From the Millerite controversy of the mid-19th century to the phenomenal sales of books like The Late, Great Planet Earth (overall best-selling book of the 1970s), to the popularity of the Left Behind series of end-time novels, and the flap surrounding radio evangelist Harold Camping’s 2011 prediction of an impending Rapture, interest in the apocalyptic has been a highly-visible aspect of the evangelical subculture.
Through most of the 19th century, however, nearly all American evangelicals were convinced of the postmillenial interpretation of the Bible: the decidedly “calmer” belief that the church—through the exercise of its mandate to teach and preach the Gospel—would gradually usher in the Kingdom of God in preparation for Christ’s return. Buoyed by the advent of republican government, the seemingly boundless economic promise of their new country, and the impact of movements to reform society, such a possibility seemed likely to American evangelicals of the 1840s and 1850s. However, the disappointments associated with the Civil War and Reconstruction, the problems associated with urbanization and industrialization, and the influx of millions of non-Protestant immigrants made many late 19th-century conservative evangelicals take a less optimistic view of the future.
As a result, evangelicals gravitated toward a set of teachings known as dispensational premillenialism. Unlike the optimistic views of postmillenialism, dispensationalism was a system that emphasized decline: rebellion in Israel, apostasy in the church, and growing chaos in the world at large. The major systematizer of this viewpoint was John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), one of the early leaders of the Plymouth Brethren movement. Darby was convinced that most of the biblical prophecies related to Christ’s return were yet to be fulfilled.
Intrinsic to his views was the “postponement theory,” which saw God in the midst of his divine timetable turning away from a rebellious Israel which had rejected the Messiah to create, build, and then miraculously evacuate (or “rapture”) the church immediately before the Great Tribulation. At that time, God would resume the eternal countdown and his dealings with Israel and the unfolding of the last days—the rise of the Antichrist, the battle of Armageddon, the Second Coming, and the establishment of the Kingdom of God—would come to pass.
The doctrine has experienced fluctuations in its popularity over the years, often coinciding with times of national and international crisis. The key role which the nation of Israel plays within the dispensationalist scheme has been particularly important in this regard over the years as events like the development of the Zionist movement, the creation of the state of Israel, and the seizure of Jerusalem in the Six Days’ War excited speculation about the imminent “rapture” of the saints. The advocacy of this system by some of the movement’s most visible personages (D.L. Moody, C.I. Scofield, Charles E. Fuller, Billy Graham, and Pat Robertson to name but a few), along with the urgency and interest attending prophetic speculation among their rank-and-file followers has led many outsiders—and not a few insulated insiders—to view these beliefs as characteristic of all evangelicals.
But the percentage of the evangelical population which holds to a dispensational view of the Bible is actually dropping. As one might expect with such a diverse movement, there are a wide variety of beliefs within the evangelical community concerning these issues. A general premillenialism and amillennialism (the view that the millennium is strictly a symbolic reference to the current age leading up to the Second Coming and the last judgment) are positions held by a number of evangelicals. If one must search for a “typical” view on the end times among contemporary evangelicals, it is probably best to say that they share a firm attachment to the Scriptural promise that Christ will return to Earth one day. As a saying in the African-American church puts it: “Jesus may not come today. He may not come tomorrow. He may not come when you want Him to but when He does, you can bet He’ll be right on time!”
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©Larry Eskridge, 1996. Revised 2001, 2005, 2011, 2012