Only two more Left Behind books to go and we’ll finally know how the world ends. I can hardly wait. I feel fortunate that I live at a time when someone finally figured out what the Book of Revelation really means. That someone is Tim LaHaye, creator and coauthor of the Left Behind novels, the best-selling works of Christian fiction—ever. As a surprisingly kind story in Time (“Meet the Prophet,” July 1, 2002) explained, LaHaye “believes that the Scriptures lay out a precise timetable for the end of the world, and the Left Behind books let us in on the chronology.” Since the first book was published in 1995, the series has sold nearly forty million copies. The most recent addition, The Remnant: On the Brink of Armageddon, had a first printing of 2,750,000 copies. That’s a serious number of people learning the secrets of the Book of Revelation. Unfortunately for them, the secrets are stale, recycled, and false.
My skepticism results from having spent twenty-five years learning and hearing the teachings of popular “Bible prophecy experts”—more formally known as premillennial dispensationalists— such as LaHaye, Hal Lindsey, Jack Van Impe, and countless others. Reading quotes by Left Behind enthusiasts who are convinced The End is nigh, I recall how many “Ends” have come and gone in my short lifetime. The “signs of the times” were many and varied: the fledgling modern state of Israel, any and every Middle Eastern conflict, the European Market, Jimmy Carter, the energy crisis, Ronald Reagan, communism, the Persian Gulf War—the list goes on. Of course, September 11 was no different. Within hours, the event was being examined by Bible prophecy teachers and enthusiasts in light of the Book of Revelation, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Matthew’s Gospel. There were the remarks, made in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Other fundamentalist leaders also took up the “I told you so” posture. Todd Hertz, in a September 19, 2001 article in Christianity Today, quotes Jack Van Impe, noted Bible prophecy guru and TV evangelist: “I have been warning the nation and the world . . . for the past two years that terrorists would soon strike America. That moment has arrived. Jesus predicted this rise of terrorism just before his return to set up his kingdom on earth.”
Of course, the inevitability of it all—“Jesus predicted this rise of terrorism”—makes such a warning a rather moot point. How does one turn back biblical fate? Paul Boyer, author of the excellent When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief In Modern American Culture and an insightful observer of the apocalyptic culture in America, says, “I suspect that with the passage of time these events will be assimilated into the prophecy popularizers’ end-time scenario, as everything is.” It will be an interesting assimilation since the exact role, if any, the United States plays in dispensationalist end-time scenarios is vague. The standard belief is that the United States—apparently of little interest to the biblical prophets—will suffer a rapid decline in fortune, the victim of a massive stock market implosion and the uncontrolled rise of hedonism and secularism. Some interpreted the September 11 attacks as key events in the fast- approaching decline and fall of the American Empire. The Los Angeles Times reported that a North Carolina pastor has linked the attacks in New York City to Isaiah 30:25, which speaks of “the day of the great slaughter, when the towers fall.” And the irrepressible John Hagee, a fervent premillennial dispensationalist and best-selling author based in San Antonio, flatly states: “I believe World War III actually began Sept. 11, 2001.” Of course, Hagee made similar comments after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, but that’s already ancient history.
September 11 provided the sort of horrific material that mixes well into the potent dispensational brew of sensationalism, biblical sooth-saying, and sci-fi storytelling. Dispensationalism is a theology of crisis, without much patience for peace and ordinary life. It has never been about the growth and advancement of civilization; its adherents tend to stay off to the side, looking for their chance to triumphantly announce to the masses, “I told you so!” when times turn bad.
Thirty years ago, when the world was threatened by the Cold War and the nation divided by the Vietnam conflict, an unknown youth minister named Hal Lindsey shocked the publishing industry by selling several million copies of The Late Great Planet Earth, the biggest selling nonfiction work of the decade (with sales now totaling close to forty million). At that time the forces of evil were as obvious as the printed Word of God—or so Lindsey said. They were those aligned against Israel and Christianity: the Soviet Union, Egypt, China, and “Mystery Babylon,” a one-world religion fast forming around an eclectic blend of astrology, narcotics, ecumenism, and the Catholic Church. For several years it was a winning combination.
But the late 1980s were not kind to the movement. Longtime dispensational strongholds such as Fuller Theological Seminary, BIOLA (the Bible Institute of Los Angeles), and even Dallas Theological Seminary, long considered the spiritual and academic heart of the movement, began distancing themselves from the more popular, rigid forms of the controversial theological system. Lindsey’s thinly veiled prophecy that the 1980s would bring the Rapture and the end of the world (hence his 1981 bestseller The 1980’s: Countdown to Armageddon) failed to materialize. This was followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, making Lindsey’s “deduction” in the early 1980s of a possibly imminent Communist takeover appear naive and paranoid. Suddenly the world found itself relatively safe, with freedom spreading and pessimism relegated to the trash heap of history. A new age of tranquillity had arrived and dispensationalism seemed out of fashion.
But there’s nothing like a war to light the apocalyptic fires once again. Of course, it couldn’t be just any war; it had to involve the Middle East, home to Israel, the central and essential entity of the dispensational system. For Lindsey and his many imitators, Israel was not simply a lone democracy in a part of the world known for despots and totalitarian regimes—it was the “key to the prophetic puzzle.” Israel was also, Lindsey wrote, “the Fuse of Armageddon.” Its reestablishment as a nation in 1948 meant that the prophetic clock, on pause since the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah, was about to restart with a bang. The Persian Gulf War was the breath of fresh air that the gasping dispensational movement needed.
Suddenly, within a few weeks, the prophetic iron went from cool to red-hot. Who would strike it? Among many others, John F. Walvoord, former president and longtime professor (now retired) at Dallas Theological Seminary, made the most of the opportunity. Although widely respected in the dispensationalist community for his relatively sober and academic work, Walvoord had never tasted the sort of success Lindsey was accustomed to. However, his publisher, Zondervan, was up to the task. Smelling sales, the fundamentalist publishing house dusted off his 1974 book, Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis, and republished it in 1990. Within a year it had sold over a million copies.
Although Walvoord still gave Russia her due, the focus of popular dispensationalists had turned to the Islamic world, especially Iran and Iraq. Saddam Hussein became the most likely candidate for the position of Antichrist; Gorbachev, Reagan, and a host of lesser-known potential “Men of Sin” were long-forgotten. “Babylon” was no longer a code word for the Catholic Church or a worldwide system of apostasy (although it would still be all of that, dispensationalists said); it really was Babylon—ancient Babylon—rebuilt and renewed by a murderous Iraqi dictator. The driving force behind the intended destruction of Israel was not communism, but radical Islam. The ancient battle between Jacob and Esau had resumed. Lindsey and others such as Grant Jeffrey, Tim LaHaye, and John Hagee unearthed passages of Scripture supposedly proving this prophetic truth. Their books during the 1990s pointed to the growth of terrorist groups operating with the goal of destroying Israel and Israel’s powerful supporter, the “Great Satan,” the United States.
The horrific attacks on America seemed to validate, to a certain degree, these authors’ repeated warnings about militant Islamic groups. But popular dispensationalists are not content with validation—they apparently want Armageddon and the end of the world. It’s difficult to conclude otherwise. Just read some of the book titles of the past few years: Armageddon, Countdown to Armageddon, Israel’s Final Holocaust, Final Signs, Beginning of the End, Foreshadows of Wrath and Redemption, Apocalypse Now, The Final Battle. Instead of interpreting and analyzing current events in the light of political, cultural, and social realities—a complex and difficult task—the authors of these books interpret Scripture according to currents events, an approach that is as dangerous as it is subjective. That’s the approach taken by LaHaye, whose goal with the Left Behind books is to disseminate his understanding of the Book of Revelation to as large an audience as possible. He writes in Revelation Unveiled, “The Book of Revelation is easily the most fascinating book in the Bible, for it gives a detailed description of the future.” In his 1970s commentary on the Book of Revelation, There’s a New World Coming, Lindsey explained that modern readers could finally understand John the Revelator’s mysterious work because it “is written in such a way that its meaning becomes clear with the unfolding of current world events.” However, not just anyone can understand the Apocalypse, but only those embracing the dispensationalist system as taught by Lindsey, LaHaye, and a select group of other enlightened Bible prophecy experts. The key is the dispensational system–—without it one simply cannot “rightly divide the Word of God.”
Thus dispensational eschatology becomes a litmus test for orthodoxy. Rejecting the system raises questions about one’s commitment to biblical inerrancy, literal interpretation of Scripture, and the belief in the pretribulation Rapture. In addition, those less than enthusiastic about dispensationalism are suspected of antagonism towards Israel. Lindsey has made it clear that those who do not embrace dispensationalism are especially vulnerable to anti-Semitism. The “allegorical” method of interpreting Sýripture—badly misrepresented and maligned by most dispensationalists—is roundly condemned for draining all meaning from the Bible. Amillennialism, generally embraced by Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and most Protestants, is denounced as heretical, even demonic.
The fact is that authors such as LaHaye and Lindsey teach that the vast majority of Israelites will be killed during the seven years of Tribulation sandwiched between the Rapture and Christ’s Second Coming. “There will be so much fighting” around Jerusalem, Lindsey writes, “[that] blood will flow for two hundred miles.” He acknowledges that this is hard to believe, but states that this “is exactly what God predicts, and He always fulfills His Word.” In other words, this supposed friend of the Israelites believes that God has willed the bloody death of millions of Jews—simply because He must keep His word. Prophecy isn’t for the weak of heart, but someone has to let the world know.
Dispensationalism’s popular leaders could not be more confident of their own prophetic powers. They vehemently deny this is the case, but what other conclusion can one reach after reading their books? Commenting about the Book of Revelation in The Apocalypse Code, one of his more recent works, Lindsey remarks, “I believe that the Spirit of God gave me a special insight, not only into how John described what he actually experienced, but also into how this whole phenomenon encoded the prophecies so that they could be fully understood only when their fulfillment drew near. . . . I prayerfully sought for a confirmation for my apocalypse code theory.” In the introduction to his subsequent work, The Final Battle, Lindsey makes another audacious claim:
You won’t find another book quite like this one. We will examine why and how the world is hurtling toward disaster. . . . My background as a student of prophecy allows me to place all this information in perspective in a way that is sure to lead many people to the ultimate truth about the coming global holocaust—and, if they are open, to a wonderful way of escaping it. Read this book. Learn from it. Pass it on to your friends. It may be the last chance some of them will ever have to avoid the horrible fate this book describes.
This pragmatic, matter-of-fact pessimism is both the source of dispensationalism and, oddly enough, the cause for its flourishing within so many fundamentalist groups. John Nelson Darby, the ex-Anglican priest who constructed the premillennial dispensational system in the 1830s, based it on three premises: Jesus Christ failed in his initial mission, the Church has become apostate and is in ruins, and the Old Testament promises to the Israelites have yet to be fulfilled. Inevitably and logically this meant that the Church is not connected to Old Testament Israel, nor is she even as important, at least in earthly terms. The Church is, Darby taught, a “heavenly people” meant for a Christ who was relegated to a heavenly status once he was rejected by the Jews, God’s “earthly” people. Fast forward to the future millennial reign, complete with a new Temple and reinstituted animal sacrifices. During this “Davidic reign” the Church will exercise authority from heaven—possibly in a huge, cubed New Jerusalem hovering over the earth. Meanwhile, the earth will be occupied by those non-Raptured and non-glorified believers, mostly Jewish, who accepted Jesus as Savior during the Tribulation. After all, that horrific time will be for punishing an evil humanity and will be a means of bringing the Jews back to God in an ultimate display of tough love. How odd to think that Christians who believe that the Church is composed of “Jew and Greek” alike (Romans 10:12) are sometimes suspected of anti-Semitism by those who believe that in the future, earthly millennium the Jews will be rewarded with earth while pre-Rapture Christians will achieve heaven, the grand prize.
The popularity of such a system does not exist despite its pessimism, but feeds off it, as the success of the Left Behind books seems to indicate. Once the doctrines of the utter depravity of man and his inevitable slide into ever-increasing evil are accepted, the desire for escape and the hope of God’s vengeful judgment naturally follow. Instead of being incarnational, history becomes fatalistic; instead of being sacramental, the material realm is cursed, even evil. This dualism is both startling and familiar, neo-Gnostic and Manichaean. While fighting against the “New Age” movement and its dualistic errors, dispensationalists unwittingly embrace a similar error, pitting the spiritual against the physical and the heavenly against the earthly, as though they were never reconciled in the person of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul may have fought his flesh—his fallen, wounded nature—but he never tried to escape the physical pains his commitment to Christ brought upon him. Undoubtedly the idea of a pretribulation Rapture would have angered him: “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29). You don’t see that on too many bumper stickers.
Even as dispensationalism’s discontinuity with centuries of historical Christian teaching is being exposed, its selling power continues to impress. The Left Behind books have mushroomed into an entire industry, replete with CDs, tapes, videos, comic books, apparel, calendars, and a thriving website community. Sales for the books increased by 60 percent after September 11. There is no doubt that apocalyptic fever is easily caught and passed along in America. So don’t be surprised if the Left Behind series extends its successful run to fourteen, fifteen, or twenty books. After all, The End is approaching, but the presses will keep on turning until the final seconds of time vanish into eternity.
Carl E. Olson is Editor of Envoy, a Catholic periodical devoted to apologetics and evangelization. His critique of dispensationalism, Will Catholics Be Left Behind?, will be published by Ignatius Press next spring.