What more is there for their Expected One to do when he comes? To call the heathen? But they are called already. To put an end to prophet and king and vision? But this too has already happened. To expose the God-denyingness of idols? It is already exposed and condemned. Or to destroy death? It is already destroyed. What then has not come to pass that the Christ must do?
Athanasius, On the Incarnation
Christianity introduced me to a God who’d interacted with humanity throughout history to offer a life greater than one’s self. This made a lot of sense to seventeen-year-old me. It still does. Christianity comes with a lot of baggage, though. Along with the powerful message of the gospel also came a lot of strange ideas that never quite sat well with me. Concepts of a literal seven-day creation, the perfect and immortal biology of Adam and Eve, and especially that of a violent and terrifying supernatural end-of-the-world scenario that would outsell any Hollywood production (or become one itself). Christianity seemed to, at some point, have conflated faith with magic.
Interpretations of end times prophecy have become increasingly more bizarre over the years, to the degree that it’s completely divorced the pattern of a loving, redemptive God throughout history with one of seemingly pointless violence, judgment, and terrifying death. Yet to not have faith in a brutal end times meant that you didn’t have a Christian faith. This left many Christians to either go along with the weirdness, and ignore the obvious oddities of Christian doctrine, or worse, to fully embrace them and make one’s identity as a Christian based on the willingness to blindly accept outrageous ideas. This was a package deal for many young Christians – who are now adults with a literal end times engrained in them.
There are many Christians still stuck here, because it is quite literally the only thing many churches teach today, and while intertwining religion with politics is often unfruitful, it has as of late become outright dangerous. As one example, the past few months, many normal and otherwise nonviolent Christians have interrupted my peaceful post-election schadenfreude with the most outrageous conspiracy theories. I’ve heard that masks are here to usher in Sharia law and that COVID vaccines will usher in the mark of the beast, that Joe Biden is the Antichrist, and that the National Guard is the new world order. Meanwhile, extremist groups are planning – on public message boards – to assassinate the incoming president to usher in a new heaven and earth. The world has gone full sandwich board, and while the more extreme of these beliefs may be relegated to fringe cults, misguided end-times theories about masks, vaccines, and the Antichrist run fairly deep in mainstream Christian churches. As one evangelical pastor put it, “Right now QAnon is still on the fringes of evangelicalism… but we have a pretty big fringe.”
One would be wrong to dismiss Christianity as a whole based on this farcical pattern of thought. It is a hundred years of theological error that has led the church here. It would benefit many average evangelicals who hold these beliefs to know that these end times concepts are not necessarily accurate to historic Christianity, and could be dissociated from Christianity altogether. Without an explanation, many Christians will likely deny COVID vaccines and literally die on the basis of the theological system under which they were taught. It is a flawed and unfalsifiable system of theology – not Christianity itself – that is to blame. This post will attempt to tease those two concepts apart.
“If the feeble mind of man did not presume to resist the clear evidence of truth, but yielded its infirmity to wholesome doctrines, as to a health-giving medicine, until it obtained from God, by its faith and piety, the grace needed to heal it, they who have just ideas, and express them in suitable language, would need to use no long discourse to refute the errors of empty conjecture.”
The City of God, Book 2
I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I was taught as a young Christian was based on dispensational hermeneutics. This is more or less a framework for interpreting scripture, and is what Christian fundamentalism is based on. Specifically, dispensational premillennialism had been the popular theology of the day, even in the little Baptist church I had found myself in. This framework established a form of interpretation based on two key pillars: 1. Prophetic scripture is to be interpreted literally and 2. There is a distinction between Israel and the church. These two presuppositions alone gave birth to many of the literal ideals around the creation and destruction of the world, and moved the timeline of many prophecies into the future.
Literal ideology had been espoused by some patristic writers, such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Eustathius of Antioch, and was nothing new, however there are some significant differences. For one, the term literal had no clear prior definition, and often times simply meant “obvious” or “evident from the text”; it was also frequently used to contrast an accompanied “spiritual” interpretation. To many early Christian writers, the fact that a problem existed in a literal text was an indication that it necessitated a figurative interpretation. This suggests the same writers were also honest enough to admit there were problems with literal interpretation. Even Tertullian, who makes many of the key literal arguments supporting the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ, specifically recognized prophecy as “generally expressed in figure and allegory, though not always” (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, ch 19). Second, many writings, such as Eustathius’ De Engastrimytho contra Origenem, viewed Christ as the eschatology, rather than a prelude to it, and used such interpretations to make metaphysical and philosophical arguments about who Christ was, instead of predicting the future. The mere fact that many writers declined to make predictions about the future suggests their interpretation of scripture didn’t support such an effort. Third, the notion of an Israel-church distinction was nonexistent. Writings that referenced end times prophecy often cited them in the context of the imminent tribulation of the church, and viewed Revelation as a prediction of the fall of the Roman Empire, which was happening out their windows. Even the most speculative of writers, such as Tertullian believed the millennial reign of Christ was already happening in a heavenly realm, and that the spiritual city of Jerusalem had been appearing at times over Judea. But most early church writers mentioned little at all about any kind of future millennium and secret rapture; even what Tertullian believed didn’t come close to resembling the end times ideals that modern Christianity holds today; his writings were rather void of details at all. As L. Crutchfield, author and professor of early Christian history admits, “If anyone searches the fathers for a fully detailed, systematic presentation about the doctrine of last things, he searches in vain”. This is where, it seems, modern dispensational premillennialism overreached.
By reinterpreting prophecy as literal, and creating the decisive theological bias to distinguish Israel from the church, dispensationalism recast many prophecies as unfulfilled that would have otherwise been fulfilled in Christ’s timeline through the fourth century. The net effect of this was that many prophecies fulfilled by Jesus, the subsequent destruction of the Roman Empire, the imperial cult and emperor worship, and themes of patterns and forces that have operated throughout history – were transformed into what modern Christians see as veiled prophecies about a terrifying end of the world in a not-so-distant future – regardless of whether you lived in the 1930s, or in 2021.
We shall then be changed in a moment into the substance of angels, even by the investiture of an incorruptible nature, and so be removed to that kingdom in heaven…
Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book III
The dispensational reinterpretation also introduced a two-stage return of Christ, which changed an otherwise clean and simple consummation at the end of time into an indeterminate secret rapture, where unbelievers were left to torture, wrath, and suffering. None of these concepts were common themes in patristic literature, outside of a few loose concepts sprinkled throughout the era. Even a thousand years later, Calvin, save for declaring the papacy the Antichrist, failed to rise to the level of imaginative detail that modern Christianity takes license.
To help fit these new and terrifying events into the modern timeline, progressive revelation was applied backwards. Progressive revelation is the idea that God reveals his plans in fuller depth in newer writings (e.g. progressively). Outside of dispensationalism, this generally meant that newer texts could be used to explain how the older were fulfilled. Dispensationalists, however, do the opposite. The view of futurism is a misapplication of progressive revelation, where instead of using the New Testament to explain the Old, scripture got turned forward facing, perceived as breadcrumbs about the future which were later explained in a context far beyond their boundaries. This gave license not only to speculation from the New Testament texts, but also creative license; after all, if God’s revelations are more progressive over time, there are no constraints in applying the texts to an even grander revelation of “what if’s” for the future. Many of dispensationalism’s interpretations broke the overall thematic structure of the canon, requiring an increasing amount of explanation, but nonetheless it ended up becoming widely accepted by the American church and ended up a part of modern Christian beliefs. It’s easy to see how incredible such Christian views can get when seen through this lens. It has defined a Christian’s entire world view for much of the past hundred years, and affected our politics, society, relationships, and now public health.
A Theology in its Infancy
To convey such salient concepts in Christianity, one might expect this form of interpretation had been the authoritative viewpoint for a very long time. Yet dispensational hermeneutics has only even been in existence since the 1800s. By any standard, it is an incredibly young line of thinking. Concepts such as an Israel-church distinction and a two-stage distinction in the second coming of Christ were ideas originally conceived by a Bible teacher named John Darby in the 1800s. They were radical ideas, and while accepted by some American evangelicals, gained little traction until they were popularized by a lawyer-turned-theologian named Cyrus Scofield. Scofield was a sketchy individual, accused of accepting bribes, committing financial fraud, and later on in life giving himself a fake Doctor of Divinity title. A biography by James Canfield refers to him as an abject liar and opportunist promoter of baseless theology. It is unsurprising that someone with a lawyer’s background would resonate with the interpretation of scripture through a literal and litigious interpretation, even if it did not align with 1800 years of theology to the contrary.
There are four things to be considered… the height of spiritual doctrine; the dignity of those who teach it; the condition of the listeners; and the order of communicating.
Thomas Aquinas, On the Commendation of Sacred Scripture
In spite of its questionable origins, its lack of vetting, and its infancy, dispensationalism took hold in the early 1900s through the Niagara Bible Conference and the publication of the Scofield Bible, both of which Scofield had direct involvement in. This set the stage for dispensationalism to gain wider acceptance as society became more pessimistic through the Great Depression, World War I, and other events. Reinterpreting an end times to be set in the 1900s had obvious appeal: it offered comfort that the suffering of the world would soon be avenged, and provided fodder for a number of parallels to the current events of such a troubling time. No one could blame society in the 1900s for being tempted to parallel the Antichrist to Hitler, or the sufferings of the Great Tribulation to the horrible sufferings of the Holocaust, especially with a relatively new form of theology circulating that allowed a context to be drawn around any set of events to fit. The more pessimistic society gets, the more likely it is to lean toward a fiery, terrifying end of world theology.
The church hasn’t always interpreted scripture this way, though, and it’s important to point out that dispensational hermeneutics is fundamentally at odds with historic protestant hermeneutics, which have been the dominant approach to scripture since the early church. The pillars surrounding this more established interpretation of scripture are: 1. The New Testament should explain the Old Testament (not the other way around), 2. Old Testament concepts are reinterpreted in the New Testament, and 3. Scripture (and especially prophecy) is interpreted analogia fidei, interpreting the complicated and ambiguous biblical passages in the context of the more concise passages and patterns about the issue at hand. Tertullian argued that “uncertain statements should be determined by certain ones, and obscure ones by such as are clear and plain” (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, ch 21). This insists that scripture be interpreted without the prerequisite that all passages must be taken literally, that some may be taken figuratively or allegorical (as appropriate for the text), and should be supported and clarified in the context of more concise verses in prior works, and how such themes are reinterpreted in the New Testament. This is obviously not unlike how problems were worked out in patristic literature; writers often evaluated problem passages on the basis of other scriptures and their understanding of God.
This more established form of hermeneutics – going back to the earliest of Christian history – has historically rendered an entirely different perspective on Christianity than one that is drawn from a modern all-literal interpretation of the Bible, yet still maintains the core beliefs of Christ as the central figure of redemption under a new covenant, with a literal virgin birth and literal resurrection from the dead. Applying these interpretive rules gives license to be a Christian, however, without having to accept a literal 7-day creation, license to be a Christian without believing that Adam and Eve initially had immortal, perfect bodies, and license to be a Christian without accepting the idea of an all loving God who violently rage-quits civilization. Historic (classical) premillennialism looks incredibly different from dispensational premillennialism, and doesn’t include most of the themes of modern eschatology, while applying others to the timeline between the siege of Jerusalem and the fall of the Roman Empire.
This is not to suggest that miracles don’t exist in the Bible – they absolutely do; this hermeneutic model argues that literal events such as the resurrection of Christ and the virgin birth were clearly documented as literal, historical fact as opposed to the more figurative areas of end times prophecy. The historic protestant framework allows us to better suss out what is literal and what is figurative or allegorical, more importantly what prophecies have already been fulfilled by history and what, if anything, scripture has left in it to tell us about the future. Concepts such as a secret rapture, the Great Tribulation (judgment of suffering onto unbelievers), rebuilding the temple, and a future Antichrist look vastly different, or even evaporate, under the more well-established interpretations. Why? Because these are devices cultivated by the flawed hermeneutics of dispensationalism, treating scripture as if it is some fortune cookie about the future. The stark difference is evident in that dispensationalists will use books like Daniel to reveal Revelation’s ideas about the future, but the more established form of hermeneutics instead applies Revelation to interpret Daniel to reveal God’s redemptive work throughout history, and especially as it pertained to Christ.
Who, then, is He Who has done these things and has united in peace those who hated each other, save the beloved Son of the Father, the common Savior of all, Jesus Christ, Who by His own love underwent all things for our salvation? Even from the beginning, moreover, this peace that He was to administer was foretold, for Scripture says, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into sickles, and nation shall not take sword against nation, neither shall they learn any more to wage war.”
Athanasius, On the Incarnation
Speculation Run Amok
Many scholars who defend dispensationalism have argued that departing from a literal interpretation of scripture lends itself to all forms of speculation, but just look at what literal interpretation has done for speculators in the past hundred years. People thought Hitler was the Antichrist, and after the Third Reich failed to establish a thousand year reign on the Earth, the Vatican in 1944 issued a statement that millennialism cannot be safely taught. In 1999, it had been widely speculated that Y2K would usher in the apocalypse, leading many to build underground bunkers and stock up on weapons and MREs. The year 2008 saw widespread belief that Obama was the Antichrist, leading to numerous assassination plots to act upon those beliefs. In 2020, fringe conspiracy groups planned to assassinate President-Elect Biden to usher in a new heaven and earth, some believing the book of Revelation’s ten days of darkness began with Trump’s Twitter suspension. This very day, otherwise intelligent Christians are refusing to take a COVID vaccine because they believe it ushers in the mark of the beast, and many will suffer and die for and because of this belief. If historic protestantism is guilty of speculation, dispensationalism has been sensationally guilty of it. Dispensationalism gave Christians a square peg they are constantly trying to fit into something in the present, rather than looking at how it fit into God’s redemptive work in the past. This has kept the church needlessly preoccupied for a hundred years.
At the very least, one might think that because dispensationalism has literalism going for it, it would offer some guard rails to prevent speculation from running wild. Many Christians, however, being unaware of the two mutually exclusive schools of theology have blended the literal and the symbolic together. For example, literal interpretation would otherwise dismiss symbolic ideas such as a vaccine, a tracking chip, or cashless payments being the mark of the beast; if you held to strict dispensationalism, you’d believe such a mark would be a visible marking directly tied to worship of Antichrist. Some scholars believe this was a reference to emperor worship in the imperial cult, for example. It is also a parody to the sealing of the 144,000 referenced in Revelation, which a literal interpretation would require a visible mark on the foreheads of Christians before the mark of the beast came into widespread adoption. In addition to this, a literal chronology of Revelation would require us to all be raptured, or at least for the trumpet plagues of the Earth to have come (fires burn a third of the Earth, meteor destroys a third of fish, a third water poisoned, darkness over a third of day and night, and months of smoke and locust torture), and yet all of this happening while the temple is still standing, so that it could be measured in Rev 11 – if you held to the literal ideals dispensational premillennialism offers. Obviously none of this fits.
But modern day conspiracy theorists aren’t the only ones guilty of wild speculation. Dispensationalist theologians are great conspiracy theorists too, and love a great ghost story. Consider that, in order to resolve such gross inconsistencies with scripture, dispensationalists adopted the notion that this crazy end times scenario actually happens to some future temple, inventing the notion that it will somehow be rebuilt some day. Yet this makes little to no sense for a savior who claimed to have replaced the temple with “something better”, and referred to the temple as only a shadow of his kingdom in heaven, which he brought through his coming with a new covenant. It makes no sense to a savior who, in a cruel irony, stopped referring to the temple as “my temple”, and called it “your temple” shortly before its destruction. It wouldn’t have made any sense to John either, that God would show him a vision of “some other temple” thousands of years later and not the one he knew to exist and was familiar enough with to measure. You’d think he’d have mentioned that somewhere. It’s very clear that Jesus deposed the original temple and replaced it with “something better” under a new covenant, which is open equally to both Jews and Gentiles. So what can we make of all the speculation in the church? Many, including some Christians, have conveniently adopted the constructs afforded them by dispensational hermeneutics while simultaneously abandoning the very pillars that it relies on – allowing for wild symbolic conspiracy theories to run rampant in an end-times scenario that otherwise only exists if you take everything literally. But one cannot do theology while drunk. If you do, you’ll get a Frankenstein that looks nothing like Christianity… or you’ll end up conceiving Tim LaHaye.
A lot more people would be Christians today if it wasn’t married to the outrageous manufactured theology that came out of dispensationalism. A lot more people would also be Christians today if it didn’t require making your political identity your faith. What you’re seeing coming out of the American evangelical church is very alien to historic Christianity. It is more the product of a century of quite terrible theology from a man who capitalized on a publishing opportunity, which gained a cult following due to the pessimism of the early 1900s. Such a radical form of theology this young in its infancy should have never been approached without heavy criticism. It followed us into the movements of the 60’s and beyond, where the church clung to many other forms of cult phenomenon, and the fruits of that are Christians who have conflated their faith with an American ideology. I feel like this is partially responsible for what has bewitched Christians into supporting such anti-Christian ethics as of lately. Conflating these ideas with faith is dangerous, and is just what the QAnon crowd and other conspiracy groups have done in error. If this is you, consider taking your theology back to its roots; this will prove much more fruitful than reading end times literature on the Internet. Research the writings of the early church fathers like Athanasius, Augustine, Clement, Ignatius, among others. If you really want to blow the mind of literal creationists, read Augustine’s wild interpretation of Genesis. Also, research the different approaches to eschatology; non-dispensationial pre-millennialism, post-millennialism, nunc-millennialism, and preterism to name a few. Read your Calvin and your Luther. Even post-reformation, you will find the extreme views of modern Christianity were not part of the narrative of the church until just a hundred or so years ago, and there are reasons for that.
I have avoided the obvious omission of explaining what I believe to be an accurate take on eschatology, because there are still many differing and valid opinions to consider, even excluding dispensational ideas. You would be in good company, however, to divorce modern end times ideology from your faith, and you’ll find that can still retain a solid Christian faith in doing so. It is healthy to temper your faith with wisdom. Christianity was never meant to be an orgy of speculation. These are not signs of the times, these are signs of a young theology without wisdom, set in a pessimistic society that embraced it. In the grand scheme of time, many of the ideas the modern church holds have only lived for a sliver of time.
As I have implied repeatedly in my writings, there are consequences for allowing popular culture to drive movements in the church, no matter how harmless they may seem at the time. Sound doctrine is vitally important, and the fruits of the church’s tolerance of bad ideas from church leaders – instead of “testing the spirits” – is evident today. I view dispensationalism as a product of fashionableness and not a viable theological teaching. There are consequences when Christian leaders, academics, and the congregations that should hold them accountable fail to be adequately protective of scripture, allowing unsound teachings to be entertained in the church. Given its origins, the fundamentalism many churches still teach today is the most literal definition of white, American Christianity as one can get. Be it far from us to presume that a gospel forged well before our country’s existence and in a culture far different from ours, should be interpreted through 20th century American goggles.