Elements of a Biblical Eschatology, Part 5

Among the varieties of premillennialism, the most popular variety in churches today is known as “dispensational premillennialism.”  Dispensationalism is a theological system that arose in the 1800’s, a major tenet of which is that Israel and the church are two separate peoples with separate destinies.  Jesus offered the Kingdom to Israel in his incarnation, but Israel refused.  Therefore, the Kingdom has been postponed, and God is now dealing with the Gentiles and building the church from among them.  This is a parenthesis in God’s plan.  In the last days God will remove the church from the scene and resume his dealings with Israel. 

Given this framework, dispensational premillennialists overwhelmingly adhere to the idea of a secret rapture of the church prior to the seven year tribulation that will mark the end of this age.  Christ will come for his church, call us all away to be with him, and then the world will experience seven years of chaos and turmoil precipated by the Antichrist.  This will also be a time of intense divine judgment.  At the end of the seven years, Christ will return to this earth to establish the Kingdom that he postponed at his first coming.  It will be a Jewish Kingdom, and Jesus will rule from David’s throne.  The temple will be rebuilt, and the sacrificial system will be reinstituted.  At the end of the thousand years there will be one final Satanic rebellion that will be quickly put down, and then the millennium will give way to the new heaven and the new earth.  Traditional dispensationalists have long held that these are two separate spheres, one spiritual and one earthly, and that the church will be in the new heaven while Israel will be on the new earth forever. 

In recent years there has been a new movement among dispensationalists known as “progressive dispensationalism.”  Progressive dispensationlists do not hold to the strict dichotomy between Israel and the church, nor do they believe that the Kingdom has been postponed.  According to progressive dispensationalists, Christ is ruling over his Kingdom now, which has already come but not yet in its fullness.  They tend to hold to a pretribulation rapture like traditional dispensationlists, but they do not see it as God’s way of getting the church out of the way to get back to his plans for Israel.  I have not studied this movement enough to know how they see the details of the millennial kingdom, like whether or not there will be a new temple and a reinstituted sacrificial system.  I would suspect some variety among adherents.  I do know that progressive dispensationalism is much more “earthy” in its view of eternity.  Israel and the church (which are not two distinct peoples but the one people of God) will inherit a renewed creation under their common Lord once the millennium has ended. 

Finally, there is a variety of premillennialism known as “historic premillennialism,” represented primarily by the New Testament scholar George Ladd and a number of theologians today.  This view is very similar to that of progressive dispensationalism, except for the fact that it tightens the connections between Israel and the church even more.  For example, whereas progressive dispensationalists see a future for Israel as a national, political entity, historic premillennialists would tend to deny any special role for Israel in the millennium.  Historic premillennialists certainly deny that there will be a reinstitution of the sacrificial system, and they also deny that there will be a secret rapture prior to the Second Coming.  On this view, Christ will return at the end of the tribulation period (which may or may not be a literal seven year period).  Even though he is presently reigning now from Heaven, he will at that time establish his rule on earth among his redeemed (who have been resurrected) and over the nations.  At the end of this period (which, again, may or may not be literally a thousand year period), Satan will be released and will lead a final rebellion.  After Satan’s defeat comes the consummation of the new creation, which the redeemed will enjoy forever. 

Now that we have a framework for the discussion, I will finally get around in the next few posts to making some arguments and drawing some conclusions.

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