Regarding Israel and the End Times, what is Dispensationalism? What is the rapture?

Regarding Israel and the End Times, what is Dispensationalism? What is the rapture? April 5, 2019


Regarding Israel and Bible prophecies about the End Times, what are the meanings of such terms as Dispensationalism, the rapture, premillennialism, the great tribulation,  pre-tribulationism, and Armageddon?


A March 31 New York Times article on how religion may influence U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s approach toward Israel had this headline: “The Rapture and the Real World: Pompeo Mixes Beliefs and Policy.” One key point was that the then-Congressman told a religious audience in 2015 that humanity faces “a never-ending struggle” until “the rapture.”

The move of the United States embassy to Jerusalem, and U.S. recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over Syria’s Golan Heights, were thought to boost both President Trump’s evangelical support and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s April 9 election prospects. Analyzing those decisions, the Times explained that “white evangelicals,” Pompeo included, believe “God promised the land to the Jews, and that the gathering of Jews in Israel is foretold in the prophecy of the rapture – the ascent of Christians into the kingdom of God.”

The Times wording was truthy but confusing, and the standard rapture belief is not taught by evangelicalism as a whole but only one segment. So let’s unpack some elements of these complex matters.

Secretary Pompeo is a member of the Michigan-based Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a small body (89,190 members, 207 congregations) that forsook the more liberal  Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1981. It upholds the Westminster Confession and catechisms proclaimed by British clergy and politicians assembled by Parliament in the mid-17th Century. Churches that follow such Reformation-era credos affirm Jesus’s Second Coming and the Last Judgment, but not the modern rapture belief formulated two centuries later.

Pompeo obviously shares the widespread Christian affinity with Jews and the conviction that they have a right to gather in safety in the Holy Land (whatever the pros and cons of Israeli policy at the moment). He recently told the Christian Broadcasting Network that “I am confident that the Lord is at work” in Israel. But it’s unclear how much Pompeo strays from traditional Presbyterianism in favor of “Dispensationalism,” with its detailed and highly literal teaching about Bible prophecies and the End Times, including the rapture.

Summarizing the common version of this, Jesus Christ’s return will be preceded by the rapture, in which all believing Christians, both dead and still living, are removed to heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Then begin the “70 weeks of years”  (Daniel 9:24-27 and Revelation chapters 6-19). The conclusion of this period (the 1,290 days of Daniel 12:11) brings “Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7) and what Jesus called the “great  tribulation” (Matthew 24:15-21). After the battle of Armageddon (Revelation 16:16),  Jesus will return to rule the earth for 1,000 years (Revelation 20:2-3), bind Satan and restore the creation while Israel and the whole world embrace true faith.

Dispensationalism also believes the rapture will occur “pre-tribulation” and at “any moment,” combined with “premillennialism” (Jesus will return before a literal 1,000-year reign). The scenario was formulated largely by John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), a Church of England pastor in Ireland who left to join what became the “Plymouth Brethren.” Notably, Darby emphasized that the Bible predicted the restoration of Jews to their homeland long before Jewish Zionism arose.

This system was promoted by Darby’s seven U.S. tours; Bible conferences; Bible colleges; C. I. Scofield’s “Reference Bible” (Oxford University Press, 1909); Dallas Theological Seminary (founded 1924), the influential training ground for Dispensationalist pastors; and eventually by numerous radio and TV preachers.

It’s not surprising that the establishment of modern-day Israel in 1948 and its capture of Jerusalem in 1967 energized this movement. The theology was popularized in the huge-selling Dispensationalist book “The Late Great Planet Earth” (1970) and “Left Behind” novels (1995-2007), with related movies. Important pro-Israel preachers include San Antonio’s John Hagee, whose Christians United for Israel reports a membership of 5 million. Numerous books have used the Dispensationalist scenario to falsely link current world events with the End Times.

The term Dispensationalism refers to the concept that God works with his people through different means in different eras or “dispensations.” Few Christians would dispute that general idea, which is reflected in the very terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament.” But Dispensationalist doctrine  proposes sharp divisions of human history into three, four, seven, or eight dispensations. One prevalent scenario depicts seven phases: Innocence (Adam and Eve before the Fall into sin), Conscience (after Eden through Noah’s Flood), Civil (government after the Flood), Promise (the patriarch Abraham till Moses), Law (Moses the law-giver through Jesus’ crucifixion), Grace (the present era after the crucifixion), and Kingdom (the End Times and Christ’s 1,000-year reign). Dallas seminary says the Bible focuses especially on those final three.

Such schemes could lead to the heterodox conclusion that Old Testament moral tenets and Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels are no longer binding in our Grace era, but few if any Dispensationalists would say that today. Like other premillennialists, Dispensationalists are typically pessimistic about society’s future and anticipate widespread apostasy within Christianity.

Dispensationalism makes a sharp distinction between two peoples of God, Israel and the Christian Church, sees the Church period as something of a parenthesis between God’s dealings with Israel, and says some biblical promises to Israel are yet to be fulfilled. Some Christian literalists  join Orthodox Jewish factions that cite the Bible to say God granted Israel perpetual rights to the lands from the Euphrates River to the Mediterranean Sea (see Genesis 15:18-21), which inspires Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank.

Despite Dispensationalism’s popularity, it is the minority view among biblically conservative Protestants. It is a pre-tribulationist movement, within the wider premillennial movement, within the wider evangelical movement that includes amillennial and postmillennial viewpoints, and is “futurist” in Bible interpretation while many are idealist, historicist, or preterist. (This article will bypass those definitions.) Notably, Dispensationalists typically dispute the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, a vibrant and growing segment of evangelicalism.

Meanwhile, multitudes are none of the above and simply believe in Jesus’ future Second Coming as taught in the ancient creeds of Catholicism and Orthodoxy and the confessions of the Protestant Reformation.

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