Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: premillenialism

Things were going well for us

The Mennonite congregation in Moose Jaw was small, but we found the people warm and friendly. Being small, they overlooked the fact that we had not been baptized in the way they believed (immersion) and put us to work in the congregation.

One Sunday I was teaching the adult Sunday School class and one of the questions in the lesson, or rather the way the others ansered it, startled me. The question began with the scenario of a young couple that felt called to go to the mission field and seemed ideally qualified in every way, except they did not have a university degree. And the mission board required candidates to have a degree. What should they do? Look for a different opportunity to do mission work, or go to university and get the degree? Everyone in the class, except me, thought they needed to get that degree. I couldn’t grasp how that was supposed to help them be missionaries. But these people were almost all teachers or other professionals and seemed to feel that a degree trumped all other qualifications.

This was the time that Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth, was at the peak of its popularity. The pastor decided it would be a great idea to use it for Bible study through the winter, taking turns meeting in each other’s homes. I was fully bought into the premillenial scheme and beleived we were delving into deep Bible truths. I was dumbfounded when spring came and the pastor told me he didn’t believe the premillenial scheme. He had just thought that the book was a good way to get people interested in studying the Bible.

I don’t remember what Bible translation the pastor used, but it seemed that almost everyone in the congregation was using a different translation. I had accumulated a few different Bibles by that time and had been spending a lot of time comparing passages in them to discover the underlying meaning. It dawned on me one day that comparing Bible translations was not Bible study, it was just an exercise in confusion. By that time I had left my old tattered AV (KJV) Bible behind somewhere, so I had to get a new one.

Shortly thereafter I was leading a Bible study class based on Psalm 22. Each one in the class had their own favourite translation and it was bewildering to find that in none of the others could one discern any hint of a prophecy of the crucifiction. For instance, instead of “they have pierced my hands and my feet,” other versions said things like “wild beasts are clawing at my hands and my feet,” or “they have hacked off my hands and my feet.”

Such things left me with questions, but good things were happening in this church, too. An older lady, the mother of one of the memebers, began to have recurring dreams that pointed her to a verse in the Bible. She decided she should read that verse and it led to her conversion. She left the mainline Protestant denomination she had belonged to all her life and was baptized in the little Mennonite church.

Chris got a job as a cook in a large privately owned senior’s residence. The owner was from the community where my mother had grown up and had been acquainted with the family. The head cook was an elderly Belgian lady, crusty and warm-hearted. Chris found it an enjoyable place to work.

I applied for a job in the Post Office, passed the exam and the interview and was hired as a casual postal clerk. That meant I had no guarantee from week to week that there would be work for me, but it actually turned out to be full time work for six months until I was hired on to full time staff.

Everything seemed to be working out for us, Moose Jaw felt like our old home town, we had family and friends there. Our work schedules were such that we usually didn’t work at the same time, one of us was usually available to look after our growing girl. We had moved into the upstairs suite in my parent’s house and Grandma was delighted to help look after and entertain Michelle.

What could go wrong?

Evangelical hubris

[The following paragraphs are quoted from Less Than Conquerors: How Evangelicals Entered the Twentieth Century, by Douglas W. Frank, copyright 1986 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.]

I suspect that the wildfire growth of premillennialism in the decades after the Civil War really represented a bold move on the part of evangelicals to recapture their control of history.  Sandeen puts it succinctly: premillennialists believed “that this whole panorama of coming glory and judgment was specifically foretold in the prophecies where one could, if taught by the spirit, discover the truth and be ready for the coming of the bridegroom.”  This meant that for premillennialists there could be no surprises.  They had a line on the future, and that line allowed them to place under their own intellectual or spiritual control every event that might transpire in the last days.  Was evil on the increase?  Of course, premillennial doctrine predicted it.  Was Christian civilization threatened by “religious formalism, adulterous friendships with the world, waning of faith, tyranny, anarchy, general revolution?”  Naturally—any Bible reader would have come to expect it.  Were families disintegrating?  Yes, they were—and it would only get worse until Christ returned.

One can see how easily the fears of losing control were thus transformed into claims of possessing control.  To premillennialists looking for the return of the Lord, bad news was essentially good news.  The worse things got, the nearer their reward approached.  No evil could befall the world that they had not predicted and they could not welcome. . . .

But for most evangelicals who sought such control, premillennialism alone was insufficient.  Sometime during the 1880s and 1890s, it seems, most evangelicals also adopted dispensationalism.  This doctrinal system was the brainchild of one of the founders of the Plymouth Brethren movement in England, John Nelson Darby, who brought it to North America on seven different occasions between 1862 and 1877.  It is Darby’s premillennialism, specifically, that we must examine if we are to understand the extent of the evangelical drive to regain control of history. . . .

In America, at least through to the end of the nineteenth century, the absence of a formal religious establishment led evangelicals like Moody to think primarily of society—and not the church itself—as a wrecked vessel.  But in Britain a close formal identification existed between the church and the culture.  In addition, Darby felt that the established church was implicated in his own lack of spiritual power and his works-orientation in the days before his deliverance.  These facts led to a slightly different articulation of the declining times.  Darby’s own words were: “The church is in ruins.”  His extensive and detailed indictment of the church did not, however, lead him to a call for reform.  In his opinion, the church was beyond repair.  Believers might better forsake the established church and separate themselves from this embodiment of evil, keeping their worship pure by assembling instead in small groups where, without ritual or hierarchy, they could symbolize the unity of the church in Christ Jesus.  As Darby expressed it, “it is positively stated (2 Tim. iii) that the church would fail and become as bad as heathenism, and the Christian is directed to turn away from evil and turn to the Scriptures, and Christ (Rev.  Ii and iii) is revealed as judging the state of the churches. . . .”

This is a very different picture from the then fashionable one of the church of Jesus Christ marching forth triumphantly to spread the gospel and inaugurate the millennium.  Far from being the agency of Christ’s victory, the church has become in Darby’s hands the clearest sign of apostasy, subject to God’s judgment. . . .

I tend to think that it was just this quality of dispensationalism—its rationalistic neatness and systematic comprehensiveness—that recommended it to evangelicals who, during the perilous times at the turn of the nineteenth century, were casting about for some new means to bring history under their control.  Dispensationalism assumed the Bible to be a thinly disguised guidebook to human history: all one needed in order to decode its message and thus acquire God’s master scheme, according to dispensationalists, was a commitment to a commonsense, literalistic reading of Scripture and the assumption that Israel and the church were two very distinct entities.  Using these tools, one could essentially take Scripture apart, verse by verse, and rearrange it into a tight, coherent system of truth—one, for example, that could be displayed graphically on a carefully drawn chart and hung in the front of the church auditorium for all the faithful to see.

My Introduction to Bible Prophecy

One Sunday in the fall of 1971, it was announced to the congregation of the Mennonite Church in Carman, Manitoba that bishop D.D. Klassen would be leading a Bible study on prophecy over the winter months.  I was a new Christian and of course I wanted to learn more about the Bible. Thus, each Wednesday evening through the winter months, Chris and I with our baby girl made the 25 km trip from our home in Sperling to  Carman to take it in.

Bishop Klassen began by telling us how Jesus the Messiah had come to establish a literal earthly kingdom of God, but the Jewish people had rejected Him as their king.  This had caused a postponement in the divine plan for Israel, a gap between the 69th and 70th weeks of Daniel’s prophecy.  The church was just an interim measure until Jesus the Messiah would return to set up His kingdom.

Before that could happen, the Christians would need to be taken out of the way by secret event called the rapture.  Then would come the long delayed 70th week and the Great Tribulation.  This would all be precipitated by the appearance of the Antichrist, a leader of all the powers of wickedness in this world who would set up a one world government.   Coming from such a well-respected, older leader, I drank it all in and accepted it as undisputed Bible truth and a trustworthy background to events that were then taking place in the Middle East.

Being a voracious reader, I began buying books on prophecy. I read John F. Walvoord, Dwight Pentecost, Lewis Sperry Chafer and many others. It surprised me a little to find differences between these writers in how they applied the prophecies to present and future events. One of Chafer’s books had been written just before the Second World War and confidently identified Benito Mussolini as the Antichrist. I certainly wondered about that. What disturbed me a little more was Chafer’s statement that the call to repentance was only for the Jews, because they had rejected Jesus as their king. Gentiles only had to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ in order to be saved, no repentance needed.

I remembered that my father had always listened to Ernest C. Manning on Canada’s National Back to the Bible Broadcast on Sunday mornings, so I began tuning in to that, too. Mr. Manning taught much the same doctrine as the books that I had read, except that he saw Russia and the communist menace everywhere in the prophetic Scriptures.

I bought a Scofield Reference Bible and followed all the notes that interpreted what the Bible really meant.  I drank it all in, though I remember wondering about some of his interpretations of the parables of Jesus that seemed to turn the meanings upside down.

A couple of years later, we were attending a Mennonite Brethren church in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. This was at the time that The Late, Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey hit the market. Our pastor seized upon this as the ideal material for a winter Bible study. So once again we studied the gap in Daniel’s 70 weeks, the postponement of the kingdom and the whole dispensational doctrine. When it was all over, the pastor told me privately that he didn’t believe that doctrine, but he had thought it was a good means to get people interested in studying the Bible.

What? He didn’t believe it! How could that be? Wasn’t this the only possible meaning of the prophetic Scriptures? How could I have confidence in a pastor who didn’t believe what was clearly taught in the Bible?

Or was it? A niggling little doubt began to gnaw at my certitude. But I was so emotionally invested in this doctrine that I felt that my whole faith would fall to pieces if I let go of dispensationalism.

Then I met Christians who believed all that the Bible taught and found that they did not see dispensationalism anywhere in the Bible.

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