Rev. Paul Tellström Irvine United Congregational Church
Left-Behind: Rationalism (1st Service) March 4, 2007
New Testament Readings: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, Revelation 13:16-18 word count 2,233
666 is the original telephone prefix for the area around my former church, Mt. Hollywood. The fact that someone changed the pre-fix because it was the sign of the beast is exactly the point of what I want to get to today—the creeping mainstreaming of a kind of belief that was foreign to our churches for most of our history. Keep in mind that the whole community had the pre-fix “666” for eighty years, and because of the mind-set of the day, no-one would have thought to have even made a joke about “the pre-fix of the beast.”
So, I have a few marks of the beast for you today that will no doubt let on how much stock I put in this stuff. 666: A Collection of Numbers of the Beast
666 Number of the Beast
668 the Next-door neighbor of the Beast
$665.95 Retail price of the Beast
Route 6-66 Get your Kicks on the route of the Beast
665 Older brother of the Beast
6660 F Oven temperature for cooking the Beast
666k Retirement plan of the Beast
Lotus 6-6-6 Spreadsheet of the Beast
666I BMW of the Beast
Formula 666 All Purpose Cleaner of the Beast
WD-666 Spray Lubricant of the Beast
Darbyism Why we are forced to examine the Beast through a quasi-religious
The contemporary American version of apocalypticism is based on the writings of John Nelson Darby. His thirty-two volumes of collected writings describe a view of history called dispensationalism, which segments God’s relationship to humanity into periods of time during which we are subject to different laws and criteria for salvation.
According to Darby, the current dispensation began with the Crucifixion; the next will begin with the Rapture of the Saved, leading to a seven-year period during which the Antichrist will rule the earth; after which will come Armageddon and the Last Judgment. Darby wrote that this was the literal truth of Revelation. Darby’s dispensationalism was adopted in fundamentalist C. Scofield’s First Reference Bible, and is the standard reading of Revelation among those Christians who believe in biblical inerrancy, including Billy Graham, Hal Lindsey, and the authors of the “Left Behind” novels, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. These books are so popular that it is estimated that they may be the top-selling novels of all time—even being featured on the cover of Newsweek.
Dispensationalism teaches that Christians should not expect spiritual good from earthly governments, and should expect decline as the end times draw nearer. Dispensationalist readings of prophecies teach that the Antichrist will appear to the world as a peacemaker, and causes suspicion of all forms of power, religious and secular, especially of human attempts to form international organizations for peace, such as the United Nations. Almost all dispensationalists reject the idea that a lasting peace can be attained in the Middle East, and believe instead that "wars and rumors of wars" (Matt 24:6) will increase as the end times approach. They support Israel because they believe that God provided the nation of Israel with specific promises which will be fulfilled at a future time for the Jews, and that the end times can only begin when the Jews have returned to Israel.
We should be very clear that dispensationalism finds no place in the entire history of the church before 1830. No one has yet found any credible evidence that anybody believed or taught such a thing in any Christian church before this date.
There is nothing “Christian” in the belief that one day, very soon, the select will suddenly rise up and disappear into the clouds, leaving piles of clothes behind to be picked up by the rest of us, who will be subjected to a tribulation that will last for seven years before Christ comes again.
Tim LaHaye is one of the authors of the “Left Behind” books. He is a founding member and leading figure of the Moral Majority. His wife, Beverly LaHaye, founded Concerned Women of America, an organization that has worked to fight against gay rights and to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
LaHaye’s beliefs are part of the ongoing parade of selective literalism and prophecy, taken largely from the book of Daniel, Revelation, a brief section of 1st Thessalonians and other readings, that have been woven together these past 175 years, to tell a continually discredited story.
On March 21, 1843, William Miller brought his followers, called “Millerites”, to a hilltop to pray together through the tribulation that he had figured, based on the book of Daniel, was coming that very afternoon. After their knees became soggy and stiff from praying for something that clearly wasn’t happening, Miller decided that he had simply gotten the year wrong, and so they all trod up the hill again on March 21, 1844, and repeated the whole thing with the same result. This event is recorded in history as “The Great Disappointment.” One source says that at the time, there were about 100,000 adherents, but that many drifted away. Those that remained would form a denomination that we know today as the Seventh-Day Adventists.
The coming Tribulation has been
prophesied in the events leading up to the Civil War, the assassination
of the Arch-Duke Ferdinand, certainly in Hitler, and more recently in
the Cold War. The last “great” dispensationalist writer, Hal Lindsey,
scared a generation with his book, “The Late, Great Planet Earth” in the
1970’s. For Lindsay, writing in the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet
Union and China were the agents of the Antichrist. When the Berlin Wall
fell in 1989, “prophets” like Lindsay had to reconfigure their
apocalyptic calendars to resemble a sort of “Beast of the Month Club”
focused on the international villain du jour.
LaHaye and Jenkins’ particular view of the end of time — the Rapture (when “true Christians” are all instantly taken up into heaven), the seven years of Tribulation for those “left behind,” the creation of one evil world government ruled by the Antichrist, and so forth, are compellingly told. LaHaye makes no bones about his political/theological predictions. For example:
“I wouldn’t be surprised
in today’s geopolitical situation — and I address this in my new book
Babylon Rising, where the United Nations and the European Common Market
will gradually grow together and join other countries of the world
against the United States, and gradually they will move the center of
government to Iraq.”
It’s the “sensationalism” in “premillenial dispensationalism” that sells. Many Christians seem to love the idea that the trials of this world can be escaped with one rapturous pass of the Heavenly Hoover, sucking them up into the great beyond.
It’s the stuff great thrillers are made
of. Good wins out in the end and enemies are left smoldering in the
ashes. It’s no wonder that these prophets are making a profit.
Is the primary theme of our Christian
life, “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off”?
When the church fathers were arguing over what books should be in the canon, many wanted to exclude Revelation. It was St. Augustine who argued for incorporating it, but only if it was read symbolically as the piece of liturgy it was, as a story of the struggle between good and evil. To literalize poetry, and then fictionalize it in the same breath by making a perceived “one world government” into the U.N. and the anti-Christ into the Secretary General is nothing more than all-too carefully constructed paranoia, as most paranoia is.
In Genesis, God creates the world, the humans in it, and calls it “good.” Humans have tried for their whole history to make it less than good through their missing the mark, their corruption, and their own creative ways of messing up what God so freely gave them. The biblical prophets constantly called people back to God and back to the work of being God’s people. They saw, and so will we if we’re looking closely enough, that despite our repeated attempts to the contrary, God is constantly renewing, remaking, and reforming God’s creation; even in the revelation of Jesus Christ, here to give us a lesson on how to properly live in that creation with God and with each other. The story of Christ’s resurrection from the dead is really a validation of that creation — a foretaste of what’s to come, a renewed and resurrected life in a new and resurrected world, the way it was meant to be from the beginning. The church’s role is to be the agent through which God is already at work in the world. John’s revelation simply announces to churches struggling with the task, with opposition on every side, that the work will eventually be completed, whether it’s tomorrow or 10,000 years from now.
But how do we work for a vision of a world in 10,000 years or even 100 years from now, if the metaphors of our faith change so that we accept the idea that there are very real, immutable signs and prophecies that point to a world that will end in our lifetimes, and we do not have to be constructive members of society, in fact, all we have to do is to passively accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and await the trumpet that will lift us up to heaven. If that is true, then our religion depicts a capricious god that creates in order to destroy, and the “saved” need only to convince others that they alone have the truth.
After seeing “Left Behind, the Movie,” I saw a short trailer, in which an actor in the film described two of the other actors as being “great Christians” because they told her about meeting two hungry, homeless people during the filming, and they spent an hour with them witnessing about their faith in Jesus Christ. There’s the difference—wouldn’t great Christians have simply gotten them some food and not talked about what they did afterwards?
World events will continue to happen, and we’ll continue to focus on what we can do — what we’re called and commanded to do: forget about escaping the world and get on with engaging it by being a healing balm. A bumper sticker says, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” The question is, What would Jesus find us busy doing? Will we be caught looking up for signs, or busy doing the work we are supposed to be engaged in? Like his disciples and the great cloud of witnesses before us, will we be found doing the work of the realm of God here and now, making this world more and more into what God created it to be in the first place? Let’s hope so, and let’s begin at this table. AMEN.
1. Left Behind Prophecy Club: http://secure.agoramedia.com/leftbehind/index_leftbehind22.asp
Scripture for Sunday, March 4, 2007
1 Thessalonians 4:13-17
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.
16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.