A Short History of the "Left Behind" Theology | Carl E. Olson | Ignatius Insight
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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 clichˇs, 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.
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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
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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