For those who don't know, dispensationalism is the teaching that God has made a particular number of covenants with the people of the earth, and with these covenants He dispenses certain graces, laws, and powers. Thus the time periods within which these covenants are in "operation" can be defined by what graces are dispensed with it, often called dispensations.
Within the movement of dispensationalism there has developed a unique and currently popular eschatological view, which is a form of premillennialism, which takes the various apocalyptic texts in Scripture allegorically. This means that the various symbols and images are taken as simple symbols that each point to a singular identifiable and describable reality. This view then takes that base assumption, as well as a view that Revelation is a chronological historical account of the eschaton, and construct a precise, linear, and propositional reimaging of the book of revelation interlaced with other eschatological biblical texts. However, I cannot agree with this view.
Now there are many things about the premillennial view that I do agree with. Essentially, I am a chilialist, mostly because I think it is the most natural reading of the text. The primary problem that I have with dispensational eschatology isn't so much it's eschatological views, but its hermeneutics, as well as its ecclesiology.
Ecclesiology: The Relationship Between Israel and the Church
My essential ecclesiology is what is know as the corporate election view of the church (I highly recommend the work of Brian Abasciano).
According to dispensationalism, God made a covenant with Abraham and Moses, and through those covenants He dispensed certain graces to the particular nationality of the Hebrews. When Christ came, God made a new covenant with Christ to replace the old covenant, and under this covenant, God is now, for a time, working with the church instead of Israel, until the "full number of the Gentiles has been saved". After that, during the Great Tribulation, God will return His attention to the Hebrews.
However, I don't think this jives with what the epistles say about the relation between the church and Israel, and I don't think it jives with Revelation either. Often, dispensationalists will call any theology that believes that the church has received the full promises of Israel as "Replacement Theology" (i.e. the church has replaced Israel). Well, I cannot say that such a theology does not exist, but this is not the corporate election view.
My primary understanding of the relation between the Church and Israel is derived from the metaphor found in Romans chapter 11. There, Paul takes up the analogy of a olive tree, which represents Israel, and says that the Gentiles have been grafted into the vine. Additionally, the Jews are referred to as "natural branches" even after they are cut off.
I do not think that the church is separate from Israel, and I do not believe that the Church has replaced Israel (or is the "true Israel"), but the Church is an extension Israel in that Israel includes the Church. Those who were elect through Abraham are still elect, but those of us who are elect through Christ are grafted onto the vine of Jacob. As Paul says, the Jews are enemies in terms of the gospel, but they are still loved in election, for we are both part of the body of Israel, and God's covenants are ever lasting (Romans 11:28).
Hermeneutics: Appreciating Apocalyptic Literature
One of the basic problems with dispensational eschatology it that it treats Revelation and Daniel as if they were written in a vacuum. In reality, this style of literature was blossoming before the coming of Christ (IV Ezra 3-14, Enoch, and more) and was taking up by the church afterwards (the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, and more). What this means is that we can discern the manner in which these texts are meant to be understood by considering other examples.
In my present understanding, which was gathered mostly from the tutelage of Dr. Timothy Dwyer (though I do not assume I remember it perfectly, so don't judge him too much for my memory), the assumption of apocalyptic literature is that there is a earthly plane, and a spiritual plane, and that the events in one influence the other. Indeed, the events in one are the same as the other, for it is not really dualistic, as much as it sees spiritual realities as an aspect of the tangible. As such, the prophet is given visions of what is going on in the spiritual realm, which he then records.
Already we see a divergence away from the dispensational allegorical view where every image or thought merely represents a physical (or literal) reality. Instead, it is a different way of viewing the world that sees the forces beyond what our eyes perceive. In such a construction, one cannot expect that every image as an exact physical counterpart, but that the spiritual and its physical manifestation constitutes a complex relationship. It is viewing things as a one-to-one relationship that is often the problem.
Indeed, apocalyptic literature is not historical in mode, but rather expository, as it attempts to explain the realities behind historical events, rather than merely record the events themselves in an artistic manner. I am sure many preterists are loving me so far.
However, just as the text explains the realities behind historical events, those historical events are not necessarily past or present. The one thing that I do agree with dispensationists about is that the events that we read about, or at least their physical manifestations, are future events. To say otherwise, in my opinion, is to deny the validity of much of the message. Whenever Revelation is read by a group under similar calamities as the original audience, it is always understood as a great "tribulation" which ushers in the physical and final return of Christ. This is the most natural reading of the text and must be maintained.
But the doggedly exact interpretation of the dispensationalists defies practicality and almost always results in a form of dogmatism. Additionally, such interpretations are continually refined as history progresses and past assumptions become impossibilities.
As I said before, my view is a form of chilaism, or many of you may prefer millennialism. Dispensationalism itself is merely a form of chilaism, and despite what many have argued, chilaism is a very old view of Revelation (see Justin Martyr and Irenaeus). However, I take up a number of preterist sensibilities in terms of hermeneutics and understanding Revelation through the eyes of general apocalyptic literature.
As such, here is a brief outline of some of my current thoughts in this area (You may notice that some of these thoughts are more specific, while others are more broad. Additionally, most of these thoughts are still very new and therefore up for debate within my own mind):
- The 7 churches of the first three chapters were seven literal churches from John's time to whom John was writing this book for encouragement
- The principal themes of the book are not defining the end times, but addressing the issues of the 7 churches as described in chapters 2-3.
- The 3 sets of 7 judgements are not chronological. Instead, they are a retelling of the same stretch of time.
- Indeed, they are probably not chronological within themselves either, but instead represent a thematic progression.
- The 144,000 witnesses are the exact same body as the Great Multitude mentioned right afterward. The same literary device is used here as used with the lion and the lamb in chapter 5.
- I do believe in the concept of a single global leader that could be called an antichrist, and that he is represented as the beast out of the sea.
- I believe that Christ will reign in a millennial kingdom sometime in the future, though the actual number 1,000 may not be literal.
- I have a theory, though I cannot validate it with any sources yet, that the white horse from the first scroll represents captivity and slavery. The idea of taking slaves is often associated with the idea of conquering in the Old Testament.
- The events described after chapter 3 all take place in the future.
- That the primary points of the book are:
- Remaining loyal to Christ in the face of persecution.
- Remaining separate from the world and the world's values. Especially depending on earthly wealth.
- Remaining vigilant in your passion for Christ for the end is near.
- That despite the power of the world around us, God will ultimately win.