Questions and Answers on Dispensationalism:  A Message to Our Former-Adventist Friends


by Joseph Rector


Many former-Adventist Christians have a difficult time approaching Bible prophecy, possibly due to negative memories of overzealous SDA prophetic expositions. Instead of exploring prophecy, many former-Adventists choose a gospel focus for the here-and-now while ignoring how the gospel may relate to eschatology—the study of end-time events. The good news of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ is certainly the most important Christian doctrine. And on the other hand, one’s interpretation of prophecy is NOT determinative of salvation. However, thousands of prophecies have been given for the encouragement of God’s people and for the glory of His name. God’s resolution of the problem of sin, in a manner determined by His wisdom and effected through His infinite power, is marvelous indeed! It is good news. Therefore, the study of prophecy is an important consideration for God’s people.


The fulfillment of Bible prophecy should be of great importance to former- Adventists because they have rejected the prophetic claims of SDA founder Ellen White. Some of her prophecies have clearly failed. The Bible says that if a prophecy does not come to pass, the prophet is not a true prophet of God. But if there are a large number of Bible prophecies that we cannot explain—prophecies in books such as Ezekiel—then how can we hold Ellen White accountable for her confused prophecies? If numerous Bible prophecies seem to have no connection to God’s people today, and which can only be fulfilled symbolically (if at all), then how can we blame Ellen White while giving Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah a free pass? Since we rightly hold Ellen White accountable for her failures, Bible prophecy should be studied carefully and held to the same level of accountability.


Sabbatismos believes that Dispensational hermeneutics promote clear and generally literal interpretations of many prophecies that would otherwise appear inexplicable. Because many former-Adventists already acknowledge several points that are compatible with Dispensationalism, there may be room for further consideration of Dispensationalism by former-Adventists.


Tenets of Dispensationalism


Dispensational hermeneutics are fairly simple to understand and apply. First, Dispensationalists attempt to interpret scripture as literally as possible. In particular, care is taken to interpret prophecies literally unless the language is clearly symbolic (e.g. the various creatures of Daniel and Revelation). Dispensationalists argue that the prophecies fulfilled to this point have been fulfilled literally, such as the prophecies concerning the birth, life, and death of Jesus Christ. Therefore, why should we expect largely symbolic fulfillments for prophecies pertaining to the future? It makes the most sense to expect prophecies of the future to be fulfilled in a similar manner to those of the past.


Second, Dispensationalism teaches that God has related to humanity through different governmental programs (or economies) in the various eras of earth’s history, and that these economies have all been established and later made obsolete for the purpose of His glory. The two economies that primarily concern believers at this time are the Old and New Covenants, commonly referred to among Dispensationalists as the Dispensation of Law and the Dispensation of Grace. It is vital to note that God’s grace permeates all dispensations—even the so-called Dispensation of Law. Therefore, Sabbatismos prefers the terms Old Covenant and New Covenant to distinguish these periods because God’s grace operates through all eras of human history.


The third major Dispensational hermeneutic is the distinction between Israel and the church. When God means to say Israel, He says Israel; when He means to indicate the church, He does so distinctly. The term spiritual Israel, which other theological systems apply to the church, never appears in scripture. Those who believe the church is spiritual Israel hold that unfulfilled prophecies concerning Israel have all been transferred to the church. In fact, many of the currently unfulfilled prophecies to Israel reveal terrible judgments against Israel prior to the return of Christ. It would be most disconcerting if these prophecies were fulfilled either literally or symbolically against Christ’s bride, the church. Therefore, promises to Israel will be fulfilled to Israel, and promises to the church will be fulfilled to the church. And some promises will be fulfilled to both. For example, the New Covenant should be understood as being fulfilled to both Israel and the church on the basis of Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8.


Dispensationalism generally goes hand-in-glove with the teaching of the Rapture. The most common form of Dispensationalism is pretribulational, which teaches that the Rapture of the church precedes the Tribulation, and that the Second Coming of Christ comes after the Tribulation but before the Millennium – during which time Christ will reign on earth. Sabbatismos believes that the pre-trib dispensational approach incorporates the biblical evidence more effectively than any other eschatological system.


Two basic points of convergence between the views of many former-Adventists and Dispensationalism will be highlighted in this article. After exploring points of agreement, several common objections to Dispensationalism and the Rapture will be discussed. Finally, we will suggest several reasons that we find most persuasive for adopting pretribulational Dispensationalism.


Points of Convergence


The Old Covenant is an agreement between God and Israel, not a progressive agreement between God and His people


The Old Covenant is the Ten Commandments, which is described as “the words of the covenant” (Ex. 34:28). The Old Covenant was given exclusively to Israel (I Kings 8:9), meaning that the various laws given to Moses were not given to the Gentiles. Therefore, Gentile Christians (and Jews who accept the New Covenant in Christ’s blood – Luke 22:20) need not be burdened by the “yoke” of the Mosaic law as described by Peter in Acts 15:10. Understanding the clear historical difference between Israel and the Gentiles should at least provide a framework for considering that prophecies specific to Israel may just as distinctly apply to Israel as the Old Covenant is distinct to Israel.


Recognition of the distinct nature of the Old and New Covenants should be the major point of convergence between the beliefs of Dispensationalists and many former-Adventists. Charles C. Ryrie observes, “There is some truth in the two statements ‘Any person is a dispensationalist who trusts the blood of Christ rather than bringing an animal sacrifice’ and ‘Any person is a dispensationalist who observes the first day of the week rather than the seventh’” (Dispensationalism, rev. ed., p. 20). While most former-Adventists would clarify that we consider all days equal (Rom. 14:5), Ryrie’s basic point is salient: once one recognizes that God has employed at least two different covenants governing the relationship between God and humanity, then one should be able to concede that a sovereign God reserves the right to switch covenants or dispensations at His will and for His glory.


When God swears a covenant, He always fulfills it


A second convergence is that covenants made on the basis of human promises will fail, but covenants guaranteed by the promises of God are unshakeable. Thus, New Covenant believers understand that the Old Covenant was based on inferior promises (the promises of Israel to keep it), but the New Covenant is based on “better promises” given by God in Christ Jesus (Heb. 8:6). If church-era believers want God’s covenant relationship with them to be immutable—completely fulfilled by the work of God—then why can’t the immutability of God’s promises be extended to the covenants He made with Abraham and with the Jewish people? The New Covenant was promised to the Jews unconditionally in Jeremiah 31. A host of other promises are made to Israel. If we as Christians are eager to retain God’s covenant blessings apart from any merit on our part, can we not allow the same for the Jews (see Eze. 37)? 


Common Objections to Pretribulational Dispensationalism


Having shown some points upon which Dispensationalism and the beliefs of many former-Adventists should agree, this article will attempt to answer several common objections to Dispensationalism and the Rapture.


Dispensationalism destroys the unity of the Bible….


Dispensationalism posits several different plans under which humans have been instructed to relate to God. The unity of the Bible is preserved because God is the sovereign author of each of these plans, and each is designed to glorify His name while benefitting humanity. Thus, Dispensationalism does not fragment the Bible.


Dispensationalism teaches multiple plans of salvation….


False. Dispensationalists are clear that believers have always been saved by grace through faith. The dispensations do not represent different requirements for salvation. There are different economies through which God has governed humanity and through which He has communicated truth. Dispensations have nothing to do with how a person is saved. For instance, an Israelite under the Old Covenant could perform all the required sacrifices and still be lost if the person didn’t live a life of faith. Simply following the rules of any particular covenant wouldn’t necessarily indicate the presence of genuine, saving faith.


The so-called Dispensation of Grace incorrectly limits God’s grace….


As mentioned previously, we prefer to call the Dispensation of Grace the New Covenant Dispensation. The common names of the dispensations were created by people who were certainly not inspired. Dispensationalists definitely understand that grace was present under every dispensation—name them what you will.


Returning to the Old Covenant during the Tribulation and the Millennium undermines Christ’s completed atonement on the cross….


Some Dispensationalists teach that the Old Covenant will be reinstated during the Tribulation, during which time God will turn His attention to the salvation of the Jews. Since Christ died once for all, bringing the Old Covenant back into force would seem to be a return to the shadow rather than the substance of salvation.


In contrast to the Old Covenant emphasis of some Dispensationalists, it is vital to note that the New Covenant given to the church in Hebrews 8 was first promised to Israel. We believe that the New Covenant will be fulfilled to the Jewish people because God always fulfills His promises. The original New Covenant promise is found in Jeremiah 31, and the context is clearly Judeo-centric:


Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. Thus saith the Lord, which giveth the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, which divideth the sea when the waves thereof roar; The Lord of hosts is his name: If those ordinances depart from before me, saith the Lord, then the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before me for ever. Thus saith the Lord; If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, saith the Lord” (Jer. 31:31-37, KJV).


The New Covenant was first promised to Israel and Judah long before the Christian era. The promise of a New Covenant to Israel is based on the word of the Lord, so it isn’t conditional upon human behavior. By repeatedly stating, “I will,” God emphasizes that the New Covenant is something He accomplishes.


The Bible describes certain aspects of Old Covenant Judaism as being part of the millennial kingdom. Isaiah 66:15-24 describes the following practices of Old Covenant origin taking place after the Second Coming (during the millennial kingdom): abstinence from unclean meats, offerings in ceremonially clean vessels offered at the house of the Lord, selection of priests and Levites, new moons, and Sabbath days. This is part of the Bible's teaching. We believe that practices of Old Covenant origin will be reinterpreted by God in a New Covenant sense after the church is raptured and that God’s requirements in the future will be entirely consistent with the completed atonement.


Biblical evidence for at least some compatibility of Old Covenant practices and New Covenant belief comes from the experience of the early church. Christians of Jewish origin were never forbidden from holding the seventh-day Sabbath as a special day (Rom. 14:5), nor were they forbidden from keeping the feasts or from attending the synagogue or temple. Paul circumcised Timothy so the Jews couldn’t object as Timothy accompanied Paul (Acts 16:3). If Jewish Christians were allowed to continue at least some of the old practices under the New Covenant, then those practices cannot be antithetical to the New Covenant.


God is sovereign over all dispensations. We should avoid being dogmatic about the characteristics of God’s future plans, other than to say that God’s future requirements will be consistent with His promises, His character, and His completed atonement on the cross.


Animal sacrifices could never be part of God’s future plan….


Sabbatismos avoids making specific predications about the type of worship that will be conducted by Jews during the Tribulation, and by the whole world during the Millennium. God’s Word speaks for itself in this matter, and God will make His requirements clear when the time arrives. We can be sure that God’s future plan will be utterly consistent with the New Covenant, which celebrates the completed work of Christ upon the cross. Ultra-literal dogmatism should be avoided when dealing with prophecy. We will discover God’s intentions when the time comes; in the meantime, we rest in His sovereignty.


Dispensationalists teach some strange things….


Individual proponents of every theological system can be guilty of outlandish statements. Evaluate every teaching carefully, praying for the Holy Spirit to guide. But don’t discount any system of theology on the basis of peripheral teachings. For instance, with respect to Dispensationalism, we are not convinced of the common identification of the countries participating in the coalition that arises against Israel in Ezekiel 38-39. However, we don’t throw out the entire system of Dispensationalism based on this point. We also question some overly literal statements made by Dispensationalists with respect to the judgments and plagues of Revelation, but that doesn’t invalidate the entire system of thought.


Sabbatismos recommends obtaining Dispensational teaching from the most reputable sources. Ryrie’s Dispensationalism is a great starting point. Books by John Walvoord are also recommended, as are John MacArthur’s books and sermons.


The founder of Dispensationalism was a disreputable character….


John Nelson Darby has become a lightning-rod for criticism. The goal has been to tar and feather Dispensationalism by associating it with Darby, even though Darby didn’t develop the core Dispensational concepts (see below). The personal life and beliefs of Mr. Darby are logically irrelevant to the truth (or error) of Dispensationalism. The theological system must stand or fall on biblical evidence, not guilt by association.


A subset of the Darby criticisms holds that Darby’s eschatology was influenced by a “prophetic” vision claimed by Margaret MacDonald. However, if one reads MacDonald’s account of her revelation, it is almost impossible to detect any clear Dispensational teaching. She actually speaks of the church going through “fiery trial,” and that doesn’t sound pretribulational. As stated previously, Dispensationalism must stand or fall with scripture. Guilt-by-association arguments should be carefully avoided.


Dispensationalism is a very recent theological system….


As a theological system, Dispensationalism is a fairly recent development. Therefore, it is argued the Dispensationalism isn’t consistent with historic Christianity.


In answer to the charge that Dispensationalism is recent, it is important to recognize that other theological systems (such as New Covenant Theology—popular with many former-Adventists) are  much more recent than Dispensationalism, so this argument should be a non-starter. But since the charge is so widely repeated, a few more points are in order.


First, the Bible teaches that end-time prophecies will be clearly understood in the end times—not before. Daniel 12:4 (KJV):  "But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased." Therefore, recent interpretations of prophecy may be a result of the end-time knowledge and understanding that God promised. Being relatively recent may actually be an argument in favor of Dispensationalism, although we certianly wouldn't dismiss historic Christian understandings of prophecy merely because they are older than Dispensationalism.  Every theological system must be tested by scripture. 


Second, eschatology has been the last area of theology to receive systematic study, meaning that any eschatological system will be recent. This is not to say that eschatological beliefs haven’t been articulated since the beginning of Christianity; we are merely stating that eschatology hasn’t been systematized until relatively recently in Christian history. Since Dispensationalism is closely linked to eschatology, it makes sense that Dispensationalism is a recent theological development.


Third, Christian leaders throughout history, although they were not Dispensationalists in a modern sense, taught concepts that are foundational to modern Dispensationalism. Describing the change from the Old to the New Covenant, St. Augustine wrote,


“The divine institution of sacrifice was suitable in the former dispensation, but is not suitable now. For the change suitable to the present age has been enjoined by God, who knows infinitely better than man what is fitting for every age, . . . ordering all events in His providence until the beauty of the completed course of time, the component parts of which are the dispensations adapted to each successive age….” (qtd. in Ryrie, Dispensationalism, p. 73).


John Calvin commented that, “God ought not to be considered changeable merely because he accommodated diverse forms to different ages, as he knew would be expedient for each” (qtd. in Ryrie, Dispensationalism, p. 43).


Later theologians drew nearer to expressing Dispensationalism as a systematic theology. John Edwards, widely regarded as the greatest American theologian, wrote A Compleat History or Survey of All the Dispensations. Isaac Watts, the famous writer of hymns, penned “The Harmony of all the Religions which God ever Prescribed to Men and all his Dispensations toward them” (Ryrie, Dispensationalism, pp. 75-76). Due to its many credible theological precedents, one shouldn’t dismiss Dispensationalism as an outlandish theology.


Proponents of the Rapture can’t agree regarding the timing of this event….


Most Dispensationalists are pretribulational, meaning that they believe the Rapture will take place prior to the Tribulation. However, many hold to a mid-Tribulation view, which holds that Christ will rapture His people at the midpoint of the Tribulation. Others hold to the pre-wrath view, meaning that the Rapture will take place before God pours out His wrath in the trumpet and bowl judgments of Revelation. Finally, other Christians look for a post-Tribulation Rapture. Sabbatismos is pretribulational, but we don’t choose to argue with the mid-Trib or pre-wrath views. Excessive arguing among Christians brings disrepute to the faith. Pre-Trib, mid-Trib, and pre-wrath believers all concur that the church will be raptured before the wrath of God is poured out; they just disagree upon the timing.


Those who would use different “flavors” of Dispensationalism as a reason to reject the system altogether should do some reading in systematic theology. Many Christian doctrines feature a variety of legitimate interpretations. Such differences do not constitute a sound reason to reject Christianity. Likewise, differences among those who believe in the Rapture shouldn’t be used as a reason to reject Dispensationalism or the Rapture.


No passage in the Bible specifies a pre-Tribulation Rapture of the church….


No passage in the Bible teaches any eschatological system A to Z. One must prayerfully evaluate the biblical teaching and adopt the system that best connects all available evidence.


Matthew 24 doesn’t describe the Rapture….


True. Matthew 24 and its parallel passages describe the Tribulation through the Second Coming. Jesus simply began His discussion of end-time events with the period following the Rapture.


Evidence in Favor of Pretribulational Dispensationalism


We believe that the doctrine of a pretribulational Rapture followed by a literal millennial reign of Christ on earth provides the best synthesis of biblical teaching, and this understanding has brought a great sense of peace as world events become increasingly ominous.


Differences in the descriptions of Christ’s return


There are major differences between biblical descriptions of Christ’s return. The best way to understand these differences is to recognize that the passages describe different events. One of the most dramatic differences is that in I Thessalonians 4:16-17, Christ’s feet do not touch the ground when He returns, whereas in Zechariah 14:4, His feet touch down on the Mount of Olives. Another difference is the positioning of the church. I Thessalonians 4:16-17 shows the church rising to meet the Lord in the air, whereas Revelation 19:14 depicts the church, arrayed in the fine white linen of the wedding supper of the Lamb (see vs. 8), coming to earth with Christ to smite the wicked. A third major difference is the destruction of the wicked, which is prominent in Zechariah 14 and Revelation 19, but which isn’t mentioned in I Thessalonians 4 or I Corinthians. 15. In the view of Sabbatismos, the most reasonable explanation for the differences is that the texts are describing two different returns of Christ: the Rapture and the Second Coming.


The Book of Revelation places the church in heaven during the Tribulation


Revelation 19 depicts the church in heaven for the wedding supper of the Lamb. While the wedding supper is taking place, judgments are falling upon the wicked on earth. After the wedding feast, the church accompanies Christ back to earth. If the church isn’t literally in heaven in Revelation 19, then the church will miss its wedding supper.


Prophecies of the Old and New Testaments align to reveal a literal reign of Christ on earth


Every prophecy inspired by God must come to pass. Therefore, when Zechariah 14, and Revelation 19-20 depict Christ literally ruling the nations of earth with a rod of iron AFTER the Second Coming, we must accommodate our eschatology to the sure word of scripture.


The pre-Tribulation Rapture preserves the imminence of the Christ’s return


The Bible instructs believers to watch for Christ’s return and to expect it at any time. If one does not believe in a pre-Trib Rapture, though, it is difficult to expect Christ to come at any time. Why? Because the antichrist must come first, accompanied by plagues and intense trials. Only then can Christ come. Therefore, a person who doesn’t believe in the pre-Trib Rapture is actually looking for the antichrist as a sign that the return of Christ is imminent. But as pre-Trib believers, Sabbatismos holds that Christ could actually come at any moment, and that gives us so much joy and hope! We are looking for the Bridegroom to come at any moment to take us home to the mansions He has prepared.


God’s love for Israel


The Apostle Paul is careful to delineate God’s everlasting love for Israel and His ongoing plan for the salvation of Israel. Paul envisions a restoration for Israel—which has been pruned from Christ, but which can be grafted back by Divine decree:


“Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell [Israel], severity, but to you [Gentile Christians], God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree? For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, ‘The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.’ ‘This is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.’ From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers [patriarchs]; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:22-28, NASB).


Dispensational theology teaches that Israel will indeed be grafted back to the tree after the church is raptured. In this passage, notice that Paul is always careful to distinguish between the church and Israel. Therefore, it should not be assumed that Paul’s teachings blend the two groups. The gospel removes the enmity between Jews and Gentiles, but it doesn’t blend the two groups with respect to the prophecies that differentiate between them.


If God made a New Covenant promise specifically to Israel (not to the church as “spiritual Israel”), shouldn’t New Covenant Christians rejoice? And shouldn’t we recognize that when God makes a covenant promise, He always fulfills it?


God’s love for His church


God has not destined His bride for wrath: For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thess. 5:9, NIV). The true church doesn’t need to pass any tests or go through a mini-purgatory of tribulation to purify herself for her Bridegroom. True believers are already fully righteous and holy through the sacrifice of Christ.  It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (I Cor. 1:30, NIV).


Christ promised the church of Philadelphia, “Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth” (Rev. 3:10, NIV). We believe that Philadelphia is the true pre-Tribulation church; Laodicea is the church that is left behind to face the Tribulation. Thus, Laodicea must “buy” their white garments, whereas the raptured church is given white linen in heaven for the wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:8). So, what is Philadelphia promised? To be kept from the hour of trial that will fall upon the entire world. Was this prophecy fulfilled to the original church in Philadelphia? No. There was no hour of trial sent by God to test the whole world in the lifetimes of those who originally constituted the church of Philadelphia. Therefore, the fulfillment of the prophecy must be in the future. God’s church will be kept from the trial that will afflict the whole world. We believe that hour of trial is the Tribulation, during which time God’s wrath is poured upon humanity in a series of seals, trumpets, and bowls as described in the Book of Revelation. And we believe that God’s method of keeping His church from these trials is the Rapture, when He takes us home to His Father’s house. Christ’s love for His church is manifest in His protection from the eschatological Tribulation.



Through this article, we have endeavored to show that there are points of agreement between the beliefs of many former-Adventists and Dispensationalism. As a result, Dispensationalism may be a topic of fruitful study among former-Adventists. We have also tried to answer some of the objections commonly raised against Dispensationalism. Finally, we have provided several evidences supporting pretribulational Dispensationalism. No system of eschatology can be proven absolutely, but the broad outlines of Dispensationalist teaching appear to harmonize scripture most effectively, clarifying the sure fulfillment of God’s Word.


January, 17, 2015