The Appeal of Dispensationalism
I’ve discussed elsewhere some of the dangers of dispensationalism. I noticed recently that somebody stumbled across that blog with the search “why is dispensationalism so popular if it is false?” Let me identify a few things which make it an appealing theology, particularly in the late-modernity American context where it was started and continues strong. Even if you do think it is true, it is important to realize what it is that draws us to certain theologies.
It boils down to two themes, in my opinion: retributive justice and dualism. Both are naturally attractive to us and encouraged in the Western world but I would argue are contrary to how God reveals himself to us in Jesus. This may not apply to all forms of dispensationalism in all the exact same ways since dispensationalism can be a fairly broad term, but it definitely applies in the most popular forms.
Important to any form of dispensationalism I’ve heard is that there will be some form of violent judgement enacted against everybody who hasn’t met the right criteria. The criteria may change by who is talking about it, but it is generally tied to exclusivism where the difference-maker is typically the sinner’s prayer or some other variant of the same idea: Christians are in and everybody else is out. In any case, the common thread is that we can assured that the people who are not like us will be punished for it.
While the bad guys are getting viciously destroyed by the so-called God of love, the good guys – Christians – have already been raptured up to Heaven to watch from a comfortable distance. Yes, many dispensationalists talk about this time as a grievous but necessary thing, although some do openly talk about it with a disturbing excitement. Everybody inherently questions what’s after this life and wants to know that they will be safe. This satisfies that drive with a very simple formula.
We have this natural drive to both sides of the retributive justice coin. It is all throughout Scripture, usually being challenged by a God who offers grace instead. It is, after all, the original sin of eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Like Satan – literally “Accuser” in Hebrew – we like to play God and make these judgements, no matter how much Scripture and especially Jesus’ example tells us not to. It is no surprise that many of our theologies are predicated on the same attitude of exclusionary and violent judgement. In this case we both get to be sure that we are safe and at the same time that others who are different than us are not safe.
When faith is reduced to a legal retributive justice transaction – as it is in some other eschatological forms and not just dispensationalism – then once we’ve said that magical prayer or whatever else the requirement was, we’re good to go. Nothing else we do matters one way or another. Sure, we could acknowledge when we hurt somebody and we generally don’t want to do that, but that doesn’t have all that much to do with the real purpose and expression of Christian faith. We saw this a lot in the Love Wins controversy: many argued that we can’t question Hell because without it, there is no point of being a Christian. In other words, exclusivist, legal-based, dispensationalism is the perfect fit for the American individualist, nationalist, and legalist psyche.Many dispensationalists are still very loving people, but it does definitely allow this loophole around Jesus’ teachings
We’re also currently facing an ecological crisis and to put it simply it can be depressing. We’ve screwed up, really badly. Dispensationalism gives us an escape because it’s going to be destroyed anyway, right? As Mark Driscoll “jokingly” put it, you may as well drive an SUV because God is going to burn it all up anyway. In some variations, we even should want to destroy the planet faster because that will somehow speed up Jesus’ return. That definitely lets us off the hook for our misuse of the dominion that God has given us.
Unlike the repeated theme of Scripture, in dispensationalist thought God has no interest in redeeming nature. This God is all about getting Christians out of the way so he can just scrap the whole project. In the ancient world this dualism where the spiritual is good and the physical is bad was called Gnosticism. It was quickly and repeatedly deemed a heresy within the Christian faith that is instead centred on the very Word of God becoming human flesh. Yet it has been a constant battle throughout Christian history as people desperately want to return to the natural Western instinct that the soul and the body are completely different and so the body doesn’t matter. A lot of Scripture has to be ignored to distance our spirits from our bodies but it is definitely attractive to make this distance so it still happens regularly nonetheless.