Jesus appeared on the scene offering a new way of life, a way of peace. He called his way of life, the “Kingdom of God.” He taught us that we are to pray and work for this Kingdom to come to Earth. He taught us to pray and work for his will to be increasingly done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Jesus taught that his Kingdom of Peace would start small, but would grow to be the biggest Kingdom in the whole world (Mark 4:30-32).
Prior to this recent belief in a doom-obsessed end of the world, the primary belief was that the world would continue to get better and better as the Kingdom grew until Jesus returned to vanquish evil entirely. This is what the apostles taught. This is what the early church taught. No Rapture, no 7-year Tribulation, no Antichrist, no battle of Armageddon, no conflict regarding Israel.
How did we go from a Gospel of “peace and hope”, to a warning of “death and disaster”? How did we go from a Gospel of “the world is getting better”, to an idea that “the world is getting worse”? How did we go from a Gospel of “bringing Heaven to Earth”, to an “escape from Earth to Heaven”? Where did all this come from?
The Invention of the Doom Machine
Belief in most of what we would call the “end times” didn’t exist for 1,800 years of Christianity because it was invented less than 200 years ago. It all started in 1830, in Port Glasgow, Scotland, when fifteen-year-old Margaret MacDonald attended a healing service. It was there she was said to have seen a vision of the return of Jesus happening in two stages: Jesus taking Christians from the Earth (the Rapture) and then returning again years later. Prior to this, it was a forgone conclusion that Jesus was only returning one time.
Her story was adopted and amplified by John Nelson Darby, a British evangelical preacher and founder of the Plymouth Brethren. He taught that the world would be getting progressively worse until Jesus came and secretly snatched all the Christians away. This heretical belief admonished an entire generation of Christ-followers who were busy improving society. Darby would go on to invent the idea of “dispensationalism”, which packages several fringe, yet now popular in the West, beliefs about the end times. Darby, even after making six trips to the U.S. to promote his Darbyism, had little luck in swaying many people to his beliefs. Unfortunately, all that would change in roughly a hundred years.
A New Study Bible
When the Scofield Reference Bible was first published in 1909, it was the first of it’s kind. It wasn’t a new translation, rather it was the KJV with custom headers and study notes in the margins. The views expressed in these notes would come to shape much of the American theological landscape, predominately through the 1960s-1990s.
Focusing heavily on Eschatology (end times), the notes weave parts of the Old and New Testaments together, as though all were written at the same time by the same people. This is a favorite device of modern dispensationalists, who essentially weigh all scripture against the unspoken and preposterous theory, that the older it is, the more authoritative it is. The borrowed ideas in the headers and notes were later popularized under the labels and definitions that have evolved into common usage today: “pre-millennialism”, “futurism”, “dispensationalism”, “Judeo-Christianity”, and most recently, the highly political movement openly called “Christian Zionism“.
When World War I began, Christian optimism took a hit, and the Scofield Reference Bible provided a pessimistic worldview that seemed prophetic. By the end of World War II, the Scofield Reference Bible was the best selling Bible in the whole nation.1 Being the first of its kind, Scofield’s Reference Bible began to shape the theology of popular Christianity in America.
The author, Cyrus I. Scofield, allegedly had a Doctorate in Divinity but that has since proved false.2 Originally a lawyer, and later involved in politics, he was not a Bible scholar as one might expect, but rather a political animal with charm, and talent for self-promotion. Scofield was a dubious character with a criminal history, who embezzled money, was forced to resign from politics, had a severe drinking problem, served six months in jail for forgery even after his conversion to Christianity, and abandoned his wife and daughters.
Researchers believe that as one of Scofield’s closest friends, Samuel Untermeyer, a lawyer and one of the wealthiest Zionists in America, funded the writing of the Reference Bible. Lavish living conditions in Europe were also funded where Scofield would come to be linked to Oxford University Press. It seems Scofield’s interest in Darbyism was shared by Oxford, which published and distributed the Scofield Reference Bible.3 Scofield stated he was paid handsome royalties by Oxford, allowing him to buy many properties.
The idea of a Rapture and it’s merry gang of end times beliefs, got a major boost from being taught in Bible colleges popping up all across America. Oxford University Press made sure distribution took place through these various popular seminaries and that every new pastor left school with one in hand. It was through this forced and artificial proliferation of the Reference Bible that these beliefs became solidified in the minds of evangelical churches. There was a clear and concerted effort to influence Christian belief.
Later followed by a popular movie, the best selling book of 1970 was, The Late Great Planet Earth, by Hal Lindsay. In a misinterpretation of Matthew 24:34, Lindsay predicted that Jesus’ return might be within “one generation” of the establishment of the modern nation state of Israel. He predicted that the end times would occur in the 1980’s, where he utilized current fears of Soviet communism and nuclear weapons to draw allegories to apocalyptic imagery. In his work The 1980’s: Countdown to Armageddon, Lindsey predicted that “the decade of the 1980’s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.”
Left Behind, a series of 17 best-selling religious fiction novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, is responsible for pushing the idea of doom and gloom into the forefront of popular Christianity in the 90’s. The book series was followed up by four different films and a host of video games. LeHaye and Jenkins replaced Lindsay’s Red Scare of the 70’s, with the budding Islamophobia of the day. David Carlson, a Professor of Religious Studies, writes that the Dispensationalist theology underpinning the Left Behind series promotes a “skewed view of the Christian faith that welcomes war and disaster, while dismissing peace efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere–all in the name of Christ.”4
Why it all Matters
Despite the Rapture and it’s accompanying Dispensational beliefs not being held by most orthodox Christian scholars and theologians, they continue to permeate most of evangelical lay theology. Undoubtedly, this can be mostly attributed to the widespread distribution of the Scofield Reference Bible which some time after it’s authors death, was re-released with edits four times up to 1967, with steeper Dispensational and Zionist leanings with each release.
Doom-and-gloom end times beliefs are an example of what can happen when Christians rely on popular teachings, rather than reading scripture for themselves. The enemy is a crafty deceiver. God saves us not by snatching us out of the world, but by coming into the world to be with us. The escapist mindset behind much of the Rapture theology should cause worry. We’re supposed to be bringing the Kingdom down to earth, not escaping earth to avoid hardships.
The Prince of Peace has established a new kind of government, a government characterized by ever-increasing peace. Weapons of war will be transformed into instruments of agriculture (Isaiah 2:4). This was Isaiah’s hope (Isaiah 9:5). What had been prophesied for generations, became fulfilled with the coming of Jesus, the Prince of Peace!
The doom-obsessed end times beliefs of Dispensationalism, attempts to take that hope of Peace away. They say that Jesus is the Prince of Peace, but that peace is not for now, only when Jesus comes back again. This is not what scripture teaches. War can never achieve peace. The Dispensationalist version of the biblical storyline requires tribulation and war in the Middle East, not peace plans. That is the most terrifying aspect of this distorted theology. Such anticipation of violence is the very reason why we cannot afford to give in to this false idea— because real people’s lives are at stake.
- Gaebelein, 11.
- The Incredible Scofield and His Book by Joseph M. Canfield
- A History of The Plymouth Brethren by William Blair Neatby
- “Left Behind” and the Corruption of Biblical Interpretation