Forget the Zombies, It’s a Bible Apocalypse

Kirk Cameron as Buck Williams

Ask Kirk Cameron.  One of the most compelling parts of a Biblical worldview is its clear explanation of the future.  And that future isn’t too rosy, at least for those outside of the charmed circle of Biblical Christianity.

How are those of us outside this circle to understand this prophetic tradition?  We might start by trying to understand the ways some conservative Protestants read the Bible.  After all, if one believes in an inerrant Bible, one is encouraged to interpret its words in the most obvious sense.  The dangers, in this tradition of Bible interpretation, come when readers exalt their own understanding higher than the words of Scripture.

And the most obvious interpretation of some Biblical books, such as Daniel and Revelation,  is that they are prophecies of what is to come.

One of Clarence Larkin’s dispensational charts (1919)

Through a few quirks of history—though, of course, no Bible Christian would likely consider them accidental—one interpretation of these prophecies has come to exert an outsized influence on conservative evangelical Protestant belief in 20th­­- and 21st-century America.  This interpretation, burdened with the cumbersome name “dispensational premillennialism,” has become the dominant form of understanding Bible prophecy among the subset of evangelicals who call themselves small-f fundamentalists.

For those like me–outside of this tradition but trying to understand it–it is well worth our time to read some of the terrific academic histories out there.  The late Paul Boyer, of my alma mater, wrote a wonderful introduction to prophecy belief for outsiders.  Writing from closer to the tradition, Timothy Weber also offered a great guide to the history of this theology.  George Marsden also included a helpful introduction in his now-classic history of fundamentalism and American culture.

However, none of these terrific academic studies has reached the kind of audience that the prophecies themselves have claimed.  Just as the Bible’s continuing popularity must tell us something about the nature of popular religious belief in Fundamentalist America, so the popularity of rapture theology must hold some lessons.

In 1970, Hal Lindsey authored a runaway bestseller explaining this interpretation of the end days.  The Late Great Planet Earth sold millions of copies.  The book explained the themes of dispensational premillennial theology in an engaging and convincing way.  Lindsey and co-author Carole Carlson mapped the predictions of Daniel and Revelation onto world events of the 1970s.  As had generations of prophecy writers before him, Lindsey insisted that the world was entering the last days described to John in his Revelation.

A generation later, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins repeated this feat with their Left Behind series.  Beginning in the late 1990s, this fictionalized apocalypse told the story of end times, as understood by dispensational premillennialists.  The series sold millions of copies, and soon spun off an empire of related products, including a kids’ version and the movie starring Kirk Cameron.

What does the wild popularity of these books and their apocalyptic messages tell us about Fundamentalist America?  One danger would be to assume that all of the millions of readers embraced the theology of rapture and Biblical apocalypse.  It seems unlikely that all the readers of these books included themselves in the roll of Bible believers.  Just as the popularity of Harry Potter does not imply an increase in the belief in magic, so the popularity of these books does not necessarily mean a huge bump in belief in this apocalyptic tradition.  Nevertheless, conservative evangelical Protestants since the 1920s have argued for the importance of this particular way of understanding the Bible.  These books helped cement that understanding in the popular imagination.

For many readers, whether or not they buy into the entire theology, The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind books tell THE Biblical story of the last days, not just one interpretation.

For those of us hoping to understand the nature of Fundamentalist America, the books are worth reading.  As long as we avoid the trap of thinking that these books are the last word in what conservative religious people really think, this vision of the nature of reality can go a long way to decoding some traditional shibboleths of the Fundamentalist tradition, such as the dangers of the United Nations and the importance of a strong Israel.

In each case, the politics of today and tomorrow have been explained thousands of years in advance.  As Revelation explains, the Antichrist will appear as the savior of humanity.  He will unite nations into one humanitarian global government.  All will appear obviously to the good.  For dispensational premillennialists, this prophecy provides fodder for an unyielding campaign against internationalism.  In the United States, this tradition has fueled an intense animosity toward organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations.  Again, we must not assume too much.  Not every conservative anti-internationalist has based his or her opposition on Biblical prophecy.  But among those who do, that opposition takes on more weight than simple policy considerations.  The fight against internationalization becomes, for some Bible believers, a literal cosmic battle of Good vs. Evil.  Understanding those roots will guide us in understanding the sometimes-puzzling international policies of some religious conservatives.

As reporter Buck Williams of the Left Behind series might explain, doubt and skepticism must end with the Rapture.  After that, the only option left for a dedicated Tribulation Force is to fight tooth and nail against the scheming Evil of Carpathia and His Global Community.

Further reading:

  • Timothy Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming: American Premillennialism, 1875-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979);
  • Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992);
  • George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006);
  • Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, The Left Behind Series (Tyndale House, 1995-2007);
  • Hal Lindsey and C.C. Carlson, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970).