October 5, 2003

We have been speaking these last weeks of the various interpretations of the great eschatological texts of the New Testament and what they suggest about the way in which the history of this world and this age will come to an end. We have discussed, in very broad brush you understand, the three great alternatives known to the history of Christian theology: a-, post-, and pre-millennialism. But there is another alternative and one that has enjoyed immense popular support in believing Christianity over the past century and a half. I am speaking of Dispensationalism. Dispensationalism is a version of premillennialism, but its departures from historic premillennialism are very great and it is these departures that made of Dispensationalism a separate school of thought and have galvanized the enthusiasm of so many Christians.

It is Dispensationalism, for example, that Hal Lindsey taught in his runaway bestseller, The Late, Great Planet Earth, first published in 1970. I have a copy of that book published in January of 1972 and the book by then was already in its seventeenth printing. The only reason it was not listed as number one for months on the New York Times bestseller list was because it was sold primarily in Christian book stores and the Times did not track the sales of Christian books.

Over the years since 1970 Dispensationalism has lost a considerable measure of its steam. Many of the institutions that taught it, even championed it, such as Dallas Theological Seminary, have moved away from many of its assertions. Still, if one goes to Costco, one will find a huge stack of the most recent installment in the Left Behind series of books, which feature a standard form of Dispensationalism. So, if it has been pretty well battered as a form of biblical interpretation in evangelical scholarship, it still is very much alive in the popular piety of American evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.

A number of us in this sanctuary this evening grew up in an evangelical atmosphere dominated by Dispensationalism. It was the belief of many devout Christians of the previous several generations: D.L. Moody the influential evangelist, C.I. Schofield, whose Bible notes published in an edition of the King James Bible indoctrinated several generations of American evangelicals in Dispensational thought, Harry Ironside, a popular preacher, Bill Bright, who died just a few weeks ago and founded Campus Crusade International, and so on. Dispensationalism is taught today at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, at Multnomah School of the Bible in Portland, and it used to be taught at Biola, Wheaton, and a host of other evangelical educational institutions.

On the other hand, it needs to be admitted that Dispensationalism as a system has never been taught by any Christian scholar who could fairly be called a great theologian or doctor of the church, it bears the burden of asserting that its conclusions are obvious though nobody seems to have drawn them from the Bible until 1830 and most of devout scholarship has been unable to see them even since.

So, what is Dispensationalism exactly? First, it should be said that early Dispensationalism included some teachings that were highly unfortunate that many later Dispensationalists have repudiated. We need to be careful not to paint everyone in the Dispensational camp with the same brush. Some dispensationalists taught that salvation was by works in the OT but by grace in the NT, they taught a very jaundiced view of God’s law and of the life of faith in the Old Testament. Thankfully, that opinion has been widely discredited even in Dispensational circles. Still more dispensationalists have taught that the ten commandments are not for Christians today. Thankfully one hears much less of that nowadays.

Dispensationalism is an eschatological system based on one theological assertion, viz. that there are two distinct peoples of God, Israel and the church, through whom God is carrying out two distinct and different plans for human history. God’s program and purpose for Israel is found in the Old Testament and is primarily earthly and theocratic. God’s purpose for the church is spiritual and redemptive. During the church age, that is the epoch introduced by Pentecost and continuing today, God has temporarily broken off his dealings with Israel and is forming his church. But, at the end of this age, this ‘great parenthesis,’ when his purpose for the church is complete, God will resume his dealings with Israel. The Jews will be restored to the Holy Land, the OT cultic order will be restored – sacrifices in the Temple and so on – and Christ will reign as the Davidic King of Israel and from Jerusalem will exercise authority over the entire world.” In this scheme, Old Testament saints did not belong to the church and the church in the NT epoch is in no sense the continuation of Israel as a spiritual, theological community.

Historic or non-Dispensational premillennialism regards the millennium as a continuation of God’s redemptive program in this world, which has been the same from the beginning and is now being experienced by the church as it had been by Israel before, not as the restoration of or return to some different earthly and theocratic program and certainly not as the restoration of the ancient Jewish order. It does not distinguish between the kingdom and the church, one Israelite and one a spiritual community of faith, but argues that there has always been a church from Eden to the present day and that while the Jews predominated in it in one epoch, Gentiles do now.

To put it in another way, Dispensationalism teaches that

“God’s plan for Israel was revealed through a series of covenants (Adamic, Mosaic, Davidic) which pointed to the establishment of the Messianic kingdom on the earth. But when the Messiah came, Israel rejected him. God then postponed the kingdom, turned away from Israel and created out of the Gentiles a new people, the church. According to this postponement theory, God will not resume his dealings with Israel until he finishes building the church and raptures it to heaven. Then the…events of the last days will take place: the great tribulation, the rise of Antichrist and the false prophet, the battle of Armageddon, the Second Coming of Christ, the binding of Satan and the establishment of the millennial kingdom on earth. The millennium will be the time of fulfillment for the OT prophecies to Israel.” [David Jones’ Syllabus on Eschatology]

This theological distinction between Israel and the church is the basis for what is clearly the emotional center of Dispensationalism, the doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture of the church. That is the view, made popular in so many books and movies, that at some future moment, a moment unheralded and unpredictable, the believing church will be “raptured” that is caught up into the air to meet the Lord Jesus Christ coming down from heaven. However, he will then turn around and take the church back with him to heaven. Only seven years later, the seven years of the great tribulation, will Christ come all the way back to earth. That is the sense of the Left Behind in the series of books by Tim LaHaye. The church is gone from the world and others are left behind. That later coming, seven years after the first, is the true first coming. In other words, there are two second comings, a first and secret one for the church and then seven years later a public one for vindication of the believing Jews. The millennium that begins with that second Second Coming will be Jewish and Old Testament in its character. Christ will reign for a thousand years over a restored Israel and Jerusalem and over the entire world from Jerusalem. The temple will be rebuilt, sacrificial worship reinstituted, and so on.

Now, you see, the theological purpose of the secret rapture, the taking up of the church out of the world seven years before the Second Coming is to remove the Gentile church so that God can reestablish Israel in the forefront of his historical purpose. In a book on the rapture published some years ago, John Walvoord, the president of Dallas Theological Seminary, admitted that the rapture was never, in so many words, taught in the Bible, it was a theological conclusion to be drawn from there being two different peoples of God and two distinct and separate divine purposes in history. The church must be removed so that Israel may once again be the focus of God’s purpose for the world. It is the church or Israel, never the two together.

It is the rapture, the secret and sudden disappearance of the church, that is the emotional center of Dispensationalism and, in my opinion, it is the emotional attachment to the idea of the rapture that has kept Dispensationalism from disappearing altogether. You have to know the history of fundamentalism in the English speaking world to know how deeply fixed the rapture became in the mind of Christians of this persuasion. I have a friend, a sometime PCA minister, who grew up in Plymouth Brethren circles, which were both Baptistic and Dispensational by and large. He told me once of friends of his family who never locked their door at night at least when their children were young. They propped a board up under the doorknob instead. They did this because they feared that if the rapture happened during the night, their little children would awake in the morning, find their parents gone and be unable to get out of the house. The Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye takes its point of departure from this expectation of the sudden, unexplained disappearance of hundreds of millions of Christian believers from the world. The rapture is the key to Dispensational preaching. At any moment the Lord might come for his church. Are you ready?

Now, it will not surprise you to learn that we are not enamored of Dispensationalism here. We do not think it is a sound interpretation of the Bible. It sprung up in that remarkably fertile period of eschatological speculation in the early 19th century in which also sprung up other views such as those of Seventh Day Adventism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Virtually every part and piece of this system of biblical interpretation has been subjected to searching criticism and, in my view, there is not a part of the Dispensational system against which cannot be brought fatal objections.

The most important of these, in my view, are the following.

1. First, Dispensationalism requires a strict and absolute separation between Israel and the Church as distinct and separate peoples of God. There can be no mixture of them into a single people of God. That would be the end of Dispensationalism. This separation of Israel and church, Jew and Gentile is the basis of everything. But, in fact, the Bible is always mixing believing Jews and Gentiles into a single people of God. It does so explicitly, artlessly, emphatically, and in a variety of different ways. There is one olive tree, Paul says in Romans 11, and while the Jewish branches have been cut off and Gentile branches have been grafted in, it is the same tree, and the Jews will be grafted back into this one tree in due time.

a. Again and again in the NT we have the Gentile church declared to be the continuation of the OT church and OT Israel. Paul tells a Gentile church in Philippi that “we [Christians] are the circumcision”, that is the true circumcision. He tells a largely Gentile church in Corinth that “our forefathers came through the Red Sea.” That is, the Jews of the wilderness generation were the spiritual ancestors of the Gentile Christians in Corinth. In that same chapter he speaks of the Israel “according to the flesh” indicating that there is also an Israel according to the Spirit, that is the believing church of God, of which the believers in Corinth are a part. Peter, speaking to a largely Gentile church, writes in 1 Pet. 2 that they are “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” using language God uses to describe Israel in Exodus 19. And in Galatians 6 Paul refers to the church of God as the Israel of God. The last thing a careful reader of the NT can carry away from his reading is the idea that Israel and Church are two separate peoples and are dealt with by God according to two separate plans or programs.
b. Dispensationalism requires that the terms church and Israel never be coterminous. Dispensational writers have labored to demonstrate that the word “church” is never used of Israel. But the fact is, it is. In Acts 7:38 Stephen, speaking of Israel after the exodus, refers to “the church in the wilderness.” And there are other examples. One of the most important is in Acts 15:13-18 where, in the context of the Jerusalem assembly, James argues, citing Amos 9:11-12 that the fallen tent of David is being rebuilt in the Gentile mission, that is, that Israel, as a spiritual community of God’s people, is being reformed by the conversion and ingathering of Gentile believers. Dispensationalists have spent a long time in Acts 15 because what seems to be its sense is fatal to its theory – it cannot survive if Israel and the Church are a single people of God united by living faith in Jesus Christ – but few have been impressed by the efforts of Dispensational writers to get round the problem James posed for them. As Paul says in Ephesians 2: God has made the two one!
c. The fact of the matter is, the people of God in the Bible is the community of faith in whatever epoch, formed by faith in Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and by the embrace of the gospel that the NT says explicitly and emphatically was the message preached to Israel in the wilderness and is the message preached by the apostles to the Gentile world. The notion that there are two separate people with whom God deals in two separate and distinct ways is simply alien to the Bible and a contradiction of its basic viewpoint. Both postmillennialists and historic premillennialists expect a great movement of salvation among the Jews near the end of the age, but they understand by that, what would certainly seem to be Paul’s straightforward teaching, that the Jews will embrace the gospel and join with Gentile believers in the one holy church and people of God.

2. But, if the theological basis for Dispensationalism is false so are its specific claims. Let me mention just one of them tonight. I chose the rapture because that is what most people think of when they think of Dispensationalism and because without the rapture, as it is taught in Dispensationalism, the entire system would fall.

Look with me at 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Read

The words “caught up” in v. 17 are where the notion of a “rapture” is found. In the Latin Bible the verb was rapio from which “rapture” comes. That is the idea but, in Dispensationalism, of course, it is held that after we are caught up into the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, he will turn round, with us in his train, and return to heaven for seven years. The world as a whole will never see the Lord when he comes the first time to gather his church. They will only see him seven years later when he returns in triumph to the earth.

Now, obviously the Bible doesn’t anywhere actually say this, as some Dispensationalists have admitted. But that is what they take the rapture to be, the evacuation of the church out of the world seven years before the Second Coming.

However, it is not only that we read nothing here in 1 Thessalonians 4 about two comings of the Lord or the church returning to heaven so that Israel may once again become the focus of the Lord’s kingdom in the world. What we read does not support the Dispensational scenario.

In v. 17 it is said that we will “meet” the Lord in the air. Literally it says that we will be caught up “for a meeting” with the Lord in the air. That word “meeting” however is instructive. Look, for example, at Acts 28:15. There we read that the Apostle Paul, making his way to Jerusalem, after surviving the shipwreck, was met by some leaders of the church in Rome. They had come out of Rome to meet the great Apostle and escort him into the capital. What we actually read in Acts 28:15 is that they came “for a meeting.” The phrase is the same here as in 1 Thess. 4:17. This is language drawn from Greco-Roman diplomatic procedure. When dignitaries were paying official visits to a city in the Hellenistic world, city fathers or representatives would greet them outside the city walls and provide an official escort into the city. [B. Rigaux, Saint Paul Les Épitres aux Thessaloniciens, 547; George Milligan, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians, 62.]

In other words, anyone reading 1 Thess. 4:17 in the era of the NT would conclude not that Christ turned around in the air and returned to heaven but that the church having met the Lord in the air formed his escort and returned with him to the earth! There is no secret rapture here but a very public Second Coming.

Whether it is even wise to speak of a “rapture” is debatable. If we use the term at all it should be clear that all we mean by it is one of the steps in the complex event we know as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. In order for his saints to be in his entourage when he returns to earth, they must meet him in the air. To call it the rapture, however, suggests that it is somehow a separate event and that the Bible does not teach.

There is another reason why Dispensationalists believe that the church will be raptured out of the world seven years before the Second Coming. They believe that the Bible teaches that God would not allow his saints to pass through the Great Tribulation. They cite Rev. 3:10:

“Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on earth.”

But that is hardly a promise that the church will be raptured. When Jesus says in his high priestly prayer in John 17:15: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the Evil One” we have the very same word “keep” explicitly meaning that God would preserve them through the trial not keep them from going through the trial.

There are a great many who have believed in the pre-tribulation rapture of the church precisely because it provided them the comfort of thinking that they would not have to endure the great tribulation. Far better and far more biblical to take our comfort in the keeping power and mercy of God in Christ and the certainty that if God is for us no one can be against us.

With all respect for the devout people who have held this view for generations now, I tell you that it is not an interpretation of Scripture that is worthy of your credit. I have only scratched the surface of the problems. But, unlike the chaste material of the Bible that sketches the future only in broad outline, Dispensationalism purports to tell us how everything is going to turn out – newspaper exegesis has been the bane of Dispensationalism since its inception – and their system is based squarely on a distinction between Israel and the church that is not only not taught in the Bible but is directly contradicted by the Bible time and time again. There is, there has been, there always will be but one people of God, one divine kingdom, one plan and purpose for the church of God, and one consummation embracing all those who love and trust the Lord Jesus, whether Jew or Gentile. That much we can say for sure.

I will say no more about the questions that divide us regarding our understanding of the end of history. From now on our series will be devoted to the still larger questions of death and resurrection, the last judgment, heaven and hell.