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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