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
Period: Creation to the Fall
Responsibility: Do not eat
Failure: They ate
Judgement: Curse and death
Period: The Fall to the Flood
Responsibility: Do good, blood sacrifice
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.
Period: Abraham to Moses
Responsibility: Dwell in Canaan
Failure: Dwelt in Egypt
Judgement: Egyptian bondage5. Law
Period: Moses to Jesus
Responsibility: Obey the law
Failure: Broken law
Judgement: World wide dispersion
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: