Saddam Hussein's invasion and annexation of Kuwait may have thrown the world economy into confusion, but it has revived one flagging and undeniably American industry: dispensationalist pop-apocalyptic.
Largely under the influence of former steamboat captain Hal Lindsey, a large sector of American Evangelicalism has for several decades simply taken it for granted that the great eschatological battle of Armageddon is just around the corner. Despite the disclaimers of responsible dispensationalist academics, the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 is believed by many American Christians to have been a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Within a generation of the founding, Lindsey and others have predicted, Christ will “rapture” His people up into the sky and leave the rest of the world to endure seven years of tribulation. A biblical generation is, more or less, forty years, which means that Jesus is some two years overdue.
Popular dispensationalism has been justly discredited in recent years. Two years ago, one Edgar Whisenant published the boldly titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Is in 1988. Either Whisenant was wrong, or he was left behind. When 1988 had come and gone, cynical observers predicted that Whisenant would publish a sequel, 89 Reasons Why the Rapture Is in 1989. The additional reason, of course, would have been that the rapture did not occur in 1988.
Recent events in the Middle East, however, have revived dispensationalist fortunes. Things finally seem to be falling into place. At long last, after decades of impatient waiting, there is a real crisis in the Middle East, one that threatens to explode into a war of global dimensions. It is all enough to warm a dispensationalist heart.
Lindsey and his disciples arrive at their predictions through an imaginative, politicized interpretation of biblical prophecy, particularly of the book of Revelation. In Revelation 12, for example, a woman attacked by a dragon is given eagle's wings to fly to safety. Lindsey interprets this as a prophecy of the rescue of Jewish believers from the tribulations of Palestine. Lindsey goes on to argue, in a piece of exegesis that would make Origen blush, that since the eagle is the national symbol of the U.S., the passage might be describing a rescue undertaken by airplanes from the American Sixth Fleet. This is an example of the method of interpretation Lindsey defends as “literal.” Indeed. And Origen was the father of grammatico-historical exegesis.
Lindsey's popularity and influence is disheartening testimony to the desperate lack of biblical and historical roots within much of the Evangelical world. So dominant has dispensationalist interpretation of biblical prophecy become that even many of those who oppose it accept the playing field that Lindsey has staked out. Lindsey's opponents have challenged his time line of the last days—all the while simply assuming, along with Lindsey, that the purpose of biblical prophecy is to satisfy curiosity about the end of the world.
In making this assumption, dispensationalism and its mirror-image opponents take at least two false steps. First, many on both sides tend to reduce the eschatological to the millennial. One of the great insights of New Testament studies over the past century or so has been the recognition that the New Testament's gospel is thoroughly eschatological. What Jesus announced and established was precisely the eschatological “age to come,” the kingdom of God. His life, death, resurrection, and ascension were as much eschatological events as His second coming. The millennium, mentioned in a single text in a highly symbolic book, can hardly be called the most important facet of New Testament eschatology.
Second, dispensationalism and many of its Evangelical critics completely ignore the ecclesial and sacramental dimensions of the kingdom of God. One can read reams of dispensationalist writings, and reams of anti-dispensationalist writings as well, without the least suspicion that in the teaching of Jesus the kingdom of God is a feast. Dispensationalists appear to know nothing of the connection, as Geoffrey Wainwright has put it, between eucharist and eschatology, an emphasis pervasive in patristic thought and in much modern Orthodox, Catholic, and mainline Protestant theology. Oddly mimicking the old liberal view that Jesus came to establish the kingdom and ended up with a Church, dispensationalism reduces the Church to an afterthought, a parenthesis between the time of Israel past and the time of Israel future.
The error of dispensationalism, therefore, is not merely a matter of erroneous exegesis, though there is abundant error in exegesis. The error of dispensationalism is a category mistake. It is not merely that dispensationalists play a bad game, but that they are playing the wrong game. Dispensationalism (and many of its critics) treat prophecies of the kingdom of God as prophecies of a millennial “end time,” when the New Testament would direct us to see biblical prophecy fulfilled in Christ, and the kingdom manifested primarily in His Body ecclesial and sacramental.
Until Evangelicals begin to recognize the centrality of these dimensions of the kingdom, we will continue to be treated to frenzied speculations as each new crisis unfolds. And until Evangelicals firmly reject Lindsey's brand of pop-apocalypticism, they cannot expect to be taken seriously on questions of national interest.
Peter J. Leithart is a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.