THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT
The Rise of Dispensationalism
February 28, 1999
What is dispensational premillennialism? What do those who adhere to this view believe about the end times, about the tribulation, the anti-Christ, and the thousand year reign of Christ? Why has this view gained such prominence and how has it helped Christians follow Christ more closely in the past 100 years? Join Ben as he tackles this popular and pervasive Eschatological view.
A few minutes ago, I flipped on CNN to catch up on the world news. If you have not seen a TV in the last thirty-five minutes or so, the reports that I saw from around the world were literally mind-boggling, catastrophic. In the last hour, some forty-three airliners in the US alone have crashed. They’re reporting in Hong Kong, China, Mexico City and other places in the world that there have been thousands and thousands of automobile accidents happening nearly simultaneously. In Texas, California, and Florida authorities are estimating that nearly twenty-five thousand inmates have escaped – they’ve suddenly disappeared. In Korea, one CNN International correspondent said they’re estimating that over 1.2 million Koreans have all of a sudden vanished off the planet.
Fortunately, the news reports I just gave you have not happened yet. They are not true. But if it were true, that would mean the rest of us would have been left behind. It would mean that Christ came to the earth secretly and raptured up the true believers in Him. Those remaining on earth would be here to endure what would probably be the most gruesome outpouring of the wrath of God upon mankind that we have ever known. The great outpouring of God’s judgment is called the Great Tribulation. This incredible end times scenario asks the question, are you rapture ready?
In this lesson, we will take an up close and Biblical look at the most popular eschatological end times view in this century, dispensational premillennialism. In our last lesson we kicked off the series, It’s the End of the World As We Know It. We looked at many practical reasons as to why it is important to be engaged in the study of the end times. If you have not read the previous lesson in this series, I would encourage you to go back and read it first. It gives an overview of what we’re going to talk about in this series.
I am going to let you know that you have to put on your thinking cap for the lesson ahead. If you left your brain in front of the television or at the park while you were jogging or working out – run go get it, because you’re going to need to be fully engaged. We are going to cruise through this incredible eschatological view.
In this lesson, I want to seek to answer three questions. The first question, what is dispensational premillennialism?
The second, why is this the most popular, the most dominant view in the Christian culture today? And the third question, how has this view helped Christians follow Christ more closely in this age?
First of all, what is dispensational premillennialism? It’s hard enough to say, much less unpack in order to understand what it is all about. I loved my grandfather. My grandfather, my mom’s dad, was a godly, godly, godly man. I didn’t know my dad’s father too well; he passed away when I was about, five years of age. But I knew my mom’s dad, and we called him “Buddy.” That was his nickname. He was a football coach, he was a teacher, and he was a student of the Word of God. In his house in Laurel, Mississippi, he had a lazy-boy chair. He had a debilitating stroke which left him paralyzed and confined to a wheel chair most of my life. But he would sit in this lazy-boy chair and to the left of his chair was this TV tray. On the TV tray there were always magazines, but standing out prominently was this black leather Scofield Reference Bible, King James Version. And nothing went on top of my grandfather’s Scofield Bible. The TV guide did not even go on top of that Bible.
My grandfather became so associated with this Bible that my dad and my uncle would call him Sco or Scofield. The notes in that Bible were by a man named Dr. C. I. Scofield. Dr. Scofield was a lawyer who was converted in the 19th century under the ministry of D. L. Moody, the evangelist and founder of Moody Bible College in Chicago, Illinois. Scofield was a brilliant man and he took the writings of the father of modern dispensationalism, John Nelson Darby (who we’ll talk about later), and popularized them through his study Bible known as the Scofield Study Bible. My grandfather would get out that study Bible and he would show the different eras, the different dispensations. He would show the different ways God was working in this era and this era and this era. My mom told me recently that he would bore her to tears with all the charts on the dispensations. He was impassioned by this system of interpreting and understanding the Scripture that is known as dispensationalism.
So, what is a dispensation? Some of the top dispensational scholars even debate on how to define it. But let’s look at a few definitions. Let’s look at Dr. Ryrie’s definition. My grandfather was raised on Scofield; I was raised on the Ryrie Study Bible. For years I didn’t realize that the notes were not inspired. I just thought that whatever Ryrie and Scofield said was the gospel. According to Ryrie, a dispensation is a distinguishable economy and an outworking of God’s purpose. Let me kind of explain what he is trying to say here for us.
Dispensationalism is a system, a Bible interpretation, which emphasizes different ways that God interacts with people in different periods. It is a perspective to see Scripture divided into distinct epics of God’s dealings with people.
God dealt with His people in different ways during different time periods in the history of Israel and the history of the church. Classic dispensationalists would break the Bible down, really break history down into seven distinct dispensations. The first dispensation is the dispensation of innocence, Genesis 1 through Genesis 3. That is Adam and Eve, the world pre-fall, and the Garden of Eden.
The second dispensation is the dispensation of conscience, Genesis 3-8. That is after the fall, Cain and Abel, and all the way up to the flood.
The third dispensation is the dispensation of civil government, Genesis 8-11. Here you have God’s covenant with Noah and Noah’s descendants and the Tower of Babel.
Then you go from Genesis 11 to Exodus 18 which is the fourth dispensation, the dispensation of patriarchal rule. This involves Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and the twelve sons which become the twelve tribes of Israel. You also have Moses and the exodus from Egypt.
The fifth dispensation is a long era; it covers Exodus 19 to John 14:30. It is the dispensation of the Mosaic Law. It involves God giving Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. All kinds of players are involved in this era – Moses, Joshua, David, Isaiah, the return from the exile, the divided kingdom and you have, of course, the coming of Jesus Christ.
The sixth dispensation according to this theological system is the dispensation of grace, or the church age. We are still in that dispensation today. This dispensation began at Pentecost in Acts 2:1. There are the twelve apostles, Paul’s conversion, his ministry to the Gentiles, and you have all of church history encompassed in the time period known as the dispensation of grace or dispensation of the church.
Finally, you have the rapture that I talked about at the beginning of our message tonight. The rapture is the end of church history. It’s over. After the rapture you have the seven years of tribulation, the second coming of Christ, the thousand year millennial rule, the earthly physical rule of Jesus Christ, Satan’s final judgment, and the new heavens and the new earth in the final state. Those are the seven dispensations, as classic dispensationalists would define them.
Speaking of millennium, that is what we are talking about in these lessons, what is the millennium? The word millennium means one thousand years. We know what a dispensationalist is, someone who divides the Bible into different epics or time periods. So, what is a dispensational premillennialist? Turn to Revelation 20:4; the debate in evangelical circles is over this passage, “And I saw thrones and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them, and I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the Word of God, and those who had not worshipped the beast or his image, and not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”
The term premillennial means that Christ will come and rapture the church before the millennium. Premillennialists believe that Christ will reign on this earth, that He will have a physical kingdom, that He will restore and take the kingdom of Israel to a whole new level, and that He will fulfill all of His promises He made to Abraham and David in this earthly millennium. Dispensational premillennialists believe this and so do historic premillennialists, which is the oldest eschatological view in the church.
Someone may ask you if you are you a postmillennialist. What does that mean? Postmillennialism means you believe that Christ is coming back after the thousand year reign. So, He is coming back probably after the tribulation and after the millennium. A postmillennialist (we’ll study that next week) sees the church age melting into the millennial kingdom of God. A postmillennialist also believes things will get better and better through the advance of the gospel and Christians will evangelize the world and that evangelism will usher in the millennium in which Christ will come and the judgment will be at the end of that time.
An amillennialist believes that the thousand years mentioned in Revelation 20 may be figurative. It can refer to an extended time period where Christ is ruling and reigning now in heaven or Christ is ruling and reigning through your life. They believe that the rapture and the Second Coming happen in one event.
The millennium is the thousand-year reign of Christ and some people believe it is an earthly reign of Christ. It is a physical reign in which He would be king of the entire world and He would physically rule the planet. That is what some millennialists hold to. Others say the millennium is a spiritual millennium, that Christ is reigning now, that the millennium, so to speak, is here, or they will merge into the millennium.
Let’s look at some distinctive elements of dispensational premillennialism. The first doctrinal distinctive is so important, everything rests upon it. It is hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. The dispensational hermeneutic seeks to employ a literal principle of interpretation of Scripture if at all possible. This element is important because it will lead into the second distinction which is a separation or a clear delineation between the nation of Israel and the church.
Why the delineation? If you read the prophecies in the Old Testament and the book of Revelation and you take those numbers literally, then you believe that God through Jesus Christ will literally fulfill the promises. The physical and material blessings He promised to the Israelites in the Abrahamic and Davidic covenant, and the Messianic covenant. You believe He is going to literally fulfill those in the millennial reign of Christ.
In this view God has two programs. He has a program for Israel, which we see in the Old Testament and in Revelation, and He has a program for the church. The church is a parenthesis in prophetic history according to the dispensational view. That leads us into the third distinctive, which is the pre-tribulation rapture. Please reference the glossary for further understanding. It will equip you to be ready to tackle any end times questions when you we are finished with this series.
Let’s look at this pre-tribulation rapture. If you are a dispensationalist it makes sense to believe in a pre-tribulation rapture. God had His program and plan for Israel. Jesus the Messiah comes and Israel, the Jews, reject Him as the Messiah as a whole.
Since Israel rejects Jesus as the Messiah God puts them on hold and goes to the church age. Then God will renew His plan for Israel during the tribulation and church history will be over.
God has a plan for national Israel; He had a plan and a covenant for Abraham. Jesus Christ comes on the scene. Israel rejects the Messiah. Then what happened? Christ goes to the cross, Christ is resurrected, He appears to over 500 people in the flesh, He sends them out to preach the gospel to everyone – Jews and Gentiles alike – and He has sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. At Pentecost you have the beginning of the church age.
When Israel rejected Jesus as the Messiah the prophetic clock stopped. Since they rejected this earthly kingdom that Christ was bringing to them, the church age, which we are a part of now, was ushered in. The church age, according to this end times view, can end at any time.
If you believe in this, then the news report I gave you at the beginning of the lesson could happen at any time. Christ could come at any time. Think about all the people around you being rapture up. All of the Christians that live on the planet, the true believers, will be raptured up and meet Christ in the air. Christians who are dead will be resurrected, raised to life, and they will go on to be with Jesus Christ in heaven.
When they get to heaven, what do they have? They have the judgment seat of Christ. That means judgment will come based upon the basis of our works, what we have done with the gifts and talents God has given us. That is the way we will get our rewards or lack of rewards. It has nothing to do with heaven and hell. It has to do with our rewards. So, Christians after the rapture will go before the judgment seat of Christ and will then experience the wedding feast of the Lamb. This is happening in heaven, in this seven year time period.
Meanwhile, back here on planet earth – what is going on? Well, all of a sudden this charismatic figure arrives onto the scene known as the antichrist. He presents a one-world government and begins persecuting all of the Jews and anyone who would turn to Christ. He is ravaging the planet. It is just an ugly scenario during the middle of the tribulation period on planet earth. In the middle of the tribulation period 144,000 Jews get saved and come to know Jesus as the Messiah. These Jews are like evangelists on steroids and they go bazooka sharing Christ and the gospel. While this is going on, in Palestine there is a huge “let’s get ready to rumble event.” It is the ultimate world war, Armageddon.
At Armageddon it looks like the antichrist and his forces are going to just knock the stew out of Israel and these 144,000 Jews. It is the last round and they are wobbling for the punch, but the second coming of Christ happens. Christ comes with His church in the resurrected body. They come and wreak havoc on the antichrist and his forces. National Israel goes through not trusting Messiah yet, and then they trust in Jesus as the Messiah. Satan is bound and thrown into a bottomless pit for a thousand years. That inaugurates the millennial reign of Christ.
In the millennial reign, it is not about the church. The tribulation is not about the church, it is about the nation of Israel. God uses those seven years to deal with His earthly people, Israel. The heavenly people are experiencing the wedding feast of the Lamb, while earthly people are experiencing the tribulation. He uses this time to prepare national Israel to trust Christ as the Messiah. God ends Armageddon, they trust Christ as the Messiah, his people are victorious, and then He fulfills all the promises in the covenants of the Old Testament.
He fulfills all of the material blessings and the Spiritual blessings are endowed upon Israel. Jesus Christ sets up power in Jerusalem and rules and reigns over the planet for a thousand years.
Towards the end of this millennium, Satan is released from the bottomless pit. His still has a little punch in him even though he is looking pretty bad. He organizes and deceives some countries; they strike again and try a counter revolution. Fire rains down from heaven, then you have the great white throne judgment, unbelievers are resurrected from the dead, and the sheep are separated from the goats. Some go into eternal hell and some go into eternal life. Then you have the end of the millennium, the end of the seven dispensations. You enter into the eternal state, the heavens, and the new earth.
That is a quick and brief explanation of the dispensational premillennial end times view. Remember that the distinctions rest on the literal hermeneutic. I am going to interpret the Bible if at all possible, literally, when I can. Because of that, you have to interpret God’s promises to national Israel in a real physical sense. The tribulation, the millennium is about God fulfilling His promises that He gave to His people in the Old Testament era. So in other words, you have two programs. You have God’s earthly people, which would be national Israel, and you have God’s heavenly people which would be the church, which would be us, people from nations all around the world. So, you have a clear delineation, at least, in classical dispensationalism between the church and Israel.
How has this view gained such prominence in this century? Even though church history has been going on for many centuries now, no one had ever heard of a pre-tribulation rapture 150 years ago. I remember the first time I heard about another Christian who didn’t believe in the rapture. I didn’t think he was a Christian! I didn’t know that there was any other view besides dispensational premillennialism. You probably didn’t know that either. The Late Great Planet Earth sold 35 million copies. In just one paragraph the author, Hal Lindsey, writes off all the other millennial views as if they had no significance in church history.
This whole century has been dominated by people who have held to the dispensational premillennial view. I was always petrified about the rapture because what if the rapture occurred and my room wasn’t clean? That was my big concern and I always wondered if I would be judged and go to hell for that. Or what if, I was in the movie theater and the trumpet sounded and Christ came to rapture. I was afraid I would be left here and have to go through the tribulation. Clearly, I lived fearfully in expectation of the rapture.
Let me tell you how this particular end times view gained such prominence in our culture today. After the Civil War, there was an intoxicating sense of optimism in our country, especially in the North. They won the war and slavery was stamped out. The Great Awakening was occurring and people were coming to know Christ. All these ambitious agencies began to spring out of nowhere and they spread the gospel to the four corners of the world. People and groups were active in attacking the social problems. The Temperance Union was working to abolish alcohol and the Sunday school movement began to flourish during this time period.
The church, post Civil War, for a while was extremely optimistic. Things were getting better and better. Many of the preachers and the evangelical leaders said that things were getting so good, that after we preach the gospel, we are going to usher in the kingdom of God and the millennium. The predominant end times view during that time was postmillennialism. We will talk about that in our next lesson.
Prior to the Civil War, the book On the Origin of Species was published by an unknown man named Charles Darwin. When that book came out, university professors started gobbling it up, they started sopping up the information like biscuits in gravy. It was incredible. Darwin’s theory of evolution was now another grand story. It was another way to explain our existence and the creation story without the God of the Bible.
The academic world, during this time, was beginning to receive this. At the end of that century, combined with the rise in evolution, German liberal scholars (called demythologizers) took all the supernatural things out of the Bible.
Both of these movements were happening in Europe and bleeding over into America. These movements were attacking the authority of God’s Word by taking away the supernatural elements, by taking away the truth, and by providing another story for all of mankind that would explain our existence outside of the creator God. These two forces were rising together and seeking to invalidate the Bible message and to silence Christians.
The postmillennial view was easily liberalized into a social gospel because so much of it was dependent upon the world getting better and better. Through the preaching of the gospel, moral reform, temperance, and morality the world would get better and better and better. You can see how they could take postmillennialism and just melt it into liberalism, which was called back then modernism.
The amillennial view took the thousand year reign of Christ figuratively. Try to take other passages in the Scripture figuratively so you can see how those who had an amillennial view, just melted in with the crowd and into the liberalism and the modernism that was prevalent in the day.
All of a sudden, the optimism towards the end of the 19th century was beginning to fade. The optimism was fading because all the major universities, some of which used to be Christian universities – Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, were punting the Biblical foundation and the purpose of their university and they were breaking into a liberalism, modernism, and evolutionistic system. The divinity schools were filled with people who were demythologizers who were taking the supernatural out of the Bible, who were undermining the message of God’s Word. So, you saw entire universities, colleges, parochial schools, and whole denominations falling off the face of the earth as far as their understanding of the Bible. They were embracing and trying to somehow reconcile Darwin’s evolution with the Bible. They ended up losing the power of the Word of God, because they no longer believed the Bible was God’s Word, and God’s final answer to man’s problems.
Around the 1850’s, a former Anglican clergyman named John Nelson Darby began to develop a system known as dispensationalism. He was later affiliated with the Plymouth Brethren Union. Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century when his followers came over here, what did they have? They had a literal interpretation of Scripture. They believed that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God. Darby began teaching the new theology about the seven dispensations, the way God reveals Himself in different kinds of works through different people, and how they respond to Him. This teaching was a saving grace for the church! Because conservatives didn’t feel like they had anywhere to go, they ran and embraced Darby’s teachings at the end of the century. At this time, dispensational theology moved from an unorthodox movement to an orthodox mainline evangelicalism. These evangelicals united under those who believed that the Bible was the inspired Word of God. And FYI, in case you are wondering what the controversy was about in the Southern Baptist Convention some twenty years ago – it was about that. It wasn’t about politics; it was about the Word of God.
Dispensational premillennialists came onto the scene, which validated the inerrancy of Scripture. They had a literal interpretation rather than a figurative interpretation of the Bible and they did not see the Bible as myth or fable. D. L. Moody, the evangelist, got wind of this worldview and he became the first person to popularize it.
At the beginning of the 20th century things socially were getting rather bleak. There was the sinking of the Titanic, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, Stalin, Hitler, the Holocaust, Vietnam, Watergate, environmental problems, and the AIDS epidemic. You can see that the mood of our entire culture, especially the western culture, had changed radically from one of optimism in the early 19th century to one of great pessimism which had the world getting worse and worse. It looked like the end of time and during that time period people prayed that God would rapture them out of the world.
You can see in this type of cultural environment why a doctrinal system and why an end times view like dispensational premillennialism would fly. As you look and study church history, you will see that many times the church was guilty of doing what we do today – holding the Bible in one hand and The New York Times in the other. They would see what The New York Times said and they would look to see what the Bible said in Revelation and Daniel. We can clearly see there are sociological factors and cultural factors, along with the moods of the country and the western world that often affect which particular end times view we grasp onto at a certain time.
That is why this particular view has become “the” view. Dispensational premillennialism is the air that we breathe in our evangelical environment. It is assumed. The books in the Left Behind series, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, are based upon a dispensational premillennialism perspective of the end of times. It is simply assumed in our culture.
Another reason there was a huge boom to dispensational premillennialism, was that in 1948 Israel became a nation. This was a huge, huge, huge chip in the prophetic theme of dispensational premillennialism – Israel becoming a nation.
How has this particular end of times view helped Christians and believers through the ages? First of all, it has helped because it was people from this mindset that carried the torch of evangelical Christianity in this century. And trust me; there was a time in this most recent century where it looked like someone was going to just snuff out the evangelical light. Godly preachers and great scholars like C. I. Scofield, Robert Lowery, Chuck Swindoll, John MacArthur, Harry Ironside, and Donald G. Barnhouse are the ones who stood firm against the onslaught of liberalism and modernism. Billy Graham and D.L. Moody are others who, as people were attacking the Bible, stood strong for the Word of God, for the gospel, and the good news of Christ.
They were faithful to pass the gospel and the rich heritage on to us. George Muller and Howard Hendricks were also incredible men of God, who passed on the faith to millions around the world because they desired to properly understand God.
Second of all, these men and women desired earnestly to properly understand the Bible. They did not want to take some willy-nilly Dionne Warwick hotline approach to the Bible that said, “God, speak to me through this verse right now.” They believed in a God of order, holiness, and grace. They saw Him revealing Himself in these epics and through these pages. And I’m grateful for that. I have personally profited from that. My grandfather being a godly, godly man passed on his heritage of faith in the Word of God to his children, who passed it on to me, and I’m passing it on to my children.
The third way, I believe, this view has helped Christians in this century, is the emphasis on the imminence of Jesus Christ. This view emphasizes the fact that we don’t know the hour of His return, Jesus Christ could return at any time and at any place. He could come tonight and rapture His church out. We need to be ready for the rapture, or ready – depending on your view – for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
And I like that because at this church, we need to be ready as individuals, we need to be rapture ready. A lot of times we put off the idea that Christ is coming again. Do we live our lives in light of His coming? Are we ready for the coming of Jesus Christ?