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Saturday, August 27

The Study Of The History Of The End Of The World, Part 6

The Great Disappointment served as a warning that an interpretative eschatological system needed to be formulated that incorporated what many believed to be the portion of divine revelation yet to be fulfilled while protecting those holding to these truths from falling into the hysteria and panic that can easily grip the minds of those realizing that the present age is soon coming to an end when considered in the light of eternity's time table. Such balance, for the most part, was to be found in classical dispensationalism.
Classic dispensationalism holds that God deals with His people and the world in specific ways at particular points in history. The way in which He dealt with Israel during the Age of Law was not the way He deals with the Church during the Age of Grace. As such, promises distinctively made with Israel do not necessarily apply to the Church.
In terms of the End Times, dispensationalism contends that these will begin to conclude when Christ removes those that believe --- both the living and the dead --- bodily to Heaven. Following this act or shortly thereafter, the Tribulation period will commence in which a number of judgments as described in prophetic portions of Scripture such as the Book of Revelation begin to take place and the forces of evil gain the upper hand more so than previously as the Holy Spirit will no longer be as engaged in the ministry of restraint. This will culminate with the Antichrist ruling openly from the Temple in Jerusalem. This horror will not be resolved until Christ returns in triumph at the Battle of Armageddon to usher in the millennial kingdom.
Though echoing a number of the same themes, dispensationalism possessed a number of differences from the premillennialism that resulted in the Great Disappointment. The Millerites professed an historicist premillennialism whereas the Darbyites advocated a futurist premillennialism. In historicist premillennialism, the eschatological interpreter equates certain events already having transpired in church history with particular symbols depicted in prophetic Biblical passages.
Doing so, Kyle points out, “...locks the interpreter into millennial arithmetic and makes date setting an irresistible temptation (193).” Futurist premillennialism is much more fluid and adaptable to events as they unfold. For the only event that this system of prophetic interpretation insists with absolute certainty must take place next is the Rapture. Any other ordering would destroy this interpretative chronology entirely.
Though not as wedded to particular prophetic scenarios to the same degree as historical premillennialism, that has not prevented dispensationalists from speculating until their hearts are content as to how they think God will wrap up history as we know it. If anything, such analytical prognostication has become a very lucrative theological cottage industry over the course of the past century. Dispensationalism in one form or another became the most pervasive prophetic outlook throughout what would become conservative Evangelicalism. This was the result of a number of impressively insightful Bible scholars and shrewd ecclesiastical administrators that utilized the emerging technologies at their disposal to convince the Christian public just how prescient this prophetic school of thought was in understanding unfolding events.
Dispensationalism came to America with the itinerant ministry of John Nelson Darby where he not only won a significant number of minds among Baptists but also interestingly Presbyterians (Kyle, 104). The cause of early dispensationalism was also helped by Scotland Yard investigator Sir Robert Andrew in the book The Coming Prince. However, dispensationalism probably received its greatest boost from the ministry of Dwight L. Moody.
Though Moody is remembered as a preeminent revivalist in general, he could also be as commemorated for the role he played in spreading pretribulational, premillennialism in particular. Foremostly, this was accomplished through the establishment of Bible institutes such as the eponymous Moody Bible Institute and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) which taught this interpretative framework to aspiring pastors and Bible teachers. Yet another phenomena reinforcing these teachings were prophecy conferences held between 1875 and 1900 where those drawn to the futurist premillennial perspective could come together and forge relationships and alliances for the struggle that loomed on the horizon.
Another tool that contributed to the dissemination of the dispensational perspective was The Scofield Reference Bible. Converted while in prison serving a sentence for forgery, Cyrus Scofield went on to live a commendable Christian life as a Congregational pastor, author, Bible institute instructor under Moody's auspices, and prophecy conference speaker. His magnum opus was none other than the reference Bible that bore his name. For better or worse, Scofield placed his notes on the same page as the Biblical text. Whether intentional or not, this created in the minds of unsuspecting readers the impression that the interpretation of the text was nearly as inspired as the text the notes were reflecting upon.
Often nothing can cement a relationship like the threat posed by a common enemy. To believers living in the twenty-first century, it might come as a surprise that initially many Evangelicals did not necessarily hold to the idea of the Rapture as held by dispensationalist theologians. However, despite any misgivings about the Dispensationalists, like the Evangelicals they at least held to essential Christian doctrine. That was more than could be said of the religious liberalism or Modernism which seemed to be on the rise with its embrace of Darwinism, the social gospel, and skepticism of the traditional understanding of doctrines such as the divinity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, and inerrancy of Scripture. As the believing remnant galvanized around a series of tractates called The Fundamentals, the Evangelicals decided to give the Dispensationalists a fair hearing, and in a number of instances, adopted the prophetic framework as their own.
Pivotal to Darbyite dispensationalism was the idea that the Jewish people would return to Israel and that a European empire corresponding to a revived Roman would dominate world affairs in the final days. To those living here in the early twenty-first century, news of Israel regularly tops global headlines. However, such was not so much the case when eschatologists of the late 1800's began making speculative assertions regarding such.
Christians began to take notice when world events started to align broadly with the claims of this prophetic school of thought. To many, the bloodshed and destruction of the Great War (known more commonly now as World War I) no doubt seemed like the Battle of Armageddon. The Balfour Declaration was tacit recognition on the part of the elites that oversee international affairs that the Jews would ndeed return to inhabit the land of their ancestors. Russia falling to the evils of Communism with its belligerent intent to foment revolution around the world, to those steeped in Scripture, brought to mind the kingdom of the north and its fearsome ruler predicted in the Book of Ezekiel. The League of Nations no doubt echoed in the minds embracing this interpretative methodology the world government which would emanate outward from the Antichrist's European power base to eventually incorporate the entire planet for at least a short wile.
Yet unlike the Millerites before it, the dispensationalist system was flexible enough that it could readjust itself when certain predictions did not necessarily unfold as foretold. If one looked closely enough at the rhetorical fine print, one would no doubt occasionally spot qualifiers such as “this could be” or “things look like”. For example, if it looked like despite the hardships of the Great War that the world was not necessarily coming to an end, low and behold, who was that little big mouth in Italy or the even more obnoxious one with the silly mustache in Germany? Could one of those be the Antichrist that Scripture warned about? And when that did not pan out, observant analysts could reflect upon transpiring events and conclude that the ones thought to be the particular time of troubles described in Holy Writ were rather instead the times leading up to those times by laying the foundations for such sorrows.
By Frederick Meekins
Abanes, Richard. End-Times Visions: The Doomsday Obsession. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1988.
Kirsch, Jonathan. A History Of The End Of The World: How The Most Controversial Book In The Bible Changed The Course Of Western Civilization. San Francisco, California: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.
Kagan, Donald, Ozment, Steven and Turner, Frank. The Western Heritage Since 1789 (Fourth Edition). New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991.
Kyle, Richard. The Last Days Are Here Again: A History Of The End Times. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1988. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1996.
Ladd, George. The Blessed Hope: A Biblical Study of The Second Advent and The Rapture. Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1956.
Thompson, Damian. The End Of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium.