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What Is Dispensationalism and Who Believes It?

If you read much End Times theology, you've probably heard the term “dispensationalism” used many times. What does this word mean, and what is its history?

Author of Someplace to Be Somebody
Updated Jun 03, 2022
What Is Dispensationalism and Who Believes It?

If you read much End Times theology or attended seminary in the 1970s-1990s, you've probably heard the word “dispensationalism” tossed around. You probably wondered what this word meant and what it has to do with the last days.

What Are the Basic Beliefs of Dispensationalism?

A dispensation is a method God uses to enact His purposes toward humanity. It is also a way of reading Scripture that divides it into how God deals with His people in different dispensations. The purpose of each is to see how God planned for peoples’ salvation in each dispensation—what relates to Israel, what relates to the church, and what the End Times will look like. 

“Dispensationalism is an evangelical theological system that addresses issues concerning the biblical covenants, Israel, the church, and end times.”—Michael J. Vlach

Dispensationalists insist the Bible must be read literally. They believe that since there were literal Old Testament promises to Israel regarding ethnic and national Israel, those promises must be fulfilled in the millennium, or God is false. They also argue that the church is a wholly distinct New Testament unit separate from Israel.

Dispensationalists believe that salvation has always been by grace through faith alone. However, dispensationalism teaches God has worked in different ways in different eras of history. Those who hold to this belief often teach that the various dispensations involve a trial for humanity, a failure, then a judgment followed by the next dispensation. Different adherents have different views on the number of dispensations and what they should be called. The norm is seven dispensations, while some claim between four and eight. Adherents also debate the criteria for determining dispensations.

The seven distinct dispensations are: 

1. Innocence: The time from creation to the fall (Genesis 1:28-30, 2:15-17). This period saw sinless, deathless peace for humanity with one command—not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve’s disobedience and expulsion from the Garden of Eden ended this dispensation.

2. Conscience: Humanity was left to live alone via their own sinful will and conscience (Genesis 3:8-8:22). It was a catastrophe, as God grieved His creation of man. The dispensation of conscience ended with the flood, after which God began anew with Noah and his family (Genesis 6:11-18). 

3. Human government: God made promises (not to curse the earth again nor send another flood), and He gave commands to men (repopulate, capital punishment, permitted foods, etc.). In Genesis 11:1-9, man built the Tower of Babel, and God confused their languages and scattered them, resulting in human government.

4. Promise: The call of Abram (Abraham) is the hallmark of this dispensation, via God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-7 of a great nation and life in the promised land. The Exodus from Egypt ended this dispensation.

5. Law: Beginning with the Exodus and culminating 1500 years later with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Included is the giving of the law to Moses.

6. Grace: We are in the dispensation of grace (also called the age of grace or the church age) which started at Christ’s Resurrection and is called the new covenant in Christ’s blood. Dispensational scholars believe this 2000+ year dispensation transpires between the 69th and 70th weeks in Daniel’s prophecy (Daniel 9:24). A seal of this age is the indwelling Holy Spirit in every believer. The end of the age points to the rapture of the church (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Revelation 3:10). 

7. Kingdom (The millennial kingdom of Christ): The defeat of Satan ushers in this dispensation (Revelation 20:1-3), and 1,000 years of peace follows with Christ’s reign on earth. After the millennium, the devil is released, defeated by Christ, and then a final judgment is made of all people (Revelation 20:11-15). The old heaven and earth are destroyed by fire, Satan will be thrown into the lake of fire, and then the eternal kingdom will begin with a new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21-22).

What Is the History of Dispensationalism?

Michael J. Vlach explains that “Dispensationalism has progressed into three general ages: (1) Classical or Traditional Dispensationalism (1830-1940s); (2) Revised Dispensationalism (1950s-1986); and (3) Progressive Dispensationalism (1986-present).” 

Anglican minister John Nelson Darby instituted dispensationalism in 19th-century England. Centered on his study of Isaiah 32, Darby believed Israel and the church differed in the blessings they would enjoy. Darby believed Israel had a future beneficial dispensation, and he supported a strong distinction between Israel and the church. He supported a clear division between Israel and the church, and he propagated the idea the church would be raptured just before the 70th week of Daniel.

Ironically, Darby aligned himself with Calvinism, and most Calvinists support covenant theology (which emphasizes God-ordained covenants seen in the Bible). Yet Darby wanted to protect grace as the Bible presents it, and he decided Christians are exempt from all the Bible says as law. Instead, Christians are led by grace. When asked why the Bible includes the law, he declared Israel would be saved by the law, with the millennium’s purpose being to “allow the Jews to fulfill the law that they never properly fulfilled in the old covenant.”

Great Britain was the home of early dispensationalism. It got popular in the United States when Darby and other Plymouth Brethren ministers brought it to America. Bible conferences aided its rise in popularity, along with Bible institutes and colleges that taught dispensational views. For example, dispensationalist Lewis Sperry Chafer founded the Dallas Theological Seminary in 1824 and provided a curriculum promoting his view. Dallas Theological Seminary professors included noted dispensational authors like Charles Ryrie (who compiled a popular study Bible), John Walvoord, and J. Dwight Pentecost.

Best-selling books promoting premillennial dispensational theology include The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey and the mega best-selling Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The theology remains well-accepted in America, critics notwithstanding.

Darby also influenced lawyer-turned pastor Cyrus Ingerson Scofield, whose Scofield Reference Bible has had widespread use since its initial publication in 1909. Its all-in-one mixture of Dispensational-Premillennial theology with the King James text led many students to regard this version as authorized.

Do All Dispensationalists Believe in Premillennialism?

All dispensational followers believe in premillennialismwhich states the millennium (thousand-year reign of Christ) is a future event following His second advent. Hence, premillennial dispensationalists believe Christ will have three advents. Pre- refers to the church’s catching up (rapture) before the seven-year tribulation before Christ’s second advent (Revelation 20:1-6). The Old Testament passages cited for this view are Isaiah 9, 11, and Zechariah 14.

For further reference:

  • Amillennialism argues that we are already in the millennium with Christ’s spiritual reign in heaven.
  • Postmillennialism argues Christ’s return will occur after the millennium, and the reign will be physical—on earth.

Is Dispensationalism Biblical?

The separation of the Bible into various ages is not—in and of itself—unbiblical. Dispensational theological practices become unbiblical when they are applied to the whole Bible without accounting for the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). With a framework that emphasizes the different roles of Israel and the church and their separation into two distinct entities, strict dispensational theology greatly differs from clear biblical teaching. A Christian is implored to carefully study the Bible, approaching it prayerfully and without preconceptions that hinder the revelation given by God’s Word through His Spirit.

Additional Sources:

Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem (1984 version)

Systematic Theology by John M. Frame (2013 version)

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Ig0rZh

Lisa Baker 1200x1200Lisa Loraine Baker is the multiple award-winning author of Someplace to be Somebody. She writes fiction and nonfiction. In addition to writing for the Salem Web Network, Lisa serves as a Word Weavers’ mentor and is part of a critique group. She also is a member of BRRC. Lisa and her husband, Stephen, a pastor, live in a small Ohio village with their crazy cat, Lewis. 

This article is part of our Christian Terms catalog, exploring words and phrases of Christian theology and history. Here are some of our most popular articles covering Christian terms to help your journey of knowledge and faith:

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