The first centuries of the church’s life, until the time of Augustine, were characterized by a premillennial view of the future. This is called historic premillenarianism. The early church, which suffered waves of intense persecution, looked for the imminent return of Christ and the establishment of a millennial kingdom on Earth. Various forms of this premillennial view have existed within the church from the beginning. But in the early 1800s, a form of this view, called “dispensational premillenarianism” came into existence.
Dispensational theology began in England and was introduced into America with the publication of the Scofield Bible, a King James Version of the Bible with study notes written by C.I. Scofield (1843-1921). This bible became the standard textbook for dispensational belief by the beginning of this century.
The publication of Hal Lindsey’s 1970’s bestseller, The Late Great Planet Earth, brought dispensational pre-millenarianism back into the American consciousness by painting graphic end-times scenarios. This viewpoint became the norm for many churches around the world.
An End Times revival
If this theology was beginning to wane just a bit, it is waning no more. Currently on the bestseller list is a series of six books by authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, the first book of which is Left Behind. These novels tell the story of the end times from a dispensational point of view. They are well written and engaging. You may not be aware of this series, but you can be sure that someone in your church is reading them.
There are today many varieties of dispensational theology. It is an imaginative and complicated system. In a nutshell it declares that the Bible teaches a rapture of the church before the beginning of a great seven-year tribulation. During this tribulation period, the Jewish nation will be converted to Christianity and the Anti-Christ will appear.
Following a brief period of world peace, the Anti-Christ will instigate an intense persecution of the Jews, culminating in the final battle of Armageddon in the land of Israel. At the height of the battle, Christ will return to establish a visible, earthly kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital. All Christ’s enemies will be defeated by the rod of Christ’s power and the heathen nations held in check for a thousand-year millennium. During this time the sacrificial worship rituals of the temple in Jerusalem will be restored, though performed in a Christian spirit.
At the end of this thousand years, Satan will be unleashed for a brief period of time, until Christ subdues him once again. Following this there will be the resurrection of the wicked and their judgment before the throne of God. A new Heaven and new Earth will be created and the eternal realm will begin.
Where we differ
If this theological system sounds complex, it is. Our Presbyterian beliefs tend to differ from dispensationalism on a number of points.
First, we differ concerning the rapture. The rapture of the church is an almost necessary ingredient of dispensational theology, so that the destinies of Israel and the church will not intertwine. Dispensationalists believe that all the Old Testament promises to Israel will find literal fulfillment in a future nation of Israel.
John Calvin believed that the unfulfilled promises to Israel were transferred to the church after the coming of Christ and will be fulfilled in a spiritual manner. Dispensationalists see a literal millennial Jewish kingdom established in Palestine. Our Reformed tradition believes that there is now and forever only one people of God, the church, made up of Jews and Gentiles, with Christ as its Head. Our tradition believes that dispensationalism erroneously creates two people of God, the Jews and the church, with two separate destinies.
Our tradition also believes that dispensationalism erroneously creates two returns of Christ, one a secret coming of Christ “for” his saints, and the other a visible coming of Christ “with” his saints. The Scriptures, as our church has interpreted them, always point toward one return of Christ that will be swift, complete and unexpected when it occurs.
While images of Christians disappearing all over the world in an unexpected rapture of the church create vivid mental pictures, a pre-tribulation rapture of the church has never seemed warranted by Scripture to Reformed theologians.
Dispensational theology has a strong tendency to systematize its beliefs. It is sometimes accused of forcing texts to fit its system without taking their original meaning and context into account. Reformed theology has generally felt less compelled to reconcile every detail of our end-times theology into a coherent system and thus is less tempted to try to align every text. We acknowledge that there are certain matters that we will not understand until they come to pass and that remain part of the hidden mysteries of God.
Neither does a restoration of animal sacrifices in the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem during an earthly millennium seem to make much sense. Christ, the substance of our salvation, came so that the ceremonial types in the Old Testament might be done away with. What could a renewal of them possibly add to Christ’s accomplished work on the cross?
The point of knowing the differences between dispensational theology and our own heritage is not to engage our sisters and brothers in the faith in theological warfare. We should be fighting injustice in the world, not each other. But the Presbyterian Church has its own distinctive heritage. It is time to recover it. We have something to add to this millennial conversation.
In the final article, we will spell out our distinctive Presbyterian beliefs.
ROBERT BOHLER JR., is pastor, Central church, Athens, Ga.
This is the second of a three-part series.