Dispensationalism is a system of biblical interpretation popular with Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists. Dispensationalists divide biblical history into different periods, called dispensations, in which God covenanted with humanity in particular ways. Although not all conservative Protestants hold dispensational views, as both a scheme of interpreting the Bible and a popular religious movement, dispensationalism is influential in the United States, where it helped define modern American evangelicalism.
Dispensationalism did not originate in the United States. Historically, Christians identified two dispensations of God's work: the Old Covenant and the New. In each testament, God unfolded a plan of salvation—through Moses or Jesus—effective for a given time. In the 1830s John Nelson Darby (1800–1882), a Church of England minister who founded the Plymouth Brethren, elaborated upon this notion to further decipher biblical history and prophecy. Instead of just two covenants, Darby identified numerous dispensations in the Bible.
Every dispensation follows the same pattern: God issues a command that tests human obedience, human beings fail the test, and God judges their failure. In the Adamic dispensation, for example, God forbade humans to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But Adam and Eve disobeyed and ate. Thus, God condemned humans to suffer and die and expelled them from Eden's bliss. Throughout Israel's history, this pattern of testing and judgment continues.
These failures should have prepared Israel to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. However, the Jews again disobeyed God by rejecting Jesus. Accordingly, God might have punished humanity with final destruction. Instead, God postponed judgment until the Jews repent and accept Jesus Christ. Hence, a great "pause" occurred in the biblical timeline. For an undetermined time, the church, God's New Israel, replaces ethnic Israel as the center of biblical history. When the church successfully completes its mission to evangelize the Gentiles, a seven-year tribulation will engulf the world, the Antichrist will deceive humanity, many Jews will finally believe in Jesus, the battle of Armageddon will occur, Christ will return and defeat Satan, and God will establish the kingdom on earth. Unique to dispensationalism is the doctrine of the "secret rapture," the belief that Christians will be snatched from earth by Jesus, who will "catch them up in the clouds" (1 Thessalonians 4:15–17). Although the majority of dispensationalists place the rapture before the tribulation, some locate it halfway through or at the end of the tribulation.
In the United States, influential ministers in the late nineteenth century advocated dispensationalism through revival meetings, Bible and prophetic conferences, and Bible institutes. Many American Protestants became convinced that dispensationalism was the key to unlock biblical prophecy. Even mainline denominations—including the Presbyterians and Episcopalians—had dispensational factions. In 1909 the new Scofield Reference Bible made dispensational theology widely accessible, and the book became a best-seller (expanded in 1917; revised in 1967). In 1924 dispensationalists founded the Dallas Theological Seminary to train pastors for their burgeoning movement.
Although dispensationalism experienced continued popularity with conservatives, it seemed to decline at midcentury with negative public perceptions of fundamentalism. In 1970 Hal Lindsey, a Dallas Seminary graduate, published The Late Great Planet Earth as an up-to-date explanation of dispensational teachings. By 1974 Lindsey's book had gone through forty editions and sold four million copies. His rendering of prophecy shaped the political views of the nascent Religious Right, despite dispensationalist pessimism regarding human institutions. Part of Ronald Reagan's appeal to the Religious Right came from his ability to synthesize prophetic concerns into Republican politics and foreign policy. Influential dispensationalists, such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, retained elements of the theology while adapting it to the politics of the 1980s and 1990s. As of 1999, The Late Great Planet Earth remained in print. However, as the century ended, it had been somewhat supplanted by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins's fictional Left Behind series, which repackaged dispensationalism in the guise of political-religious thrillers.
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Diana Hochstedt Butler Bass