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Dispensationalism is a Biblical interpretive system which attempts to "rightly divide the Bible" into time periods based on how distinct paradigms according to which God attempts to administer, manage and relate to the world to fulfil his own purposes. The result is a theological system which is dependent on examining the bible verse, and figuring out to which dispensation the verse belongs to. According to dispensationalists' hermeneutical system we are currently in the "Dispensation of Grace". In the history of Christianity, it's practically brand spanking new, only being invented by John Nelson Darby in the 1830s as a fundamentalist/restorationist Christian sect in London known as the Plymouth Brethren (Darby split from the other Brethren to found the Exclusive Brethren).
The pre-tribulation rapture belief comes from Dispensationalism and was not known in any part of Christendom before the Plymouth Brethren (or possibly the Irvingites - see immediately below) invented it.
Some scholars have traced the pretribulation-rapture belief to a "divine revelation" received by a member of an 1830s proto-Pentecostal sect in Scotland, the Catholic Apostolic Church (a/k/a the Irvingites), which belief was picked up by the Plymouth Brethren's John Darby, tacked onto his emerging Dispensationalism theory, and claimed as his own.
One of the issues facing a sola scripture believing bible reader is the apparent number of contradictions in the Bible. Catholics (those persons belonging to the "Harlot Church" which is the bride of the Anti-Christ according to dispensationalists) and Jews, both of whom rely on tradition (Sacred Tradition for Catholics and the Torah Shebaal Peh – the Oral Tradition for Jews) to interpret the same religious texts, in an attempt to resolve the inherent contradictions. Protestants consider tradition to be an invention of the Catholic Church and the Jews, therefore seeing it as a man made invention tainted with paganism and not of god. Therefore the sola scriptura bible believer requires a hermeneutic, used as an interpretive tool through which one can read the Bible and resolve the apparent contradiction. Lo and behold, dispensationalism comes to the rescue.
Dispensationalism hypothesizes several different biblical eras, with god administering each of these eras according to different rules. Dispensationalists begin with the assumption that during this present era, grace is obtained through faith alone and not by works.[note 1] If a verse in the bible contradicts this maxim, this must mean that the verse belongs to a different dispensation. No matter how many times the requirement for good works is mentioned in the bible, salvation obtained solely by faith (through grace alone) is the doctrinal cornerstone of protestantism.
Dispensationalists have proposed seven periods:
- Dispensation of Innocence: Creation of Adam - The Fall
- Dispensation of Conscience: The Fall - The Flood
- Dispensation of Human Government: The Flood - The time of Abraham
- Dispensation of Promise: The time of Abraham - Moses receiving the Ten Commandments.
- Dispensation of the Law: Moses receiving the law - Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
- Intertestamental period Christ residing on this earth, preaching the keeping of the Law (works based salvation).
- Dispensation of Grace: The death of the testator (Christ) - The Millennial kingdom. Also known as the Church Age.
- Great Tribulation/Time of Jacob's Trouble: A period of time during which the anti-Christ rules the world.
- Millennial Kingdom: Following the Great Tribulation, Christ will come and rule over the earth for 1,000 years.
Dispensationalists reason that much of what Christ commanded that one must do (works) could not logically belong in this Dispensation of Grace because of Paul's letter to the Ephesians. Due to this dispensational reading of Biblical scripture, many dispensationalists have concluded that the Gospels do not belong to the current Church Age and only the Epistles of Paul whilst Chapter 8 and later of Acts of the Apostles apply to the current dispensation. Among dispensationalists, there is general agreement that the apostles who knew Christ were set to the Jewish people and not to the gentiles, whilst Paul was given the task of preaching to the gentiles. Thus, the Catholic Epistles (those written by John, Peter, Jude and James) which were intended for a universal audience unlike the Pauline Epistles which were written for specific churches, do not apply to this Church Age and are considered to have been written for the Jews instead. However, one cannot presume that only the Epistles of Paul apply to this age, as there are verses in Paul's letters which apply to another age, and verses in other books of the bible which apply to this age.
Dispensationalism teaches that there are two separate people of god at present:
- The Church: On whom god’s attention is at present focused (generally gentiles)
- Israel: On whom god’s attention was focused in the past and will later refocus during the time of the anti-Christ.
Dispensationalists are biblical literalists and attempt to understand the bible as literally as possible. However, they allow for some figures of speech, the use of symbolic language and typology when it is apparent that these are being used. Prophecy is interpreted as literally as possible as with the Book of the Apocalypse (revelation). Dispensationalist hold that salvation in each dispensation is by faith, how this faith is manifest differs during each of the dispensations.
So where did today's evangelicals come up with this stuff? The notion traces back to John Darby and was then adopted by Plymouth Brethren member Cyrus Scofield in his Scofield Reference Bible, a version of the King James Bible with extensive commentary (and theological fabrication) from Scofield. It spread from there to American evangelicalism's culture as a whole.
The word "rapture" itself to refer to Jesus grabbing all the living Christians off the earth did not appear until the 1909 publication of the Scofield Reference Bible. The word "rapture" is not found anywhere in the text of the Bible itself.
The Scofield Reference Bible is still popular today.
In pop culture
You know all that Left Behind stuff? The song "I Wish We'd All Been Ready"? The A Thief in the Night movie series? Jack Chick's end times paranoia? Hal Lindsey's bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth? The theology they teach at Bob Jones University? The "WARNING: In Case Of Rapture Somebody Grab The Wheel" bumper stickers? All of those are based on belief in a "pre-tribulation rapture".
Typical Dispensationalist behaviors
Dispensationalists are notorious for trying to set the date of Christ's return, shoehorning Bible prophecy into current events, tying Bible prophecy to politics involving the state of Israel, and naming the Antichrist. In the 1830s the original Dispensationalists in the Plymouth Brethren and Irvingites were naming Robert Owen (Welsh-American founder of several anarchist-socialist communes such as New Harmony, Indiana) as the likely Antichrist. William Branham predicted the World Council of Churches and the Catholic Church would merge by 1977 and the rapture would be in 1977. Hal Lindsey thinks the founding of modern Israel in 1948 set off the prophetic clock which Jesus must return within a generation after, predicted Jesus' return by 1988 and wrote The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon. Mary Stewart Relfe has the same view of Israel as Lindsey, and named Anwar Sadat as the Antichrist. Jack Chick has the same view of Israel, but thinks the Pope is the Antichrist. Pat Robertson (whom some of us think is the Antichrist) seemingly wants to start World War III as soon as possible to speed up Jesus' return. Harold Camping set the date of Christ's return in 1994, and when that didn't happen, started preaching that we have left the "Dispensation of Grace" and nobody can now be saved. All of them think the final sequence of events leading to the rapture and Christ's return will be set off by an invasion of Israel by Russia, or rather the Soviet Union when it existed. The logistics behind that would be interesting, to say the least[note 2]
Some evangelists know better than to openly try to set the date of Christ's return or name the Antichrist, so they do it in fiction form instead. For example, the Left Behind books and films by Tim LaHaye, and the A Thief in the Night films by Russell Doughten. That way when events don't unfold exactly as they said, they can say it was "just fiction".
Unlikely as it seems, there are also some evangelicals and fundamentalists who do not subscribe to Dispensationalism, nor to its related doctrines like the pre-millennial, pre-tribulation rapture. You have 30 seconds to think of one.
I bet you can't because they have been so drowned out by the Left Behind and Late Great Planet Earth mania that most people assume Dispensationalist theology is evangelical Christian theology. (Hint: the Churches of Christ are generally millennial.)
The alternative viewpoints include Preterism, which is the belief that the Bible prophecies in the books of Book of Daniel and Book of Revelation were already fulfilled in the first or second century; Postmillennialism, which is the belief the world will get better and better as the Christian faith spreads and that Jesus will return after a 1000 year era of peace and prosperity; the post-tribulation believers who believe Christians will remain on the earth during the 7 year reign of the Antichrist just like everyone else (sorry, you don't get to be raptured out of the coming hard times and you are all going to be "left behind"); and amillennialism, the view that the Bible prophecies were not literal to begin with.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a fundamentalist Reformed body, does not permit dispensationalists to be ordained ministers. The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, a Confessional Lutheran body that is officially creationist, holds to amillennialism.
Bible passages supporting the Dispensationalist viewpoint
Dispensationalism -- the theological statement that the church's history is divided in seven ages -- comes from the seven churches that John of Patmos sends a letter to in Revelation: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. These are literal churches that existed at the time, and Revelation was intended as an open letter addressed to these churches. Taking the churches in Asia Minor to mean figurative ages of the Christian church is not supported in any way by the text, but forms the core belief of dispensationalism. It also undermines the literalism that Fundamentalists claim as the yardstick of Scripture interpretation.
Scientific research supporting the Dispensationalist viewpoint
Some other concepts also not found anywhere in the Bible, which have nonetheless become core beliefs of today's evangelical Christianity:
- For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
KJV Ephesians 2:8-9
- Especially knowing the many problems with logistics of the Russian army during the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, and its pitiful current state.
- chabad.org - What is the Oral Torah? Rabbi Naftali Silberberg
- Catholic Answers - Scripture and Tradition
- European American Evangelistic Crusades - Roman Catholicism
- Morton, Timothy S. (1997). "The Difference Is In The Dispensations Ch. 4". Preserved Word.