The End Times Part III: Dispensationalism

I often wondered as a child how Abraham or Moses could go to heaven if they hadn’t heard about Jesus. It is this question that Dispensationalism seeks to answer.

Dispensationalism divides the history of humankind into seven “dispensations.” During each dispensation God dealt with humans differently, requiring different things of them. In each dispensation, humans failed to live up to the requirements, and in each dispensation the result was judgement.

Now there are actually several different variants of dispensationalism. In other words, not all dispensationalists believe the identical same thing. They do, however, all believe that there are seven dispensations, and that God has dealt differently with humans in each. The schema I am about to lay out is the most common form of dispensationalism, which was popularized by C. I. Scofield (1843-1921) in his Scofield Reference Bible.

What follows is an outline of the seven dispensations. Each dispensation contains the period during which it was in effect, the responsibility God gave humans to live up to, the way humans failed this responsibility, and God’s judgement upon them for their failure.

A Sketch of Biblical History

Because you need at least some understanding of Biblical history in order to understand when each dispensation begins and ends, I’m going to give a brief sketch here. For those of you who already have a basic understanding, feel free to skip to the outline of dispensations below and only come back to this section if you get confused.

According to Scofield’s schema, God created Adam and Eve in 4004 B.C. They lived in the Garden of Eden until they sinned, which is called “the fall.” After the fall, Adam and Eve and their descendants built a human civilization, but it increased in wickedness until God wiped out all of mankind except for Noah and his family in a great flood.

After the flood, humans gathered into a centralized civilization and began to build the Tower of Babel, which illustrated their arrogance. God responded by making the humans speak different languages, so that they could no longer communicate. Humans then left their centralized civilization and set off across the world. God chose one man, Abraham, and promised that his descendants would be a great civilization ruling all of Canaan. Famine drove Abraham’s descendants to Egypt, where they became enslaved.

Eventually, God chose Moses to lead them Abraham’s numerous descendants of Egypt and back to the land of Canaan, and God gave them the Law, which they were to follow. Of course, this new nation of Israel never properly followed the law, which led to them being conquered by other nations. Eventually, Jesus was born and died a sacrificial death, which negated any need for the law. The formation of the church followed.

Next, the future. Someday Jesus will return (it’s right about here that the tribulation will occur) and then he will establish his millennial kingdom on earth. At the end of his 1000 year reign, there will be a final rebellion led by Satan, which Jesus will of course crush, and at that point Satan will be bound in hell, and heaven and earth will be destroyed, replaced with a new heaven and a new earth.

The Seven Dispensations

1. Innocence

Period: Creation to the Fall

Responsibility: Do not eat

Failure: They ate

Judgement: Curse and death

2. Conscience

Period: The Fall to the Flood

Responsibility: Do good, blood sacrifice

Failure: Wickedness

Judgement: Universal flood

3. Human Government

Period: The Flood to the Tower of Babel

Responsibility: Scatter and multiply

Failure: They did not scatter

Judgement: Dispersion and confusion of the languages.

4. Promise

Period: Abraham to Moses

Responsibility: Dwell in Canaan

Failure: Dwelt in Egypt

Judgement: Egyptian bondage

5. Law

Period: Moses to Jesus

Responsibility: Obey the law

Failure: Broken law

Judgement: World wide dispersion

6. Church

Period: Jesus to the Second Coming

Responsibility: By faith trust Christ.

Failure: Rejecting Christ

Judgement: The great tribulation

7. Millennial Kingdom

Period: Second Coming to Final Judgement

Responsibility: Obey and worship God

Failure: Final Rebellion

Judgement: Eternal hell

If you want to read this basic schema in more detail, click here or here. For those of you who are more visually oriented, click on this link. I’m not going to copy it here because I’m not sure how the permissions for that sort of thing work, and it’s not on wikipedia like the graphs in my first installment were.

Thus, Abraham did not need to “believe in Jesus” to be saved. Similarly, a Jew living in Israel in 900 B.C.E. didn’t have to “believe in Jesus.” They had different requirements because they belonged to different dispensations.

“Dispensationalist Premillenialism,” then, is simply a combination of Premillenilialism with a Dispensationalist view of history. Under this understanding, we are living in the dispensation of the church, also called the dispensation of grace, and are awaiting the Tribulation and Christ’s second coming, which will usher in the final dispensation, the millennial kingdom.

The interesting thing about Dispensationalism is the view of history it provides. In effect, it allows its followers to see history through a comprehensive Biblical lens, and to easily place themselves in that history. It turns all of human history into the story of God’s interaction with humans in a way fairly easily understandable to laypeople.

One last thing. You might be wondering, what about all the people who weren’t Abraham’s descendents, weren’t  part of the nation of Israel? What did God require of them during the dispensation of the promise, or of the law? I used to wonder this myself, but I don’t ever recall getting a satisfactory answer. So . . . for the moment I’m going to have to say I am not entirely sure. I might have to figure this out and then write a post.

Also in this series: 

Part I – The Millennium, Tribulation, and Rapture

Part II – Social Justice, Dominionism, and the Culture Wars

Part III – Dispensationalism

Part IV – The Tribulation in Detail

Part V – Signs, Prophesies, and Current Events

Part VI: Rapture Anxiety

Part VII: Dispensational Premillennialism’s Recent Origins

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • LoreleiHI

    We must be on the same computer schedule. >.>

    Ah yes, Scofield. BTW, folks, this is where most evangelicals get their timelines and references for the End Times. Strong’s Concordance is right up there, as well.

    Libby, the answer I got about those born before Christ was that they had their chance to believe and repent during the Razing of Hell (the ‘three’ days Christ was supposedly dead).

    Those who were born after Christ, but who did not hear about him, were bang out of luck. Hence, missionary work and why we all should do it! If they don’t hear, it’s ALL YOUR FAULT they go to hell!

    NVM that this makes little sense for a ‘loving’ god.

    • Libby Anne

      Oh, yes, I do remember hearing something about those “three” days Jesus spent in hell! I think the justification comes from this verse:

      I Peter 3:18-20 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.

      As for those since Jesus’ death, there are several passages that do back up that they all go to hell if they don’t hear:

      Romans 10:13-15 “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

      This always bothered me. However, I heard a story of a guy who had a dream in which he heard the gospel, and then he led his village in building a church, and when a missionary arrived they were already worshiping. So I concluded that if someone was “open” to the gospel, God could tell them even without missionaries.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    You might be wondering, what about all the people who weren’t Abraham’s descendents, weren’t part of the nation of Israel?

    In Catholic theology, there are virtuous pagans. These are people who lived good lives but never had the opportunity to learn of Christ. The Catechism issued by the Council of Trent (which met intermittently between 1545 and 1563), based on the opinion of Thomas Aquinas, asserted that these souls were waiting in a limbo between Heaven and Hell, and will be freed at the final judgement.

    Dante’s Inferno placed a number of virtuous pagans to the first circle of Hell, including Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and the Muslim Saladin. These souls weren’t punished but were not in the presence of God.

    • Rachel

      In Judaism, all non-Jews are asked to do is to follow the Noahide laws: if they do that, they have a portion in the World to Come. The laws are:

      Prohibition of Idolatry
      Prohibition of Murder
      Prohibition of Theft
      Prohibition of Sexual immorality
      Prohibition of Blasphemy
      Prohibition of eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive
      Establishment of courts of law

      which means y’all have it pretty easy, comparatively. ;)

  • Rosa

    So, is this doctrine completely deterministic? Since the punishment for failing at the current dispensation, and the start of the next one, is already set?

    • John Morales

      At least it’s consistent with omniscience, unlike other doctrines.

    • Libby Anne

      That’s a good question, I’m not entirely sure. I think that might be where different kinds of dispensationalists come in. “Progressive dispensationalists” for example believe that each new dispensation is better than the previous, as opposed to being more arbitrary. I don’t know that much about the differences, though.

  • Ace of Sevens

    Of course, this makes the standard teachings about hell make no sense. God clearly can save people in other ways, so this makes it look like he’s just an asshole.

    • Anders

      Very consistent with his actions in the Bible, actually…

    • Libby Anne

      And . . . somehow I never thought about that. Huh. You’re right! Maybe it’s that within each dispensation he is limited to one way of saving people? Even then, presumably he makes the rules of each dispensation! :-/

      • Anders

        You can always fall back on “God Works in Mysterious Ways.”

      • sailor1031

        If this deity is limited then how can he be a deity? This wasn’t a problem for Glooskap who could do magic any old time. But then, he wasn’t all about people obeying impossible demands.

        Isn’t it obvious, since the human race has failed miserably in each of these dispensations, that this deity can never be pleased and it is pointless continuing to try?

  • Rabidtreeweasel

    I asked my dad and a few church leaders about the pr-grace gentile population. I don’t remember the exact wording but it was something to the effect of, “Jesus took care of that when he visited Hell during the 3 days he was dead.” I don’t remember how he knew who to save, though. Maybe he was proselytizing.
    Great. Now I’m picturing Buddy Jesus riding a bicycle and wearing a neck tie.

  • jemand

    We never talked about dispensations at all… for us it was a similar concept which was varyingly described but basically had as core “living up to the light one has.” For those before Jesus, they had the promise of a coming messiah, and as long as they lived up to that promise, they were judged the same as people after who lived up to the promise that the messiah had already come. This also helped the whole separatist/remnant type theology of our particular denomination– other Christians could be saved, yes, but they had “less light” and “more light” was better. Even if, once you knew it, you were then obligated to do more things/follow more rules/have more elaborate whatevers.

    So, why do you send the missionaries out knowing the natives could be saved by basically doing almost nothing because they had almost no “light”? But once you tell them about Jesus they’ll be damned if they don’t follow? Dunno, that was a hard argument. Also applied in a smaller extent to telling people in other Christian denominations the details of “remnant theology.” Because now that they heard, they’re required to follow, or they’re failing.

  • Liriel

    This may be an odd question, but have you changed anything with the latest post? I had not problem with earlier posts or comments, but for this post and it’s comments, I’m getting squares for close-quote, “W” for open quote, and miniature capital K’s for apostrophes. I’m using Chrome – do I need to install a font or something like that?

    • Libby Anne

      No, I didn’t change anything, and I personally use Chrome and it shows up fine. I have no idea. I’m asking the tech people about it. Sorry!

    • Libby Anne

      It’s working fine for other people, including in Chrome. Maybe try using another browser, or checking your language settings? Sorry I can’t suggest anything else.

  • Liriel

    Cleared it up – thanks for checking into it.

  • ScottInOH

    Seems like people who believe in this interpretation of history would be particularly tied to the Young Earth argument, as well. It’s more than just the Genesis creation story; it’s a whole history textbook.

    • Besomyka

      And I still wonder how they explain Australia and the Americas post-babble. I know Ken Hamm argues that non-human animals got there via volcanic transport, but I don’t think he says anything about Humans. I guess he couldn’t, since they were all at babble. I wonder if he thinks post-babble people rode new volcanic explosions as well?

      I swear, isn’t this sort of strained rationalization the watermark of a fundamentally flawed assumption somewhere?

      • Libby Anne

        Ken Ham et al simply explain that people walked there after Babel. Basically, people walked through Asia, across a peninsula into North America, and from thence to South America. People got to Australia by walking that way and ultimately taking boats. And actually, Ham claims that Neanderthals were among the humans at Babel, and the hobbit people too (something florienses?), but that as people spread out afterwards they warred with each other and these other groups went extinct.

        And as to your second paragraph: Bingo.

  • Benjamin Allen

    Why yes. Yes they are indeed tied to the young earth, in fact, an earth so young that it really messes with written human history. For instance, the Egyptian civilization was fully up and running by 3000 BCE, the Indus Valley Civilization by 3500 BCE. The biblical flood supposedly happened at ~2300 BCE. I am sure you can see the problem. I am curious, why exactly do we not see evidence of a catastrophic flood of egypt? We do we see different cuneiform scripts and heiroglyphics that pre-date the diversification of language? How did the (really really inbred) survivors of the flood re-found these civilizations and learn their languages?

    The Bible as History Text makes absolutely no sense. Neither do these dispensations. It looks to me like someone tried to partially solve the problem of Theodicy, and did not think everything through.

  • Godlesspanther

    One thing that we ought to keep in mind is the first publication of the Scofield Reference Bible was in 1909 and revised in 1917 (wiki) which makes this a post-industrial revolution, post-age of invention publication. This is a very modern interpretation. After Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Emile Berliner, the Wright Bothers, etc. had produced tremendous advancements in science and technology which were proven to work and stood up to every test that any skeptic could produce — Scofield tried to create answers to skeptical investigation toward Christianity. I would speculate that his attempt was to create a rock-solid foundation for religion on par with the scientific advances that were happening before his eyes at an incredibly rapid rate. We can only imagine what it would have been like to see firsthand the level of technology of the mid-19th century to that of the early 20th century.
    Could someone who was deeply religious compete with the advancement of motor vehicles, electrical devices, sound recording, etc.? Obviously not. Can we blame them for giving it their best shot? Again — no.
    The way that I see this is that Scofield was attempting to compete with science in a period of history where science, indubitably, left religion smothered in dust. Dispensationalism looks like a big fat lame excuse to me here and now — perhapse to those who felt a need to cling to their religion years ago — it may have appeared to be as enlightening as an electric light bulb.