I recently began reading a book by Alistair Donaldson on the problems with Dispensationalism (see pic). I’m about half-way through and it’s been a fair treatment of the subject so far; I’ll have to wait and see if these things hold true till the end. Two things have been encouraging about the book: (1) much of what Donaldson argues is in line with a number of conclusions that I’ve reached on my own on this topic; thus, it’s good to know that I’m in good company in my thinking. And (2) Donaldson clarifies a vital need when talking about Dispensationalism, and that is: most discussions tend to say, “Dispensationalism has come so far from its origins, and a number of scholars–even Dispensational ones–are showing how the classical form is no longer viable or even biblical. So there’s no real need to debate or look at the older forms of Dispensationalism.”
But the problem is, as Donaldson points out, that recognition is almost exclusively a scholarly perspective. In other words: scholars are the ones who have accepted the advances made; the classical (and even modified) form of Dispensationalism still exists and is taught in many churches, and thus still finds is way into popular Christianity. Therefore, while we are safe to exclude treatments of the older version when talking about it at the scholarly level, there is still a need to include them at the popular level. Here is a case in point:
Over at Beliefnet.com (a site that I only know about in a passing way, which is to say: I try to avoid it as much as possible), Lesli White composed an article entitled, “5 Important Facts About Jesus’ Second Coming”. Sounds intriguing, to be sure. The tagline is (an attempt to be) equally captivating: “While we don’t know every detail, The Word promises these five things will happen when Jesus returns again.” Sounds promising. Except for one thing. Some of what she lists is not what “The Word promises…will happen when Jesus returns again”, rather it’s what Dispensationalism (because of its idiosyncratic and flawed hermeneutic) promises will happen. To be sure, the general points in her list do parallel the teaching of the NT–e.g., Jesus’ coming from heaven, our complete ignorance about the timing, the return will be obvious, and the second will be different from the first. But the parallels stop there. On the surface. Once we start to dig into the specifics of her individual points, we encounter not only a Dispensationally marinated theology but also some basic problems/flaws/inconsistencies.
For example: White’s second point proceeds–without justification, mind you (but that’s the old Dispy’s MO)–with the assumption that “While the two are often confused, the second coming is not the rapture”, and then goes on to explain why the two are meant to be kept separate. Hence, White is advocating a two-stage Second Coming of Christ–one where he sort of comes back, but not really; and a second (/third), where he means it this time. Not only that, but White proceeds on the (equally unproven) assumption that “the church” is a completely separate entity in God’s salvation plan–and by that it is meant, “the church” is neither the Jews nor the Gentiles (i.e., the unbelieving world). By implication from the rest of what she says in this point, this means: at the so-called “rapture”, the church alone is rescued while everyone else is screwed and has to endure 7 years of “wrath” and “great tribulation.” Sorry, but neither of these two teachings is not found in the NT; they are especially not found in (or even supported by) texts like 1 Thess 4.13-18 or (I’m assuming she meant to write) 1 Cor 15.50-54. These ideas, however, are two of the essential pillars for Dispensationalism, so one can easily find them there. And only there.
White’s third point also has some concerns. Two are worth mentioning. First, she is very cautious in how she chooses to word her claims. When talking about the unexpectedness of the event, White focuses her attention on “the return” of Christ. While (seemingly) benign to most everyone else in the church, this phrasing is necessary for the Dispensationalist system of interpretation, which in turn formulates the Dispensationalist’s theology. By focusing on “the return” as an unknown event, White is emphasizing the so-called “rapture” and not Jesus’ (final-and-I-really-mean-it-this-time) Second Coming. Thus, for the Dispy, at the word level: “return” = “rapture”. And she has to follow this notion, partly because, of the two events (wrongly) assumed to be a part of Christ’s two-stage coming, the so-called “rapture” is the only one that is described as unknown, unannounced, without warning, blah, blah, blah. And the other part is because, if this event (supposedly) precedes Jesus’ (final-and-I-really-mean-it-this-time) Second Coming, all one needs is simple math to work out when the Second Coming will take place–i.e., 7 years after the so-called rapture–thus making it a known event. That’s the first cocnern in her point. The second one is easier stated: the passage she ropes in to support her case (Matt 24.36) not only says nothing about a so-called rapture–either before it or after it–but also is, as Dispys typically argue, focused on the Second Coming.
And that brings me to the final¹ concern in White’s case. In her fourth point, White is correct in describing the return of Christ as “visible and audible”. This is a breath of fresh air from the otherwise dank claims of older Dispensationalism which tends to advocate a “secret rapture” (cf. this). But the relief stops there, for White immediately launches into a treatment that leaves one rather puzzled. I say that because, in speaking of Christ’s “return” we are left with the impression that White is still referring to the so-called “rapture”–an impression that is encouraged by references to texts like 1 Thess 4.16, a passage that some have rightly defined as “one of the noisiest” in the NT.² But right alongside this are references that Dispys typically use to speak about not the so-called “rapture” but Christ’s final Coming–i.e., Matt 24.26-27, 31, and (from the previous point) 36. This would suggest, at the very least, that White–in her exuberance to make a point–accidentally conflated the two ideas into one. Or it would at least suggest that the (wrongly) assumed two-stage Coming of Christ is not as important or necessary or clear-cut as White so adamantly claimed in an earlier point. Or, at best, it would begin to expose the fact that Dispys have no biblical case for a two-stage Coming of Christ, but that they have to make such a case in order to sustain an idiosyncratic and flawed hermeneutic–one that created a rather idiosyncratic and flawed theological perspective³–and in making such a case, they simply get things wrong. And they get things wrong, because they’re missing the point: the final Coming of Christ is not about the rapture. Not even close. It’s about so much more.
¹ Well, the “final” one to be noted here.
² S. Wohlberg, End Time Delusions (2004), 22.
³ My problem with Dispensationalism, especially the Classical and Modified/Revised forms of it, is twofold: it surreptitiously (1) questions the NT writers as inspired advocates of God’s truth, and ultimately (2) downplays the full scope of Christ’s salvific, redemptive, atoning, and fulfilling work.