THE PROBLEM WITH PREMILLENNIALISM
The common feature of all premillennial teaching is the claim that Christ’s return at the end of the age will take place before the period known as the millennium. Whatever differences exist between Historic and Dispensational Premillennialism — and they are considerable — this teaching is common to them. Though a number of arguments are offered for a premillennial return of Christ, two biblical passages are often cited in support of it. These are 1 Corinthians 15:23—26 and Revelation 20:1—6. The latter is the more important passage because without its teaching some premillennialists acknowledge that 1 Corinthians 15:23—26 would not obviously suggest a return of Christ before the millennium.1
Since we will treat Revelation 20:1—6 in some detail in the next chapter, our evaluation will be restricted here to two matters. First, we will consider what might be termed the ‘general analogy’ of the Scripture on the return of Christ at the end of the age. Second, we will evaluate the appeal to 1 Corinthians 15:23—26. We will show that neither supports the premillennialist position.
I. THE GENERAL TEACHING OF SCRIPTURE
As we begin our evaluation, a question worth raising is whether anyone would argue for a premillennial return of Christ, were it not for the supposed teaching of the two passages just mentioned. Does the Bible anywhere else support this position? This question leads into the subject of the general analogy of Scripture with regard to the return of Christ. It is a commonly recognized rule of thumb for interpretation that the general analogy of Scripture has more weight in determining what the Bible may be said to teach than one or two passages that are somewhat more obscure or difficult to interpret. Louis Berkhof, for example, in his Principles of Biblical Interpretation, describes the general analogy of Scripture as any teaching that ‘does not rest on the explicit statements of the Bible, but on the obvious scope and import of its teachings as a whole . . . ‘2 Such a general analogy or teaching of Scripture is confirmed and strengthened when it is supported by a variety of texts throughout the Bible. Furthermore, when this general teaching of the Scriptures is apparently contradicted by a relatively more obscure Scriptural text, it is appropriate to interpret this more obscure passage in the light of the general analogy of Scripture.3
Now it is remarkable to notice that the usual presentation of the return of the Christ in the Scriptures, and in a number of different passages, is that it is a consummating event at the close of the age. A number of features of the Bible’s teaching regarding the return of Christ confirm this general pattern of teaching:
Christ’s coming will be a visible, public event that will bring about the salvation of the people of God and the realization of the kingdom of God in fullness (Matt. 24:27, 33, Luke 17:24; 21:27—28, 31).
When Christ is revealed from heaven, he will bring rest immediately and simultaneously for his beleaguered church and eternal punishment upon the unbelieving and impenitent (2 Thess. 1:6—10).
In the New Testament descriptions of the believer’s expectation for the future, the common thread is a focus upon the return of Christ as the event that brings the fullness of salvation, beyond which there is no further event that will surpass it in redemptive significance (cf. 1 Cor. 1:7, 8, Phil. 1:6,10, 1 John 2:28, 1 Tim. 4:8, 2 Tim. 4:1). The premillennial teaching that Christ’s return will introduce a millennial period, whose conclusion will be marked by a new outbreak and manifestation of Satanic opposition to Christ and his people (Satan’s ‘little season’ of Revelation 20:3), hardly seems to fit this focus and expectation.
When Christ returns, a rapture of the living and the dead leads to the resurrection transformation of all believers and their uninterrupted and undisturbed communion with the Lord from that day forward (1 Thess. 4:13—18). Though we will return to this passage and the subject of the rapture in the next section of this chapter, this communion with the Lord, as it is described in this passage, does not fit the conception of the millennium and Satan’s ‘little season’ which characterizes the premillennial view.
Rather than teaching that the return of Christ will bring a provisional phase of God’s kingdom, the millennium, which itself will be surpassed in the final state of God’s eternal kingdom, the New Testament teaches that Christ’s return will introduce the final state of new heavens and a new earth (2 Pet. 3:13, Rom. 8:17—25).
Finally the resurrections of the just and the unjust will coincide (Dan. 12:2, John 5:28—29, Acts 24:14—15, Rev.20:11— 15). In the premillennialist conception of the return of Christ, the resurrection of believing saints is commonly distinguished and separated in time — by at least one thousand years! —from the resurrection of the unbelieving. However, in New Testament teaching the resurrection of believers is said to occur at the ‘last day’ (John 6:40, 1 Thess. 4:16, Phil. 3:20—21, 1 Cor. 15:23), the day that marks the close of this present age and the introduction of the (final) age to come.
When considered together, the cumulative effect of these features of biblical teaching is to confirm that when Christ returns, his coming will conclude history as we now experience it and introduce the final state. The pervasive testimony of the New Testament conforms to the natural reading of the Apostles’ Creed when it describes the return of Christ ‘to judge the living and dead’. This judgement presumably will prepare the way for the ‘resurrection of the body and the life everlasting’, commencing the final state. Unless clear and compelling evidence from one or more biblical text supports the premillennialist view, it would seem that we should follow the rule that the general teaching of Scripture has more weight than one text, especially when the teaching of that text is not clear and undisputed.
II. THE TEACHING OF 1 CORINTHIANS 15:23—26
George Eldon Ladd, an able defender of the premillennialist view, has argued that 1 Corinthians 15:20—28, and especially verses 23—26, teaches three stages in the unfolding of redemptive history, which include an interim period that is the equivalent of the millennium of Revelation 20:1—6. Though this passage does not speak expressly of a millennium, it at least corroborates, according to Ladd, the sequence of events clearly set forth in Revelation 20. He summarizes his position as follows:
There is . . . one passage in Paul which may refer to an interim kingdom if not a millennium. In 1 Corinthians 15:23—26 Paul pictures the triumph of Christ’s kingdom as being accomplished in several stages. The resurrection of Christ is the first stage (tagma). The second stage will occur at the parousia when those who are Christ’s will share his resurrection. ‘Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.’ The adverbs translated ‘then’ are epeita, eita, which denote a sequence: ‘after that’. There are three distinct stages: Jesus’ resurrection; after that (epeita) the resurrection of believers at the resurrection; after that (eita) the end (telos). An unidentified interval falls between Christ’s resurrection and his parousia, and a second undefined interval falls between the parousia and the telos, when Christ completes the subjugation of his enemies.4
Ladd’s argument is that, though this passage may not explicitly speak of a millennial period, it allows for an intervening period between the time of Christ’s coming and the resurrection of believing saints, and the time of Christ’s subjection of all his enemies at the end of the age. This intervening period is the millennium of Revelation 20.
Though Ladd’s argument can be defended on strictly grammatical grounds that the adverbs ‘then. . . and then’ used by the Apostle Paul can express a sequence in which a period of time could intervene, this requires an unnatural reading of this passage for several reasons.
First, in all the other New Testament instances where the words used in this passage (‘epeita . . . eita’) are found, they are used to express events in the closest temporal connection, without any protracted period of time intervening (Luke 8:12, Mark 4:17, John 20:27). In the immediate context of i Corinthians 15:23—26, we find the same adverbs used inter-changeably, and there, too, they express a simple sequence of events (1 Cor. 15:5—7). Furthermore, the second of these two, ‘and then’, is used alone in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 to express an immediate sequence of events. If context and ordinary usage have a bearing upon the interpretation of a text, then it seems evident that these words ought to be read as expressing a simple sequence of events — when Christ comes, the dead in Christ will be raised and the end state will ensue with all things subject to him.
Second, the New Testament generally and the epistles of Paul particularly, show a close connection between the ‘coming’ (parousia) of Christ and the ‘end’ (telos). However, on Ladd’s and the premillennialists’ construction of this passage, these terms in 1 Corinthians 15:23—26 refer to distinct events, separated by a period of one thousand years. In 1 Corinthians 1:7—8, the Apostle Paul speaks of the ‘revelation’ and the ‘day’ of the Lord as the end to which believers look forward and until which they will be kept blameless. When Christ is revealed, the end will come and the believer’s need to persevere in hope will conclude (cf. 2 Cor. 1:13—14, Matt. 10:22; 24:6, 13—14, Mark 13:7,13, Luke 21:9, Heb. 3:6, 14; 6:11, 1 Pet. 4:7). Thus, treating the ‘coming’ of Christ and the ‘end’ in 1 Corinthians 15:23—26 as events that are closely connected, or even conjoined, is in keeping with the ordinary pattern found in the New Testament. That pattern is broken by Ladd’s view.
And third, the believer’s victory over death is said in 1 Corinthians 15:54—55 to occur when believers receive resurrection bodies. This coincides with what is said in 1 Corinthians 15:23—26 to occur in conjunction with both the ‘coming’ of Christ and the ‘end’, when the believer’s last enemy, death, will be overcome. The simplest and most obvious reading of these verses in their context is that when Christ comes and believers share in his resurrection, this event will coincide with or introduce the ‘end’, that circumstance in which death has been swallowed up in victory.
In short, though Ladd’s reading of this passage is grammatically possible, there are good and powerful reasons to conclude that it is contextually and comparatively most improbable. When 1 Corinthians 15:23—26 is read in its immediate context and in the more remote context of New Testament teaching generally, it corroborates the pattern we earlier termed the general analogy of Scripture: when Christ comes at the end of the age, this will mark the closure of redemptive history and commence (with the resurrection of the just and the unjust, the judgement of the living and the dead, etc.) the final state. The Scriptures simply contain no clear evidence for a premillennialist understanding of the return of Christ, with the possible exception of Revelation 20:1—6.
1. For example, George Eldon Ladd, ‘Historic Premillennialism’, in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. by Robert G. Clouse, p. 38. Unlike many dispensational premillennialists who find the doctrine of the millennium in many biblical passages, Ladd acknowledges that only Revelation 20:1—6 teaches a ‘millennial’ period. He admits that 1 Corinthians 15:23—26 confirms a premillennialist position only when this position has already been established from the clearer teaching of Revelation 20:1—6
3. It is interesting to observe that Berkhof cites Revelation 20:1—4 as an instance of a relatively obscure passage that may not be used to contravene the clear teaching of Scripture throughout on the subject of the return of Christ (Principles, p. 166). Because most premillennialists believe the teaching of Revelation 20:1—6 to be plain and clear in its support of their position, they would insist that Berkhof has misapplied this rule of interpretation in this particular case. In their approach, the teaching of those passages that speak of Christ’s return must be understood in the light of the clear premillennialist teaching of Revelation 20:1—6.
Christ’s Return and the Rapture
No evaluation of Dispensational Premillennialism may ignore its teaching of a two-phased return of Christ, the first phase of which is commonly known as the rapture. This feature is its most widely known aspect. Popularized by such best-selling books as Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, the film The Return, and bumper stickers warning others that in the event of the rapture the vehicle will be without driver and possibly passengers — Dispensationalism has enjoyed a large following among conservative Christians, especially in North America.
The view that has predominated in Dispensationalism is known as pre-tribulational rapturism. As noted previously, the older classical version of Dispensationalism held that the first phase of Christ’s return, his ‘coming’ or ‘parousia’, would precede a seven-year period of tribulation, and that the second phase of Christ’s return, his ‘revelation’ or ‘appearing’, would introduce the millennium or one-thousand-year reign of Christ on the earth. The first phase, Christ’s coming, is the rapture1 of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, an event that represents Christ’s coming ‘for’ his saints in contrast to his subsequent return (the second phase) or coming ‘with’ the saints. Though this view has been somewhat modified in more recent Dispensationalism, it remains far and away the most popular view among dispensationalists to this day. The views known as mid-tribulationism and post-tribulationism, as the terminology suggests, differ as to the timing of the rapture, but have relatively few defenders.2
In the notes of the New Scofield Reference Bible, the rapture is viewed as an event that can occur at any moment.3 There are no events in the biblical timetable for the future that must occur before the first phase of Christ’s return can take place. Christ’s return for his saints will be preceded by the resurrection of all believing saints. After the resurrection of deceased saints, all living believers will be immediately transformed. All of these saints, resurrected and transformed, will then be caught up (raptured) with Christ — whose return to earth will only be partial and for this purpose alone — and meet him in the air. Thus, the church of Jesus Christ will be raptured from the earth and taken to heaven for a period of seven years, the ‘marriage feast of the Lamb’, during which period great tribulation will befall the earth.
While the raptured church enjoys this period of the marriage feast, a number of events will occur upon the earth. A period of tribulation will begin, the latter half of which will be a period of ‘great tribulation’. This fulfils the prophecy of Daniel 9:27. In this latter half of the period of tribulation, the Antichrist will arise, the beast out of the sea, who will impose great cruelties on the earth and pretend to be divine. During this period of great tribulation, the elect of the children of Israel and a great number of the Gentiles will be saved. The end of this period of great tribulation will witness a period of intensified opposition to the people of God. The kings of the earth, the armies of the beast and the false prophet will join forces against the people of God. However, Christ will return with his saints and destroy all of his enemies at the battle of Armageddon. Thereupon, the millennial kingdom, during which Christ will rule upon the earth, will commence.4
I. CHRIST’S RETURN NOT A TWO-PHASED EVENT
Though we have not included in this summary the many details and variations upon this view, these should be sufficient for our purpose. Two key questions must be addressed in respect to pre-tribulational rapturism. First, does the Bible teach that Christ’s return will take place in two phases, separated by an intervening period of seven years’ duration? Second, does the Bible teach that the first of these phases will be the rapture envisioned by Dispensationalism?
To some extent we have already treated the first question by noting that the return of Christ is a consummating event at the end of the present age, but some of the arguments offered for the idea of a two-phased return of Christ have not yet been directly addressed.
In the earlier period of Dispensational Premillennialism, it was suggested that the New Testament uses the three common terms for the return of Christ — parousia (presence, coming), apokalupsis (revelation) and epiphaneia (appearance) — to distinguish the two phases of Christ’s return. The first term was said to be the term for Christ’s initial coming, his coming ‘for’ his saints at the rapture. The second and third terms were said to be used for Christ’s coming at the end of the seven-year period of tribulation, his coming ‘with’ his saints.
This claim, however, cannot withstand scrutiny. The New Testament shows clearly that parousia and apokalupsis are used interchangeably, as are apokalupsis and epiphaneia, to refer to the one return of Christ at the end of the age. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, the Apostle Paul uses the first term, parousia, to describe the rapture. But in 1 Thessalonians 3:13, he uses the same term to describe the ‘coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints’. According to Dispensationalism, this latter event occurs only at the revelation of Christ, seven years after the rapture. Similarly, in 2 Thessalonians 2:8, the Apostle Paul uses the term parousia to refer to the event when Christ will destroy the ‘man of lawlessness’ or Antichrist, an event which in Dispensationalism is said not to occur until the revelation at the end of the seven-year period of tribulation. Most unsettling to the dispensationalist argument is the fact that this passage uses two of the three terms for Christ’s return in close proximity, as synonyms, when it speaks of how Christ will ‘bring to nought’ the man of lawlessness ‘by the appearance of his coming’.
Moreover, both the terms apokalupsis and epiphaneia are used in the epistles of the Apostle Paul for what dispensationalists would regard as the first and second phases of Christ’s return. In 1 Corinthians 1:7, apokalupsis is used to describe what would be called the rapture, since the believers in Corinth are said to be ‘waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ’. However, in 2 Thessalonians 1:7,8, this term is used to describe what dispensationalists would regard as the ‘revelation’ or ‘second’ second coming of Christ. The same interchangeability is evident in 1 Timothy 6:14, where epiphaneia is used to describe the rapture, and in 2 Timothy 4:1, where it refers to Christ’s coming as Judge of the living and the dead.5 In its use of these terms, the New Testament offers no support for the idea that this return will occur in two distinct phases.
In arguing for a two-phased return, dispensationalists, in addition to the appeal to the use of terms, also insist that the church will not suffer the tribulation, including the great tribulation that will characterize the seven-year period between Christ’s coming and his revelation. This insistence, however, cannot be sustained by appeal to the New Testament Scriptures.
In the Olivet Discourse recorded in Matthew 24, Jesus, in reply to the disciples’ question, speaks of a great tribulation that will occur prior to his coming. This tribulation will be so severe that it will be shortened for the sake of the elect (verse 22). The reference in this passage to the elect indicates that believers will not be raptured before the tribulation of those days, but will experience it themselves. Dispensationalist teaching maintains that the elect in these verses can only refer to the Jews and not to the church, noting that the term ‘church’ is not used in this chapter. This is an argument from silence, and it is considerably weakened by the fact that the Gospels seldom use the term ‘church’.6 The most evident reading of this passage is to take it as a reference to tribulation that befalls the people of God, the elect (whether Jew or Gentile), before the return of Christ at the end of the age.
It is also important to observe that in this same passage dealing with the ‘signs of the times’, Christ describes the rapture in a way that indicates that it will not only follow the period of tribulation but also mark the close of the age. In Matthew 24:31, we read the following description of what will occur after the tribulation of those days: ‘And He [the Son of Man] will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.’ This description is similar to the language used in 1 Thessalonians 4: 16—17 to describe the events that will occur at the time of the rapture — the descent of the Lord, the sound of the trumpet, the gathering of the elect. It is difficult to see why these passages should be taken as descriptions of different events, as in Dispensationalism, which sees the description in Matthew 24 as the second phase of Christ’s return and thus as an event distinct from the rapture. It is not difficult, however, to see why Dispensationalism is compelled to distinguish these passages: if Matthew 24:31 referred to the rapture, then that would place the rapture after the period of tribulation rather than before it.
The same kind of difficulty confronts the dispensationalist when it comes to the teaching of 2 Thessalonians 2, with its description of the man of lawlessness, who will come before the day of the Lord. According to Dispensationalism, the events of this passage will occur during the period of tribulation, especially the great tribulation, between the time of the rapture and the time of Christ’s revelation. However, this would undermine the point of the Apostle Paul’s teaching in this passage. The point of this passage is to warn the believers in Thessalonica not to be deceived into thinking that the coming of the Lord has already occurred (verse 2), because the man of lawlessness and the great apostasy must occur first. This passage, which is written primarily to Gentile Christian believers — and not Jewish believers, as dispensationalists commonly teach7 — speaks of a number of events that will precede the coming of Christ and the day of the Lord. These events include the period of tribulation and the Antichrist that Dispensationalism places after the rapture, but which in this passage will occur before the rapture or the coming of the Lord to grant relief to his people or church.
Though it would be possible to explore these passages further, it should be evident that the problem facing Dispensationalism at this point is the same problem confronted in our previous discussion of the return of Christ as a consummating event at the end of the age. Unless the Bible reader brings to many of these passages a pre-conceived doctrine of two distinct phases in the return of Christ, there is little prospect that such a teaching would be discovered or proven from them. The biblical teaching is that Christ will return after the period of tribulation to grant his church relief and his enemies eternal destruction (2 Thess. 1). These consequences of Christ’s return coincide and therefore do not permit the teaching of two distinct phases in the return of Christ.8
II. THE RAPTURE OF 1 THESSALONIANS 4:13—18
In order to complete this consideration of pre-tribulational rapturism, we have to give some attention to 1 Thessalonians 4:13—18, which is the one passage in Scripture that directly describes the rapture. A careful study of this passage will show, however, that it does not teach the pre-tribulational rapture advocated by Dispensationalism.
The first observation to be made about this passage is that it is addressed to a pressing question in the church at Thessalonica. Among these believers, some were fearful that those saints who had previously ‘fallen asleep’ in Jesus would not take part in the joy and blessedness accompanying the coming of Christ. For this reason, the Apostle Paul begins this passage by saying:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the Word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.
These words indicate how strong their fears were and how much the apostle wanted to assure them by an answer from the Word of the Lord himself.
After acknowledging their concern that the departed saints might be left out of the joy of Christ’s coming, the apostle goes on to answer it more directly with an account of the coming rapture, in which believers will be caught up together with Christ in the air:
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
What do these words mean? According to Dispensationalism they teach that at the parousia, or first coming of Christ, the first resurrection will occur, which will be a resurrection of all believing saints, and of them alone. They, together with the glorified saints who are living at the time of the Lord’s coming, will be raptured or ‘caught up with’ the Lord in the air in order to return with him to heaven whence he came. Resurrected and glorified, they will then be with Christ in heaven for the seven-year period of tribulation, at the end of which they will return with him to reign upon the earth for the one-thousand-year period of the kingdom on earth (the millennium).9
But is this what is taught in this passage? Four observations suggest that this interpretation is a classic example of finding something in a text that is not there but has been imported into it, and subsequently is extracted from it.
First, when in verse 16 we read that the dead in Christ will rise first, this refers to the fact that those saints who have fallen asleep in Jesus will be raised before the living saints are caught up with them and the Lord at his coming. They will, in other words, enjoy a privilege — being raised first — not granted to those who are alive at Christ’s coming. The dispensationalist teaching that this is the first resurrection, the resurrection of believing saints at the time of the rapture, in distinction from the second resurrection, the resurrection of the unbelieving at the close of the millennium more than one thousand years later, is not found in the text, nor is it the point of the apostle’s use of the term ‘first’.
Second, this passage speaks of all believers being caught up together to meet the Lord in the air. Dispensationalists maintain that this refers to a meeting in the air which leads to a return of Christ and all the saints with him to heaven whence he came. Returning to heaven, the Lord Jesus and his saints will remain there for seven years. But nothing of this is stated in the text. The text actually speaks of a being caught up together in the air ‘unto a meeting’ between the Lord and the resurrected saints and the remaining saints who were alive at his coming.’10 The word used in this text for ‘meeting’ typically means a meeting between a visiting dignitary and representatives of the city or village being visited. Such a meeting would occur outside of the city or village, and the visitor and welcoming party would return to the city.11 This word is used twice elsewhere in the New Testament (Acts 28:15, Matt. 25:6), in both cases referring to a meeting which takes place before the parties return to the place being visited. The meaning and use of this term suggests that in the case of the rapture, the saints who meet the Lord in the air will thereupon return with him, not to heaven, but to the earth to which he comes at his parousia.
Third, the result of this rapture, or being caught up with the Lord in the air, is said to be the blessedness of being always with the Lord. This language best fits the circumstance of the final state in which believers, now resurrected and glorified, will dwell forever in the most intimate and unbroken fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Being always with the Lord is not to be limited to a period of seven years in heaven or even one thousand years upon the earth. Rather, the simplest reading of this passage is to take it to be a description of the final state.
And fourth, several features of the description of this rapture do not fit well with the dispensationalist position. The coming of the Lord, as described in these verses, is a visible, public event, one which is signaled by the descent of Christ from heaven ‘with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God’. However, in Dispensationalism, the first return of Christ is said to be a secret rapture, in which believers will be suddenly snatched away without notice. This teaching is based partly upon an appeal to Matthew 24:40—41 which is seen to be a parallel description of the rapture, though we have already noted that that passage does not teach a pre-tribulational rapture. But the description in 1 Thessalonians 4:16—18 corresponds to the descriptions of Christ’s revelation from heaven at the end of the age in other passages (cf. 1 Cor. 15:23—24, 2 Thess. 2:8). These passages speak of Christ’s return as a public event that will bring the present period of history to a close.
Thus, the teaching of a pre-tribulational rapture as understood within the framework of Dispensationalism is not founded upon the teaching of any biblical passage. Nor is it a teaching that can withstand careful scrutiny, particularly when measured against the general teaching of the Scriptures regarding the return of Christ at the end of the age. The Bible teaches neither that believers will be exempted from present or future tribulation at the end of the present age, nor that the rapture will be the event described by Dispensationalism. The one passage that speaks of the event commonly known as the rapture scarcely supports the view that enjoys such popularity among dispensationalists.
1. The term ‘rapture’ comes from the Latin Vulgate translation’s use of rapiemur (raptus), to render the expression ‘caught up’.
2. See Millard J. Erickson, Basic Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), pp. 125—181.
3. The New Scofield Reference Bible, notes on Luke 21:27, 2 Thessalonians 2:3, Titus 2:11, Revelation 19:19. See Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), 4: pp. 367—8; and J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Findlay, Ohio: Dunham, 1958), pp. 202—4.
4. The New Scofield Reference Bible, notes on Daniel 9:24, Revelation 7:14, 11:2, 19:19.
5. Some dispensationalists also argue that a sharp distinction is to be drawn between the ‘parousia’ and the ‘day of the Lord’, that is, the revelation of Christ after the seven-year period of tribulation. For a moderate expression of this distinction, see the New Scofield Reference Bible, notes on 2 Peter 3:10 and Revelation 19:19. However, in 2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2, these expressions are used to describe the same event — ‘Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together to Him, that you may not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.’ For a more complete evaluation of Dispensationalism’s teaching of a two-phased return of Christ, see George E. Ladd, The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956); and Robert H. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973).
6. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke the word ‘church’ is used in only three places (once in Matthew 16:18, twice in 18:17). It should also be noted that the immediate reference of these verses in Matthew 24 is the tribulation experienced at the time of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. Although I have previously argued that the secondary and more remote reference of these verses is to a period of tribulation preceding the return of Christ at the end of the age (of which this earlier tribulation is an antitype), the obvious reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in these verses strongly militates against the dispensationalist view.
8. It is instructive to observe that two passages in the book of Revelation (2:22; 7:9—17) refer to ‘great tribulation’ in reference to circumstances that are, from the point of view of the present, in the past. These passages illustrate how the dispensationalist restriction of tribulation, especially great tribulation, to the seven-year period between the first and second phases of Christ’s return, does not fit the biblical pattern of teaching regarding the future.
Israel and the Church
We have frequently noted that one of the principal tenets of Dispensational Premillennialism is the strict separation between God’s earthly people, Israel, and his heavenly people, the church. It could even be argued that this separation between Israel and the church is the root principle of classical — as distinguished from ‘progressive’ Dispensationalism. From this separation of an earthly and a spiritual people stems another basic feature of Dispensationalism, one which we will consider in a subsequent section of this chapter: its insistence on a literalistic reading of the Bible. This actually stems from the insistence of classical Dispensationalism that the promises of the Lord to his earthly people, Israel, must be interpreted in a strictly literal rather than a figurative or spiritual way. Furthermore, among the seven distinct dispensations, the most important from the point of view of the future are those that reflect this separation between Israel and the church. The earliest dispensations of human conscience and government, for example, are of only passing interest in the overall scheme of Dispensationalism.
I. THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN ISRAEL AND THE CHURCH
Before subjecting the dispensational distinction between Israel and the church to biblical evaluation, a brief summary of the basic features of this separation is necessary. The following notes from the original Scofield Reference Bible clearly articulate these features:
(1) ‘I will make of thee a great nation.’ Fulfilled in a three-fold way: (a) In a natural posterity — ‘as the dust of the earth’ (Gen. 13:16, John 8:37), viz., the Hebrew people. (b) In a spiritual posterity — ‘look now toward heaven. . . so shall thy seed be’ (John 8:39, Rom. 4:16, 17; 9:7, 8, Gal. 3:6, 7, 29), viz, all men of faith, whether Jew or Gentile. (c) Fulfilled also through Ishmael (Gen. 17,18—20) [sic].1
The Christian is of the heavenly seed of Abraham (Gen. 15:5, 6, Gal. 3:29), and partakes of the spiritual blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 15:18, note); but Israel as a nation always has its own place, and is yet to have its greatest exaltation as the earthly people of God.2
As these notes indicate, classical Dispensationalism regards God’s purposes in history as twofold, corresponding to these two distinct peoples, the one earthly, the other heavenly. God’s dispensational dealings with these two peoples have two quite distinct ends in view: the salvation of an earthly people that is consummated in an eternal kingdom upon the new earth, and the salvation of a heavenly people that is consummated in an eternal kingdom in the new heavens. Thus, just as God has two distinct peoples and programmes of salvation in history, so he has in mind two quite distinct eternal destinies. The line of separation that keeps Israel and the church apart in history will continue into the final state in which the earthly and heavenly natures of these peoples will correspond to salvation blessings that are distinctively earthly and heavenly.
This separation between Israel and the church corresponds to Dispensationalism’s emphasis upon a literal understanding of Old Testament prophecies on the one hand, and the contrast between the present ‘age of the church’ and the coming ‘age of the kingdom’ or the millennium on the other. The prophecies of the Old Testament, insofar as they are directed to the earthly people of God, Israel, must be understood in their literal or earthly sense. A promise of the possession of the land, for example, must mean the earthly land of Canaan. A promise of a restored temple must refer to the temple in Jerusalem.
The present age of the church, because it represents God’s dealings with his heavenly people, must also be regarded as a ‘parenthesis’ period of history, a period between God’s former dealings and his soon-to-be-resumed dealings with Israel in the millennial age to come. During the present age of God’s dealings with the church, his dealings with Israel have been temporarily suspended, but when the time of fulfilment comes (preceded by the rapture), the prophetic promises will be fulfilled. Because these were directed to Israel, they are silent for the most part respecting God’s dealings with the church, dealings comprised by the mystery which God had kept hidden until the gospel age.
Though this represents only a brief sketch of the classical dispensationalist separation between Israel and the church, it will serve as background for our consideration of the question, Who, according to the teaching of the Bible, is the ‘Israel of God’? Does the Bible actually draw this line of separation between these two peoples of God, Israel and the church? To answer this question, we will have to consider several features of the Bible’s teaching about the Israel of God.
II. THE CHURCH IS NO PARENTHESIS
The biblical understanding of the church, however, cannot be squared with this understanding of it as a parenthesis. In the New Testament, the church is commonly understood to be in direct continuity with the people of God in the Old Testament; the images used in the Old Testament to describe the people of the Lord are used in the New Testament to describe the church. The New Testament word for the church, ekklesia, is the equivalent of the common Old Testament word, qahal, meaning the ‘assembly’ or ‘gathering’ of the people of Israel.3 The New Testament church is also called the ‘temple’ of God (1 Cor. 3:16—17, Eph. 2:21—22), evoking the imagery and symbolism of the Old Testament, in which the temple was regarded to be the special place of the Lord’s dwelling in the midst of his people. Just as the temple was the place where fellowship between the Lord and his people was provided for (through the sacrificial rites and ordinances) and experienced, so the church is the place of the Lord’s dwelling by his Holy Spirit. Accordingly, the church can also be identified with Jerusalem, the city of God, which is above and which comprises believers from every tribe and tongue and nation. In Hebrews 12:22—23, this is expressly stated: ‘But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect.’
Rather than being regarded as an interruption in God’s dealings with his people, Israel, the church of the new covenant is regarded as the fulfilment of the Lord’s promises to the people of God of the old covenant. The great covenant promise made to Abraham was that in his seed all the families and peoples would be blessed (Gen. 12:3; 22:18). Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord’s dealings with Israel are never isolated from his promises of redemption for all the nations and peoples of the earth. This theme of the salvation of the nations is interwoven throughout the fabric of the Old Testament, not only in the provisions in the law for the inclusion in the community of Israel of strangers and aliens,4 but also in the explicit language of the Psalter, the song book of Israel’s worship, and in the prophets.
The Psalms contain references throughout to the Lord’s purpose to gather the nations into the fellowship of his people. Psalm 2 includes a record of the Lord’s vow to grant the nations to his beloved Son. Psalm 22 speaks of how ‘all the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship before Thee (verse 27). Psalm 67 calls all the nations to join Israel in singing God’s praises. These are not isolated notes; they echo and re-echo throughout the Psalms. Furthermore, in the prophets, many promises speak of the day when the Gentile nations will be joined with the people of Israel in the service and praise of the Lord (for example, Isa. 45:22; 49:6, Mal. 1:1).
The simplest understanding of the Old and the New Testament people of the Lord recognizes the church to be his new covenant people, in direct communion with Israel, his old covenant people. Though salvation may historically be to the Jew first and, secondly, also to the Gentile (Rom. 1:16), the Lord is gathering to himself in history only one people, comprising Jew and Gentile alike. However, lest this appear to be a premature conclusion based upon an inadequate consideration of the biblical material, we turn now to other biblical considerations.
III. THE KINGDOM IS NOT POSTPONED
Closely linked to the idea that the church is a parenthesis in history is the dispensationalist claim that God’s dealings with Israel have been postponed during the present time. It is taught that because the Jews did not receive him as their promised Messiah and King, Jesus deferred the establishment of the kingdom, the earthly manifestation of God’s salvation to the Jews, until after the dispensation of the gospel to the Gentiles. This idea of the kingdom’s postponement has several problems.
First, it suggests that the church is an afterthought in the plan and purposes of God. This view of history seems to teach that Christ was frustrated in his original purpose for the establishment of the Davidic kingdom for Israel and was obliged to adjust the divine programme of redemption accordingly. However, such a suggestion is consistent neither with the biblical presentation of God’s sovereignty over history nor with the Bible’s view of the church.
Christ’s Great Commission to his disciples (Matt. 28:16—20), fulfils his earlier declaration regarding the church that he will build, against which the gates of Hades shall not prevail (Matt. 16:18—19). Far from being an afterthought or interim project, the church in these passages is described as the central accomplishment and interest of the Lord Jesus Christ in history. Indeed, this church which is being gathered from all the nations can be understood only as a fulfilment of the promises God made to the Son of David, to whom the nations would be given as his rightful inheritance (see Psa. 2:8). Consequently, when the Apostle Paul describes the church of Jesus Christ, he can speak of it as the ‘fullness of him who fills all and all’ (Eph. 1:22—23), through which the manifold wisdom of God is being made known ‘in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Eph. 3:8—11). None of these descriptions of the church suggest that it is anything less than the central focus and instrument through which God’s final purpose of redemption in history is being realized.
Second, the dispensationalist idea of a postponement of the kingdom is based upon a misreading of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s preaching of the kingdom. Though it is true that many of the Jews in Jesus’ day did reject him as the Messiah, it must not be forgotten that Jesus himself was born from among the Jewish people — and he is a member, indeed the foremost member, of the church! — and that many of the Jews did respond to him in faith and repentance, though his proclamation of the nature of this kingdom did not always accord with the expectations of many of the people.
It should not be overlooked, for example, that the twelve disciples, the nucleus of the New Testament church, were all from among the Jewish people. In the account in Acts of the growth of the early church, the pattern of ‘to the Jew first, and then to the Gentile’ is clearly in evidence. Though some among the Jewish Christian community resisted the inclusion of Gentile believers, it is clear that Christ’s work through his apostles was directed to the salvation of Jew and Gentile alike. Christ and his apostles preached the gospel of the kingdom (for example, Acts 20:28), a kingdom that Christ proclaimed was ‘among them’ (Matt. 12:28) and that would be built through the preaching of the gospel (Matt. 16:19). The idea that Christ offered the kingdom to the Jews, only to have them reject it, is contradicted by these realities and Christ’s own testimony that they had misunderstood his kingdom (see John 18:36). Were Christ to have offered the kingdom to the Jews, only to have them reject it, one would expect this to have been included among the charges brought against him at his trial. However, the Gospel accounts make no mention of any such charge brought against him, namely, that he had offered to establish the kingdom among them only to have this offer refused.
Third, the idea of a postponement of the kingdom implies that the suffering and crucifixion of Christ might have been delayed, even become unnecessary, were the Jews of his day to have received him as their earthly king. This means that Christ’s own teaching, that he must first suffer and only then enter his glory, would have been invalidated (Luke 24:26). It also means that the uniform testimony of the New Testament Gospels and epistles, that Christ came in order to be obedient to his Father’s will, including his death upon the cross, would be compromised. Though dispensationalists might attempt to argue that Christ’s death would have nonetheless been necessary, even were his offer of the kingdom to have been accepted by his countrymen, it seems difficult to envision how it might have occurred. Surely the establishment of his earthly kingdom would have mitigated any need to endure suffering and death on behalf of his people.5
The mere suggestion that Christ’s death was the result of the Jewish people’s unbelief contradicts a variety of New Testament teachings. In the Gospel accounts of Christ’s suffering and death, the evangelists frequently note that all of this occurred to fulfil what was written in the Scriptures (for example, Matt. 16:23; 26:24, 45, 56). After his resurrection from the dead, Christ was compelled to rebuke the men on the way to Emmaus because they did not believe in ‘all the prophets had spoken’. They did not understand that it ‘was necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter his glory’ (Luke 24:25—26). The Gospel of John frequently testifies that Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh, came into the world for the express purpose of doing his Father’s will, namely, to be the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (cf. 1:29; 2:4; 6:38; 7:6; 10:10—18; 12:27; 13:1—3;17).
The same emphasis upon Christ’s death as the purpose for his coming is found in the book of Acts and the epistles of the New Testament. In his sermon at Pentecost, the Apostle Peter notes that Jesus was ‘delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God’ (Acts 2:23). When the Apostle Paul summarizes his gospel, he speaks of how ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. . . and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures’. The writer to the Hebrews describes at length the manner in which Christ’s coming, priesthood and sacrifice are the fulfilment of the old covenant types and shadows. Christ came, he writes, in order ‘that He might become a merciful and faithful priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people’ (2:17). In a striking passage, this writer also speaks of God bringing Jesus up from the dead ‘by the blood of the eternal covenant’ (13:20). Nothing in this is congenial to the view that Christ’s death was occasioned primarily by the Jewish people’s refusal to acknowledge him as their earthly king.
And fourth, the idea that the kingdom has been postponed does not correspond to the New Testament’s insistence that Christ is now king and Lord over all. In the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, it is evident that Christ has been installed as King at the Father’s right hand.6 He exercises as Mediator a rule over all things for the sake of the church. This kingly rule of Christ, moreover, fulfils the promises that had been made to his father, David, regarding his inheritance of the nations. At the angel Gabriel’s announcement of Christ’s birth, it was declared that ‘the Lord God will give him [the child to be born to Mary] the throne of his father David’ (Luke 1:32).
When Christ mandated that the disciples go and make disciples of all nations, he declared, ‘all authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth’ (Matt. 28:18). Peter, in his sermon at Pentecost, claimed that with God’s raising of Jesus from the dead, ‘all Israel’ was to acknowledge that ‘God has made Him both Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2:33—36). Christ is the Davidic King to whom the nations will be given as his rightful inheritance (see Acts 4:24—26). Or, as the Apostle Paul describes the Lord, he has been ‘declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead’ (Rom. 1:4). Christ has now been given all rule and authority and power and dominion (Eph. 1:20—23; cf. Phil. 2:9—11). Therefore, he must ‘reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet’ (1 Cor. 15:25).
In the light of these and other passages that describe the present kingship of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, it seems wrong to distinguish sharply between the present age of the church and the future age of the kingdom. Though the present form and administration of the kingdom of Christ may not be earthly or physical in the dispensationalist sense of these terms, there is no escaping the biblical teaching that Christ now reigns upon the earth through his Spirit and Word and manifests his kingly rule primarily through the gathering of his church from all the tribes and peoples of the earth. Serious injury is done to the biblical conception of Christ’s kingship when Dispensationalism relegates it to some future period during which God’s dealings are directed narrowly to the earthly people of God, Israel.
IV. GOD’S ONE PURPOSE OF SALVATION FOR HIS PEOPLE
The basic reason why Dispensationalism wrongly speaks of the church as a parenthesis in history and of the postponement of the kingdom, is that it fails to see that God has one purpose of salvation for his people in the old and new covenants. Contrary to the dispensationalist view, the Israel of God of the old covenant is one people in direct continuity with the people of God, the church of Jesus Christ, of the new covenant. Israel and the church are different ways of referring to the one people of God. To put it as straight-forwardly as possible: Israel is the church, and the church is Israel. This can be illustrated in various ways from the New Testament.
In 1 Peter 2:9—10, the apostle gives a summary statement regarding the New Testament church. Writing to the scattered believers and churches throughout Asia Minor, Peter defines the new covenant church in terms drawn from the old covenant descriptions of the people of Israel:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.7
What is so remarkable about this description of the church is that it identifies the church with the exact terminology used in the Old Testament to describe the people of Israel with whom the Lord covenanted. The best reading of this language takes it literally to mean that the new covenant church is altogether one with the old covenant church. The Lord does not have two peculiar peoples, two holy nations, two royal priesthoods, two chosen races — he has only one, the church of Jesus Christ.
Similarly, in Romans 9—11, the Apostle Paul discloses God’s purposes of redemption in the salvation of the Gentiles and subsequently of all Israel (Rom. 11:25) in a way that makes it unmistakably clear that the people of God are one, not two.8 Dispensationalists argue that the salvation of all Israel mentioned in Romans 11:25 refers to the future national conversion of Israel and her restoration to the land of Palestine. This salvation will occur in the context of God’s resumed dealings with his earthly people, Israel.9 The great problem with this reading of the Apostle Paul’s argument in Romans 9—11 is that the argument depends upon the most intimate interrelationship between elect Israel and the elect Gentiles in God’s purposes of redemption.
The main thrust of the argument in these chapters is that the unbelief of many of the people of Israel has been in the purpose of God the occasion for the conversion of the ‘fullness of the Gentiles’. This conversion of the fullness of the Gentiles, however, will in turn under God’s blessing provoke Israel to jealousy and lead to the salvation of ‘all Israel’. No mention is made regarding the restoration of the nation of Israel as a racial entity to the land of Palestine. Nor is anything said about the establishment of an earthly form of the Davidic kingdom. On the contrary, the salvation of all of God’s people, Jew and Gentile alike, is described in terms of their belonging to the one olive tree, the church of Jesus Christ. All who are saved are saved through faith in Jesus Christ and are incorporated into the one fellowship of his church. This passage militates in the strongest possible terms against the idea of the existence of two separate olive trees or two separate purposes of salvation, a present one for the Gentiles, a future one for the Jews.
Thus, in the account of the growth of the church in the book of Acts, the earliest members of the church were drawn predominantly, though by no means exclusively, from among the Jewish people. Indeed, the incorporation of Gentile believers into the one fellowship of the church was initially resisted considerably. It is especially striking, then, to read the account of the Apostle Paul’s preaching at the synagogue (note well!) in Antioch. In his preaching, the Apostle Paul announces that the ‘holy and sure blessings of David’ are being fulfilled through the proclamation of the gospel of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. In this sermon, the apostle declares that Jesus is the promised Davidic King and Saviour through whom the promised blessings to the fathers are now being realized in the community of those who believe. No clearer identification could be imagined of God’s purposes with Israel through David and his Son, and his purposes with the church through Jesus Christ. The words of this sermon speak for themselves:
And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘Thou art My Son; today I have begotten Thee.’ And as for the fact that He raised Him up from the dead, no more to return to decay, He has spoken in this way: ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David’ (Acts 13:32—34).10
In these respects, as well as in those previously mentioned, it is apparent that God’s purpose of redemption in history is to gather one people, all of whom are the spiritual descendants of Abraham (Gal. 3:28—29), the father of all believers. The Lord has but one people, not two. Indeed, it is his purpose to join this people together in the most perfect unity (Eph. 2:14), not to leave them forever separated from each other into Israel and the church.
V. WHO BELONGS TO THE ‘ISRAEL OF GOD’ (GAL. 6:16)?
In addition to the cumulative force of the preceding points against the dispensationalist view of a separation between Israel and the church, one text by itself sufficiently refutes this position: it is Galatians 6:15—16. We will conclude this part of our evaluation of Dispensationalism with a consideration of this text.
These verses come towards the end of the Epistle to the Galatians, and they draw upon many of the emphases previously set out. The Apostle Paul makes this solemn and sweeping declaration: ‘For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And those who will follow this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.’ In Galatians, it is clear that the Apostle Paul is emphatically rejecting the idea that what commends anyone to God is obedience to the law, particularly the law prescribing circumcision as a sign of the covenant. He is opposing the false gospel of the Judaizers who were teaching that in order for a person to be acceptable to God, to be justified or found innocent before him, they had to submit to the requirements of the law, specifically the stipulations regarding circumcision. Against this false gospel, the apostle places the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, a gospel that is equally valid for Jew and Gentile alike. He sums up his argument with the formulation, ‘neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation’.
Having stated this governing principle, however, the Apostle Paul goes on to pronounce a benediction upon ‘those who will follow this rule’: ‘peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.’ The language used in this benediction is striking. The blessing of God rests upon those and only those who follow this specific rule or canon.11 Conversely, those who do not follow or acknowledge it may not expect to receive God’s peace and mercy.
But what is even more striking, for our purpose, is the apostle’s identification of the church, comprising Jew and Gentile alike, as the Israel of God. The Israel of God in this text refers to the church as it honours this rule or canon, making no distinction, so far as justification before God is concerned, upon the basis of circumcision or uncircumcision. The Apostle Paul here sets forth a rule for the whole people of God, the church consisting of Jews and Gentiles, that seems to conflict with any separation at all between Israel as an earthly people and the church as a heavenly people. Such a separation makes the matter of circumcision and uncircumcision a fundamental principle of distinction between those who are of Israel and those who are not.
Now, it is possible to argue that when the apostle speaks in this text of ‘peace and mercy upon them, and upon the Israel of God’, he is actually distinguishing the Gentile church (‘them’) from the Jewish believing community (‘the Israel of God’). This has in fact been proposed by dispensationalist authors.12 However, the problem with this suggestion should be clear: it excludes believing Jews from ‘all who will follow this rule’, an exclusion which would be contradictory and self-defeating. Were the word ‘and’ here to have this sense of ‘and also’, as dispensationalists maintain, the Apostle Paul would be pronouncing a benediction not only upon those who follow this rule, but also upon others, believing Jews, who may not follow it. The apostle would thus be denying the very rule or canon that he had asserted previously. Believing Jews would be exempt from this rule, thus rendering it null and void as a rule for faith and practice among all the people of God. Perhaps for this reason, the New International Version translates these verses as follows: ‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.’ Here the NIV is following a long tradition of interpreters, including Calvin, who understand the connector, ‘and’, as equivalent to ‘even’ or ‘that is’13
The sense of this text is that the apostle extends peace and mercy to those who follow this rule that in the church of Jesus Christ circumcision and uncircumcision count for nothing so far as our standing with God is concerned. He pronounces this benediction ‘to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God’. Thus, he answers the question — who belongs to the ‘Israel of God’? — by declaring emphatically that the Israel of God comprises all believers, Jews and Gentiles, who subscribe to and live by the principle that what alone counts before God is a new creation.
In short, no more emphatic word could be spoken that in the church illegitimate distinctions are no longer permitted between Jew and Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised. This should not surprise us, coming as it does from the same apostle who reminded the church in Ephesus that Christ ‘Himself is our peace, who made both [Jew and Gentile] one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall’ (Eph. 2:14). By the standard of this apostolic teaching and rule, Dispensationalism seems to be in serious error in its distinction between Israel and the church.
1. Scofield Reference Bible (1909), note on Genesis 15:18.
2. Ibid., note on Romans 11:1. The New Scofield Reference Bible retains the second of these notes but revises the first. The revised version, however, does not fundamentally alter the basic dispensationalist insistence that these two peoples are to be kept distinct.
3. The Septuagint (LXX) rendering of this Hebrew term for the ‘assembly’ of Israel is commonly the word ekklesia (Exod. 12:6, Num. 14:5, Deut. 5:22, Josh. 8:35).
4. Perhaps this is the place to note how Matthew, in writing his genealogy of Jesus Christ, seems deliberately to have included names of Gentiles whose incorporation into the family of David (and of God) serves as a reminder that God’s saving purpose never fixed exclusively upon Israel as a racial or national entity (Matt. 1:1—17).
5. For a dispensationalist’s defence against this charge, see Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody, 1965), pp. 161—8. Ryrie appeals to statements of dispensational authors that affirm the necessity of Christ’s crucifixion for the salvation of Jew and Gentile alike. He also notes that the language of postponement lends credence to this criticism of Dispensationalism. However, he does not provide an adequate account of how the necessity of the cross can be accounted for on dispensationalist assumptions about the radical distinction between Israel and the church, or between the kingdom and the church age.
6. See the New Scofield Reference Bible, notes on 2 Samuel 7:16 and Revelation 3:21, for a representation of the dispensationalist denial that Christ is currently seated upon the throne of his father, David.
7. In these two verses alone, the apostle explicitly refers to the following Old Testament passages: Isaiah 43:21, Exodus 19:6, Hosea 1:10; 2:23.
8. For a more complete treatment of this passage, see my earlier discussion of it in Chapter 5.
9. See the New Scofield Reference Bible, notes on Romans 11:1 and 11:26.
10. It is interesting to note how matter-of-factly the oneness of the people of God is expressed by our Lord in his answer to the question put to him, ‘Are there a few who are being saved?’ (Luke 13:23). Jesus concludes with the confident declaration that ‘they will come from east and west, and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God’. This description of the growth of the kingdom uses the imagery of a banquet hall and table, in which a great throng gathers, of Jew (‘Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God’, v. 28) and Gentile (‘from east and west, and from north and south’), all of whom are reclining at the same table in the same kingdom.
11. The word used here for ‘rule’ is the Greek word, kanon or ‘canon’. It has the sense of a binding and absolutely authoritative rule or principle of faith and practice.
13. In this instance, the NASB, the version I have been using, may be liable to misunderstanding, since it simply translates the connector (Greek: kai) as ‘and’. The context makes clear, however, that this connector has here the sense of ‘even’ or ‘that is’, one of its normal uses in the New Testament and in the Greek language. The NIV is not alone in making clear the sense of the connector here. This is also true, for example, in the Revised Standard Version, the Jerusalem Bible and the New English Bible.
The Hermeneutic of Literalism
One of the characteristic features of Dispensationalism is its insistence upon a ‘literal’ reading of the Bible. Throughout its history many of its advocates have alleged that alternative millennial views reflect a low view of the Scripture’s authority because they do not follow this hermeneutic.1 Especially when it comes to the prophecies of the Bible that relate to the earthly people of God, Israel, dispensationalists insist that these be read literally. It is often argued that alternative readings of these prophecies undermine the authority of the Bible by illegitimately spiritualizing them and their promises.
This emphasis upon a literal hermeneutic is closely linked to the dispensationalist distinction between God’s earthly people, Israel, and his heavenly people, the church. It is argued that the prophecies and promises of the Bible that relate to Israel must correspond to Israel as a distinct people. Because Israel is a national and ethnic entity with a literal, concrete identity and history, whatever Scriptural promises refer to her must be equally literal and concrete.2 Thus, if the Scriptures are to be rightly interpreted, they must always be taken in their literal meaning, unless this proves to be impossible.
I. WHAT IS ‘LITERAL’?
In order to evaluate the dispensational hermeneutic of literalism, it is necessary to define more precisely what is meant by a literal reading of the Bible. Opinions vary among dispensationalists themselves as to what it is.
It is interesting to observe that even in the case of Scofield and the classic form of Dispensationalism, the emphasis upon a literal hermeneutic was somewhat qualified. According to him, the historical books of the Bible are not only literally true but often also of allegorical or spiritual significance. An historical event, like the relationship between Isaac and Ishmael, is literally true, but it may also have further meaning and significance (see Gal. 4:23—31). However, in the case of the prophetic books of the Bible, Scofield insisted that:
we reach the ground of absolute literalness. Figures are often found in the prophecies, but the figure invariably has a literal fulfilment. Not one instance exists of a ‘spiritual’ or figurative fulfilment of prophecy. . . Jerusalem is always Jerusalem, Israel always Israel, Zion always Zion . . . Prophecies may never be spiritualised, but are always literal.3
This is a strong statement. It declares that all the prophecies in the Scripture have a literal fulfilment, so that whenever they are not interpreted literally, but figuratively, their meaning is necessarily distorted. However, the statement also concedes, at least with respect to historical passages, that the events recorded may be interpreted also in terms of their spiritual meaning.
Among later dispensationalist authors, further attempts have been made to define what is meant by a literal hermeneutic. Two representative definitions have been given by Charles C. Ryrie in his Dispensationalism Today4 and Paul Lee Tan in his The interpretation of Prophecy.5
Ryrie gives the following account of the dispensationalist position: ‘Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation. This means interpretation which gives to every word the same meaning it would have in normal usage, whether employed in writing, speaking or thinking.6 In his exposition of this claim, Ryrie goes on to argue that ‘normal usage’ is really the equivalent of a grammatical and historical interpretation of the text. It takes words in their normal, plain or ordinary sense. Tan’s definition of this hermeneutic is quite similar: ‘To “interpret” means to explain the original sense of a speaker or writer. To interpret “literally” means to explain the original sense of the speaker or writer according to the normal, customary, and proper usage of words and language. Literal interpretation of the Bible simply means to explain the original sense of the Bible according to the normal and customary usage of its language.7
Like Ryrie, Tan maintains that a literal reading of the biblical texts is equivalent to a grammatical-historical reading, a reading that simply takes the words and language of the text in their ordinary, common and plain meaning.
Despite these variations, the primary claim of Dispensationalism is that the biblical texts should be read in their plain, ordinary, or literal sense, especially when these texts speak of God’s earthly people, Israel, and when they make promises respecting Israel. Though the presence of non-literal and figurative language is not completely denied — Scofield even acknowledged the possibility of spiritualizing interpretations of historical events — the first rule for any reading of a biblical text is that it be read in the most literal way possible.
II. EVALUATING THE HERMENEUTIC OF LITERALISM
Undoubtedly, dispensationalist authors differ considerably on the subject of a literal reading of the Bible. Variations are evident between the earliest and classic forms of Dispensationalism, and more recent revisionist and progressive forms. However, we will take the two definitions cited as a fair representation of the predominant view among dispensationalists.
When considering these typical definitions of what constitutes a literal hermeneutic, two problems immediately stand out.
LITERAL AND PERHAPS SPIRITUAL
The first problem is the tacit acknowledgement that a literal reading of the text need not exclude a spiritual meaning or figurative and symbolical language. In the original position of Scofield himself, a somewhat arbitrary distinction is made between the historical and prophetic texts in the Bible. This distinction is made in order to allow for the possibility that the historical texts may have both a literal and a spiritual meaning. Though Scofield maintains that this is never possible in the case of prophetic texts, there seems to be no reason why this cannot be the case. Why can historical texts that speak of Jerusalem have a spiritual meaning, while prophetic texts that speak of Jerusalem must invariably have a literal meaning? Furthermore, the possibility of non-literal elements indicates that it is somewhat simplistic and misleading to insist that texts always be read literally.
LITERAL BUT NOT REALLY LITERAL
A second and even more fundamental problem with these definitions is the attempt to identify ‘literal’ with a grammatical-historical reading of the text, which in turn is identified with taking words in their normal or plain meaning. The problem with this approach is that it begs the question of what ‘literal’, ‘normal’, or ‘plain’ strictly mean. This can be illustrated by considering the meaning of the word ‘literal’.
The ‘literal sense’ is a translation of the Latin sensus literalis which means ‘the sense of, according to the letter’. That is to say, texts are to be read as language and literature according to the rules that ordinarily and appropriately apply to their usage and forms. This means that if the text is poetry, it should be read, according to the letter, as poetry. If the text is historical narrative, recounting events that occurred in a particular time and place, it is to be read as historical narrative. If the text uses forms of speech —symbols, figures, metaphor, simile, comparison, hyperbole, etc. — it is to be read according to the letter, treating such forms in the appropriate manner. The basic idea is that when the biblical texts are read in terms of their literal meaning, they are to be read in accordance with all of the appropriate rules and norms.
For Dispensationalism to begin with a commitment to the ‘literal, plain or normal reading of a text’ entirely begs the question as to what that sense is. To say that the literal meaning of biblical prophecy and promises must always be the most plain, concrete and obvious meaning, is to prejudge the meaning of these texts before actually reading them ‘according to the letter’, that is, according to the rules that obtain for the kind of language being used.
It has been common since the time of the Protestant Reformation to speak of a grammatical-historical reading of the biblical texts. This is one that takes the words, phrases, syntax and context of the biblical texts seriously — hence, grammatical — and also takes the historical setting and timing of the texts into careful consideration — hence, historical.
This approach was set over against the common Medieval approach to the biblical texts that distinguished, in addition to the literal or historical meaning of a text, three further levels of meaning: the tropological (moral), the allegorical, and the anagogical (ultimate or eschatological) sense.8 Against this Medieval fourfold sense of the biblical texts, the Reformers spoke of the sensus literalis, the literal sense of the text. This means that a text is to be read according to the rules of language and grammar, and pertinent historical circumstances, in order to discover its literal (and only) meaning.9
This demonstrates in principle the illegitimacy of Dispensationalism’s understanding of what is involved in a literal hermeneutic. But because this is such an important matter, we will illustrate it more concretely by way of three problem areas: first, the relation between Old Testament prophecy or promise and its New Testament fulfilment; second, the subject of biblical typology; and third, the oft-repeated claim that non-dispensationalists illegitimately spiritualize the biblical promises regarding the new earth. Each of these problem areas shows how unworkable and unhelpful it is to say that a literal reading looks for the plain or normal sense of the biblical texts.
III. PROPHECY AND FULFILMENT
The first problem area is Dispensationalism’s treatment of Old Testament prophecies and their fulfilment. Here the insistence upon a literal reading of the biblical texts, especially the prophecies, actually masks the more basic claim that only earthly or non-spiritual promises can be made to an earthly people. Because the promises to Israel are always and necessarily earthly and literal, they may not be directly applied to the church. Dispensationalism would collapse, as a method of reading biblical prophecies, were it shown that the promises made to Israel in the old covenant find their true and final fulfilment in the new covenant church.
The problem here is that the New Testament repeatedly refers the Old Testament prophecies and promises made to Israel, to the church. Whatever the previous fulfilments of Old Testament prophecy may have been, they reach their ultimate fulfilment in Christ, in whom all the promises of God have their ‘yes’ and their ‘amen’ (2 Cor. 1:20). This can be illustrated with several examples.
Among the most basic promises in all of Scripture is the promise made by the Lord to Abraham, that ‘in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Gen. 12:3). This promise is repeated in Genesis 15, where Abraham is promised descendants as numerous as the stars of the heavens (verse 5), and then in Genesis 17, where Abraham is promised a seed and is said to be the father of a multitude of nations (verse 4). In the New Testament account of the fulfilment of this promise, especially in the Apostle Paul’s treatment of it in Galatians 3 and 4, it is expressly stated that this promise has been fulfilled in Christ. Not only is Christ the seed of promise, the One in whom these earlier promises to Abraham are fulfilled, but all who belong to Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, are also Abraham’s seed. In gathering, through the gospel, believers from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, the Lord’s promise to Abraham is literally fulfilled. However, the dispensationalist’s view is that this can be at best only a secondary application, not the literal fulfilment, of the promise to earthly Israel. This view contradicts the Apostle Paul’s teaching that all Jewish and Gentile believers are the seed of Abraham and co-heirs of the promise.10
Similarly, the promises made during the old covenant to King David find their fulfilment in the coming and kingship of Jesus Christ, David’s Son and his Lord. In the announcement of Jesus’ birth through the angel to the virgin Mary, the angel is recorded to have said to her: ‘And behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end’ (Luke 1:31—33). This passage, when read literally, says that the child to be born is the fulfilment of the Lord’s promise in 2 Samuel 7:13—16 (cf. Psa. 89:26,27), the promise that David’s Son would be seated forever upon the throne of his father David. However, Dispensationalism in its classic form teaches that this Davidic kingdom is an exclusively earthly kingdom, a kingdom reserved to the period of the millennium (a thousand years) and for the earthly people of God, Israel. Not only does this understanding fail the test of being a literal reading of the biblical descriptions of the promise of a Davidic kingdom (a thousand years is not forever), but it also seems far less a plain reading of the text than the one ordinarily adopted by non-dispensational interpreters — that Christ’s coming is the beginning of the fulfilment of the promise made earlier to David.
One other biblical promise that illustrates the problem of Dispensationalism’s treatment of biblical prophecy is the promise of a restored temple. Ezekiel 40—48 extensively describes the future rebuilding of the temple after Israel’s restoration from her captivity. This description speaks in detail of the dimensions of this rebuilt temple, as well as of the variety of sacrifices that will be offered in it, including sin offerings. In the dispensationalist reading of this prophecy, this refers to the literal rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem during the millennial kingdom. However, this creates a problem of how to interpret the language describing the reinstitution of the sacrificial system, at a time after the coming of Christ and the accomplishment of redemption through his once-for-all sacrifice upon the cross. In the New Scofield Reference Bible, it is conceded that this language need not be taken literally: ‘The reference to sacrifices is not to be taken literally, in view of the putting away of such offerings, but is rather to be regarded as a presentation of the worship of redeemed Israel, in her own land and in the millennial temple, using the terms with which the Jews were familiar in Ezekiel’s day.11
The admission that some elements of Ezekiel’s prophecy regarding the rebuilt temple need not be taken literally is fatal, however, to the claims made by Dispensationalism for a literal reading of prophecy. The same reason that leads the dispensationalist to read the language about sacrifices in this passage in a non-literal way — because it would lead to conflict with other portions of Scripture — could equally well apply to other aspects of the prophecy. Indeed, the Word of God does indicate the fulfilment of this prophecy, but not in the literal sense of a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem during the period of the millennium.12
These are only some examples of the way Dispensationalism fails to acknowledge the fulfilment of many of the Old Testament prophecies to Israel in the coming of Christ and the gathering of his church during this present age. Rather than allowing the New Testament’s understanding of the fulfilment of prophecy to determine its viewpoint, Dispensationalism operates from the prejudice that no promise to Israel could, in the strict sense of the term, ever be literally fulfilled in connection with the church. But this is a prejudice based upon an unbiblical dichotomy between Israel and the church.
IV. BIBLICAL TYPOLOGY AN ACHILLES’ HEEL?
A second and related problem area, the interpretation of biblical types and shadows, is in some ways the Achilles’ heel of the dispensationalist’s literal hermeneutic.13 Biblical types may be loosely defined as those events, persons, or institutions in the Old Testament, that prefigure or foreshadow their New Testament realities.14 In the instances of such biblical types, the Old Testament type is fulfilled in its typical and symbolical meaning by the New Testament reality. Thus, if it can be shown that many of the historical events, persons, and institutions which were integral to the Lord’s administration of the covenant of grace in the Old Testament, foreshadowed events, persons, and institutions in their new covenant reality and fulfilment, Dispensationalism, as a method of biblical interpretation, would seem to be seriously imperilled.
Though many examples of biblical types could be cited, three are especially problematic for Dispensationalism: the temple, Jerusalem, and the sacrifices.
We begin with the typology of the temple because it is with this that we concluded the previous section on prophecy. In the teaching of the Scriptures, the temple (earlier, the tabernacle) of the Lord is the place of his peculiar dwelling in the midst of his people. The temple was the focal point for the worship of Israel, the place where the people of the Lord could draw near to God as their sins were atoned for by means of the sacrifices instituted in the law. Speaking of the tabernacle’s significance in the Old Testament, Geerhardus Vos, in his Biblical Theology, remarks:
The tabernacle affords a clear instance of the coexistence of the symbolical and the typical in one of the principal institutions of the Old Testament religion. It embodies the eminently religious idea of the dwelling of God with His people. This it expresses symbolically so far as the Old Testament state of religion is concerned, and typically as regards the final embodiment of salvation in the Christian state. . . That its main purpose is to realize the indwelling of Jehovah is affirmed in so many words [Ex. 25:8; 29:44, 45].15
In its typical significance, the temple was a shadow or type of the reality of the Lord’s dwelling with his people. According to the New Testament, this reality is now found in Christ himself (John 1:14; 2:19—22; Col. 2:9) and in the church as the place of God’s dwelling by the Spirit (Eph. 2:21—22; 1 Tim. 3:15; Heb. 3:6; 10:21; 1 Pet. 2:5). Christ and the church are the fulfilment of the symbolical and typical significance of the temple. Moreover, in the final state of consummation, when the Lord dwells forever in the presence of his people in the new heavens and earth, it is expressly taught that there will no longer be any temple for the Lord will dwell in their midst (Rev. 21:22).
The dispensationalist insistence that the temple is an institution which pertains, in its literal form, peculiarly to Israel, fails to appreciate its typical significance in biblical revelation. The idea that the temple would be literally rebuilt and serve as a focal point for the worship of Israel during the period of the millennium represents, from the point of view of the progress and unfolding of biblical revelation, a reversion to Old Testament types and shadows. From this point of view, Dispensationalism turns back the clock of redemptive history.
A similar misunderstanding of biblical typology also characterizes the dispensationalist’s treatment of ‘Jerusalem’, or ‘Zion’. In the Old Testament, Jerusalem, or Zion, is the city of David, the theocratic king, and symbolises the rule of the Lord in the midst of his people. Jerusalem is the city of the Lord’s anointed, the place of his throne and gracious rule among his people. It is the ‘city of God’ (Psa. 46), the place where children are conceived and born to the Lord (Psa. 87). It is the city to which the nations, whom the Lord has promised to give to David’s Son as his rightful inheritance (Psa. 2), will come.
However, in the New Testament, we are taught that Jerusalem is now the ‘heavenly Jerusalem’. For this reason, the writer to the Hebrews is able to say to new covenant believers: ‘But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven’ (12:22—23). This is also the reason the Apostle John can report the following vision of the heavenly Jerusalem as it will be at the close of the history of redemption: ‘And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them” (Rev. 21:1—3).
These kinds of passages describe for us the fulfilment of all that the Jerusalem of the old covenant typified and foreshadowed. They confirm the pattern of biblical typology: the literal Jerusalem of the old covenant is typical of the new covenant city of God, the church. The dwelling of the Lord in the midst of his people, the presence of the temple sanctuary, the throne of David — all of these find their fulfilment and reality in the new covenant blessing and consummation witnessed by the Apostle John in his vision on the isle of Patmos.
One further and closely linked instance of biblical typology is that of the sacrifices stipulated in the law of Moses, especially in the book of Leviticus. These sacrifices were symbols and types of the person and work of Jesus Christ, the high priest after the order of Melchizedek, who fulfils and perfects all that they foreshadowed. This is the principal argument of the book of Hebrews, which compares and contrasts the old covenant tabernacle, priesthood and sacrifices to their fulfilment and perfection in Christ. The types and shadows of the old covenant have been abolished, or better, find their reality and perfection in the realities of the new covenant:
Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary, and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary that this high priest also have something to offer. Now if He were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things . . . But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. . . When He said, ‘a new covenant’, He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear (Heb. 8:1—6, 13).
The point summarized in this passage and exhibited in the previous examples of biblical types constitutes what is being termed the Achilles’ heel of the dispensationalist claim for a literal hermeneutic. Not only does this claim fail to do justice to the New Testament’s teaching regarding the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, but it also militates against the claim made by the inspired New Testament authors regarding the typological significance of the Old Testament sanctuary, priesthood and sacrifice: the reality of the new covenant renders the shadow obsolete and superfluous. The same principle, moreover, holds for all of the types and shadows of the old covenant administration. Once this principle is conceded, Dispensationalism’s insistence upon a literal reinstitution of the types and shadows of the old covenant seems to be in serious conflict with the teaching of biblical typology.
V. WHAT ABOUT SPIRITUALIZING?
The third problem area that remains to be considered is the dispensationalist claim that a non-literal fulfilment of the biblical prophecies and promises to Israel betrays a spiritualizing that cannot do justice to the biblical texts. According to Dispensationalism, many promises to Israel cannot be accounted for unless they are understood to be fulfilled literally and concretely during the period of the millennium to come.
Among such prophecies, dispensationalists often cite passages like Isaiah 11:6—10 and 65:17—25. Both of these prophecies are treated in the Scofield Reference Bible as predictions of the millennium, the one-thousand-year period of Christ’s literal reign upon the earth from Jerusalem. This millennial reign represents the resumption of God’s peculiar dealings with his earthly people, Israel, after the times of the Gentiles, the parenthesis period of the church, has concluded with the rapture and the following seven-year tribulation. According to Dispensationalism, these prophecies are a compelling proof that the prophecies of the Lord to Israel can have only a literal, concrete fulfilment. The language used in both passages, according to the dispensationalist, can only be understood to refer to a literal millennium or Davidic kingdom on earth.
However, a closer inspection of these two prophecies does not support this claim. In Isaiah 11:6—10, the prophet describes a beautiful picture of the reign of the shoot from Jesse. This reign will be characterized by universal peace and tranquillity. In this kingdom, the Lord declares that ‘the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid . . . They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (verses 6, 9).
It is not evident that this describes the millennium of dispensationalist expectation. No mention is made of this being a period that will be limited in time, perhaps a period of one thousand years’ duration. More importantly, this passage speaks of a reign characterized by a universal peace and knowledge of the Lord. The millennium of dispensationalist expectation, by contrast, includes the presence of some people who do not acknowledge the Lord, and even a substantial rebellion at its close on the part of many against him — Satan’s ‘little season’. The description of Isaiah 11:6—10, accordingly, might better be referred to the final state of the ‘new heavens and earth’ than the millennium. Though this language is legitimately taken to describe the circumstance upon the earth — and not to be spiritualized in a non-earthly sense — it better describes the universal peace and knowledge of the Lord that will characterize the final state in the consummation than the earthly and Davidic kingdom of dispensational expectation.
The second of these prophecies, Isaiah 65:17—25, is somewhat more difficult to interpret. In the New Scofield Reference Bible, the first verse, which speaks of the new heavens and a new earth, is taken as a description of the final state, but the remaining verses (verses 18—25) are taken as a description of the millennium.16 Thus, this passage is taken to be a description of both the final state and the millennium that will precede it. This reading has some plausibility, because verse 20 describes a time when infants will not be cut off after having lived only a few days, and when those who are older will not die prematurely. This verse expressly states that ‘the youth will die at the age of one hundred and the one who does not reach the age of one hundred shall be thought accursed’. Because death is mentioned in these verses, dispensationalists argue that it cannot refer to the final state.
Though this is a difficult passage, it may well be the case that, in this prophetic description of the new heavens and the new earth, this language is being used to describe the final state. If the language is pressed literally, it may seem to conflict with the biblical teaching that death will be no more in the new heavens and earth. But perhaps the language used is simply a way of figuratively or poetically affirming the incalculably long lives that the inhabitants of the new earth will live.17 It should be observed that these verses also speak of the lives of the inhabitants being ‘as the lifetime of the tree’ (v. 22), suggesting an extraordinary longevity of life. Perhaps more significantly, these verses say that ‘the voice of weeping and the sound of crying’ will no longer be heard in Jerusalem, the very language used in Revelation 21:4 to designate the final state. The likeliest reading of these verses, therefore, is that they, from verse 17 through verse 25, describe in the language of present experience, something of the joy, blessedness, and everlasting life that will be the circumstances of God’s people in the new heavens and the new earth.18
In other words, these and similar texts have an appropriate place within a non-dispensationalist reading of the Bible. It is simply not the case that all non-dispensationalists spiritualize these prophecies and fail to take their description of renewed life on the new earth seriously. One does not have to be a dispensationalist to do justice to the concrete, earthy language used in these prophecies of the new heavens and earth. So long as it is understood that the final state requires a new heavens and a new earth, the richness and concreteness of the imagery in these biblical passages can be appreciated. Indeed, from one perspective, it could even be argued that to the extent that the dispensationalist millennium falls short of the blessedness of life in the new earth described in these passages, it becomes the more guilty of spiritualizing their language and meaning. So long as non-dispensationalists properly insist upon the restoration of the earth in the final state, they need not concede in the least the charge that they have illegitimately spiritualized the prophecies of Scripture regarding the final state.
The dispensationalist claim regarding a literal interpretation of the Scriptures is really the product of its insistence upon a radical separation between Israel, God’s earthly people, and the church, God’s spiritual people. Without this undergirding assumption — that God has these two distinct peoples — there is no reason to deny the fulfilment of old covenant promises in the new covenant realities. Nor is there any longer reason to avoid the implications of biblical typology for the dispensationalist system.
Perhaps the most telling evidence against the dispensationalist hermeneutic is to be found in the book of Hebrews. The message of the book of Hebrews is, if I may speak anachronistically, a compelling rebuttal of Dispensationalism. Whereas the book of Hebrews is one sustained argument for the finality, richness and completion of all of the Lord’s covenant words and works in the new covenant that is in Christ, Dispensationalism wants to preserve the old arrangements intact for Israel, arrangements which will be reinstituted in the period of the millennial kingdom. However, this would be tantamount to going back to what has been surpassed in the new covenant in Christ, reverting to arrangements that have been rendered obsolete and superfluous because their reality has been realised in the provisions of the new covenant. The Mediator of this new covenant, Christ, is the fulfilment of all the promises of the Lord to his people. Thus, to the writer to the Hebrews, any reversion to the old covenant types and ceremonies would be an unacceptable departure from the realities of the new covenant in preference for the shadows of the old.
Though it may seem too severe to some, no other judgement is permitted us respecting the system of biblical interpretation known as Dispensationalism: it represents a continued attachment to the shadows and ceremonies of the old covenant dispensation and also a failure to appreciate properly the finality of the new covenant. Its doctrine of a literal hermeneutic proves not to be literal in the proper sense of the term. Rather than reading the New Testament ‘according to the letter’, Dispensationalism reads the New Testament through the lens of its insistence upon a radical separation between Israel and the church.
1. Here and throughout this section I am using the term ‘hermeneutic’ in the basic sense of a method or approach to the reading of the Bible. Dispensationalism is characterized by a particular hermeneutic, or way (following certain rules or principles) of reading the biblical texts, one which especially stresses the principle of a literal reading.
2. See, for example, Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, pp. 86—109, 132—55.
3. Cyrus I. Scofield, The Scofield Bible Correspondence School, Course of Study (7th ed., 3 vols.; no place or publisher given), pp. 45—46 (as cited by Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987], p. 24).
4. Chicago: Moody, 1965.
5. Winona Lake, Indiana: BMH Books, 1974.
6. Dispensationalism Today, p. 86.
7. The Interpretation of Prophecy, p. 29.
8. On the basis of this fourfold sense of the biblical texts, a reference to water could mean literally, a colourless liquid; morally, the need for purity; allegorically, baptism by water; and anagogically, the eternal life in the heavenly Jerusalem. Or, to use another common example, Jerusalem could mean literally, the city in Palestine; morally, the need for heavenly-mindedness; allegorically, citizenship in heaven; and anagogically, the Jerusalem of the new heavens and the new earth.
9. Speaking against this Medieval teaching of a fourfold sense, the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 1.9, states that ‘the true and full sense of any Scripture. . . is not manifold, but one’.
10. In the previous section dealing with the relationship between Israel and the church, the argument offered for rejecting any sharp separation between them is closely related to this biblical understanding of the fulfilment of the promises to Israel in the new covenant.
11. The New Scofield Reference Bible, note on Ezekiel 43:19. This note represents a change from the original Scofield Reference Bible, which says: ‘Doubtless these offerings will be memorial, looking back to the cross, as the offerings under the old covenant were anticipatory, looking forward to the cross. In neither case have animal sacrifices power to put away sin (Heb. 10:4, Rom. 3:25)’ (note on Ezekiel 43:19).
12. The dispensationalist claim that the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem during the millennium presents a number of problems: first, even were there no sacrifices reinstituted or perhaps only memorial sacrifices offered, as some dispensationalists have suggested, Christ could not minister in this temple because he is not a priest ‘according to the order of Levi’ (cf. Heb. 7:14); second, Ezekiel says nothing about the rebuilding of the temple during the period known as the millennium; and third, the prophecy of the temple’s rebuilding is a prophecy of the dwelling of the Lord in the midst of his people that is described in Revelation 22. Dispensationalism misinterprets this prophecy because it has an improper view of biblical types and shadows in relation to their fulfilment, a subject to which I will turn below.
13. For a critical evaluation of Dispensationalism’s handling of biblical typology, see Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, p. 111—17.
14. T. Norton Street, How to Understand Your Bible, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1974), p. 107, gives the following useful definition of a biblical type: ‘A type can be defined as a divinely purposed, Old Testament foreshadowing of a New Testament spiritual reality.’
18. Some postmillennialists would regard the description of these verses as referring to the millennium, the golden age that will precede the return of Christ and the final state. See, e.g., Davis, Christ’s Victorious Kingdom, pp. 37—8. Though this view does not include the dispensationalist understanding of a kingdom reserved to God’s earthly people, Israel, it does regard this passage as describing a period whose blessings fall short of the perfection of the final state.