How Did Left Behind’s Particular Vision of the End Times Develop?

A Historical Look at Millenarian Thought
  • Jeanne Halgren Kilde


How will the world end? With a bang? With a whimper? Will God come out of the sky in a cloud? Will vast armies destroy all humanity? Will the sun’s fire engulf the planet? Such questions have fascinated humankind for millennia. The Left Behind series presents in fictional form authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s heartfelt beliefs about what will happen at the end of time.


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  1. 1.
    John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to the Jewish Matrix of Christianity (New York: Crossroad, 1984), 87–91.Google Scholar
  2. See also Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 19–25. All biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version unless noted.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Calvin J. Roetzel, Paul: The Man and the Myth (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998), 103–104. See also Cohn, Pursuit of the Millennium, 19–29.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    The phrase is from Bernard McGinn, ed. and trans., Apocalyptic Spirituality: Treatises and Letters of Lanctantius, Adso of Montier-en-Der, Joachim of Fiore, the Franciscan Spirituals, Savonarola (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 14,Google Scholar
  5. as quoted in Robin Bruce Barnes, Prophecy and Gnosis: Apocalypticism in the Wake of the Lutheran Reformation (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988), 19.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Andrew Cunningham and Ole Peter Grell, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Religion, War, Famine, and Death in Reformation Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 4.Google Scholar
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    Katharine R. Firth, The Apocalyptic Tradition in Reformation Britain, 1530–1645 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 5.Google Scholar
  8. 14.
    The quote is from a letter written in 1500 by Columbus to “a member of the royal court,” and appears in Christopher Columbus, Memorials of Columbus: A Collection of Authentic Documents of that Celebrated Navigator, compiled by Giovanni Battista Spotorno (London: Treuttel and Wurtz, Treuttel jun. [Jr.] and Richter, 1823), 224.Google Scholar
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  10. 15.
    On apocalyptic currents in American culture, see Charles H. Lippy, “Waiting for the End: The Social Context of American Apocalyptic Religion,” in Lois Parkinson Zamora, The Apocalyptic Vision in America: Interdisciplinary Essays on Myth and Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1982), 37–43.Google Scholar
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    Jonathan Edwards, Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion, in the Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Perry Miller (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1957), 4: 353–58,Google Scholar
  13. as quoted in George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003), 264.Google Scholar
  14. On Edward’s apocalyptic thought, see also Stephen J. Stein, “Editor’s Introduction,” Jonathan Edwards: Apocalyptic Writings (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977), 1–93.Google Scholar
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    On the Albury prophetic conferences, see Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 19–22.Google Scholar
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    Robert Norton, Memoirs of James & George MacDonald of Port-Glasgow (London: John F. Shaw, 1840), 171.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 174. A similar account of Macdonald’s visions also appears in Robert Norton, The Restoration of Apostles and Prophets in the Catholic Apostolic Church (London: Bosworth & Harrison, 1861), 15–18.Google Scholar
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    Although some have claimed that Mary Macdonald originated the pretribulationist position, Norton’s account of her vision is somewhat unclear on the point. For instance, her emphasis on the idea that the spiritual eye will aid Christians in “seeing” the antichrist and understanding his deceit suggests that Christians will endure the end times. She also mentions, “The trial, through which those are to pass who will be counted worthy to stand before the Son of man.” Norton, Memoirs, 175. On Macdonald as a pretribulationist, see Dave MacPherson, The Incredible Cover-Up: The True Story of the Pre-Trib Rapture (Plainfield, N.J.: Logos International, 1975), 49, 52. MacPherson’s argument that the pretribulationist position has been based on a charismatic vision is meant as a means of discrediting what its defenders claim is scripturally based interpretation. Clearly, there are elements of this vision that correspond to later formalizations in the pretribulationist position, but this is hardly the smoking gun he claims. MacPherson’s argument holds up better when he asserts acquaintances of the Macdonalds, particularly Francis Sitwell, articulated the pretribulationist position. See The Incredible Cover-Up, 59–60, where MacPherson quotes from an 1834 letter from Sitwell to his sister, published in Charles William Boase, Supplementary Narrative to the Elijah Ministry (printed privately and posthumously, 1868). [The author has not been able to corroborate quotations from Boase.]Google Scholar
  19. See also J. N. Darby, Lectures on the Second Coming (London: G. Morrish, 1909).Google Scholar
  20. 23.
    It should be noted that the extent of Darby’s influence in the United States has been debated by premillennialists and historians. See Carl E. Sanders II, The Premillennial Faith of James Brookes: Reexamining the Roots of American Dispensationalism (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2001).Google Scholar
  21. On the Millerites, see The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Ronald L. Numbers and Jonathan M. Butler (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  22. On White, see Ronald L. Numbers, Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).Google Scholar
  23. 27.
    Princeton Seminary no longer advocates this position. On fundamentalism and Princeton theology, see George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 9–61.Google Scholar
  24. 28.
    All quotes appear in James H. Brookes, Maranatha; Or, the Lord Cometh,1 3rd. ed. (St. Louis, Mo.: Edward Bredell, 1874), 546.Google Scholar
  25. 31.
    Hal Lindsey with Carole C. Carlson, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1970; HarperCollins, 1977), 174.Google Scholar
  26. 34.
    James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher, Why Waco: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 76–79.Google Scholar

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© Bruce David Forbes and Jeanne Halgren Kilde 2004

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  • Jeanne Halgren Kilde

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