A friend posted to me yesterday a quotation from a leading dispensational author describing the “kingdom of heaven.” His view of the present reign of Christ is actually quite startling. He writes,
The third phase may be referred to as the interim kingdom, the kingdom that resulted because of Israel’s rejection of her King. The King returned to heaven and His kingdom on earth now exists only in a mystery form. Christ is Lord of the earth in the sense of His being its Creator and its ultimate Ruler; but He does not presently exercise His full divine will over the earth. He is, so to speak, in a voluntary exile in heaven until it is time for Him to return again.
First of all, there is no surprise here, except perhaps that the writer was abnormally aware and candid of the implications of his views. This is classic dispensationalism, perhaps just with the curtains pulled back more than normal. What is called the “third phase” or “interim” kingdom here is nothing less than the classic dispensational “church age” in which the real kingdom program is put on hold until Jesus returns to knock heads, literally.
Second, however, candor can be a damaging thing to theological positions. The more some people try to elaborate, the more problems their position creates. In this case, the author ends up exposing the classic dispensational “church age” as a time in which God has all but checked out—a classic “absentee landlord.” This is the Holy One on hiatus, Christ on sabbatical, God on paid leave.
The statement above may include lip-service to Christ as Lord, but the qualifiers pretty much take it away. This is not a Ruler under whose feet all things have been subjected. This is not a Ruler who has all power in heaven and on earth. This is a King-in-name-only. As such, any view of the Kingdom—“interim” or whatever—from this perspective will only be just as limited, or even incoherent. Witness: the author’s claim that the kingdom presently exists only “in a mystery form.”
This “mystery” view of the kingdom seems to me to be at odds with Scripture. Paul says that while the kingdom had been kept a mystery up until his days, the mystery is now revealed to everyone:
Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ (Eph. 3:8–9; Cf. Col. 1:26–27; 2:2; 4:3).
Our author goes so far as to say his Absentee God is literally in self-imposed “exile.” It’s bad enough that the amillennialists have doubled-down on the “exile” motif to describe the nature of Christians in this world. Now the premil dispys have gone and made God Himself an Exile. Perhaps it could be argued in defense that this is only a temporary self-imposed exile. But even this has serious implications.
Thus, third, consider what this view does to the doctrine of God, particularly His sovereignty and providence. The author states that during this present “interim” non-kingdom exile, Christ “does not presently exercise His full divine will over the earth.” This is a Christ who is no more interested or involved in history than the God of the deists.
Worse, this view really impinges upon the rest of what Scripture teaches about Divine Providence. When Christ had resurrected, He announced His receipt of total power in heaven and over all the earth (Matt. 28:18–20). He then gave us the Great Commission in light of that fact. When He ascended, he was not vacating the premises, His power, His will, His rule, His authority, or anything else in any way. He remained the same Divine Creator and Omnipotent Ruler as described, for example, in the London Baptist Confession (or its parent, the Westminster Confession of Faith):
God the good Creator of all things, in His infinite power and wisdom, upholds, directs, disposes and governs all creatures and things, from the greatest to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, to the end for which they were created (5.1).
That’s the Scriptural doctrine: whether Christ is physically present or not, He rules in His full will such that nothing falls outside of it. As the Confessions go on to say, the scope of this divine rule is absolute and total, extending to everything: “there is not anything befalls any by chance, or without His providence. . . .”
From the perspective of such robust Reformed theology, the teaching of some dispensationalists becomes quite untenable. I mean, I can just hear a Reformed Baptist like John MacArthur groan in frustration that a fellow dispensationalist would let his eschatological presuppositions tweak his doctrine of God so violently, can’t you?
Except, this is from John MacArthur. Friends, witness what happens when eschatology drives your theology. It is not a pretty sight. Even generally solid teachers can end up making absurd theological statements when pursuing bad eschatology to its logical conclusions.
In this case, you end up in something like a deism, or Manichaeism regarding the doctrines of God and providence. Yet it’s classic dispensationalism down the line: Christ has no kingdom here on earth, only in the private hearts of His believers. There can be no outward expression of that kingdom until Christ physically returns.
But what of His power and authority in the meantime? What of Christ presently reigning at the right hand of the Majesty on high, and currently “upholding all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3)? Is this “voluntary exile in heaven”? And what of Christ’s promise to be with us always throughout the Great Commission (Matt. 28:20)? What encouragement is it for the task of discipling the nations if He has taken His “all power in heaven and in earth” into voluntary exile in heaven? What His promise some kind of joke?
I prefer to acknowledge that Christ is reigning just as He claimed, and that we are seated and reigning with Him, just as Paul taught (Eph. 2:5–7). And while evil still exists in this earth, rest assured that Christ has already triumphed over it, and exercises full control over every detail of history according to His will. We live in faith knowing that He will manifest His kingdom as He wills, and that He will perform all His will, not leaving that heavenly throne until the last enemy is destroyed.
Folks, it is a long, uphill climb from our perspective, but that’s no reason to give up half-way, or to claim that Christ has abandoned the world and left it to the devil. It is indeed true that God’s inscrutable will is a mystery to us as we look forward, but the fact of His kingdom is no mystery. It is here, and it is here to stay.