Dispensationalists Are Wrong – Things Aren’t Getting Worse [Questions That Haunt]

Questions That Haunt Christianity

Last Tuesday’s Question That Haunts Christianity came from Jesse:

I’m a regular blog reader though I’ve never commented. Here is my ‘question that haunts’ which may belie my fundamentalist background: Is the trajectory of our human culture/world/society positive or negative? In other words, are we fighting the long defeat until Christ returns to set things right or are we participating in an ever-advancing Kingdom of The Heavens (Willard) which will someday culminate with Christ’s return?

A plethora of comments were posted. This interchange between two readers is indicative of what some thought:

The thread goes on from there — I suggest you click on the graphic and read it yourself. Lots of argument ensued on how we can empirically measure whether things in this world are getting better or getting worse.

I remember a similar debate in college. Many late nights were spent, sitting in my dorm room, as a half-dozen of us debated whether human beings are intrinsically good or intrinsically bad. And we got caught in the same conundrum: the empirical evidence is virtually meaningless, because for every one good and virtuous act cited, a parallel evil act could be cited in retort.

That’s how it is using empirical data and anecdotal evidence to prove the trajectory of the world, the human race, etc.

Good: Blacks and Whites now sit together at lunch counters.

Bad: Chemical weapons in Syria.

Good: Longer life span and lower infant mortality.

Bad: Overcrowding, overpopulation, and massive carbon emission leading to irreversible climate change.

Good: Less execution, less warfare.

Bad: Nuclear weapons.

Good: Democracy.

Bad: Government corruption.

Obviously, this list could go on ad infinitum. So thanks to Jesse for chiming back in and putting a finer point on his question:

I’m thinking more about the underlying theory or theology – what do you believe is happening, regardless of how well we can measure it, and why? I think this questions lies behind many of our political debates because you approach the world very differently if you perceive yourself as part of God’s Kingdom which is gradually overcoming evil or as a part of a ‘remnant’ which is just hanging in there until reinforcements arrive.

The conversation following Jesse’s follow-up dealt primarily with Dispensationalism, the End Times perspective that Jesse seems to be referring to. Again, lots of great comments, including readers who grew up Dispensationalist, and some who have studied that perspective.

Dispensationalism is a recent and minority opinion. Invented in the 19th century, it is premised on a particularly literalistic reading of particular Bible passages in Revelation, Daniel, and certain sayings of Jesus. In order to be a Dispensationalist, for example, one must completely ignore the realities surrounding the apocalyptic genre of literature in the Ancient Near East — realities that make sense of the “revelations” in Daniel, Revelation, and even in Jesus’ more apocalyptic sayings.

I was first exposed to Dispensationalism in high school, when we watched A Thief in the Night on a youth retreat. We watched it as a comedy — it turns out that others took it seriously. (I also went through a Larry Norman phase, but I never really considered him much of a theologian.) Those movies, and the Dispensationalism that grew in the Calvary Chapel movement — growing out of the Jesus Freak movement — really had a huge impact on American Evangelicalism, and it’s now being kept alive by the similar Left Behind books, movies, and websites. It really can’t be overestimated how much this perspective captured the imagination of American Christians. And, based on the number of I-used-to-be-a-dispensationalist memoirs I get ever year, there are lots of GenXers and Millennials who are trying to disabuse themselves of this theology.

Contrary to the tortured interpretation of the Olivet Discourse that Dispensationalists purport, the overall message of the Bible is not that things will get worse and worse until Jesus comes back. In fact, it’s just the contrary: the Bible narrates an epic romance between God and creation, and uniquely between God and humanity.

There are crummy moments in that story, to be sure. The relationship between God and humanity is, at times, on the rocks from the initial sin, the Tower of Babel, and the Flood through the curses of the prophets. But the plumb-line of the narrative is clearly God’s mercy. Look at Psalm 136, where it’s repeated 26 times: God’s steadfast love (chesed) endures forever. From the promise to Abram and Sarai to the laws given to Moses to the redemption of Job to, ultimately, the life of Jesus, the message is that in spite of the difficulties in our relationship, God’s love conquers all.

Since the close of the biblical canon, theologians have been in consensus that this narrative arc is continuing in the same trajectory of love. Of course, the church has often struggled to understand Jesus’ words in the Olivet Discourse and to comprehend the vivid, apocalyptic imagery in Daniel and Revelation, but never until Dispensationalism had faithful Christians posited a view that God is allowing things to get really, really bad until some unseen threshold is passed, which then triggers a violent Second Coming of Jesus. And this isn’t even touching on the unbiblical doctrine of the Rapture.

So, Jesse, I think that a faithful and generous reading of the Bible will reward you with a very different perspective than what Dispensationalists teach. As opposed to things getting worse, God has in fact not abandoned the world. To the contrary, God is as involved as ever — and, I would add, God has a newfound understanding of what it means to be human as a result of being incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth. This solidarity with humanity on the Cross can only mean good things for the future of the God-human relationship.

  • Craig

    Tony, do you think that the Bible provides a non-conflicting message on this topic? Are the Dispensationalists total nut jobs when it comes to Bible interpretation, or does the Bible itself deserve some of the blame for their conclusions?

    • CurtisMSP

      Turning the Bible into God deserves the blame for their conclusions.

    • KentonS

      Craig-

      While we wait for Tony to chime in, let me offer a third option. While I think where dispensationlists land is way out there, that does not mean they are “total nut jobs” at interpretation. In the interest of full disclosure, I was raised in a dispensationalist home and have disabused myself of that theology. But just yesterday, my wife’s 95-year old grandmother lamented that she might not live to see the rapture as her health has been rapidly declining. I love the woman, her theology is wrongheaded, and yes, I will even say it is (unintentionally) abusive. But I would tap the breaks on calling her a “total nut job” in her Bible interpretation. In talks with her over the years, I’ve found lots of her insight (on other subjects) valuable. She reads the last half of I Thes 4 and the passages Tony cites completely devoid of context. It’s tragically wrong, but they are our brothers and sisters. Let’s not get mean.

      • Craig

        Hi Kenton,

        First, I agree with others that you make a good point. Generally speaking, believing something that is false, ridiculous, and even dangerous doesn’t of itself make a person a nut job, much less a total one. You’ve shown me why my question was poorly stated. Let me try again.

        We’ll all agree that, among Christian scholars, there is ample room for reasonable disagreement when it comes to Bible interpretation. I’m wondering whether, for a given Bible passage, there is room for reasonable disagreement among Christian scholars about whether the Dispensationalists have the best interpretation. Another way to put this sort of question: Does the Bible itself permit the Dispensationalist reading or not?

        I wish I could formulate a more precise question, but I’m asking about qualities that come in degrees. So maybe, on the spectrum of reasonableness (Charles Manson’s interpretations on the left end; Tony Jones’ on the right end), where should we put Dispensationalist interpretations of the Bible? What are their near neighbors?

        • KentonS

          Yeah, that’s better. How about going in this direction: Dispensationalism made more sense when the Bible was read literally (what Brian McLaren calls a “constitutional reading”) than it does today. So not only is the reasonableness of dispensationalism a function of shear sanity, it’s also a function of time. The ones espousing it are “relics” of the days when young earth creationism made sense when reading the bible. And like YEC, it makes sense that what the bible is espousing is a future of rapture/tribulation/millenium/second-second coming/final judgment if you take the bible away from its context, read it literally, and try to put the (puzzle) pieces together. It was a “sane” method 50 years ago. Today? Um, not so much.

          • Craig

            That’s helpful, but it allows Dispensationalism to look a lot better than Tony’s dismissive characterization of it as a “recent and minority view.” If the main fault of Dispensationalism is that it takes the Bible “literally,” then plausibly the errors of Dispensationalism are more the fault of the Bible, the Bible’s authors, and the religion that regards this text as a more-or-less unique and authoritative written source of divine revelation.

            • KentonS

              But right after Tony said it was a “recent and minority view”, he said “in order to be a Dispensationalist… one must completely ignore the realities surrounding the apocalyptic genre of literature in the Ancient Near East.” That mistake is neither the fault of the tome, nor the authors, nor of the religion that reveres the text.* That’s the fault of interpreter applying a misguided approach (“hermeneutic”) to the text. Fix the interpretation and the rest can fall into place.

              *”Revering the text” is a conscious shift from characterizing the bible as “authoritative written source of divine revelation”. That shift in approach has a lot to do with what’s at play here.

    • Ric Shewell

      My favorite part of “Left Behind,” (first book in the series) was when the lead character, Rayford, finds his wife’s Bible. It’s margins are filled in with “secret truth” or interpretation of all these parts of the Bible. With her Bible he finds a video tape her pastor left behind for those… left behind. On the video he begins to detail how current events and prophecy work and how to actually read the Bible.

      The crazy thing is, dispensationalists admit that you won’t get to their conclusions if you just read the Bible as it is. They depend on this “secret knowledge” or interpretation that is handed down along with Scripture. Crazy.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/ Tony Jones

        Yep, and that’s called Gnosticism. It’s vexed the church since Day One.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/ Tony Jones

      Craig, I can’t say it any better than Kenton does in this thread. :-)

  • Buck_Eschaton

    I think the trajectory is really up to us. The gospel is continuing to unfold, idols and scapegoats will be increasingly difficult to maintain. It’ll be increasingly hard to agree on scapegoats and idols, because we will speak up for them, and because of this violence can increase, there is no scapegoat brake for our madness and our violence it will continue to grow until we love each other or kill ourselves. In our era of course it’s love one another or we all die.
    I think the progress is the progress of tearing down our idols, and this can appear to be really bad to those who are caught up in the idols that are being destroyed. The destruction of the unjust structures and orders of society may appear to those who have been benefitting from them to be horrible, but to those victims who are being saved and freed it is glorious progress.

  • http://cantleaveunsaid.wordpress.com/ Dave Buerstetta

    Tony, this is a terrific response. I definitely see the same plumb-line as you.

    But, um, “God is as involved as ever”?? I thought we were pretty convinced that God is (or at least had become) a non-interventionist. Has that changed? Are you feeling more hopeful about that? Or am I reading too much into your statement/being too literal about what “involved” means? (Or, you know, something else entirely?)

    • NateW

      I wouldn’t say at all that God is a non-interventionist, except insofar as we limit our understanding of “intervention” to mean “stepping in from outside the world periodically in order to alter the world by use of divine super-powers”. (Please know that I’m not trying to be flippant, “super-powers” is really the best word I can come up with to sum up how we sometimes think of God).

      I believe that God’s intervention is profoundly rooted in the fabric of the universe within the concept/person/action of Love itself. Wherever there is Love, there God is actively intervening by his incarnation, wherever there is no love, there God is intervening by his own crucifixion (god is love, so death/absence of love = death/absence of God). The beauty and power of Christ is that this crucifixion, this absence of God where love is absent, is the very place where resurrection and new life miraculously spring up, so even God’s death becomes an intervention, one in which we are called to participate daily.

      • http://cantleaveunsaid.wordpress.com/ Dave Buerstetta

        Nate, this is very well said and I think I agree with you. It seems to me that what you describe here is about the only way for a contemporary person to mesh the reality of our lived experience with God’s intervention in the world. And I would say that understanding jives with the biblical witness.

        However, the biblical witness also seems to recount not a small number of “super powers” moments. (I too find it an apt phrase.) I’ve never experienced God in that way. Further, I’m distrustful of those who say they have (very possibly unfairly so).

        So I guess I was hoping to hear more from Tony about what “involved” means to him. That line that popped out at me as different from what I’ve heard from him before. (Of course it’s always possible I misheard/misunderstood him previously.) If it is a new understanding or new articulation by Tony, that seems significant and worth hearing more about.

        • NateW

          Yeah, I agree that the biblical witness does contain witness to “powerful” (as men conceive of power) intervention of God. Rather than getting twisted up in knots trying to determine whether or not these “interventions” are historical or are imaginative/poetic/mythical I prefer to take the biblical witness at face value as a people’s (or person’s) story and look for the truth born from within belief in the story rather than belief in factual events. For me, they could be factual or not and it wouldn’t change the deeper truth that that they communicate, born witness to by the fact that they have been told and resonate deeply as being still worth telling. What do the stories say about the way these people/persons think about God, what truths about God’s eternal character are born within? Truth and Fact often do not go hand in hand!

          So, I would say, even if I doubt the veracity of someone’s report of this kind of experience, I want to try to look at the story within the story that they are telling–that of pain, hope, deliverance, and joy, and perhaps try to “condescend” (from my high and lofty intelligence) to their level of understanding, to see what they are seeing with them from where they stand, and to see God working within even that which I doubt intellectually. I think that we can be wrong intellectually about a good many things and still be speaking truthfully about God.

          I don’t know, CAN’T know what has or has not really happened, but if I am open and humble I can see what God is doing within the present moment by all sorts of means that are FAR below his divine glory, at least they appear to be from where I stand on my mountain of pride. : )

  • Andrea Winter

    As one who holds to the historicist method of interpreting apocalyptic
    texts like Daniel and Revelation, I think it’s reasonable to assume the
    trajectory of the human race is upward as the Kingdom is further
    manifest here on Earth. While, at the same time, we could see major
    upheaval and chaos in the world before the Kingdom is fully realized.
    Perhaps some of the chaos and the appearance of heightened wickedness in
    the ‘last days’ is an adverse response to this spiritual ascension of
    mankind – something like a chemical reaction. Either way we look at it,
    whether it be that Jesus is solely the rock which smashes the foot of
    Nebuchadnezzar’s statue, or if this rock is comprised of both Jesus and
    all the citizens of the Kingdom, the breaking down of the old paradigm
    is not likely going to be a walk in the park. My 2 cents, anyway. :)

  • NateW

    I think that the key to this question is partly to give up this abstract notion of “the world” at large and to focus instead on the world that surrounds me in this very present moment. Instead of asking, “is the world getting better?” ask, “is love ruling my thoughts and actions right now?” that is, “is MY NEIGHBORS” world being filled up with love, or emptied of it?”

  • http://theghettomonk.blogspot.com/ Ryan Herring

    I appreciate this response. I am reminded of Dr. King writing about the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice in the last paragraph where you write, “…narrative arc is continuing in the same trajectory of love.” Do Christians play a role in this at all?


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