The Dispensationalist Dilemma

The Dispensationalist Dilemma
Vol: 80 Issue: 21 Wednesday, May 21, 2008

If you were to decide to research Dispensationalism off the ‘Net or in most books on the subject, the first thing that you would learn is that:

“the doctrine of a secret rapture was first conceived by John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren in 1827. Darby, known as the father of dispensationalism, invented the doctrine claiming there were not one, but two “second comings.”

Typically, the argument against Dispensationalism is that “post-millennialism was the dominant eschatology from the Reformation until at least 1859”.

(I pulled both those quotes from a website called “The Dispensational Origins of Modern Premillennialism and John Nelson Darby,” but I picked these because they are so typical of the argument — so I thought it best to address them first.)

“The doctrine of a secret rapture was first conceived by John Nelson Darby.”

This is the first error of post-millennialism and the foundation upon which the post-millennial criticism of Dispensationalism rests.

Actually, the doctrine of a ‘secret rapture’ was first articulated by Moses in the Book of Genesis:

“And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” (Genesis 5:24)

In case that isn’t clear enough, the writer of Hebrews explains what that meant:

“By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God.” (Hebrews 11:5)

“Translated” — what does that mean? The Greek word in use here is metatithēmi and it means “to change.” According to both Genesis and Hebrews, then, Enoch was “changed” and “God took him” because by Enoch’s faith, he had pleased God.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth: “Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.”

The word ‘sleep’ here is koimao which means “to die” and the word ‘changed’ is from the Greek “allasso” which means “to transform”. So Paul is saying, we shall not ALL die, but that some of us shall be transformed.

“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” (1st Corinthians 15:51-52)

So we learn — from the Bible, not from J.N. Darby — the following doctrine:

Enoch was “changed” and taken by God as Enoch’s reward for faithfulness. Paul says that he was teaching a ‘mystery’ — something not previously revealed — that at some point in the future, the faithful will ALL be ‘transformed’ in the ‘twinkling of an eye’ and that the dead will be resurrected first.

Paul later explains the eligibility requirements for this transformation and translation: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him.” (1st Thessalonians 4:14)

It would then appear that the eligibility requirement has not changed since Enoch, the “seventh from Adam” — faith.

Paul continues: “For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” (1st Thessalonians 4:15-17)

Let’s pretend for a minute that J.N. Darby was a traditional post-millennialist, and work from the same Scriptures he was.

What else could these passages mean? Is there an alternative explanation for Enoch’s ‘translation’? (One that makes sense in light of Hebrews, that is.)

What could Paul have meant when he said we’d be ‘transformed’ in the twinkling of an eye’ – particularly in light of the fact Paul specifically says that transformation will be from the mortal to the immortal.

And finally, if Darby ‘invented’ a secret rapture, what does Paul mean when he says the Lord will descend from heaven with a shout, causing the dead in Christ to rise first?

The Apostle Jude says the Lord returns “with ten thousands of His saints.” The Apostle John says that when He returns at the end of the age, it is a very public event: “Behold, He cometh with clouds and every eye shall see Him.”

Does Scripture make allowances for the discrepancy between these two comings? The Book of Acts records the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven at Pentecost. The Apostles came together to meet with Jesus privately for one last time, to hear His final instructions.

“And when He had spoken these things, while they beheld, He was taken up; and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11)

Jesus did not go into heaven with ten thousands of His saints — He went alone, in ‘secret’ ie; witnessed only by His Apostles and two angels. He returns FOR His Saints at the Rapture, Paul says, not WITH them.

For the claim that Darby “invented” the Rapture to hold water, one has to assume that Darby inserted those verses into Scripture.

If not, then if there is an “inventor” of the Rapture doctrine, he was a Hebrew prophet named “Moses.”


I received an email the other day asking me to address Dispensationalism, and, in particular, its various forms. It read as follows:

Dear Jack: I have searched your archives for information on dispensationalism. There are several articles, but nothing that really breaks it down. I have been reading a little on other sites, but ended up more confused than before. I get the basic idea of it, but I know you have the knack of putting it in laymans terms.

Would you consider writing a detailed article on dispensationalism, hyperdispensationalism, acts 28 dispensationalism, and mid acts dispensationalism, and anything else to clarify all the details. I’m having trouble mostly because other things I read assume the reader knows all the history to back up their data.

Let’s first define ‘Dispensationalism’. As a theological system it supplies an interpretive grid for understanding the flow of the Bible as a whole.

Dispensationalism advocates a form of premillennialism in which it sees the past, present, and future as a number of successive administrations, or “dispensations” (Eph 3:2, KJV), each of which emphasizes aspects of the covenants between God and various peoples at various times.

While ‘Dispensations’ are not ages, but stewardships, or administrations, we tend to see them now as ages since we look back on specific time periods when they were in force. For that reason, this present dispensation is known as the ‘Church Age’ or the ‘Age of Grace.’

A greater breakdown of specific dispensations is possible, giving most traditional Dispensationalists seven recognizable dispensations.

1. Innocence – Adam

2. Conscience – After man sinned, up to the flood

3. Government – After the flood, man allowed to eat meat, death penalty instituted

4. Promise – Abraham up to Moses and the giving of the Law

5. Law – Moses to the cross

6. Grace – The cross to the Millennial Kingdom

7. Millennial Kingdom – A 1000 year reign of Christ on earth centered in Jerusalem

One of the most difficult aspects of interpreting the Scriptures is determining those aspects which are continuous (have not changed over time) from those which are discontinuous (changed with time).

For example, salvation has always come by grace through faith. That is ‘continuous’. However, the prohibitions on eating unclean meats has changed over time. (Acts 10:10-17) That is an example of discontinuity by Dispensation.

Dispensationalism holds to the doctrine that the Church was born at Pentecost and that the Church Age will continue until the Church is Raptured at some point before the Tribulation Period.

My correspondent also asked about “Acts 28 Dispensationalism, Mid-Acts Dispensationalism, and hyperdispensationalism.

These are all essentially based on the same principle; that there was a discontinuity between Peter and the early Church and Paul in the later Church.

Mid-Acts Dispensationalist is based in the belief that the present church began during the Mid-Acts period (sometime between Acts 9 and Acts 15)> This view denies the dispensation of grace was in effect until after that time.

Instead,they theorize that the six epistles Paul wrote during the Acts period (Romans, Galatians, both Corinthian epistles, and both Thessalonian epistles) were written exclusively to Gentiles who were allied with Israel, while Paul’s prison epistles (written after Acts 28) were all written to believers like us, who have never been allied with Israel.

So, because believers today did not hear the gospel for the first time in a Jewish synagogue, we never “blessed” Israel, as those during the book of Acts did. The conclusion is therefore drawn that none of those six epistles Paul wrote during the Acts period are written directly to us today.

Since we no longer need to be allied with Israel in order to hear the gospel (unlike those Gentiles to whom Paul preached in the Jewish synagogues), this would mean that only Paul’s prison epistles would addressed directly to the modern Church.

To summarize this teaching, one could say that its advocates believe Paul actually changed his doctrine after he wrote his Acts epistles.

(Which is why I reject it on the basis of both logic and Scripture.)

Like most popular theological positions, supporters of mid-Acts Dispensationalism have a list of Scriptures that, at first glance, seem to favor the hyperdispensationalist position.

But like those other positions, they have to be accepted in a vacuum — since nothing can be done with the contradicting Scriptures, those are simply ignored, in much the same way that post-millennialists ignore the Rapture passages.

With all the various schools of thought out there, how does one truly know he is following the right path? The literal method of interpretation is the key.

Using the literal method of interpreting the biblical covenants and prophecy leads to a specific set of core beliefs about God’s kingdom program, and what the future will hold for ethnic Israel and for the Church.

The Bible demands a distinction between Israel and the Church, and depicts a promised future earthly reign of Christ on the throne of David. (The Davidic Kingdom.)

This leads one to some very specific conclusions about the last days as outlined by Bible Prophecy:

* Israel must be re-gathered to their land as promised by God.

* Daniel’s seventieth week prophecy specifically refers to the purging of the nation Israel, and not the Church. These were the clear words spoken to Daniel. The church doesn’t need purging from sin. It is already clean.

* Some of the warnings in Matthew 24 are directed at the Jews, and not the Church (since God will be finishing His plan with national Israel)

* A Pretribulation rapture – Israel is seen in Daniel as the key player during the tribulation, not the Church. God removes the elect when he brings judgment on the world. i.e. Noah, John 14, 1 Thessonians 4:16. etc..

* Premillennialism – A literal 1000 year Millennial Kingdom, where Christ returns before the Millennium starts. Revelation 20 doesn’t give us a reason to interpret the 1000 years as symbolic. Also, Dispensationalists see the promised literal reign of Christ depicted in the Old Testament by the Prophet Isaiah.

Unsurprisingly, hyperdispensationalists are just as disagreeable when challenged as are preterists, post millennialists, “Kingdom Now” and Dominionist theologians.

Understanding the Dispensations of God is necessary to rightly dividing the Word, and is therefore important, but has no bearing on the seminal issue of salvation.

So I see no reason to dispute, debate or otherwise convince those who hold to a different view of the rightness of my own. I teach from a Dispensational perspective because it is the only one that doesn’t leave gaping holes in one’s understanding. Covenant theology, for example, has no explanation for the restoration of Israel.

Biblical Israel was destroyed in AD 70 as punishment for crucifying the Messiah and the covenant between God and the Jews was transferred to the Church. Modern Israel holds no special place in the plan of God, and there is no kinship between the Church and Israel.

In this view, Church itself has but one unique characteristic. Unlike everybody else, believers will be judged twice.

They are judged to be innocent by virtue of having accepted Christ’s sacrifice as full payment for their sins, but nonetheless will suffer the judgment of God on a Christ-rejecting world.

This muddies the Scriptures and blurs the distinctions between the Church and the world, but it plays no role in one’s salvation.

One can wrongly interpret the Word regarding the details of the last days’ scenario and still be a sincere, born-again, Blood-bought Christian who will go to heaven when one dies, or be translated at the Rapture. (Even if one doesn’t believe in it).

I teach Dispensationalism because I believe it provides the most logical method of understanding the Scriptures — particularly those relative to the last days. But I won’t fight about it.

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”

Nobody is saved by their faith in the Rapture — or its timing. Our faith is in Christ. That is the key to salvation. Trusting in the Holy Spirit to guide us in all truth, rather than trusting to our own doctrinal infallibility.

“God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.”(Romans 3:4)

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About Pete Garcia

Christian, father, husband, veteran, pilot, and sinner saved by grace. I am a firm believer in, and follower of Jesus Christ. I am Pre-Trib, Dispensational, and Non-Denominational (but I lean Southern Baptist).

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