Apocalypse Now

Michael Ennis. The Religious Right: A Reference Handbook. Editor: Glenn H Utter & John W Storey. Millerton, NY: Grey House Publishing, 2007.

Dallas, the state’s mecca of materialism, is the global epicenter of doomsday theology? The end may be nearer than we think.

The public-relations firm that Dallas recently hired to come up with a catchy new slogan for the city probably won’t pick “Athens of the Apocalypse.” Even so, the only thing that sets Dallas apart from other American cities similarly replete with designer museums, five-star restaurants, and edgy little theatrical troupes is its unique end-of-the-world industry.

The city’s eschatological infrastructure is perhaps most evident in its great faith factories, like the Prestonwood Baptist megachurch, in the northern suburb of Plano, where the authors of the best-selling Left Behind series, the Reverend Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, were recently taped by 60 Minutes II flogging their latest book beneath the live-action big screens in the arena-like sanctuary. But megachurches where millions anticipate the Rapture—the instant snatching-up of true believers to meet Jesus in the air—are familiar landmarks across a nation where Armageddon has become as American as baseball and apple pie. What distinguishes Dallas is that the end-times culture so avidly consumed there was also created there: The city that gave us America’s team holds almost exclusive intellectual property rights to a distinctly American-style apocalypse. What might be called the Parousia Prairie (“Parousia” is Greek for “Second Coming”) in and around Dallas is dotted with last-days think tanks, from Mal Couch’s Tyndale Biblical Institute, in Fort Worth, to Thomas Ice’s LaHaye-financed Pre-Trib Research Center, in Arlington, to the Dallas-based ministry of eschatological televangelist Zola Levitt.

These are only theological upstarts, however, compared with a nineteen-building campus in the heart of Dallas, minutes from downtown’s postmodern office towers. Founded in 1924, Dallas Theological Seminary is the Yale of conservative Christianity: DTS graduates preside over dozens of the nation’s top Bible institutes, and thousands more DTS alums head prominent churches. The house doctrine at DTS is a precise end-of-the-world formula known as dispensational premillennialism (because it divides all history into divinely determined ages, or dispensations, and predicts that the Second Coming will precede the Christian millennium, the thousand-year rule of Christ on earth). Almost miraculously, DTS faculty and graduates have transformed this arcane ism into a staple of American life and letters. Decades before the Left Behind series debuted, DTS graduates were selling last-days lit in numbers that presaged the advent of Harry Potter. The list is headed by Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (one of the best-selling books of the late twentieth century) and the 1974 multimillion-seller Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis, by the late John F. Walvoord, DTS’s longtime president.

But DTS wasn’t the beginning of the end in Dallas. The story actually starts with the father of the American Apocalypse, a complicated and evidently conflicted man who came to the city in 1882, when the population had just passed 10,000 and a few of the muddy streets had just been paved with bois d’arc planks. Thirty-nine years old when he took over as probational pastor of Dallas’s tiny First Congregational Church, Cyrus Ingerson Scofield carried hefty baggage: Cashiered after a brief term as attorney general of Kansas amid rumors of influence-peddling, he began a downward spiral that included heavy drinking, allegations of forgery, and the abandonment of his wife and two young daughters. According to his as-told-to hagiography, in 1879 Scofield was challenged to accept Christ as his personal savior by a visitor to his St. Louis law office. Giving the matter “a moment’s thought,” Scofield fell to his knees and was born again—much like the warp-speed conversion of 747 captain Rayford Steele, the hero of the Left Behind series, who accepts Christ immediately after viewing a videotape explaining the instantaneous disappearance of millions throughout the world (it’s the Rapture, stupid).

Cyrus I. Scofield would have recognized the rest of the basic plot behind the twelve-volume series, because the story elements had been formalized much earlier in the nineteenth century by a disaffected Anglo-Irish cleric named John Nelson Darby. Alarmed by various historic assaults on the authority of the church and Scripture (including the American Revolution, which had eschewed a state church), Darby determined to prove that the Bible was not only a literal history of the world but that its apocalyptic books, Daniel and Revelation, were an accurate history of the future. Beginning with the Rapture, Darby detailed a mathematically exact countdown to the end of time.

Scofield, who had come under the influence of Darby’s theories in St. Louis, was an entrepreneurial sort, the kind of innovative merchandiser Dallas has always nurtured. Within a decade of arriving there, he had started his own nationwide Bible correspondence course and had welcomed into his burgeoning congregation many of the city’s most familiar names, including Dallas Morning News publisher George Dealey. But Scofield’s singular work of merchandising genius was a new package for Darby’s theories. Published by the august Oxford University Press in 1909, the Scofield Reference Bible has no real rival as the most influential book ever conceived in Texas. Of course, Scofield didn’t write all of it, but the footnotes and commentaries he embroidered throughout the venerable King James text revolutionized the reading—and the marketing—of the world’s best-selling book.

Scofield wasn’t the first to annotate the Bible, but he was the first to do it in a splashy, graphically sophisticated (for the times) fashion, with Internet-like “chained” references that allowed readers to follow a theme or prophecy as it hopscotched from chapter to chapter and testament to testament. Paying particular attention to Darby’s prophetic timeline, Scofield stitched together thousands of scattered verses into what we would now call a “virtual” narrative: The Rapture, followed by seven years of catastrophic Tribulation, when the Antichrist will rule the earth and billions will die; the Second Coming and the victory over Satan’s minions at Armageddon, which will inaugurate the thou year reign of Christ on earth; the final defeat of Satan; and the Day of Judgment. While turn-of-the-century “modernists” insisted that the Bible was a meandering collection of stories, part history and part allegory, Scofield presented the carefully plotted work of a single divine author, dictated to 44 amanuenses over twenty centuries—a taut theological thriller conceived entirely in the mind of God.

The Scofield Reference Bible changed the course of American faith. Armed with Scofield’s study aids, premillennialists headed an alliance of conservative Presbyterians and Baptists intent on defending the inerrancy of Scripture against the modernists. Though by the early twenties their movement had been labeled Fundamentalism, they were at heart Scofieldians, their bible the Scofield Reference Bible, whose total sales are now in the tens of millions. Scofield, who died in 1921, didn’t live to see Fundamentalism flourish, much less become a political steamroller later in the century. But after his death, his closest disciple, Lewis S. Chafer, founded Dallas Theological Seminary and dedicated it to his mentor’s end-of-the-world view.

Scofield also left a potent political legacy. The first to say that ancient ciphers like Gog and Magog actually refer to modern powers like Russia, he also insisted that the as-yet-unfulfilled promises God had made to Israel—including restoring its biblical borders—amounted to unpaid cosmic debts that God would have to settle before he could bring history to its conclusion. The birth of modern Israel, in 1948, began a mutually cynical dalliance between premillennialists and the Jewish state: If Scofield’s biblical prophecy unfolds, after dutifully doing the spadework for Christ’s millennial reign (he will rule from the rebuilt Jerusalem Temple), millions of Jews will die horribly in the Tribulation, with a fractional “remnant” spared to convert and witness the Second Coming. Most recently, suspicions that the Bush administration’s faith-based Mideast policies have unduly submitted to premill pressures—principally in favoring the Israeli right, which is adverse to trading biblical lands for peace—have been aired in sources as friendly as the Dallas Morning News. But perhaps more telling of premill political clout are our president’s less-public supplications; one of the first things candidate Bush did after announcing in 1999 was to submit his born-again bona fides to the low-profile but high-impact Council for National Policy. Co-founded by the finger-in-every-pie LaHaye (who also co-founded the Moral Majority with Jerry Falwell), the CNP is a who’s who of the religious right, where premill theologians can confab with like-minded politicos such as House majority leader Tom DeLay (Attorney General John Ashcroft, a premill Pentecostal, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson resigned their memberships before joining the president’s Cabinet).

A runaway winner in both the marketplace and the marketplace of ideas, Scofield’s American Apocalypse combines a New Agey, Lord of the Rings mythological sprawl with an admirable logical consistency: For Americans who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God—that would be a third of us—Scofield’s often tortuous last-days chronology brilliantly reconciles all the sweeping promises and often feverish predictions that God and his anointed spokespersons make throughout the Bible. Scofield’s theology also “solves” evil, in that the biblical prophecies prove that God won’t allow an evil world to go on much longer; from the very beginning, he’s had an exit strategy.

But when you really crunch the numbers, the moral calculus of our American Apocalypse doesn’t add up. Forget the thousands of devout Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and just plain secularists who will die as driverless cars career across freeways and planes with raptured flight crews plunge from the sky; billions more nonbelievers are prophesied to die in the Tribulation. Compassionately, the premills explain that everyone will have the option to convert and be saved and that only the wicked will turn away from Christ when his truth is so visibly manifest. But in the end, the freedom of religious expression that our founding fathers guaranteed us will narrow to just two choices: Accept Christ as your personal savior or spend eternity in a lake of fire. For the tens of millions of Americans who believe the world will end the way the Bible says, this last-days holocaust isn’t religious mythology; it’s the inescapable truth. For the millions of children who are being raised with these beliefs (or are reading the series Left Behind: The Kids), it’s their idea of the future. We are duly horrified by the convert-or-die edicts of Islamic militants, but evidently no one dares call it religious extremism—or just political hypocrisy—when the leaders of our war against terror pander to the proselytes of a similarly draconian final solution.

So we cheerfully wait for the end, living large on the edge of time, absorbing the cult of the last things into our culture of things. Cyrus I. Scofield was the paradigm in that respect as well; while finishing up the last Bible we’ll ever really need, the Dallas pastor was apparently contemplating his royalties, confessing in a letter his expectations of owning three homes—in New York City, New Hampshire, and Sorrento, Italy. A worldly man who sailed frequently to Europe, he probably appreciated the irony of his own success.

He may even have glimpsed the real irony of his magnum opus. While apocalyptic visions are among the most venerable literary traditions in Judeo-Christian culture, these revelations of God’s plan were always written by and for history’s losers, tiny bands of powerless and persecuted Jews and Christians praying only for justice in the end. And because they could inspire a reckless conviction of divine empowerment, such prophecies were traditionally sealed, to be read only by the wisest elders. When Scofield began to mass-market the end of the world in Dallas a century ago, he actually created a rip in the fabric of civilization: an apocalypse unsealed in the malls and mega-churches of history’s most prosperous and powerful winners, with consequences we are powerless to foresee.