Christians believe Jesus will come again, but not all agree how last things (eschatology) will play out just before He comes. There are four main eschatological positions that Christians hold today.
- 1) Dispensational Premillennialism (discussed below)
- 2) Historic Premillennialism8
- 3) Amillennialism9
- 4) Postmillennialism10
In this short paper, I outline why I find it difficult to embrace dispensational theology. [Please note that we believe eschatology is a secondary matter, and Christians can hold differing opinions on the specifics of last things, and yet be true followers of Christ].
Brief intro: What is Dispensationalism
· The label dispensationalism refers to a group of theologies that, while affirming Jesus Christ as the only way to eternal life and the Church is the Body of Christ, nevertheless also see a future for national ethnic Israel in the plans and purposes of God, where the Old Testament promises to ethnic Israel (of future glory, land, peace, etc.) will be fulfilled in a future millennium.
· Russel Kelly explains the thrust of the Dispensationalist message and its significance this way: “Long before the Zionist movement emerged,….and long before Israel became a nation in 1948, a few brave bold literalists were mocked by predicting that Israel would again become a nation because of the unconditional prophecies of the Bible. Darby, Kelly, Larkin, Scofield and others are no longer the laughing-stocks of theologians because they insisted on literal hermeneutics. The last-day stage has already been set by God to fulfill the many unconditional prophecies made to national Israel. The pieces are in place and the Church will be a part of God’s last-day program by evangelizing the Jews as seen in Romans, chapter 11“.5
· Dispensationalism or (some would call themselves literalists) have grown to many flavors since its introduction in the 19th century by its founder John Nelson Darby.
Progressive dispensationalism distinguishes Israel and the Church. Unlike classic or traditional dispensationalists, progressive dispensationalists do not see the Church as a separate and distinct people group in the future Kingdom. There will be a future Millennium, where the Old Testament promises will be literally (both spiritually and physically) fulfilled for ethnic Israel, and the church will also share in both the physical and spiritual blessings of Israel during the Millennium.1
· Dispensational (pre-tribulation) view goes something like this: God is now calling out the Gentiles to himself and forming the church of Jesus Christ. And when that is done, he will rapture, or translate living believers into heaven. And God will then once again resume his dealings with national Israel during the tribulation (some say it will be 7 years), at the end of which Christ will return and convert many among the Jewish people who are still alive. When Christ returns at the end of the tribulation period (after the 7 years), He will inaugurate a literal 1000 year reign on the earth, prior to the time of the new heavens and the new earth and the final judgment that we read about in Revelation 20, 21, and 22. Many dispensationalists believe that the temple will be rebuilt, animal sacrifices will be restored during the time of this 1000 year rule.
Some challenges that I find with the Dispensational approach to Scriptures
· Dispensationalism asserts that its hermeneutic is literal. However, dispensationalism does not always follow this concept consistently; rather, they apply a consistent “literal” hermeneutic to the promises made to Israel or whenever Israel is the subject, but everything else is not so consistently “literal”.
o Dispensationalists, for instance, reads into the text, a gap of thousands of years between Daniel’s 69th and 70th “weeks,” despite the fact that nothing in Daniel 9 (a literal plain reading of it) indicates it.
o Usually, dispensationalist assert that “bows and arrows,” “clubs,” “spears,” and “swords” (Ezekiel 38:4), which is projected for a future fulfillment in modern day, really refers to modern war fare (machine guns, rifles, pistols, etc.), but this spiritualization or allegorizing of the text undermines the fundamental premise of their position, which is that this text must be interpreted literally. [Some would contend that “bows and arrows” will be literally used as well in the future].
o “When the Assyrian invades our land” (Micah 5:5) is spiritualized by Dispensationalists. John MacArthur says “Assyria, God’s instrument against Israel (722 B.C.) and Judah (Sennacherib’s siege in 701 B.C.) is here used as a representative of enemy nations in opposition to the Lord.“3 See: Micah 5:1-15 – Will the Messiah come from Bethlehem?
o ‘What are you, you great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become a plain” (Zechariah 4:7). What mountain was literally removed during Zerubbabel’s time? Micah speaks of “Mountains melting”, “Valley’s splitting” (Micah 1:4) for events that transpired before the first coming of the Messiah. Isaiah speaks of “every mountain and hill be made low” (Isaiah 40:4) in view of the first coming Messiah. None of these are taken literally! However, when Zechariah 14:4 says: “the Mount of Olives will be split“, this is taken literally. See: Zechariah 14:1-21 – Is it about the earthly Jerusalem or New Jerusalem
o Page 888 of the New Scofield Bible in reference to Ezekiel prophesies states: “The reference to sacrifices is not to be taken literally, in view of the putting away of such offerings, but is rather to be regarded as a presentation of the worship of redeemed Israel, in her own land and in the millennial temple, using the terms with which the Jews were familiar in Ezekiel’s day.” If sacrifices are not to be taken literally, why not other elements in the prophesy? See: Ezekiel 38:1-23 Who is Gog and Magog?
· The most accurate way to state the case is that all biblical interpreters interpret some things literally, and some figuratively. The dispensationalists are not more consistent than are the non-dispensationalists in the application of a literal hermeneutic. 2
· Dispensationalism’s “literal hermeneutic” does not adequately take into account that many of the Old Testament prophecies were, in fact, interpreted non-literally by the New Testament writers—a precedent from which Christian theologians have historically, and credibly taken their cues. Although dispensationalists accuse non-dispensationalists of inconsistency in the use of literalism, the non-dispensational hermeneutic is not literal nor spiritual, but surrendered to the usage, regulation, context, and genre of the text.
What about the land promises to Abraham?
· Dispensationalist/Literalist contend that many Christians ignore the scores of unconditional promises made to Abraham (before he was circumcised) and national Israel in the Old Testament. Dispensationalism exists because it is argued that there is a clear difference between God’s unconditional promises to national Israel and the Church. In Genesis 12:7 and 17:8, God promises to give to Abraham and to his seed the land of Canaan as an everlasting inheritance. If God does not fulfill these promises literally to Abraham and national Israel, God cannot be trusted.
· Since God’s promises will most certainly be fulfilled (a point with which we agree), and since church cannot be heir of those promises (a point that flows out of Dispensationalism’s core claim), Dispensationalism is forced to find an opportunity for the fulfillment of the land promises in the future (during a 1,000 period).
· What does physical descent from Abraham secure in terms of the promises? Nothing. One need only think of Ishmael or of Esau to see that not every descendent of Abraham (even through Isaac) was included in the promises.
· Does granting the land to ethnic Israel (by resurrecting Abraham) during a future temporal 1000-year reign of Christ qualify as an “everlasting inheritance”. Hardly, for dispensationalists themselves teach that this earth will pass away with the temporal millennial kingdom, when God creates a new heavens and new earth.
· “All” the land promises that God made to Israel were in fact fulfilled during the time of the Old Testament (Dispensationalist says it was not ‘really”, but the plain simple reading of the Scriptures show that is the case). As the book of Joshua records:
o “The Lord gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their forefathers, and they took possession of it and settled there” (Joshua 21:43).
o “You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed” (Joshua 23:14).
o Solomon, during whose reign the glorious temple was constructed, was equally unambiguous: “Not one word has failed of all the good promises [the Lord] gave through his servant Moses” (1 Kings 8:56).
o It was God’s plan for the nation of Israel to have six cities of refuge (Numbers 35:13). God gave three such cities to the Israelites on the east side of Jordan after they conquered the peoples living there. The Lord then made this promise, “Now if the LORD your God enlarges your territory, as He swore to your fathers, and gives you the land which He promised to give to your fathers . . . then you shall add three more cities for yourself besides these three” (Deuteronomy 19:8,9). Joshua 20:1-7 reveals they added 3 more cities.
o “So Solomon reigned over all kingdoms from the River to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt” (1 Kings 4:21).
· Whether the Abrahamic Covenant is conditional or unconditional can be debated, as there are arguments for both sides.11 Further, national Israel, forfeited the right to live in the lands owing to unbelief. If the above fulfillments do not qualify as an everlasting inheritance, neither does a temporal 1000-year fulfillment. Hence, even if the promises to Abraham were unconditional, the ultimate fulfillment of the “eternal” land promises to Abraham and Israel could only be fulfilled in the new heavens and new earth (not in a temporal kingdom).
· Abraham who was promised an earthly “land” (Genesis 17:8) understood that what God ultimately had in mind for him, and his descendants was something much “better” (Hebrew 11:16), a heavenly “city” whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10). In fact, Paul goes on to further expand the promise given to Abraham and his descendants from a specific land to the world, “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world..” (Romans 4:13). [Dispensationalist would still contend that the specific promises to Israel about the land is still in tact].
Has the natural Jew any right to the inheritance outside of Christ?
“Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘And to your seed,’ that is, Christ.” (Galatians 3:16). Since all who belong to Christ are included in the “seed” of Abraham, and are therefore the heirs of the promises (Gal. 3:29; 4:30–31). Then, the descendants of Abraham will and must receive all promises through Christ alone! “For as many as are the promises of God, in Him [Christ] they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us.” (2 Corinthians 1:20). Anyone not “in Christ” cannot receive God’s promises. [Dispensationalist would still contend that “spiritual” ethnic Jews were promised a literal land, and God will grant them that specific land“]
Who is the “Israel of God”?
o Dispensationalists say the church and Israel of God are two different people. “And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16 – ESV); NIV renders “Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.”
o Those who point to ESV (and similar translations) recognize two groups: 1) Church (believing Jew and Gentile), 2) all believing jews or elect ethnic Israelites
o According to NIV translation, Paul has in view one group (church).
o The Greek conjunction kai, could be translated as “and,” and is rendered “even,” or in some translations is simply omitted altogether. Most commentators acknowledge that kai can be rendered in either way and that grammar alone cannot decide the interpretive outcome. Context must be the deciding factor.
o Some have suggested that by “the Israel of God” Paul has in view are all ethnic Jews, the nation as a whole, whether they believe in Jesus or not. This is highly unlikely, if not altogether impossible. It is simply inconceivable that Paul would have considered those who reject Christ as being “of God” on whom a spiritual blessing is pronounced. Paul earlier in Galatians pronounced a curse on those who corrupt the gospel by insisting on circumcision (Gal 1:8-9). Thus, when it comes to “the Israel of God,” the two options available to us are (1) Jewish believers, or (2) Jewish and Gentile believers alike, together who constitute the Church, the one true Israel of God.
o As Tom Schreiner explains: “It would be highly confusing to the Galatians, after arguing for the equality of Jew and Gentile in Christ (3:28) and after emphasizing that believers are Abraham’s children, for Paul to argue in the conclusion that only Jews who believe in Jesus belong to the Israel of God. By doing so a wedge would be introduced between Jews and Gentiles at the end of the letter, suggesting that the latter were not part of the true Israel. Such a wedge would play into the hands of the opponents, who would argue that to be part of the true Israel one must be circumcised” (Sam Storms, 2016).
- Paul says in Ephesians 2:11 that believing Gentiles are now equal members of the “commonwealth of Israel” (Ephesians 2:12) and are “fellow citizens with the saints and are of God’s household” (Ephesians 2:19). This is not replacing ethnic Israel but including and fulfilling what God always predestined through Abraham. If anyone belongs to “Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29). Hence, according to New Testament revelation, “true Israel” must include all Abraham’s descendants, comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles (Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 2:15).
· Did Jesus answer the question about “when” the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel takes place? “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). Some say Jesus did not, but Jesus already established the connection between the coming “kingdom of God” with the “promise of the Father”, the coming of the “Holy Spirit” that was to happen “many days from now” (Acts 1:3-5). Then Jesus immediately declares, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Jesus is telling them precisely the way in which the much anticipated kingdom of God would appear and make its presence known on the earth. It will go beyond Judea and Samaria, this kingdom would break through the bounds of Jewish political concern and extend to the farthest corners of the earth. When Jesus refers to Jerusalem as well as to ‘all Judea and Samaria’, he is of course referring to Israel, who is part of this restoration as promised in the Old Testament.
· The phrase “you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8b) reflects the wording of Isaiah 43:12 where the people of God are referred to as “you are my witnesses”. Finally, the phrase “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8c) recalls Isaiah 49:6, “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” In view of these prophecies, the phrase ‘to the ends of the earth’ in Acts 1:8 refers also to the inclusion of Gentiles in this restoration program.
· However, does ethnic Israel as a corporate entity also have a future? Paul appears to answer this question in Romans 11 with a “yes.” Paul presents Israel as a corporate entity, composed of an elect remnant and a hardened majority. Paul goes on to say that while God never promised to save every Jewish citizen (Romans 11:6), he did promise to save the people-group, the corporate entity, the nation. Paul’s answer, of course, isn’t comprehensive. It doesn’t say anything, for example, about Israel’s land or about a temporal future (millennial) kingdom. But what it does say is that (1) Israel will be saved, (2) this salvation is taking place now [from his day] and will conclude at Jesus’ return, (3) it will lead to the resurrection from the dead, (4) it happens as a result of the Gentile mission, and (5) it is a re-grafting of unbelieving Jews into their own tree (in concert with a grafting in of Gentiles to the same tree).2 The restoration of ethnic Israel will mean their becoming part of the “true Israel” by faith in Jesus Christ the Messiah.
· Similarly, the Davidic promises cannot be fulfilled at the second coming, during a 1000 year reign. Notice:
o “When your [David’s] days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant [Messiah] after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom” (2 Samuel 7:12).
Stated differently, this would come to pass after David had passed away and been buried. This would perfectly match Christ’s first coming, something Peter noted in his sermon, “David…is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day” (Acts 2:29). So the conditions were set up for the establishment of “His kingdom” at His first coming. David will be raised from the dead at the second coming and will no longer be sleeping with his fathers. At that point, a literal fulfillment would not fit the prophesy of 2 Samuel 7:12).
Revelation 20: Millennium
· Both premillennialist (dispensational or historic) suggest that the natural reading of revelation must mean thousand years.
· True, God repeats thousand years six times in Revelation 20, however, Christ talks about the resurrection of the good and the bad happening at the same time, in a specific “hour”, not after a “thousand years”.
o “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28,29)
o “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:31-32)
· Peter tells us that it is on account of the coming of this “day of the Lord”, i.e., the second coming of Christ, that the heavens will be destroyed, resulting in new heavens and new earth.
o “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed…But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:10–13)
· 1 Corinthians 15:26, Paul is clear the last enemy that is defeated is death. Then he goes onto explain that when the resurrection happens at Christ’s second coming, when our bodies are clothed with immortality, then we will know that death has been defeated. (1 Cor. 15:51,52, 54).
· The New Testament presents the end of all God’s enemies: the beast, false prophet, Satan (all rule and all authority and power), including the last enemy, which is death, all of these are destroyed and abolished at the second coming of Christ, following which God creates a new heavens and a new earth.
· In contrast to the above passages from Jesus, Peter and Paul, Revelation is a symbolic book and in virtually every instance where a number is mentioned, it is symbolic of some theological truth. That there are some words used literally (nations, heaven, martyrs) and some used symbolically (dragon, chain, key), in Revelation, is admitted by all. However, there is no compelling reason to insist that the “thousand years” must be literal, especially given the New Testament evidence from non-symbolic (didactic) passages, and especially in view of the fact that other scriptural passages relevant to the same period speak of it lasting “forever” and having “no end”. (e.g., 2 Sam.7:13, 16; Isaiah 9:6-7; Ezek.37:25; Dan. 2:44; Luke 1:32-33)4.
“They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever..”. (Ezekiel 37:25)
· For instance, dispensationalists take the ‘seven spirits of God’ (Revelation 1:5) to refer to the seven-fold Holy Spirit, which is actually taking the expression non-literally. (Taken literally, the phrase speaks of seven spirits, and seeing it as a reference to seven distinct spirits would be the literal way of understanding it).
Animal Sacrifices restored?
· Dispensationalists teach, “As the Lord’s Supper is a reminder of the death of Christ to the Church today, animal sacrifices will be a reminder during the millennial kingdom. To those born during the millennial kingdom, animal sacrifices will again be an object lesson” (Got Questions.org)
o But what would be the point of going back to animal sacrifices as a memorial of Christ’s death after the Lord himself has given us a memorial of his death in the Lord’s Supper? If those in the millennium need sacrifices, even after Jesus has fulfilled the shadows of the Old Covenant, how much more would the church (most of whom are gentiles) need animal sacrifices as well in addition to the Lord’s supper during this age as well (especially when Jesus is not with them bodily)?
- Dispensationalists claim that these are simply “memorial sacrifices”, however, Ezekiel calls them “sin and guilt offerings” (Ezekiel 40:39; 45:17-25). Levitical priesthood and the Jewish Sabbath (Ezekiel 43:19; 46:1-4) would also have to be restored if we take these words literally. The New Testament shows that both the Levitical priest hood and Sabbath shadow has ended when the Reality [Jesus] has come. (Heb 7:12; Col. 2:16).
o The challenge with restoring Old Covenant shadows (whether they are in memory of Christ) when the ‘REALITY” Jesus himself is with the people contradicts the Book of Hebrews and the New Testament revelation! “For that old system deals only with food and drink and various cleansing ceremonies—physical regulations that were in effect only until a better system could be established” (Hebrews 9:9-10 NLT). A better system (order) was established after Christ’s first coming, now is He going to restore back the old order again because His real presence is not sufficient?
The only way to insist on literal sacrifices in the New Covenant age is to read the Old Testament by pretending that Jesus never came. If we do that, then dispensationalism will make sense. This then becomes the biggest challenge in embracing dispensationalism.
· See our Revelations commentary for a verse-by-verse treatment of Revelation 20.
- Ezekiel 38:1-23 Who is Gog and Magog?
- This generation will not pass away (Matthew 24:1-51)
- Zechariah 14:1-21 – Is it about the earthly Jerusalem or New Jerusalem
- Zechariah 13:1-9 Who is the shepherd who is struck?
- Zechariah 12:1-14 – Is it Yahweh who is pierced?
1. Roach (2014). Website: https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/sbc-life-articles/southern-baptists-and-the-millennium/
2. Equip.org. Website: https://www.equip.org/articles/dispensationalism-indispensable/
3. Preceptaustin. Website: https://preceptaustin.org/micah_5_commentary
4. Matthew713. Steve Gregg Response to Norman Geisler. Website: https://matthew713.com/articles/gregg_geisler_response.php
5. Russel Kelly. Website: https://www.tithing-russkelly.com/b-dispensational-fundamentals/
6. Storms (2016). Website: https://www.samstorms.org/enjoying-god-blog/post/is-the-church-the-true-israel-of-god.
7. Storms (2014). Website: https://www.samstorms.org/enjoying-god-blog/post/were-the-disciples-stupid-or-will-jesus-restore-israel-or
8. Historic Premillennialism: Although there are slight variations to this view, it basically states that Christ will come back “pre”, or before, the millennium. The church age will go through the tribulation period. At the end of the tribulation, Satan will be bound, and Christ will come back to establish his kingdom on earth for the millennium, which is not necessarily a literal thousand years. The resurrected believers will reign with the resurrected Christ physically on earth during this time. Unbelievers will also be on earth at this time and most will become believers and be saved. At the end of the millennium, Satan is loosed and Christ decisively defeats him and his remaining followers. Then the unbelievers from all times will be judged, and the believers will enter into the eternal state (new heavens and new earth). Advocates: Justin Martyr (AD110-165); Don Carson, John Piper, Al Mohler, and Wayne Grudem
9. Amillennialism. Satan’s binding (which began with Christ’s first coming) will reduce his influence over the nations so that the gospel is preached to the whole world, yet there is a general view that times will worsen. Christ’s reign is a heavenly one and the millennium is equivalent to the church age currently going on, without reference to a literal thousand years. Christ will then return and judge believers and unbelievers at once, and create new heavens and new earth. Advocates: Louis Berkhof, John Calvin and other Reformers, Sam Storms, R.C Sproul, Steve Gregg.
10. Postmillennialism: With the binding of Satan, there will be a gradual increase in the growth of the church and spread of the gospel where more and more people will become Christians. The influence of more believers will change society so that it will function as God intended gradually resulting into an age of peace and righteousness, in other words – the millennium, which is not necessarily a literal one thousand years. Christ will then come back “post”, or after, the millennium”.” Advocates: Augustine (AD400).
9. Abrahamic Covenant: https://surrenderedandfree.org/2019/01/28/is-the-abrahamic-covenant-unconditional/