I grew up in an Evangelical church where dispensationalism was the method of biblical interpretation. 

For those not in the know, dispensationalism was devised by a Protestant preacher named John Nelson Darby. It is a system of biblical interpretation that divides history into different periods or “dispensations.” It tends to focus on prophecies of the future end times.

The “rapture” is the belief that Jesus will come in glory and take all the believers up to heaven with him in “the twinkling of an eye,” and various dispensationalist preachers (as well as preachers of other sects) have fallen into the trap of predicting from the Bible when this event will take place. 

One of the most recent was the prediction that Jesus would come again in glory Saturday, May 21, 2011. 

Jesus stayed home on that day.

I’m so grateful for the authority of the Catholic Church, which provides a check and balance against private revelation. If a Catholic priest starts spouting about dates for the end of the world, or some peasant girl reports seeing the Blessed Virgin Mary, or a baker sees the face of Mother Teresa in a bagel, the Catholic response is really very pleasing.

The Catholic authorities treat all such claims with admirable forbearance and good manners. “You have seen the face of Jesus in a burned marshmallow and he said to you, “have s’more” and you interpreted this to be a sign and message from heaven? How interesting. Well, certainly supernatural occurrences are possible, and we wouldn’t want to discount it immediately, but let’s investigate it, shall we? And when we’ve looked into the whole matter we’ll decide whether you have heard a voice from heaven and had a vision from God or not. Is that all right with you? Very good. Don’t call us. We’ll call you. Next?”

What is delightful about this response is that it does not reject the visionary or mystic with cynicism or ridicule. Catholics believe that strange things do happen. We believe that saints levitate, dead bodies remain incorrupt, that apparitions occur and the Holy Spirit supernaturally guides the Church, and that one of the ways he may do this is through personal insights, new understandings and mystical experiences.

So the Catholic Church weighs it all up, checks Sacred Scripture, checks the new revelation or mystical experience against the 2,000-year tradition of the Church and says ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Lest people think that the Catholic Church always says ‘No’, consider the acceptance of the Divine Mercy devotion given to St. Faustina, the acceptance of the Sacred Heart devotion given to St. Margaret Mary, the acceptance of the various approved Marian apparitions, the acceptance of the new set of mysteries for the Holy Rosary, etc.

What interests me specifically about the predictions of the Rapture is that it brings us to the larger question of private revelation and private interpretation. Dispensationalists who prognosticate about the future are, no doubt sincere. The preachers and their followers really have been convinced. They have given up their jobs, stood on hillsides awaiting the return of the Lord, risked ridicule and set out to convince all that the end is nigh.

Now, how is this, from a philosophical point of view, any different from any other Protestant group passionately embracing some innovation, new belief or practice? How is it different, for example, from the Anglican Church deciding to ordain women to the priesthood or a Catholic sect getting fanatical about some visionary? 

 Like end-of-the-world preachers they are very sincere and well-meaning. They really, honestly and truly do believe that the Holy Spirit is leading the Church to ordain women as priests and bishops or that their visionary has a hotline to heaven.

They have their Bible verses all lined up. They have their arguments in place and they are just as passionately and firmly convinced about the rightness of women’s ordination to the priesthood or that their visionary is the new St. Bernadette as the end time preachers are about the Lord’s return.

“Whoa!” You can’t really compare Anglicans and Catholics to the fundamentalist preachers! I am the first to admit that most of the folks arguing for women’s ordination are more articulate and educated than some of the backwoods preachers, and many might say that the proposal to have women ordained and the writings of the very holy visionary are much more sane, much more eminently sensible than the preacher’s outrageous predictions and prognostications. 

Furthermore, the polite Anglicans and pious Catholics who follow the visionary are probably more amenable, urbane and reasonable. But my point is that underlying both the preacher’s bizarre prophecies and women’s ordination or the visionary’s predictions is the same quicksand of private interpretation and private revelation.

When an individual or a group of Christians becomes sincerely and truly convinced of a particular belief or a particular devotion or a particular practice who decides is it is authentic? What authority on earth is able to make the call as to whether they are right or wrong?

Either there is such an authority or there is not. If there is not, then anything goes, and whatever your sincere opinion is about religion, it is nothing more than a sincere opinion and yours is really just as valid as the next person’s. 

You get to choose…the Dispensationalists or Mennonites, Anglicans or Adventists, Mormons or Methodists or Megachurch or Snake Handlers, Church of God or Assemblies of God or Church of Christ or Disciples of Christ or Christian Disciples or the Four Square Worldwide Church of God or Christian Science or…

Or then there is the Catholic Church.