Christian Hope and Millennial Delusions: A Brief Guide for the Perplexed
Well, here it is, Sunday 22 May 2011, and no one has been “raptured.” To the surprise of few, Rev. Camping was wrong. What would surprise many non-Christians having a good laugh right now is that, historically, the majority of Christians have never believed in anything called “the rapture of the elect.” It is a view which did not even exist in Christianity until the 19th C. when it was invented by a British fundamentalist named John N. Darby and popularized by an American follower named C. I. Scofield. Scofield attached his particular eschatological and millennial views to his footnotes to the King James Version of the Bible. Because “the Scofield Reference Bible” became wildly popular as a gift Bible among English speaking conservative Protestants (especially in the United States), and because many readers were unable to distinguish the authority of the Bible from the authority of Scofield’s notes, the heresy begun by Darby, known as Dispensational Premillennialism (or, more briefly, simply as Dispensationalism) became widespread among evangelical Christians. It is particularly widespread among TV preachers, thereby giving the false impression to non-Christians (and even many Christians) that this is what most or all Christians believe. It is not. Not even close.
It is true that Christianity is a thoroughly eschatological faith. That is to say that mainstream Christian theology has always taken a narrative shape, believing that humans inhabit a Story with a beginning (Creation and Fallenness), middle (“salvation history,” or the many chapters of God’s redemptive work in a broken Creation–seeking to mend, restore, heal, SAVE lost and estranged humanity–and eventually the entire cosmos) and end (the conclusion of story–the End of fallen history in a New/Renewed humanity and Creation). The details vary from theologian to theologian, biblical interpreter to biblical interpreter. A few, very liberal, modern Christians have abandoned this belief. For instance, the theological ethicist James M. Gustafson (1925-), who retired in 1998 after teaching at Yale Divinity School and the Department of Religious Studies of Yale University (1955-1972), the University of Chicago Divinity School (1972-1988) and in the Religious Studies Department of Emory University (1988-1998), eventually adopted the view that there would be no parousia (“return” or “unveiling”) of Jesus Christ, but that the universe would simply continue in entropy and experience heat death some millennia from now–as most astrophysicists believe. (See Gustafson’s Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, vol. 1.) But the vast majority of Christians, across denominational and theological differences, live in the general eschatological perspective that I outlined in brief, above. There are 4 broad variations (and some modern alternatives to be outlined later)–and only one of them entails any concept of a “rapture.”
- Classical Premillennialism Sometimes adherents of this view call it “Historic Premillennialism,” but this carries the connotation that this was the earliest (historic) view of the Christian Church from which all others are departures. My own reading of the writings of the early church (“Patristics”) suggests that some form of amillennialism (see below) is at least as early as Classic Premillennialism, so I want to avoid the impression that only one of these is “historic.” In this perspective, the general eschatological perspective of which I spoke is assumed. Christians believe they are in the middle of a Story that began with God’s creation of the universe (by whatever means, taking whatever millennia), continued with human sinfulness and rebellion, and with God’s many attempts–especially in and through the lives and history of the people “Israel,” to reclaim and redeem humanity (and, through them, heal the creation), culminating in the decisive action of God in and through the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth–proclaimed by Christians as God’s unique Son. As a whole, Christians believe that a new era was ushered in by Jesus and, thus, that since his life, death, and resurrection, the world has been living in its final age, “the last days.” The end of the old era overlaps the inauguration of the new. But Christians, empowered with the Gift of the Holy Spirit, continue the work of Jesus in proclamation and ministry–awaiting in hope the parousia or “return” (the word actually means “appearing,”) of Christ to usher in the triumphant conclusion of history (the “LAST” of the last days, if you will.) In Classic Premillennialism, passages from the New Testament, especially the Apocalypse (“unveiling”) or Revelation of John, that Christ’s parousia will be followed by a thousand years of peace on earth before the Last Judgment and the end of the old creation for the New Heavens and New Earth. No rapture. No date setting. Christ can be expected at any time (the Apostle Paul clearly believed in most of his letters that Jesus’ parousia would happen in his lifetime, although in his later prison writings, he does seem to accept that he could die before Jesus’ “return”). Christians are urged to be alert and ready always–and to be found faithful and about their appointed tasks of ministry, work for justice and peace, and proclamation of the Good News of Jesus to all.
- Amillenialism. Literally the term means “no millennium,” but this historic view shares much with the one just described. The major exception is that the “thousand year reign” mentioned in Revelation is thought to be symbolic (not referring to a specific time period) and to be taking place now in the age of the Church. Amillenialists, including St. Augustine of Hippo and almost all the Protestant Reformers (e.g., Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrich Zwingli), expect the parousia of Christ and the culmination of history without any thousand-year interlude on earth. A variation on this, which was especially strong in both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions in the Middle Ages, identified the millennial rule of Christ with the political rule of the Church since Constantine united the Church with the imperial power of the Roman Empire in the 4th C. In the West, this was specifically seen as the rule of Christ through the pope, seen as the Vicar of Christ on earth. In the East, it was more identified with Christian rulers and emperors under the influence of Orthodox bishops, patriarchs, metropolitans, etc. Some versions of this abandoned belief in a literal return of Christ, but most did not. Generally speaking, by the high Middle Ages, those who believed the Church needed drastic reform, whether those reformers became Protestant or remained Catholic, were more likely to reclaim a literal return of Christ (in both salvation and judgment) than those who believed Christ was perfectly ruling through the glory of the Church on earth.
- Postmillenialism. In the post-Reformation era, especially with the rise of the modern missions movement in the 19th C. (16th & 17th Cs. for Anabaptists and Catholics), Christians became optimistic in their hopes. Many believed that Jesus’ parousia would only come after the evangelistic mission of the Church was successful. The world would convert to Christianity, there would be a thousand years of peace and justice (this number may be literal or symbolic in different versions) and then Jesus would return and wrap up history.
- Dispensational Premillennialism. John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), a self-taught biblical interpreter, modified the classic premillennial position. He divided salvation history (and the Bible) into a series of seven (7) periods or “dispensations.” In each of these different ages, God related to humans in different ways (this is part of what makes this a heresy since mainstream Christianity has always believed that God was a God of grace at all times and places). According to Darby, only in the Church Age was salvation by grace through faith. (He relegated Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to a future “Kingdom Age”–which meant that Christians could safely ignore it NOW! ) Darby and his followers reinterpreted Christ’s parousia as a “two-stage” Return of Christ. First, Jesus would return and “rapture” the Church (believers, living and dead) to heaven. Rapture as a theological term (instead of a synonym for “joy” or “ecstasy,”) was invented by Darby in the 1830s. Prior to that time, the term was completely unknown by Christians. (This view is not only heretical, but a fairly recent heresy!) After the church is “raptured away,” Darby and his followers taught that there would be a “Great Tribulation” in which God allowed many bad things to happen to those “left behind.” Then, Christ will return AGAIN followed by the millennial rule, the last judgment, etc. Because Jesus specifically PROMISED tribulation to his followers (e. g., John 16:33), some Dispensationalist put the “rapture” in the middle of the Great Tribulation rather than before it. Classic premillennialists and postmillennialists hold that Christ’s return comes after the Tribulation. Amillennialists tend to think that “tribulation” does not refer to any specific series of events, but to all the sufferings and persecutions of Christians throughout the ages. (Thus, for the perplexed, this is the difference between “pre-tribulationists” (Jesus returns to “rapture” Christians BEFORE tribulation) “post-tribulationists” (Christians must all go through the tribulation prior to Christ’s return) and “mid-tribulationists,” (Christians experience some suffering but get removed before the really rough stuff). Only Dispensationalists are “pre-trib” or “mid-trib.” Classic premillennialists tend to be post-trib, and all postmillennialists are post-trib. Amillennialists and some classic premillenialists do not see any particular persecution or time of tribulation for Christians as more significant than any other.
Now, Rev. Camping, and most people who set dates or make predictions concerning Christ’s return and/or the end of the world, are Dispensational Premillennialists. Though loud, they are a distinct minority among Christians–even very traditional or conservative Christians. It is true that the Apostle Paul thought, for most of his ministry, at least, that he would live to see Jesus’ return. Christians in every century have often felt the same. But MOST have adhered to Jesus’ saying that no one, not even Jesus the Son (Matthew 24:36) knows when the end will come. The idea is to live each day as if it could be the last one. There are specific ethical and ministerial consequences: We are admonished to fulfill our collective and individual callings (proclaiming the gospel, working for justice and peace, visiting the sick and imprisoned, healing and reconciling all we can) without delay. We are not to sin deliberately–thinking that we can always repent tomorrow. We are not to live in fear of the future, but trust in the God of the future and present.
Date setting and predictions of the end violate all this. Belief that Christians will be “raptured away” instead of suffering along with the rest of Creation leads to callousness toward others. Obsessing over eschatological details–instead of trusting to God and living in the hope of the renewal of all things–is sin–and trivializes the Christian life.
It reduces salvation to “fire insurance” from hell or suffering and leads its adherents to minimize or deny altogether the many teachings in Scripture, especially by Jesus, of care for the poor, for the earth, and work for peace. After all, in the Dispensational “date setting,” Bible-as-code-book mentality, the world MUST get worse and worse until the “rapture,” then get even worse and eventually be destroyed. Dispensationalists seldom see any continuity between the current Created order and the promised New Heavens and Earth–so they see all environmental work as “paganism.” Heresy upon heresy. And most Christians, even most conservative Protestant evangelicals, are EXTREMELY TIRED of others thinking that they believe this nonsense. It is a heresy–but one that has convinced much of the non-Christian world (especially in the Western media) that this heresy is mainstream Christian teaching. IT IS NOT.
Rev. Camping is hardly the first date-setter to be disappointed. In 1844, William Miller (1782-1849), a self-taught Baptist preacher led his followers that Jesus would return in 1844. Many sold their property to wait this. The “Great Disappointment” did not result in the end of date-setting. In fact, Miller’s followers formed several later movements, including the Seventh Day Adventists, other Adventist Christians, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Hal Lindsey wrote his Dispensational bestseller, The Late, Great, Planet Earth in 1970. He predicted an entire series of events leading up to the “rapture” and beyond. When they did not materialize at the predicted dates, subsequent editions of the book revised the dates and/or events–and it continued to be a bestseller no matter how many times Lindsey was proved wrong. It’s probable that Camping will simply recalculate–as he did after being wrong in 1994. But it is best to leave Dispensationalism and date-setting behind altogether–and concentrate on what we are to do while the world lasts and the Lord tarries.