IRELAND AND THE AGES
Ireland enjoys a strange place where the apocalypse is concerned, and it’s not just because of medieval forecasts of the disappearance of the island ahead of the Antichrist’s rule, or St Malachy’s twelfth century forecast of the Popes which, if valid, would render the present Pope the last in line.
Just as distinctive is how it’s now widely thought an Anglo-Irishman, John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), was largely responsible for promotion of a now influential, supposedly unprecedented apocalyptic doctrine, more widely held in America than elsewhere, of the so-called Rapture. This is a disappearance and resurrection of (believing, prepared) believers prior to the Tribulation period dominated by the Antichrist. Especially one popular religion writer, Dave McPherson, made a name for himself popularizing theories of a “Rapture hoax” and of the Victorian origins of theological material supporting such as contemporary bestselling “Left Behind” fiction etc.
But according to respected scholarship, Darby didn’t originate Rapture doctrine per se, though he did eventually include the belief within his general futurist outlook. But it’s of some value to understand what he did believe and why. And there is an odd connection of sorts between medieval Irish end-of-days prophecies and the Darbeyite notions that were evolving at Conferences in the 1830s at Powerscourt House, the Anglo-Irish Ascendency mansion at the edge of the Wicklow mountains. Quite simply, it’s a teaching of deliverance and there is a similarity of sorts between the concept of a purely fated Irish deliverance via catastrophe and a more awaited, invoked and earned believer’s Rapture, both events avoiding the Antichrist.
CRISIS AND CATASTROPHE
I have touched elsewhere on the Patrick prophecy of Ireland’s submersion (https://wp.me/p2v96G-MR) which is recorded in a seventh century biography of Ireland’s apostle. A forecast along similar lines is said to be included in a ninth century document now lost, of St Columba. More recently new agers note a forecast from the (American) spiritualist Edgar Cayce which claimed Ireland will disappear under the waves in an instant.
St Malachy of Armagh’s prophecy of the Popes is concerned with the world, not Ireland, but it obviously belongs to Ireland’s association with apocalyptic prophecy. That Malachy was a prophet even St Bernard of Clairvaux who knew him affirmed. We may doubt however that his original forecast contained more than the number of the Popes till the Antichrist rather than the latin mottoes now attached to each pope. These could have been added in the Renaissance for political and family dynastic reasons within Italy. If the mottoes are authentic and valid unlike other forecasts they don’t promise deliverance from the Antichrist, only that the last Pope will protect his flock during the persecutions of the Antichrist. This hardly speaks to the current situation. It is admittedly interesting that the last Pope is called “Peter the Roman” and Pope Francis does call himself and behave as bishop of Rome, wandering and shopping in the city like an ordinary citizen. On the other hand, one could hardly regard him as protecting his flock in the times of the Antichrist! Even supposing that person was now present and active, Francis’ protests against the now worldwide persecution of Christians are strangely limited, and Chinese Catholics feel he has recently betrayed them into the hands of their atheistic government which is demolishing churches (1).
Regardless, if ours are at all apocalyptic times or approaching them, it might be well to understand some details concerning that and which not least the career and reputation of Derby raises. (This article is a continuation of reflections on Irish spirituality and religion more generally as in Ireland’s Old/New Spirituality issues https://wp.me/p2v96G-126
ANGLO-IRISH MISSION PROBLEMS
Nelson Darby’s father, who inherited a large estate with a castle in Ireland’s Offaly county, intended his son for the law. But after an exceptionally distinguished study at Dublin’s Trinity College and some legal training, Darby opted to be a priest of the established Church of Ireland. Like Bishop Bedell in Co Cavan who had tried to introduce a Gaelic bible two centuries before him, Derby took his role with unusual seriousness. This included succouring and converting the Irish poor of the Wicklow mountains and living in near poverty himself to do so. He was unexpectedly successful and hundreds converted to Protestant faith. This suddenly stopped when the Church of Ireland’s Archbishop Magee of Dublin intervened to insist upon converts taking oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy to the Crown. To become Protestant was to become English. Darby, who believed in the Irish right to be Irish, was disillusioned and appalled, and in the course of a long convalescence following a riding accident, his biblical studies led him towards certain reflections, the first major one in the tract form he often used and called Considerations on the Natural Unity of the Church of Christ” in 1828.
It became clear to Darby that existing “Erastian” views of Christianity (which as in Ireland allowed the faith be practiced and extended in cooperation with the governing authorities), was profoundly wrong, albeit high levels of church state relations (and rivalry) had been virtually normative since Constantine established Christianity in the fourth century. Even Protestants, the Lutherans, the Anglicans, the Calvinists, had fallen for the old trap. It therefore had to be that there was a true church within the churches, a church of the Spirit. (The rather gloomy, exacting character of Derby instead of finding his church of the Spirit eventually founded the rather narrow Plymouth Brethren sect instead – his future career as a religious independent embraced bible translation and much travelling in Europe and America as a missionary for true faith).
MARGARET MCDONALD’S VISION
Darby’s change of mind from 1828 onwards ran parallel to, rather than was directly influenced by, various movements of a revivalist kind in Britain and America with its “Great Awakening”. Something was “in the air” to which Darby indirectly belonged. A few years after Darby declined from his church’s and Trinity College’s then beliefs (now a subject of scholarly inquiry), a pre-Pentecostal visionary in Scotland, Margaret MacDonald announced, supposedly under inspiration, an unfamiliar teaching. The true and spiritual church would be protected and taken by God before the persecutions of the Tribulation and the Antichrist. Citing the parable of the ten bridesmaids (Matt 25: 1-13) she asserted that the five admitted to the Marriage of the Lamb are those with the oil of the Spirit. The rest who don’t have oil with them and whom the bridegroom doesn’t know and who are excluded, are those unprepared Christians who, to attain any salvation will need to suffer through the persecutions of the Antichrist.
The assumption that Christians would be persecuted at the end of days seems to have been what numbers of influential early Christians, especially Bishop Irenaeus, assumed all believers would undergo. They associated their final and resurrected redemption not with any Rapture but a “resurrection of the Just” at the end of the seven year rule of the Antichrist. Undeniably a resurrection of those martyred during the Tribulation is referred to in Revelation (Rev 20: 4-6) where moreover it is confusingly called “the first resurrection” though in broad context it means the first kind of pre Last Judgement resurrection. (At the latter everyone who has ever lived is raised to gain or loss).
Darby would have known something of the proto-charismatic movement though meeting charismatic Irvingites present at the Powerscourt Conferences at the Irish Versailles of Powerscourt House south of Dublin in the early 1830s. He did also once attend a meeting in Glasgow at which MacDonald gave utterances, but he didn’t even record what she said and never showed marked interested in charismatic phenomena. He originally believed in the post-Tribulation picture and only came to pre-tribulation Rapture beliefs a decade after witnessing MacDonald. The noted Plymouth Brethren theologian F F Bruce finds no likely connection with MacDonald and it is even believed his change of mind was under the influence of writings of the pre-millennialist Dominican Jansenist, Bernard Lambert. (2)
All that is certain is that Darby did not invent any pre-tribulation Rapture which constituted a hidden stream of belief in which even some Jesuits may have been involved. What he did pioneer is the “Dispensationalism” into which Rapture doctrine could be most neatly, credibly slotted with this Secret Rapture ending the age of Grace while Christ’s openly manifest return to the world marked the beginning of the next age. Dispensationalism and the related Futurism teaches different ages (basically seven) affecting revelation, laws or covenants, like the Dispensation of the Patriarchs, the Dispensation of Moses, the Millennium under Christ’s rule, but with all these phases of history centred around the Jews.
Darby’s real prophetic originality would lie not in any late accepted Rapture doctrine, but in assuming against all common belief of his times, that Israel had a unique destiny. Israel would and must be, (as it is today), re-established as a political entity for the promises of God and redemption to be fulfilled – in short, Dispensationalism had affinities with, and may be said to have anticipated, contemporary Christian Zionism. (To whatever extent feelings about an Irish right to a separate identity and its links to the practice of faith may have coloured all this, is an open question).
As regards the post-Tribulation redemption doctrine that Darby eventually rejected, there is a simple way of proving this notion, even though accepted in some early Christian quarters, it was always misleading or illogical. What most typically supports Rapture doctrine in Paul’s writings, especially in Thessalonians, refers to a resurrection/transformation that takes place in the air. Christ never leaves the clouds of heaven to touch earth to effect it, it is essentially hidden. This is quite different from all that occurs, including “resurrection of the just”, when he arrives, post-Tribulation, on earth. His feet are then not on the clouds of heaven but on the Mount of Olives and the streets of Jerusalem.
Even if the Rapture idea had gone out of fashion and even memory, it follows that McDonald’s position was no more original than Darby’s broadly similar but later acquired position. In the fourth century we read: “For all the saints and Elect of God are gathered, prior to the tribulation that is to come, and are taken to the Lord lest they see the confusion that is to overwhelm the world because of our sins” (On the Last Times, the Antichrist, and the End of the World, by Ephraem the Syrian, A.D. 373). Moreover, in speaking of apocalypse, St Paul promises his believers at Thessaloniki they are not “appointed to wrath”. (1 Thess 5:9). This in itself means something rather specific and relevant to the larger picture…
All NT Christian notions of Tribulation are basically identical to the OT’s book of Daniel’s “seventieth week” which gospellers and apostles view in the light of Christian developments. The seven year Tribulation is “the time of Jacob’s trouble”, an expression derived from Jeremiah (Jer 30:7) and described in Daniel as “a time of anguish such as has never occurred” (Dan 12:1). It marks the time of final woe for the world and especially the Jews as the world turns against Israel, although the nation will be delivered. This dark time’s outpouring of divine wrath (in effect divine absence or withdrawal of protection against events) is what is associated with “the Wrath of the Lamb” (Rev 16:6). This “wrath” is more or less parallel to “the Marriage of the Lamb” (Rev 19:7). The latter, if its imagery can be supposed to bear any relation at all to traditional Jewish weddings, would last seven days, prophetically seven years. St Paul therefore has to mean that the believing prepared can escape the Tribulation/ Wrath. If you are not “appointed to wrath” (of the Lamb) you can attend the marriage feast (of the Lamb) because if you are sufficiently aware and ready, you are able to escape the universal woe in the way the Rapture idea uniquely envisages.
It seems likely that the emphasis placed by some early Christians upon a post-trib “resurrection of the just” as opposed to a pre-trib Rapture of the believing prepared, had an almost more psycho-social than theological basis. In the first, persecuted centuries it would have seemed that the believing community were either already under the rule of the Antichrist (Nero was the first to be seen as a type of Antichrist) or shortly to be so. It might require a period of sustained peace and toleration to even envisage any other fate than martyrdom and restriction. I suggest this situation blinded early understanding to the fact that deliverance could be associated with an unexpected moment, even a time of pleasure and recreation like that of the bridesmaids awaiting the groom.
THE SHIFTING FOCUS OF PROPHECY
“We see through a glass darkly” admitted St Paul, and on apocalypse the churches may be said to have done just that. Until the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, followers tended to believe Jesus would shortly return. Since however Jesus himself had declared, the gospel must be preached throughout the whole world first, second advent was unlikely to occur very soon and within in a generation! Jesus had also said the generation that witnessed the budding of the fig tree (arguably the foundation of a new, independent Israel, not one colonized and divided by Rome), would be the generation of the apocalypse. (Matt 24: 33-35). That could be a good time off.
After Jerusalem’s dramatic fall to Rome had partially fulfilled Jesus’ apocalyptic forecasts, it was easier to have recourse to a biblical principle that scriptural reference can be not just linear but cyclical in application (Ecc 1:9). Another apocalyptic attack on Jerusalem and another temple could be involved – had not Jesus forecast a future Antichrist would enter another, evidently new temple?
It also became easier to admit that Jesus had only partially fulfilled messianic prophecy. He had been all of the messiah as Isaiah’s redeeming Suffering Servant, but not David’s ruling, triumphant heir. More attention was paid to this point when towards the end of the first century the book of Revelation portrayed a whole Millennial triumph and earthly rule which would fulfil all the prophecies like those of Ezekiel. This outcome would moreover allow fulfilment of all the covenants made with those antecedents to the Christians like Abraham whose promised destiny was to own and rule lands never fully possessed by Israel and which he would need to be resurrected and able to enter a Millennial kingdom to see fulfilled.
THE CHILIAST STARTING POINT
The earliest Christians like Justin Martyr were basically Chiliasts or Millennarians, taking a fairly literal position on messianic prophecy and the Millennium. On the basis that biblically a day could often mean a year or something else, they assumed that, given a six day creation, there should be a six “day” history of humanity with the Millennium its seventh day, a Sabbath of rest. They of course took the six day creation literally whereas today we might speak of a seven millennium salvation story or priestly history.
And we do need to propose something of the kind, because the seven millennium pattern, however unusual and pre-scientific it sounds today, bears a real connection to something: the pattern and symbols of the ages more celestially, Jesus being born around the dawning of the age of Pisces (effectively St Paul’s ‘age of grace”) . This highlights a fact which symbolically and thematically has all kinds of significance for what biblically preceded Pisces in the ages of Taurus and Aries and should yet succeed it in the Aquarian – the utopianism assumed of the Millennium fits very well with Aquarius. The very concept of a Utopia and the word Utopia derives from the Aquarian Thomas Moore, while the number 7 in biblical numerology is the number of perfection and completion.
At least some false prophecies and misunderstandings about the end times could have been avoided by merely realizing an aion or age, lasts something about 21000 years. Some early Christians employed a kind of Archbishop Ussher style chronology which they deduced from the Genesis genealogies. But due to major discrepancies between the Hebrew Bible and Greek Septuagint version, the dates and genealogies could be as far as 1400 years out from four millennia originally assumed to precede Christ. For the Hebrew and Samaritan bibles Adam to Abraham makes 2000 years, whereas in the Septuagint they are 3400 years. As a result, no one knew whether they were in or could hope to be inside a millennial Sabbath of not. No matter what a person believes and what precisely will happen, current apocalyptic feeling and expectation at least corresponds neatly to the cuspal situation between the eras of Pisces and Aquarius. Pisces with its Neptunian mysteries can well end in mystery and disappearance much as it began with the hidden birth of Christ, Aquarius with its blatant manifestations could well start with the lightning shock of open revelation. Symbolic logic and archetypal pattern attends thinking of the lost or rejected Darbeyite kind.
TOWARDS A PURELY SYMBOLIC FAITH – AMILENNIALISM
Gradually, as Christians and Jews drew ever further apart in the second and third centuries and the ultra-transcendent viewpoint of Greek philosophy influenced theology, there was less and less emphasis upon the literal and historical fulfilment of biblical prophecy – or anything at all. What wasn’t a symbol was almost vulgar, which is virtually the snobbish position of the church father Origen who wasn’t beyond despising “ignorant”, uneducated Christians. Christianity began to lose contact with history, covenant and any Jewish roots. The mystically unnameable overtook the prophetically nameable. The symbol-driven medieval Catholic synthesis was on the way.
On the ground however, Christianity didn’t lose contact with the course of events at all. Between them, those allies in favour of things Roman, Ss Augustine and Jerome, created a quiet revolution for a church newly established in the fourth century. Jerome didn’t even hesitate to alter the text of even the first known commentary on Revelation to rid it of chiliastic features in favour of amillennialism, dishonestly attributing Victorinus’ changed commentary to the known heretic, Cerinthus. The outlook of these scholar saints compelled them to symbolize so much that they turned the millennium into a foreshadowing of the present time, the rule of the church over everyone and everything with any promises and covenants to the Jews cancelled out and re-applied to the benefit of Christians.
The effect of what was effectively a replacement theology was and remains devastating. While in fairness to Augustine he lent some support to Jews, in the Greek East St John Chrysostom was declaring against Jews in terms so extreme they would one day gain even Hitler’s approva , by untethering bible and prophecy from history, covenant and the objectively real, the door was opened to both future anti-Semitism and medieval ecclesiastical triumphalism which culminated in Popes declaring they owned the world or even the universe. The Last Judgement would then follow this time of privileged church rule. This is how St Malachy (or his suspect, maybe later added papal mottoes) sees things because his Last Pope oversees a rule of Antichrist directly followed by the Last Judgement. This is unbiblical – the Last Judgement is for some future time following the earthly millennial rule of Christ the scholar saints had got rid of.
If like Derby and in harmony with a periodic radical bent within Irish thought, you peel away the often Erastian traditions of the churches whose logic and reason are almost more Aristotelian than Hebraic, you are left with a rather Quakerish picture in which personal responsibility and bible take on new dimensions. Both these may appear chaotic, the bible presenting an array of contradictions real or imagined that await resolution. As a scholar and trained lawyer, Darby’s response was to seek to impose order and consistency and not least around the legal issue of covenants. The result was his Dispensationalism that was also eminently exportable and that in America would be widely popularized away from Darbey’s heavy style in such works at The Scofield Reference Bible and the chart filled, rather fabulously illustrated Clarence Larkin’s Dispensational Truth (which last nonetheless opted for a mid-Trib Rapture).
Before concluding I will insert why, no matter what you what you believe and make of Rapture doctrine, it does appear to produce the kind of common sense, logical consistency Darby aimed for.
1) In Luke Jesus speaks of a time when one shall be taken and the other left Luk 17:34. This is preceded by mention of people going about their normal business when the event happens. This picture then agrees with the Pauline view that people are talking in terms of “peace and security” (1 Thess 5:3) at the time that disaster in the form of apparently Rapture and Tribulation, strike. This scenario could hardly occur at the time of the extraordinary, life and death, catastrophic situations associated with the Tribulation period. If anyone finds Luke’s picture at variance with words in Matthew 24 and 25, then almost certainly this should be referred to the fact Matthew’s gospel is the most Jewish one unlike the Gentile one of Luke. Hence reference is to especially the Jews and believers present at the time of Tribulation who see he Temple abominated and so on and are told to flee rather than prepare for any bridegroom’s arrival. That season to the extent it is “The Time of Jacob’s Trouble” is not primarily about the persecution of the believing prepared.
2) Any straighforward reading of Revelation surely supports Rapture. Its first chapters are taken up with addresses to seven churches in Greece and Turkey (which may be equally or additionally symbolic for types of churches across history). Following this the seer hears a trumpet which summons him to heaven (as Rapture doctrine assumes) where multitudes are then seen celebrating the enthroned Lord. After this there is nothing more about the redeemed until nearly the end of the book, but there’s much about the misfortunes of the Tribulation era for those on earth. If the church is mentioned at all, it is in a separate visionary section which portrays a woman clothed with the sun giving birth and her child snatched to heaven before a dragon can seize the child from her. We know the early church as represented by Victorianus understood the child to be the church and therefore the woman Israel who originally birthed the church, not as per medieval interpretations, Mary, whose son ascended to heaven, not snatched there from the devil.
3) Already early on In Revelation in the message to Philadelphia, there is a promise of protection: “I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming upon the whole earth” ( Rev 3:10). This is quite plainly a reference to the general apocalyptic Tribulation that much of Revelation is about, and being able to escape from it.
More could be said, but if earlier persons and churches failed to see these simple points just mentioned, they were as blind to them as the first Christians were around issues affecting kosher diet, circumcision and the Gentile world. It is never assumed believers can and will know all Truth all at once. It is said the Spirit will lead into all truth (Joh 16:13). It is accordingly false to dismiss Rapture doctrine and/or elements of Dispensationalism as only and automatically late heretical invention when what it seems to be able to do is to clarify and enlarge upon what, on examination, can be seen as already present in the records.
AN IRISH SPIRITUAL PESSSIMISM?
One could call the intense, depressive, not entirely attractive Derby one of the Irish pessimists. Certainly it was another aspect of his originality that Darby did not follow the Victorian and Darwinian hope of the West for unlimited evolutionary improvement in the world. The world would continue evil and even become more so unless and until purged through the apocalypse and the setting up of Christ’s Millennial kingdom. Paradoxically, this made Darby (who preached in England and Europe) popular in “optimistic” America where as the country grew but away from the legacy of the Pilgrim Fathers, there was a feeling that the future of Christianity was anything but assured.
The element of hope lay chiefly in what preparation and belief towards the last things might obtain in terms of escape from the worst.
Despite Ireland’s reputation for spirituality, expression of this is often closer to nameable prophecy than unnameable medieval and international mysticism. Darby is closer to St Malachy than other Irish prophets in anchoring his assumptions in historical development. This is something Ireland has always needed to do and still does if it is not to finish with either anti-Semitic feeling (such as some politicos have recently been accused of) because God is not Lord of any Covenants and history, or a spirituality of only symbols more or less interchangeable and so as to render the whole Judaeo-Christian tradition disposable.
One historian has recently written on how the Irish became Protestants, by which he means not literally so but rather in the way American Catholics are now half Protestant in their independence of authority and reliance upon personal conscience. There are however limits to how far religious pick, mix and switch can go. The popular new age Irish spiritualist, Lorna Byrne, (she who has angels in her hair!) forecasts Christians will one day be worshipping with Muslims at Mecca. While that may well not be true (though if the Tribulation and its one world religion developed who knows?!), if Irish Christianity cannot now absorb something more biblically and historically grounded in the way Darby’s Dispensationalism and Futurism strove to be, they will only have symbols to deal in and belief may then go just anywhere, even into the hands of the prophet of the Antichrist itself. Sometimes pessimism constitutes wisdom.