Rapture or Rupture

Photography © by Randy Hain

Photography © by Randy Hain

Last December, the Rev. Harold Camping, who predicted the second coming of Christ several times, finally got to meet Christ.

Before his death’ he had predicted the end in May 2011. When it didn’t happen’ his followers didn’t experience the rapture, but they did experience a rupture–in their belief system.

I was brought up in a fundamentalist church that followed a system of Bible interpretation called dispensationalism. This is a theological method devised by a Protestant Bible scholar called C.I. Schofield. His basic thesis is that God’s work in the world occurs in different time periods or “dispensations”. God’s message to humanity and work within history happens different ways in different times.

Dispensationalist theology is the foundational system for all the “end times” prophecies that abound in this sort of Protestantism. It involves the “rapture” in which Jesus returns supernaturally and takes all believers to heaven–leaving the wicked behind to suffer seven years of tribulation before the final return of Christ and the Last Battle of Armageddon.

Some writers on religion say these beliefs are mainstream Christianity. This reveals the sad ignorance of the typical American about historic Christianity. Anyone who thinks dispensationalism is mainstream sees American Evangelicalism as “mainstream”. This is to be blind to Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism and the other Christian groups.

That Dispensationalism is considered mainstream is a problem, however, the real problem is with Dispensationalism itself. Dispensationalism was first devised by an English Plymouth Brethren preacher called John Nelson Derby in the 1830s but it was made popular in the United States by a Baptist Bible scholar called C.I.Schofield, evangelist Dwight L Moody and others.

Dispensationalism spread through institutions that trained preachers and missionaries like Moody Bible Institute, Biola College and Philadelphia College of the Bible. Before long it became part of mainstream American evangelicalism. This theological system is now pretty much universal amongst conservative Baptists, independent Bible churches and fundamentalist churches. It is also part of the theological system for most independent community churches and “mega” churches.

The development of dispensationalism needs to be seen in its historical context. It came along and filled a void. The extreme revisionists who made up the fringe of Protestantism not only rejected Catholicism with it’s systematic Thomistic theology and sacramental system, but they also rejected the formal theologies of the Lutherans, the Calvinists and Anglicans. Nobody likes not having a systematic intepretative system, so dispensationalism helped these Christians make sense of the Bible and sacred history. It was, if you like, their own systematic theological system, and is sold like hot cakes.

It was especially popular in nineteenth century America because the growing country was spellbound with new religions, sects and cults which helped ordinary, ignorant Christian folk make sense of the world. It suited Americans who already had a foundational mindset that was utopian and apocalyptic at the same time. When you put Dispensationalism into the time period of its development you see that America was awash with other other similar Utopian, apocalyptic movements.

The mid nineteenth century also saw the rise of Restorationist movements like Seventh Day Adventism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Millerites, Disciples of Christ, Cambellites, Christdelphians–and the list goes on. Restorationist movements spring from “Primitivism”–the idea that the primitive form of a belief or religion or ideology is the purest and that any authentic form of the religion or ideology must get back to basics. (This article, The Problem with Primitivism, goes into more detail)

What is most curious is that these restorationists were concerned to get back to the Bible and primitive Christianity, yet they all devised a different understanding of what that might be. They split into numerous sects–all of them bound by a hatred of Catholicism with it’s “new, man made, invented” doctrines, yet they themselves following religions cooked up by the long list of their founders with a pot pourri of bizarre beliefs thought up by unschooled Americans with nothing but their Bibles and their imaginations.

They say the papacy is a late, man made invention, but they put their own nineteenth century teachers up as the foundational teachers of a new kind of Christianity–one never thought of before. Therefore, what many people consider to be “mainstream” American Christianity is actually a hodge potch of heretical, sectarian beliefs–a weird mixture of conspiracy theories, arcane revelations to their founders, visions of angels, predictions of doomsday and all gathered up with bizarre and unique theories and theologies and moral teachings.

You’ll find rejection of modern technology, acceptance of polygamy, weird theories about the Holy Trinity or the Incarnation tumbled together with prophecies about the end times, American exceptionalism and paranoid ideas about foreigners, other religions and all outsiders.

What is most troubling about this motley crew is that they are too often the face of American Christianity. For many they seem to be the “mainstream” yet within historic worldwide Christianity they are a bizarre minority. In terms of the numbers of Christians in the world today–not to mention the billions who have lived and followed Christ for the last two thousand years–the dispensationalists and restorationist sects seem like wild eyed conspiracy theory oddballs.

Yet for many of our non Catholic friends, neighbors and family members dispensationalism is part of their underlying world view.

The only answer is for Catholics to stand up and speak up. Several excellent books expose dispensationalism for what it is. Paul Thigpen’s The Rapture Trap and Will Catholics Be Left Behind by Carl Olson are just two. However, in addition to being informed and correcting those who are misled, we need to show the truth through lives that are radiant with the reality of the gospel. Catholicism is the only Christian voice which has the content, the depth and the power to deliver the full gospel to a needy world.


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About the Author

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He conducts parish missions, retreats and speaks at conferences across the USA.

His latest book is The Romance of Religion - Fighting for Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Visit his blog, listen to his radio show, and browse his books at dwightlongenecker.com.

Catechesis teaches us what to believe and how to behave, but Catholics also need down to earth advice for putting their faith into action. For help in your practice of the Catholic faith sign up for FaithWorks! -- Fr Longenecker's free, weekly newsletter on the practical practice of the Catholic faith.

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Fr. Dwight Longenecker is an American who has spent most of his life living and working in England. Fr Dwight was brought up in an Evangelical home in Pennsylvania. After graduating from the fundamentalist Bob Jones University with a degree in Speech and English, he went to study theology at Oxford University. He was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest and served as a curate, a school chaplain in Cambridge and a country parson.

Realizing that he and the Anglican Church were on divergent paths, in 1995 Fr. Dwight and his family were received into the Catholic Church. He spent the next ten years working as a freelance Catholic writer, contributing to over twenty-five magazines, papers and journals in Britain, Ireland and the USA.

Fr. Dwight is the editor of a best-selling book of English conversion stories called The Path to Rome - Modern Journeys to the Catholic Faith. He has written Listen My Son - a daily Benedictine devotional book which applies the Rule of St Benedict to the task of modern parenting. St Benedict and St Thérèse is a study of the lives and thought of two of the most popular saints.

In the field of Catholic apologetics, Fr. Dwight wrote Challenging Catholics with John Martin, the former editor of the Church of England Newspaper. More Christianity is a straightforward and popular explanation of the Catholic faith for Evangelical Christians. Friendly and non-confrontational, it invites the reader to move from 'Mere Christianity' to 'More Christianity'. Mary-A Catholic Evangelical Debate is a debate with an old Bob Jones friend David Gustafson who is now an Evangelical Episcopalian.

Fr. Dwight’s Adventures in Orthodoxy is described as ‘a Chestertonian romp through the Apostles’ Creed.’ He wrote Christianity Pure&Simple which was published by the Catholic Truth Society in England and Sophia Institute Press in the USA. He has also published How to Be an Ordinary Hero and his book Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing was published by Our Sunday Visitor in May 2008. His latest books are The Gargoyle Code - a book in the tradition of Screwtape Letters and a book of poems called A Sudden Certainty, Adventures in Orthodoxy and The Romance of Religion.

Fr. Dwight has contributed a chapter to the third volume of the best selling Surprised by Truth series and is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine, St Austin Review, This Rock, Our Sunday Visitor and National Catholic Register. Fr. Dwight has also written a couple of children’s books, had three of his screenplays produced, and is finishing his first novel. He’s working on a book on angels and his autobiography: There and Back Again.

In 2006 Fr. Dwight accepted a post as Chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina. This brought him and his family back, not only to his hometown, but also to the American Bible belt, and hometown of Bob Jones University. In December 2006 he was ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. He is the Administrator of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and an oblate of Belmont Abbey.

Fr. Dwight enjoys movies, blogging, books, and visiting Benedictine monasteries. He’s married to Alison. They have four children, named Benedict, Madeleine, Theodore and Elias. They live in Greenville, South Carolina with a black Labrador named Anna, a chocolate lab called Felicity, cat named James and various other pets.

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3 Comments

  1. “Some writers on religion say these beliefs are mainstream Christianity. ” – I gotta tell you, Father Dwight, in my neck of the woods it IS the mainstream. Even those who have completely fallen away from religion know about and, at a certain level, believe in the rapture and the other elements of the Coming End Times ™, and assume that everyone else does. In my pre-Catholic days I was met with shocked disbelief if I expressed any doubts about the doctrine and the many Returns of Christ; there was some little fear when people learned that I had read a lot about it and treated it like an odd science fiction sub-genre; and nowadays when they learn I’m Papist, they just shake their heads in a knowing way, writing me off as belonging to that weird new-age old-world magic cult of Catholicism, bound for time of suffering in the tribulation. “Mainstream Protestants” in the bulk of the US might poo-poo these beliefs, but here in the upper South license plates read “in case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned”.

    1. I deeply appreciate this article for identifying how a fringe view became a dominant view in American and Canadian evangelicalism. I feel a victim of this view in that it was a constant underlying fear that I would be left behind and that the second coming was always just around the corner. Apart from being just plainly flawed, this view leaves deep psycholigical scars and makes Christianity even easier to mock. Scott Hahn’s book on the supper of the lamb was the best medicine for me as it finally brought a coherent account of revelations.

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