C. S. Lewis argued that certain stories have the power to captivate the imagination and move the human soul in ways that the words themselves cannot account for.1 These stories he called "myths." Their power is not, strictly speaking, literary in nature. That is, a myth can work its magic even when it is told in summary or told badly. For example, the average American has not read the Arthurian myth in any of its classic forms. He has not read Mallory, let alone Chrétien de Troyes or Geoffrey of Monmouth. At best, he may have seen Disney's Sword in the Stone or a Hollywood distortion of the legend, like Knight's Tale. In spite of this, the names Arthur, Merlin, and Camelot still have meaning for him. He finds the words "Round Table" and "Holy Grail" charged with significance. Lewis was unwilling to speculate on the source of the power that myths exercise.2 Jung, referring to myths in the broader sense, ventured to speak of archetypes that lie buried in the collective unconscious. Joseph Campbell had similar ideas. As Christians, we must look elsewhere.
Creaturehood and Myth
God is the Creator of heaven and earth, and therefore the universe in all its parts bears His imprint. "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork" (Ps. 19:1). Man, however, is the very image of God (Gen. 1:27). So when we look at the things that God has made, especially when God has named them for us or used them in a particularly grand manner, we see reflections of our Maker and also reflections of ourselves. When we use these things in poetry or in story, the effect can be quite powerful.
Think of the words mountain, water, bride, and blood. Contrast them with the words skyscraper, soda, significant other, and plasma. "Sword of the Spirit" carries a power that "machine gun of the Spirit" clearly lacks. And "great red dragon" is worlds away from "friendly purple dinosaur." Furthermore, even though we are fallen, our imaginations still resonate to the whole Biblical story of creation, fall, and redemption. We cannot escape our creaturehood. And herein, at least in part, lies the power of myth.
In myths we regularly have a number of Biblical images or story elements arranged in a pattern that echoes the Biblical story. Sometimes the echo is clear: the prince in disguise, the dragon-slaying knight, the sleeping beauty, the returning king, the thousand-year kingdom. Sometimes the echo is subtler. For example, "the blade that was broken" — either Aragorn's or Sigurd's before him — reflects the sword-image that began at Eden's gate and continues to the two-edged sword in Christ's mouth. Because none of the Biblical blades were broken, we must make further connections. The king's sword is his office and his right to rule: for example, when Arthur broke the sword from the stone, he jeopardized his right to rule; thus, Merlin moved quickly to secure for him Excalibur. Now in redemptive history, the Davidic kingship was broken; the messianic dynasty was seemingly cut off. But with the coming of Christ, the dynasty and kingship were suddenly reforged.
Now, all myths are fiction,3 and some were never meant to be taken as anything else. No one gives primary belief to Middle-Earth or to the mythic elements in the Star Wars saga.4 On the other hand, the Aryan Atlantis, the Master Race, and the Thousand-Year Reich were another matter. There were people who took this mythology very seriously, and millions died as a result. Myths can be very dangerous.
The Dispensationalist Myth
Dispensationalism has given us a very powerful myth. The Rapture, the Anti-Christ, the rebuilt Temple, the Great Tribulation — these images, sequenced together and interpreted as they have been for two hundred years in American churches, have stamped a deep impression on the hopes and fears of the average American Christian. Christians who have never read Ezekiel or Zechariah nevertheless assume that a new Temple will stand on Mount Moriah some day soon. Christians who have never studied Revelation 13 are nonetheless afraid of bar coding, government identification numbers, and computer systems that make use of the digits 666. And many, many Christians have found themselves in a deserted classroom or office building and wondered, if only for a moment, "Have I been 'left behind'?"
Now the point is this: dispensationalism no longer survives as a carefully worked out and Biblically defended theological system. It survives primarily as myth. Its mythic quality sustains it, maintains its momentum, and makes it unlikely that we will hear the end of it anytime soon.
On the other hand, traditional dispensationalism of the Darby-Scofield type is dying out. Its multiple gospels and its relegation of Jesus' own sermons to the prior dispensation of Law5 were features so clearly at odds with faith in Christ that younger pastors and teachers simply steered clear of them, though without consciously breaking with the system. This is on the one hand. On the other, popularizers of the movement could never resist the sensationalism of signs and portents. The World Wars, the rise of Bolshevik Russia, and above all the creation of Israel in 1948 were heralded as sure signs that the rapture of the church was at hand. The problem is that traditional dispensationalism taught an imminent, any-moment, signless rapture.
According to the founding fathers of dispensationalism, the prophetic clock stopped ticking at Calvary.6 The Church Age was an unforeseen parenthesis in God's dealings with Israel. Nothing in the Church Age was prophesied in the Old Testament. Therefore, there could be no prophesied signs of its end. Only with the Rapture would the prophetic clock start afresh. But the man in the pew never really got this, and those hawking sensationalism simply ignored it. Sensationalism built the dispensational myth, but without any regard to the finer points of the system itself.
As a result, the Great Tribulation and Rapture are still fixtures in the evangelical mindset, but evangelical theologians are no longer quite sure about the nature of the dispensational system itself. At least no one is writing detailed dissertations on God's two eternally distinct peoples, Israel and the church. No one is arguing for a signless rapture and a frozen prophetic clock. Grace and Talbot Seminaries have quietly moved away from their strict dispensational legacies, and Dallas is still working on the details of its new and improved brand of dispensationalism.7
But the dispensational myth continues. And it is a myth; that is, it is fictional creation that contains a powerful use of Biblical images and a powerful echo of the Biblical story. The Rapture has Biblical precedent in Noah's embarking seven days before the rains began, in Lot's escape from Sodom hours before the fires fell, and in the flight of Christians from Jerusalem in AD 70 just before the siege began. The mythic Anti-Christ echoes Nimrod, Antiochus Epiphanes, Herod the Great, and Nero. The Great Tribulation bears some resemblance to the plagues on Egypt and the real Great Tribulation in AD 70. Oddly, the Biblical echo here is fainter. The Great Tribulation of pop dispensationalism, unlike that described by our Lord in the Olivet Discourse (Mt. 24; Mk. 13; Lk. 21), is mostly the reign of hell on earth and has little to do with the active judgment of God. With the church and the Spirit withdrawn at the Rapture, Satan gets to have his fling on earth, and he seems to have a penchant for nuclear and biological warfare.8
Of course, these echoes are only echoes, not accurate interpretations of Scripture. Certainly, the Bible speaks of a rapture, but dispensational writers somehow overlook the fact that it will be neither silent nor secretive (1 Thes. 4:15-5:4). It will accompany the Resurrection, which will swallow up Death, the final enemy (cf. 1 Cor. 15:51-55; Rev. 20:11-14). Dispensational writers never seem to notice that the word "antichrist" only appears in 1 and 2 John and is associated there with false teachers who deny the Incarnation.9 And no dispensational writer accepts as literal truth our Lord's clear time frame for the Great Tribulation: "this generation" that is, His own (Mt. 24:34; Mk. 13:30; Lk. 21:31-32; cf. Mt. 23:29-36).
At present, the dispensational myth is being fueled by Tim LaHaye's best selling Left Behind series. The strategy behind the series is sound: fuel a deeply held myth with fast-paced fiction about likable characters who are never far from occult forces and human violence — then turn it into a film.10 The books sell, the myth becomes more deeply engrained, and nobody has to debate theology or answer embarrassing exegetical questions.
Diffusing a Myth
So, how do you diffuse a myth?
A counter-myth might have some success. And we may hope that the current run of Lord of the Rings will exercise a greater sway over the hearts and minds of the young than the Left Behind books and films. Better a generation of Rangers and hobbits who are willing to fight for Middle-Earth than one of cultural retreatists who don't plan on being around much longer.
But ultimately, myths must be overturned by the clear and repetitive proclamation of truth. The preaching of Christ crucified overturned the oracles, the mysteries, and the magic of the pagan world.11 It eclipsed Gaea, buried Osiris, and banished Balder. It can overturn the Tribulation myth as well. But we must tell the whole truth, the whole gospel: the Sovereign Creator; man's transgression of His law; man's true moral guilt; the wrath of an offended God; the true Incarnation of the Word; the blood atonement; the Resurrection and Ascension; the defeat of Satan; the end of Jewish ceremonies; the coming of the Kingdom; justification by faith; the power of the Spirit; the victory of the gospel; the final Judgment; and our own Resurrection. Truncated gospels and isolated snippets of theology, however orthodox, will not answer a cultural myth. We must answer a system with a system and a story with the Story.
When a thousand years from now historians evaluate our age, they will probably reckon it as one of the most superstitious in the history of the world. Cosmic and biological evolution will, of course, be counted as the chief and most permeating superstitions. The whole Nazi mythology may be next, followed by some Marxist and Keynesian ideas about economic history and the nature of the economy. UFOs, white racism, reincarnation, and the goddess reborn will all receive some sort of footnote. But for the superstition that held the greatest sway among professing Christians, the Tribulation myth will be the clear winner. Future scholars will wonder that self-professed Christians ever believed such a thing; but perhaps they will take into account the folly of our age and the power of myth.
1. C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 41.
2. Ibid., 44ff.
3. Yes, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien both spoke of Christianity as a "true myth." But they knew they were dealing in paradox.
4. I have been told that in a recent survey in Great Britain a large number of people listed their religion as "Jedi Knight." We will hope they were joking.
5. See Philip Mauro, The Gospel of the Kingdom (Swengel, PA: Bible Truth Depot, n.d.), ch. VI and XI, for the relevant citations from C. I. Scofield and a response to them.
6. For a number of relevant quotes, see Loraine Boettner, The Millennium (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1957), 219ff.
7. See Gary North, Rapture Fever, Why Dispensationalism Is Paralyzed (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1993), 195ff.
8. The dispensational Great Tribulation has become the evangelical substitute for the doctrine of hell. The Great Tribulation, as bad as it is, is kinder and gentler. Some survive it, some come to Christ in the midst of it, it only lasts seven years, and it is mostly the work of Satan and the Anti-Christ: evangelicals still can frighten people towards Christ without suggesting that a loving God would ever pour out His wrath on sinners.
9. They could dump the word "antichrist" and talk only about the Beast, but "Anti-Christ" is a more powerful word.
10. This might sound an awful lot like the Harry Potter franchise, but Potter works more from folk superstition than from true myth, at least so far.
11. See Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Divine Wor.