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Dispensationalism is a branch of Christian theology that (1) teaches Biblical history as best understood in light of a number of successive economies or administrations under God, which it calls "dispensations," and (2) emphasizes prophecy of the end-times and the pre-tribulation rapture view of Christ's second coming.



Born out of the restless religious environment in England and Ireland in the 1820s, its beginnings are rooted in the Plymouth Brethren movement and particularly the teaching of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). The Plymouth Brethren movement, basically a reaction against the established church and its ecclesiology, became known for its anti-denominational, anti-clerical, and anti-creedal stance. While theologically within the orthodox camp, the Plymouth Brethren (Darby in particular) developed some unique ideas regarding the interpretation of Scripture while emphasizing prophecy and the second coming of Christ. The theology of this movement became known as dispensationalism.

This new teaching first spread in America through prophecy conferences such as the Niagara Bible Conferences (1883-1897). Most importantly, Dwight L. Moody was sympathetic to the broad outlines of dispensationalism and had as his closest lieutenants dispensationalist leaders such as Reuben A. Torrey (1856-1928), James M. Gray (1851-1925), Cyrus I. Scofield (1843-1921), William J. Eerdman (1833-1923), A. C. Dixon (1854-1925), and A. J. Gordon (1836-1895). These men were activist evangelists who promoted a host of Bible conferences and other missionary and evangelistic efforts. They also gave the dispensationalist movement institutional permanence by assuming leadership of the new independent Bible institutes such as the Moody Bible Institute (1886), the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (1907), and the Philadelphia College of the Bible (1914). The network of related institutes that soon sprang up became the nucleus for the spread of American dispensationalism.

The energetic efforts of C. I. Scofield and his associates introduced dispensationalism to a wider audience in America and bestowed a measure of respectability through his Scofield Reference Bible. The publication of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909 by the Oxford University Press was something of an innovative literary coup for the movement, since for the first time, overtly dispensationalist notes were added to the pages of the biblical text. The Scofield Reference Bible became the leading bible used by independent Evangelicals and Fundamentalists for the next sixty years. Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952), strongly influenced by C. I. Scofield, founded Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924 which has become the flagship of Dispensationalism in America. Dispensationalism has come to dominate the American Evangelical scene especially among non-denominational Bible churches, many Baptists, and most Pentecostal and Charismatic groups.

Dispensationalist theology

Dispensationalism seeks to address what many see as opposing theologies between the Old Testament and New Testament. Its name comes from the fact that it sees biblical history as best understood in light of (usually) seven dispensations in the Bible. These are:

(1) the dispensation of innocence (pre-fall),
(2) of conscience,
(3) of government,
(4) of patriarchal rule,
(5) of the Mosaic Law,
(6) of grace (the current church age), and
(7) of a still future 1000 year Millennium.

Each one of these dispensations supposedly represents a different way in which God deals with man, specifically a different testing for man. However, in addition to these dispensations, the real theological significance can be seen in four basic tenets which underlie classic dispensational teaching. Dispensationalism maintains:

(1) a radical distinction between Israel and the church, i.e. there are two peoples of God with two different destinies, earthly Israel and the spiritual church,
(2) a radical distinction between the Law and Grace, i.e. they are mutually exclusive ideas,
(3) the view that the New Testament church is a parenthesis in God's plan which was not foreseen by the Old Testament, and
(4) a distinction between the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ, i.e. the rapture of the church at Christ’s coming “in the air” (1 Thess. 4:17) precedes the “official” second coming by 7 years of tribulation.

These tenets are supposedly derived from the dispensationalists' insistence on "consistent literalism" in their hermeneutic, especially in the literal interpretation of OT prophecies regarding "Israel." Crucial to the dispensationalist reading of biblical prophecy, drawn principally from Daniel and Revelation, is the assertion that the Jewish Temple will be rebuilt on the Temple Mount as a precursor to the Lord returning to restore the earthly Kingdom of Israel centered on Jerusalem. The dispensational movement was therefore fueled by the re-establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. It has grown in popularity particularly since 1967, coinciding with the Arab-Israeli Six Day War and a few years later in 1970 with the publication of Hal Lindsey's blockbuster book, The Late Great Planet Earth.

Dispensationalism teaches that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ will be a physical event, by which a world-wide kingdom will be established in human history, geographically centered in Jerusalem. Dispensationalists teach that the Second Coming will be a two step process. In the first step, Christ returns to resurrect the blessed dead and rapture the living believers from the Earth. After this, a seven year period of tribulation occurs, climaxing in the Battle of Armageddon. In the second step, Christ intervenes at the Battle of Armageddon and establishes a literal 1000-year millennial kingdom on earth. As such, Dispensationalism is often associated with the circulation of end times prophecy, which professes to read omens of the Second Coming in current events; however, some Dispensationalists have criticised this apocalypticism popularized by authors such as Hal Lindsey.

Viewing the flow of biblical history as a series of "dispensations" may be seen in some works that pre-date Darby's dispensationalism, such as L'OEconomie Divine by Pierre Poiret (1646-1719). But these earlier works included no hint of the four underlying tenets of classic dispensationalism listed above.

Dispensationalism has had a number of effects on Protestantism, at least as it is practised in the United States of America. By consistently teaching that the Beast of Revelation, or the Antichrist, is a political leader, dispensationalism has weakened the traditional Reformation-era identification of that figure with the Pope, and the Roman Catholic Church with the Whore of Babylon. Dispensationalism has led many evangelical Christians of the USA to temper their traditional anti-Catholicism.

Dispensationalism rejects the notion of supersessionism. It tends to go hand-in-hand with a very protective attitude toward the Jewish people, and the modern State of Israel. John Nelson Darby taught, and most subsequent dispensationalists have consistently maintained, that God looks upon the Jews as his chosen people and continues to have a place for them in the dispensational, prophetic scheme of things. While virtually all traditions of Christianity teach that the Jews are a distinct people, irrevocably entitled to the promises of God (because "the gifts and calling of God are without repentance"), dispensationalism is unique in teaching that the covenant with the Church is only a provisional dispensation, until the Jews finally recognize Jesus as their promised Messiah during the trials that dispensationalists envision coming upon the Jews in the Great Tribulation. Darby's prophecies envision Judaism as continuing to enjoy God's protection, parallel to Christianity, literally to the End of Time, and teaches that God has a separate track in the prophecies for Jews, apart from the Church.

On the other hand, dispensationalists tend to be energetically evangelistic, with special interest in the Jews because they are "God's chosen people". Dispensationalist beliefs are widespread in many forms of Messianic Judaism, for example, which aggressively seeks the conversion of Jews to a form of Christianity mixed with Jewish ritual and Hebrew language. In some dispensationalist circles, the Jewish converts to Christianity are sometimes referred to as "completed Jews". Thus, while it is at odds with traditional supersessionism (which was formulated to discourage directly carrying over Jewish practice into the Christian Church), dispensationalism generally is markedly at odds with modern religious pluralism, which is typified by the view that proselytism of the Jews is a form of anti-semitism. Also, some dispensationalists, such as Jerry Falwell, have asserted that the Antichrist will be a Jew, based on a belief that the Antichrist will falsely seem to some Jews to fulfill prophesies of the Messiah more accurately than Jesus did. This belief is not essential to dispensationalism. At any rate, dispensationalists are typically, in practical terms, allies of the Jews and enthusiastic popularizers of Judaica, and foes of anti-semitism in the conventional sense.

Dispensationalism is criticized for other reasons. It teaches that Christians should not expect spiritual good from earthly governments, and should expect social conditions to decline as the end times draw nearer. Dispensationalist readings of prophecies often teach that the Antichrist will appear to the world as a peacemaker. This makes some dispensationalists suspicious of all forms of power, religious and secular, and especially of human attempts to form international organisations for peace such as the United Nations. Almost all dispensationalists reject the idea that a lasting peace can be attained by human effort in the Middle East, and believe instead that "wars and rumors of wars" (cf. Matthew 24:6) will increase as the end times approach. Dispensationalist beliefs often underlie the religious and political movement of Christian Zionism.

Dispensationalists teach that churches that do not insist on Biblical literalism as they deem appropriate are in fact part of the Great Apostasy. This casts suspicion on attempts to create church organisations that cross denominational boundaries such as the World Council of Churches. (See also Ecumenism.)

Dispensationalism and United States politics

Some political analysts have argued that dispensationalism has had a major influence on the foreign policy of the United States because believers in dispensationalism have had large amounts of influence through the Republican Party. This influence has included strong support for the state of Israel. Some dispensationalist authors such as Hal Lindsey have explicitly identified the Antichrist with the Soviet Union or the European Union.

Dispensationalism and fiction

Dispensationalist themes form the basis of the Left Behind series of books.

Biblical arguments in favor of dispensationalism

  • The Apostles determined at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) that it was not necessary for Gentiles to become Jewish in order to become Christians. Thus, the church is not a sect of Judaism but a separate entity.
  • The term 'Israel' in the Bible refers to physical descendants of Jacob.
  • Similarly, the terms 'church' and 'kingdom' are never used interchangeably in Scripture.
  • Paul claims that Israel will be grafted in again (Romans 11).
  • Abraham was saved by faith, 430 years before the Law was given to Moses. (See Galatians 3:6,16-19.)
  • The Book of Galatians is understood to teach that the Law continues to have binding force for Jews, but not for Christians. Now that Christ has come, Christians are not under the supervision of the law (3:25), but Jews are still governed by the law (5:3) unless they are in Christ (3:28).

Biblical arguments opposed to dispensationalism

  • "Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one." (Deuteronomy 6:4 NIV) "But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD's love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children's children — with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts." (Psalm 103:17-18) "I the LORD do not change." (Malachi 3:6) "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." (James 1:17)
  • Jeremiah 31 says that the New Covenant will be with the "house of Israel" and the "house of Judah"
  • Romans 11 speaks of the "olive tree" (Israel) as having branches broken off (unbelieving Jews) and branches grafted in (Gentiles). The broken branches can be grafted back in, however, if the unbelieving Jews were to come to faith in Jesus: "And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again. (Romans 11:23)
  • Galatians 3 indicates that there is no "Jew or Greek" in Christ, but only those with faith in Christ, etc.
  • Deuteronomy 28:58-64 indicates that the promises of God were conditional. "If thou wilt not observe to do all the words of this law that are written in this book... the Lord shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other; and there thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone."
  • Joshua 21:43-45, 1 Kings 8:56, Nehemiah 9:7-8, etc., indicate that God kept his conditional promises to Israel
  • Jeremiah 31:31-34 indicates that though God did not break his promises to Israel, Israel broke the Covenant with God: "I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake..."
  • Dispensationalism portrays a God with changing covenants and requirements that may not be part of a single plan for salvation.
  • "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God." (Matthew 5:9)
  • Dispensationalists de-emphasize (or even discourage) human efforts to achieve peace due to the belief that we are living in an epoch in which an increase of war and famine is inevitable. Some dispensationalists have taught that international peace institutions such as the United Nations may be paving the way for the reign of the Antichrist.
  • "No one knows about the day and hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. . . . therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. . . because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him." (Matthew 24:36, 42, 44) "It is not for you to know the dates or times which the Father has set by his own authority." (Acts 1:7)
    • Some dispensationalists draw up purported timetables for the fulfillment of prophecy. For example, dispensationalist Hal Lindsey wrote a book with the title The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon.
  • "Remember that at the time you were separated from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. . ." (Ephesians 2:12-14)
  • The Apostle Paul describes one plan of salvation open to Gentile and Jew alike.
  • Covenant theology is one popular alternative to Dispensational belief.


The following individuals have been associated with dispensationalism:


  • Bass, Clarence B.: Backgrounds to Dispensationalism (Baker Books, 1960) ISBN 0801005353
  • Boyer, Paul: When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Belknap, 1994) ISBN 0674951298
  • Enns, Paul: The Moody Handbook of Theology (Moody, 1989) ISBN 0802434282
  • Reymond, Robert L.: New Systematic Theology Of The Christian Faith (Nelson 2d ed., 1998) ISBN 0849913179
  • Ryrie, Charles C.: Basic Theology (Moody, 1999) ISBN 0802427340

External links

Dispensationalist sites

Critics of Dispensationalism



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