Similar to the way there is a fundamental shift taking place in the realm of theology by a reconsideration of Calvinism, a seismic shift is taking place in eschatology. Eschatology is the study of the “last things.” The more popular terminology is “Bible prophecy.” There are numerous schools of thought on the subject. The most popular version—dispensational premillennialism—teaches that certain prophetic events are on the horizon, that a “rapture” of the Church precedes a seven-year period that includes the rise of an antichrist, a rebuilt temple, and a Great Tribulation. One of the distinct features of this view is the belief that there is an Israel-Church distinction, and because of this distinction, God has two redemptive programs. Over the years I have been critical of this prophetic view and have written extensively on the subject and have even participated in many debates.
I have received numerous questions and not a few criticisms of my views. I have tried to answer all those who have taken the time to write to me. Some have been gracious in their replies, and some have not. Many have abandoned their dispensational belief system after reading my published works, some have not. After being engaged in this type of work for more than 40 years, I find that some people are unwilling to put their prophetic system to the test, especially a system that has a recent history and is filled with so many novel interpretations. The following is an example of some of the prophetic criticisms that come across my desk:
“[Gary DeMar] is a self-labeled non-dispensationalist. While that isn’t a crime or even a theological faux pax, it IS specious, considering that verse which describes ‘don’t boast against the branches, for they [Israel] support YOU’ and not vice versa. Included in that camp is Hank Hanegraaff, who can only be accused of believing one thing years ago and now believes the exact opposite today. Understanding the debate over Replacement Theology [that the Church has replaced Israel in God’s economy] is THE topic today and divides the Body like abortion did 20 yrs ago.”
There is a lot to unpack in this paragraph since it meanders through several topics that are irrelevant to the key factor in this discussion. Claiming that a debate over “Replacement Theology” is comparable to abortion is absurd, especially when my critic’s own prophetic system envisions “the worst bloodbath in Jewish history.” So maybe the topic is similar to abortion since dispensationalists teach that after the rapture “two-thirds of the Jewish people [living in Israel during the Great Tribulation] will be exterminated.”
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The idea of an Israel-Church distinction, which is a fundamental doctrine of dispensationalism, is built on an interpretive fiction. There is continuity between the covenants. There were Israelite believers before, during, and after Jesus’ earthly ministry. They were incorporated into the “great cloud of witnesses” from the Old Covenant age (Heb. 12:1). We are reminded of Zacharias (Luke 1:5–23), Elizabeth (1:24–25), John (1:57–63), Mary (1:39–56), Joseph (Matt. 1:18–25), Simeon (Luke 2:25–35), Anna (2:36–37), and others (Luke 19:8–9; John 2:23; 4:39, 50, 7:31; 8:31; 10:42). Simeon quotes the Old Testament that links the believing remnant of Israel and the believing remnant from the nations (Gentiles):
For my eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples. “A light of Revelation to the Gentiles [ethnos = nations], and the glory of Thy people Israel” (Luke 2:31–32; see Isa. 42:6; 49:6).
God always intended that the promises made to Israel would extend to include the nations (Acts 10; 13:47–48; 26:23). This is not to assume that every Israelite and non-Israelite would be saved; it’s about the remnant (Rom. 9:27; 11:5) not natural descent (John 1:12–13). As we will see, there is no new body of believers called the Church.
Dispensationalism’s Short and Controversial History
Everybody before around 1830 was a non-dispensationalist as the system is taught today, so I don’t see how being a “non-dispensationalist” today carries with it such negative connotations. And until the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909, there was no agreed-upon dispensational system among even a minority of Christians. It’s rather surprising that the notes by one man who had no real theological training would end up creating a brand new prophetic movement where the notes more often than not supplanted the text of Scripture.
Since its inception, dispensationalism has been considered biblically aberrational by many theological traditions. R. B. Kuiper (1886–1966), who served as a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and President of Calvin Theological Seminary, wrote in 1936 that two grievous errors were “prevalent among American fundamentalists, Arminianism and the Dispensationalism of the Scofield Bible.” The General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church went so far as to describe Arminianism and Dispensationalism as “anti-reformed heresies,” that is, heretical in terms of the theology that came out of the Reformation.
Professor John Murray, who taught Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and wrote a commentary on Romans for the New International Commentary Series, wrote that the “‘Dispensationalism’ of which we speak as heterodox from the standpoint of the Reformed Faith is that form of interpretation, widely popular at the present time, which discovers in the several dispensations of God’s redemptive revelation distinct and even contrary principles of divine procedure and thus destroys the unity of God’s dealings with fallen mankind.” Premillennialism of the covenantal or classical variety was not under attack by these men. Kuiper again writes:
It is a matter of common knowledge that there is ever so much more to the dispensationalism of the Scofield Bible than the mere teaching of Premillennialism. Nor do the two stand and fall together. There are premillennarians who have never heard of Scofield’s dispensations. More important than that, there are serious students of God’s Word who hold to the Premillennial return of Christ and emphatically reject Scofield’s system of dispensations as fraught with grave error.
This is not to say that advocates of dispensationalism are not heirs of the Reformation in most respects. Most hold orthodox positions on basic Christian doctrines, but dispensationalism, as it was codified by Scofield and is taught and promoted today, was unknown in the history of the church.
Dispensationalism has gone through numerous revisions since its revision in 1917 and the publication of the New Scofield Reference Bible in 1967. Signs of a more radical change, however, are sweeping the system into oblivion. Thomas Ice, a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS), predicted, “By the year 2000 Dallas Theological Seminary will no longer be dispensational. [Professional] priorities are elsewhere than the defense of systematic dispensationalism from external criticism.” It seems that the fulfillment of Ice’s prophecy has already come to pass. In an interview with Charles Swindoll, who served for a time as president of DTS, we learn what lies ahead for DTS: “I’m not sure we’re going to make dispensationalism a big part of our marquee as we talk about our school.”
Dispensationalism is being questioned by the more orthodox charismatics. Dr. Joseph Kikasola, former professor of international studies and Hebrew at CBN University stated that there has been a “‘diminishing of dispensationalism,’ especially among charismatics, who, he says, are coming to see that ‘charismatic dispensationalist’ is ‘a contradiction in terms.’” The date-setting element of dispensationalism is losing its fascination with many of its adherents since the fortieth and seventieth anniversaries of Israel’s nationhood (1948–2018) passed without a rapture. Dave Hunt (1926–2013), a proponent of the national regathering of Israel as the time indicator for future prophetic events, wrote: “Needless to say, January 1, 1982, saw the defection of large numbers from the pretrib position…. Many who were once excited about the prospects of being caught up to heaven at any moment have become confused and disillusioned by the apparent failure of a generally accepted biblical interpretation they once relied upon.” He goes on later to assert: “[Gary] North’s reference to specific dates is an attack upon the most persuasive factor supporting [Hal] Lindsey’s rapture scenario: the rebirth of national Israel. This historic event, which is pivotal to dispensationalism’s timing of the rapture, as John F. Walvoord has pointed out, was long-anticipated and when it at last occurred seemed to validate that prophetic interpretation.”
Robert L. Saucy, professor of systematic theology at Talbot School of Theology, remarked, “Over the past several decades the system of theological interpretation commonly known as dispensationalism has undergone considerable development and refinement.” Saucy gives a great deal away in his new work, so much so that he calls it “the new dispensationalism” or “progressive [dispensationalism] … to distinguish the newer interpretations from the older version of dispensationalism.”
Nothing even remotely associated with modern-day dispensationalism can be found in the creedal formulations of the church going back to the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. Not even non-dispensational (classical) premillennialism was written into the basic Christian creeds. The Westminster Confession of Faith and its Larger and Shorter Catechisms don’t deal with the millennial issue. Most of the finest Christian scholars the church has ever produced were not then and are not now dispensationalists. Of course, this does not mean dispensationalism is a false system, but it does mean that an amateur theologian who admits he does not “read OR write Hebrew or Greek” has no place to stand to level such a sweeping criticism against non-dispensationalists.
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Josh Burek, “Christian faith: Calvinism is back, The Christian Science Monitor (March 27, 2010): http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2010/0327/Christian-faith-Calvinism-is-back
I’ve corrected the author’s spelling in various places.
Charles C. Ryrie, The Best is Yet to Come (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1981), 86. Dispensationalist Arnold Fruchtenbaum writes something similar: “Israel will suffer tremendous persecution (Matthew 24:15–28; Revelation 12:1–17). As a result of this persecution of the Jewish people, two-thirds are going to be killed.” (Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, “The Little Apocalypse of Zechariah,” The End Times Controversy: The Second Coming Under Attack, eds. Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice [Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2003], 262).
Messianic Jewish spokesman Sid Roth in an interview with Pat Robertson on the September 18, 1991 edition of the “700 Club.”
Howard A. Hanke, Christ and the Church in the Old Testament: A Survey of Redemptive Unity in the Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1957).
Dispensationalists like to claim that the mere use of the word “dispensation” makes someone a dispensationalist. This is hardly the case. See Ronald M. Henzel, Darby, Dualism, and the Decline of Dispensationalism: Reassessing the Nineteenth-Century Roots of a Twentieth-Century Prophetic Movement for the Twenty-First Century (Tucson: Fenestra Books, 2003), 25–29.
Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1945); John Wick Bowman, “The Bible and Modern Religions: II. Dispensationalism,” Interpretation 10 (April 1956), 170–172; C. Norman Kraus, Dispensationalism in America (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1958); Clarence B. Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1960); Curtis I. Crenshaw and Grover E. Gunn, III, Dispensationalism: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow, rev. ed. (Memphis: Footstool Publications, , 1989. There are too many critiques of dispensationalism to list.
R. B. Kuiper, The Presbyterian Guardian (September 12, 1936), 225–227. Quoted in Edwin H. Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1940), 101.
The Presbyterian Guardian (February 3, 1936), 143. Quoted in Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict, 236–237.
Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung, A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).
The Presbyterian Guardian (November 14, 1936), 54. Quoted in Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict, 31.
Thomas Ice interview with Martin Selbrede, Counsel of Chalcedon (December 1989). Cited in Gary North, Rapture Fever: Why Dispensationalism is Paralyzed (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1993), 145.
Quoted in “Dallas’s New Dispensation,” Christianity Today (October 25, 1993), 14.
Traditionally, Pentecostalism has been dispensational.
Randy Frame, “The Theonomic Urge,” Christianity Today, (April 21, 1989), 38.
Dave Hunt, Whatever Happened to Heaven? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1988), 68.
Hunt, Whatever Happened to Heaven, 64.
Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism: The Interface Between Dispensationalism and Non-Dispensational Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), 8. Also see, Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism: An Up-to-Date Handbook of Contemporary Dispensational Thought (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1993).
Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, 9.
Gary DeMar and Francis X. Gumerlock, The Early Church and the End of the World (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2005), chap. 4.
Derek Thomas, “The Eschatology of the Westminster Confession of Faith,” The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, ed. Ligon Duncan, vol. 2 (Scotland: Mentor/Christian Focus Publicans 2004).