The USA is going ‘rapture crazy’. The evidence of a recent series of opinion polls suggests that American public opinion is increasingly fascinated by news of the end of the world.
In 1992, a survey conducted by Time and CNN discovered that 20% of American adults believed the world would end around the year 2000. Another 31% indicated their belief that this was at least possible.
Ten years later, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Time/CNN conducted another poll. The result? Some 59% of Americans believe the events described in Revelation will be fulfilled, and almost 25% believed that the attack on the World Trade Centre was predicted by biblical prophecy.
Late great planet
This explosion of interest in the end of the world should not come as any surprise. From the earliest days of American Protestantism, a powerful interest in the apocalypse has fuelled expressions of religious faith.
One contemporary historian, Philip Jenkins, writing in Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History (OUP, 2000), has identified radically millennial interests as existing at the very heart of historic American Protestantism. But evangelical millennialism has rarely been as popular as it is today.
Since the 1970s, American Evangelicals have been impacting popular consciousness through their eschatology. Hal Lindsey’s study of prophecy, The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), was the best selling non-fiction book of the decade, selling an estimated 28 million copies.
Among those most influenced by his writing was Ronald Reagan, who accepted Lindsey’s warnings about the dangers of European union, and geared his presidential policies accordingly.
The Late Great Planet Earth presented a version of dispensational theology. Dispensationalism is a theological system that explains the relationship between the Old and New Testaments by emphasising their differences.
It understands the next significant fulfilment of biblical prophecy to be the so-called ‘secret rapture’, in which Jesus Christ returns secretly to gather (or ‘catch up’) both living and dead believers and take them to heaven.
After their translation to heaven, the antichrist emerges on earth to make a covenant with Israel, and for a period of seven years the rebellious earth faces ‘the tribulation’.
After this, Christ returns with his people to destroy his enemies, judge the world, and set up his millennial kingdom.
Following those thousand years of blessing, and one final revolt, the world may properly be said to end.
While Lindsey’s book presented a version of these events, its popularity disguised the extent to which he actually deviated from traditional dispensationalism.
Instead of endorsing a strict ‘futurism’, in which certain events of biblical prophecy were projected to the period after the ‘rapture’, Lindsey argued that the erection of the state of Israel in 1948 was the most significant event of the century.
He claimed that this event set the prophetic clock ticking to its inevitable conclusion. The dates that his book implied have come and gone without any apocalyptic showdown, but the credibility of his system has not been undone.
In the 1990s, dispensationalism’s most spectacular success was provided by a series of novels.
The first novel in the series, Left Behind by Tim La Haye and Jerry B. Jenkins, was published in 1995. It was a dramatic tale of a pilot, his daughter and a travelling journalist as they responded to the horror of losing friends and family as millions around the globe simply disappeared.
The story may have been based on a particular interpretation of Matthew 24:36-44.
Since then, the novel’s authors have followed its success with a number of sequels.
Their work has achieved outstanding marketability. In July 2000, Christianity Today reported that latest instalment in the series had topped the bestseller lists of USA Today and The New York Times as well as those of Internet book outlets Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
By then, the novels had sold an astonishing twenty million copies. Book nine, published in October 2001, was the best-selling fiction book of the year.
After the attacks on the World Trade Centre, sales of the series leaped by 60%. By summer 2002, over 32 million copies had been sold. In the midst of rapture fever, Left Behind has become a publishing phenomenon.
The series’ publishers have not been slow to cash in on its success. The novels have been followed by a $17.4 million motion picture, comic books, a board game, and a spectacular website.
But they have also been dogged by controversy. Academics have expressed concern about the effect of the novels on American political attitudes.
Secularists have lampooned their two-dimensional writing and snobbishly dismissed their conclusions.
Evangelicals have expressed concern about their presentation of biblical theology. What is this rapture frenzy all about?
For one journalist, writing in The Independent on Sunday on 12 November 2000, the appeal of the series is ‘bound up in class’. He writes: ‘It is certainly a lot livelier … than the staid message of redemption preached by traditional Christians … [but] nobody with an educated view of either religion or literature would give it the time of day’.
For Evangelicals, however, the answer is perhaps more complex.
Reading the series, it appears that the Left Behind novels reflect with great sensitivity the condition of modern Evangelicalism.
The presentation of the rapture, for example, builds on Evangelicalism’s increasing awareness of the personhood of unborn children by ensuring that all embryos are raptured from the womb.
Similarly, reflecting notions of an ‘age of responsibility’ before which children cannot be expected to understand the gospel, all pre-teen children are also raptured.
Perhaps more controversial is the way the series presents Roman Catholicism. One of its more unusual ideas is the suggestion that the pope and many other Roman Catholics will be among the saved — along with the fact that (in the novel) the pope had ‘stirred up controversy in the church with a new doctrine that seemed to coincide more with the “heresy” of Martin Luther than with the historic orthodoxy [of the Roman Catholic church]’ (Tribulation Force, p.53).
The novels’ critical presentation of Roman Catholicism certainly provoked The Independent on Sunday journalist. He asked Tim La Haye ‘what he has against Catholics’, but reported that the author didn’t seem to have a clear answer.
When pressed, La Haye suggested that ‘it’s because they do not believe that the way to salvation is to receive Jesus into their hearts’.
But, countered the journalist, wasn’t that what happened when the faithful received the mass? La Haye, the ‘great scholar of religion’, looked blank: ‘I really don’t know’, he admitted.
La Haye’s answer sums up much of what is wrong with the series. Although the fiction is generally well written and presented, it assumes little general theological knowledge on either the part of the reader or the author.
Dispensational eschatology is developed in detail, but in other areas where Evangelicals assume they agree — in the doctrines of salvation, for example — the series often operates in categories that are not derived from Scripture.
Salvation, therefore, is presented, in La Haye’s words, as ‘receiving Jesus into your heart’ or ‘being in love with God’ — not quite the terminology of the apostles!
It is this lack of clarity around the central issues of salvation, rather than the presentation of traditional dispensationalism, which ought to cause most concern.
Dispensationalism itself is perfectly compatible with a Reformed view of salvation — A. W. Pink, for example, was a vocal dispensationalist for years after he published The Sovereignty of God.
Those dispensationalists who are truly evangelical are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Errors in eschatology — theirs or ours — are much less critical than errors in the gospel.
Despite their mistaken presentation of the end times, however, the novels should not be dismissed. Whatever their mistakes, they are at least calling attention to Bible truths.
They teach that Jesus Christ will come again, that he will judge the world, that he will take his people to be with him for ever, and that he will establish a new heavens and a new earth.
We can fill in the other details as we like, but we must not forget the main theme.
Our problem is that Reformed Christians are quick to forget the main theme.
Caught up with the wonders of the gospel in our lives, we find it easy to neglect the consummation of the gospel, when the work of Christ will bring redemption to all of his creation in the new heaven and new earth.
We find it easy to dismiss those who get it wrong, and scoff at their enthusiasm for understanding God’s plan for the future.
We would prefer that their Revelation was just like ours — a closed book, with unopened seals.
The problem for us is that the seals of the Book have been opened (Revelation 5), and that the prophecies that God kept from Daniel have now been opened to all God’s people.
Revelation, the only book in the Bible to announce a particular blessing for those who read it (1:3), demands that we take it seriously. Ignorance is no longer enough.
America is going rapture crazy, and in the aftermath of September 11, the world has remembered the apocalypse.
How tragic that this is happening at precisely the moment when Reformed Evangelicals prefer not to know.