Last year, first semester, I was asked to do an essay the different views of the ‘end-times’ found in the bible and consider their pastoral implications. With all the hoo-ha surrounding Harold Camping and his wild prediction that the world would end at 6pm on May 21st, 2011, I thought I might share an excerpt from my essay and answer ‘What is Dispensational Premillienialism’ and what are some of its implications. Hope you find it informative. (I’ve removed a number of footnotes for the sake of readability as well as my own headspace in not copying and pasting each reference. If you’d like a copy of the essay feel free to contact me.)
(Edit: turns out that Camping isn’t necessarily a Dispensational Premillenialist after all – perhaps I just assumed that most Americans who are ardent rapture believers are Dispensationalists? My bad. Here’s an interesting article on the background for Camping which notes his (Dutch) ‘Reformed’ upbringing. http://wscal.edu/blog/entry/the-end-of-the-world-according-to-harold-camping-part-1)
Compared to all of the millennial views the Dispensational Premillennial view is the most recent. It originated through the work of Irish minister John Nelson Darby and popularised by American pastor Cyrus Ingerson Scofield in his ‘Scofield Bible’ in the late 1800’s. Dispensational Premillennialism is based on Darby’s interpretative framework he placed on the bible. In order to understand God’s revelation as it unfolds in scripture Darby, after apparently receiving a special revelation regarding the relationship of Israel and the church, broke biblical history into a number of dispensations, or periods, in which God related to humanity (always by grace) through different covenants. His work was influential in the United States where prominent leader Cyrus Ingerson Scofield took on the ideas and published them in The Scofield Bible . The Scofield Bible, with comments placed in the margins, became so popular in some circles that it carried the same authority as Scripture itself.
According to this view the church age will continue until suddenly, and secretly, Christ will return to earth and ‘rapture’ away believers leaving non-Christians behind. Christ will then ascend back to heaven with his believers and there will be a great Tribulation on earth for a period of seven years. After the seven years Christ will return with his believers and will reign on earth for 1000 years after which Satan will be set free, defeated in a final battle and the final judgment takes place.
It is difficult to discuss the implications of Dispensational Premillennialism without mention of the wildly popular ‘Left Behind’ books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. The wide popularity of these books is alarming considering that they are informed by this particular eschatological theology. Jensen notes* two terrible, yet logical outworkings, of this theology. First, because of the on emphasis on literal readings of the text, the Bible is treated like pagan mythology. Secondly political entities, in particular the nation of Israel, are given ‘supra-historical assignations’.
Analysis of Dispensational Premillennialism, and its origins, reveals the untenable nature of it. First, the concept that God would operate within distinct dispensations in which God reveals a specific portion of his will ‘runs contrary to the basic Christian understanding that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.’ Second, that the revelation of this particular brand of theology, given by special revelation to Darby himself , only occurred during the 19th century, and does not exist in any form prior to that, begs the question, ‘Why would God do that?’. Third, this theology is built upon the faulty foundation of a rigid application of literal interpretation of Scripture. Hill notes**, charitably, that despite these errors, to their credit Dispensationalists have pointed out a significant problem: the relationship between Israel and the Church in the plan of God. But he also notes that their presupposition of biblical inerrancy and literalness creates a stumbling block to their resolution of the problem.
*Jensen, M. ‘Left Behind? Christian Eschatology and Society in the Age of Terror’ Reformed Theological Review Vol 63 No.3 (Dec 2004), p135
** Hill, C.C. In God’s Time. The Bible and the Future (2002) WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: UK, p202