A Short History of the "Left Behind" Theology | Carl E. Olson | Ignatius Insight
Editor's note: This article is adapted from material in Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? A Catholic Critique of the Rapture and Today's Prophecy Preachers (Ignatius Press, 2003).
In a January 19, 2003, BBC news article, "Armageddon fiction grips the US," reporter Justin Webb struggled to come to grips with the best-selling Left Behind books (with sales of around 50 million copies at that time), created and co-authored by leading Fundamentalist Tim LaHaye. Webb was apparently bewildered by the topic, and he didn't help matters by misspelling LaHaye's name ("LeHaye").
Even worse, in seeking to criticize the political message of the novels, he completely missed the theological core of the books. Yet this isn't too surprising, for the theological belief espoused by the Left Behind novels--known as premillennial dispensationalism--is a strange and complex one, with a relatively short, but eventful history.
The French (and English) Connection
While dispensationalism and the "Rapture"--the heart of the "left behind" theology--are now almost as American as apple pie, their story began in France and England just over two centuries ago. In his seminal study, The Roots of Fundamentalism, historian Ernest R. Sandeen states, "The French Revolution was directly responsible for the revival of prophetic concern. To live through the decade of the 1790s in itself constituted an experience in apocalypticism for many of the British. The violent uprooting of European political and social institutions forced many to the conclusion that the end of the world was near." 
This sense of a rapidly approaching end was further heightened when some students of "Bible prophecy" calculated that the Papacy would last 1,260 years and that it was, at last, coming to an end in the late 1700s. This calculation was based on Daniel 7:25 ("a time, two times, and a half a time") and Revelation 12:6 ("one thousand two hundred and sixty days"), combined with the belief that whenever a passage of Bible prophecy referred to a "day" it really meant a "year" -- a premise still common in contemporary dispensationalism. When Catholic power in France was destroyed during the Revolution and French troops marched on Rome in 1798, many interpreted those events to be the "deadly wound" of Revelation 13. A simple (and convenient) computation "revealed" that the Papacy had first emerged in A.D. 538, a date still used by groups such as the Seventh-day Adventists.
Anti-Catholicism was not a secondary issue, but was at the heart of British and American millenarianism. "Millenarians without exception were stoutly anti-Catholic", notes Sandeen, "and viewed every agitation [for emancipation] by English and Irish Catholics as confirmation of the increasing corruption of the world and thus of the increasing likelihood of the second advent." 
During the early 1800s, numerous sects in Britain split off from the Church of England; most devoted themselves to the study of Biblical prophecy, anticipating the soon return of Christ to establish his millennial kingdom. Connections between prophetic passages of Scripture and the apparent demise of the Papacy in 1798 were accepted as keys to understanding other passages of Scripture, especially the apparently unfulfilled Old Testament promises of an earthly kingdom for the Jews. Interest in restoring the nation of Israel eventually resulted in strong support of the Zionist movement, which in turn influenced British and American policies towards the Jews and the nation of Israel.
The most influential of the early British millenarians was the Scottish preacher Edward Irving, founder of the Catholic Apostolic church. During the mid-1820s the prophetically obsessed Irving translated an obscure book written by Manuel Lacunza, a renegade Chilean Jesuit, titled The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty. Lacunza's work, written around 1791, stated that believers would be caught up to meet Christ in the air, where they would remain for a short time, after which they would return with him in triumph at the Second Coming. Inspired by his study of Lacunza's book, Irving organized a prophetic conference in 1827, the first of many such conferences in both Britain and America. Later conferences organized by Irving focused on the inevitable judgment coming upon apostate Christendom, the restoration of the Jews to Palestine, the millennial kingdom, and the 1,260 years of Daniel 7 and Revelation 12-13. However, Irving fell out of favor around 1830 when he began teaching that Jesus' earthly nature was sinful. Destitute and shunned, he wasted away and died in 1834.
Darby and the Birth of Dispensationalism
As Irving faded away, John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), a former lawyer who had also been a priest in the Church of Ireland, began asserting himself among British millenarians. A charismatic man, Darby was frustrated with the spiritual laxity within the Irish Church. Tireless and driven to save souls, he exerted much effort at his first parish working among Catholics, claiming that because of his work they "were becoming Protestants at the rate of 600 to 800 a week."  Soon Darby began frequenting millenarian circles. By 1828 he had left the Church of Ireland and become a leader in what would soon be known as the Plymouth Brethren movement, named after the city containing its largest group of adherents.
Darby believed that history was divided into dispensations, or eras. This understanding was a by-product of a Baconian view of secular history, which asserted that history can be more perfectly understood through analysis and categorization. Darby taught that dispensations were periods of time in which certain conditions are placed on mankind by God in order for salvation to be realized. Each of these dispensations, usually seven in number, end with mankind's failure and God's righteous judgment. Following Darby's lead, the American Cyrus I. Scofield later defined these seven dispensations as Innocence (Adam), Conscience (post-Adam to the Flood), Human Government (Gentiles after the flood), Promise (Abraham to Moses), Law (Moses to Christ), Grace (Church age), and future Kingdom (the Millennium).
The use of dispensations reflected a particular understanding of how Scripture is to be read and interpreted. Evangelical scholar George M. Marsden notes that Darby and his followers believed that "all they were doing was taking the hard facts of Scripture, carefully arranging and classifying them, and thus discovering the clear patterns which Scripture revealed. The unusual firmness of the facts of Scripture was believed guaranteed by its supernatural inspiration."  This desire to "divide and classify everything is one of the most striking and characteristic traits of dispensationalism".  The attempt to "scientifically" classify Scripture was spurred on by increasing attacks on the historicity and validity of the Bible, a growing tendency within many mainline churches. This intensifying skepticism was another indication to Darby of the inevitable corruption of Christendom and the need for "true believers" to remove themselves from communion with mainline churches.
The Church and Israel: Two Peoples of One God
The unique features of Darby's teachings were twofold: "the doctrine of the secret rapture and the subsequent necessity to divide the New Testament into Jewish and churchly texts".  These two distinguishing marks were the logical conclusions of Darby's guiding principle: a radical distinction and dichotomy between Israel, the earthly people of God, and the Church, the heavenly people of God. These beliefs are front and center in the Left Behind novels and in popular dispensationalist Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), the best-selling non-fiction book of the last forty years in the United States. Convinced that Christendom was failing and was mostly apostate, and believing that many Old Testament promises had yet to be fulfilled, Darby concluded that God had two people, not one. He pronounced, "The Church is in ruins" --it was, he claimed, being destroyed by hierarchy, institutionalization, structure, ritual, ceremony, and the ordained clergy. So pessimistic was Darby that he declared:
I fully recognize that there was an organization in apostolic and scriptural times, but affirm that what now exists is not the scriptural organization at all, but mere human invention, each sect arranging itself according to its own convenience, so that as an external body, the Church is ruined; and though much may be enjoyed of what belongs to the Church, I believe from Scripture that the ruin is without remedy, that the professing church will be cut off. 
Such pessimism meant that only a "remnant"--a few faithful and true Christians--existed in the world. Not surprisingly, this remnant mostly consisted of those who followed Darby and were under his leadership, the Plymouth Brethren. In this regard Darby was like so many others who vainly sought to reform Christianity by separating themselves from historical Christianity as found in the Catholic Church, and setting themselves up as final arbiters of truth and orthodoxy. This same separatist mentality and approach is alive and well today in the many hundreds of Fundamentalist groups in North America and other parts of the world.
Darby insisted that the remnant--the "true church"--consisted of those who joined themselves to Christ as individuals. The Church was not the Body of Christ as a community, but as individuals having a direct relation to Christ, regardless of denominational affiliation. Although he insisted that people join the Brethren, Darby's ecclesiology led to a radical individualism that discarded denominations, positing an opposition between having a personal relationship with Christ and belonging to the visible Church: "It then became clear to me that the church of God, as He considers it, was composed only of those who were so united to Christ, whereas Christendom, as seen externally, was really the world, and could not be considered as the 'church.'"  The Church, severed from Christ, is rendered meaningless for the Christian--only an individual, "personal" relationship with Christ has value.
Darby believed that the true Church's spiritual character meant it should have little involvement in earthly affairs. He wrote that "the Church is properly heavenly, in its calling and relationship with Christ, forming no part of the course of events on earth . . ."  Because the Church--the spiritual remnant--is heavenly and cannot be aligned with earthly realities, it will need to be removed from the world and taken to its rightful place before God can continue his work with the earthly people, the Jews. Thus, the need for the pretribulational Rapture, a secret and silent removal of the remnant out of the world. The great Tribulation following the Rapture will not affect the heavenly people since it will be concerned with earthly things; it will be a testing of the Jewish people meant to bring them to a recognition of Jesus as the true Messiah.
The absolute distinction made by Darby and subsequent dispensationalists such as LaHaye between Old Testament Israel and the Church resulted in the New Testament being divided into portions, some meant for the Jews (most of the Gospels) and some meant for Christians (most of Paul's writings). Lewis Sperry Chafer, a leading American dispensationalist of the early to mid-twentieth century, wrote, "Only those portions of the Scriptures which are directly addressed to the child of God under grace are to be given a personal or primary application. . . . It is obvious that, apart from the knowledge of dispensational truth, the believer will not be intelligently adjusted to the present purpose and will of God in the world."  In other words, the Bible was incomprehensible to humanity until the 1830s, when the dispensational system finally made sense of it!
The Jews, according to dispensationalism, were meant to accept Jesus as the Christ and enter into the Kingdom when he first came. When they rejected him they did not lose their right to the Kingdom, but it was postponed until a later time. The rejection of Jesus by the Jewish people meant that another people had to become his Body and Bride--the Church. Darby wrote, "The Lord, having been rejected by the Jewish people, is become wholly a heavenly person. This is the doctrine which we peculiarly find in the writings of the apostle Paul. It is no longer the Messiah of the Jews, but a Christ exalted, glorified; and it is for want of taking hold of this exhilarating truth, that the church has become so weak."  Here the dualism of dispensationalism is further crystalized: heavenly versus earthly, Jewish versus Christian, and material Messiah versus heavenly Person.
The Church is therefore a back-up plan, a "parenthetical" insert into history. Salvation history has been detoured into the Church age until the Jewish people are ready to return to God. The prophetic clock is paused until the spiritual remnant, the Church, is removed from earth by the Rapture. Thus LaHaye writes, in one of his non-fiction books, "Before we go further we should point out that the Church is not Israel and Israel is not the Church. Some of the most confusing prophetic voices today teach that there is not distinction between Israel and the Church, and that the Church today is spiritual Israel and is destined to fulfill the promises of God to that chosen nation." 
The Rapture: The Necessary Escape
The pretribulational Rapture, or the "any-moment coming of the Lord" prior to a time of great tribulation, is the most widely recognized teaching of Darby. However, it existed in different, more ambiguous forms, prior to the 1830s. Darby saw the pretribulational Rapture as a necessary and logical centerpiece of premillennial dispensationalism. But it was not accepted by many of his fellow millenarians, who thought that what amounted to the belief in "two second comings" was both unbiblical and illogical. But Darby was convinced the Rapture was the proper conclusion of his distinction between Israel and the Church:
It is this conviction, that the church is properly heavenly, in its calling and relationship with Christ, forming no part of the course of events of the earth, which makes its rapture so simple and clear . . . Our calling is on high. Events are on earth. Prophecy does not relate to heaven. The Christian's hope is not a prophetic subject at all. 
This secret Rapture, Darby taught, could come at any time. There was nothing yet to be fulfilled keeping Christ from suddenly removing his heavenly people from earth. This was contrary to the expectations of some millenarians, who believed that specific events had yet to take place before Christ's Second Coming. By inserting an additional coming of Christ, Darby could insist that the Rapture was imminent--it could occur right now, right here, without warning: "To me, the Lord's coming is not a question of prophecy, but of my present hope. Events before His judging the quick are the subject of prophecy; His coming to receive the church is our present hope. There is no event between me and heaven." 
Armageddon Plenty of Sales!
In 1995 Tyndale House Publishers published Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days, co-authored by LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The series soon became a full-blown industry, with a Left Behind series for kids, books on tape, clothing, calendars, and related books by LaHaye, including Are We Living in the End Times? and the Tim LaHaye Prophecy Study Bible. Not only did the Left Behind phenomenon have staying power, it has influenced how millions of readers view the world, God, and the end of time--which is exactly what the authors intended.
The novels attempt to render the events of the book of Revelation in a fictional narrative, following the lives of several characters caught in the aftermath of the Rapture. These characters discover that they have been "left behind", come to accept the Biblical "truth" of the Rapture, have "born again" experiences, and begin working to save as many souls as they can from impending destruction and the emerging Antichrist. All of this is in keeping with the traditional premillennial dispensationalist view of the end of the world.
From a literary perspective the Left Behind books are less than impressive. The writing is mediocre, saturated with clichés, and filled with wooden dialogue between two-dimensional characters. But the average writing and paper thin characters hardly matter since the point of the series is to propagate dispensational beliefs about the end of the world, as evidenced by the numerous pages filled with sermons, lectures, and explanations about the Rapture, impending doom, and the coming Antichrist. In essence, the books are "tract-novels", stories wrapped around huge chunks of blatant proselytizing. This is not lost on many readers of the series, as a perusal of their reviews on the internet indicates. Some readers express annoyance at the "religious jargon", but many others are enthusiastic, making comments such as "I just finished this book and must say that it's the best novel I ever read" and "Upon stumbling upon Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' novel, Left Behind, I could finally get a grasp of Revelation through the glimpse of modern-day and real people I could relate to [sic]."
Premillennial dispensationalism, especially in popular forms such as the Left Behind books, seemingly offers biblical answers about the near future for Christians who are convinced that things are going from bad to worse. However, it is based on a flawed Christology that leads to a deficient ecclesiology and ultimately results in a severely skewed eschatology. While the BBC and other secular media groups puzzle over the astounding popularity of this belief system, Catholics should seek to better understand the fears, assumptions, and beliefs behind it, with the goal of answering questions and pointing to the fullness of truth found in the Catholic Faith.
 Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1970), p. 5.
 Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism, p. 17.
 Clarence B. Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism: Its Historical Genesis and Ecclesiastical Implications (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1977), p. 50.
 George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism: 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 56.
 Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, p. 59.
 Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism, pp. 69-70.
 Darby, On the Formation of Churches: Further Developments, Collected Writings, Eccl. vol. 1, p. 303. Quoted in Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism, p. 100.
 Darby, What the Christian Has Amid the Ruins of the Church, Collected Writings, Eccl. vol. 3, p. 417. Quotes in Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism, p. 103.
 Darby, Letters, 3:298; quoted by Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P and R Publishing, 1994), p. 15.
 Darby, "The Rapture of the Saints," Collected Writings, Pro. vol. 4, p. 237. Quoted in Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism, p. 39.
 Chafer, Major Bible Themes (Chicago, Ill.: Moody, 1944), pp. 97-98. Quoted in Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism, p. 37..
 Darby, Writings, 2:376. Quoted in Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, p. 18.
 Tim LaHaye, Understanding the Last Days: The Keys to Unlocking Bible Prophecy (Eugene, Ore.: Harvest House, 1998), p. 73.
 Darby, Collected Writings, 11:156. Quoted in Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism, p. 63.
 Darby, Letters of J.N.D., 1:329-30. Quoted in Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism, p. 64.
Related Ignatius Insight Articles:
Eschatological Fact and Fiction: Catholicism and Dispensationalism Compared | Carl E. Olson
The End Times: The Secret Hidden From the Universe | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
06.06.06 | Is the End At Hand? | An Interview with Michael O'Brien | Valerie Schmalz
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers. He has a Masters in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas.
He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California with his wife, Heather, their three children, four chickens, two cats, one dog, and far too many books and CDs. Visit his unfinished personal web site at www.carl-olson.com.
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