Biblical prophecy about the End Times has always been popular in the cultural psyche of the Western evangelical Church. With the horrors of World War I and II, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the emergence of 21st-century terrorism, and the ongoing worries over climate change, never has the “zombie” apocalypse (depending on who you talk to) seemed so imminent. In response to these geopolitical events, many evangelicals in the West have adopted the eschatological system of premillennial dispensationalism. This system, popularized by the Left Behind series of apocalyptic fiction, has led many Christians to fundamentalist beliefs about prophetic Scripture that stand in sharp contrast to Biblical orthodoxy and traditional evangelical theology.
Premillennial dispensationalism is complex, consisting of a variety of eschatological conclusions based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.
It claims that Jesus will return to earth before the “millennium” — Christ’s literal thousand-year reign described in the book of Revelation. For premillennial dispensationalists, there are two parousias: Christ will return before the great tribulation (the “rapture” – a literal interpretation of 1 Thess. 4:16-17) and again seven years later to begin His millennial reign. This approach is futurist, in that the promises of God’s Kingdom will take place in the future through a dramatic (and catastrophic) intervention by God.
This method of biblical interpretation stands in sharp contrast to covenant theology, which views God’s activity in redemptive history through the biblical covenants God made with His people and the earth. Again, in the dispensational system, we see that the age of the kingdom is a future reality (the final dispensation), not realized until the second coming of Christ and the literal establishment of His millennial kingdom.
Premillenial dispensationalism also maintains that God’s plan includes a future for national Israel. Therefore, many adherents of dispensationalism see current political events surrounding the state of Israel as prophetic signals to the End Times, causing an increase in right-wing political and religious fundamentalism to emerge in the West in the form of Christian Zionism. This has cost evangelicalism much of its credibility and has led to a crisis of theology in many North American churches where politics is thwarting the traditional evangelical mission of the Gospel.
Another belief of premillennial dispensationalism that stands in opposition to biblical orthodoxy and traditional evangelicalism is how it “greatly reinforced the divorce between earth and heaven,” says Howard Snyder, author of Salvation Means Creation Healed. According to Snyder, this divorce had already been “afflicting Western theology” for centuries. “In fact”, says Snyder, “premillennial dispensationalism would very likely not have developed at all had the church form the beginning stayed true to biblical teachings about God’s covenant with the earth.”
We see God’s covenant with the earth beginning with the Noahic Covenant of re-creation and culminating in the New Covenant promise of new creation. However, what premillennial dispensationalism argues for is sudden establishment of God’s kingdom on earth after initial apocalyptic destruction.
Here, a gradual realization of God’s kingdom (inaugurated by Christ’s first coming) stands outside of the rigid literalism through which premillennial dispensationalists interpret Scripture. Anything that stands in opposition to their beliefs—be it anthropocentric or gradual eschatologies—becomes a target of their literalist polemics. Furthermore, because of the “earth-heaven” divorce that premillennial dispensationalism creates, eschatology is also divorced from mission in the present world—a central aspect of traditional evangelicalism—and replaced with political and religious fundamentalism.
Premillennial dispensationalism is pessimistic in its outlook of creation and the role of the Church in universal restoration. It promotes a form of escapist theology, that leads believers to abandon the earth and its problems. While dispensational eschatology is hostile to the world, traditional evangelicalism has always pursued a missional eschatology that tied salvation and the work of the Church to universal restoration.
Within this system, Christian mission is limited to the personal realm of the soul, rather than expanded to the corporate realm of creation. However, the Biblical worldview, although including the salvation of individual souls, includes the wider message of God’s promise to restore creation. But biblical “mission,” says N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope, “must urgently recover from its long-term schizophrenia. As I have said before, the split between saving souls and doing good in the world is a product not of the Bible or the gospel but of the cultural captivity within the Western world.”
As the inaugurating event of God’s kingdom on earth, the resurrection of Christ brings God’s future hope into the present reality of our world. The Church’s mission is to spread the Gospel of new creation in Christ, not a cultural gospel that limits the Bible’s message to doom and gloom.
N.T. Wright explains in Surprised by Hope:
The Bible as a whole…does what it does best when read from the perspective of new creation. And it is designed not only to tell us about that work of new creation, as though from a detached perspective, not only to provide us with true information about God’s fresh, resurrection life, but also to foster that work of new creation….The Bible is thus the story of creation and new creation, and it is itself, through the continuing work of the Spirit who inspired it, an instrument of new creation in human lives and communities.
In a world quaking with eschatological birth pains, this hope of new creation has never been more urgent. As the Church prepares to establish itself in the global realm of the twenty-first century, it will need to affirm the Gospel’s promise of eschatological hope and create new ways of sharing this hope with the world.
Photo from flickr by Ted Van Pelt (CC BY 2.0).