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
As a typical secular teenager, Christianity had 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, fully embrace them and make one’s Christian identity 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 American churches teach today, and in an increasingly political way. As one recent example, 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 (or any number of other things in Revelation), 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 – and the church – 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 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.”
While based on this, it would be easy to dismiss Christianity as a bunch of fruitcakes, you’d be wrong. This farce bears the fruit a century of theological error, leading the evangelical church into all kinds of error. It would benefit many average evangelicals who hold such beliefs to know that these end times concepts are not 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 first found myself in. This framework established a form of interpreting Biblical scripture based on two key rules, or pillars: 1. Prophetic scripture is to be interpreted literally and 2. There is a distinction between Israel and the church. These two rules for interpretation literally rewrote large portions of scripture and 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.
Taking a literal read on things had been espoused by a few patristic writers, such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Eustathius of Antioch, and was not entirely 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. Athanasius, in his Defense of the Nicene Definition against the Arianformulæ, argued “we ought to look at the sense more than the wording.” Tertullian, who was very adamant about 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 explore 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. Lastly, 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 or 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 fundamentalism greatly overreached.
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
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 (such as the symbolism of the four horsemen) – 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.
To help fit these new and terrifying events into the modern timeline, dispensationalism adopted what’s called progressive revelation – and applied it 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. Dispensationalism, however, does the opposite, and instead leans to futurism. 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 structure of the canon, requiring an increasing amount of speculation by introducing new and unsupported concepts, but nonetheless it ended up becoming widely accepted by the American church and part of modern Christian beliefs in America. It’s easy to see how incredible such Christian views can get when seen through the lens of prophesying the kind of terrifying world that exists when symbolism is interpreted literally. 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. Yet even the book of Revelation itself even decries such an interpretation, stating “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophesy” (Rev 19:10), suggesting Revelation’s prophesies are to be interpreted in the context of the fulfillment brought through Jesus Christ.
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 coming of Christ (e.g. a rapture) were ideas originally conceived by a Bible teacher named John Darby in the 1800s. This was around the same time that Charles Darwin came on the scene, which helped create a dichotomy where new scientific ideas and new theological ideas were at odds with each other. Because Darby’s literal theology didn’t work in light of basic science, science became the enemy and Darby’s beliefs became the “faith” in Christianity – even though his ideas had never come close to representing Christianity. Darby’s beliefs were radical and unrefined, and while accepted by some American evangelicals who felt that Darwin’s ideas threatened Christianity itself, they gained much more traction when 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 (and therefore fundamentalism) 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 current events to fit. The more pessimistic society gets, the more likely it is to lean toward a fiery, terrifying end of world theology, especially when you have a villain.
The church hasn’t always interpreted scripture this way, though. Not even close. Dispensational hermeneutics is fundamentally at odds with another form of interpretation often called historic protestant hermeneutics, and had 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 form of interpretation – going back to the earliest of Christian history – paints an entirely different perspective on Christianity than one that is drawn from a modern all-literal interpretation of the Bible, yet it 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 this interpretation gives license to be a Christian 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 (a misunderstanding of conditional covenants, or even possibly consider the word play in Genesis, where Ha’adam in the Hebrew personified Adam as a figurative representation of all mankind), 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 a lot of the themes of modern eschatology; attributing much of it 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 evaporate under historic Protestant interpretations. Why? Because these are literary devices created by the flawed hermeneutics of dispensationalism, treating scripture as if it is some fortune cookie about the future. Before you know it, you have to start explaining one wild literal prediction with another, even wilder one. The biggest difference, in a nutshell, is this: fundamentalism uses books like Daniel and Ezekiel to interpret Revelation as a prediction of the future, but historic Protestant interpretation uses Revelation to interpret Daniel and Ezekiel, 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” (the Pharisees’ 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. 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.
Restoration of God’s People
It’s important to note that what I’m advocating here isn’t replacement theology; even Pope John Paul II acknowledged that God’s original covenant with the Jewish people was never revoked. Justification before God is a question dating back to what is possibly the earliest book of the Old Testament (Job), who asked “how can mere mortals prove their innocence before God?”. Luther describes justification as “before the face of God”; e.g. grace cannot be quantified (especially if it is infinite), which is why establishing forensic justification is a worthy, but also futile effort. Academics have long sat within one of a handful of schools of thought on this matter, and none are satisfactory. Justification isn’t to be taken lightly either, as something God can simply change his mind on, and revoke a covenant he made with his people. Calvin describes justification as having incredible weight for all humanity, “For unless you understand first of all what your position is before God, and what the judgment which he passes upon you, you have no foundation on which your salvation can be laid, or on which piety towards God can be reared.” Why would anyone believe in a god who would move the goalposts for an entire people? God’s own righteousness is intertwined with faithfulness to his own promises.
Attempts to reconcile this have proven underwhelming. The concept of dual-covenant theology has numerous problems, but it does leave some breadcrumbs… we can see a glimpse of God’s original (old) covenant shine through in Jesus’ parable of the wine skins. While the emphasis is often placed on the incompatibility of the old system with the new, it’s often mistaken that this has anything to do with the Christian church. Not enough emphasis is placed on what is actually being rejected as incompatible: the Jewish leadership’s legalism surrounding justification, and their established ethnic boundaries (which both Jesus and Paul took them to task for), were inherently at odds with God’s redemptive plan throughout history for his people. Jesus condemned the Pharisees’ poor stewardship of God’s people, and their system of justification by observing the law, rather than justification by faith in God, and receiving the grace to honor his commandments. Joel B. Green argues, based on his interpretation of Luke 5:39, that from God’s perspective it was the Pharisaical system of false piety that was the incompatible “new wine”; this legalism was the “new garment” tearing away God’s relationship with his people, leaving it in tattered disrepair. This underscores God’s redemptive work as deeply inclusive of the Jewish people, to save them from what was a counterfeit system of works that had never been the intention of the old covenant. This is supported by the New Testament object lesson par excellence in Abraham justified by faith, and not the law (citing Gen 15:6). So the theme, even in the Old Testament blueprint, has always been salvation through grace by faith. What Jesus brought about was a restoration, not replacement, of God’s same redemptive work by deposing the broken Jewish leadership of the time and choosing to personally shepherd his people; e.g. “God with us”, as was foretold in Ezekiel 34.
1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them. 7 “‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock,9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. 11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
So to the contrary, what we see here is an extreme opposite of the anti-Semitic viewpoint and instead, God pursuing the Jewish people to rescue them from the leadership that so miserably failed them. This was the temple he had torn down; he gave it over to the pharisees (and those who ascribed to their misguided legalism), and replaced it with “something better”. Jesus was intended to be the greatest love note for the Jewish people that had ever been. At it’s core, there has only ever really been one covenant and not two; the basis for salvation has always been the same: love God and love your neighbor. Jesus distilled this down and restored the original covenant God had made with his people, which had been corrupted. Christianity is a story of fulfillment, not replacement.
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 too much into 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, scared of science, 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.