Dispensationalism is a complicated system, which I think is just one factor that militates against it. I 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 to be correct. They are content to let their leaders feed them news items that assure them that the end is near.
There are differences among various dispensational systems. But to simplify, dispensationalism usually adds this extra notion onto premillennialism: Israel and the church are separate entities. They teach that ethnic Israel continues since the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948. Many of them taught that this marked the beginning of the end of the world and fulfillment of Bible prophecy. Hal Lindsey, Chuck Smith, and Edgar Whisenant, for example, taught the this would come to fruition in a 40-year generation. But 1988 came and went without such events, proving them wrong.
They still insist that the temple will be rebuilt and sacrifices for sin re-instituted. This has serious implications. The New Testament teaches that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was once for all (Hebrews 10). So, we must conclude that dispensationalism is blasphemous against the finished work of Christ. Some dispensationalists have even implied, that Jews and Christians have different paths to their eternal destinies. Jews are saved by works; Christians by faith.
The term dispensationalism actually comes from the notion that there are distinct dispensations or time periods in history. Dispensationalists usually see seven distinct 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. What are important are the tentacles emanating from dispensationalism.
Dispensationalists teach the nutty idea 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 week of Daniel’s prophecy of 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, here is a composite of their scheme on how the future is supposed to all work out:
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.” They define the “dead in Christ” as 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).
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 (Revelation).
The tribulation will be a holocaust in which some two-thirds of Jews will be killed, (Zechariah 13:8-9). 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,” they are really asking for a soon holocaust of the Jews! This seems more than a bit anti-Semitic to us!
Anyway, those Jewish or 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 it. 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 bind Satan in the abyss/pit during 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 so-called kingdom of God of which the Bible speaks. This reign of Christ fulfills the 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 Israelites who have survived the tribulation. Depending on the version of dispensationalism, the vast majority of 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 now (Matthew 25:31-46); the sheep (saved) will enter the millennium and the goats (lost) being cast into everlasting fire and condemnation. These saved Israelites and probably the saved living Gentiles too 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 1000 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 memorial offerings in remembrance of Christ’s death. Although dissimilarities exist, the millennial kingdom will see a virtual revival of much of the Mosaic and 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 for 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. During the millennium, death will be rare or even non-existent depending on the interpreter, 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 will be immediately resurrected and will enter the heavenly city as resurrected saints. Because Christ is physically reigning and Satan is imprisoned in the abyss, evil is almost unknown during the millennial kingdom.
At the end of the millennium, Satan will be loosed and will gather all unbelievers in a final military revolt which Christ will quickly put down. More resurrections now occur: that of all unbelievers of every age and that of believers who died during the millennial kingdom if they were not already resurrected.
The earthly millennial saints will be judged and translated into resurrected bodies and the eternal state. Then 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.
Confused yet? If this stuff was not being taught in Christian churches, it would be considered science fiction. If you believe dispensationalism, I have a few questions for you:
Here are some helpful links about dispensationalism: