Dispensational premillennialism (hereafter DP) contends that the Bible cannot be properly understood apart from recognizing distinct periods or eras or dispensations in which the unfolding purpose of God and his relationship with mankind are revealed. All dispensationalists recognize at least three dispensations: (1) the period before Pentecost (the age of the Mosaic Covenant); (2) the period between Pentecost and the return of Christ (the Church age); and (3) the period between the return of Christ and the eternal state (the Millennium). Classical dispensationalists, following the lead of dispensationalism's founding father, John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), point to four additional periods. Thus:
1) from creation to the fall (the dispensation of innocence)
2) from the fall to Noah (the dispensation of conscience)
3) from Noah to Babel (the dispensation of human government)
4) from Abraham to Moses (the dispensation of promise)
5) from Moses to Jesus (the dispensation of law)
6) from Pentecost to the rapture (the dispensation of grace)
7) the Millennium (the dispensation of the kingdom)
It must be noted, however, that the recognition of distinct epochs or periods in biblical history is not the primary characteristic of dispensationalism. All Christians recognize the presence in Scripture of developments within God's redemptive purpose. What is unique about DP is the way these distinct periods in biblical history are used to justify or undergird a separation between Israel and the Church. Dispensationalism's principal feature is what might be called redemptive dualism, i.e., the insistence that God has two distinct peoples, with distinct purposes for each. Variations within DP usually revolve around the question of whether and to what degree Israel and the Church share in the blessings and promises of God.
Therefore, it is the distinction between Israel and the Church and the purposes God has for each that sets dispensationalism apart from other eschatological systems. Our task will be to see why DP draws this distinction between two peoples and purposes of God and how this affects their understanding of the Kingdom.
But first we must briefly note the developments within DP itself as a school of thought.
DP first emerged as a distinct system of biblical interpretation with the Plymouth Brethren movement in early 19th century England. Key figures who advocated a sharp division between God's purposes for Israel and the Church included John Nelson Darby, Benjamin Wills Newton, George Muller, Samuel Tregelles, William Kelly, William Trotter, and Charles Henry Mackintosh.
Those in America who were highly influenced by the Brethren movement, at least in terms of its eschatology, include Dwight L. Moody, James Inglis, James Hall Brookes, A. J. Gordon, and most important of all, C. I. Scofield. In 1909 the first edition of what came to be known as The Scofield Reference Bible (second edition in 1917) was published by Oxford Press.
DP quickly spread in popularity and remains the dominant view among conservative evangelical as well as charismatic believers today. There are a number of reasons for this, ten of which I will mention here:
(1) DP boasted that it alone, among all attempts to understand the Bible, employed a consistent literalism in interpreting texts. Thus the image of taking the Bible seriously, "just for what it says," as over against the liberal attempt to "explain away" the Bible, appealed to the common Christian man/woman.
(2) DP seemed to provide the Christian public with understandable answers to gnawing questions about difficult Bible texts (such as the book of Revelation). More important still, DP claimed to offer answers to questions about the future.
(3) DP also grew in popularity because it claimed to find fulfillment of ancient biblical prophecies in contemporary events. People were (and are) attracted to a system of interpretation that adds biblical meaning to their own lives and the times in which they live.
(4) DP came to be identified with conservative Christianity. Virtually all other eschatological systems were dismissed as the fruit of liberal theology that didn't embrace the complete inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. Since dispensationalism at this time was virtually indistinguishable from premillennialism, it benefited from the association of both a- and post-millennialism with liberal thinking. When the "Fundamentalist-Modernist" controversy broke out in the first few decades of the twentieth-century, DP's were more visible and vocal than others in their defense of the fundamental doctrines of the faith. Thus, to be a DP was to be a Bible-believing-conservative Christian.
(5) One cannot underestimate the influence of the Scofield Bible on the rank and file of average Christians throughout the country. With the aid of the famous "Scofield Notes," the Bible suddenly became accessible to the average, moderately educated, Christian citizen. It became difficult for many to differentiate between the inspired text of Scripture and the interpretive notes at the bottom of the page.
(6) In more recent years, the disintegration of society and the political, economic, and especially military unrest of the twentieth-century seemed to confirm the pessimistic perspective required by DP. In other words, events in the world seemed to bear witness to the DP interpretation of biblical prophecy concerning the end times.
(7) Virtually all well-known TV preachers (all those who appear on TBN and most on the 700 Club) and radio teachers espouse the DP view of biblical prophecy. Prominent dispensationalists who utilize the media to communicate their views include W. A. Criswell, M. R. and Richard DeHaan (the Radio Bible Class), Warren Wiersbe, Charles Stanley, Adrian Rogers, Jack Van Impe, Chuck Swindoll, Billy Graham, Luis Palau, Bill Bright, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, etc. I struggle to think of a single TV evangelist or minister of a mega-church that regularly broadcasts in America who isn't a DP. Many Christians are unaware that there are other interpretive options that remain true to Scripture. Thus for many believers the DP view of the end times is as much a foundational and fundamental doctrine of the Christian religion as the deity of Christ or salvation by grace alone. To question DP, therefore, is often perceived as an indication that one is "going soft" on the authority of Scripture.
Most popular study Bibles are dispensational in orientation. In addition to the Scofield Reference Bible, the Ryrie Study Bible and the Criswell Study Bible are the most widely used.
(8) A great many of the evangelical bible colleges and theological seminaries in America were birthed out of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy or were founded by men and/or denominations highly influenced by DP. Among those schools which include DP in their doctrinal statement or espouse its basic ideas are: Grace College and Grace Theological Seminary, Dallas Theological Seminary, Philadelphia College of the Bible, Moody Bible Institute, Northwestern College, Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary, Denver Seminary (formerly called Denver Conservative Baptist Seminary), Western Seminary (formerly called Western Conservative Baptist Seminary), Criswell Bible College, Biola University, Talbot Theological Seminary, Multnomah School of the Bible, William Tyndale College, Southeastern Bible College, Capital Biblical Seminary, Liberty University, and countless other schools as well as numerous denominational colleges and seminaries.
(9) Most of the more well-known para-church organizations were either established by DP's or are highly influenced by its teachings. This includes Youth for Christ, Young Life, InterVarsity Fellowship (less so than the others, however), Campus Crusade for Christ, the Navigators.
(10) Perhaps the single greatest catalyst for the popularizing of DP in the last 35 years is the influence of Hal Lindsay and his book The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), followed by the even more popular Left Behind series of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
The best book-length treatment of the rise and influence of DP in American religious life is Paul Boyer's When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).
A. Fundamental Tenets of Dispensational Premillennialism
1. The point of departure in OT redemptive history, according to the DP, is Genesis 12 in which we see God entering into covenant with Abraham and his seed. The promises made to this peculiar people, Israel, include an innumerable seed (Gen. 13:16; 15:5), and a land for an everlasting possession (13:14-18; 17:8). In God’s covenant with David (II Sam. 7:12-16) the promises initially given to Abraham are expanded. John Walvoord explains:
“What do the major terms of the covenant mean? By David’s ‘house’ it can hardly be doubted that reference is made to David’s posterity, his physical descendants. It is assured that they will never be slain in toto, nor displaced by another family entirely. The line of David will always be the royal line. By the term ‘throne’ it is clear that no reference is made to a material throne, but rather to the dignity and power which was sovereign and supreme in David as king. The right to rule always belonged to David’s seed. By the term ‘kingdom’ there is reference to David’s political kingdom over Israel. By the expression ‘for ever’ it is signified that the Davidic authority and Davidic kingdom or rule over Israel shall never be taken from David’s posterity. The right to rule will never be transferred to another family, and its arrangement is designed for eternal perpetuity. Whatever its changing form, temporary interruptions, or chastisements, the line of David will always have the right to rule over Israel and will, in fact, exercise this privilege. This then, in brief, is the covenant of God with Daivd,” (Millennial Kingdom, p. 196).
2. All these promises of an earthly/geographical, socio/political kingdom were both unconditional and eternal, i.e., they do not depend for their ultimate fulfillment upon the obedience of the people of Israel, but solely upon God and His faithful promise, and they are to last forever, an everlasting possession.
3. Thus Israel alone was to be the steward of God’s blessings to the world (Gen. 12:2-3). To Israel and only to Israel did God give His Law (Mosaic code), a temple and a priesthood to minister in it, a sacrificial system to deal with sin, and the promise of agricultural, political, and economic prosperity in the land.
4. In the NT the DP recognizes that God again has a chosen people, only now they are called the Church. Like Israel, the people of God in the OT, the Christian Church also has promises from God, e.g., a heavenly position in Christ, a heavenly city, permanent forgiveness of sin, a universal priesthood of believers, etc. God, then, has two separate peoples: Israel in the OT with her distinctive set of promises and destiny, and the Church in the NT with her distinctive set of promises and destiny. But how came we to have two separate peoples? The answer to this question is the key to Dispensational Premillennialism:
a. The promises given to Israel in the OT were never literally and perpetually fulfilled. In spite of periods of prosperity, Israel never received the total fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant; thus, it is only natural to assume that complete and literal fulfillment is yet future.
b. Consider that even after the days of David and Solomon, days during which Israel enjoyed its most extensive geographical expansion, the prophets still speak of the possession of the land in its fullness to be future (Isaiah 11:1-11; Jer. 16:14-16; 30:10-11; Ezek. 34:11-16; Joel 3:17-21; Amos 9:11-15; Micah 4:4-7; Zeph. 3:14-20; Zech. 8:4-8).
c. The fulfillment of this covenant promise and prophetic hope was the purpose of Christ’s first coming; it was his design to offer Israel the kingdom, that is, the fulfillment of all the promises given by God to her in the OT (e.g., the land, political supremacy, a king [Christ himself] to sit on the Davidic throne, etc.).
d. But Israel as a whole rejected Christ and his offer of the kingdom. Consequently, God has ceased dealing with His people Israel, has postponedthe fulfillment of the OT promises, and has turned to deal with His second (and new) people, the Christian Church.
e. After God has completed His purpose for the Church in this present dispensation/age, i.e., when the “fullness of the Gentiles” has come in (Romans 11:25-27), and has removed the Church from earth to heaven (the pretribulation rapture), He will again turn to deal with His people Israel in order to prepare her (via the Great Tribulation) for the fulfillment of the promises given in the OT. NOTE: we see, then, that according to the DP, this present Church age is a parenthesis in God’s primary redemptive purpose.
Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder and first president of Dallas Theological Seminary and the man most responsible for giving systematic expression to Scofield's beliefs, did not think the word "parenthesis" was strong enough to express the radical distinction between God's OT purpose for Israel and His NT purpose for the Church. Therefore, he chose to use the term "intercalation". Here is his explanation:
"In fact, the new, hitherto unrevealed purpose of God in the out calling of a heavenly people from Jews and Gentiles is so divergent with respect to the divine purpose toward Israel, which purpose preceded it and will yet follow it, that the term parenthetical, commonly employed to describe the new age purpose, is inaccurate. A parenthetical portion sustains some direct or indirect relation to that which goes before or that which follows, but the present age purpose is not thus related and therefore is more properly termed an intercalation. The appropriateness of this word will be seen in the fact that , as an interpolation is formed by inserting a word or phrase into a context, so an intercalation is formed by introducing a day or a period of time into the calendar. The present age of the Church is an intercalation into the revealed calendar or program of God as that program was foreseen by the prophets of old. Such, indeed, is the precise character of the present age" (Systematic Theology, 4:40).
f. This fulfillment of the earthly promises to His earthly people (Israel) will take place in what is called the Millennium, a period of 1,000 years following the Great Tribulation and second coming of Christ and preceding the final judgment and eternal state. Again: the present age is understood to be a parenthesis intervening between God’s covenant promise to Israel in the OT and God’s fulfillment of that promise in the millennium.
5. Thus the most fundamental aspect of DP is the distinction between Israel and the Church. According to the DP, God has two different peoples or groups for whom there are distinct promises, purposes, and destinies. Irrespective of whatever else in the Dispensational system one may agree with, if he rejects the Israel/Church distinction, he is not a Dispensationalist. Chafer writes:
“The dispensationalist believes that throughout the ages God is pursuing two distinct purposes: one related to the earth with earthly people and earthly objectives involved which is Judaism; while the other is related to heaven with heavenly people and heavenly objectives involved, which is Christianity,” (Dispensationalism, p. 107).
“This [Chafer’s distinction],” writes Ryrie, “is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a man is a dispensationalist, and it is undoubtedly the most practical and conclusive,” (Dispensationalism Today, p. 45).
“The essence of dispensationalism, then,” Ryrie concludes, “is the distinction between Israel and the Church,” (Ibid., p. 47). This is why the Progressive Dispensationalism of more recent scholars is perceived as such a threat to the purity of Classical Dispensationalism. Progressive Dispensationalism's proposal that there is a measure of continuity between Israel and the Church and that the latter share, in part, in the OT promises given to the former, is viewed as a departure from that one feature that sets DP apart from all other eschatological systems.
The key to understanding DP is their view of the Kingdom - its nature, offer, rejection, postponement, and ultimate fulfillment in the Millennium.
B. The Millennial Kingdom in Dispensational Premillennialism
The best way to describe the DP view of the MK is chronologically, i.e., by means of the temporal order in which the events actually occur.
1. At the Lord’s second coming after the Tribulation the vast majority of Israelites who have survived that period of time will be converted to faith in Christ (Romans 11:25-27). Those who remain in unbelief will be put to death and not permitted to enter the millennium (Ezek. 20:33-38).
2. All Gentiles who also survived the Tribulation will be judged (Matthew 25:31-46): the sheep (saved) being left on the earth to enter the millennium and the goats (lost) being cast into everlasting fire and condemnation.
3. These saved Israelites and saved Gentiles will therefore enter the millennium in their natural, physical, unglorified bodies.
4. When Christ returns there will also occur the resurrection both of OT saints and those believers who died during the Tribulation period.
5. Satan will be bound and sealed for 1,000 years (he and the antichrist having been defeated at the battle of Armageddon), wholly prevented from perpetrating evil during the MK.
6. Christ now begins his millennial reign; he ascends a throne in Jerusalem and rules over a predominantly Jewish kingdom, although Gentiles share in its blessings. The subjects of Christ’s rule are primarily those Israelites and Gentiles who entered the kingdom in their natural bodies. Thus, at the beginning of the millennium there are no unregenerate/unbelieving people alive on the earth. This reign of Christ fulfills the promises made to Israel in the OT. Ryrie explains:
“The earthly purpose of Israel of which dispensationalists speak concerns the national promise which will be fulfilled by Jews during the millennium as they live on the earth in unressurrected bodies. The earthly future for Israel does not concern Israelites who die before the millennium is set up,” (Ibid, p. 146).
7. Those who have entered the millennium in their natural bodies will marry and reproduce, and though they will live much longer than they would have prior to Christ’s coming, most of them will die. This period is a time of unparalleled economic prosperity, political peace and spiritual renewal. Worship in the millennium will center around a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem in which animal sacrifices will be offered: these sacrifices, however, will not be propitiatory, argues the DP, but memorial offerings in remembrance of Christ’s death.
8. Although dissimilarities exist, the MK will see a virtual revival of much of the Mosaic and Levitical systems described in the OT. J. D. Pentecost explains (Things To Come, p. 519):
“In the millennial system we find the worship centers in an altar (Ezekiel 43:13-17) on which blood is sprinkled (43:18) and on which are offered burnt offerings, sin offerings, and trespass offerings (40:39). There is the re-institution of a Levitical order in that the sons of Zadok are set aside for a priestly ministry (43:19). The meal offering is incoporated in the ritual (42:13). There are prescribed rituals of cleansing for the altar (43:20-27), for the Levites who minister (44:25-27), and for the sanctuary (45:18). There will be the observance of new moon and sabbath days (46:1). Morning sacrifices will be offered daily (46:13). Perpetual inheritances will be recognized (46:16-18). The Passover feast will be observed again (45:21-25) and the feast of Tabernacles becomes an annual event (45:25). The year of jubilee is observed (46:17). There is a similarity in the regulations given to govern the manner of life, the dress, and the sustenance of the priestly order (44:15-31). This temple, in which this ministry is executed, becomes again the place from which is manifested the glory of Jehovah (43:4-5). It can thus be seen that the form of worship in the millennium will bear a strong similarity to the old Aaronic order.”
9. All resurrected saints (i.e., OT saints, Christians raptured before the Tribulation, and believers who came to faith during the Tribulation but were put to death by the antichrist) will live in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1-22:5). This New Jerusalem will be above the earth, in the air, shedding its light and glory thereon. Resurrected saints will play some role in Christ’s rule on the earth; their primary activity, however, will be in the New and Heavenly Jerusalem (cf. esp. J. D. Pentecost, Things to Come, pp. 563-80).
10. Children will be born to those believers (both Jew and Gentile) who entered the MK in their natural bodies. Many will come to faith in Christ and be saved. Those who persist in unbelief will be restrained by the righteous rule and government of Christ. At the end of the MK Satan is to be loosed and will gather all unbelievers in final conflict against Christ (Rev. 20:7-10). The rebellion will be crushed and Satan will be cast into the lake of fire. Two more resurrections now occur: that of all unbelievers of every age and that of believers who died during the MK.
11. The Great White Thone Judgment . . . Eternity . . .