Is the Dispensational Worldview Biblical?

For a summary of ten theological issues, go to my Spiritual Journey

©2004 by Tim Chastain

Hello James,

I really enjoyed preparing the paper on the origins of Satan. I appreciate your prompting me to put that part of my spiritual journey on paper. While waiting for you to work through that topic, I decided to begin work on a second topic I think you will find interesting and personally relevant, and one which I think is quite important to my larger journey—the examination of dispensationalism.

FACING PROPHETIC ISSUES

Among those who take the Bible seriously, there are two common approaches to Bible prophecy. The first is to avoid the subject and refuse to choose among the various views of prophecy, because Bible prophecy is confusing, difficult and controversial. While these people believe in prophecy, they wish to remain neutral regarding the details and leave it to God to work it out when the time comes.

A supporting reason to avoid the study of prophecy is the idea that it has little to do with practical Christian living, so why spend time and energy on it?

The second common approach is opposite. Prophecy may be future oriented, but the future is today, or at least very soon. Prophecies written throughout the Bible were pointing to an end-time period, and that end-time period is now. So believers who follow this approach tend to study the details and apply them to current events, and often do so with great enthusiasm.

Let me say that those who avoid prophecy do not meet their objective of neutrality. Instead, they often hold by default to a package of assumptions that affects their behavior in significant ways. Furthermore, their assumptions usually represent a specific prophetic perspective called dispensationalism.

Therefore, one group seeks to explore prophecy and tends to hold dispensational assumptions, whereas the other group seeks to avoid prophecy but still tends to hold dispensational assumptions.

Why do people often have dispensational views when they think they have neutral views? The answer is not difficult. Those who champion dispensationalism are very vocal, while those who are not dispensational usually say little about it, because prophecy is not central to their theology and is therefore not nearly as urgent.

As a result, public discussions about prophetic details are rarely between competing systems of prophetic interpretation, but between variations of dispensationalism, which gives the impression that underlying dispensational assumptions are standard.

Some examples of discussions within dispensationalism are:

  1. Is the rapture pre, mid, or post tribulation?
  2. Who is the anti-christ?
  3. What is the mark of the beast?
  4. Are certain current events fulfillments of end-time prophecies?
  5. (And occasionally) Is a predicted date for the rapture valid or invalid?

It is easy to confuse dispensationalism as simple biblical prophecy, because dispensational ideas about prophecy are practically the only ideas discussed in public. Almost to a person, every radio or television speaker on prophecy is a dispensationalist. Almost every prophecy book on the bookstore shelf is dispensational. Practically every sermon on prophecy from every church pulpit is—you guessed it—dispensational. Why? Because non-dispensationalists rarely talk about prophecy.

By exception, there are a few writers and speakers who share a distinction in being non-dispensationalists who talk about prophecy, but they often share another trait as well. Many vocal, non-dispensational, writers and speakers are former dispensationalists who have changed their views and have become vocal because they see dispensationalism as a serious theological error. Therefore, they have a sense of urgency, and you might call them not just non-dispensationalists, but anti-dispensationalists.

I will save you some suspense and tell you that I fall somewhat into this group. I was a dispensationalist (by default), but changed my views. Though I do not often discuss prophetic issues, I do see dispensationalism as a serious theological error with quite significant practical consequences.

This was not so when I was younger. I am sure you recall I was happy to debate aggressively any issue on which I had an opinion, and I had an opinion on almost every issue. Prophecy was a lonely exception. I practiced the avoidance approach, believing certain things about prophecy but with little detail of definition.

My avoidance of prophecy bothered me for years. As a Bible student, I investigated one subject after another until I understood it, but prophecy put me off. It was a big and a potentially dangerous subject, and I was hesitant to undertake it. On the other hand, I could never accept myself as a well-rounded Bible student until I had conquered this theological quagmire. Someday I would have to take a deep breath and do it.

That day finally came in August of 1982. The study of prophecy seemed a daunting project with many components, so I began by getting a grasp of the various millennial views. I was pretty comfortable with my own pre-millennial viewpoint, but before exploring the ins and outs of it, I wanted to set it against the backdrop of competing Christian perspectives.

I read five books that August, and five more over the next couple months, plus I did a considerable amount of library research and examined carefully many of the more important related passages of scripture. This resulted in a paper for Harold Hunter’s history of doctrine class at the Church of God School of Theology in the fall of 1982 entitled Augustine's Response to Chiliasm. Then I backed off reading for awhile to let things soak in.

During those months of research, I encountered a lot that I already knew. After all, it is impossible to be a Bible student for so many years and not absorb anything at all about prophecy. I also learned many new things and was able to place prophetic issues into clearer patterns. My study helped me to comprehend more clearly the distinctiveness of each millennial view.

Simply stated, pre-millennialism teaches that the second coming of Christ will occur before (pre) the millennium, whereas post-millennialism teaches that the Church will grow until it evangelizes the world, and world conditions will gradually become more perfect, until the millennium is attained. Then, the second coming of Christ will occur after (post) the millennium. Amillennialism teaches that the millennium is occurring right now and is the same as the Church age.

My biggest surprise was the discovery of a fourth millennial view—dispensationalism. I knew dispensationalism was pre-millennial, but did not realize it is so different from classical pre-millennialism that practically all writers treat it as a fourth system. Indeed, many critics of dispensationalism were from the classical pre-millennial camp.

WHAT IS DISPENSATIONALISM?

What makes dispensationalism distinctive? Dispensationalists agree with classical pre-millennialists that the second coming will occur prior to the commencement of the thousand-year reign of Christ (the millennium), and they often agree on many details as well. However, dispensationalists impose a system of interpretation on prophetic study that classical pre-millennialists reject. This system of interpretation leads to many results that are unique to dispensational thought.

The name, ‘dispensational’ refers to the practice of separating human history into several periods, or dispensations—typically seven of them, but sometimes more or fewer. These dispensations represent different ways that God related to mankind.

This is a characteristic of dispensationalism, but is not in itself sufficient to set dispensationalism apart from other prophetic systems. Most interpreters see at least two such periods of human history—the Old Testament period (law) and the New Testament period (grace) separated by the life and work of Christ.

Others see a third period before Moses (pre-law), and some see a fourth period before the fall of Adam (innocence). Though dispensationalists push these divisions to new levels of interpretation, the divisions themselves are not so distinctive.

The distinctive principles of dispensationalism lie elsewhere. I will allow one of the dispensationalists’ own leading proponents to explain them. Charles Ryrie writes in his book, Dispensationalism Today (Moody, 1965, pp. 44, 45):

  1. A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the Church distinct . . . Chafer summarizes it as follows: ‘The dispensationalist believes that throughout the ages God is pursuing two distinct purposes: one related to the earth with earthly people and earthly objectives involved which is Judaism; while the other is related to heaven with heavenly people and heavenly objectives involved, which is Christianity’ . . . This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a man is a dispensationalist, and it is undoubtedly the most practical and conclusive. A man who fails to distinguish Israel and the Church will inevitably not hold to dispensational distinctives; and the one who does, will.

  2. The distinction between Israel and the Church is born out of a system of hermeneutics which is usually called literal interpretation. Therefore, the second aspect of the sine qua non of dispensationalism is the matter of plain hermeneutics. The word literal is perhaps not so good as either the word normal or plain, but in any case it is interpretation that does not spiritualize or allegorize as nondispensational interpretation does.

This definition is a good one, not only because it is accurate, but also because it prevents us from having to consider individually each of the multitude of particular dispensational prophetic interpretations. One can begin by considering whether one or the other of these two principles is invalid. If so, then the entire dispensational system collapses. Indeed, my conclusion is that both principles are invalid. I shall say more on that later.

Until the contrast in principles of interpretation is understood, it is very difficult to discuss differing views. For example, the most noticeable feature of dispensational belief—recognized by almost anyone with any exposure to dispensationalism, though they may not recognize it as such—is the secret rapture and seven-year tribulation.

The secret rapture is unique to dispensationalism, and is absent from other forms of prophetic interpretation. People have often asked me, ‘Are you pre-trib, mid-trib, or post-trib?’ The question makes no sense outside dispensational assumptions. Before answering, one must discuss deeper hermeneutic differences, after which the question of pre-trib or post-trib is moot.

Many entire denominations are firmly dispensational in outlook. Some examples are Plymouth Brethren, Grace Brethren (not historically related), GARBC (Baptist), Southern Baptist Convention, Evangelical Free, Independent Fundamentalists, and most Holiness and Pentecostal denominations. That does not mean there are no exceptions in these groups, but like Dove soap they are 99 and 44/100ths percent pure.

My own childhood denomination, The Free Will Baptist Church, is an odd exception among fundamentalist groups. There are two camps: dispensationalists and amillennialists. I knew this only from reading and from a couple of statements made by preachers, so it was only a puzzling curiosity to me since I never actually knew or met any amillennial Free Will Baptists. In our circle, for all practical purposes, they did not exist.

The official Church of God view is stated in the teachings, ‘Premillennial second coming of Jesus. First, to resurrect the dead saints and to catch away the living saints to Him in the air. Second, to reign on the earth a thousand years.’ This is a pre-millennial, but not necessarily a dispensational statement.

However, in the churches dispensationalism was practically universal at that time. The books on prophecy written by Church of God authors such as Ray Hughes, Clyne Buxton, George Britt, Clyde Cox, Parnell Coward, T. L. Lowery and others—not to mention Finis Dake—were all dispensational.

I recall two discussions that dissented from the common view. The first was a panel event on Lee campus involving Professor C. Hassell Bullock. You may remember him from our Old Testament Survey class. As I recall, he defended a mid-trib view of the rapture. After some heated discussion, one student turned to the other professor (I think it was James Beatty) and asked loudly, ‘Is he a heretic?’ I did not understand the issues very well at the time, but I suspect Bullock was a dispensationalist with a mid-trib view.

The second involved another academic in the Church-Hollis Gause. Shortly after I began my prophetic studies, Gause wrote a commentary on Revelation that he claimed was not dispensational. Eagerly, I read his commentary in February of 1984, but was disappointed. Though he did not toe the line on dispensationalism, by the end of the book he made an unexpected and unnecessary concession that seemed to distinguish between the Church and Israel and stated specifically that the Church would be raptured before the tribulation, both of which are dispensational beliefs.

I don’t believe you took systematic theology at Lee. My systematic professor was Bill George. I would love to tell you what we discussed regarding prophecy, but as ‘Eschatology’ was the last topic in the textbook we never got to it. I suppose this happened every year because whenever a student asked any question Bill George did not want to spend time on he would say, ‘We will discuss that in Eschatology!’

WHAT DO DISPENSATIONALISTS BELIEVE?

Now that we have an idea of the principles of interpretation underlying dispensational thought, let us specify some of the beliefs that flow out of those principles. I will not list marginal and bizarre views, but only commonly accepted beliefs as represented by leading proponents of dispensationalism. You will be familiar with most of these.

WHY ARE DISPENSATIONAL ASSUMPTIONS SO WIDESPREAD?

The three classical millennial views are ancient; all of them were current in the first centuries of the Church. Dispensationalism is not ancient. The facts of its history are available for anyone to investigate. Beginning in the 1830s, a small group of individuals in England developed and promulgated dispensationalism for the first time. They built on some earlier strands of thought, but none were ancient.

The leader of the group was a man of strong personality named John Nelson Darby who was so identified with the development of dispensationalism that in the early days it was called Darbyism. Dispensationalism caught the imagination of some in America, including many associated with the famous evangelist, Dwight Moody.

In 1878, W. E. Blackstone published a book called Jesus Is Coming. In 1909 several hundred thousand copies of this book were sent free to Christian workers all over the world including America and had a great impact in popularizing the dispensational view. (I have the 1916 edition of this book; if you find an earlier one—snag it for me!)

In that same year another publishing event had an even more profound influence. Some years prior to 1909, C. I. Scofield had developed a long and detailed prophecy correspondence course for Moody Bible Institute. I have the 1907 edition of the course, which is three volumes in hardback. In 1909, Scofield released a study Bible in which he incorporated his extensive dispensational notes. Generations of Bible readers have read the Scofield Bible along with the notes, so that Scofield’s notes are practically a part of the Bible to them.

Prophecy conferences disseminated dispensational ideas, and some Bible colleges and theological schools, such as Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Theological Seminary, strengthened the movement in America. The writings of Fenis J. Dake helped spread dispensationalism in some circles.

Another explosion of dispensationalism came in 1970 with Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, the best selling non-fiction book of the decade. By 1980 there were more than 10 million copies in print, and sales of this one title made Zondervan Publishing House into a major player and financed Zondervan’s future success with the NIV Study Bible.

Finally, in the 1990s, when it seemed that dispensationalism had already saturated popular American culture, Tim LaHaye published the first of his Left Behind series, which has taken over both religious and secular best sellers lists.

With wave after wave of dispensational bombardment, it is no surprise most Americans are unaware that these ideas are only one Christian perspective among several—and a quite recent one at that. However, such views would not so readily be accepted unless there were some additional forces at work. I suggest several:

  1. Dispensationalism is presented as Bible truth rather than speculation or as one view among many. People respond to strongly stated views.

  2. Dispensationalism emphasizes the accuracy and integrity of scripture.

  3. Dispensationalism answers a lot of questions. By nature, people want to know, and dispensationalism provides the illusion of knowing.

  4. Dispensationalism is sensational and exciting.

  5. Dispensationalism speaks to current events and gives them significance.

  6. Dispensationalism fills a prophetic void. Other prophetic interpretations speak with quiet voices, while dispensationalism places prophecy front and center in its theology.

All of these things combine to make dispensationalism attractive. It is a very comfortable and fulfilling belief system. The question is whether it is true.

LITERAL INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE

Ryrie states that the second sine qua non of dispensationalism is a literal interpretation of scripture, and that this second requirement is the foundation of the first, which is distinguishing between Israel and the Church. Let us examine the significance and validity of this principle.

One cannot doubt that this is indeed the guiding principle of dispensationalism. Not only Ryrie, but every major dispensationalist recognizes the foundational importance of literal interpretation.

Blackstone: ‘There are symbols, figures or tropes, metaphors, etc., used in scripture and there are, also, allegories. But unless they are so stated in the text, or plainly indicated in the context, we should hold only to the literal sense . . . What is the purpose of language, if not to convey definite ideas? Surely the Holy Spirit could have chosen words to convey His thoughts correctly.’ (Jesus Is Coming, Revell, 1908, pp. 21-23).

Scofield: ‘The Prophecies. Here we reach the ground of absolute literalness. Figures are often found in the prophecies, but the figure invariably has a literal fulfillment.’ (Scofield Bible Correspondence Course, vol. 1, Moody Bible Institute, 1907, p. 46).

Pentecost: ‘Inasmuch as God gave the Word of God as a revelation to men, it would be expected that His revelation would be given in such exact and specific terms that His thoughts would be accurately conveyed and understood when interpreted according to the laws of grammar and speech. Such presumptive evidence favors the literal interpretation, for an allegorical method of interpretation would cloud the meaning of the message . . . the literalist does not deny the existence of figurative language. The literalist does, however, deny that such figures must be interpreted so as to destroy the literal truth intended through the employment of the figures. Literal truth is to be learned through the symbols.’ (Things To Come, Zondervan, 1964, pp. 10, 13).

Walvoord: ‘Among conservative interpreters of the Bible, the issue of literal versus figurative or allegorical interpretation is a major issue because on it hangs the question as to whether the Bible teaches a future millennial kingdom following the Second Advent, or whether it does not . . . it may be presumed in studying prophecy that a statement predicting a future event is factual unless there are good reasons for taking it in another sense.’ (Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, Victor Books, 1990, pp. 15, 16).

ALLEGORY

Dispensationalists often contrast ‘allegorical’ and ‘grammatical-historical’ interpretation. This harks back to different approaches of the two leading Christian schools in the earliest centuries of the Church.

The Alexandrian school in Egypt favored an allegorical approach to scripture in which a symbolic (often arbitrary) understanding of a passage was more important than the obvious historical context. The original author’s intent was of little importance in allegorical interpretation. This was rooted in the works of the Alexandrian Jew, Philo, who pre-dated Jesus.

The Antiochian school of Syria favored a normal historical understanding of a passage, which dispensationalists often call the ‘plain’ sense of scripture. Almost everyone agrees that the Alexandrian approach was severely inadequate.

Origen is the most important of the Fathers associated with the Alexandrian school. We can illustrate the use of allegory from a passage in his Commentary on John in which he explains the story of the triumphant entry in John 12 and in Matthew 21:

Now Jesus is the word of God which goes into the soul that is called Jerusalem, riding on the ass freed by the disciples from its bonds. That is to say, on the simple language of the Old Testament . . . But He also rides on the young colt, the New Testament.

But He does not come alone to Jerusalem, the soul, nor only with a few companions; for many things have to enter into us before the word of God which makes us perfect, and as many things have to come after Him, all, however, hymning and glorifying Him and placing under Him their ornaments and vestures, so that the beasts He rides on may not touch the ground . . . But that his bearers, the old and the new words of Scripture, may be raised yet higher above the ground, branches have to be cut down from the trees that they may tread on reasonable expositions.

I know some who interpret the tied-up ass as being believers from the circumcision, who are freed from many bonds . . . and the foal they take to be those from the Gentiles, who before they receive the word of Jesus are free from any control and subject to no yoke in their unbridled and pleasure-loving existence.

Those who went before were like Moses and the prophets, and those who followed after the holy Apostles. To what Jerusalem all these go in it is now our business to enquire, and what is the house which has many sellers and buyers to be driven out by the Son of God.

I consider, too, that it is not without significance that the place where the ass was found tied, and the foal, was a village and a village without a name. For in comparison with the great world in heaven, the whole earth is a village where the ass is found tied and the colt.

Mark adds that they found the foal tied at the door, outside on the road. But who is outside? Those of the Gentiles who were strangers from the covenants, and aliens to the promise of God; they are on the road, not resting under a roof or a house, bound by their own sins . . . Mark, however, writing about the foal, reports the Lord to have said, ‘On which never man sat;’ and he seems to me to hint at the circumstance that those who afterwards believed had never submitted to the Word before Jesus’ coming to them. (Roberts and Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 9:396-399).

James, it will be obvious to you that Origen’s allegorical interpretation has nothing to do with the historical circumstance of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. When discussing opposing viewpoints, dispensationalists frequently use the term ‘allegorical interpretation’ and specifically mention the Alexandrian school and its obvious shortcomings with the clear implication that the non-literal interpretation of prophecy is somehow related and therefore suspect.

This contrast is overdrawn in regards to twentieth century prophetic interpretation. Indeed, the ‘plain’ understanding of scripture is often a clear symbolic or metaphorical meaning rather than the forced literal meaning assigned by dispensationalists, but symbolic or metaphorical does not mean allegorical. The intent of the biblical writer is sometimes metaphorical and should be accepted as such.

APOCALYPTIC

Most prophetic sections of the Bible used by dispensationalists to paint a detailed picture of the end times are apocalyptic in nature. This includes Daniel, The Book of Revelation, and important passages from the Gospels and from other Old Testament prophets. Apocalyptic works form a specific literary genre from ancient Jewish times, and sufficient apocalyptic works from this period exist to establish common characteristics of the literature.

They are filled with visions, heavenly journeys, and spirit-guides who explain to the traveler what is happening. Symbolism and grand imagery are the order of the day. Crashing mountains and falling heavenly bodies depict the collapse of secular power. Demons and mythic beasts represent evil forces in opposition to God and his people, while powerful angels bring about the will of God. Apocalyptic literature is mysterious—hence the spirit-guide, but even with a guide much is unclear.

Apocalyptic literature was written between about 200 BC and 100 AD with a distinct purpose. For centuries, God’s people experienced constant oppression by foreign powers, and at times it seemed that the people of God would be totally destroyed. It was at these times that apocalyptic writings appeared to assure the people that, though things seemed desperate, God would ultimately prevail and evil would be contained and annihilated.

Apocalyptic was a literature of hope during times of hopelessness.

One of the earlier and more influential apocalyptic writings is I Enoch. Here are some excepts from this book. You will note a number of similarities to apocalyptic passages from the Bible:

And behold I saw the clouds: And they were calling me in a vision, and the fogs were calling me; and the course of the stars and the lightenings were rushing me and causing me to desire; and in the vision, the winds were causing me to fly and rushing me high up into heaven.

And I kept coming (into heaven) until I approached a wall which was built of white marble and surrounded by tongues of fire . . . As for the floor, it was of fire and above it was lightening and the path of the stars; and as for the ceiling, it was flaming fire.

And I observed and saw inside it a lofty throne—its appearance was like crystal and its wheels like the shining sun; and (I heard?) the voice of the cherubim; and from beneath the throne were issuing streams of flaming fire. It was difficult to look at it. And the Great Glory was sitting upon it—as for his gown, which was shining more brightly than the sun, it was whiter than snow (14:8-20).

And after that, I saw a hundred thousand times a hundred thousand, ten million times ten million, and innumerable and uncountable (multitude) who stand before the glory of the Lord of the Spirits. I saw them standing—on the four wings of the Lord of the Spirits—and saw four other faces among those who do not slumber, and I came to know their names, which the angel who came with me revealed to me; and he (also) showed me all the hidden things.

(Then) I heard the voices of those four faces while they were saying praises before the Lord of Glory (40:1-3).

On that day, two monsters will be parted—one monster, a female named Leviathan, in order to dwell in the abyss of the ocean over the fountains of water, and (the other), a male called Behemoth, which holds his chest in an invisible desert whose name is Dundayin, east of the garden of Eden, wherein the elect and the righteous ones dwell (60:7, 8).

In those days . . . From dawn until the sun sets, they shall slay each other. The horse shall walk through the blood of sinners up to his chest. In those days, the angels shall descend into the secret places. They shall gather together into one place all those who gave aid to sin. And the Most High will arise on that day of judgment in order to execute a great judgment upon all the sinners (100:1-3).

In those days, when he hurls out against you terror of fire, where shall you flee, and where shall you find safety? When he flings his word against you, will you not faint and fear? All the luminaries shall faint with great fear; the whole earth shall faint and tremble and panic (101:1, 2).

Another apocalyptic work is 4 Ezra, written by a non-Christian Jew about the same time that John wrote the Revelation. 4 Ezra was a response to the crisis of the Roman destruction of the temple:

Behold, the days are coming when those who dwell on earth shall be seized with great terror, and the way of truth shall be hidden, and the land shall be barren of faith . . . and the sun shall suddenly shine forth at night, and the moon during the day, Blood shall drip from wood, and the stone shall utter its voice; the peoples shall be troubled, and the stars shall fall (5:1-5).

So when there shall appear in the world earthquakes, tumult of peoples, intrigues of nations, wavering of leaders, confusion of princes, then you will know that it was of these that the Most High spoke from the days that were of old, from the beginning (9:3, 4).

On the second night I had a dream, and behold, there came up from the sea an eagle that had twelve feathered wings and three heads . . . And I looked, and behold, on the right side one wing arose, and it reigned over all the earth. And while it was reigning it came to its end and disappeared, so that its place was not seen. Then the next wing arose and reigned, and it continued to reign a long time. And while it was reigning its end came also so that it disappeared like the first.

And behold, a voice sounded, saying to it, “Hear me, you who have ruled the earth all this time; I announce this to you before you disappear. After you no one shall rule as long as you, or even half as long” . . . And I looked, and behold, a creature like a lion was aroused out of the forest, roaring; and I heard how he uttered a man’s voice to the eagle, and spoke, saying,

“Listen and I will speak to you. The Most High says to you, ‘Are you not the one who remains of the four beasts which I had made to reign in my world, so that the end of my times might come through them? . . . you will surely disappear, you eagle, and your terrifying wings . . . so that the whole earth, freed from your violence, may be refreshed and relieved.’” (11:1-46).

Behold, a wind arose from the sea and stirred up all its waves. And I looked, and behold, this wind made something like the figure of a man come up out of the heart of the sea. And I looked, and behold, that man flew with the clouds of heaven; and wherever he turned his face to look, everything under his gaze trembled, and whenever his voice issued from his mouth, all who heard his voice melted as wax melts when it feels the fire.

After this I looked, and behold, an innumerable multitude of men were gathered together from the four winds of heaven to make war against the man who came up out of the sea. And I looked, and behold, he carved out for himself a great mountain, and flew up upon it . . . when he saw the onrush of the approaching multitude, he neither lifted his hand nor held a spear or any weapon of war; but I saw only how he sent forth from his mouth as it were a stream of fire, and of sparks.

All these were mingled together, the stream of fire and the flaming breath and the great storm, and fell on the onrushing multitude which was prepared to fight, and burned them all up, so that suddenly nothing was seen of the innumerable multitude but only the dust of ashes and the smell of smoke (13:2-11).

THE BOOK OF REVELATION

Between August of 1982 and August of 1986, I studied prophecy in four major topical concentrations: The Millennium, The Book of Revelation, The Tribulation, and The Book of Daniel.

In July of 1983, almost a year after I began studying the millennium and prophecy in general, I began to study the Book of Revelation by reading several good books from different perspectives. As a wrap up to this study, I took a class on the Book of Revelation at the Church of God School of Theology under Chris Thomas.

It was a small class, and interestingly every one in the class described themselves as non-dispensational. Each of us had to choose a commentary and bring insights from it to the class discussion as we worked our way through the Book of Revelation. To everyone’s surprise, I chose a dispensational standard—Walvoord.

I chose Walvoord because I had developed serious misgivings about dispensational theology, but I wanted to approach Revelation with an accurate understanding of dispensational interpretation and not some straw man I had constructed in my own mind. The result was decisive for me. I was convinced that dispensationalism was defective.

Dispensationalists state constantly that they recognize the existence of figures of speech, and it is true that in interpreting Revelation they do not press the literal interpretation of every detail. They do not believe the bowls that were poured out were literal bowls—they were symbols. The beast that rose up out of the sea was not a wet and hairy critter. Both the beast and the sea were symbols of something else.

However, dispensationalists do put too much of a literal burden on many details than is warranted of such a symbolic book, and they do so at the expense of the author’s intent.

For example, the last two chapters of the Book of Revelation describe a New Jerusalem lavish with precious metals and stones, grandiose in size, and containing the throne of God. Instead of discovering perhaps a picture of the splendor of the triumphant people of God and God’s comforting presence, Walvoord writes about the city:

A most astounding feature is the dimension of the city which is given as 1500 miles square and also 1500 miles high. Such a dimension quite unfamiliar even to a modern world with its high buildings would provide a city of impressive and spacious dimension as the seat of God’s eternal government and dwelling place for the saints.

Expositors differ as to whether the city is in the form of a cube or a pyramid though the latter seems more likely. If in the form of a pyramid, it is possible that the throne of God will be at the top and the river of life will wend its way from the throne down the various levels of the city (Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, Zondervan, page 334).

A second serious problem, besides over-literalism, is the dispensational premise regarding the purpose of Revelation. According to them, Revelation is written for believers of the present day about end-time events that are beginning to occur now and could not have been understood until now.

In general, it was a closed book to the people of the first century to whom it was written and for all Christians who read it until our time. Regarding the Book of Revelation, Walvoord states in his commentary, page 8:

It is too much to assume that the book, like the Old Testament apocalyptic books and prophecy generally, was intended to be comprehended fully by believers in the early church. As history unfolds and as prophecy is fulfilled in the future, much will be understood that could be only dimly comprehended by the first readers of the book.

The claim that Christians for 1700 years were unable to understand the Revelation because it was written for a later age seems to contradict the dispensational idea of God’s plain communication.

The more plain or natural understanding is that it was written specifically for the first century and is of value to us as we relate to that first century message. In fact, believers of the first century comprehended it better than we because they understood the symbolism and knew the historical references that are sometimes unintelligible to us.

The Book of Revelation is no different in style or in purpose than other apocalyptic writings. Written most likely during the intense persecution under Emperor Domitian in the last decade of the first century, it was a message of encouragement to a Church whose endurance was stretched to the limit. Though it appeared that Rome would crush the Church into nothingness, the writer assured them that Christ would prevail—in fact had already prevailed, and it was the power of Rome, not the Church, which would be destroyed.

A good summary of the message of Revelation is found in the words of Jesus in John 16:33, “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world!”

In a sense, dispensationalists acknowledge that the book was written to a first century milieu in that they insist there will be a revived Roman Empire and a re-establishment of the nation of Israel. Thus, first century conditions will be restored in order to fulfill the message of the Revelation.

Just because the book was written specifically to a first century situation (as were all of Paul’s letters, by the way), that does not mean it has no significance for believers of other ages. The Book of Revelation is a comfort whenever there is persecution of the Church, and even in times of peace we benefit from the exalted picture of Christ that is clearly presented to us in the book, and we benefit from other insights.

However, the Book of Revelation is not a detailed depiction of events that are to occur in the future. That is not the purpose of apocalyptic, nor is it the purpose of the Book of Revelation. Interpreting the symbolic Book of Revelation in a literal sense does not do justice to the intention of the book.

ISRAEL AND THE CHURCH ACCORDING TO DISPENSATIONALISM

As part of their distinctive approach to biblical interpretation, dispensationalists insist that Israel and the Church are separate institutions, so that ‘Israel’ never means the Church and ‘the Church’ never means Israel. At first glance, this may seem to make sense, but it is contrary to historic interpretation of the terms and contrary to the use of the terms in scripture. The result of this distinction is an understanding of God’s plan that minimizes the Church and creates other serious problems. Let us repeat Ryrie’s statement regarding this point:

A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the Church distinct . . . Chafer summarizes it as follows: ‘The dispensationalist believes that throughout the ages God is pursuing two distinct purposes: one related to the earth with earthly people and earthly objectives involved which is Judaism; while the other is related to heaven with heavenly people and heavenly objectives involved, which is Christianity’ . . . This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a man is a dispensationalist, and it is undoubtedly the most practical and conclusive. A man who fails to distinguish Israel and the Church will inevitably not hold to dispensational distinctives; and the one who does, will.

Let me spell out what this means. The program of God regarding the Jews involves certain promises to Israel which dispensationalists claim are yet to be delivered. These promises include the occupation by Israel of a certain area of land with exact boundaries and a king of David’s line.

They claim further that prophecies about the nation of Israel are yet unfulfilled such as Ezekiel’s vision of the temple. Whereas most scholars see these promises and prophecies as being already fulfilled either in the history of Israel or in the Church, dispensationalists transfer their fulfillment to the future.

Actually, this is a necessary outcome of the principal of strict literalism, as Ryrie himself declares (see above). Without the careful separation of Israel and the Church, strict literalism will not work.

For example: Ezekiel’s vision of the rebuilding of the temple and the restoration of Israel as a nation was fulfilled—otherwise, Jesus would not have had the magnificent temple in which to worship in his day. However, a rigidly literal actualization of Ezekiel’s vision has not occurred in history. Therefore, the temple must be re-built again in the future.

This idea of two restored temples—one in history past, the other in the future—represents a common theme in dispensationalism. A catchword among dispensationalists is ‘rightly dividing the word of truth.’ This means that reading scripture does not reveal truth unless it is rightly divided—that is, divided into its proper dispensation and its proper application to Israel or the Church.

Dispensationalists apply to Israel much of the Bible that most of us understand to apply to the Church (including most of the Gospels and the Book of Revelation). This division of scripture results in a multitude of duplications. In addition to two restored nations of Israel and two restored temples, there are two Roman Empires (one in past history, the other in the future), two second comings, three groups of saints, multiple resurrections and several judgments.

The importance of God’s program for national Israel is such that, instead of Israel leading up to the Church as the centerpiece of God’s program, national Israel is the centerpiece. Instead of foreshadowing the Church, Israel overshadows the Church.

This is the way is works. Throughout the Old Testament, God promised a kingdom to Israel in which they would dominate the earth. The purpose of Jesus’ birth and ministry was to make good on that commitment and offer the promised earthly kingdom to Israel. However, the Jews as a nation rejected Jesus’ offer, so the prophetic clock stopped temporarily. God’s program for national Israel was on pause.

At some time in the future, the prophetic clock will resume. When that occurs, the action will begin where it left off. National Israel will be restored, the temple rebuilt, and the Roman Empire revived in order to recreate the first century context so that prophecy can be fulfilled.

Now the most exciting aspect of this scenario regards the restoration of national Israel. For a hundred years, dispensationalists predicted (rather required) a restoration of the nation of Israel in Palestine. They had no doubt it would happen, and in 1948 it did! That was a big deal.

Even though the possibility of a restored Israel was in the air since the Zionist Congress at Basel in 1897, dispensationalists had committed to it more than fifty years earlier when such a result was not at all likely. In fact, the incidental creation of Israel in 1948 was a tremendous boost to dispensationalism and was seen by many as a validation of the entire dispensational system.

In 1984, we moved from Cleveland, Tennessee to Memphis. After visiting the various Churches of God in the city, we made the big step of leaving the denomination to join Raleigh Assembly, an historic Assemblies of God Church. I really enjoyed that church and especially the Sunday school class we attended.

A professor from the University taught the class as a discussion forum, using a curriculum based on articles from Christianity Today. He was really good. One Sunday, he was sitting on his stool at the front of the class and announced we would discuss an article on the nation of Israel and what Israel’s place in prophecy might be. Then he opened the floor for comments. I raised my hand.

‘The nation of Israel has no prophetic significance.’ It was just a simple contribution, and I did not anticipate its impact. The room erupted in gasps, protests, and disbelief. However, since a discussion forum is my element, I had previously established myself as a considerable Bible student and could not simply be dismissed as ignorant. For the remainder of the class there was, to say the least, a spirited exchange. The professor said we would continue the discussion the following week.

When he came into the auditorium after class, I was already seated, and he stopped by my seat on the aisle and leaned over. ‘Yeah, thanks for dropping that bombshell on my class!’ he grinned.

The next week, the class was full, and it was livelier than the first. One class member here had been absent the previous week. He and his wife were once members of Bishop Earl Paulk’s church in Atlanta (Paulk was a leader in the Church of God before he became independent), and they held views similar to mine.

On the other side was a real dispensationalist, and was he ever vocal! And distressed. He paced back and forth in front of the class almost wringing his hands. Scripture flowed like water that day.

Now I enjoy the exchange of ideas in the right way, and that class was a good venue for it, but the point is that the good Christians of the class could not even imagine that the creation of Israel was other than a huge event in God’s end-time plan.

So the prophetic clock restarted in 1948 with the establishment of Israel. With that accomplished, dispensationalists eagerly await developments in the one-world government (United Nations), the world church (the World Council of Churches), and especially the revived Roman Empire (the European Union). Just this past Sunday, my Sunday school teacher remarked on the prophetic fallout of the new Euro currency. I did not respond; it was neither the right time nor the right venue.

How does the Church fit into this view? According to dispensationalists, the Church was established to fill the time between the pausing of the prophetic clock when Israel rejected Jesus’ offer of the kingdom, and the resumption of the prophetic clock at the end-time (specifically at the rapture, which is seven years prior to the second coming).

In other words, the Church is ‘Plan B’, an afterthought—an interruption. The word once popular among dispensationalists is ‘parenthesis’.

ISRAEL AND THE CHURCH ACCORDING TO THE BIBLE

What does the Old Testament say about the Church? According to dispensationalists, it says nothing. The Church is not mentioned in the Old Testament at all. Nor is it in view in the Gospels. Neither is it involved in the Book of Revelation between chapters 3 and 20. All these scriptures are for national Israel and national Israel alone.

I have a problem with this. In fact, many ordinary Christians with dispensational assumptions become very uneasy once they understand the big picture regarding Israel and the Church in dispensational teaching.

Their uneasiness is not due to their being unsophisticated students of the Bible, but because their exposure to the Bible has produced in them the common sense impression that Christ came purposefully to establish the Church. To trivialize the Church in favor of national Israel brings into question the very work of Christ.

Along with the majority of biblical scholars today and throughout the history of the Church, I contend that God’s plan for Israel was to prepare for the Church, that the Church superceded national Israel (I will explain how this occurred), and that the Gospels and the Book of Revelation are by, for, and about the Church.

First of all, it is erroneous to think that the Church is absent from the Old Testament view. This idea is based on a misunderstanding of Paul’s statement in Ephesians:

In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 3:2-6).

Dispensationalists claim that Paul is saying the Church is a mystery completely unknown before it was revealed to Paul. In fact, there are two errors in this one idea. It is not the Church that is a mystery, but the fact that the Gentiles were to be so significant a part of the Church. Secondly, it is not said that the participation of the Gentiles was not made known to other generations at all, but rather the way in which God included them was not known.

Old Testament prophecy frequently commented on the positive response of the Gentiles to the kingdom. However, God revealed to Paul AND other Christian leaders (think of Peter’s episode with Cornelius) that the Gentiles would be equal members of the Church along with the Jews (not second class members) and would do so without the requirements of circumcision and the law. This was a mystery not known ahead of time.

THE CHURCH AND TRUE ISRAEL

This leads us to the question of the Church as True Israel. Now this is not a case where God had a people called Israel, and at some point adopted a new people and said to his old people, “You are not Israel anymore, I am going to call my new people ‘Israel’.” It is simpler than that. In fact, the process is not mysterious at all. Two Old Testament principles are at work.

Throughout the history of God’s dealing with his chosen people, beginning with Abraham’s own family, there has been a concept of the remnant. God chose Abraham and his descendants as his special people, but Ishmael and others of Abraham’s children did not inherit the special relationship; only Isaac did.

In turn, Isaac’s son, Esau, did not inherit, but only Jacob (who was also called Israel). The descendants of Jacob experienced the status of God’s chosen as the Children of Israel, but repeatedly large groups were unfaithful and the relationship was preserved in the remnant. The remnant was always God’s chosen people.

When Jesus came into the world, he offered salvation to the Jews. This is what all the previous relationships were leading up to, but the majority of the Jews did not believe and rejected his salvation. The Jews who did believe and who accepted God’s salvation through Jesus were the remnant, and this remnant was called the Church. The Church was composed entirely of the Jewish remnant that believed in Christ and was therefore God’s chosen people. The Jewish remnant was the True Israel.

Now, the community of God’s chosen was never totally exclusive. Provision was made for those outside the community to become part of the chosen community by taking on the obligations of the community and identifying with it.

After a time, the message of the Church attracted the attention of Gentiles, and some were accepted into the Jewish Church, especially in Antioch, and when the first missionaries carried the gospel to the Jews of Asia Minor, they found that large numbers of Gentiles responded to the message and wanted to identify with God’s chosen people.

This massive influx was unprecedented, but what was more startling was God’s revelation to both Peter and Paul. Not only were the Gentiles to be accepted into the Jewish Church, they were not to be burdened by the requirements of circumcision and the law. This was so remarkable that it nearly split the Jewish Church.

A meeting was held in Jerusalem under the direction of James (your namesake!) who was leader of the more conservative thinkers. James accepted God’s revelation to Peter, Paul and others, and the way was open to accept Gentiles believers as equal members of God’s chosen remnant.

In his statement on the matter, James cites the prophet Isaiah for support!

The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: ‘After this I will return and build David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things that have been known for ages.’ (Acts 15:15-18)

God would rebuild David’s fallen tent (Jesus, the son of David, fulfilled the promises of David’s kingly line), and he did it for two groups—the remnant of Israel and the Gentiles who bore his name. This surprising development was totally unanticipated by the Jewish Church. It was a mystery revealed by God to his apostles and prophets, but the prophet Isaiah also foretold it in general terms.

Paul gives us a picture of this process in the book of Romans. He warns certain Gentile believers against haughtiness in respect to unbelieving Jews. His analogy of the branches is very interesting:

If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. (Romans 11:17, 18)

Paul does not depict the Church as a different tree than Israel, but as the same tree. And the Gentiles are grafted into that tree. Therefore, the Church is God’s chosen people. The Church does not replace Israel, but rather the Church is Israel. The Church acquired a mixed Jewish/Gentile character, and in time the number of Gentiles exceeded the number of Jews in the Church, but the Church was always the True Israel.

JUDGMENT OF THE NATIONS

Let me touch on one more issue regarding national Israel. Dispensationalists tell us there will be a judgment of the nations at the end of the tribulation period. The point of this judgment is how the nations treated Israel during the tribulation, and those who treated Israel well will be allowed to enter into the Jewish millennial kingdom. Those who did not will be consigned to hell. The scriptural basis for this is a parable you may know as ‘The Sheep and the Goats’:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put his sheep on his right side and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:31-40)

Now one might think the least of these brothers would be Christians or perhaps people in general, but dispensationalists insist these brothers are the Jews of national Israel during the tribulation period.

Treating the Jews well will be rewarded. The scriptural passage continues with an address to those who did not treat the Jews well and the result of their omission: ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment.’ Not favoring the Jews will have dire consequences.

Though, in the eyes of dispensationalists, this judgment has to do with treatment of national Israel during the tribulation period, the idea of the judgment of the nations has an impact on Christian behavior today. This idea, together with beliefs that Israel is still God’s chosen people and that the restoration of Israel as a nation in 1948 was a prophetic act of God, causes many Christians to be unconditionally supportive of the current nation of Israel.

The continual oppression of the Palestinian people and the occupation and provocative violations of their land with Jewish settlements are not recognized for the evils they are.

Freed from dispensational misconceptions regarding Israel, I was able to come to grips with long held misgivings over Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. One of the cherished memories I have with my son, Andrew, is our marching together through Orlando with American Palestinians and singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ to draw attention to the terrible plight of the Palestinian people.

I know the Palestinians have a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot. As one political observer said, ‘The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.’ But that does not give the Israelis the right, with our support and encouragement, to oppress them. I do not condone terror, but neither do I condone oppression and provocation.

Is this anti-Semitism? No. It is not anti-Semitic to deny that Israel is God’s special people. France is not God’s special people; Brazil is not God’s special people; America is not God’s special people, and in each case it is no insult to say so. Nor is Israel God’s special people.

WALVOORD'S NUDGE

I have shown how I grappled with the theological issues of dispensationalism in my spiritual journey. I established that dispensationalism is built on two principles of biblical interpretation and demonstrated to my satisfaction that both principles are invalid, though I have no conviction that I have demonstrated it to your satisfaction. Upon these two principles all other beliefs of the dispensational system stand. I am sorry I cannot address those individual issues within the scope of this paper, because some of them are very interesting.

The teachings of the Church of God do not require a commitment to dispensationalism and a secret, pre-trib rapture; the teachings are pre-millennial, so that one can be either a dispensational pre-millennialist or a classical pre-millennialist and be in harmony with the teachings of the Church.

At the end of my inner conflict, this was my position. I was definitely not dispensational, but held to a classical pre-millennial position. However, I must say I held to pre-millennialism tenuously, but I did not want to let go of it.

Once more, I encountered Walvoord. On page 254 of his book, The Millennial Kingdom, he states:

Often an abandonment of the pretribulation rapture position by its former adherents is the first step to abandoning premillennialism as well. The logical alternatives which face a reverent scholar seem to be on the one hand the pretribulational and premillennial position resulting from a literal interpretation of prophecy or the amillennial and posttribulational position built upon a spiritualization or figurative interpretation of prophecy on the other hand.

After so many disagreements with Walvoord’s conclusions, I find I must agree with this one. I would have chosen different language, but his meaning is on target. The same strained over-literalism used to produce so much of the dispensational system also comes into play to paint a pre-millennial scenario. A more simple, common sense approach to the Bible results in amillennialism. So finally, he convinced me.

This created a problem. Suddenly, I was out of harmony with the teachings of the Church of God.

Shortly after, I moved to Memphis and joined the Assemblies of God, which, though officially pre-millennial, allows members to hold the amillennial position. I even spoke to the pastor about it before becoming a member. Not only did he accept me as I was, but some months later asked me to teach regular new member classes for all those joining the church. This was not my only reason for joining the Assemblies of God, but it was a significant one.

BEHAVIORAL RESULTS OF MY CHANGED VIEWS

I have already mentioned two changes resulting from my theological shift. I was able to speak against the oppression of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel, and I changed my denominational affiliation from the Church of God to the Assemblies.

Another important result was reduced anxiety about the future. I was freed from the frightening, and sometimes superstitious, prospect of being caught on the wrong side of unfolding prophecy.

The ecumenical movement (though recently there has been precious little movement), the World Council of Churches, the United Nations, and the European Union may be valid religious, social, and political concerns.

One may have occasion to speak out against them for one reason or another, but not because of their place in end-time events prophesied in scripture. One can relate to these institutions without fear that they may be early stages of an evil alliance against God.

Trying to identify and avoid the mark of the beast completely lost its meaning for me. In fact, for many years, I used for my voice mail at Family Bookstores the access code: 666. The anti-christ lost his power in my life.

Although ridding biblical prophecy of dispensational distortions makes it much less exciting, prophecy is important. I believe wholeheartedly that all evil will someday come to an end, that we will be resurrected, and that we shall live happily forever in the presence of God.

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