how fast we're going toward the end times." Right now we're doing 155--out of a possible 225.

The Rapture Index may not be a predictor, but Strandberg doesn't shy away from it on the rest of his site. "All current events seem to suggest pretty clearly that the European Union is the revived Roman Empire and that it will usher in the Tribulation period and the end of the church age," says one entry. Strandberg posts his content on upward of 20 mirror sites so that the deluge of post-Rapture visitors desperate for information won't crash them all. He is confident that the end is near. "Way back in the 1800s, they had all kinds of crazy ideas because they didn't have anything to work with," he says of previous apocalypticists. "The picture is so much clearer today. I think there should be more interest than there is."

Darrell Bock might be surprised at just how many people like Strandberg there are. "I don't think the public has any clue what's going on with dispensationalism," Bock says. "For the general public, it just seems way too bizarre."

An oversimplified guide to dispensationalism

What it is: About 25 percent of the Bible is made up of prophecy. Dispensationalism is a conceptual framework that provides an explanation for some apparent conflicts in these predictions, allowing them to be taken literally. From John Nelson Darby's original scheme, two principal types of dispensationalism have emerged, traditional and progressive. No two theologians agree on all the details, but here are a few of the highlights.

What they have in common:

Historically, most Christians have believed that, following the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the church (Christians) superseded Israel (Jews) as God's chosen people. Dispensationalism separates the church's destiny from that of Israel, maintaining that God still has a plan for both groups. Biblical prophecies that apply to Israel don't apply to the church and vice versa.

Instead of believing that some of the Bible's prophecies for Israel were never fulfilled, dispensationalists believe the timetable for prophecies concerning Israel is on hold until the church has completed its time on Earth, culminating in the Rapture. As theologian Craig Blaising puts it, "Like in a modern movie, you just switched scenes. It's like a parallel plot line."

God's relationship with man is broken up into seven distinct periods called dispensations. For example, the first dispensation is Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Where they disagree:

Jesus' 1,000-year (millennial) reign, as mentioned in the book of Revelation:

Traditional: The reign begins on earth after the Tribulation--the seven years following the Rapture.

Progressive: The reign is partially realized now in the church, fully realized after the Tribulation.

Distinction between the church and Israel:

Traditional: Both are redeemed, but in different ways.

Progressive: Both are redeemed together.

The dispensations:

Traditional: Self-contained eras with different purposes.

Progressive: Stages in the progressive fulfillment of one purpose.

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