Due to my dispensationalist background, I am asked from time to time to speak on the topic of dispensationalism and to give a Reformed critique of certain of its leading errors. Though dispensationalism appears to be fading as an intellectual force, it remains quite popular as a cultural phenomenon, as witness the enormous success of the “Left Behind” series of books. Consequently, Christians need to carefully consider dispensationalism and its theological implications.
In this article I will highlight a series of dispensational distortions that I feel to be harmful to a balanced Christian worldview. Each of these errors impacts our understanding of Christ and His ministry, making the matter of particular concern to evangelicals.
Christ’s Rule Is Future
First, classic dispensationalism denies the contemporary presence of Christ’s Kingdom. Wayne House and Thomas Ice write, “Whatever dynamic God has given believers today does not mean that the Messianic kingdom is here. We see it as totally future.”1
The dispensational view requires Christ’s physical presence on earth to rule over His Kingdom. Dispensationalists do not accept the Reformed notion that Christ’s Kingdom and Kingship are both spiritual. They often complain: “You cannot have the Kingdom present when the King is absent.” This argument has a persuasive impact upon first hearing. But its force is only felt by those who do not carefully think through the implications of the assertion. The beauty of this argument is truly only skin deep.
An immediate problem with this statement is that Satan has an evil kingdom present (Matt. 12:26; John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11), even though he is only spiritually present (Eph. 2:2; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 6:12). But a more serious problem is that Christ clearly taught that He established His Kingdom when He came to earth. Let us survey some of the evidence.
In Mark 1:15, early in His ministry, Christ says: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Notice that the prophetically decreed time had come; the Kingdom was declared near at hand — not 2000 (or more!) years away. A little later in His ministry, as He exercises power over Satan, the Lord notes: “[I]f Icast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you” (Matt. 12:28). And we know that He did cast out devils by the Spirit of God, so then by logical deduction Christ Himself has declared that His Kingdom has come.
Christ even prophesied that its coming with great power would be witnessed by His hearers: “And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, that there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power” (Mark 9:1, emphasis added). There seems to be a distinction necessary here between the Kingdom’s “coming” (which in Luke 17:20–21 is both subtle and present) and the Kingdom’s coming “with power” (which in the destruction of the temple was dramatic and future, from Christ’s perspective).
There seems no way around the fact that some who literally stood in Jesus’ presence would live (“not taste of death”) until that time, although by that very expression it is implied that some would, in fact, taste death before that event. Consequently, Christ taught that the Kingdom’s coming “with power” would occur in that generation, even though it would be somewhat later than when Jesus spoke (and, hence, not the Transfiguration of only six days later).
In Colossians 1:13 Paul writes of our present salvation: “[He] hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of His dear Son.” John agrees in Revelation 1:6, 9: “And [He] hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father … I John, who also am your brother, and companion in the tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ.” In fact, we are now ruling with Christ, for Paul says in Ephesians 2:6: He “hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (cf. Rom. 6:5, 8:17; Col. 2:13, 3:1–3; Rev. 20:4).
Dispensationalism distorts Christ’s teaching about the coming of His Kingdom, which was the dramatic point of His entire ministry. In other words, a major reason for Christ’s first coming — to be gloriously enthroned as Messianic King (Isa. 9:6, 7; Luke 24:26; John 12:23, 17:5, 18:37; Acts 2:30–34; 1 Pet. 1:11) — is lost in dispensationalism!
Christ’s Rule Is Political
Second, dispensationalism posits a carnal and political kingdom, rather than a spiritual and redemptive one. Dispensationalism has Christ on a physical throne in earthly Jerusalem administering the day-to-day political and bureaucratic affairs of the world. Citing House and Ice again, we learn: “Then God’s will in heaven will be brought to earth. But not until Christ rules physically from Jerusalem.”2
But Christ and the New Testament writers clearly discount such when they teach that His Kingdom is a spiritual Kingdom rooted in the heart (although not denying its external impact). In Luke 17:20–21 Christ contradicted the Zionist tendencies of the Pharisees when He denied a future earthly, political kingdom introduced by catastrophic intervention: “[W]hen he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there!, for, behold, the kingdom of Godis within you” (emphasis added). Paul picks up on and promotes the spiritual nature of the Kingdom when he writes that “the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:17).
When Christ stood before Pilate, He repeated the same truth. In John 18:36 we read: “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight.” His was not a political kingdom like that of Caesar’s, requiring an army. This probably explains why He asked Pilate where he got his information (John 18:33, 34). Had he heard it from the Jews, Pilate would have heard a misconception of the nature of the Kingdom (see John 6:15); had he heard Jesus say it, he should have known what Jesus intended.
Dispensationalism discounts the spiritual glory of Christ’s present rule by denying it. And this despite the Biblical record.
Christ’s Second Humiliation
Third, dispensationalism has Christ endure a second humiliation by leaving heaven (which is His throne) to return to rule on earth (which is His footstool) only to finally have His personal Kingdom rule rebelled against. One major aspect of His humiliation was His dwelling in the dust of the earth and suffering abuse during His ministry. House and Ice write that in the postmillennial view, “Messiah is in heaven and only present mystically in his kingdom. His absence from the earth during his kingdom reign robs Messiah of his moment of earthly glory and exaltation.”3
But Scripture teaches of Christ’s return to heaven that it is not a place where He is robbed! We must understand the majestic glory that is His, which issues from His ascension into heaven. Did He not pray to the Father just before the cross: “And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (John 17:5)? He was preparing to leave the earth to enter heaven. He considered that to be glorious, not a robbery of glory!
Ephesians 1:20–22 speaks of His glorious condition in heaven: “Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at His own right hand in the heavenly places, Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: And hath put all things under his feet and gave him to be the head over all things to the church.” The same concept is repeated in Philippians 2:9: “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name.” 1 Peter 3:22 agrees: “Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.”
According to classic dispensationalism, this is a robbery of His glory!
What’s worse is that the “moment of glory” Christ has during His millennial rule ends up in chaos and rebellion! J. Dwight Pentecost states that toward the end of the millennial Kingdom Satan “goes forth to deceive the nations, in order to lead a final revolt against the theocracy of God.”4 Pentecost admits that “there is no understanding how a multitude, ‘the number of whom is as the sand of the sea’ … could revolt against the Lord Jesus Christ, when they have lived under His beneficence all their lives.”5
As John F. Walvoord puts it: “Thus the last gigantic rebellion of man develops against God’s sovereign rule in which the wicked meet their Waterloo. As the battle is joined in Rev. 20:9, the great host led by Satan and coming from all directions compasses the camp of the saints. The word for ‘camp’ … seems to refer to the city of Jerusalem itself which is described as ‘the beloved city.’”6
According to classic dispensationalism, Christ’s “moment of glory” ends in chaos and ultimate failure! Dispensationalism’s “moment of glory” for Jesus puts Him back in the dust of the earth so that He might personally, physically administer a kingdom that eventually revolts against Him and attacks Him and His capitol.
The errors we have just surveyed are serious. Dispensationalism has significant — not inconsequential — problems inherent within it relative to the view of Christ and His ministry. It is important that we recognize the debate regarding dispensationalism is not over minute details of the complex of end-time events. Dispensationalism inadvertently diminishes the glory of the person and work of Christ.
1 H. Wayne House and Thomas D. Ice, Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse? (Portland: Multnomah, 1988), 220.
2 House and Ice, Dominion Theology, 160.
3 Ibid., 240.
4 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958), 548.
5 Ibid., 551.
6 John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), 304.