Dispensationalism- The Deadliest Heresy
Dispensationalism is a theology, that at its heart, teaches that God deals with people differently at different periods of history (“dispensations”). It is a wretched heresy that deprives Christians of hope and condemns millions to hell. It is the root of much popular christian teaching, especially concerning the end times.
It is wrong! It is unbiblical! It should be renounced by all believers.
So what is it?
Dispensationalism was invented by John Darby, the founder of the Plymouth Brethren sect in England in the 1860’s. He taught that, contrary to the teachings of the church for the previous centuries, the Jews would be “re-grafted” into the tree of salvation and that Israel as a theocracy would be re-established as a prelude to the end times.
Darby’s teachings did not gain any traction until they crossed the Atlantic where Cyrus Scofield put them into his Scofield Reference Bible, where notes, annotations and charts made the teaching as authoritative as the Bible itself. The popularity of the Scofield Bible made its presence felt in churches and then in seminaries across the United States until it became the most popular theological system in evangelical circles.
The rise of radio and TV preachers who were schooled in this system reinforced its apparent domination and the perception that it must be true. Popular authors like Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye spread its influence further.
There are many variations on the theme of dispensationalism with anything from 3 to 8 ages or dispensations through history. For the sake of this article I take the simplest of these, the 3 ages model. For a more complete discussion of the models see the wikipedia page on Dispensationalism.
The three ages are:
- Law (Old Testament)
- Grace or church age (New Testament)- from Pentecost to Rapture
- Kingdom age- return of Jesus until eternity
So far so good. The problems emerge as go into specifics.
According to dispensationalists of all stripes, people’s sins in the Old Testament period were dealt with by the Law and by animal sacrifice. There was no grace, just law. Only Jews could be saved.
Of course this ignores huge swathes of Scripture, particularly the prophets and the psalms. The prophets repeatedly said that the Lord hates their feats and festivals because their hearts are far from Him. The Psalms repeatedly talk about God’s loving-kindness, faithful love. The Hebrew word hesed means something like unfailing covenant love.
But it gets worse, because in its extreme form it becomes antinomianism, the belief that it doesn’t matter what we do because God forgives it all anyway. The Law is Old Testament so even the Ten Commandments are history. Yet we find Jesus and Paul both lay down instructions that are expected to be obeyed. We cannot live as we like and honour Christ,
This is a bit complicated. In the Old Testament age, God’s focus was on Israel. In the final age the Kingdom of God is established with a focus on a restored Israel, a new Jerusalem. The church age is just a blip, an aberration, because God’s long term plan is all about Israel.
Dispensationalists will even argue that the church was God’s Plan B. Jesus did not talk about a church, but a kingdom. He did not die to establish the church but to establish the kingdom.
This is a complete lie. The Kingdom is the Church- not the human structure but the collection of people who faithfully follow Jesus Christ. The Kingdom is wherever Jesus reigns as King in the hearts and the lives of people. The Kingdom covers the entire world geographically because in every nation, every tribe, every ethnic group there are people who serve Jesus.
The Kingdom of God is not a geographic or a political entity. It is the people of God. That is why Jesus said “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)
Because they view Kingdom as a political concept and see God’s focus as being on Israel, dispensationalists place great emphasis on the nation of Israel. This is why Israel is such a big part of the foreign policy of the United States. There is nothing wrong with the U.S.A. supporting the only truly democratic nation in the Middle East. But Christians need to understand that God’s plan for the world does not involve the nation of Israel.
In 70 A.D. the Temple was destroyed by the invading Roman army. The old system of Temple worship was destroyed, because God no longer had need for it. The final sacrifice had been offered once and for all time in the body of Christ. There is no place in God’s plan for the nation of Israel. It is interesting that although Israel has occupied Jerusalem for decades there has been no attempt to build a Temple either on a new site or on the original site (which would provoke the rage of the whole Muslim world).
The Jews are important to the Lord, but no more than any other people group. More importantly, they are not saved by obeying the Law but by grace in Christ. That is the significance of Paul’s teaching about the divisions between Jew and Gentile being destroyed in Christ. (Romans 11:11-32)
4. End Times
Dispensationalists have a very distinctive eschatology (theory of the end times). This doctrine has become very widespread in the church at large, yet it is wrong.
Broadly they are pre-millennialists, that is that Christ returns before (“pre”) establishing His Kingdom on earth. There are variations on the theme but generally there is a Rapture in which all christians are snatched up to heaven in an instant. There is also a Great Tribulation, a time of great suffering in which the world is ruled by the Antichrist. There is disagreement about whether the rapture occurs before, half-way through or at the end of the seven year tribulation. Everything climaxes with a physical war at Armageddon in which the world’s armies try to overthrow the army of God.
At the heart of this story line is the interpretation of the Book of Revelation. The traditional view of the church through that ages has been that Revelation is a book of symbols. At times it is hard to understand, but that is because we don’t understand the writing style. Many theologians have said that the main focus in Revelation is to the events surrounding the destruction of the Temple and the persecution of Christians at the hands of the Jews and then the Romans.
Dispensationalists attempt to turn this on its head, trying to interpret Revelation literally where possible and assigning it all to the end times, i.e. to the future.
Through the ages, the church has understood the future to be “post-millennial”, that is that the Kingdom of God would be established by the church’s mission efforts. Gradually like the smallest seed the church would grow to become a great plant. Eventually the values of God’s kingdom would influence the whole world and after a lengthy period of Christ reigning in the world, He would return physically to wrap up history.
Is the church going to be reduced to a tiny remnant waiting for the Rapture when Jesus beams us up out of the mess? Or is the gospel going to ultimately conquer the hearts of men and women all over the world?
The problem with the premillennial view, apart from the fact that is historically wrong- the church is making huge headway all around the world- is that it discourages the church from the task of making disciples. What is the point when everything is just getting worse? It suggests an unwarranted imminence of the return of Christ so there is no point in planning even for the next generation.
Some people have suggested that it is precisely the expectation that things will get worse for the church that has brought us to the place of unprecedented weakness in the West. We have no faith in the gospel to convert the hearts of men and women and to transform the life of the nation.
We need a new expectation, a new eschatology, in which we confidently expect God to establish His reign in the world. We need to believe that God is stronger than satan and has a better destiny for the church than a last minute evacuation.
Dispensationalism, particularly its distinctive view on the End Times, has led much of the Western church into a wilderness. Rather than preaching the gospel boldly, believing that the Holy Spirit will give us the power to change nations, we have become fearful and weak.
It is time to understand the true nature of God’s Kingdom and His plans to redeem the whole of creation with His Good News.