The Dangers of Dispensationalism

This excerpt comes from Letters to a Young Evangelical by Tony Campolo, Chapter 8: “History with a Happy Ending.” After discussing the biblical understanding of the Kingdom of God steadily growing toward a happy ending and after critiquing the lack of biblical support for dispensationalism and its historical background as a late-modernity American invention by one priest, he talks about why it matters so much. They’re strong words but as I thought about them, the idea made a lot of sense.

The impact of dispensationalism is that there is no point to working toward peace, social justice, the end of poverty, and the like, on the basis that such projects are ultimately futile. John Nelson Darby [the inventor of dispensational theology], Tim Lahaye, Jerry Jenkins all emphasize that the church should not engage in such tasks. The church, they say, should concentrate all of its efforts on one thing – getting people “saved.” Converting people so that they are ready for the Rapture is all that matters to them. They argue that preachers who call the church to work for justice on behalf of the poor and oppressed are, at best, wasting their time and, at worst, leading people into erroneous secular humanism. They argue that social-gospel preachers can be accused, whether they realize it or not, of being agents of the anti-Christ.

Dispensationalism thus justifies the repudiation of the United Nations and any other body that tries to unite nations in a quest for world peace. According to the dispensationalist view, such bodies are organizational instruments through which the anti-Christ can exercise his evil control over the earth. This is why many Christians in the Evangelical community are opposed to the United Nations and cheer on politicians who want to pull the United States out of the organization. Some extremists oppose even the collection of money for starving children through the UNICEF program, claiming that this, too, is part of Satan’s plan. This theology has turned many Evangelicals into conspiracy theorists who are convinced that any such efforts are covert parts of a diabolical plot.

Finally, dispensationalist theology, with its rapture doctrine, has become the ideological basis for an Evangelical Zionist movement that seriously endangers relations between the West and the Islamic world. According to those in the Darby school of thought, the Jews must become the sole inhabitants of the Holy Land before Christ can return. The dispensationalist interpretation of biblical prophecy holds that the Second Coming of Christ is contingent on exclusive possession by the children of Israel of the land promised to Abraham’s seed in Genesis 12.

Campolo continues in this vein, discussing how some Evangelicals are completely comfortable calling for ethnic cleansing of the Arab people (including many Christians) from Israel as well as land that is currently owned by other nations entirely. He also talks about how the American government has been tied down to meet the demands of Evangelical Zionists to allow or even encourage such genocidal atrocities. He concludes with this, which I thought was an amazing analysis of why we have such conflict between the US and Islamic nations:

Arabs and other Muslims are well aware that Israel’s military power is mostly paid for with U.S. tax dollars. They note that one-quarter of all foreign aid given away by the United States each year goes to Israel, and that this aid is what enables Israel to build and maintain its powerful army. And so the net result of Evangelical Zionist-supported U.S. policies is that the entire Muslim world views the ill treatment of Palestinians as actions taken by an Israeli-American coalition. As you can well imagine, this view is widely exploited by terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda for propaganda purposes.

Those are the highlights from an extremely good analysis of the very real-world ramifications of how we view the end of the world. As many others have put it, our eschatology is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy one way or another. If we choose to think that the world will end with wars and genocide of our enemies, we will probably work to make that happen. If we choose to think that the world will end with a great restoration led by a loving God, we will work to make that happen instead.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Thank you for this post. Very timely for me, as just today, I heard the ‘Darby invented dispensationalism’ thing for the first time. (!) Its ramifications are important, but right now I’m interested in learning more about its history and as such am putting Campolo’s book on my to-read list. If you know of other books I really ought to read in this regard, feel free to recommend them. 🙂

    • I definitely recommend so far. One thing that I did not expect is how much he explains how Evangelicalism came to be as it is today through lots of history of the past 200 years. It is a time in history that I know relatively little about, although I did know the Darby/dispensationalism bit, so that has definitely made it very interesting for me.

  • solarbuddy

    That is SUCH a one-sided straw-man attack on dispensationalism that I hardly know where to begin. I’ll leave ad hominem attacks on the source off the table, except to note that TC’s skills as a biblical scholar are somewhat on the short side of negligible. First, we’re ALL dispensational, in the big sense: all Christians recognize that God, throughout history, treated different groups in different ways. Adam & Eve in the era of innocence had only ONE commandment; we Jewish Christians in the church age are free of the obligations of the Mosaic law, etc. To say “down with dispensationalism” is bombastic overstatement verging on idiocy.

    –oops, my attitude re: Tony is showing–sorry. Let’s take specific issues, such as the claim that “Dispensationalists” aren’t interested in radical environmentalism because our Earth will be restored with the Millennial Kingdom, followed by a whole new universe–the “New Heavens and New Earth.” As a Christian who takes scripture seriously, and a card-carrying futurist (as historicist and idealist modes of interpreting Revelation are only attractive as clubs with which to batter futurism), and as the ancient pre-Constantine church steadfastly believed, the world is going to end, and it matters a great deal whether or not we go about spackling the Titanic or pointing people toward the lifeboats.

    I’m not sure how Tony or other anti-Dispensationalists leap to the notion that biblical concepts such as the return of Christ would cause one to be uncaring of issues of justice regarding Israel. He blames Darby for this, but Dispensationalism has gone far beyond Darby’s first efforts to recover some biblical truth from the wreckage of the eschatology he had inherited as a Church of England minister. Recall that he wasn’t some hick self-taught boob, but was a classical gold medalist at university. He could read Greek with greater ease than we read Dilbert today. He was not a schnook, but one of the first to recognize the need for the Reformation to catch up with Eschatology. Of course the Anabaptists were light-years ahead of mainstream Protestants in that area (why don’t you know that, by the way? OR do you?), but as far as Luther, Calvin, and others in the mainstream were concerned, anything Anabaptist was poison and to be avoided. I am convinced, in my heart of hearts, that Calvin was half convinced that the Anabaptists were on the right track, eschatologically speaking, but premillennialism was the Third Rail of 16th century theology.

    Well, I could go on, but I would encourage you to go outside of Tony’s sphere of theological confusion and take another look at the issues. With Tony, biblical material always serves his social and political agendas. I’m not saying I’m immune to that disease, but he’s the poster-child for it.

    • Great comment! Thanks for chiming in. I’ll try to hit on all of your points and try to clear things up.

      I think in the context of the book it would not appear nearly as one-sided or straw-man argumentation. He does present the arguments in favour of Darbyism, as well. This part was the really interesting part to me as I had never really thought about it before… mainly because here in Canada we don’t have nearly the church-state alliance that permeates the US. Then again, maybe in your disagreement and general dislike for Campolo, maybe you would still think it is. That’s fair and I welcome your respectful opinion.

      I agree we are all dispensational in one sense. Almost all Christians, including Campolo, have agreed that there will be a second coming of Christ and we almost all agree that there have been at least two dispensations so far (Old Covenant/New Covenant). Exactly how that second coming will happen is very vague in Scripture and Christians have proposed many options over the centuries. Again in the context of Tony’s work, it is clear that he is talking about the very precise version proposed by Darby complete with timelines which seem to have no real source in Scripture and which did start with Darby. Yes, many early Anabaptists believed that the Second Coming of Christ was coming very soon but to the best of my knowledge they did not propose most of the details which Darby introduced. In all my readings, which included my graduate research paper, the early Anabaptists like modern Anabaptists emphasized the daily life of the disciple, creating the Kingdom of God on earth. It would probably be more accurate to call this post the Dangers of Darbyism rather than the Dangers of Dispensationalism, but I aim for language that is accessible to average Christians without a theological education and most would equate the two terms in everyday language.

      It is not the belief in the return of Christ which lead to less care for the poor. As I said, most Christians throughout history including Campolo agree that there will be a second coming of Christ. It is the idea that in order for Jesus to come back, the world has to completely fall apart first. It sounds backwards to my Anabaptist sensibilities, but it does make sense: if we can’t get Raptured to Heaven unless the world destroys itself with wars, unless Israel reclaims their territory, etc., then we are going to prioritize making that happen instead of prioritizing the commands of Jesus which were remarkably focused on social issues in this world right now. Many (not all) treat Palestinians as far less than human because of their determination to give Israel all of the land they previously owned, for example, and I don’t think it is ever in line with Jesus to treat someone as less than human. You can definitely check against that while still being a Darbyist, but there will be a tension of priorities. I gladly respect those who try to live that tension rather than jumping wholesale into the “let the world burn” attitude which many (not nearly all) Darbyists have adopted. I don’t think Campolo is saying that every single Darbyist is a terrible human being who hates Palestinians; I think he is just pointing out this conflict in priorities between care for the oppressed as Jesus modelled and the desire to give Israel its historic land no matter the human cost. The same tension applies with environmental issues and violence in general.

      Campolo never attacks Darby’s intellect or desire to be true to Scripture as he understood it. He would probably agree with most of your claims that Darby was not a “schnook” or “some hick self-taught boob.” Neither did I. Just because we are analyzing the potential consequences of the line of thought does not mean that we think he was stupid. I’ll apply the same critical lens to Christian theologians who I agree more with, as well. Neither Campolo nor I also ever said “down with dispensationalism!” If I came across that way, my apologies. I disagree with it, but I also consider a perfectly valid theological conclusion even if it isn’t the same one that I am currently thinking. In my perception, Campolo gave off the same tone in this chapter, respectfully engaging but not condemning at all.

      Lastly, this is the first book of Campolo’s I’ve ever read, so it is definitely not fair to say that I am firmly in his “sphere of theological confusion.” I agree with your general comment on Campolo that his politics are clearly tied up with his biblical studies just as they are for most Americans on both sides of the aisle. I think it is both his strength as he is able to point out some very real consequences of various thought (whether it is biblical or not) and his weakness as it is hard to tease apart his politics from his theology.

      • solarbuddy

        Appreciate the kind reply . . . the whole doctrine of eschatology is one that is “still shaking out,” believe it or not. It wasn’t addressed in the ancient ecumenical councils–they were ALL held after Constantine. During the persecuted era (prior to 313) virtually all Christians who had an opinion assumed a Premillennial eschatology in which evil (embodied in a persecuting state and closely linked with Babylon the Great in Revelation) would increase, and Christ would return in judgement to rule–whether on Earth for the millennium or usher in the eternal state was not yet an issue. AFTER Constantine, one and all shifted gears almost without discussion: church and state were now holy partners, and together would expand Christian civilization to the whole Earth. When the Earth was finally “Christianized,” and all brought under the rule of the Church-State symbiosis, then Christ would return with a congratulatory pat on the back. Presto–Postmillennialism was born! This remained the official position of the Roman church to the present.

        During the Reformation, the doctrine of eschatology got a reboot by the radical reformers who weren’t afraid to reject a church-state linkage and citizenship-via-baptism, but as I mentioned before, the mainstream reformers wouldn’t touch their conclusions with the proverbial ten-foot pole. With the virtual extinction of Anabaptists in Europe, and cultural isolation and fossilization in America, nobody was interested in flying the banner of eschatological reform–until Darby, that is!

        I won’t defend his errors, but I applaud him for getting Premillennialism back in the discussion. The late 19th century (mostly in America after our Civil War) took up the task of rediscovering a biblical Eschatology with a vengeance–so much so that the “Prophecy Wars” split denominations, but gained such popularity that Premillennialism spun off such vulgar franchises as the Left Behind series, etc. The sudden success of resurrected Premillennialism (from the Scofield Bible to Dallas Theological Seminary to Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth) aroused a powerful reaction from the sleeping Amillennialists, as well as provoking virulent ad hominem attacks from a kind of agnostic postmillennialism. Campolo’s view–“I-don’t-know-what’s-right-but-you’re-a-Darbyite-nut-and-therefore-WRONG”–is typical.

        Maybe in a few hundred years a modern consensus will emerge. Since evangelicals are typically uncomfortable with ambiguity, I’m not optimistic about this. Imagine an eschatological creed that begins like this: “I am completely certain that in the last days that Christ will return to rescue the righteous and judge the wicked. I am 30% convinced that this will be preceded by the rapture followed by a seven-year Tribulation, and give it a fifty-fifty chance that what follows will be an earthly Millennium in which Christ will rule with the resurrected saints until the final events described in Revelation 20, but if not, then the final judgments and eternal state will ensue directly.”

        I think that it would be handy to be able to use IF-THEN-ELSE conditions (with attached probabilities) when discussing Eschatological frameworks. Or perhaps we could formulate eschatology as a kind of Schrödinger-esque wave function in which probabilities collapse to certainties when the events in question become subject to observation. Good grief, what am I saying? Explaining eschatology using the methods of quantum mechanics has to be the worst educational concept ever invented.

        • John Ayala

          Solarbuddy, while I appreciate your responsible, well thought out dispensationalist view, it has been my experience that most premillenial dispensationalists do not share your well thought out view. I grew up being taught this type of eschatology/theology in southern CA and I can tell you that the negative aspects of this type of eschatology is that most people I know who are premillenial dispensationalists are costantly trying to:
          1. “Fit the pieces of the puzzle” together (of world events) so that they can give us another date or approximate time period of when the rapture or Jesus’ second coming will be.
          2. Support modern-day Israel over and against all others. This is usually because of the Christian zionism that is attached to the premillenial dispensational eschatology and/or because “they are God’s choosen people.”
          3. Hoping and waiting for the rapture to take them from this God-forsaken world.
          4. Trying to identify and/or anticipate the antichrist in today’s world.
          I believe most of these things are a distraction to living out Jesus’ call to be a disciple.

          As a result, they usually have the following negative determinations that fit in with this type of activity and world view:
          1. They believe that most actions to help the environment, the poor and/or anyone is almost always seen as “works righteousness.” The exceptions being missionaries to other countries and Israel, but it is the US government to help Israel so maybe that doesn’t count. As a result, (among other reasons) usually identify with the Republican party.
          2. The world is in ruin and is only going to get worse. (Related to point 1) By trying to stop it (ie make the world better) we slow down the second coming and we are performing “works” for salvation.
          3. A person that is working for peace in the world and is effective, usually starts coming under suspicion of being the antichrist.
          4. Getting people “converted” is the top priority, so that they do not go to hell. Conversion is in quotes since it usually is reduced to a prayer.

          I am not saying this is to falsely characterize you, dispensational theology and/or eschatology; I am only pointing out my first-hand experience. As I realize that these views are from older types of dispensational theology/eschatology (ie hyper dispensationalism) and/or false conclusions based on dispensational theology/eschatology. These issues arised from my growing up in this type of theology/eschatology along with the answers/dogma I was given from preachers, teachers and family about this type of belief. I realize how irresponsible these beliefs are with regard to the whole of scripture, no matter the theology/eschatology but it seems that these ideas and beliefs are a direct result (albeit, an irresponsible one) of the theology/eschatology.

          Saying all of this, I understand that most of these people are well meaning and sincere (since most of my family are of this type of belief) but they seem to ignore, marginalize and/or misinterpret most of what Jesus taught in the Gospels. In particular the “make disciples” and to “be disciples” part that Ryan was referring to. It seems that they are of the opinion that Jesus was speaking that the “Kingdom of God” is in the next dispensation, not in this dispensation. So to them, Jesus’ teaching was not teaching but only description of the next dispensation.
          Despite my upbringing, in the last 8 years, I have learned much outside of this type of theology and eschatology and no longer agree with most of the eschatology and some of the theology. I agree with you whole-heartedly that people need to understand that some bit of ambiguity is acceptable with regard to eschatology and theology. As for all of the controversy with eschatology, I think that the first sentence of your “eschatological creed” is the only one that can be affirmed by most Christians; no matter their views on eschatology.

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  • Johnny Ward

    [Right on, Ryan. Wondering if you’ve seen this? I ran head-on into it on the never boring web.]

    Pretrib Rapture Pride

    by Bruce Rockwell

    Pretrib rapture promoters like Thomas Ice give the impression they know
    more than the early Church Fathers, the Reformers, the greatest Greek
    New Testament scholars including those who produced the KJV Bible, the
    founders of their favorite Bible schools, and even their own mentors!

    Ice’s mentor, Dallas Sem. president John Walvoord, couldn’t find anyone
    holding to pretrib before 1830 – and Walvoord called John Darby and his
    Brethren followers “the early pretribulationists” (RQ, pp. 160-62). Ice
    belittles Walvoord and claims that several pre-1830 persons, including
    “Pseudo-Ephraem” and a “Rev. Morgan Edwards,” taught a pretrib rapture.
    Even though the first one viewed Antichrist’s arrival as the only
    “imminent” event, Ice (and Grant Jeffrey) audaciously claim he expected
    an “imminent” pretrib rapture! And Ice (and John Bray) have covered up
    Edwards’ historicism which made a pretrib rapture impossible! Google
    historian Dave MacPherson’s “Deceiving and Being Deceived” for
    documentation on these and similar historical distortions.
    The
    same pretrib defenders, when combing ancient books, deviously read
    “pretrib” into phrases like “before Armageddon,” “before the final
    conflagration,” and “escape all these things”!
    BTW, the KJV
    translators’ other writings found in London’s famed British Library
    (where MacPherson has researched) don’t have even a hint of pretrib
    rapturism. Is it possible that Ice etc. have found pretrib “proof” in
    the KJV that its translators never found?
    Pretrib merchandisers
    like Ice claim that nothing is better pretrib proof than Rev. 3:10.
    They also cover up “Famous Rapture Watchers” (on Google) which shows how
    the greatest Greek NT scholars of all time interpreted it.

    Pretrib didn’t flourish in America much before the 1909 Scofield Bible
    which has pretribby “explanatory notes” in its margins. Not seen in the
    margins was jailed forger Scofield’s criminal record throughout his life
    that David Lutzweiler has documented in his recent book “The Praise of
    Folly” which is available online.
    Biola University’s doctrinal
    statement says Christ’s return is “premillennial” and “before the
    Tribulation.” Although universities stand for “academic freedom,” Biola
    has added these narrow, restrictive phrases – non-essentials the
    founders purposely didn’t include in their original doctrinal statement
    when Biola was just a small Bible institute! And other Christian schools
    have also belittled their founders.
    Ice, BTW, has a “Ph.D”
    issued by a tiny Texas school that wasn’t authorized to issue degrees!
    Ice now says that he’s working on another “Ph.D” via the University of
    Wales in Britain. For light on the degrees of Ice’s scholarliness,
    Google “Bogus degree scandal prompts calls to wind up University of
    Wales,” “Thomas Ice (Bloopers),” “be careful in polemics – Peripatetic
    Learning,” and “Walvoord Melts Ice.” Also Google “Thomas Ice (Hired
    Gun)” – featured by media luminary Joe Ortiz on his Jan. 30, 2013 “End
    Times Passover” blog.
    Other fascinating Google articles include
    “The Unoriginal John Darby,” “X-raying Margaret,” “Edward Irving in
    Unnerving,” “Pretrib Rapture Politics,” “Pretrib Rapture Secrets,”
    “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty,” “Pretrib Hypocrisy,” “Pretrib Rapture
    Secrecy,” and “Roots of Warlike Christian Zionism” – most from the
    author of “The Rapture Plot,” the most accurate documentation on pretrib
    rapture history.
    Can anyone guess who the last proud pretrib rapture holdout will be?
    (Postscript: For another jolt or two Google “The Background Obama Can’t Cover Up.”)

  • Johnny Ward

    The Real Morgan Edwards

    by George Wilson

    In 1995, in a 24-page booklet on 18th century pastor Morgan Edwards,
    evangelist John Bray claimed that Edwards taught a pretrib rapture in
    his 1788 book titled “Two Academical Exercises….”
    Those
    echoing Bray include Thomas Ice who wrote “Morgan Edwards: Another
    Pre-Darby Rapturist.” Edwards’ 1788 work can be found on the internet.

    In order to claim that Edwards held to pretrib, candidates for the
    I-can-find-pretrib-earlier-in-church-history-than-you-can medal –
    including Bray, Ice, LaHaye, Frank Marotta etc. – have intentionally
    covered up Edwards’ “historicism,” his belief that the tribulation had
    already been going on for hundreds of years. (How can anyone in the
    tribulation go back in time and look for a pretrib rapture?)

    Here’s proof of Edwards’ historicism and its companion “day-year” theory
    which can view the 1260 tribulation “days” as “years.”
    On p. 14
    Edwards described the Ottoman Empire (which was then already 400 years
    old) as the Rev. 13:11 “beast.” On p. 20 he defined “Antichrist” as the
    already 1000-year-old “popery” and the “succession of persons” known as
    “Popes” – his other Rev. 13 “beast.” He necessarily viewed Rev. 13’s
    1260-day period as 1260 literal years in order to provide enough time
    for his two “beasts.”
    On p. 19, while discussing “the ministry
    of the witnesses” of Rev. 11, he allotted “about 204 years” for their
    “years to perform” – years impossible to fit into a 3.5-year period!

    What about Edwards’ rapture? On pp. 21-23 he wrote about “the appearing
    of the son of man in the clouds, coming to raise the dead saints and
    change the living, and to catch them up to himself….The signs of
    Christ’s appearing in the clouds will be extraordinary ‘wars and rumors
    of wars, earthquakes and famines,’ &. (Matth. xxiv. 6-8.)….The
    signs of his coming, in the heavens will be ‘the trump of God [I Thess.
    4:16], vapor and smoke, which will darken the sun and moon [Matt.
    24:29],’…and also cause those meteors called ‘falling stars’….

    Right after his combined rapture/advent (!), Edwards said: “And
    therefore, now, Antichrist…will…counterfeit the preceding wonders in
    heaven…causing ‘fire to come down from heaven’….And that godhead he
    will now assume, after killing the two witnesses….Now the great
    persecution of the Jews will begin…for time, times, and half a
    time….”
    Thomas Ice’s article on Edwards (see first par. above)
    quoted only the first 27 words in the above quotation, ending with “to
    himself.” This sort of unethical revisionism is constantly employed by
    many pretrib defenders.
    Not only had most of Edwards’
    historicist tribulation occurred before his combined rapture/advent, but
    his Antichrist kept raging for 3.5 years even after the Matt. 24 signs!
    No wonder his tutor advised him to correct his thesis!
    To read Edwards’ complete work, Google “[PDF] Two Academical Exercises…www.breadoflifebiblestudy.com.”

    For more info on Edwards, Google “McPherson Page” (click on a
    reproduction of “Cover-Ups”). Also Google “Deceiving and Being Deceived”
    by historian Dave MacPherson.

    [Above is another web snippet I found that’s fascinating.]

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