In 1827, Church of Ireland (Anglican) priest John Nelson Darby fell off his horse, hit his head, and had a sudden “epiphany” which he interpreted as a revelation from God. By 1832, he and a circle of friends had become the Plymouth Brethren.
Eight years later, 1840, Darby delivered a series of eleven lectures “on the hope of the church” in Geneva, Switzerland, that laid foundations for Futurism and Dispensationalism (of which Darby is considered the father), as well as for Restorationism, the idea that the return of the “children of Israel” to Palestine was a sign of the End Times. His ideas were later popularized by turn-of-the-century theologian Cyrus Scofield, whose annotated reference Bible was designed to lead readers to the conclusions which he wanted them to make.
The problems with this collection of fallacious misbeliefs are that (1) the idea of the so-called “Rapture” is a fantasy, (2) the idea that the book of Revelation and the Mount Olivet discourse in Matthew, Mark, and Luke are about future events is mistaken, (3) the idea that there are prophecies in the Old Testament still to be fulfilled is a lie, (4) the idea that the return of the descendants of the 1st century Jews to Palestine is a sign of the end is a fallacy based on fallacies (2) and (3).
In essence, Darby completely made up the Rapture. Steps that led up to it, however, were made by others before him. The father and son theocratic despots of Puritan New England, Increase and Cotton Mather first broached the idea of a premillennial return of Jesus Christ, for example, and there were others. But it was Darby who formulated the final fantasy. He based his newly conceived doctrine on the passage in Paul’s 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 –
But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.
Providing as supporting material from Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15:22-26 & 51-52 –
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.
Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
All three of these passages clearly refer to what Paul believes is going to happen after “the Lord” returns, which in his day Christians expected imminently, adding the Aramaic exhortation “Marantha!” (“Our Lord come!”) at the end of many of their prayers, especially of the blessings at the end of the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper (see the Didache).
Note the references to “them that sleep” and to “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death”, which strike down two of the favorite fantasies of Christian fundamentalists. First is the idea that upon death, human souls go immediately to heaven or to hell. Christians in the Early Church clearly did not believe this. Their idea was that the dead would be raised after the Second Coming but only after every other enemy had been defeated and all else accomplished, which also strikes down the idea of a premillennial Rapture.
The last rules out the kind of “pretribulation” Rapture which lies at the heart of fundamentalist doctrine that appeared to Darby in his concussion-inspired epiphany and which depends upon the idea that the Revelation of John the Divine and the Olivet discourse are about future events.
The chief reason fundamentalists and other evangelicals are so wild about the popular notion that we are living in the End Times is because of this Rapture fantasy which means they won’t die, a notion to which they cling tightly because of their lack of faith in what they say they believe their god will do for them. Nowhere in the entire book of Revelation is there anything to suggest that Christians have any more of a divine escape hatch from the “Great Tribulation” than Jews had from the actual, entirely man-made tribulation in the 1st century.
Revelation of John the Divine
Early Christians interpreted Revelation for what it was, an allegory meant to bring hope at a time of great suffering, the Domitian persecutions near the end of the 1st century. The Eastern churches don’t even consider the book fully canonical.
With the advent of the Reformation, Protestants interpreted Revelations as targeting Rome and its bishop. As their propaganda became more and more widespread, a Jesuit priest, Manuel Lacunza, wrote an apocalyptic work called The Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty, which was translated into English by Scottish minister Edward Irving, later founder of the Catholic Apostolic Church, in 1827. Irving later became an associate of Darby.
Partly because of their 1800-year divorce from Judaism, several features inside its pages remain opaque to fundamentalists to this day even with all sorts of knowledge at their fingertips.
For instance, the meaning of the so-called “number of the beast” (666) on the heads and hands of those who follow him is beyond their understanding because they have no knowledge of the tefillin, once worn by male Jews on a daily basis. Tefillin, remember, are boxes with passages of scripture (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21 ; Exodus 13:1-10; Exodus 13:11-16) written on parchment inside them. All of these passages refer to binding the words as a sign on the hand and being frontlets between the eyes.
Roman wills were sealed with seven seals.
Where do the seven years of tribulation come from? From 66 CE through the fall of the garrison at Masada in 73 CE, Palestine was rife with conquest, war, famine, and plague during the Great Jewish Revolt, also known as the First Jewish-Roman War, beginning with the initial uprising and capture of the capital of Iudaea province Caesarea Maritimi thru the fall of Masada.
The Olivet discourse
The Olivet discourse in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 clearly refers to the events of the afore-mentioned war. Regardless of how much John Darby, Cyrus Scofield, Tim LeHaye, and John Hagee would like it to be otherwise.
The oldest of these three contains the key passage which locates the events depicted, and is found in Luke 21:20-24 –
When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
Indeed, Jerusalem was surrounded by armies in 70 CE, led by future emperor Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus with (Jewish Alexandrian) former procurator of Judaea and former prefect of Egypt Tiberius Julius Alexander as his second-in-command.
Within the city itself, the belligerents were divided among themselves and split into factions, all opposed by the city population. The first rebel group to appear was the Galilean Zealots led by John ben Levi of Giscala, who took the Temple Mount for their own. The high priest, Ananus ben Ananus, rather objected to being summarily dethroned and attacked after summoning reinforcements from Idumeaa, descendants of Hyrcanus’ forced converts. John ben Levi’s priests died in the act of sacrificing, and their blood mixing with that of the sacrifice is the source for the anachronistic mention of the incident at the beginning of Luke 13. However, John ben Levi’s forces proved triumphant when Ananus died in the attack.
It wasn’t long before the other major rebels groups began to gather in. Eleazar ben Simon brought in his Zealots from Judaea while Simon bar Giora led the Sicarii into the city as the chief priest Matthias took control of the 6000 Idumaeans. What resulted was a four-way civil war, the two Zealot factions from Galilee and Judea not letting a little thing like a common ideology get in the way of their infighting.
In the midst of all this, the Roman army showed up and surrounded the city for a long siege. The Sicarii did the logical thing, to them anyway, and burned the city’s food stores in an attempt to force the population to fight. The nascent Christian movement’s adherents had by this time long fled the vicinity, taking refuge in Petra, then capital of Nabataea and currently UNESCO World Heritage Site and Wonder of the World.
In spite of the sudden unity among the previous antagonists, the city fell in August of 70 CE, and all that remained was mopping up. The Essene center at Qumran had been destroyed in about 68 CE, and the Samaritan city of Sebaste (formerly Samaria) along with the temple at Shechem on Mount Gerizim in 69 CE, the Samaritans having joined the rebellion in its second year.
Surviving rebels who were not crucified were deported to North Africa, where they became the founders of the Maghrebim.
The Olivet discourse in Luke could likely be a gospel version of the “prophecies” in Daniel, written after the events and interpolated into Luke to give more credibility to the purported speaker (Jesus bar Joses, in this case). However, it would not have been too difficult for an honest and insightful observer to discern a future Jewish rebellion and its likely outcome, just as I predicted in 1987 the fall of the Iron Curtain and the break-up of the Soviet Union.
In contrast to this portion of the passage in Luke, Matthew 24:15-22 (Mark 13:14-20 is virtually identical) has at this point –
When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:) Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains: Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house: Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes. And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day: For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened.
Clearly the author(s) are aiming at a broader, more universal audience, and therein lies the problem, because in so doing they make a serious historical error no Jew in 1st century Judea or from 1st century Galilee would have made. For the “abomination of desolation” mentioned here took place almost two centuries prior to when this speech is supposed to have been made, when Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire was returning from Egypt and passed through the region.
Old Testament prophecy
The prophecies in what Jews call the Tanakh and Christians the Old Testament, none ever recognized by Sadducees or ancient times nor by the Samaritans even today (though they do have a version of Joshua, which they emphatically do not consider scripture), were written by Jews for Jews intended for those living at the time or in the immediate future. The Jewish version of these books differs from that of Christians in its organization and the fact that Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are considered to be of the Nevi’im (Prophets) and pseudepigraphal Daniel, beloved by so many in the fundamentalist and evangelical community, is placed among the Ketuvim, or Writings.
Besides being pseudepigraphal, Daniel was written in the 2nd century (probably by the same author who wrote 1 Maccabees), AFTER many of the vents about which it purports to prophesy, such as the “abomination of desolation”. That spurious incident, in which Antiochus IV is alleged to have set up a statue of Zeus in the Jerusalem temple’s Holy of Holies, was invented to incite Jews to anger against the enemies of the Hasmonean future dynasts and tyrants by a Jewish priesthood unhappy about being taxed.
Of all John Darby’s sins, the one which has inflicted to greatest extent of suffering and conflict is his new idea that the unfulfilled prophecies of the return of all the Twelve Tribes of Israel to the Holy Land given to the descendants of the mythical Jacob (son of the also mythical Isaac, son of the even more mythical Abraham) would be fulfilled in the future and would be a sign of the imminent Second Coming of the Lord and Savior identified as Jesus Christ, fictionalized version of itinerate Galilean prophet Jesus bar Joses.
As I said before, this idea was built atop the fallacies that Old Testament prophecy unfulfilled means yet to be fulfilled rather than mistaken and that Revelation and the Olivet discourse are prophecy rather than allegory. In the early 19th century, the idea of returning to Palestine was anathema to most Orthodox Jews.
Darby’s innovation, Christian Restorationism, led to Jewish Zionism, which led to Jewish immigration to Ottoman Palestine, which led Theodor Herzl to found the World Zionist Organization, which led to civil war between native Arabs and immigrant Jews in Mandate Palestine, which led to the Nakba and the racist, sectarian, Euro-colonialist State of Israel, which led to much of the strife and turmoil in the world today, particularly in Southwest Asia, which led to Christian Zionism, particularly among American fundamentalist and evangelical Christian Dominionists trying to push their God into bringing about the Second Coming of their Lord and Savior like the Sicarii trying to push the people of Jerusalem into fighting by burning their food stores in 70 CE the same way the Dominionists are ignoring global warming because the end is coming soon.
I agree that the end is soon, but the end is going to be of their old and outdated superstitious, fractious, avaricious, overly ambitious plans for the world, my Terra, my home, and all my brothers, sisters, and cousins.
John Darby probably had good intentions when he had his epiphany, but if he did, those are certainly the kind of intentions with which the road to hell is paved. Well, if there were a hell, and a God to send people there.