Back in 1998, I think it was, I told a buddy of mine, “You wait. Once Y2K passes without incident you’ll see dispensationalism go into steep decline.”
I’m a dang prophet.
Dispensational theology has indeed lost ground since the turn of the century, but this owes to factors beyond the lack of fulfilled apocalyptic expectation. There’s been a shift of allegiances in the American evangelical world. “Reformed” is the thing these days. “Left Behind” theology, as dispensationalism is often called, is now laughed off as the provenance of literalistic, sensationalistic rubes. Others seeking connection with the ancient and historic church have moved toward liturgical expressions (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican) where amillennial eschatology rules and rapture-talk is eschewed.
But dispensationalism entered a new phase of complimentary hermeneutics and dialogue with Reformed camps starting in the late ’80s, and has undergone noteworthy development and change.
First, we should note that dispensational concepts weren’t “invented” in the early 19th century. Many of the early church fathers like Methodius, for example, drew up rudimentary “charts” to trace obvious changes in God’s dealings with humankind over the ages. As the joke goes, any Christian who worships on Sunday instead of Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) is dispensational, recognizing that something fundamentally changed after Christ’s resurrection.
In the early 19th century J.N. Darby, a Trinity College classical gold medal scholar turned Anglican deacon, got fed up with the rampant corruption in the Church of Ireland and decided to meet with a small group who felt similarly disenfranchised by the denominations in Dublin. While recuperating from a riding accident Darby began ruminating on the nature, calling, and destiny of the church. As his ecclesiology developed he detected a break between the New Testament church and Old Testament Israel (a century and a half later progressive dispensationalists would recognize that this break wasn’t so clean). This distinction became the basis of the first truly systematic, dispensational theology.
Applying — perhaps subconsciously — a neo-Platonist dualism to his scriptural observations, Darby believed the church to be God’s “heavenly” people, with Israel as the “earthly” people of both the past and the future.
It’s important to understand that ecclesiology, not eschatology, was the basis for Darby’s system. The latter was an implication of the former. That he saw a future, earthly millennium ruled by Christ was nothing new or novel. Many of the ante-Nicene fathers, most notably St. Irenaeus, saw the same thing. But Darby placed a renewed Israel at the center of that kingdom; a nation that would at last inherit all the unique and specific promises prophesied in the Old Testament. The church, meanwhile, would oversee this phase of salvation history from on high, until the final consummation of all things.
Most people have either not heard of Darby or seen only disparaging (and often inaccurate) statements about him in “Left Behind”-bashing articles. The dispensationalism most widely known today was influenced by the Scofield Reference Bible. The system found in C.I. Scofield’s footnotes is similar to Darby’s, but differs in certain respects. Being more of an interdenominational missions guy, Scofield was less concerned with the details of ecclesiology than with prophecy. Through him and his protege Lewis Sperry Chafer (co-founder of Dallas Theological Seminary with Anglican theologian W.H. Griffith Thomas), the idea of a pretribulational rapture of the church (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) spread through American evangelical circles.
In the pre-trib rapture scheme the “heavenly” people are caught up to meet their Bridegroom in the air, leaving the rest of the world to endure a period of unique tribulation, a.k.a. the “time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7). This particular tribulation will have the effect of shaking Israel from unbelief, causing her to repent and believe in Jesus, preparing her to meet him as king.
But notice: consonant with Paul’s anguish over his kinsmen in Romans 9, Israel in its present state is seen as lost, in need of repentance and faith toward Christ (Acts 3:20-21). Israel was a kingdom before God in the past age and will be so again in the age to come. But for now? More than a few Jews around the globe reject the modern Zionist project because, according to their understanding, “Israel” cannot exist in blessing and peace until Messiah comes. As the Zionist movement was gaining traction in the early 20th century one prominent dispensationalist, Arno C. Gaebelein, cautioned,
Zionism is not the divinely promised restoration of Israel… Zionism is not the fulfillment of the large number of predictions found in the Old Testament Scriptures, which relates to Israel’s return to the land… It is rather a political and philanthropic undertaking… The great movement is one of unbelief and confidence in themselves instead of God’s eternal purposes.
Which brings us to Christian Zionism — and my thesis: that dispensationalism and Christian Zionism, though easily conflated, are not the same thing.
Granted, it’s an easy step for a dispensationalist to become a Christian Zionist, and many (perhaps most) are. But there are many people that can be categorized as Christian Zionists who aren’t dispensational in the least.
What exactly is Christian Zionism? It’s an attitude of support among Christians for the modern state of Israel. Its best-known exemplar is pastor and televangelist John Hagee. It’s based not so much on a distinction between the church and Israel as the promise and warning of Genesis 12:1-3. Speaking to Abraham, God said,
“Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
“Nation” here is held as a political entity, Israel as kingdom in the Old Testament and the modern state of our time. Regardless of denominational or theological persuasion, a Christian Zionist is one who, a) believes God has given Israel the land of Palestine, b) believes that Israel enjoys unique blessings — regardless of Jewish unbelief in Jesus as Messiah, c) believes that individuals and nations who support the modern state of Israel will be blessed for doing so, and d) believes that those who don’t support Israel will be cursed.
A bit snarkier, we could add, e) believes that Israel is America’s strategic ally and “best friend” in the Middle East, f) despises the Muslim world, and g) doesn’t get that Middle Eastern Christians have quite a different opinion of the Israeli government from American Christians (anyone recall what happened when Ted Cruz told a group of Middle Eastern Christians that they should support him in supporting Israel?).
Christian Zionist convictions are held with an extraordinary ardor. Israel is supported in all she does because all that she does is God’s will, without qualification. Its slogan on social media is, “Stand with Israel!” (while more than a few Israelis are unhappy with their government’s policies). I was recently unfriended by a Catholic acquaintance on Facebook for making a critical comment about certain aspects of Israeli government policy. Yet, that same gentleman loathes dispensationalism as a damnable heresy.
Dispensationalism is not the same thing as Christian Zionism. That it looks for a future restoration of Israel (a topic to explore further at another time) does not necessarily infer that the present political state of Israel fulfills specific Old Testament promises or unconditional blessings. If anything, dispensationalism admits that modern Israel could be in for some tough sledding during “Jacob’s trouble” (cf. Mark 13:14-26).
I close with these thoughts from Craig Blaising, provost at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, patristics scholar, and dispensational theologian:
In their enthusiasm for the political resurrection of Israel, some [Christians] seem to have lost sight of the particular activity of [Jesus] the Son of David in this dispensation — which is bringing about reconciliation and peace between peoples. Some have publicly advocated carte blanche support for any policy enacted by the state of Israel. But if political policies uphold injustice, how can Christians support it? How can Jewish or Gentile Christians today support Israeli injustices when Jewish prophets in the Old Testament condemned the authorities in Jerusalem for similar injustices, often to the prophets’ own peril? There were no greater supporters of the Jewish people and the future of Israel under God than Moses, Samuel, Amos, Elijah, Habbakuk, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. And yet not one of them confused their commitment and desire for the blessing of Israel with support for or toleration of injustice (Progressive Dispensationalism, 1993, pp. 296-97).