A dispensationalist view of the doctrine of last things (eschatology) believes in a sharp distinction between God’s plan for the nation of Israel from the Old Testament, and God’s plan for the church from the New Testament. Dispensational eschatology continues to believe that this distinction will mean a separation of Christians being removed heavenward, in a rapture, and ethnic Israelites being joined together in the land of Palestine, apparently fulfilling the promise of Abraham, here on earth. It is similar to premillennial eschatology in that the system believes in a division between the onset and the close of the literal thousand years; thus dividing the first return of Christ from a far off day of judgment at the end of the millennium.
This particular theological position is only a hundred and fifty years old yet it has become remarkably popular and has been championed by many Christian teachers. This view of a complete restoration of the literal land of Israel, and the future establishment of the headquarters of Christ’s kingdom, has driven foreign policy of the superpowers for several of the last decades.
A dispensation is a term for a period, dispensationalism as a theological position, divides up the history of the people of God into different periods of testing, failure, and cycles of new beginnings. This is seen especially in the expectation of tribulation and the rapture for believers. This position has a hermeneutic (interpretation) of the Scriptures which looks for a physical and literal meaning for those passages which have traditionally been seen as figurative (usually about prophetic judgment, even if they really occurred, what was the manner in which they were fulfilled?), yet on the other hand, reading time frames (“this generation”, “soon to happen” etc.), as open and figurative, which have normally been interpreted as literal, associated with the generation of the first audience.
Some of the distinguishing features of dispensational eschatology include the following. An earthly and Davidic kingdom was offered to the Jews by Christ in the first century. Since it was rejected it was postponed until the future. The “church age” is therefore an addendum, a mere parenthesis, unforeseen and unexpected by the OT prophets. God has two separate programs for ethnic Israel and this aside of the church. World wide evil will grow, even infecting the church, making this world worse and worse. Christ will return secretly in the sky to rapture Christians and resurrect the bodies of deceased saints. Taking them away before a seven year tribulation. Then Christ will return to Jerusalem to establish a 1000 year reign, during this time temple sacrifices and the temple system will be reinstated. At the end of the millennium, Satan will surround Jerusalem and Christ will destroy him. Then the final resurrection (the second now), and judgment and the final state.
The well known dispensational author Charles C. Ryrie:
A dispensation is a distinguishing economy in the outworking of God’s purpose. If one were describing a dispensation he would include other things, such as the ideas of distinctive revelation, testing, failure and judgment (Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 29).
The OT book of Judges is characterized by cycles of faithfulness, leading to complacence, to rebellion, to judgment and then restoration. As God was leading the people to be united for the mission, there were many bumps in the road. Dispensationalism, as a worldview and as a theology, takes this as a pattern for all of life and faith and the purpose of God in History. But there are too many other Scriptural distinctives and far too much mention of hope and victory for this failure to be the norm.
The biggest challenge of this particular position regarding the future and the plan of God is that it is utterly defeatist. Not only that, but with the promise of escape and withdrawal, through the secret rapture, the popular position for most who teach and preach from within the movement is the pointlessness of mission and restoration. There is a hopelessness for Christians to make any change in this world. This is a complete mistake and it has robbed the church of effectiveness for over a century. There are also epic gaps and faults and inconsistencies in the entire system of interpretation in order to make some of the odd predictions about the future (take Daniel and Hebrews for example, they have to be so distorted).
If you have a Schofield Study Bible (one of the founders of dispensationalism), please get an upgrade. The ESV Study Bible is a great place to start!
Pop back next Thursday for an overview of Amillennialism. Thanks for reading. Please leave a comment or question, I welcome your dialogue.