That was one of the closing lines of a keynote address given by Prof Crawford Gribben of the School of History and Anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast, at the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions (ISASR) Conference at UCD (10-12 May 2013). ISASR is a relatively young association, with this just its second annual meeting. Its theme was ‘Ireland, America and Transnationalism: Studying Religions in a Globalised World.’
In a wide-ranging talk that referenced the Simpsons, the Left Behind novels, evangelical conferences at Powerscourt, the Scofield Reference Bible and, of course, the end of the world, Gribben traced the influence of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), a curate in the Church of Ireland parish of Delgany, Co. Wicklow, and his influence on premillennial dispensationalist theology, especially in the United States.
Many readers of this blog will already be aware of the intricacies of premillennial dispensationalism (or even grown up in it, if they are from an American evangelical background). Indeed, this was the primary theological approach adopted in Baptist churches I attended in New England in the early part of my own life. Its key concepts include:
- The Rapture – when Christian believers are air-lifted from earth to heaven to be with Jesus before a period of judgment on the earth. Non-believers will be ‘left behind.’
- The Tribulation – a seven year period when the earth is judged with a series of signs and wonders, with much death and suffering. The ‘Left Behind’ series of novels, which Gribben said have been read by one in nine Americans, detail what it will be like to live during this time. At the end of the Tribulation, Christ returns to usher in a 1000 year reign
- The Millennium – Christ’s 1000 year reign of peace on the earth with his saints
- Armageddon – a final, apocalyptic last battle when Satan is again loosed, but Christ and his forces prevail, leading to the creation of a new heaven and a new earth
Dispensationalists take much of their justification for these ideas from the books of Revelation and Daniel, seeing them as literal predictions of the end of the world.
Indeed, in my early years I didn’t realize that for thousands of years Christians from most other traditions had alternative readings of these books, among them that the book of Revelation was commentary on the Roman Empire under which Christians had been oppressed.
Quite apart from a youngster like myself growing up in America unaware of alternative interpretations, Gribben noted that many of dispensationalism’s apocalyptic ideas have passed into mainstream American culture and politics.
These include an approach to Middle Eastern politics in which it is assumed conflict will continue in the Middle East until The Anti-Christ appears (so why try and resolve it peacefully?), Israel must be supported without qualification, and that – as Ronald Reagan believed – Revelation’s fiery prophecies about the end of the world include nuclear destruction.
Gribben noted that the prevalence of such beliefs in the US is what made the Simpson’s episode ‘Thank God it’s Doomsday’ culturally effective.
It would probably be surprising for most Americans (and Irish) to realize that dispensationalism has its roots in rural Wicklow, in the mind of a privileged member of the Anglo-Irish elite who had an evangelical conversion experience after a riding accident in 1827.
After this, Darby increasingly identified himself with the Brethren movement and its anti-ecclesial, anti-establishment approach.
As such, Gribben argued that the apocalyptic nature of dispensationalism can be linked to the turbulent experiences of Ireland’s Protestant Ascendancy in the 19th Century, and their sense that their whole world was being shaken. Darby propagated his ideas through conferences in Powerscourt and had some followers in Ireland, but it was the US where his ideas really took off. Gribben said this is because ‘millennial beliefs’ have always been ‘closer to the mainstream’ in the US than in Ireland.
But even if dispensationalism looks today like purely an American phenomenon, Gribben said that it is important to remember that Darby’s discourses grew out of a particularly Irish ‘historical, national and political’ context and were ‘tied to the Ascendancy’s fortunes.’ The ‘Irishness of this system,’ he added, ‘is rarely acknowledged.’
Gribben also noted similarities in style, and even content, in our contemporary period between some evangelical fundamentalists and Islamists, arguing for ‘a convergence of these eschatological theologies.’
Gribben said that some Islamists were even using Hal Lindsey’s best-selling dispensationalist novel The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) to help understand the bible and inform their own Islamist eschatology.
It is concerning, if not alarming, to have to competing (but apparently similar) ideologies that assume that violence will bring an end to the world – with their side ‘winning’, of course.