This study completes our look at four of the major views on end-time Bible prophecy. We conclude by considering the type of premillennialism known as dispensational premillennialism.
The word dispensationalism is derived from the word dispensation, which simply means “stewardship”. The word “stewardship” or “dispensation” (depending on the translation) is used in Ephesians 3:2. Normative dispensational premillennialism maintains that God has a distinct stewardship involving the nation of Israel, and a distinct stewardship involving the church (there are actually several dispensations recognized in normative dispensationalism, but these two will suffice for now). That is to say, God has a unique divine program involving the nation of Israel, and a unique divine program involving the church. The two are not one and the same. Israel is not the church and the church is not Israel. Israel’s role is different than that of the church. Thus, God has a purpose for Israel and a purpose for the church, and the two purposes are unique to each group.
Again, this may seem like theological nit-picking. However, like historic premillennialism, this Israel-church relationship has massive ramifications for the position of dispensational premillennialism. Since dispensationalists see the church as representing a separate, distinct plan from God’s role for Israel, dispensationalists do not see the church as participating in prophecies that are uniquely for the nation of Israel. This includes the seven-year end-time tribulation period, which dispensationalists maintain is uniquely related to the nation of Israel, having no relevance to the church. Dispensationalists point to Daniel 9:24-27, which seems to indicate that the time period equated to the final 7-year tribulation period is unique to Daniel’s “people” (the Jews) and Daniel’s “holy city” (Jerusalem). Thus, dispensational premillennialists argue that the church cannot have any part in the tribulation period, but must be raptured prior to the tribulation, and the rise of Antichrist. Dispensational premillennialism is pre-tribulational with respect to the rapture (the church will escape the tribulation) while historic premillennialism is post-tribulational (the church will go through the tribulation). There are other reasons why dispensationalists believe in a pre-tribulation rapture, but this is a key one.
Dispensational premillennialism affirms a literal, 1,000 year future reign of Christ on the earth. During this time, many of the Biblical prophecies that speak of the Messiah reigning over both Israel and the nations (Luke 1:32-33, Zechariah 9:10), will be inaugurated and/or fulfilled. The millennium will feature a restored Israel with the Jewish people converted to Christ and planted in their own land in the Middle East. The church will reign with Christ in glorified bodies – having already been resurrected prior to the millennium.
Advocates of this system have included John Nelson Darby, Lewis Sperry Chafer, John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, and J. Dwight Pentecost. Many 20th and 21st century evangelical teachers of prophecy have also espoused dispensational ideas such as Hal Lindsey, Grant Jeffrey, and John Hagee.
Strengths of this system include the fact that it consistently distinguishes between God’s plan for Israel and His plan for the church. Of the four systems, it is also the one that is most faithful to a consistent “plain-sense” reading and interpretation of prophecy. That is, it does not try to allegorize or spiritualize prophecies where that is not warranted. Israel means Israel! 1,000 years means 1,000 years!
Dispensational premillennialism became the most popular form of American premillennialism in the 20th Century and stood in contrast to postmillennialism, which had been common in America since the time of the Puritans and the colonial era. Different factors in the 19th and 20th centuries lead to the waning of postmillennialism and the waxing of premillennialism. For one thing, the positive outlook of postmillennial theology which understood history to be getting better and better as the gospel spread was challenged by the onset of the American Civil War, and later on, the World Wars of the 20th Century. Additionally, the 19th century witnessed the rise of modernism and liberal theology. Many Protestants in America saw the rise of liberalism in the church, and liberal theology as a mark of apostasy in the church – a key premillennial theme. This threat had to be responded to, and many Protestants in 19th century North America organized various Bible Conferences that engaged in a serious study of Scriptures, defended the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, and were premillennial in their view of the end-times. One of the major conferences of the day was the Niagara Bible Conference (1876 – 1897, with the exception of 1884) held at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Article XIV of the Niagara Creed reveals the premillennial conviction of the conference attendees:
We believe that the world will not be converted during the present dispensation [a clear refutation of postmillennialism], but is fast ripening for judgment, while there will be a fearful apostasy in the professing Christian body [an apparent allusion in part to liberalism]; and hence that the Lord Jesus will come in person to introduce the Millennial age, when Israel shall be restored to their own land, and the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord; and that this personal and premillennial advent is the blessed hope set before us in the Gospel for which we should be constantly looking.”
Niagara and other conferences would contribute to the theological tone among many conservative evangelical Protestants in North America in the 19th and 20th centuries who sought to resist liberalism in the church. These conferences then, were part of the reason for the spread and acceptance of dispensational premillennialism. One of the Niagara Conference attendees was C.I. Scofield who authored the widely popular Scofield Reference Bible, which was a Bible that featured notes and commentary on various passages of Scripture from a dispensational perspective. Scofield was also the mentor of Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, which did much to spread dispensational premillennialism in America and beyond. Many of the leading dispensational writers, and Bible prophecy writers of the 20th century came through Dallas, including John. F. Walvoord, J.Dwight Pentecost, Charles Ryrie, Hal Lindsey, David Jeremiah, and others.
 S. Robinson, Conference Hill Studies: Report of the Believers’ Meeting for Bible Study, Held at Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, July 18th – 25th, 1888 (Nabu Press, 2011), 13; Parenthesis added.