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Piecing together Bibles’s puzzles

The system of biblical interpretation known as dispensational premillennialism was developed in early 19th century by British writer John Nelson Darby. By the 20th century, it gained prominence in the United States among fundamentalist Christians, particularly through study notes written by Cyrus Scofield in the Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909. The beliefs were further popularized in the early 1970s by Hal Lindsey’s bestseller, The Late Great Planet Earth.

Adherents to this system divide world history into six or seven “dispensations,” time periods in which God deals with humans in distinctly different ways. The culmination of these dispensations will be Christ’s thousand-year reign on earth.

Premillennial refers to the belief that Christ will return before the millennial period of peace spoken of in Revelation will occur. They believe world conditions will worsen until Christ’s return.

Biblical prophecy is viewed as a literal prediction of events in the world’s history. Though many of the events in the end times scenario are drawn from Daniel and Revelation, no single book of the Bible contains the whole picture: Verses are pieced together like a puzzle.

The idea of the Rapture is based on 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, which is interpreted as the event in which Christ raises all believers who have died and all living Christians will be physically caught up and taken to heaven. There is much debate as to when the Rapture occurs in the timeline of the Tribulation. The authors of the Left Behind books take a pre-Tribulation stance: The Rapture will take place just prior to the beginning of the Tribulation.

In interpreting prophetic passages, a distinction is drawn between Israel and the Christian church. Prophecies concerning Israel are expected to be literally fulfilled in the history of the Jewish people as a nation, rather than spiritually fulfilled in the life of the church. The establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 led many who espouse dispensational premillennialism to believe that the end times are near.

--Teresa Malcolm

National Catholic Reporter, June 15, 2001