Trump’s formal speech to the United National Assembly this week was a work of almost pure fiction, tho’ applauded by his far-right peers. His demand that “nations look after their own”, proselytising in favour of tight immigration controls, nationalism and protectionism to defend his racist America First manifesto had deeper echoes in the religious creed by which he was raised, and his electoral appeal to the Evangelical purists of the USA.
A radio programme about “The Rapture” then reminded me about the Millennialists. Evangelicals around the world, and particularly in the USA, subscribe to a belief in notions of Armageddon and the Rapture. Their overtly emotional church services seek to produce sensations of elation and euphoria to emulate the sensations of everlasting rapture in the presence of Jesus Christ.
Like all religious beliefs, the Rapture was originally conceived of and written down by a mortal human being. In this case an Anglican Priest in Ireland, John Nelson Darby, developed the idea in the 19th Century. In short, it is one particular prediction of what might take place in the “End Times” of the material World, allegedly predicted in the Christian Bible should you care to be extraordinarily selective of text and verse.
In Darby’s vision, “True Believers” will be spirited away by Jesus Christ at the point of Armageddon, also known as “The Tribulation”, to enjoy The Rapture whilst those of us left on Earth will suffer seven years of pain and horror. After this, the True Believers will come back, inherit the Earth and enjoy one thousand years – “The Millenia” – of unbridled Happiness by God’s Grace.
There is a difference of opinion about exactly when Christ will return to save the Righteous. At the point of “The Tribulation” – a dramatic event from which it is obvious that the “End Times” have begun – some believe Christ will be on Earth to lead the righteous, others that he will return after the thousand years of happiness. This offers some the opportunity to proclaim themselves as the Son of God Returned, but that’s a side issue more useful in an essay on mental health.
Those who follow notions of Armageddon believe that the Bible is literal, conveys human history accurately, describes what is yet to come, and that the future is pre-determined. For the vast majority of us who feel little or no power or control over our own lives, the pre-determinist idea that “it’s meant to be” feels deeply reassuring and is easily accommodated to detract from the far more disturbing notions that our lives may be being horribly exploited, oppressed and confined.
People have always sought reassurance about The Future. In addition, the very experience of being a sentient human being demands that we rage against our own mortality. Life feeds a desire for everlasting life, even if we’re suffering the pain of subsistence. Surely, after all our travails there must be something more than this?
In historical periods of huge social upheaval where the future appears unwritten, such as the current evidence of a coming Climate Catastrophe, predictive texts about potential salvation become particularly reassuring. The common sense of powerlessness certainly invokes notions of “what will be will be”, “it’s just how it is”, “the Universe is speaking”, and “the Earth will readjust itself irrespective of us”. It is easy to resign ourselves to Fate and the passivity of predestination.
The Book of Revelations in the New Testament relate to the prophesies of the Books of Daniel andEzekiel in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. Together they offer readers ideas about what might happen in the Future, and ultimately to humanity.
Of course, belief systems are thoroughly impregnated and determined by the individual person’s emotional condition and consequent interpretation of the material world. We believe what feels right at the time, which is why beliefs can and do change, not least because of material changes to our circumstances. As the socialist, Karl Marx, suggested, social being determines social consciousness.
The Millennialist, John Nelson Darby was a far-right wealthy Conservative with links to the high-Tory anti-democratic dynastic families the 1800’s. He was a strict Protestant Calvinist believing humans are born in Sin, shaped by God-given inequality, and can only achieve salvation and life everlasting through Jesus Christ. He interpreted the coming End of Times according to the turbulence of the period in which he lived – the 1820’s to 1890’s. He emigrated to the USA during the barbarous American Civil War, following the turbulence and the new technologies to where his ideas would be best admired by those opposing change and progress.
Throughout Darby’s life, Bourgeoise Democracy was beating back the privilege and autocratic rule of the old Aristocracy and land owners as the influence of the French Revolution spread. Capitalism was maturing, Feudalism decaying and Industrialisation was enhancing scientific understanding, within which the Christian churches were having to face and come to terms with deep challenges including Darwinism, the theory of evolution that contradicted the Bible in so many ways.
This very apparent destruction of the Old Order was seen by Darby and many of his ilk as the work of the Anti-Christ and a forewarning of the imminent End of Times. The world was now in the period prior to the Millennia, requiring an understanding of how believers should prepare, a creed of “pre-millennialism” as it became known.
Evangelicalism felt besieged in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Darby formed his own pre-Millenial Movement in preparation for the Second Coming, The Plymouth Brethren (so-called because up to a thousand people took-up his Church in Plymouth, England as the largest congregation through the 1830’s). They crucially believe that there will come a period of time where God will offer a dispensation to the true believers, in line with the Book of Revelations.
Darby’s ideas were later included in the Scofield Reference Bible published in 1909. Scofield was a Confederate Army veteran in America who became an evangelical Minister and simplified Darby’s annotated bible to a minimal populist tract.
Scofield‘s Bible has become highly influential amongst the huge evangelical population of the USA and sold in the tens of millions. President Trump was raised in a family loyal to Scofield and in June this year Trump paid a formal visit to the McLean Evangelical Church to stand with a reading from Scofield’s Bible.
The essence of this Fundamentalist belief system is that righteous mortals cannot truly understand God’s Will and should simply submit to it. The righteous will be scooped-up by God and find salvation. We should certainly not be swayed by material evidence of science or proponents of supposed Truth. To suggest we know the Truth is to defy the Lord.
So to Hell with the climate scientists. God is testing you when he allows us to find dinosaur bones that scientists suggest lived long before God created the Universe, so must be untrue. Likewise, God is testing you when extreme weather destroys your home and community. Should you submit yourself to living with and through such tests, your belief in the Eternal uwavering, then you will receive dispensation from God in the hour of Judgement. Innocence is Godly, every life ends in failure.
As in any religion, it gets complicated. Evangelicals believe all biblical writings are literally true. Darby suggested there are two messages in scripture and divides The Word into two tracks stemming forward from Abraham, one towards Judaism and the other Christianity. Whilst the Bible cannot contradict itself there are two messages in all scripture – one for Israel and one for the Gentiles.
For Darby, Biblical prophesy and especially the various offers of dispensation point towards the return of all Jewish People to Palestine to create a Jewish kingdom of Israel. This was well before the construction of Zionism. Lord Shaftesbury, the architect of British Imperial policy in the Middle East, was deeply influenced by Darby’s testament and this assertion of the destiny of the Jews.
Darby’s “True Believers” were not followers of the Christian Churches which they condemned as too politicised and in fact were not supposed to have developed. God’s Will had been, according to Darby, that all humanity should embrace Jesus when he first came to Earth in which case no Christian Church would have been necessary. It’s development was a failure of humanity and not God’s intention.
For these Christian Fundamentalists, the crucification of Christ drove a rift in time, getting in the way of the prophesies as a temporary aberration best exemplified by the development of the Christian Churches following the various Apostles as false prophets. Israel is God’s true intention, and at the time of the Rapture (Armageddon on Earth) the Apostle’s Churches will be judged whilst the true believers will sit beside God in judgement from their base in the State of Israel in Palestine.
Sometimes, intellectual understanding is very hard, and the paragraphs above may take a moment of reflection before seeping into our emotional intelligence. The defence of Israel and in the final battle at Armageddon is a driving force in global politics today. The belief in the Rapture and indeed, emotional Hope for the End of days, may well be influencing politicians and their supporters to hurry it along.
And so we may better understand Climate Denial in this context. We are seeing global heating, extreme weather events, permanent droughts, pestilence, mass famine and mass migration because it is God’s true intention. After two thousand years of missed opportunity, now at last we are nearing the Rapture. To act against global heating is to act against the true will of God.
To shout out the word, “Hallelujah” is to almost inevitably feel a sense of elation. To truly believe in righteous and everlasting life is the most addictive of sensations. To have such an emotional high challenged or even dampened by assertions of material reality is nothing less than a call to arms.
And so it is. The Climate Movement is, whether we want to be or otherwise, facing a civil war across all humanity. The Evangelical Movement in the United States of America, the United Kingdom, much of Africa and growing elsewhere, is a mass Movement is of reaction to earthly intervention towards our own salvation.
Following the logic of the text, perhaps the Rapture could be helped along, the Tribulation be brought forward, the horror be invoked, by the dropping of multiple nuclear warheads. Perhaps that’s God’s Will in the minds of our evangelical leaders. Perhaps not.
Darby’s ideas came to have some basis in the real world. Every Great Lie has to include a kernel of Truth in order to be believed. After all, very few humans are truly stupid. Darby imagined, at the very height of the British Empire, that it would be defeated (almost unthinkable at the time), that the United Kingdom would break-up and Ireland become independent, that the UK would join a United States of Europe with it’s own currency, a clear sign of the Anti-Christ and portent of the lead-up to the Tribulation.
These predictions have been used and updated time-and-again to offer proof that the Millennialist creed if factual. In the same way, various individuals have been condemned as The Anti-Christ at various points in the history of the twentieth century and beyond, usually those who publicly disagree with these fundamental truths.
But the references to the Bible are particularly questionable. Darby and Scofield searched very many short sentences and obscure references in tiny tracts across the Bible to construct an evangelical Army of God, to prepare for and be empowered at the Rapture. To be brief, shortly after the Tribulation, in their vision, a specific individual will come down to Earth as the Anti-Christ. Jesus Christ will face the Anti-Christ in fierce battle to protect the true believers. At the same time the Anti-Christ will form an alliance with the developing Nation of Israel only to betray them, persecuting Jews, desecrating the temples, and demanding to be worshipped as God, his believers being tattooed with 666. The true believers who were taken up in the Rapture will now return to earth as the invading army of Jesus Christ to defeat the Anti-Christ.
It was Scofield who identified and coined the exact place for the Battle of Armageddon he prophesied, the town of Megiddo in Israel, the site of biblical battles in 606BCE. The term Armageddon is used only once anywhere in the Bible and was purloined by Darby and Scofield in their construction of this super-fiction that has permeated world consciousness and infected world politics. Indeed, Apocalyptic novels and films are everywhere.
Dispensationalist Pre-Millenialism, the technical term for Darbyism today, holds strong influence in the high churches of Christianity. It has come into the cultural and political mainstream. Howel Lindsey’s, “The Late Great Planet Earth” has more than 20 million copies, and the “Left Behind Novels” has sold 65 million copies and been made into three films. Hollywood routinely distribute top-selling movies with the underlying message of Zionism and the coming Rapture.
This cultural normalisation can explain the fervency of support for the State of Israel despite its’ occupation of the State of Palestine, and for the enormous campaign against alleged anti-semitism in the Labour Party despite it’s anti-racist Leader.
As with Darbyism, the construction of Zionism as a political and quasi-religious tract was similarly written by a man. Theodore Herzl wrote his evocation to build a movement to ensure the return of the Jewish diaspora to Israel, or Zion, as it is referred to in the Old Testament. In terms of the quest to construct a Nation of Israel Zionism is a political movement yet for many it has become a religion, with significant and apparent overlaps between its selective references to the Old Testament, and those of Darby and Scofield.
This, in turn, explains much of the fervent support for Israel by Fundamentalist and High Church Christians who believe in the Rapture and all its parts: Presidents Bush (both of them, obviously), Trump and his aides including Michael Pompeo (ex-CIA Director and current US Secretary of State) and Vice President Mike Pence, and ex-Prime Minister Blair amongst them. The belief that the Righteous must prepare for the final war, the Holy War, the war to end all wars, God’s war, may go some way to explain most of the wars of the past 200 years.
There is indeed a hidden world of people in high places who follow Darby’s ideas. His complex writings and reference to historic and biblical scholarly tracts have impressed and impregnated scholars and intellectuals. In the 1990’s ,the prestigious and influential Regius Chairs of Divinity at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and comparable academics at Sheffield university and Queens’ University, Belfast, were all held by people who were either current or former members of Plymouth Brethren.
It should not be underestimated, the extent to which Christian Fundamentalism stands in the way of real progress towards minimising the very worst impacts of global heating and ecocide. The deepening crisis, decline and failure is explained away by Derby’s fundamentalism and not in a way that demands we act now. Darby was resolutely anti-democracy and anti-State, today offering a false-radicalism to populist libertarians. Dispensational pre-Millennialism is strong within the new Political Far-Right and has re-energised their movements worldwide. Darby and Scofield would be the first to cry, “know thine enemy”, and I think we need to be able to do the same.
Sunday 29th September 2019