On the Road to Armageddon -- Review

ON THE ROAD TO ARMAGEDDON: How Evangelical’s became Israel’s Best Friend. By Timothy P. Weber. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004. 336 pp.

Years ago, as a teenager, I came across Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth. This was at the early stages of my spiritual explorations, explorations that led me to leave the Episcopal Church for what I thought was a more biblically-sound church. I took Lindsey’s book, and others like it, very seriously. I didn’t know anything about dispensationalism at the time, so I just assumed that Lindsey’s interpretation was the proper one. To me, the biblical message seemed clear: Jesus was coming soon, and the establishment of Israel as a nation in 1948 was a prominent precursor of his coming to judge the “quick and the dead” (to use an old Episcopal saying). Now, this was 1973 or 1974, not long after Israel had expanded its borders (1967) and defended these new borders (1973). According to what I read in the book, the rapture was supposed to occur within the generation that followed the reestablishment of Israel – as the prophets had foretold. According to Lindsey’s interpretation, a generation was around 40 years. That meant that the end should come sometime around 1988. As you can see, I’m still here, as is Hal Lindsey. If I missed the rapture, then so did he, along with Tim LaHaye, John Hagee, and other dispensationalist preachers.

I could be flippant about dispensationalism, and its claims, but it’s a deadly serious issue. Dispensationalism may not be an ancient form of biblical interpretation, but it has many adherents, and in recent years has gained influence at the highest levels of American government. dispensationalists have, as Timothy Weber contends, become the state of Israel’s best friend. No group, not even the American Jewish community, is as adamant about supporting Israel – right or wrong – as the growing numbers of dispensationalists and Christian Zionists.

On the Road to Armageddon was published in 2004, so this isn’t a review of a recently published book. Indeed, I picked up on the discount rack at the Baker Book House store in Grand Rapids. I had read Weber’s earlier treatise on this subject, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming, (Oxford University Press, 1979; rev. edition Zondervan, 1983), years ago, and so I knew him to be an excellent historian as well as a person of deep faith. He is a critic who is also an evangelical.

I believe that On the Road to Armageddon is necessary reading at this very moment in history. It is readable, scholarly, and informative as to the nature and aims of the dispensationalist movement in America, from its beginnings to the present (as of 2004, that is). Reading it will help us better understand the nature of dispensationalism, and its current interpreters and populizers. He introduces the reader to the context in which books like Late Great Planet Earth and the best selling Left Behind series of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins emerged.

Weber is a historian, and it’s as a historian that he tells the story of dispensationalism, from its origins in 19th century British evangelicalism to the present. The lead character in the early part of the story is John Nelson Darby, who brought into being a new form of millennialism, one that offered a very detailed reading of the future through a system of biblical interpretation. It was premillennial, in an age dominated by postmillennial thinking, which made it pessimistic in an optimistic age. It was born at a time when prophetic movements were in some disrepute – consider the failure of William Miller to accurately predict the coming of Jesus in the 1830s and 40s. Darby had been a Church of Ireland (Anglican) priest who turned to the Plymouth Brethren. There he found a reading of scripture that made sense of prophetic passages that appeared to need fulfillment in the future. Among the theological inventions of Darby was the pretribulation rapture of the church. Darby’s ideas would later be taken up by C. I. Scofield, whose study bible would revolutionize conservative evangelicalism.

Dispensationalism, as a system, Weber suggests, assumes that the Bible is “‘progressive revelation’ through which people could understand the flow and development of God’s ways in the wold over time” (p. 20). One of the important contributions of this book is the way in which Weber lays out dispensationalism as a system. Consider:

“As an exercise in biblical interpretation, dispensationalism sought to present the complexities and apparent contradictions of biblical revelation as a coherent and consistent system. By dividing history into distinctive eras, dispensationalists hoped to understand why the divine-human encounter kept moving in new directions. In short, dispensationalism was an intricate system that tried to explain the stages in God’s redemptive plan for the universe” (p. 20).

This system made much of the prophetic literature, interpreting it in highly predictive and futurist ways. The book of Daniel and the book of Revelation figure prominently, as well as books such as Ezekiel. In their minds, much of this prophetic word has yet to be fulfilled, and that it points to Jesus’ second coming to judge the world and rule. It assumes that God has two plans for humanity, one involving the Jews and the other the Gentiles. The church is the means by which God will reach the Gentiles (and some Jews), but the assumption is that while Israel will eventually accept Jesus as Messiah, that won’t happen until after they go through a horrifying time of tribulation – one that will make Hitler’s holocaust look like child’s play.

The book begins with the history of dispensationalism’s arrival and reception in America (chapter 1), and then moves on to explain its “practical logic” (chapter 2). This is an important chapter because it explains why a pessimistic form of premillennialism, one assumes that the future is written, and that Armageddon is in our future, can at the same time involve themselves in movements social reform and foreign missions. The days may be drawing to a close, but in the meantime, the church can make the devil’s life difficult. It is especially in the area of missions that dispensationalists have been influential. Many of the key leaders in the mission movement at the turn of the 20th century, including Robert Speer, A.T. Pierson, and A.B. Simpson were committed dispensationalists. Dispensationalists were also strongly involved in the creation of the faith mission movement. The world may be perishing, but the word can still be preached.

With its futurist focus, dispensationalists look to the Bible for a roadmap of God’s activity. As they read this text in a dispensationalist fashion, some took a passive approach. They simply waited and watched to see what God might do – you can’t change it, so just watch. Others, however, took a much more active role in pushing the events of the future forward. They watched the signs of the times, and found encouragement (if you can say that) in world events – such as World War I, which seemed to fit well their paradigm. They also were looking for evidence that the Jewish people might return home and reestablish a state and rebuild the Temple. This is where the story gets really interesting, and it’s the story hinted at in the title. That is, the role Israel and the Jews play in this scenario.

For dispensationalists, the Jews are and remain God’s chosen people. They may be experiencing God’s judgment (there is, as Weber notes, a variety of understandings of Israel’s post-70 AD history), but they are the keys to the system. The Jews must return and rebuild their Temple if Jesus is to return. They were hoping for the restoration of Israel long before Zionism was born in the 1890s, but until early in the 20th century, there were very few signs that this was in the offing. There was a small Jewish population in Palestine, but it was ruled by the Ottomans and there was little movement toward resettling there by Europe’s Jews, who were either trying to assimilate or survive by keeping separate from the broader society. Weber does a nice job of introducing us to Zionism, which was and is a movement that gave hope to dispensationalists. While many simply sat back and watched to see what would happen, others sought to influence the process. William Blackstone, for instance, worked hard to help Jews return to Palestine. These early efforts were aided by the Balfour Declaration and the fall of Jerusalem to the British. The British promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine, and they now had the means to bring that to fruition. Unsurprisingly this wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm by the Arabs – both Christian and Muslim – living in the region. But for dispensationalists, this was an answer to prayer. This fit their system.

Although the Jews and Israel figure prominently in the dispensationalist scheme, there is a mixture of views held by them toward Jews themselves. Although, dispensationalists might be Israel’s best friends, that’s not necessarily true of the Jews themselves. In earlier days, many held views that were influenced by anti-Semitism, including the conspiracy theories spun off by the infamous The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Some saw the Jews as standing under judgment for their rejection of Jesus – the idea of Jewish blood guilt. There was also the issue of conversion. Although they believed that surviving Jews would come to faith as a result of the Tribulation, many thought it appropriate to convert as many Jews as possible beforehand. As Weber lays out the issue, we discover that this is a very complicated picture. They “showed their support for Jews by affirming Zionist aspirations and telling them about Jesus, their true Messiah” (p. 127). The dark side to all of this was the ambivalence that dispensationalists showed to Jews themselves.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to exploring the interaction between dispensationalists and the Israelis, how they became supporters and enablers. It is in the 1980s, as conservative Christians began to move out of their previous political passivism and into active participation, they took on the role of advocate for Israel. Figures such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson actively sought out Israeli leaders, and the Israeli’s returned the favor. This was an era in which tour groups were set up to bring in dispensationalists to tour the country, meet and greet, and learn more about dispensationalism – on the ground. Weber makes it clear that these tours steered clear of the Palestinian Christian community, and by and large the dispensationalists had little concern for their Palestinian brothers and sisters. They essentially didn’t count in the prophetic scheme of things. While the Palestinian Christians may have been pushed aside, they were all too eager to encourage, support, and promote the immigration of Jews from Russia and Ethiopia and settling them in the West Bank – which they called Judea and Samaria. All number of institutions were born to sustain this relationship, and it benefitted the Israeli’s politically. At the same time, the growing ambivalence toward the Israeli state on the part of Mainline Protestants gave them greater access to important political figures.

Dispensationalists not only gave their political support to Israel, but many of them became increasingly eager to help things along. That is, rather than passively waiting to see what would happen, they began to encourage and support efforts that might get the ball rolling. Much of this centers around efforts to rebuild a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount. Dispensationalists have been involved at many levels in this regard. Some have simply engaged in and supported archeological efforts to find the location of the original Temple. Others have winked at or encouraged the destruction of the Dome of the Rock, which stands on top of the most likely sight of the Temple (though some have suggested alternative spots where a Temple could be built without destroying the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock). Still others have supported and encouraged the creation of Temple implements, and perhaps most interestingly, have been involved in producing a pure red heifer, which according to some will signal the end. Apparently the ashes of a red heifer are needed to purify those who would go to the Temple Mount and then rebuild the Temple.

The future of the Middle East is at stake. There are elements within Jewish society and the Christian community that would push events to the edge. Any of these efforts would likely inflame an already inflamed situation, especially if someone blew up the Dome of the Rock. If we are to understand and act responsibly, then we need to know the whole story. If we’re to turn to Scripture, then we must interpret it wisely and responsibly. Timothy Weber offers us a most important guide. As he was writing this, George Bush had been just reelected President. We are now at a very similar place, but with a new administration about to take the helm. Now is the time to read this book.


Anonymous said…
[Just now I found this intriguing web article. Reactions? Russ]


How can the "rapture" be
“imminent”? Acts 3:21 says that Jesus “must” stay in heaven (He is now there with the Father) “until the times of restitution of all things” which includes, says Scofield, “the restoration of the theocracy under David’s Son” which obviously can’t begin before or during Antichrist’s reign. Since Jesus must personally participate in the rapture, and since He can’t even leave heaven before the tribulation ends, the rapture therefore cannot take place before the end of the trib! Paul explains the “times and the seasons” (I Thess. 5:1) of the catching up (I Thess. 4:17) as the “day of the Lord” (5:2) (which FOLLOWS the posttrib sun/moon darkening - Matt. 24:29; Acts 2:20) WHEN “sudden destruction” (5:3) of the wicked occurs! (If the wicked are destroyed before or during the trib, who would be left alive to serve the Antichrist?) Paul also ties the change-into-immortality “rapture” (I Cor. 15:52) to the posttrib end of “death” (15:54)! (Will death be ended before or during the trib?) If anyone wonders how long pretrib rapturism has been taught, he or she can Google “Pretrib Rapture Diehards.” Many are unaware that before 1830 all Christians had always viewed I Thess. 4’s “catching up” as an integral part of the final second coming to earth. In 1830 it was stretched forward and turned into a separate coming of Christ. To further strengthen their novel view, which the mass of evangelical scholars rejected throughout the 1800s, pretrib teachers in the early 1900s began to stretch forward the “day of the Lord” (what Darby and Scofield never dared to do) and hook it up with their already-stretched-forward “rapture.” Many leading evangelical scholars still weren’t convinced of pretrib, so pretrib teachers then began teaching that the “falling away” of II Thess. 2:3 is really a pretrib rapture (the same as saying that the “rapture” in 2:3 must happen before the “rapture” ["gathering"] in 2:1 can happen - the height of desperation!). Other Google articles throwing light on long-covered-up facts about the 178-year-old pretrib rapture view include “Famous Rapture Watchers,” “X-Raying Margaret,” “Revisers of Pretrib Rapture History,” “Thomas Ice (Bloopers),” “Wily Jeffrey,” “The Rapture Index (Mad Theology),” “America’s Pretrib Rapture Traffickers,” “Roots of (Warlike) Christian Zionism,” “Scholars Weigh My Research,” “Pretrib Hypocrisy,” “Pretrib Rapture Desperados” and “Deceiving and Being Deceived” - all by the author of the bestselling book “The Rapture Plot” which is available at Armageddon Books online. Just my two cents’ worth.

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