18 November 2003


Throughout the recent history of the church, various groups have undertaken to formulate detailed eschatological systems that would make sense of the biblical record, especially the apocalyptic books, with their extravagant symbolism. Virtually all such systems have come to be associated with fairly small groupings, some of which would be judged heretical by the standards of the historic creeds of the faith.

However, one of these, dispensationalism, expanded beyond its original home within the 19th-century Plymouth Brethren in England and took root in the larger protestant evangelical movement in North America, especially in the United States. It originated with John Nelson Darby and was popularized by the bible school movement and the Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909. As a result of these two latter elements, dispensationalism's influence took off dramatically.

I myself was not raised in a dispensationalist church, but when I was 11 we began attending a church in which some members were dispensationalists. When I was 15 Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth was published, which purported to set forth a rather precise schedule for the last days. It would become one of the best-selling books of the 1970s. I myself read it and, at least initially, believed every word.

Among other things, dispensationalism claims to be based on a literal reading of the Bible. However, at age 16 I read the Bible through from cover to cover -- minus the Scofield notes. For the life of me, I was unable to find in its pages the more distinctive doctrines of dispensationalism, such as a pretribulation rapture. So I pretty much abandoned dispensationalism as a system of biblical interpretation.

Although dispensationalism has declined among educated evangelicals over the years, undoubtedly because a solid grasp of church history makes its utter novelty conspicuously apparent, it continues to have an impact among those unaware of its recent origins. The runaway success of the Left Behind books, which definitely reflect a dispensational eschatology, is indicative of its continued popularity.

I don't know that I would go as far as those Reformed Christians who proclaim dispensationalism a heresy, at least in the moderate form in which it is generally held today. Yet any system that denies the active presence of God's kingdom in the world and places its hope in an escape from what it sees as a doomed vessel will inevitably tend to truncate the gospel in all its fulness.

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