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

Dispensationalists Are Wrong – Things Aren’t Getting Worse [Questions That Haunt] September 30, 2013

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.

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