Dispensationalism is probably the most the most important aspect of the modern manifestation of Evangelicalism, yet it is the least understood aspect of Evangelicalism. There is a lot of discussion and dispute regarding the exact origin of Dispensationalism, but most will agree that it was a man named John Darby who first popularized the idea in and/or around the year 1830. Darby was one of the founders of the group called the Plymouth Brethren; this group had become disillusioned with the current hierarchal structure of churches in England, Ireland, and Scotland. The group formed in 1828 and Darby became one of its chief advocates and outspoken messengers. Darby is a man whose character has often been called into question, along with the motivation and impetus of his development of Dispensationalism; however it can be said that he was a man who knew his Bible very well. That is not to say that his views are correct, one can know the words of the Bible very well, but still never know Jesus, which is what being a Christian means.
At the time of its inception, Dispensationalism did not find immediate acceptance by most Evangelicals. Dispensationalism was, and still is, viewed as a very different method of interpreting the Bible. It diverges from the more established Covenant Theology norms, and it took time before it became popular in theological circles. Darby made several trips to the United States, as did other members of the Plymouth Brethren. Eventually strongholds of Dispensational thought were established in the United States and the movement became more popular.
Probably the most important milestone in the development of Dispensational thought came with the publishing of the Schofield Reference Bible in 1909. This immediately became the gold standard of Dispensational Biblical interpretation, and is still very popular today. The Schofield Bible gives cross references and notes which succinctly map out the very complex nature of Dispensationalist theology. This allowed Dispensationalism to grow at an ever quickening pace.
In the split that took place in Evangelicalism during the middle of the 20th century, Dispensationalism found an established home in the fundamentalist factions, while on the other side of the divide it was rejected and even named a heresy by some denominations. Today however, with the fundamentalist regaining control of the modern Evangelical movement, Dispensationalism is the dominate theology of Evangelicals.
So, what is Dispensationalism?
Simply put, Dispensationalism is the belief that human history as portrayed in the Bible is divided into specific periods of time called dispensations. In each dispensation God reveals himself in a specific manner, and human beings are given specific requirements to respond to how God is revealing himself at that point in time. In all cases human beings fail in these responsibilities, and God revisits with a new dispensation and, therefore, new requirements. The number of these dispensations will vary occasionally from one interpretation to another, but it generally ranges from 3 to 7, with 7 being the predominate thought today. It is important to note that not all these dispensations have occurred yet – and, not all are finished. A rough listing of dispensations recorded in this view of Biblical history is:
Dispensation of Innocence (Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden)
Dispensation of Conscience (Adam to Noah)
Dispensation of Human Government (Noah to the Tower of Babel)
Dispensation of the Patriarchs (Abraham to the Exodus from Egypt)
Dispensation of the Law (The Law given to Moses and the establishment of Israel)
Dispensation of Grace (the Church, Present Age)
The Millennial Rule of Christ on Earth (Future)
These first three dispensations listed deal with the human race as a whole, the third and fourth deal specifically with the nation of Israel. It is important to note that the Dispensation of Law has not yet been completed according to the Dispensationalist model, but will be completed at a future time. The next, the Dispensation of Grace, deals with the present age and specifically the church itself. The last dispensation has not come about yet, and will be established by the thousand year earthly reign of Jesus on earth as it is recorded in the final chapters of Revelation. By far the most emphasis is placed on the last three dispensations by the modern Evangelical movement.
One of the foundational elements of Dispensationalist thought is that God deals with the Jewish nation, Israel, and the Christian Church in very different ways. The current “Age of Grace” was necessitated by the Jews rejection of Jesus Christ as the Messiah, thus opening the door for the Gospel to be preached to the Gentile nations. It is a mistake however to think that this current dispensation is something that God came up with “on the fly” as many Dispensationalist detractors will claim; actually, this was, in the Dispensationalist view point, always the plan. This current Dispensation of Grace was hidden from the Jewish prophets and was only made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection. But to the Dispensationalist, it also means that God is not through dealing with Israel yet, the Dispensation of the Law is not over; no, the Dispensation of Grace interrupted the Law in order for the Gentile nations to hear the Gospel message. The Dispensation of the Law will not conclude until the 7 yr “Tribulation” recorded in the book of Revelation. In order for the Dispensation of the Law to be fulfilled however, it becomes necessary that the Dispensation of Grace to end, and the Church to be removed – thus, we find the teachings regarding the Rapture of the Church which I have discussed in previous posts.
Confused yet? Yes, you probably are if you have not been indoctrinated into the realm of thinking. Believe it or not, it does become even more confusing, but at this point we must draw some conclusions and start to see how Dispensationalism becomes so popular in the current manifestation of the Evangelical movement. Further explanation of the Dispensationalist teachings will have to wait for a later post; but here I want to make one thing very clear: Dispensationalism IS heresy. It is an entirely different way of viewing “biblical” events, and its foundation rests on its adherent’s acceptance the Dispensational interpretation of those events. This interpretation is FULL of apostasy.
To illustrate this, let’s return to the Dispensational teaching of the Rapture of the church. I Thessalonians 4:16-17 is used as a description of what the rapture will be. Make no mistake, this description in in the Bible, and yes, as they will claim, these verses were viewed by the early church to describe a coming event (it must be noted though when this event will occur is quite different in the views of the early church than it is in Dispensationalism). However, these verses to NOT describe the Dispensationalist Rapture. The apostasy of the Rapture hides itself behind these verses (and others a well). This apostasy is the belief that Jesus will return, not once as the Bible predicts, but twice. The first time here, “in the clouds”, to remove the church from the earth, thus opening the door for conclusion of the Dispensation of the Law. Then a second time as described In Revelation 20 to set up His Millennial Kingdom on earth, which is the final dispensation. This idea of Jesus returning twice is the apostasy of the Dispensational Rapture. It is never found in the Bible. It requires you to accept their interpretation of the linear framework they see developed in the Bible (dispensations) to believe it to be true.
So, why is Dispensationalism so widely accepted by modern Evangelicals?
First, because it masquerades itself as a literalist view of the Bible, even though, as we just demonstrated, it really is not.
Secondly, because the Evangelical view of salvation or conversion fits neatly into the Dispensationalist framework. The only requirement placed on human beings in this current Dispensation of Grace is to accept the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for salvation. That’s it – from there you can look forward to rapture and going to heaven.
Thirdly, because Dispensationalism is highly politically motivated. The Dispensationalist will look to current world events for verification of their beliefs. They will look for signs in what is happening on the world stage for indications of the imminent return of Jesus Christ (meaning the rapture) and the fulfillment of the prophecies they see in the book of Revelations. They see these signs in such things as the re-establishment of the nation of Israel, they will see the United Nations as the beginnings of a world government, they will see the European Union and NATO as the reconstitution of the old Roman Empire; they will even see things like socialism, and even climate change to be a plot to impose a world order as they understand the beast of Revelation will do. The current Trump administration will seem to them to fit right into their Dispensationalist, Evangelical ideas – they don’t like NATO so they have no problem if we pulled out; they don’t believe in climate change so there is no problem with pulling out of environmental treaties; moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, that was a great thing.
All this leads to making the Evangelical very vulnerable to being tossed about with every political whim that comes about, as long as they can justify it somehow in their Dispensationalist framework. There are consequences to heresy and believing apostasy, this is what we are seeing today. Jesus said “You will know them by their fruit” (Matthew 7:16). Today we see the fruit of Dispensational Evangelicalism.