Dispensationalism & the Rapture
Dispensational premillennialism is espoused by, among other good people, Charles Ryrie and John Walvoord, who have served the Lord with great distinction for many years. And they were associated especially with Dallas Theological Seminary and have written many helpful books, especially of a semipopular nature, and have influenced many Christians that way. The New Schofield Reference Bible should also be acknowledged as a real source of theological education for many.
Here is a definition of classical dispensationalism: “Add to historic premillennialism a Jewish character to the millennium with a restored temple and sacrifices. That is classical dispensationalism.” I did not know it was classical, but that is the terminology now, or that is unmodified dispensationalism. Progress dispensationalism is now calling some of that into question. And I think that is good, because based upon Hebrews, I cannot accept the notion of a restored temple and restored sacrifices. Traditionally the dispensationalists have emphasized how literal their hermeneutic is. Well, the Old Testament passages upon which they base this they do not seem to take consistently literally, because they regard these
sacrifices as a memorial, which is not the way they are presented in the Old Testament. Dispensational premillennialists view “Satan is bound” in the same way historic premillenialism does. They view it to mean he will be unable to deceive the nations during the future thousand years reign of
Christ. The timing of Christ’s return is premillennial, before the millennium. Here come further ramifications. The second coming will occur in two stages: the rapture of the Church before the tribulation, and the second coming of Christ to earth after the tribulation and before the millennium. It is His coming that initiates the millennium. The modified dispensationalists have abandoned some of the older arguments that certain particular catch words referred to one of these aspects of the second coming or the other. That is largely passé now, because they have studied and they are saying, “No, the word “appearing” sometimes refers to this phase, sometimes to that phase,” and they do not divide up so neatly as before. It is a general rule. The old kingdom of God/kingdom of heaven distinctions are broken down. They acknowledge one eternal people of God and not two, and so forth. So there has been progress there from my perspective.
Dispensational premillennialists hold to three resurrections. Amillennialists cannot believe this. One is at the rapture. That is, Church saints who have died are resurrected at the rapture. Living believers are changed. This is what 1 Thessalonians 4 is talking about in this scenario. There is another resurrection, before the millennium, as in historic premillennialism and another one especially of the wicked, but also of believers who died during the millennium. Some regard after the millennium as being far too complicated to be accurate, and yet, it is dispensationalists who especially have concentrated on these matters. And I think they have done the whole Church good, not by an over-preoccupation. And I would like to see not prophecy conferences, but conferences on the character of God, on the Gospel, and on other matters as well as that preoccupation. But they have goaded others into study. Hoekema felt responsible to address these matters and was one Reformed theologian who for many years taught seminars at Calvin Seminary and kept working, and that is where this book came from. And there is more of a meeting of the minds than in the earlier part of this century. Hoekema is one who I think shows a real Christian spirit in treating those who disagree with him. I respect that. His chapter against
dispensationalism is hard hitting, but I did not find it unkind. I hope that is accurate.
You might ask what my view is on dispensational premillennialism. My view is I take the “panmillennialism” view: it is all going to pan out in the end! The Lord is going to come back! This is my earliest training and background. I have great respect for the people who taught me. They were
wonderful Christian people. I have gradually moved away from this and for a while I identified with the historic premillennial position. Now as I said before, I in large measure would understand the New Testament in an amillennial fashion but have not been persuaded, even by Hoekema’s good work, that
his understanding of Revelation 20 is superior to historic premillennial understanding of Revelation 20. So I am an amillennialist with a premillenial understanding of Revelation 20 still. Although on my own personal chart, the millennium would appear I guess with a question mark as to whether it is an introduction to the eternal state. And it is really not that important to me. Along with the amillenialists, I certainly acknowledge that Christ reigns now in heaven over the saints in heaven and over His people on earth, over all the earth: “All power in heaven and earth has been given to me.” Not in the same way He will rule in the future, but that aspect is good. I like the postmillennial optimism concerning the Gospel, I really do. But put me down as either an amillenialist or an historic premillenialist. And then I am not really confident.
The comment is made that Hoekema’s critique of dispensationalism is not foolproof. It looks like some of his arguments are better than others. I would say this. He wrote this book in 1979 just before the emergence of the progressive dispensationalists. They were just getting going then. We do not know
how he would respond to some of that. But I would agree, from page 195, that “In general, dispensationalism has failed to do justice to the basic unity of the Bible.” They are doing better, the modified people. Point two from Hoekema seems to be broken down, at least in the eternal state. I
appreciate that. Point three I am not sure of, whether it teaches a future earthly kingdom or not. I am admitting that the view of the Old Testament is a bone of contention and still something I am not positive of. I would say that, on page 206, you do not need to understand the Bible as teaching a
millennial restoration of the Jews to their land. That sounds like I am in between him and the others. It teaches, I think, a conversion of ethnic Israel, but that does not demand a nation, although maybe that is correct. On page 212, dispensational teaching about the postponement of the kingdom is not supported by Scripture. I agree. But again, that is being broken down.
Here is the remarkable thing to me. The vanguard of the progressive dispensationalists. Take Craig Blazing who was at Dallas Seminary but has since left to go to Southern Seminary. I heard him give a talk once at a meeting. And when he was done with that talk I said to myself, “What in the world is
dispensationalism anymore?” This is not your average pastor who went to Dallas 20 or 30 years ago and is pretty much still in the old system. But here is the cutting edge, and maybe everybody is not going to follow Blazing and Bach and these guys either. But I said, “There is nothing left.” And here is what he said. Somebody asked him the question, “Dr. Blazing, what is the continuity in the different views?” Because he early on studied dispensationalism historically and saw people changing their views. This is what kind of opened the door to the whole thing—Blazing’s historical study of dispensationalism. People were claiming that it is monolithic, that there was only one viewpoint. “Not so,” he said. “Darby held this, Scofield held this, and Ryrie says this, and now we are questioning that.” So it opened it up to the fact that we need to criticize dispensationalism based upon the Scriptures. That was the point of no return. Do you know how he defined it? It was incredible to me. There was no definition at all. His
definition was the one constant feature in dispensational theology is taking the Bible seriously and trying to understand its teachings. I said, “That is about the broadest definition of evangelical Christianity I have heard in my life!” So I do not even know where it is going. I suppose if they gave up a millennium, they might be dis-fellowshipped by some of their brothers, but I do not know. Dispensational teaching about the parenthesis church is not supported by Scripture (page 214). I heartily agree with that. There is no biblical basis for the expectation that people will still be brought to salvation after Christ returns. That certainly looks problematic.
So I do not know. I agree that Hoekema’s arguments are not foolproof. It is not because of any unkindness in Hoekema or even unfairness. The movement started after he wrote the book, or it was just starting to get going. But now, as a recent professor friend of mine who visited Dallas Seminary said,
“Progressive dispensationalism has taken over every department except the Bible Exposition Department.” I understand they are living in harmony as brothers with one another there, as it is in the different departments, but by and large there has been tremendous movement. We will feel that in the
pastors who graduated five years ago and on into the future. And maybe there will be better harmony among believers. I hope so. I hope from the Reformed side that an anti-dispensational spirit can be broken down, and that we will extend the right hand of fellowship, even if we disagree still at certain points, and we should disagree.
Do I believe that the second coming of Christ is a single event with only one phase? Yes, I do. One might comment on the way Hoekema argues. If one confesses that there is only one phase of the second coming, is one committed to holding to one resurrection? By the way, some, who all their lives have read the Bible as teaching two phases, say 1 Thessalonians 4 teaches the rapture and it is not the second coming. Keep reading in 1 Thessalonians 5. It seems to be the one event. I have spoken of two different aspects of the one event. If you hold to only one timing for the second coming, one second coming, are you not committed then to one resurrection? Is it legitimate to appeal to prophetic foreshortening? I think it is. It does not prove that it is right, but it is legitimate, because we have Old Testament passages that speak of the coming of Christ. And now we know that those are two comings of Christ, and they do not make the nuance. That is the whole point of it. From afar, the mountain ranges look like they are
identical. It is only when you get closer that it opens up. There are Old Testament passages, as Hoekema shows in the book, that speak of Christ coming in judgment and in blessing; it looks like all at once. But only as history has unfolded do we understand that those are two comings separated by thousands of years already.
You might ask about whether dispensational premillenialists are the only group who hold to a national Israel. Historic premillenailists could also hold to a national Israel. And by the way, as far as the exegesis of Romans 11 goes, “And so all Israel will be saved,” a consensus, not an absolute unanimity, but a consensus among interpreters of all different traditions, say that speaks at least of ethnic Israel. John Murray was postmillennial. F. F. Bruce was anti-premillennial. I guess he would be amillennial. Cranfield, the whole raft of interpreters working with Romans 11 and the context of Romans 9-11, concludes it speaks of at least ethnic, and maybe national, Israel. I would not see how that would be impossible with the others, but it is and has been one of the real focal points of dispensational premillennialism.
A good comment was made that Hoekema spent time with the controversies and working with those, although he did not work with the rapture question, but rather with the nature of the millennium. And that maybe he did not spend enough time on what Christians hold together. And largely what is in
question is the timing of the events. Christians for the most part hold the events in common. I will say I do not fault him for dealing with the controversies. Maybe he should have been harder on his own amillennial view. I think that is a fair criticism. He should have said here are the problems for amillennialism, and maybe admit a little bit more there. But I do think he gave enough time to the basic things that all Christians agree with. If you look at his chapter titles as a whole, you have got a chapter title on “The New Earth,” “Eternal Punishment,” “Final Judgment,” and “Resurrection of the Body.” So there are a couple of controversial chapters. He needs to address those things. To avoid those completely would not be good. I think he does emphasize what Christians have in common pretty well.
Dr. Robert Petersonicon