What if it were Today? An Examination of Dispensational Premillennialism

Jennifer Snow


Students of American premillennialism have been prone to making two mistakes about dispensationalism: that it can safely be conflated with premillennialism per se, and that it is a reactionary and dangerous force to the secular, pluralistic modern society. The thesis shows that dispensationalism is in fact a unique form of premillennialism, depending on a carefully systematised theology which is not tied to any particular denomination. Even at the popular levels, this theology is comprehended and used in argument with other, competing forms of premillennialism and postmillennialism. The current involvement of some dispensationalists with right-wing politics is, in the opinion of this writer, the result of this theological competition, particularly with the Christian Reconstructionist form of postmillennialism. The thesis is meant to be an introduction to dispensationalism for students of apocalyptic and premillennial movements, assuming no previous knowledge. It deals briefly with the history of the movement from John Nelson Darby forward, but the bulk of the paper is devoted to a careful examination of the theological system. The central chapter examines the Israel/Church distinction, which is the basis for the Rapture, the most well-known aspect of dispensationalist thought. Also described are the dispensationalist end-time chronology, the literal millennium and what it involves, the distinct biblical hermeneutic, typical behavior patterns, and relations with eschatological competitors.

Introduction: Jesus is coming to Earth again

Most of us don't believe in biblical prophecy. We are a nation of secular humanists in public, religious in private if at all. Biblical apocalypticism, to those of us in the mainstream--most academics in particular--is a notion of the lunatic fringe of religion. People who have made the impending end of the world a part of their daily lives are perceived as dangerous to the modern order.

Dispensationalists are not mad. They are quite sane, and while they may perceive the modern world as a universe gone mad, who is to say that this is not the sane response?

Dispensationalism, in brief, is a system of eschatology marked by a distinction between Israel and the Church, belief in the imminent coming of Christ to take his church out of the world, a literal interpretation of the Bible, and a literal, future millennium ruled by Christ on earth. It is therefore premillennial--that is, dispensationalism holds that Christ will come before the millennium--but conflating dispensationalism with premillennialism is a mistake. While all dispensationalists are premillennial, all premillennialists are not dispensationalists. 2 It is extremely common among scholars to use the two terms interchangeably. Doing so creates confusion. Dispensationalism may be the major type of American Christian premillennialism, but it is not the only one; and many of these other systems are quite hostile to dispensationalism.

As I hope to show, dispensationalism is a complete theological system, under attack and in dialogue with other theological systems. Various individuals and groups have picked up dispensationalism's terms and sometimes its ideas in a haphazard fashion, combining things that theologically don't work. There is popular dispensationalism, but there is also popular premillennialism that has picked up some dispensational ideas while rejecting the system, and there is popular premillennialism that has rejected dispensationalism altogether.

Conflating premillennialism with the "lunatic fringe" is also incorrect. The lunatic fringe, if there can properly be one--those people who really are dangerous, and wish to be perceived as dangerous, to the modem order--consists of postmillennial individuals and groups. A postmillennial eschatology encourages its adherents to change the world themselves rather than wait for God to do it, and so postmillennialists will attempt, by any means necessary, to create a brave new world of their own envisioning. 3 Such groups are extremely hostile to dispensationalism (and just about everything else). Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell may both appear as Christian reactionaries on the radar screen of the liberal secular humanist; but they are not the same. Falwell is certainly a preniillennialist and to some degree dispensational, while Robertson is a Christian postmillennialist. This creates definite differences between their goals; while their agendas may superficially be the same, their rationales and their long-range plans are not.4

This thesis is, firstly, an attempt to introduce the reader to dispensationalism as an internally consistent system of thought--rational, careful, and "scientific" thought--that underlies much of current apocalyptic and prophecy writing and attitudes in America in the late twentieth century. Secondly, I wish to make clear that the "dangerous" millennial elements in twentieth-century America are not dispensational, but that postmillennial rhetoric may well have an unfortunate effect on dispensationalists. Dispensational literature should be watched for signs of this, which are already appearing.

The first section is primarily historical, and the point I wish to make in it is that dispensationalism, from its first arrival in America, has been premillennial in nature, and the primary champion of preniillennialism in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. In the second part, I will examine the primary basis of the dispensational system, the difference between Israel and the church, and then the Rapture, one of the most distinctive doctrines of dispensationalism, which is rooted in the Israel/church distinction. The next section will deal with popular millennial eschatologies today: those that are dispensational, those that are not but use some dispensational ideas, and those that are antidispensational. I will also discuss the relation of dispensationalism to postmillennialism, particularly as it is embodied in Christian Reconstructionism.

It is important that dispensational thinkers and adherents be viewed sympathetically, not judgmentally. Perhaps out of bewilderment, perhaps out of a desire to make the creatures in the zoo seem fiercer than they really are, academic authors often portray dispensationalism as dangerous, as reactionary, as antisemitic, as the work of people who are either a little bit unbalanced or a little bit stupid.5 This is unfair. It is also unfair to deny the genuine religious feeling involved. Dispensationalists (leaving aside, perhaps, certain televangelists) are nothing if not sincere about their beliefs. As Timothy Weber has written, most dispensationalists believe that Christ is coming because they believe that the Bible tells them so, and all their religious beliefs center on the trust they do or do not place in that book.6 A sympathetic analysis of dispensationalism does not involve head-shaking or ridicule (though I have to admit that some dispensationalist charts have elicited a giggle). When other human beings are the subjects of our study, they deserve to be taken seriously on their own terms. If this is not the case, it is a foregone conclusion that we will not understand them.

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Copyright 1997 by Jennifer Snow. All rights reserved.


1 Susan Harding, "Imagining the Last Days: The Politics of Apocalyptic Language" in Accounting for Fundamentalisms: The Dynamic Character of Movements, ed. Martin Marty and R. Scott Applebee (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), page 63.

2There have been attempts to create a dispensational postmillennialism, but according to most dispensationalists they have been theological failures. See the Glossary for precise definitions of terms relating to this field of study.

3Postmillennialism is not necessarily negative, but in the conservative Christian circles where it competes with dispensationalism, it almost always has totalitarian, racist, sexist, homophobic, antisemitic, and sometimes violent overtones. This will be discussed further in the final chapter of the thesis. And even secular postmillennialism has the potential to become violent. A postmillennial vision is prerequisite for revolution.

4A non-academic example of confusing premillennialism in general with dispensationalism in particular is Grace Halsell, "Courting Armageddon: The Politics of Christian Zionism," The Other Side 24: 1 (Jan/Feb 1988): 28-3 1. In it she calls both Falwell and Robertson dispensationalists and then equates dispensationalism with Christian Zionism.

5For instance, Harding mentions only that Jews will be persecuted in the Tribulation which dispensationalists so graphically describe; she doesn't mention the, to dispensationalists, equally important purpose of the Tribulation, which is to end the "times of the Gentiles" in preparation for the Jewish Messianic Kingdom. Paul Boyer, in his very interesting work, consistently describes the 144,000 Jewish evangelists of the Tribulation as being martyred in the dispensational scenario, and footnotes both Lindsey and Walvoord to support him (Paul Boyer,When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture, [Cambridge and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992], 212; footnote 106, page 403). 1 have no idea where he got this, since both Lindsey and Walvoord are very clear that the 144,000 will be preserved, intact, through the Tribulation (Hal Lindsey,There's A New World Coming [New York: Vintage, 1973],106-109. Walvoord's interpretation is described in detail in Part III of this paper.).

6Timothy Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming: American Premillennialism from 1875-1982 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Corporation, 1983), 230.