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No End in Sight Correspondence

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By Virgil - Posted on 08 April 2003

The following comments are in response to Carl E. Olson's article No End in Sight found here on our website. These comments provide interesting insight on the dispensationalist movement and the implications that it has on believers, schools, society and Church in general.I read with considerable interest Carl E. Olson’s essay on the apocalyptic fever of Tim LaHaye’s vast readership (“No End in Sight,” November 2002). Mr. Olson’s description is more charitable towards this religious spasm than is mine. However, he makes one grotesque blooper when he identifies Fuller Theological Seminary as a “longtime dispensationalist stronghold.” Where has Mr. Olson been for the last three decades and more? George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism points out in close detail the abandonment of this temper in the early days of Fuller, and as a consequence the seminary (of which I am an alumnus of the second entering class) has been the chief critic and opponent of dispensationalism.

David H. Wallace

Newport Beach, California

While Carl E. Olson needs to rethink a few details in his revisionist account of the history of dispensationalist thought—including the role of Fuller Seminary—he does score some interesting points against the movement’s popularizers. I wonder, though, whether there isn’t some reason for at least a little bit of generosity in assessing what these folks are getting at.

Olson makes much, for example, of the fact that dispensationalism’s popularity “does not exist despite its pessimism, it feeds off it.” Fair enough. But why is that such a bad thing? Dispensationalism emerged in a late–nineteenth–century cultural climate where liberal Protestants and many Roman Catholics were enamored of the myth of inevitable progress. The magazine that still calls itself the Christian Century was founded during that period on the conviction that the twentieth century would indeed be a “Christian century” where humankind would see significant new manifestations of peace and righteousness in the world. In contrast, the dispensationalists were predicting a century of widespread warfare and oppression. Which group of Christians best prepared their offspring for the century that was to come? If a Reinhold Niebuhr can be praised for encouraging Christians to incorporate a good dose of pessimism in their historical expectations, why should dispensationalists be criticized for feeding a bit on a pessimism that is already there?

Furthermore, whatever our aesthetic and theological misgivings about the Left Behind phenomenon, we do the Christian community no favors by failing to take an honest and sympathetic look at the underlying apocalypticism to which such novels respond. Indeed, the basic concerns of dispensationalist popularizers are not all that far removed from the popular Roman Catholic fascination with the apocalyptic themes associated with, say, the Fatima prophecies.

Now that Carl Olson has let off some steam about the Bible prophecy industry, maybe he can relax a bit and take on the assignment of calmly exploring the deeper hopes and fears that lead so many Christian people to buy Tim LaHaye’s novels. And while he is at it, he might also pay some attention to the way in which many of his fellow Catholics ponder the apocalyptic details provided by shepherd children who tell the world what they have learned from Marian apparitions.

Richard J. Mouw

President and Professor of Christian Philosophy

Fuller Seminary

Pasadena, California

Carl E. Olson’s critique of dispensationalism is an article of the type that is long overdue in the pages of a respected theological journal. I have long wondered why serious Christian thinkers, Catholic and Protestant alike, have not given more time to debunking this errant eschatological scheme.

Olson is correct in saying that “dispensationalism’s discontinuity with centuries of Christian teaching is being exposed.” However, while this may be increasingly apparent to those who devote a great deal of their vocational time to the serious study of those teachings, it is not so apparent to the millions of unsuspecting Christian laity who, having been so taken by the writings of Lindsey, LaHaye, et al., often dismiss those “centuries of Christian teaching” as “traditions of men.” Such a dismissive attitude toward Christian orthodoxy, fueled by a supposed adherence to “biblical literalism,” is an obstacle to genuine unity in the Body of Christ. It must be overcome through a concerted and sustained effort not only to expose the errors of dispensationalism, but also to present the Truth in such a way that its message of hope and the ultimate triumph of righteousness will silence all the scoffers.

(The Rev.) James A. Gibson

Marshallville United Methodist Church

Marshallville, Georgia

Carl E. Olson replies:
First, I thank Mr. Wallace for pointing out my lamentable gaffe regarding the doctrinal persuasions of Fuller Theological Seminary. I suppose it is not as bad as Tim LaHaye’s statement that the Catholic practice of “burning candles” is a sign of apostasy, but it is regrettable, and I acknowledge my error.

Professor Mouw alludes to problems with “a few details” in my article and Mr. Larsen states that my study is “filled with factual errors.” Unfortunately, neither of them provides actual examples (save my reference to Fuller, but one error does not warrant the descriptive “filled”). In addition, they emotionally chastise me for being emotional about this topic. Since we appear to be at a standstill on that front, I’ll focus on the facts.

Prof. Mouw refers to my account of dispensationalist history as “revisionist.” How so? Again, no examples are given. Regardless, I do agree that nineteenth–century dispensationalists reacted against liberal Christian movements––as my article indicates, the movement has always been reactionary. And it is true that predictions by nineteenth–century dispensationalists of a century of warfare and oppression came to fruition. But being correct about some details does not legitimize the underlying theological premises of the movement, namely, its low ecclesiology and fatalistic view of history. There is a significant difference between saying man is fallen and prone to warfare, and saying that mankind is completely depraved, absolutely doomed, and destined for a rapidly approaching cataclysm. I would suggest that neither naive liberalism (as it existed in the late 1800s) nor despairing dispensationalism prepared their offspring well for the twentieth century.

A more proper perspective, embraced by the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestants, is that man is wounded by sin, but is still capable of good. History is neither an inevitable progression to utopia nor a fatalistic spiral into destruction, but a path filled with conflict between good and evil. Today’s secular idealist declares, “There is nothing to fear,” and popular dispensationalists state, “There is much to fear!” Meanwhile, the voice of reason agrees with our Lord, “Be not afraid!” Pope John Paul II, of course, uttered these words at the start of his pontificate.

The Left Behind books undeniably tap into a deep well of “underlying apocalypticism,” especially if by that we mean the natural human desire to have certainty and assurance in a world that is filled with chaos and sin. This yearning reveals itself in many ways, including, as Prof. Mouw notes, various Catholic movements that sometimes fail to understand private revelation in the context of public revelation and Church teaching. The fact that there are pessimistic and apocalyptic–minded Catholics does not prove anything about dispensationalism, but says much of the dangers of straying from the norms of Scripture, Tradition, and authoritative teaching.

My book Will Catholics Be Left Behind? (to be published this spring) does address in detail the reasons why books such as the Left Behind novels sell so well and why forms of dispensationalism continue to be so popular in America. It is difficult to gauge the numbers, but I have no doubt that the percentage of conservative Protestants who embrace some form of dispensationalism is far higher than the percentage of Catholics who adhere to apocalyptic visions based upon Marian apparitions. After all, the best–selling nonfiction book of the past thirty years is Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), and the Left Behind books are the all–time best–selling works of Christian fiction. Sales of Catholic books with apocalyptic themes pale in comparison.

Mr. Larsen’s letter begins with an ad hominem attack and then regresses from there. I did not, in fact, imply that Darby invented futurism. Rather, I stated that Darby “constructed the premillennial dispensational system,” which is a specific and unique form of millenarianism and futurism. Mr. Larsen makes the mistake of equating millennialism with dispensationalism, when the latter is actually a particular type of the former. Yes, many of the early Church Fathers were millenarians, and so were some later Catholics and Protestants. But the early Church Fathers never embraced the central premises of dispensationalism, including the radical dichotomy between Israel and the Church and the resulting two peoples of God, one earthly and one heavenly in nature and mission.

Several Catholics throughout history have proposed unique end–time scenarios. The Catholic Church has rejected many of these ideas, both implicitly and explicitly. Some of Joachim of Fiore’s ideas were officially condemned by the Fourth Lateran Council, while Lacunza, a renegade Jesuit who held to a form of the pre­tribulational Rapture, was openly at odds with the Church on many counts. What the Catholic Church has officially taught is that “the Church must pass through a final trial” and will do battle with the Anti­christ (see Catechism of the Catholic Church §675). The Church has also clearly rejected all forms of millenarianism (whether secular or religious), describing such attempts as “falsification[s] of the kingdom” (CCC §676).

Mr. Larsen seems to think that I am opposed to any speculation about the last moments of the world. In fact, my biggest concern with dispensationalism is its misuse of Scripture in the service of seriously flawed forms of Christology and ecclesiology. These, in turn, result in a sensationalized eschatology that often relies on fear, anger, and vengeance to motivate and move adherents.

Finally, I thank Pastor Gibson for his kind remarks. He asks why serious Christian thinkers so often ignore dispensationalism. I believe it is because they misjudge its tremendous influence and impact on millions of Americans, they do not understand the underlying premises and logical conclusions of the dispensational system, and they believe it is a fringe movement on its deathbed. I hope that my article and book might correct some of these misconceptions.

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