A Critical Examination of Dispensationalism
This is the complete text of Chapter 14 of my book
CHRISTIAN HOPE THROUGH FULFILLED PROPHECY.
In this chapter, we will review in more detail the theology of millennialism. Millennium is a derivation of a Latin word meaning a thousand. In short, millennialism is the idea that we will have, in the future, a literal 1,000-year period in which Christ will have returned in bodily form to reign in person on earth in a political utopia. We will consider the term millennialism as generally synonymous with premillennialism. However, postmillennialism shares the idea of a utopian “millennial” kingdom on earth, and thus can be considered a type of millennialism.
A synonym for millennialism is chiliasm, which is from the Greek form of the word. A similar term that is sometimes seen is millenarianism, which is the idea of transformative 1,000-year cycles on earth. This latter term is not necessarily a strictly Christian concept, but is sometimes used more-or-less interchangeably with these other terms. It is more correct to say that millennialism is a Christian form of millenarianism.
Various forms of millennialism have risen and fallen in popularity throughout church history. It seems to have gained favor with some early Christians. Many evangelical Christians today have been so steeped in millennialism that they think it alone is normative and historic. A few of the early church fathers such as Papias, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian seem to have held to some type of millennialist views. Justin Martyr, however, noted in his writings that even though he believed in millennialism, many of his contemporaries did not. It is known that other specific and important early church fathers such as Origen, Caius, Augustine, and Eusebius held views contrary to the millennialists.[i]
Author David Chilton, not being timid, made several rather bold accusations against millennialism. He stated that some early church fathers adopted premillennial literalism because, due to their heathen background, they were unfamiliar with biblical literary genres and imagery. He further made a claim that millennialism “seems to have been originated by the Ebionite arch-heretic Cerinthus, a ‘false apostle’ who was an opponent of both St. Paul and St. John.” [ii] On the other hand, there are other theories, including that millennialism had its roots in a Jewish documents,that it was picked up by the apostolic father Papias and passed on to Irenaeus. From there the tradition was nurtured as a thread within segments of the church.[iii]
There is a legitimate question as to whether the church fathers who are usually cited as being premillennial were premillennial at all, at least in the modern sense of the word. Research by Alan Patrick Boyd (in his master’s thesis at Dallas Theological Seminary) concluded that premillennialists in the early church “were a rather limited number.” He also discovered that no evidence supports the claim that several of the church fathers who are routinely claimed by dispensationalists as being fellow dispensationalists were even premillennial, much less dispensational. Thus, while dispensationalists will argue this point, no convincing evidence exists to prove that dispensational premillennialism, or anything like it, it was ever taught in the church before the nineteenth century. Any evidence for such claims is sketchy at best.[iv]
The issue seems to have been resolved by the fourth century as the church itself reportedly rejected millennialism at both the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (AD 381) and the Council of Ephesus (AD 431). The Nicene Creed (AD 381) states that Christ’s kingdom shall have no end, an obvious rejection of millennialism.[v]
The most prominent view throughout most of church history seems to have been amillennialism, but each of the various views, as discussed in Chapter 3—except dispensationalism—has been present in various forms since the beginning of post-apostolic church history. No single view has been able to consistently dominate. Postmillennialism, for example, was in the ascendancy in America from the Revolutionary War until the Civil War, in part because of the famous Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards. John M. Brenner stated:
Postmillennial ideas of gradual progress toward a time of unparalleled peace and prosperity fit well with American pragmatism and can-do spirit, the American sense of destiny, and enlightenment optimism based on trust in science and technology. In addition, in the early nineteenth century Postmillennialists saw the success of revivals and mission efforts as signs of the approach of the millennium. They took note of the decline of the influence and power of the papacy and the threats of Islam. The Second Great Awakening (mid 1790s to c. 1840) spawned movements aimed at ridding society of various evils so that the millennium might be realized. They believed that “the golden age would see the culmination of current reform efforts to end slavery, oppression, and war.” Social activism and political action were means by which Christians might bring about the realization of God’s promises. The abolitionist movement, temperance movement, and women’s movement flowed out of these postmillennial concerns.[vi]
John Calvin (1509-1564) in his Institutes of the Christian Religion said that millennialism is a “fiction” that is “too childish either to need or to be worth a refutation.” [vii] Lutherans also formally rejected millennialism in The Augsburg Confession (Article XVII), as did Martin Luther (1483-1546) himself. We believe that both Catholic and Protestant leadership had good reasons to soundly reject millennialism. However, it is also correct to say that, despite the strong views of highly influential theologians from Augustine to Calvin, speculations and false prophecies about the end times have been part of church history since the first century. These speculations are not always associated with millennialism, but often are.[viii]
While such speculation has continued, it seemed, at least, that the church had more or less suppressed the idea of a literal millennium, until the 1800’s. Then there arose on the scene an Anglo-Irish preacher by the name of John Nelson Darby (1800 -1882). Darby developed an expanded version of millennialism which is now called dispensationalism, or dispensational premillennialism, or Darbyism.
Darby, an Irish Plymouth Brethren, traveled extensively to continental Europe, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States in an attempt to make converts to his ideas. His systems eventually caught hold in America and today many American evangelicals hold to dispensationalism. Baptists, Pentecostals and other charismatics, as well as most Bible churches, are among those who usually believe in dispensationalism.
It may be noteworthy that it was during this same period in the early 1800’s that a variety of other legalistic, sectarian, or cultic movements began in America—such as Seventh Day Adventism, Mormonism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is interesting that Jehovah’s Witnesses, having gotten their inspiration from Seventh Day Adventism, foisted itself on the world with a six volume set of books entitled Millennial Dawn.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892), a famous contemporary of Darby, published a criticism of Darby and his views, which was not limited to Darby’s millennialism. Included in Spurgeon’s criticism was that Darby and the Plymouth Brethren rejected the vicarious purpose of Christ’s obedience, as well as imputed righteousness. Spurgeon viewed these matters of such importance and so central to the gospel that it led him to this statement about the rest of the beliefs of the Plymouth Brethren: “With the deadly heresies entertained and taught by the Plymouth Brethren, in relation to some of the most momentous of all the doctrines of the gospel, and to which I have adverted at some length, I feel assured that my readers will not be surprised at any other views, however unscriptural and pernicious they may be, which the Darbyites have embraced and zealously seek to propagate.” [ix]
Dispensationalism was given a few boosts after Darby. Cyrus I. Scofied published a study Bible in 1909 which supported dispensationalism. Then, U.S. evangelist and Bible teacher Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871–1952), who was influenced by Scofield, founded Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924. This seminary has become the flagship of dispensationalism in America. (Isn’t it interesting how one man in history can ultimately have such an influence on the thinking of an entire body of believers? It must make one wonder about the validity of other cherished beliefs, especially given the myriad of irreconcilable opinions about various matters of theology within Christendom.)
In 1970 dispensational millennialist Hal Lindsey authored a book entitled The Late Great Planet Earth, which subsequently had some thirty printings. He seduced millions of gullible Christians into thinking that the end of the world was near. From 1995 to 2007 millennialists Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins published the Left Behind series, which served to reconfirm to another generation of Bible-ignorant Christians that the rapture and the millennial kingdom were imminent. And of course, in 2011, another failed prediction of the end of the world by millennialist Harold Camping caught the attention of the media everywhere, again embarrassing Christianity. We never seem to have a dearth of false teachers.
The late 1800’s and early 1900’s was a period which saw liberalism and skepticism grow within the Christian church. Partly under the leadership of Dallas Theological Seminary, a strong reaction to liberalism erupted. The dual concepts of millennialism and conservatism became merged in the minds of many, and millennialism became the test for orthodoxy. Anyone who refused to take the book of Revelation literally, thus disagreeing with millennialism, became labeled a “liberal.” This charge is still made today. This charge is preposterous, insulting, and damaging to the Christian cause.
The term dispensationalism actually comes from the notion that there are distinct dispensations or time periods in history. Dispensationalists usually see seven such periods, but some see more or less than seven. For example, the patriarchal period, the Mosaic Law period, and the millennium appear in different systems. The exact breakdown is not crucial for us to understand. These dispensations are of less importance than the ideas that come along with the dispensational system.
Dispensationalism is a complicated system, which we think is just one factor that militates against it. We suspect that many Christians abiding in dispensational churches do not really grasp the whole system, but accept it as a given because of what these churches insist is correct. Members are content to let their leaders feed them news items that assure them that the end is near.
But to simplify, dispensationalism added this extra notion onto premillennialism: Israel and the church are separate and distinct entities today. They are so separate that Jews and Christians have separate paths to their eternal destinies. Jews are saved by works, Christians by faith.
Dispensationalists teach that Jesus offered the Jews a millennial kingdom on earth. But once it was rejected, Jesus withdrew the offer and died on the cross. (This should be a radical surprise to most Christians, especially since one cannot find biblical support for it.)
Most dispensationalists believe that the church age (in which we live now) is a prophetically unforeseen parenthetical period of thousands of years between the 69th and 70th weeks of Daniel’s prophecy of seventy weeks (Daniel 9:24-27). The seventieth week is identified with a future seven-year tribulation period that precedes the millennium. God’s program for Israel will be resumed at this time. While there are differences of opinion among dispensationalists, what follows below is a composite of their scheme as to how the future is supposed to work out.[x]
Christ will remove all born-again believers from the earth in the rapture. That is, the saints who are alive at that time will be “translated” into resurrection bodies and then be caught up to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Corinthians 15:51-54), along with the “dead in Christ.” The “dead in Christ” are defined as all the deceased saints who were saved after Pentecost (Acts 2). At the judgment seat of Christ, these believers will be rewarded for good works and faithful service during their time on earth or will lose rewards (but not eternal life) for lack of service and obedience (1 Corinthians 3:11-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10).
Meanwhile, back on earth, the Antichrist (the Beast) will come into power and will sign a covenant with Israel for seven years (Daniel 9:27). This seven-year period of time is the tribulation. During the tribulation, there will be terrible wars, famines, plagues, and natural disasters. God will be pouring out his wrath against sin, evil, and wickedness. The tribulation will include the appearance of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, and the seven seal-, trumpet-, and bowl-judgments in the book of Revelation.
The tribulation will be a holocaust in which some two-thirds of Jews will be killed. We parenthetically make a point here. Most dispensationalists state a very high regard for Israel and the Jews. But when they pray for “Jesus to come soon,” the logical inference is that they are really asking for a soon holocaust of the Jews! This seems more than a bit anti-Semitic to us!
Anyway, those Jewish and Gentile Christians that are raptured will thus avoid the tribulation. While most dispensationalists are “pre-tribulationists,” some are “post-tribulationists” or “mid-tribulationists” depending on when they think the rapture will occur relative to the seven-year tribulation.
The worst part of the tribulation begins about halfway through the seven years after the Antichrist has broken the peace covenant with Israel and makes war against her. The Antichrist will commit “the abomination of desolation” and set up an image of himself to be worshipped in the Jerusalem temple (Daniel 9:27; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10), which will have been rebuilt. The second half of the tribulation is known as “the great tribulation” (Revelation 7:14) and “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7).
At the end of the seven-year tribulation, the Antichrist will launch a final attack on Jerusalem, culminating in the battle of Armageddon. Jesus Christ will return, destroy the Antichrist and his armies, and cast them into the lake of fire (Revelation 19:11-21). Christ will then bind Satan in the abyss/pit for the millennium (Revelation 20:3).
Christ will then usher in the millennium, a literal 1,000-year period. Dispensationalists believe that the millennium is the kingdom of God, of which the Bible speaks. This reign of Christ fulfills the promises, including the land promises, made to Israel in the Old Testament. (The land promises include Genesis 15:18-21; Genesis 28:13; Exodus 23:31; Deuteronomy 1:8.)
So Christ will set up a national kingdom on earth primarily for those Jews who have survived the tribulation. Depending on the version of dispensationalism, the vast majority of remaining Jews will have converted to Christianity (Romans 11:25-27). Those Jews who remain in unbelief will be put to death and not permitted to enter the millennium (Ezekiel 20:33-38).
There is, thankfully, provision for surviving Gentiles. All Gentiles who were not raptured and also survived the tribulation will be judged (Matthew 25:31-46); the sheep (saved) will enter the millennium and the goats (lost) will be cast into everlasting fire and condemnation. The saved Israelites, and probably the saved living Gentiles, will therefore enter the millennium in their natural, physical, unglorified bodies on earth. In any case, Christ will reign in this utopian earthly theocracy from his throne in Jerusalem for a literal 1,000 years.
Those who have entered the millennium in their natural bodies will marry and reproduce. Though they will live much longer than they would have prior to Christ’s coming, at least some of them will die. This period is a time of unparalleled economic prosperity, political peace, and spiritual renewal. Worship in the millennium will center on a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem in which animal sacrifices will be offered. These sacrifices, however, may not be propitiatory, argue some dispensationalists, but rather “memorial offerings” in remembrance of Christ’s death. Although dissimilarities exist, the millennial kingdom will see a virtual revival of much of the Levitical systems described in the Old Testament.
Meanwhile a massive heavenly Jerusalem, as described in Revelation 21:1-22:5, has descended to hover just above Palestine, where it will remain for the duration of the millennium. This New Jerusalem will be above the earth, in the air, shedding its light and glory thereon. Christ will resurrect the saved of all ages, except of course, for the “in Christ” saints who were resurrected or raptured seven years earlier and who presumably have been in heaven temporarily.
The heavenly Jerusalem will become the residence of believers who are not on earth, though there is some disagreement who will be on earth and who will be in the heavenly Jerusalem. In general, all resurrected saints (i.e., Old Testament saints, Christians raptured before the tribulation, and believers who came to faith during the tribulation, but were put to death by the Antichrist) will live in the New Jerusalem. Some say that the earth will be populated only by the Jews who survived the tribulation period. And some believe that there is opportunity to go back and forth between earth and the heavenly city at least for certain residents. Resurrected saints will play some role in Christ’s rule on the earth; their primary activity, however, will be in the New Heavenly Jerusalem.
Children will be born to those believers (both Jew and Gentile) who entered the earthly millennial kingdom in their natural bodies. Many will come to faith in Christ and be saved. Those who persist in unbelief will be restrained by the righteous rule and government of Christ. Depending on the interpreter, death will be rare except as a penal measure for overt sin.
The spirits of the wicked millennial residents who die will go to hell to await the final judgment. The millennial saints who die during the millennium, apparently may be immediately resurrected and will enter the heavenly city as resurrected saints, or others say they have to wait till the end of the millennium to be resurrected. Because Christ is physically reigning and Satan is imprisoned in the abyss, evil is almost unknown during the millennial kingdom. The Jews continue to earn their eternal life by their works. (This relegation to slavery under the law is certainly another anti-Semitic aspect of dispensationalism.)
At the end of the millennium, Satan will be loosed from the abyss/pit and will gather all unbelievers in a final military revolt which Christ will quickly put down. The earthly millennial saints still living will be judged and translated into resurrected bodies of the eternal state. More resurrections occur—that of believers who died during the millennial kingdom (if they were not already resurrected immediately upon their death as indicated previously). Also the unsaved dead of all ages will be resurrected and condemned with Satan to the lake of fire for eternity (Revelation 20:7-10). The new heavens and the new earth will be formed, the heavenly city will descend to earth, and eternity will begin. There will be no more sin, sorrow, or death.
Even in eternity the Old Testament saints and the New Testament church are distinct and separate according to dispensationalists. At least according to one version of dispensationalism, the New Testament church is to spend eternity in heaven. But the Old Testament saints (“seed”) will spend eternity on the new earth. (Yes, indeed—segregation of the saints in the eternal state.)
More recent dispensationalists have put the saints of all ages together on the new earth in eternity, but maintain their dichotomy throughout eternity by excluding Old Testament saints, tribulation saints, and millennial saints from the body and bride of Christ.
The New Jerusalem heavenly city of Revelation 21 is a point of considerable interest. Like most other things in Revelation, it is interpreted literally by dispensationalists. This is a city prepared by God that is a fully functioning real city that has a length, width, and height of 12,000 furlongs/stadia—about 1,500 miles. Some interpreters see this as a cube; others see it as a pyramid. But in either case, it is enormous! It is almost as large as the moon, which is about 2,100 miles in diameter. It descends out of heaven to come to rest over the earth. It has literal foundation stones, but only a single street.
If the New Jerusalem was a literal city, it would cover the entire Middle East including all of Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and a huge section of the Mediterranean Sea as well as several parts of other neighboring countries—not to mention extending 1,200 miles beyond the International Space Station which is in a 220 mile low orbit. Not trying to be too facetious, this image immediately conjures up legitimate questions about gravitational mechanics. Would this enormous appendage wobble the earth?
Let us be perfectly frank, with due respect for our many brothers who believe all this, it is so bizarre that if it were not being taught in Christian churches it would certainly be considered cultic, or science fiction. But this craziness is where you can end up if you decide in advance to take everything in the Bible in a wooden literal fashion while completely misunderstanding Hebraic figures of speech, and ignoring the critical, but ubiquitous time-statements.
One of the main twentieth-century proponents of this New Jerusalem literalism was John Walvoord. This gentleman was president of Dallas Theological Seminary from 1952 to 1986. He was a leading spokesman of dispensationalism, and the author of over thirty books, including The Revelation of Jesus Christ, in which he discussed the literal New Jerusalem in detail.[xi] Even very intelligent men have gotten caught up in millennial madness and its fantasies.
The reader should now be able to make a considered determination whether millennialism is a reasonable interpretation of the Bible or whether it is forced and fanciful. But let’s dig a little deeper into the theology of dispensationalism. While the discussion below may seem like an unrelated detour, we will see that the errors of dispensational eschatology relate to other errors of the dispensational system. The discussion centers on soteriology (how we are saved, that is, how we are “justified” before God), which is an important topic to consider in any book about theology.
We think dispensationalists make two critical errors. The first is to take the Bible in a wooden literal sense, in defiance of standard interpretive methodology and often in defiance of how the authors intended it. The second is to make a separation between ethnic Israel and the church. According to at least some dispensational systems, God has two different people groups for whom He has distinct promises, purposes, and destinies. This is a critical and profound error.
Various factors contribute to what we believe are these errors. An important contributing cause is that dispensationalists fail to see the continuity between the Old and New Testaments. They see in black and white that Old Testament Jews were saved by works and New Testament Christians are saved by grace through faith. But the Bible does not make the distinction as sharply as they make. Redemption through Jesus Christ is the unifying purpose of the Bible.
For example, Paul in Romans 4 argues forcefully that Abraham was justified by faith. Also, we note that if the Old Testament saints were saved by works, heaven would not contain any of them. The Bible teaches that all men are sinners and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Both Moses and David, two of God’s greatest servants were murderers. It is doubtful that such men earned their way to heaven!
Though there isn’t consistency among them, many dispensationalists historically are what theologians call antinomian. In other words, they believe that works, law, and obedience have no necessary part at all in the salvation or life of Christians. But this is a shallow view. While the New Testament insists that we are saved by grace through faith apart from the law (Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:4-7, etc.), it places great importance on obedience as an evidentiary part of a true saving faith.
Let us make a few key points about the debate between faith and works in salvation, which potentially could be a unifying list for biblical Christians (Protestants and Catholics alike):
- When the Bible says that we are not saved by “works” (Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, etc.) it is generally referring to works of the Mosaic Law, that is, the Old Testament civil and ceremonial law. The New Testament abrogated the ceremonial, dietary, and civil laws of the Old Testament (Acts 10:12-15; Romans 14:17; Colossians 2:11-16; 1 Timothy 4:1-5). The writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 10:1-4) stated that the Old Testament sacrificial system was never effective in forgiving sins (cf. Galatians 3:11). But this does not mean that obedience to God’s moral commands is unimportant. Jesus, in fact, strengthened biblical commands for Christian living.
- When the Bible says that we are saved by believing in Jesus (John 3:16, etc.), it is implied in the original Greek language that to believe “in” (Greek word eis) Jesus means more than intellectual assent. It means to believe “into” Jesus. In other words, it means to accept what Jesus says so fully and completely that we will obey his commands, however imperfectly as we humans are able.
- An important passage is James 2:14-26, which says straightforwardly that we are not justified by faith alone. But we have some clues on how to understand this. James 2:14, as translated in the New International Version of the Bible says, “Can such faith [a faith without good deeds] save him?” The New King James Version says, “Can that faith save him?” This suggests that there is a saving faith and a false faith. James also used the phrase, “If someone says he has faith (but does not have works) . . . “—implying that just because people say they have faith does not mean that they really do have a sincere saving faith. James said that even the demons have what we might call “head knowledge” of God, but they do not have the type of faith that trusts in God. James went on to explain in this passage that faith without works is “dead.” We conclude that James was telling us that a work-less faith does not save us, and that works demonstrate a true saving faith.
The Bible teaches that it is only by the grace and power of God that man can respond in faith and obedience (Psalm 16:2; John 15:5; Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 12:3-6; 15:10; Ephesians 1:3-12; 2:1-10; Philippians 1:6; 2:13; 1 Timothy 1:14; Hebrews 13:21). Yet, respond he must. A true saving faith will show itself by certain characteristics. Indeed, it could even be put a bit stronger. In order to reach heaven Christians must:
- persevere in believing the gospel (Matthew 10:22; Romans 11:17-24; 1 Corinthians 15:2; Colossians 1:21-23; Hebrews 3:6-14)
- love God and other believers (John 15:9-17; 1 Corinthians 13:2-3; Galatians 5:6)
- and live godly lives, however imperfectly (Matthew 7:16-22; 25:31-46; John 15:9-17; Romans 2:1-16; 3:31; 2 Thessalonians 1:8; Hebrews 3:13; 10:35-36; 12:14; 1 Peter 4:17-19; 1 John 2:2-6, 29; 3:3-10) [xii]
Here’s the point. Dispensationalists are guilty of teaching easy believism—or at least this is a rational conclusion from their theology. Easy believism is the view that persons are to be regarded as Christians who have made professions of faith, but whose lives are unchanged. Easy-believism is a potential problem throughout Christendom today, but it is imbedded in dispensational theology. This view is incompatible with biblical teaching. Both God and the believer are fully active in the believer’s life, and active at the same time. God is sovereignly active and man is responsively active, even though the ability and will to be so active is God-given.
Crenshaw and Gunn, in their book on dispensationalism, state that some dispensationalists even teach that someone who in the past believed in Jesus, but no longer believes, may still go to heaven.[xiii] This too is certainly inconsistent with biblical teaching. Clearly, one must persevere in the faith to reach heaven.
The author of the book you are reading comes from Reformed and Lutheran backgrounds. But all traditions within the historic orthodox Christian faith teach that one must have a living faith in order to be saved—not a dead faith. This is true of Calvinists, Lutherans, Arminians, and Roman Catholics.[xiv]
At the center of the debate among the various groups is the nature of man’s free will. Despite the certainty that various denominations claim to possess about this, we will never understand perfectly (on this side of heaven) how man’s free will intersects with God’s sovereignty. So Christians should show a measure of charity toward each other on this topic. However, we can affirm with certainty that the Bible teaches that we are saved by God’s grace through a living faith in Jesus Christ.
Grover Dunn does a credible job summarizing the relationship between faith and works from the Reformed (and we believe biblical) perspective:
“Genuine saving faith is faith that progressively bears the fruit of holiness and good works (James 2:17; Ephesians 2:10; Hebrews 12:14). The saved then are, as a rule, those who do good before God (John 5:29; Romans 2:7; Ephesians 2:10) but the saved are not saved by means of or because of the good they do (Titus 3:5; Ephesians 2:8-9). . . . Every professed Christian has the God-given responsibility to work out his own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), but God works in His people’s lives to enable them to will and to work according to His good pleasure (1 Corinthians 12:4-6; 15:10; Philippians 2:13; Hebrews 13:21). God unconditionally gives His chosen people the spiritual ability necessary to meet the conditions for receiving the blessings of the covenant. . . . Without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), and the natural, non-regenerate man is totally unable to please God (Romans 8:8; 1 Corinthians 2:14).” [xv]
The Bible teaches that mankind has a sinful or “fleshly” nature which is universal and runs deep: Genesis 6:5, 8:21; 1 Kings 8:46; Job 14:1-4; 25:2-6; Psalm 14; 51:3-5; 53:1-3; 58:3-5; 143:1-2; Proverbs 14:12; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Isaiah 53:6; 55:8-9; 59:2; 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9; Daniel 9:1-11; Mark 7:20-23; Romans 3:9-20; 5:12-21; 7:13-25; 8:5-8; 14:23; Galatians 5:16-21; Ephesians 2:1-3; James 2:10-11; 1 John 1:8-10. The reader would benefit enormously by taking the time to look up these passages.
This is utterly crucial to understanding Christianity, and thus is germane to our discussion on eschatological promise. To miss the truth that all men are inherently sinful is to miss the distinction between Christianity and every other worldview or religion. Every other system teaches that man is basically good, or is at least perfectible through law and instruction. The gospel itself makes little sense if one does not grasp the sinful nature of mankind. Christianity is unique in its teaching that man is basically sinful, and thus critically in need of a Savior.[xvi]
Nobody is good enough to reach heaven by his or her works. So, both Old Testament and New Testament people are saved, that is they enter heaven, by the same way—by God’s grace through a living faith. While the Old Testament saints did not know Jesus in the personal way that Christians do now (Christ having presented Himself on earth and made his eternal dwelling in us), their salvation rested on belief in God’s covenant promises, including that of the promised Messiah.
We understand that the theological dichotomy between faith and works is tricky. There is a “tension” here. Theologians have long wrestled with this relationship. Over 240 times in the Bible we find people being proclaimed as blameless, upright, righteous, guiltless, or above reproach. See such passages as Psalm 119:1; Luke 1:6; Philippians 2:15; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; 5:3-8; 6:14; Titus 1:6; 1 John 3:4-10. How can this be if we are really depraved?
The concept of blamelessness is usually in the context of the avoidance of certain listed major sins—for example, sexual sin and lack of brotherly love. It is also is found in the context of Christ’s efficacious work making us appear blameless in God’s eyes (Romans 3:22; 4:5-11, 22-24; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Ephesians 1:4; Philippians 3:9; Colossians 1:22; 3:1-5; 1 John 1:5-9). This latter context is the concept of “imputed righteousness.”
Elsewhere in the Bible, however, we find a broader understanding of sin that goes much deeper than the obvious “big” sins. In 1 Timothy 1:15 Paul, this giant of the faith, admitted that he was the “chief of sinners.” In Romans 7:13-25 Paul discussed his own inability to shake his sinful proclivities. In Ephesians 2:3 he explained that men are by nature children of God’s wrath. In Matthew 5:28 and Mark 7:15-23 Jesus taught that our sin runs deep; it is not the external things that defile a man but what is on the inside.
The truth is that down deep we all have tendencies to be conniving, spiteful, covetous, lying, lustful, and selfish creatures. It is the human condition. What the Bible teaches about our sinful condition is verified by observation. Just look in the mirror—or at your children, who need to be taught good manners and behavior. Our thoughts betray us before an omniscient God. Even our good deeds are often tainted by a motivation of self-aggrandizement or self-worth rather true selfless compassion. And when the constraints of biblical morality are removed, the evil tendencies in mankind easily flourish—for which there is no shortage of evidence.
So there are certain obvious and important big sins and bad lifestyle choices for which a person can be considered “blameless” if he resists them, but this is merely being blameless on one level. One can never overcome his sinful (“fleshly”) nature. No one is without guilt; no one is good enough. No difference exists in the nature of Old Testament people and New Testament people as to our sinful nature.
The dichotomy established by dispensationalists between how Old Testament believers are saved and New Testament believers are saved is a false dichotomy. Their theology almost makes it appear that there are two different types of people and two different Gods—an Old Testament God and a New Testament God. But the Bible teaches that every sinful human who has ever lived is saved by the same God in the same way (Acts 15:8-11; Hebrews 11), even though the emphasis on grace over law came to its fullest fruition in the New Testament.
The New Testament church is not a side branch of Judaism. Redemptive history is not a fork in the road, but a straight line. The Bible describes how believing Gentiles were grafted in as the Israel of God (Romans 11; Galatians 3-6; Ephesians 1-3; Hebrews 8). The Jew-Gentile church simply became the Israel of God. Those Jews who rejected Christ were broken off because of unbelief (Romans 11:11-24). The New Testament is about the finished work of Christ in the first century. The hope of Israel was and is Christ (Romans 9 and 15). The distinction that dispensationalists make between Israel and the church after AD 70 is a false distinction.
We must also comment on the land promises to Israel upon which millennialists put so much importance. These promises are instrumental to their belief that Israel will inherit a new earth in the millennium. But this is all based on an incomplete reading of the Bible. In the Old Testament (Genesis 15:18-21; Genesis 28:13; Exodus 23:31; Deuteronomy 1:8) God gave an “eternal” land promise to Israel. Israel received all of the land promised to Abraham in Joshua 21:43-45; 23:14-15. But continuity of the land covenant was clearly conditioned upon covenant obedience (Genesis 17:7-9; Deuteronomy 4:25-26; Deuteronomy chapter 28). Israel failed the test and broke the covenant.
The land promise was one of rest, which is ultimately fulfilled in Christ—in the better, heavenly country—the New Jerusalem (Hebrews 4:8-9; 11:10, 14-16; 13:14). To make the ultimate meaning of the land promise literal—which not only premillennialists but postmillennialists do as well—is to carnalize the promises of God, to diminish his holiness, and to marginalize Christ’s finished work.
Dispensationalists make a further error. They assume that God’s election of fleshly Israel, as his people, was one of salvation. It is not. There is no reason to believe that Israel as a nation, or all Jews, will enter heaven. The election of Israel was one of service and example—not of salvation. Deuteronomy 28 makes it clear that Israel would be cursed for disobedience, and there is no doubt that neither the nation of Israel, nor any of its people met God’s standard of holiness and perfection. Quoting Eric Adams,
For dispensationalists, religion plays no role in determining who is Jewish. An atheist Jew is still a Jew, and therefore, an heir of the promises. A Gentile convert to Judaism is not a Jew and therefore, is not an heir of the promises. The problem with this paradigm is that it does not fit the Scriptures. Even in the Old Testament, Israel was not a fixed entity based strictly upon blood [Esther 8:17]. Israel was always subject to grafting and pruning. From the beginning, unbelievers were pruned out of Israel and lost their inheritance. Ishmael, Saul, Absalom, and countless others were cut off from the promises because of unbelief.
From the beginning, believing Gentiles were grafted into Israel and became heirs of the promises to Abraham. Rahab and Ruth are the preeminent examples.[xvii]
Many Jews today are not ethnic Jews. And no Jew can clearly trace their lineage as the genealogical records were destroyed with the temple in AD 70. This whole dispensational idea of salvation by blood is miserably flawed.[xviii]
By the way, we emphatically maintain that there is nothing about the year 1948 (when a new Israeli state was formed) that has any connection to Bible prophecy. Nothing in the Bible predicts a literal reconstitution of the biblical land promises, a rebuilt temple, reinstitution of temple sacrifices, and so forth. The modern nation of Israel is not even a religious state. If anything, it is unreligious, as it tolerates persecution of Christians.
Christian America’s political support of Israel should not be because of fulfillment of prophecy, but because it is a democracy in the midst of tyrannical states. Period. While we as Christians recognize the historic Jewish people as our spiritual forefathers, we honor modern Israel for its politics. The issue is political, not religious. Nothing in the Bible supports the dispensational craziness known as Christian Zionism, which seems to have arisen out of a mistaken sense that the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 was an injustice.[xix]
The errors of dispensationalist teaching—indeed of all millennialists’ teaching—are serious. First, they are not teaching the doctrine of justification correctly, potentially damning to hell those who listen to them. Second, they typically refuse to bring the gospel to the Jews because they think the Jews cannot be saved by the gospel—an extraordinary error! Third, they often tend to retreat from the culture because of their Jesus-is-coming-soon/the rapture-is-just-around-the corner mentality. And fourth, since Jesus is not now ruling the world (and only will during the millennium), they assume that Satan is ruling the world now. To Quote Crenshaw, “How anyone could read the Bible and believe that Satan is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is beyond me.” [xx]
Retreat and pessimism are hallmarks of millennialism. Millennialism is, at least implicitly, a false gospel, especially the dispensational form of millennialism that destroys the unity and coherency of Scripture. It is also dangerous to society, which is in desperate need of biblical truth. It is dangerous in both the spiritual sense and in the societal sense. Millennial theology is both impotent and threatening. Here is a summary list of some of the numerous problems we see with millennialism:
- It contradicts Scripture.
- It places the Christian hope on some speculative ideas about the future, rather than in Christ’s atonement and finished work on the cross and final redemption in AD 70.
- At best, it is a distraction to Christian theology. At worst, it is a serious error (Deuteronomy 18:20-22; Matthew 7:15-23). It is potentially a different gospel promising a misleading hope (2 Corinthians 11:1-4; Galatians 1:6).
- It is essentially the same error that the first-century Jews made concerning their expected Messiah, turning Him into a political figure in a materialistic earthly kingdom.
- It engenders a false concept of the kingdom of Christ. Premillennialists say that the kingdom of God is an earthly kingdom that begins only when Christ “comes again.” But the Bible teaches that the kingdom of God is not, in fact, an earthly kingdom at all but a spiritual kingdom, and that it began with Christ’s ministry in the first century (Daniel 2:44; Matthew 3:2; 4:17; 10:7; 12:24-29; 21:43; Mark 9:1; Luke 10:8; 11:20; 21:29-33; 22:30; John 3:5; 4:21-26; 6:15; 18:36; Colossians 1:13; Revelation 1:4-9). Millennialist belief diminishes Christ, his work, and his teachings.
- It leads people to look upon the Bible as an obscure and fanciful book.
- It confuses the important Christian distinctive that man is inherently sinful and incapable of utopian perfection.
- It relies too much on a single obscure passage of the Bible—Revelation 20—perhaps the most symbolic passage in the most symbolic book of the Bible.
- While it takes passages literally which were intended to be understood symbolically, it takes other passages that were clearly meant to be understood literally and gives them unintelligible meanings. For example, “soon” can mean its opposite “not soon, in the far away future.” “Near” can mean “distant.”
- The teaching that “Jesus is always coming soon” tends to make Christians forget their responsibilities on earth, functioning to justify social irresponsibility.
- Dispensationalism is logically anti-Semitic. While dispensationalists hold a warm view for Jews and Israel, when they pray for “Jesus to come soon” they are really praying for a Great Tribulation in which two-thirds of Israelis will be slaughtered in a holocaust, before the establishment of the utopian kingdom. Further, Jews, in their view, remain slaves to the law.
- Dispensationalists deny the clear biblical teaching that the gospel is for everybody, both Jew and Gentile (John 14:6; Romans 1:16; 2:28-29; 10:12; Galatians 3:28-29; 4:24-31; 6:15-16; Colossians 3:11; Hebrews 12:12-29; 1 Peter 2:5-10; Revelation 3:9).
- Dispensationalists also believe that the Jerusalem temple will be rebuilt, and animal sacrifices will be reinstituted. The dispensational interpretation of Ezekiel 40-48 notwithstanding, no Bible passage warrants such an idea; and worse, it implicitly suggests that Christ died in vain (Galatians 2:21).
- Millennialism is a breeding ground for false prophets.
As put by Don Preston, “Millennialism turns the shadow into the substance, the temporary into the permanent, the substance into the shadow, and the eternal into the temporary.” [xxi]
Here is how this discussion ties to eschatology: Dispensationalists miss the covenantal thread that runs through the Bible. This covenantal theme unifies Scripture, not only for eschatology, but other aspects of theology, including soteriology. Though other futurists miss aspects of this, for dispensationalists the error is comprehensive.
Dispensationalists are not monolithic in their theology. Fortunately, many of them are moving away from some of their most egregious errors. But all futurist systems implicitly teach that our salvation is not complete until a yet-to-be fulfilled Second Coming. Preterism teaches that our salvation, and release from the bondage of sin, is indeed complete, as we discussed in Chapters 10 and 13.
We’re not quite ready to let dispensationalists off the hook. We challenge dispensationalists further with the questions in Appendix C. If you have a dispensational pastor, or have dispensational friends, any of these questions can be employed to challenge and advance their theological understanding.
[i] Gary DeMar stated that Justin Martyr and Papias were the only two early church fathers who could be classified as premillennial during the earliest decades of the 2nd century. See Gary DeMar (and Francis X. Gumerlock), The Early Church and the End of the Word (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2006), Chapter 4. DeMar also points out that while Papias (died c. AD 155) is often a favorite church father of premillennialists, the claims that Papias got his views from the apostles is a shaky claim. Papias probably got his information second or third hand. Eusebius was highly critical of Papias’ premillennial views (Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter 39: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250103.htm). DeMar also argues that the sources for Justin Martyr’s premillennialism are questionable. Gumerlock, in the same book (page 99), quotes Augustine as giving alternate interpretations for the Second Coming, including that it could refer to a coming of “Christ to the Church” in a continuous sense, or to a bodily return to earth at the end of history. Gumerlock quotes others throughout church history that saw the Second Coming as non-bodily.
[ii] David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation, (Tyler, Texas: Dominion Press, 1987), page 494.
[iii] See http://www.lessonsonline.info/MillennialismEarly.htm.
[iv] Alan Patrick Boyd, “A Dispensational Premillennial Analysis of the Eschatology of the Post-Apostolic Fathers (until the Death of Justin Martyr),” Th. M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1977.
Curtis I. Crenshaw and Grover E. Gunn III, Dispensationalism Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow, (Memphis, TN: Footstool Publications, 1985), reprinted in 1989, page 114. See also Joseph M. Vincent II, The Millennium: Past, Present, or Future? A Biblical Defense for the 40 Year Transition Period (Ardmore, OK: JaDon Publishing, 2012), Chapter 1. See also See Gary DeMar (and Francis X. Gumerlock), The Early Church and the End of the Word (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2006), Chapter 4.
[v] There seems to be some doubt or debate about exactly what was agreed upon at these ancient councils, especially at the Council of Ephesus. Apparently the reports of condemnations of millennialism at these councils are from secondary sources. But it does seem clear that Augustine thought that millennialism was a superstition, and his thoughts were accepted as authoritative. This seems to be confirmed by the Nicene Creed. The Italian abbot Joachim of Fiore (c. 1130-1202) revived chiliasm for a time.
[vi] From “American Lutheran Views on Eschatology and How They Related to the American Protestants” by John M. Brenner.
[vii] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (3.25.5).
[viii] See Francis X. Gumerlock, The Day and the Hour: Christianity’s Perennial Fascination with Predicting the End of the World (Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision, 2000). One can also find various lists of historic false prophets on the Internet, such as these websites:
The interested reader can search for more such sites in the Internet.
[x] We are especially indebted to the authors of this book: Curtis I. Crenshaw and Grover E. Gunn III, Dispensationalism Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow, (Memphis, TN: Footstool Publications, 1985, reprinted 1989). We draw from chapters 5, 8, 14, and 16. This book is considered by some to be authoritative concerning dispensationalism. Both were pastors in Presbyterian churches at the time of the writing of their book. Crenshaw is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. Both authors were dispensationalists for more than 30 years. Neither author is a preterist, but presumably were amillennialists at the time of the writing of the book. We also used a summary from an online source www.gotquestions.org, as well as other sources. Another very helpful book is by Gary DeMar, End Times Fiction: a Biblical Consideration of the Left Behind Theology (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers).
[xi] John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966).
[xii] We credit this book for help with this outline: Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams, Why I Am Not an Arminian (Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press, 2004). We also recommend the this book for the opposing view: Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist (Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press, 2004).
[xiii] Curtis I. Crenshaw and Grover E. Gunn III, Dispensationalism Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow, (Memphis, TN: Footstool Publications, 1985, reprinted 1989).
[xiv] The term “Reformed” is often understood as a synonym for Calvinist. Calvinists are most often found in Presbyterian churches but also increasingly in some Baptist and some Bible churches. Calvinists emphasize God’s election. Lutherans hold to similar beliefs, emphasizing salvation by grace through the work of the Holy Spirit. But Lutherans believe, unlike Calvinists, that salvation is potentially for all who believe (not just those predestined to believe), and they also believe that man can turn away from faith (rather than “once saved always saved”). Arminians in the modern church are represented by Methodists and some Baptists/Bible churches, and teach salvation by grace but emphasize man’s free will to accept God’s gift of grace. Catholics believe that we are saved by grace infused with works and sacrament. Semi-Pelagians take a further step towards works righteousness, believing that we are saved by grace plus works, and may be found in various sects including some Churches of Christ. Full-Pelagians believe that we are saved by our good works only. Both semi-Pelagians and full-Pelagians are considered legalists, and we consider legalism outside the circle of orthodoxy on matters of justification. At best, semi-Pelagians are on the edge of the circle of orthodoxy, depending on how they understand grace. (It is contradictory and not adequately biblical to say we are saved by grace, but here is a list of things that one has to do to be saved. . . .)
[xv] Curtis I. Crenshaw and Grover E. Gunn III, Dispensationalism Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow, (Memphis, TN: Footstool Publications, 1985), reprinted 1989, pages 404-405.
[xvi] There is much confusion on the doctrine of man’s sinful nature. Theologians make a distinction between “total depravity” and “utter depravity.” Utter depravity would mean that man can do no good whatsoever. Christianity does not teach utter depravity, but rather teaches that man is totally depraved, which means that every aspect of his life is touched by sin. Orthodox Christianity does not teach that man can do no good at all in any sense.
[xviii] The Ashkenazi Jews may not be descended from Abraham.
[xix] See the book by Don K. Preston, Israel 1948: Countdown to No Where.
[xx] Curtis I. Crenshaw and Grover E. Gunn III, Dispensationalism Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow (Memphis, TN: Footstool Publications, 1985), reprinted 1989, page 106.
[xxi] Don K. Preston, D. Div., Who Is This Babylon (Ardmore, Oklahoma: JaDon Management, Inc., 2006), page 326.