I'm currently reading The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, by Barbara R. Rossing. The author traces the origins of dispensationalist Christianity, or the Premillinennialist doctrine of those awaiting the Rapture, the Tribulation, and finally the Glorious Appearing of Jesus ... who will lead the earthly bloodbath to end all bloodbaths.
I guess what I really find strange about all this is that the preachers and followers of this doctrine are so convinced that they're on God's good side and that they're going to survive Armageddon. I mean ... isn't that just a bit presumptuous ... and convenient?
Although this blow-by-blow interpretation of the Book of Revelation has only been around for about 170 years, that's long enough for several generations of Christians to have become indoctrinated. In the U.S., it became really widespread thanks to the book by Hal Lindsey, The Late, Great Planet Earth, published in the 1970's. Back then, it was the USSR that was supposed to be the incarnation of the Antichrist. Since then, Lindsey keeps conveniently updating his blueprint for earth's destruction as world events change. (Gee, why didn't God think of that? I mean, how does She expect us to relate to all those shepherd types? I've never met a shepherd in my life!) Now, of course, Islamic extremists constitute the Antichrist.
This particular theology of the last days derives entirely, as Rossing tells us, from 3 verses of the Book of Daniel:
Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven 'sevens,' and sixty-two 'sevens.' It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. 26 After the sixty-two 'sevens,' the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. 27 He will confirm a covenant with many for one 'seven.' In the middle of the 'seven' he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing of the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him. " (Daniel 9:25-27)
John Nelson Darby, a 19th-century English preacher who later came to the U.S., took these 3 verses and made them the key to understanding the Bible. The main tenets of his dispensationalist doctrine have been bandied about so freely in the media, that many people do not even realize that:
--There is no mention of a rebuilt Jerusalem temple anywhere in the New Testament, including Revelation;
--Neither Daniel nor Revelation uses the word Antichrist;
--There is no record in Revelation or Daniel of the Antichrist making a covenant with Israel;
--There is no record in Daniel or Revelation of the Antichrist breaking a covenant with Israel;
--There is no mention that the Jews will set up an earthly throne in Jerusalem. (The Rapture Exposed, p.41)
Rossing concludes: "To make sense, their biblical chronology must combine bits and pieces of the Bible written many centuries apart and under very different circumstances into one overarching narrative." (Sort of the way the Church "harmonized" the four gospels, except that the discrepancies in their dates of origin aren't nearly as extreme.)
Here are some other things Rossing says:
"The dispensationalist vision of the biblical storyline requires tribulation and war in the Middle East, not peace plans."
"Whenever people invoke biblical prophets to support a program of violence or injustice, this is a misuse of the Bible. This is extremism."
Or, as a Jewish theologian put it, this interpretation amounts to: "God so loved the world that he sent it World War III."
It occurs to me that parts of the Bible such as the Book of Daniel and Revelation, with their phantasmagoric imagery, are very susceptible to all sorts of vivd, imaginative interpretation ... and people just seem to get lost in the fantasy of it all. Left Behind was a 12-book series and went on to spawn graphic novels, radio dramatizations, film versions, a video game and, of course, the inevitable website. In the meantime, there is no trace of comprehension --let alone empathy-- for those caught in the Middle East conflict.
On the other hand, simple directives such as: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you...." well, they leave little to the imagination. Nothing much you can do with them except ignore them... or put them into practice!
...I'm eagerly making my way toward Rossing's "message of hope."