Dispensationalism is a system of theology whose adherents strive for a consistently literal interpretation of the Bible. It makes careful distinctions between different periods of God's progressive dealings with mankind, and between His plans for national Israel and for the New Testament Church. Dispensationalism is currently the most common interpretive framework for lay-level evangelicals in the United States.
Distinctions between Israel and the Church find expression as far back as the second century, from writers such as Justin Martyr, Irenaus, and Clement of Alexandria. The Protestant Reformation brought the concept of literal biblical interpretation, which had been lost during the development of Catholicism. Dispensationalists claim that Protestant writers as early as Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and Isaac Watts (1674-1748) expressed sentiments similar to their own.
Dispensationalism as a coherent system came into existence through the ministry and writings of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). His work became the foundation for those who popularized dispensationalism: James H. Brookes, James M. Gray, Lewis Sperry Chafer, and C. I. Scofield. Scofield's system differed from the others in its almost obsessive allegorical/typological interpretation of Old Testament stories. The system was best received by Congregationalists, Baptists, and some Presbyterian denominations. Through the immensely popular Scofield Study Bible, dispensationalism became the standard for biblical interpretation among traditional Southern Baptists in the early twentieth century, while conservative Presbyterians came to oppose the system because it conflicted with their covenantal view of history.
The leading proponents of dispensationalism in the twentieth century have been Charles Ryrie, Zane Hodges, J. Dwight Pentecost, and Louis Talbot. Other advocates include Mal Couch, W. A. Criswell, Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, John MacArthur, J. Vernon McGee, John Phillips, Jack Van Impe, John Walvoord, and Roy Zuck. The main schools for dispensationalism are Dallas Theological Seminary, Moody Bible Institute, Talbot Theological Seminary, and Multnomah School of the Bible. Of these, Moody is the largest publisher of dispensational materials.
The last thirty years have seen an explosion of interest in biblical prophecy because of the publications of dispensationalists such as Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye. Consequently, it is a rare thing to attend a Baptist revival meeting and not hear a sermon on the rapture. Also, while many seminaries dealt with influence from liberal scholarship in recent years, the schools which remained most steadfast to evangelical Christianity were the dispensational ones. As a result, the vast majority of conservative Baptist authors and pastors have been trained by dispensationalists. The current trend in evangelical scholarship, however, is away from dispensationalism to a more holistic view of God's interaction with His people, but the movement continues to grow among the laity.
See Section The Rapture
The beliefs of dispensationalism arise from four central convictions: (1) a particular understanding of what it means to interpret the Bible literally, (2) a heightened sensitivity to the nature of God's revelation as progressive, (3) a distinctive view of end-time prophecy, and (4) a focus on faith as the sole means of regeneration.
Literal Biblical Interpretation
Probably without exception, dispensationalists believe very strongly in the verbal inspiration of the Bible: every word was inspired by God. They are equally adamant that the Bible is to be interpreted literally, according to the "normal" or plain sense of the words. This is in part a reaction to the Catholic method of interpreting Scripture allegorically and of denying the ability of individuals to see the "true" meaning of the Bible. It is also in defiance of liberal tendencies to deny the literal or historical sense of key texts. Dispensationalists grant that the Bible contains figures of speech, but they seek a literal meaning behind each symbol, and are unlikely to see an expression as figurative unless a literal meaning is problematic. The general rule is, "If the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense."
As a result, dispensationalists generally hold that the universe is less than ten thousand years old and that it was created in six 24-hour days. They believe that Adam and Eve were historical, and that the appearance of extreme age (mountains, fossils, etc.) are the result of Noah's Flood. Those who follow Scofield's Bible, however, hold to the "gap theory," which conjectures a period of millions of years between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, during which some say Satan and his angels ruled the universe before his fall. (The gap theory had its origin outside dispensationalism but was embraced by Scofield. Scofield also allowed for a great deal of evolution in the animal and plant kingdom.)
See Section On Evolution
Dispensationalists also hold strongly to the internal claims of authorship in biblical books: Moses wrote the Pentateuch, Paul wrote all the letters ascribed to him, etc. They accept the history and miracles recorded in the Bible as factual, but also tend to see Old Testament stories as allegories of New Testament truths. Because dispensationalists are most common in traditional circles, they usually prefer to make the King James Version their translation of choice.
See Section Bible Controversies
Nearly all theologians recognize that God's relationship to His people, and to mankind in general, changed from the Old Testament to the New. Whereas formerly He worked through a people who were geographically and biologically related, He now has a people gathered from every tribe, tongue, and nation. It is also a matter of consensus that God's revelation is progressive: the Old Testament contains many "shadowy" things whose explanation and fulfillment came with the events of the New Testament. While the quality of revelation never changed, the quantity increased over time. Simply put, Abraham did not have access to all the revelation about God which we have in the Bible.
From these concepts, dispensationalists conclude that in each age God gives a different dispensation of responsibilities to people, in accordance with the revelation they have received. This does not mean that there are different ways to be saved. In all ages, dispensationalists stress, salvation comes by faith in the true God, and sins are forgiven only by Christ's payment of their penalty through His death on the cross. (See The Heart Of The Matter) Yet the content of the faith changes. Each dispensation involves a governing relationship (covenant) which God enters into, and the resulting responsibility of mankind. Most dispensations end with the outpouring of God's judgment on those who failed to meet that test.
There are differing views of where some dispensations start and end, but they are nearly always seven in number. The dispensation of freedom or innocence is the Garden of Eden. From there until Noah's Flood there is no covenant, but it is often regarded as a dispensation of "conscience." Following the Flood is the dispensation of government. The age of the patriarchs is known as the age of promise, with the sojourn in Egypt sometimes being a separate dispensation.
The three remaining dispensations receive the most attention. The dispensation of law began with Moses. The promises of this covenant were material and conditioned upon following moral, civil, and ritual requirements, and animal sacrifices were the demonstration of faith, which brought forgiveness of sins. God's judgment on Israel for its failures was first the Babylonian captivity, then the scattering of the Jews in A.D. 70. From that time until the rapture of the Church, God's plans for national Israel are suspended, and Israel will be without a kingdom and subordinated to Gentile control until the return of Christ. The re-establishment of Israel as a political entity in 1948 forced a new understanding of this suspension, and most dispensationalists interpreted the event as the beginning of the "last days."
The dispensation of grace began at Pentecost and is characterized by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within believers. Sanctification comes not through deeds of the law but by relying on the internal, invisible work of the Holy Spirit. The Church's primary mission is to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. The Church age will end when the Church is raptured from the earth.
The final dispensation is the Kingdom, during which God resumes His activity with the Jews. During the seventieth week of Daniel, oppression by the antichrist will prompt Christ to return to earth. National Israel will then recognize Him and repent, whereupon Christ will establish a physical kingdom and rule the earth as Messiah for a thousand years.
What makes dispensationalism distinct from other historical perspectives is that a new dispensation is generally not responsible for the revelation intended for other dispensations. The Church is not under the obligations of the Old Testament law, and in fact is not subject to any law at all. As Lewis Sperry Chafer explained, whereas the command of the Old Testament was "repent," the command of the New Testament is "only believe!" A person's salvation cannot be gauged by good works. Similarly, some of Jesus' teachings (such as his calls for repentance) apply only to the old dispensation that ended at Pentecost, and others (most notably the Sermon on the Mount) are intended for the "kingdom of heaven," which is the next dispensation, and not for the Church age. Likewise, the Church is not the recipient of the promises made to Israel. The new covenant of Jeremiah 31 is for Israel, not the Church (and thus refers to the Millennium), because they are under different dispensations.
See Section Safeguarding Your Salvation
Most dispensational books have end-time prophecy as their focus, and it is now difficult to find any books on end-time prophecy which do not come from a dispensational viewpoint. (I have noticed that dispensational end-times books have their own section or are in "current events" aisles in Christian bookstores, while non-dispensational books on prophecy are relegated to the rarely perused "theology" section.)
Dispensationalists interpret prophecy literally, arguing that since prophecies of the past–such as the Jews' slavery in Egypt, the fall of Jerusalem, and the coming of Christ–have been fulfilled literally, that the same holds true of apocalyptic prophecy. Thus, not only will Jesus return physically to the earth, but He will literally set His feet on the Mount of Olives, it will break in half, He will make war on the nations in the valley of Megiddo, and their wooden weapons will literally be burned afterwards.
Dispensational interpretation is also influenced by their distinction between Israel and the Church. In order for God to resume His work with Israel, the time of Gentile dominance must come to an end. This means, first of all, the removal of the Church in the rapture. Prior to dispensationalism, the rapture was seen as part of the return of Christ which followed the tribulation. Believers from all ages in the past would be resurrected, and their bodies would be changed to be incorruptible. They would meet Christ in the air. Those who believed in the Millennial reign of Christ (premillennialists) believed they would then accompany Christ to earth and be with Him there. Amillennialists, who saw the Millennium as fulfilled in the Church Age, believed Christ would take them to heaven immediately after their resurrection.
Dispensationalists combine these views and maintain the Israel/Church distinction by dividing Christ's return into two stages. In stage one, Christ returns in the blink of an eye, resurrects and raptures the Church (but not Old Testament believers), and takes them to heaven for the Wedding Supper of the Lamb. This, of course, will be a literal celebratory meal, and is not merely symbolic. For exactly seven years (usually to the day), the antichrist will reign and Israel will be persecuted. Even though Christians will not be present during the Tribulation, this is actually the period which receives by far the most attention in their writings on end-time prophecy. Then comes stage two, in which Christ visibly returns with His saints to make war with His enemies. National Israel then repents, and the factions of Israel and Judah are reunited.
Like all premillennialists, dispensationalists believe Christ will reign on earth after His return, during which time Satan's activity on earth is restrained. There are a few differences, however. Historic premillennialists see believers in a state of equality and regard a number of descriptions of the Millennium as symbolic. Dispensationalists, however, stress that the focus of the Millennium will be the Jews, who will have special privileges not available to Gentile Christians. For dispensationalists, the Euphrates River will literally dry up, the Millennium will last exactly one thousand years, it will involve the reinstitution of sacrifices, and it will include children and animals interacting in peace and harmony. There will even be roads on which lions are not allowed. All these are strictly literal interpretations of the various prophecies.
Following the Millennium is the great white throne judgment described in Revelation 20. Historically, Christians have held that this is the same as the judgment seat of God before which Christians will stand and the glorious throne at which God will divide the sheep from the goats. For the dispensationalist, these are all three separate judgments (or else the same expression would have been used in each case). Christians face the judgment seat immediately following the rapture, and just before the Wedding Supper of the Lamb. The sheep are divided from the goats at the beginning of the Millennium, and the only people at the great white throne will be the unrighteous.
According to dispensationalism, the last judgment is the end of history, the end of time, and eternity will be a state outside of time, something we cannot fathom. The descriptions of heaven and hell in Revelation 20-22 are literal, such that hell will be a literal lake of fire and sulfur, with no light, and the New Jerusalem will literally be a cubical city with 1500-mile sides, clear golden streets, and trees growing twelve kinds of fruit.
Dispensationalists are more adamant about the pretribulational rapture than any other of their distinctive beliefs. Some will even question the salvation of someone who does not believe in the imminent rapture of the Church–that is, that it could happen at any moment.
Salvation by Faith
As stated above, classic dispensationalism (as propagated by Lewis Sperry Chafer) stresses that repentance is not necessary for salvation. One needs only to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and to ask forgiveness for sins. Once the "sinner's prayer" is prayed, salvation is eternal. There is no point at which a person has sinned so much that we can conclude that he was not saved when he prayed that prayer. Sanctification is a matter of the indwelling Holy Spirit, which we cannot see. This is the very nature of the dispensation of grace. This view of salvation without repentance is most common among faculty at Talbot and Dallas Theological Seminaries.
Some dispensationalists, most notably John MacArthur, see "only believe" salvation as unbiblical and preach instead "lordship salvation." In this view, even though Christians are not held to the standards of the law, true faith produces repentance from the moment of salvation, and so repentance is an evidence of salvation. But others such as Ryrie, Hodges, and Pentecost believe that adherents to "lordship salvation" are not true dispensationalists.
Both these views are distinct from the Reformed view of salvation, which was the primary view of Baptists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians before dispensationalism took hold. In the Reformed view, the Holy Spirit–on His own initiative–regenerates a sinner, making him born again, and the sinner responds through the inseparable graces of faith and repentance. In the dispensational system, a lost person takes the first step by believing in God by faith, and the Spirit responds by indwelling the believer, whereby he is born again. The matter of debate among dispensationalists is whether that faith must produce repentance immediately or at some later time (or at all). There are some Calvinistic dispensationalists who have a Reformed view of salvation, and John MacArthur is in fact one of these, as are Bruce Ware and Erwin Lutzer.
Dispensationalists see their view as the one which most defends the principle of salvation by grace apart from works, and they vehemently oppose legalism and sacramentalism–particularly that of the Catholic variety. But they also tend to oppose Calvinism, since Calvinism generally holds that a life of good works is the evidence that one is saved, and therefore, elect.
Neither the recency of dispensationalism as a movement, nor its success among Bible-believing Christians, is a proper reason to accept or reject it as a system. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, justification by grace apart from the sacraments was a "new" idea, and yet there is no question it is biblical. Likewise, the Trinity Broadcasting Network has stations all over the world, with millions of dollars pouring in monthly, but their message is obviously heretical.
I say first that I have great respect for many of those who embrace dispensationalism. Beyond any doubt, dispensationalists are people who have a reverence for the Bible and have great faith in God. They oppose perversions of the gospel and are the first to speak up when someone contradicts the clear teachings of Scripture. But I find that the points at which they differ from other evangelicals are the very ones where they run into problems biblically.
First, their understanding of "literal" interpretation is a bit short-sighted. I proclaim along with them that the Bible is true historically and scientifically, and that we should not allegorize or spiritualize texts which were intended to be taken literally. My concern is the author's intent. To interpret a text literally is to understand it according to the author's meaning. Authors do not always use words according to their plainest, most basic sense. It is absolutely crucial to consider context, style, and genre. Not all idioms and figures of speech are impossible or nonsensical when taken literally; these must be recognized by literary means. It is the nature of poetry and apocalyptic literature to be symbolic, and so we should take care when considering whether numbers such as seven, a thousand, or 144,000 are exact or merely representative.
Taking Bible Verses out of Context is One of the Four Most Dangerous Mistakes Any Christian Can Make. See Context is Crucial
Second, dispensationalists read a bit much into specific word choice. It is natural when writing to choose different words for the same idea in order to avoid monotony. There is no reason to consider the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven to be completely different, and only applicable to the eschatological kingdom. Likewise, three different words for throne need not imply three separate throne judgments.
Third, Scofield's typology is similar to the kind of scriptural abuse the Reformers railed against, with nearly every story in Genesis (and many elsewhere) presented as an allegory. Heroes or sufferers are invariably said to be types of Christ or the Spirit, women are types of the Church, and the names of God are infused with theology that assumes knowledge of the entire Bible. Not only does this ignore the intent of historical narrative, but it also goes against the very concept of progressive revelation upon which dispensationalism is based. And as Scofield himself wrote, "Nothing may be dogmatically asserted to be a type without explicit New Testament authority." [Also See Esotericism and Biblical Interpretation]
Dispensationalists also run into problems when they make such great distinctions between Israel and the Church. The book of Galatians, Romans 9 through 11, and the entire book of Acts make it quite clear that the Christian Church is in continuity with Old Testament Israel. Some of the Jews–the apostles and others–accepted the Messiah, and the gospel spread to Gentiles as they were grafted in. Those who rejected the Messiah were outside God's covenant, whether Jew or Gentile. Paul refers to the Church as the true Israel, and many times in the New Testament, promises originally made to Israel are applied to the Church. It is also folly to ascribe passages to one dispensation or another without regard to who the original audience was. Such attempts seem more like an attempt to harmonize the Scripture with one's own theology than an honest exegesis of the text.
I am a strong believer in premillennialism. One cannot escape the biblical message that there will be a time of peace in the future during which the Messiah will reign on the earth, and Revelation 20-21 makes it equally clear that this will be a time distinct from the eternal New Jerusalem.. God has eternal covenants both with national Israel and with the land of Palestine. But all the proofs for a distinct rapture rest on shaky ground. I believe in the resurrection and transformation described in 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4, but these will accompany Christ's visible return to Earth, as the context of each passage suggests. Christ does promise to protect His people from His judgment during the Tribulation, but He does not promise removal and does promise persecution. Christ's return is a rescue in that He destroys the persecutors. From Christ's return on, we will be with the Lord forever, but this does not mean we will be in heaven. In addition, Scripture does not say that Christ could return at any moment without warning. Instead, we are to remain alert and watch for signs, not knowing the exact time of His coming, but recognizing when it is near. The very signs we are given are things which are to take place during the Tribulation.
Finally, I take issue with the view of "only believe" salvation because it is so contrary to the New Testament. James and 1 John clearly present repentance as the greatest evidence that faith is real. Faith and repentance are indeed inseparable graces, and both flow freely from a regenerate heart inclined toward God.
I cannot call dispensationalism heresy. Dispensationalists are in full harmony with the essentials of the faith: the truthfulness of the Bible, the attributes of God, the Trinity, human moral responsibility, salvation by grace rather than by works, Jesus' deity, incarnation, substitutionary atonement, and resurrection, and the promise of His return. Nor can I label dispensationalism as a naive or amateuristic approach to the Bible. Some of the most respected biblical scholars in the world, such as Eugene Merrill and Gleason Archer, are dispensational. And so I would place them in a category with charismatics, evangelical Catholics, hyper-Calvinists, and anabaptists: people who are passionate about God's word, but who miss the message in some very important areas. (There is a small group of "Pauline dispensationalists" who place Paul's teachings above those of the other apostles and accept only his books as relevant for today, in a fashion reminiscent of Marcion. They are aberrant by any standard, and I would warn dispensational believers to avoid such extremes).
What I can do is say that dispensationalists are wrong to present themselves as the only ones who consistently believe the Bible is "literally" true. It is not inconsistent to see poetry as more symbolic than historical narrative, and I have yet to meet a dispensationalist who believes the antichrist will be a beast with seven heads and ten horns. Many dispensationalists have a sense of superiority and suspicion about them, as if anyone who opposes them must be liberal, or worse, Catholic. Some dispensationalists, however, are making headway: Chuck Swindoll, former president of Dallas Theological Seminary, has worked to make it a place more accepting of non-dispensationalists, and scholars such as Craig Blaising are developing what is known as progressive dispensationalism, which brings it closer to mainstream evangelical theology.