There’s a custom in academic writing of laying out, somewhere early in the monograph, an explanation of limitations. That is, explaining to the reader or researcher what the article will not be addressing or how the area being researched is narrowed down from a variety of subjects to the single subject being explored. Since the doctrine of the Rapture does not exist in isolation, I think such an explanation of how and why these posts will be limited is a good idea.
Many people interested in eschatology (the end times, Second Coming, end of the world, etc.) understand that the doctrine of the Secret Rapture exists within a complex set of ideas. This system of understanding the End Times is generally identified as “Dispensational Premillennialism.” Those teaching and promoting the notion of the Rapture are nearly always linking the doctrine into one or more sub-groups within Dispensational Premillennialism.
Although I cannot, in these posts, take on the complexities involved in addressing Dispensationalism (hence, my announced limitations), I do need to at least define what it is. Like the Rapture, it is finding its origins in John Nelson Darby and Cyrus Scofield.
What is Dispensationalism?
In order to understand why I will not be exploring the broader doctrinal context of Dispensational Premillennialism, it is important to define what the term means.
Sometimes the label “Premillennialism” is used as a shortened name for Dispensational Premillennialism. The problem with this, however, is that a general belief that Christ’s return will be prior to a literal thousand-year reign over the earth can be found in the writings of some church scholars and leaders throughout history. But, in many key areas, these older views that might also be called Premillennial were substantially different from the scheme of End Times events proposed by Darby, Scofield, and others.
So, from the viewpoint of church history, the term Premillennial could refer to any view of the end times that concludes the Parousia (appearing) of Christ will precede the millennium. This can lead to a good deal of confusion. So, the older view, to distinguish it from nineteenth century system associated with Darby, is often labeled “Historic Premillennialism.” Because of this, a better shortened label for the newer scheme of understanding is simply Dispensationalism.
So, what distinguishes Dispensationalism from older ideas that were also broadly Premillennial?
The whole system of understanding the End Times found in Dispensationalism focuses primarily on the role of the Jews (that is, ethnic or biological Israel). Bible prophecy, the advocates of Dispensationalism insist, focuses primarily on God’s covenantal people, understood to be ethnic Jews and the nation of Israel. All prophecy pointed toward the coming of a chosen Jewish King. Jesus, of course, is this long anticipated Messiah. But, when Israel rejects Jesus, her rightful Messianic King, the gospel then goes to the Gentiles, bringing about the church. The church, in this understanding, emerges as a kind of great parenthesis or pause in God’s prophetic timetable. The result is that, in Dispensationalism, there are two parallel but distinct groups that might be called the People of God: both the (predominately Gentile) church and the biological descendants of Abraham, ethnic Israel.
In Dispensational understanding, although those within the church are certainly saved and beloved, the primary focus of prophecy and of God’s covenant-faithfulness always rests with ethnic Israel. The return of Jesus will be centered on the establishment of his earthly rule as the Jewish King enthroned in Jerusalem in the nation Israel. His earthly reign will through the re-gathered nation of ethnic or biological Israel. This is not to say that there is universal agreement on many of the details within Dispensationalism. Over the past century and a half, various theories have arisen related to issues like the nature and location of the church (in heaven or on earth), the nature of Jesus’ kingly rule, and, of course, exactly where, within the scheme of things, the secret rapture of the saved will occur.
The Seven Great Dispensations and the Church Age
In light of all this, it is probably no surprise, since I reject the doctrine of the Rapture, that I am not a Dispensational Premillennialist. Truth be told, Dispensationalism is a far more serious false doctrine. Its ramifications impact everything from American politics related to the modern nation of Israel all the way to how churches understand evangelism and the Great Commission.
Dispensationalism is linked with the view of many evangelicals that God demands political leaders must give unconditional support for the modern nation-state called Israel, even if this means turning a blind eye to the suffering of the Palestinians (including Palestinian Christians). Additionally, and quite ironically for a view often associated with self-identified Bible-believing conservatives, many (though not all) Dispensationalists have adopted the notion that overt evangelism of unbelieving Jews is neither required nor even desirable.
How can this be? Dispensationalists are invariably identified as conservative Bible-believing Christians. Is it fair for me to suggest Dispensationalists assume that everyone needs to be evangelized – except for the Jews? To be honest, many will insist Dispensationalism doesn’t undermine the “Great Commission.” They maintain all the Jews will still only be saved through faith in Jesus. That is, the Jews will be presented with undeniable evidence of King Jesus at the End of the Age. This divine manifestation will then foster a universal recognition of Jesus and faith in Him among the Jews. Others insist a Holy Spirit led revival will sweep across all of Judaism just prior to the end, bringing massive numbers of conversions. So, advocates of Dispensationalism will insist, this is still salvation sola fide (by faith alone). This does not, however, solve the problem. If this divine manifestation or Spirit-led revival that leads to multitudes embracing saving faith in Jesus is something granted uniquely to the Jews and no other group, this hardly avoids the conclusion that Jews are still saved based on ethnic biology. It also, of course, reinforces the notion that current evangelism of Jews is optional, at best.
Although the ramifications of Dispensationalism are broader and, frankly, far more important than those associated with the notion of a Secret Rapture, it is beyond my available time and the nature of even extended blog posts to address the whole eschatological scheme here. A number of books are available, including those that present materials both favoring and rejecting Dispensationalism. The serious Bible student might want to explore books like The Bible and the Future (Hoekema); The Blessed Hope (Ladd); or The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (Clouse).
With the basic overview of Dispensationalism behind us, however, the next two posts will be limited to narrowly focusing on the doctrine of the Rapture. That is, I will largely disconnect it from the broader scheme of things like the Great Tribulation or the Millennium or the role of Israel or Jerusalem. Those are important issues, to be sure. But we will leave them for another day.