Dispensationalism is a relatively new version of premillennialism, having been created around 1830 by the Plymouth Brethren pastor and scholar, J. Nelson Darby.(1) The term “dispensation” reflects this system’s dividing history into seven distinct dispensations (i.e., eras), wherein the world operates under distinguishably different God-revealed principles, subject to specific divine testings, and with each ending in an historical divine judgment. The present dispensation is that of Grace, which encompasses the Church Age. The next dispensation will be the last, the millennium.
Dispensationalism teaches that Christ established the Church as a new and distinct people, when Israel rejected his kingdom offer in the first century. The present age is not the kingdom, but a parenthesis in the major plan of God (which focuses on Israel). Toward the end it will decline into chaos as the Church apostatizes, then Christ will return secretly to Rapture true believers out of the world. Following this the seven year great tribulation will erupt over all the earth as the Antichrist arises to dominant the world.
After this Christ will return visibly, bodily, and majestically to resurrect deceased believers and transform living ones, fight the battle of Armageddon, and establish his one thousand political reign on the earth. During his millennial rule righteousness and peace will prevail throughout the world. At the very end of the millennium Satan will be loosed and will organize a rebellion against Christ and his rule over the world. Then God will intervene to destroy Satan, resurrect deceased unbelievers and transform living ones, judge all men, and establish the eternal order.(2)
Once again we see the pessimistic character of an another millennial view. Indeed, dispensationalists argue “that spiritual and moral conditions in this world will get worse and worse as this present age draws to a close.” Contemporary advocates of dispensationalism (the majority view among evangelicals) include the following:
Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (2d. ed.: Chicago: Moody, 1995).
Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology: Church, Last Things (Minneapolis: Bethany, 2005).
(1) Theologian Robert Clouse writes: “Whereas the other strains of millennialism all have deep roots in the history of the church, the dispensational variety is of recent origin.” Robert G. Clouse, R. N. Hosack, and Richard V. Pierard. The New Millennial Manual: A Once and Future Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 56.
(2) Dispensationalism is the most complex of the millennial schools. It teaches that God establishes a series of seven dispensations (rather than simply having the new covenant age following the old covenant), has two distinct plans for two separate peoples (Israel and the Church), and that he interrupts one plan (for Israel) with another (the Church), then returns to his first plan (for Israel) after he removes the Church from the world. It also holds that God establishes worship on the basis of a sacrificial system (in the Old Testament), replaces it with a spiritual system of worship (in the New Testament), and then replaces that one with another sacrificial system (in the millennium). It also has Christ returning two more times, one secretly to Rapture his Church and one publicly to establish the millennium.