Newsflash: I do not care for the biblical interpretation of the End Times known as Dispensationalism. And, there are so many reasons not to like it: it’s not in the Bible, it uses scare tactics to “bring people to Christ”, it has been a leader in the commercialization of Christianity, it is a very “us vs. them” interpretation, it paints a very ugly picture of God and it allows Christians to ignore the suffering of others and their responsibility to the plane just to name a few. So, how did this fever dream become such a dominant part of the American religious landscape? For that, we have two people to blame…, um, make that “thank”.
Sometime in the mid-1800’s, John Nelson Darby, an Anglican minister and member of the Plymouth Brethren movement, came up with the idea that God dealt with humanity through a series of dispensations or eras of history. According to Darby, we are now in the 6th era, the dispensation of grace, which will end when Jesus comes back and raptures his Church. As Matt Turner points out in his latest book Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity (which I highly recommend), Darby dreamed all this up while living in England and spent a very limited amount of time in the U. S.; which means he needed an American accomplice. Enter James H. Brookes.
Brookes was a Presbyterian pastor, writer and one of the leading dispensationalists of his era. He wrote extensively on the subject (7 books, 250 pamphlets and a very popular periodical), but his biggest contribution to the eschatology was mentoring Cyrus Schofield, best known as editor of the Schofield Reference Bible. While you’ve probably never heard or read anything written by Brookes, the same isn’t true of Scofield’s Bible. In the 20th century, it changed the way Americans thought about God. Even today, it’s still popular in circles of a more fundamentalist bent.
So, we know how it got so popular, but what about why? Dispensationalism became popular in the U. S. during the Gilded Age, one of the most selfish, greedy eras in America’s history. The idea that Jesus is coming back at literally any minute allowed Christians to continue living extremely indulgent lifestyles (or held out false hope to the poor that their travails wouldn’t last much longer); an idea that still holds true today.
It is because of Dispensationalism that some of our elected officials can deny the effect our way of life has on the Earth’s climate or that Mark Driscoll can publicly state “I know who made the environment. He’s coming back, and he’s going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV” with a straight face. It is Dispensationalism that allows a follower of Christ to put more emphasis on a person’s soul than their stomach. That’s just sad.
Look, you can believe what you want, but please stop saying a theology that allows you to ignore what Jesus actually taught because he’s “coming back any minute” is in any way Christ-like. Because it’s not.