Tag Archives: John Nelson Darby

Biblical Hurricanes

Say what you will about western Pennsylvania, but it was a location fairly safe from natural disasters. My hometown was too far inland for hurricanes to cause much damage. A little too far east for Midwest tornadoes to touch down (mostly). Adequate-to-too-much rain, so wildfires didn’t occur. Not on any fault-lines that invited earthquakes, and volcanoes only thousands of miles away. We did get floods along the rivers during spring, but if you lived up the hill they weren’t much of a personal threat. It felt safe from the big news items of today. Leaving home for the sake of finding work moved me into Tornado Alley for many years, and currently, in New Jersey, in the range of hurricanes now and again. Still reeling from Hurricane Harvey and lack of effective national leadership, Irma is devastating lives, and Jose is in her wake. Then a massive earthquake rocks Mexico. It feels like the apocalypse.

Image credit: NASA, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, many people read the Bible as a linear story from the creation of the world in Genesis to the end of the world in Revelation. They make an obvious set of bookends. Unlike western Pennsylvania, Israel lies on a fault-line that means earthquakes are not uncommon. Droughts occur. And being right on the path between major empires, it was frequently subject to human disasters such as invasions. It was not the most secure place to write a book that would change worldviews for millennia thereafter. What is so fascinating about this is that the message (or more properly, messages) of the Bible gets lost in the conceit that this is somehow a story of the history of the world with lots and lots of pages of preachy stuff between the exciting bits at the beginning and the end.

In times of natural disasters, people turn to the Bible for comfort. There are verses, often pulled from context, that do a fine job of that. Nevertheless, the Bible is an enormously complex text. Of its many books, Genesis and Revelation have had disproportionate influence on society. Any natural disaster big enough can be called “biblical.” Since the time of William Miller and John Nelson Darby, such disasters have been interpreted as heralding the end of the world. It is scary to see the devastation a single hurricane can cause. When it is followed closely by a second, one can’t help feeling a bit like Job. The apocalypse, however, is a misreading of Revelation. The book ends with Heaven on Earth. And if you can find a quiet place to read, you’ll find plenty of unexpected stuff tucked away in the middle. Just don’t take it too literally since that too leads to disasters.

Eleventh Hour

Religion, as many a charlatan knows, makes a very good investment. History has demonstrated time and again that the confident huckster can easily siphon the money from the gullible in the name of God. What follows does not make any assertions about the character of the people involved. It is, however, a fascinating story.

Cyrus Ingerson Scofield did not have an exactly stellar career. He was raised Episcopalian (which may explain some of it), but upon being drafted into the Confederacy during the Civil War, deserted to become a lawyer in St. Louis. Scofield was forced to resign from his law post because of “questionable financial transactions” which may have included forgery. He was a heavy drinker and abandoned his wife and two daughters. The year of his divorce he remarried. Then he had a conversion experience. Conversion is the ultimate clean wiping of the slate. Any life of dissipation may be excused following a religious experience, eh, Augustine? And furthermore, in the sanctified state the motives of the former reprobate are never questioned.

Scofield went on to join the Congregational Church and to grow wealthy from his Scofield Reference Bible, still a perennial seller, despite his lack of formal theological training. This notoriety was largely because Scofield had adopted another unlikely scheme, dispensational premillennialism. This end-time scheme grew out of the work of John Nelson Darby and later evolved into what would be called Fundamentalism. The idea was that the Bible contained an esoteric roadmap to the future, culminating in the book of Revelation, whereby the blessed could figure out exactly how the end of the world would unfold. As a child I bought a literal roadmap to the end of the world, but having survived several such putative apocalypses, I have grown a tad skeptical about the efficacy of my chart.

Any number of religious leaders have a background of self-promotion and more than a whiff of Phineas Taylor Barnum about them. A converted soul, however, is never to be questioned. Cyrus Scofield adopted Archbishop James Ussher’s dating scheme for the creation of the world in 4004 “BC” and placed it in his reference Bible, forever putting the cast of scriptural authority to a date that would come up in court cases even through the twenty-first century in Dayton, Tennessee, Little Rock, Arkansas, Dover, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC, wasting tax-payers’ money on a myth of biblical proportions. Often creationists use “stealth candidates” who don’t exactly tell the truth before school board elections. I don’t doubt the depth of the convert’s belief, but I smell money here. And once upon a time literalists believed that it was the root of all evil.

The reason most Creationists cite 4004 is Scofield...

The reason most Creationists cite 4004 is Scofield…

Contriving the Rapture

In the light of last month’s failed rapture attempt, I decided to read a book that I picked up some years ago that had been written in the wake of the millennial scare. Having grown up with nightmares of the rapture, I learned during my first college class on the book of Revelation that it was relatively modern meme, invented in the nineteenth century. Barbara Rossing’s The Rapture Exposed seemed a good way to refresh my memory without having to go through all those boxes of books in the attic to find my original textbooks. Rossing, a Lutheran minister and New Testament professor, brings to light some very important facts beyond the historical roots of this theological fabrication—facts that should concern religious and secular alike. The rapture was invented by John Nelson Darby, a founder of the Plymouth Brethren and convoluted biblical scholar. Basing his roadmap of the future singularly on Daniel 9, he concocted the rapture to make sense of his apocalyptic epiphany. Drawing diverse sections of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, the Gospel of Matthew, and the book of Revelation together, he mixed thoroughly, half-baked it, and pulled the rapture out of the oven.

The idea caught like wildfire. Today young people who’ve never read the Bible and who’ve seldom attended religious services know what the rapture is. What they do not realize is that nearly all of the Christian tradition rejects it, seeing it for what it is—a Johnny-come-lately of amateur theology that sees the Bible through the lenses of dilettante-sensibilities like those of Michael Drosnin (The Bible Code man). Instead of seriously reading the Bible and trying to understand it, society prefers to see it as a little bit of magic in the midst of our scientific and technical world view. It is a safe place where bits of the supernatural are preserved and that defies rational explanation. Rossing’s book does a good job of exposing the wrong-headedness of LaHaye’s Left Behind conclave, but she overlooks an important feature of this coterie: they have an unconfessed agenda.

The unspoken agenda is best summed up by Lt. Frank Drebin of Police Squad when he says, “blowing away a fleeing suspect with my 44 magnum used to mean everything to me. I enjoyed it, well who wouldn’t?” Rossing misunderstands Fundamentalism when she expresses surprise at the bloodlust present in the Left Behind novels. What she doesn’t take into account is that, as a collective, Fundamentalists thrive on self-righteousness. Feeling the same violent urges that others do—all humans experience violent emotions—they sublimate that aggression and save it for the unrighteous—God’s enemies. When the gloves come off in the apocalypse, that hatred bursts out in good, old-fashioned bloodletting—albeit with combat helicopters and high-tech weaponry. Of the Christians I know who own guns, the Fundamentalists are most avid in their rights to do so. In college I met my first Christian survivalists and I learned that the rapture was a ruse. It is a deadly mix, especially when this warped theology makes it into politics. Although Rossing’s vision of a new earth in the second half of her book may not appeal to everyone, Americans should read at least the first few chapters to learn why the rapture will never occur.