I originally wrote this around the time when the horrifically unnecessary reboot of the Left Behind series was hot news in the Christian blogosphere. Around that time in certain corners of the reformed community it was in vogue to assert that all dispensationalists were chart obsessed simpletons. I recently had a conversation with a committed amillennial brother who could neith articulate why he was committed to his position (other than listing who also holds/held the same position) and he had never heard anyone give any actual reasons for holding to dispensationalism. And where there is one, there are more, so I thought this (very) short discussion may be helpful to some in thinking through their eschatological position, or at least as a discussion starter.
Dispensationalism is defined by The Moody Handbook of Theology as “A system of theology recognizing different stewardships of Man under God. Dispensationalism is distinguished by (1) consistent literal interpretation (2) clear distinction between Israel and the Church (3) the glory of God as God’s ultimate purpose in the world.
To that I would add that dispensationalists typically look forward to a literal future earthly reign of Christ and would see (most of) the OT promises to Israel, especially as they relate to the Land, as still in force and to be fulfilled in the future and that if it was promised to Israel it was a promise for national Israel and can only be fulfilled in/through Israel. [Of course this is a very basic definition, if you want to dig deeper, this is a great place to start.]
While all believers should expect to be mocked by unbelievers, the sharpest mocking of dispensationalist believers comes from certain corners of the Christian community where there is zealousness for covenant theology. The Moody Handbook of Theology defines covenant theology (CT) as: A system of theology teaching that God entered into a covenant of works with Adam who failed whereupon entered into a covenant of grace, promising eternal life to those who believe. CT affirms there is one people of God called true Israel, the Church.
To that definition I would add that most adherents to CT reject the notion of a future earthly reign of Christ and any future role for national Israel in the plan of God. [Again this is a very basic definition; if you want to dig deeper this is a great place to start.]
I want to be exceptionally clear that the jokes and jibes don’t come from the solid mature believers within the CT community, and that I am not in any way leveling a blanket indictment against CT adherents, but they tend to come from those who mistake doctrinal knowledge for spiritual maturity. I have been greatly blessed by many who adhere to CT and have counted many as partners in ministry.
All of that said, dispensationalism is often characterized as the unthinking eschatological position, that bases its entire system on a few verses in Revelation 20. The Left Behind books/movies and the ravings of John Hagee as seen as typical of all dispensationalists rather than the solid teaching of John MacArthur or the theology of Robert Saucy. In short dispensationalism is often characterized as the theology of the dumb and unsophisticated. But it is not, there is plenty of biblical evidence for it outside of Revelation chapter 20. To that end I want to give you five very important reasons I am a premillennial dispensationalist, and you should be too.
- His Steadfast Love Endures Forever
If those sound like familiar words to you it might be because they occur frequently in the Psalms, in fact that phrase occurs a total of 288 times in the ESV translation of the Psalms. Steadfast love translates the Hebrew word hesed which is covenant making and covenant keeping love. The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (NIDOTTE) notes that “Divine hesed counteracts the wrath of God…Divine hesed is enduring, persistent, even eternal, the biblical writers celebrate the everlastingness of God’s hesed. This is seen by way of contrast with things which are long lasting but may not last forever.” The notion that God in his wrath rejected Israel for her disobedience contradicts what He has revealed about Himself, 288 times in the book of Psalms alone, in His inerrant infallible word. Consider the words of Isaiah 54:10 “Though the mountains will be shaken and the hills be removed my hesed for you will not be shaken.” To say that God has removed His hesed from Israel because of her disobedience is an attack on at the very least the clarity of scripture, and more fundamentally on the character of God.
- The Abrahamic Covenant
Speaking of covenant making and covenant keeping love, the conditions of the Abrahamic covenant have never been fulfilled. Most reader will rightly locate the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 12:1-3, but it is also repeated in Genesis 15. That is where God ratifies the covenant unilaterally. The LORD instructed Abram to split a heifer, a goat and a lamb in two and to arrange them as would be appropriate for a covenant ceremony. In the ancient near east a covenant would be ratified by a ceremony where the parties to the covenant would pass together between the halves of slaughtered animals before a feast was held with the butchered animals (in Hebrew covenants are literally cut, not made). The idea was that if either party violated the covenant they would be as dead as the animals that were split in half. But Abram never passed through the alleyway of the covenant, God caused a deep sleep to fall upon him, and appearing in the form of a smoking firepot, passed between the slaughtered animals alone. In order for God to break His covenant with Abram he would have to be as dead as the slaughtered cow, goat and lamb. The covenant that God unilaterally ratified in Genesis 15 promises a very specific tract of land to the descendants of Abraham in Genesis 15:18-21, that runs from the river of Egypt (likely the Nile) to the Euphrates. That promised land grant remains unfulfilled. Many of those who reject a future for national Israel claim that all of the Land promises were fulfilled when the Jews returned to their land from the Babylonian captivity, but at no time was all of that land under Jewish control, not even close. Unless God is as dead as livestock slaughtered 4000 years ago (and He isn’t) He will at some future time fulfill this promise.
- Wolves and Lambs
There is a remarkable passage in the book of Isaiah that is too often overlooked in this debate, Isaiah 65:17-25. Although the conditions described in this passage are identified as the New Heavens and the New Earth, they are clearly different from the Recreated New Heavens and New Earth described in Revelation 21:1-4. In Revelation 21:4 it says that death will be no more and that there will be no more pain or mourning. Yet in Isaiah 65:20 it is stated that the young man shall die a hundred years old and the sinner (who dies) 100 years old will be accursed. Isaiah 65 is clearly describing a period that is both different from the current condition of the fallen world, yet inferior to what is described in Revelation 21. The lamb will graze together with the wolf and the lion will eat straw like an ox, yet the serpent will still be eating dust (Isa 65:25). This appears to be a time when the effects of the curse are mitigated yet not completely removed, and before Satan has been finally cast into the lake of fire; that can only be during the millennial reign of Christ.
- Ezekiel’s Temple
In the book of Ezekiel nearly eight chapters (Ezekiel 40-47:12) are dedicated to a highly detailed vision of a temple, vastly larger than any temple ever constructed in Jerusalem, and what will go in that temple. Physical measurements of the temple are given, altars and gates are described and the duties of the priests and the Levites are detailed. It is simply inconceivable that so much detail would be given about a temple that is to be interpreted metaphorically. (Interestingly the remainder of Ezekiel described a division of the land that closely parallels the land promised in Genesis 15.)
- The Ascension
You might wonder what the ascension has to do with eschatology, well it is not so much the ascension, as it is the last question that the disciples ask before the ascension and the answer that Jesus gives. After spending weeks with the resurrected Christ and learning from Him, the disciples ask one final question, “Lord will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6) After all of their time together, the one question they ask, is about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. Even more telling was His answer “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority.” (Acts 1:7) The meaning is clear, the Father has fixed a time when He has ordained that the kingdom will be restored to Israel. There is just not a lot of wiggle room there to say there is no future for Israel in God’s plan.
I don’t believe in the four blood moons, I don’t believe that Old Testament saints were saved by a different means than New Testament believers, and I don’t believe there is any good reason to read the Left Behind books or see the movies (but it’s not sin if you want to), but when I examine the text of scripture, and when I approach it as an honest exegete, I am forced to conclude that Christ will return, the land promises to Israel will be fulfilled and that Jesus will reign on earth from the Throne of David. I don’t think that makes me unsophisticated in my theology, I just think that makes me biblical.