Left Behind: 4. Dispensational Theology: from Darby to LaHaye

CTheory Books: Left Behind


Religion, Technology, and Flight from the Flesh

Stephen Pfohl

Dispensational Theology

From Darby to LaHaye

The Left Behind novels are inspired by Dr. Tim LaHaye’s reading of prophetic biblical texts. The theology articulated by LaHaye is today known by several names — dispensational premillennialism, premillennial dispensationalism, and, sometimes, simply dispensationalism. Concerned with events surrounding the second coming of Christ, several premillennial events are of particular importance to dispensationalism — the Rapture, in which God’s “true church” is lifted into heaven; the return of Jews to their biblical homeland in Israel; seven years of catastrophic Tribulation under the rule of the Antichrist; and finally the Glorious Appearing, Jesus’ second coming. When Christ returns, he promptly vanquishes the Antichrist in the Battle of Armageddon, thus beginning the Millennium — “a thousand-year period of peace, during which Christ reigns on earth. At the close of the millennium, a final uprising of Satan occurs, but with his defeat by Christ, eternity is established.”[1] As suggested previously, each of these events are portrayed fictively in the popular Left Behind series.

Dispensationalist theology was first made popular by the nineteenth century Irish evangelist John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). Darby was a tireless preacher, teacher and church organizer. Darby was also a “compulsive writer of letters, tracts, booklets, articles and books (some 52 volumes).”[2] As Tim LaHaye points out, Darby “did more than any other man to organize and popularize the view in both the United States and Great Britain.”[3] Darby’s prophetic interpretations of the Bible were not without precedent. Antecedents to dispensationalism can be traced to fourth century Christian thought and to the twelfth century prophecies of the Calabrian Dominican monk, Joachim Fiore (1135-1202). Joachim divided the history of salvation into several distinct eras and preached that the final era — the dispensation of the Holy Spirit — was rapidly approaching. Other antecedents to dispensationalism include the sixteenth century teachings of the English prophet Joseph Meade and the Puritan proclamations of Increase Mather a century later.

It was John Nelson Darby, however, who popularized the dispensational viewpoint. Born in England in 1800, Darby moved with his family to Ireland in 1815 to reclaim his kin’s ancestral castle. In 1819 he graduated with highest honors as a Classical Gold Medalist from Trinity College in Dublin. Darby then pursued the study of law at Kings Inn in Dublin, passing the Chancery Bar in 1822. Despite his academic success, Darby’s years of study were marked by soul searching and spiritual struggle. As a result, Darby abandoned his pursuit of law and was in 1825 ordained as an Anglican priest.

Darby’s career as an Anglican was short lived. A short time after being ordained, Darby became outraged by what he perceived as religious laxity, theological error, and corruption in the Church of Ireland (and England). When convalescing from a broken leg in 1826, Darby began to study the Bible in-depth. This led Darby to discern distinct historical stages in God’s actions toward humankind, something that set his theology apart from established church orthodoxy. An 1827 proclamation by his archbishop created further distance between Darby’s viewpoints and those of his church. The archbishop demanded that all converts pledge an oath of loyalty to the English King in addition to the church. For Darby, the archbishop’s edict threatened Protestant purity with the taint of secular politics. In 1834 Darby and other dissenters broke with the Church of Ireland to form what became known as the Brethren movement.

According to Darby, the Anglican Church was a troubled social institution. Refusing allegiance to the church, Darby and his fellow Brethren preached salvation by grace alone. They also urged believers to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Darby later participated in the Powerscourt Prophecy Conferences, sponsored by the Scotch-Anglican dissenter Henry Drummond. Following these conferences, Darby became increasingly convinced that the second coming of Jesus was about to take place and that this would involve a succession of revelatory moments — the Rapture, Tribulation, and Glorious Appearing.

Despite their collective resistance to the established church, the Brethren often disagreed with each other about specific biblical prophecies. Fierce disagreements were voiced concerning the exact sequence of End Times. One particularly acrimonious debate pitted Darby against B.W. Newton, pastor of the Plymouth Brethren Church. At issue was whether the Rapture would, as Darby believed, be separated in time from the Glorious Appearing. Heated disputes about matters such as this led Darby and his followers to withdraw from the fellowship in 1845, forming a loose network of so-called “Darbyite” congregations.[4] For the remainder of his life, the energetic Darby would remain an ardent proponent of dispensational premillenialism.

Darby’s dispensational eschatology was rooted in a very specific interpretation of a variety of Old Testament and New Testament scriptural passages. Most are drawn from the Book of Daniel and Revelation, but other important texts include the Letters of John and St. Paul’s Epistle to the Thessalonians. At the core of Darby’s teaching was a belief that God’s actions in history are organized in terms of seven discrete eras, or dispensations, and that the seventh and final dispensation was rapidly approaching. This would begin with the Rapture, scriptural evidence for which Darby located in I Thessalonians 4: 16-17. “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall arise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord.” For Darby, as later for LaHaye, the reference to being “caught up together” to “meet the Lord in the air” signified the ecstatic rapture into heaven of God’s true church. “Darby’s use of the rapture in his interpretation of dispensationalism was, in part, social critique. He used it to assert the existence of an invisible church, known only to God, that stood apart from institutional structures. Only with the rapture would the true church be known and the hypocrites left behind.”[5]

As a mode of biblical exegesis, dispensational premillennialism gained considerable popularity in the United States following Darby’s visits to America between 1862 and 1877. This was a time of great religious, political, and economic turmoil and uncertainty. Each of the country’s major Protestant denominations (Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist) had long suppressed questions about their faith’s savage complicity with genocidal wars against the native peoples of the Americas. In the years surrounding Darby’s visits the churches were haunted by additional theological questions pertaining to slavery. Existing regional divisions in biblical interpretation were reinforced during the Civil War. Following defeat in the War Between the States, many white southern Protestants sought spiritual comfort during the “reconstruction” years by identifying with Old Testament images of Israel, God’s chosen people. Like Israel, they imagined themselves surrounded by and suffering at the hands of godless enemies. “Under its own interpretation, the South was ‘redeemed’ by 1877, when the last northern troops withdrew following the stalemated 1876 presidential election.”[6] It was in this troubled context that dispensationalism assumed its peculiar American accent, rising to prominence in Reverend Dwight L. Moody’s large urban revivals and the popular Niagara prophecy conferences of the mid-1870s.

Darby’s influence in American evangelical circles was solidified with Cyrus L. Scofield’s publication of an annotated version of the King James Bible. Scofield’s Bible cross-referenced the Old and New Testaments in ways that highlighted the prophetic interpretations of Darby. Following Darby, the Scofield Reference Bible identified seven distinct dispensational epochs in history. These included the dispensations of innocence, conscience, human government, promise, law, grace (later renamed the dispensation of the church), and the millennial kingdom.[7] Scofield’s popular Bible is estimated to have sold a total of over ten million copies and remains in print today.[8] The work’s “innovative use of footnotes rather than a separate commentary intimately linked the biblical text with its prophetic interpretation. For many readers of Scofield’s Bible, Darbyte interpretation became indistinguishable from the biblical text; it became a part of fundamentalists’ assertion of a ‘common sense’ understanding of biblical prophecy.”[9]

As a system of theology, dispensationalism is often accompanied by a complex set of charts depicting the various stages of God’s plan for humankind. The elaborate charts used to convey dispensational prophecies were particularly evident in the early twentieth century writings of Clarence Larkin. Larkin’s book Dispensational Truth and other classic works in dispensational thought remain key components of the curriculum at such influential centers for Evangelical education as Dallas Theological Seminary, Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. In addition, dispensationalism has long proved adept at making connections between key biblical prophecies and contemporary historical events. Today, this is nowhere more evident than on the Webpage raptureready.com. Assembled by prophecy enthusiast Todd Strandberg, the Webpage includes a “Rapture Index” that tracks all sorts of natural disasters, crime, and prophetic indicators of the approaching apocalypse.

In 1970 a particularly popular version of dispensationalism appeared with the publication of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, the top selling nonfiction book in the U.S. during the 1970s.[10] Lindsey, who studied at Dallas Theological Seminary and whose work has been described as a kind of “Christian Zionism,” argued that twentieth century history is replete with numerous signs of the approach of End Times. At the top of Lindsey’s list was the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Close behind was the occupation of Palestine by God’s “chosen people.” Lindsey also viewed Russia as the biblical Magog, an aggressor state that would attack Israel from the north.:

Lindsey correlated biblical texts with the then-existing national powers to argue that the Soviet Union in collaboration with China and other communist countries, would bring about a nuclear holocaust that will fulfill scriptural prophecies. He sternly warned people to look out for the impeding rise of a charismatic ‘future fuehrer’ as the Antichrist, the development of a one-world religion that would dupe people away from true Christianity, increasing tensions in the Middle East and a decline in U.S. power vis-ยท-vis Europe.[11]

To understand the importance of Israel to those sharing a dispensational worldview, it is important to recognize that prophecy believers make a distinction between two still-to-be-completed promises pertaining to “God’s program for salvation history.” The first focuses on Palestine. It involves God’s promise to bestow material blessings on the physical descendents of Abraham. The second focuses on the heavenly spiritual rewards that God will provide to every nation that acknowledges Jesus as its Lord and savior. “According to dispensationalists, neither phase of God’s program is yet complete.”[12] As such, dispensationalists are convinced that the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem must be rebuilt, fulfilling God’s Old Testament promise to the Jews, before the realization of New Testament prophecies connected to Christ’s return to earth.

Dispensationalist belief is charged with complex religious and geo-political symbolism. One example involves the Temple Mount, the site of the ancient Jewish Temple, whose outer perimeter is known as the sacred “wailing wall.” This site is also of great significance to Muslims. Known as the Dome of the Rock, this “is where Muhammad ascended into heaven nearly 1,400 years ago, making it the third-holiest site in Islam, behind Mecca and Medina.”[13] Briefly seized by Israeli forces headed by General Moshe Dayan during the Six-Day War in June 1967, the Dome of the Rock was later placed under the control the Waqf, a Muslim administrative body. Following the return of the Temple Mount to Palestinian control, “Muslim authorities have usually allowed non-Muslims to come to Temple Mount, as long as they don’t move their lips in ways that suggest they are praying. As a result, the Temple Mount is one of the most explosive tinderboxes on earth. A visit to the site in September 2000 by Ariel Sharon inflamed tensions that soon erupted into the second intifada.”[14]

The Temple Mount/ Dome of the Rock is also the biblical location where Jesus is believed to have expelled greedy moneychangers from God’s holy house. Given the incendiary geo-political significance of the Mount/ Dome’s sacred geography, it is important to note that Hal Lindsey once served as a (prophetic) consultant to both the Pentagon and Israeli government during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. This brought dispensational thinking to bear upon a pivotal aspect of U.S. politics and foreign policy.[15] While dispensationalists “were not happy about the secular character of the Israeli government and society, the developments they saw in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s filled them with enthusiasm and enhanced their messianic hopes. The mass emigration of Jews to Israel from Asia, Africa, and Eastern European countries was one cause for encouragement. This was undoubtedly a significant development, they felt, one that had been prophesied in the Bible, and a clear indication that the current era was terminating and the events of the end times were beginning to occur.”[16]

With these things in mind, it is no surprise that Israeli Jews play an important, if contradictory, role in the Left Behind series. In addition to the pivotal figure of Tribulation Force leader Rabbi Ben-Judah Tsion, Old Testament prophets Elijah and Moses (Eli and Moshe) make a miraculous appearance. Standing before the wailing wall of the Temple Mount, they call upon their fellow Jews to at long last recognize Jesus as their Messiah. In the novels, as God’s chosen people, Jews are “protected from harm until the battle of Armageddon, at which point they must either except Jesus as their Messiah or die …, be converted or slaughtered.”[17]


[1] Jeanne Halgren Kilde, “How Did Left Behind’s Particular Vision of the End Times Develop? A Historical Look at Millenarian Thought,” p. 34.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Tim LaHaye, The Rapture: Who Will Face the Tribulation. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2002. p. 145.

[4] Glenn W. Shuck, Marks of the Beast: The Left Behind Novels and the Struggles for Evangelical Identity. New York: New York University Press, 2005. pp. 30-34.

[5] Amy Johnson Frykholm, Rapture Culture, p. 17.

[6] Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. New York: Viking, 2006. p. 143.

[7] Stanley J. Grenz, “When Do Christians Think the End Times Will Happen? A Comparative Theologies Discussion of the Second Coming,” in Bruce David Forbes and Jeanne Halgren Kilde, eds., Rapture, Revelation, and the End Times: Exploring the Left Behind Series. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. p. 109.

[8] Ibid, pp. 35-37.

[9] Amy Johnson Frykholm, Rapture Culture, pp. 17-18.

[10] Hal Lindsey, with C.C. Carlson, The Late Great Planet Earth. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970.

[11] Jeanne Halgren Kilde, “How Did Left Behind’s Particular Vision of the End Times Develop? A Historical Look at Millenarian Thought,” in Bruce David Forbes and Jeanne Halgren Kilde, eds., Rapture, Revelation, and the End Times: Exploring the Left Behind Series. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. p. 63.

[12] Stanley J. Grenz, “When Do Christians Think the End Times Will Happen?” p. 109.

[13] Craig Unger, “American Rapture,” p. 210.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Nancy Gibbs, “Apocalypse Now,” Time Magazine, July 1, 2002. p.46. Lindsey’s involvement with the Reagan administration was hardly an isolated event. During this time period Reagan himself delivered his infamous “evil empire” speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, while James Watts, Secretary of the Interior, when downplaying the future implications of environmental damage to the planet, commented, “I don’t know how many future generations we can count on until the Lord returns.” Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger betrayed a related apocalyptic vision when stating, “I have read the Book of Revelation, and, yes, I believe the world is going to end — by an act of God, I hope — but everyday I think time is running out.” Quotes in Nancy Gibbs, “Apocalypse Now,” p. 46.

[16] Yaakov Ariel, “How Are Jews and Israel Portrayed in the Left Behind Series,” in Bruce David Forbes and Jeanne Halgren Kilde, eds., Rapture, Revelation, and the End Times: Exploring the Left Behind Series. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. p. 139.

[17] Gene Lyons, The Apocalypse Will be Televised: Armageddon in an Age of Entertainment,” Harper’s Magazine, December 2005. p. 88.

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