July 01, 2002
The End: How It Got That Way
BY DAVID VAN BIEMA
Calamity is the mother of end-of-the-world prophecy. This is true as millions of Americans, many rattled into an End Times frame of mind by Sept. 11, line up to buy the latest installment in the Left Behind series, The Remnant. It was true when the first prophecies of the End appeared in the Hebrew Bible in response to a great national catastrophe in 586 B.C. And it was true in between, when an Irish preacher changed the course of American religious thought by bringing a stark apocalyptic vision to a nation that was reeling from the Civil War, its own fratricidal foretaste of Armageddon.
Notions of a divinely choreographed end to history are almost as old as Western faith. They appear first in the Jewish Bible's books of Isaiah and Ezekiel. The books were edited in the 5th and 6th centuries B.C., and secular scholars find an intimate connection between their content and the horrors Jews faced at the time. In 586 B.C., after a brutal siege, the kingdom of Babylon conquered Israel and forced its elite into exile. The prophets defiantly proclaimed the opposite: the establishment over all nations of a Jewish kingdom under a divinely anointed Messiah, set at the end of days. It was so resonant to a nearly annihilated people that it became a central part of their tradition. The high-water mark of Jewish apocalypticism is in the Book of Daniel, which contributed a kind of timetable for the End and a vivid symbolic language ("And four great beasts came up from the sea...").
Eventually Jewish fascination with a militant restoration of God's kingdom faded. But it was embraced by Christianity. Jesus' thoughts about the End are most fully expressed in Matthew 24, in which he hints that it might happen in his disciples' lifetime. After his death, his followers developed scenarios keyed to his anticipated Second Coming.
The fullest of these is the Technicolor spectacle called Revelation. The book is usually attributed to John of Patmos and dated around A.D. 95. John was responding to the horrific persecution of early Christians under the Roman emperor Nero. (Among other things, he had them coated with pitch and burned alive in his gardens.) The book incorporates the extravagantly harsh yet finally hopeful scenarios now familiar to believers: the earthquakes and plagues, the Four Horsemen and Seven Seals, the battle against the Antichrist, Christ's 1,000-year earthly rule of peace and righteousness (called the Millennium). And lyrically, these lines of Scripture: "Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth... Then I, John, saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband." John's vision became the Bible's final book.
There was one problem: the vagueness of Revelation's imagery almost immediately inaugurated a nearly 2,000-year End Times guessing game. Some of the most heated speculation has been about precisely when the Apocalypse would start. (Wrote an annoyed St. Augustine: "To all those who make calculations... 'Relax your fingers and give them a rest.'") And when they were not guessing the date, denominations and nations tried to figure out what long-term role they might play in the great final drama.
No nation thought itself more of a player than the U.S. From as early as the 17th century, many had seen the New World as the linchpin of a particularly optimistic End Times scenario. Unlike earlier believers who thought humans were helpless to influence God's cosmic plan, they thought they could trigger Christ's Millennium by purifying and perfecting America. Ministers preached America as Revelation's New Jerusalem. Many colonists saw the Revolution in millennial terms, with George III as the Antichrist. Those most convinced, whom we would now call Evangelicals, helped shape the nation's culture of civic engagement, founding movements to abolish dueling, drinking, slavery and other sins. By the mid-1800s, some announced confidently that the Millennium might be a mere three years away.
By 1865, those dreams lay in bloody ruins on Civil War battlefields. Far from a millennial peace, Evangelicals found themselves fighting their brothers in America's homemade taste of hell. Afterward, they felt helpless to alleviate the misery in fast-growing cities and threatened by the arrival of Catholic immigrants. As it did in ancient Israel, calamity demanded a rethinking of the End Times.
The man with the plan was an Anglican priest turned traveling evangelical preacher named John Nelson Darby, who arrived in the U.S. in 1862 for the first of seven visits, bearing a radical new eschatology. Darby and minister Cyrus Scofield, who would expand the evangelist's ideas in the vastly influential Scofield Reference Bible, divided God's relationship with man into seven ages (the current sixth began with the death of Christ). Their vision grimly upended the previous wisdom. Far from getting ever better, things on earth would progressively worsen, until the Antichrist, also known as the Beast, arose. A seven-year, hell-like Tribulation would begin, survived by only a small human remnant. Not until then would Christ return, defeat the Antichrist and commence his Millennium. Much of Darby's scriptural synthesis had been suggested piecemeal by earlier thinkers.
His most striking innovation was the timing of a concept called the Rapture, drawn from the Apostle Paul's prediction that believers would fly up to meet Christ in heaven. Most theologians understood it as part of the Resurrection at time's very end. Darby repositioned it at the Apocalypse's very beginning, a small shift with large implications. It spared true believers the Tribulation, leaving the horror to nonbelievers and the doctrinally misled, thus moving Christianity's us-vs.-them concept of heaven and hell into a new and exciting theater.
In the post-Civil War decades American Evangelicals seized on Darby like a life preserver. At the time of the Scofield Bible's publication in 1909, they were establishing a set of "fundamentals," which included painstaking interpretations of Scripture. Darby's scheme became a pillar of the new Fundamentalism. (The Scofield Bible can still be found in churches across the country.) When Fundamentalism was humiliated and marginalized after the Scopes "monkey trial" in 1925, it merely confirmed for Evangelicals the Darbyite assumption that the world was getting progressively more wicked beyond any help but the conversion of new souls to Christ.
In fact, Premillennial Dispensationalism (Darbyism's official name) was and remains one of the narrowest and most inward-turned strands in American religious belief. Barnard College's Randall Balmer, author of several books on Evangelicals, has called it "a theology of despair," and indeed its conviction that the world is headed irredeemably south breeds a grim indifference both to individual nonbelievers and to the American project as a whole. In The Remnant, a character remarks that "the world is a spent cartridge." In real life, when televangelist Pat Robertson floated a presidential run in 1986, a New Hampshire pastor complained, "Wait a minute. The next event on the [End Times] clock is the return of Christ. Things in society should get worse rather than better. If Christians worked to turn our nation around, that would delay Christ's return."
Luckily for the Republic, few Americans are truly Darby obsessed anymore. The Civil War has receded into history, and so, thanks to people like Billy Graham and Robertson, has Evangelical marginalization. Most Christians today, although affected by Revelation, feel led by other Scripture to make the current world a better place and to understand "Love thy neighbor" more broadly than as an order to convert him or leave him to the Antichrist.
Balmer maintains that over the past few decades, Christians' growing re-enfranchisement has resulted in a decrease in End Times sermons. How, then, to explain Left Behind's astounding sales? Western Michigan University's Brian Wilson suggests that for a population that still denies itself Stephen King, fearing his books' occult overtones, the series' authors, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, provide a horror story with doctrinal sanction.
One of the best things about End Times theology has always been the late-night gab sessions it provokes. "Could those UPC codes in the supermarket [be] the Mark of the Beast?" write Balmer and Lauren Winner in Protestantism in America. "How do Desert Storm and the Persian Gulf War fit into the prophetic scheme?... Although this may seem improbable to those outside the subculture, it is a lot of fun."
Or it was, until Sept. 11 turned it serious again.