Chapter Seven: The Impossible Dream
Over the last 2,000 years the church of Jesus Christ has seen periods of explosive growth, as well as times when it appeared that all was lost.
I recall the prophet Elijah who demonstrated on Mount Carmel to his people that Baal was a false God and that Jehovah was the only true God. Yet even after he called fire out of heaven by the word of God, he found himself alone and in despair. At that time the Lord told Elijah that He had 7,000 reserved to Himself that had not bowed down before Baal. Elijah first had what we sometimes call a “mountain top” experience. When he came down from that mountain, the high of that experience wore off. Then circumstances changed and he lost his confidence, even fearing for his life.
It is not too difficult to look back on times of peace and prosperity and to understand how many optimistic songs and writings came about. It is also evident how interpretations of the bible became more optimistic during these times. On the other hand, times of suffering and discouragement often inspire songs expressing our desire to leave this world for a “cabin in the corner of glory land.” During these times interpretations of the bible often begin to focus on the hopelessness of this world and upon our future in eternity.
When many people of faith came to America to settle and experience the freedom to worship God according to their own consciences, an optimistic view of the future and the promises of God became commonplace. It was this hope, inspired by the scriptures that actually prompted them in their journeys to the new land. In the midst of their struggle for survival many saw the progress of the Kingdom God in space and time. The hymns and the sermons of that time reflected their optimism and hope for God’s triumph in the earth. People living in the past century or so know little about the optimism of those days. The impact of 2 great world wars, a great depression, the threat of a nuclear holocaust, religious division and many other factors have since led many to a fatalistic viewpoint. Even the more optimistic among us struggle to maintain a hopeful outlook.
Our theology can even be deeply impacted by these situations. The promises of God can begin to look like an impossible dream. In nineteenth century England, a group of Christians left the established church and started a new movement. This movement saw the failures of the organized church in England and hoped to find a way to practice their faith in a more biblical manner. The influence of the Plymouth Brethren on modern Christianity persists to this day in groups and denominations that know little about them. History has many times repeated itself when people become disillusioned with the church group they have been in. At times the failures are so glaring that separation is the only solution. We can easily begin to feel like Elijah, doubting that any hope is left for the church in general.
One of the prominent figures in this movement was John Nelson Darby. For him, the only hope for the cold-heartedness that he saw in the church of his day was the second coming of Christ. His brilliant mind began to search the biblical prophecies and he came up with a system of interpretation known as Dispensationalism. The effect of this effort led to a renewed interest in what the bible predicted about the future and what will happen at Christ’s coming. His system of interpretation was not widely accepted at first but eventually was accepted by the American theologian and minister C.I. Scofield. Probably the greatest means of establishing Dispensationalism in America was the publishing of his study bible, with detailed comments, references and footnotes that led to interpreting the entire bible from this perspective.
The most critical and concerning point to Darby’s scheme is the idea that the Kingdom of God was postponed. Darby taught that since Israel as a whole rejected Christ, His promise of the kingdom was withdrawn until a future day when Israel would receive Him. Before that time, however, the darkest days of history would fall upon the entire world. The series of popular books and films entitled, “Left Behind,” are based on this premise. To be honest, all of the debates surrounding the pros and cons of this subject can make my head spin. At the same time, the fact that the Kingdom did come, as plainly presented in the New Testament is very clear to me.
Christians in America began to lose their sense of optimism as the 20th century began to unfold. In this same period the Dispensationalist teachings in the Scofield Reference Bible became relevant to many Christian leaders. It’s message that the world would progressively get darker and more dangerous certainly agreed with what they were witnessing. It’s solution that Christ was soon to come and remove the true believers from the earth before the end was certainly appealing to them as well.
Before the advent of Dispensationalism, there were three major views of the Kingdom of God and the coming of Christ. Each of them had periods of popularity in different parts of the world. Over the past 100 years in America, Dispensationalism has become dominant among several denominations. Some assume that it is the only true interpretation of biblical prophecy and often are unaware that the other views even exist within biblical Christianity. To be fair, each of these views find support from the scriptures. At the same time each of them also has aspects that seem to contradict either the main focus or certain portions of Scripture. The Lord will certainly reveal all things in His time, and we will look for full understanding when that Day arrives! In any case we are all called to be faithful to the Lord’s purpose and direction of our lives. This is precisely part of what I am attempting to do here!
Back in the 1970’s I not only experienced my own personal, spiritual “awakening,” but I found myself among a number of other believers learning that we were in this together. The sense of Christ and His Eternal glory and love infused us all with a sense of hope and expectation. In our studies of the Bible we were drawn to many scriptures which affirmed our optimism. We began to question some of the popular teachings concerning Christ’s coming and His Kingdom. It was not until later when I found that what we had been taught was not as “main stream” or “orthodox” as we had thought. Since then I have continued to seek the Lord for greater understanding of the various interpretations of Bible prophecy. While it is obvious that troubling times are ahead of us, His Word brings the conviction that God will bring even greater blessings to His creation through all of it! (Romans 8:19-22).
It has not been easy over the past 50 years to keep this “impossible dream” alive. Many discouraging events have transpired in both our personal lives and in the world around us. However, it is something that I cannot let go. I also have to say it is a part of who I am today. Like Don Quixote in the play, “The Man From La Mancha,” I might look like a fool to some. If I am a fool for Christ, so be it! I will wear that title gladly! Yes it might seem to make more sense to accept the dark dystopian future foreseen by many science fiction stories of our day. It would require no effort what so ever to stand by and watch it unfold. At least the Christian Dispensationalist hopes to help a few escape that dark future by sharing the Gospel and the hope of heaven with them. I am definitely for that. At the same time I see in the scripture a great and powerful God, whose mighty people are crashing down the gates of hell and preparing the way for a marvelous day when “the knowledge of the Glory of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea!” We are becoming salt and light to the world even now!
A number of wise teachers and authors have effectively analyzed the dispensational system of biblical interpretation and found it fairly simple to dismantle. I will not attempt to do that here in depth. I have shown that God’s overriding purpose in the earth was already beginning to unfold in the earliest scriptures. This will be continually affirmed in the rest of the bible, if we keep it in mind. At the same time we trust that God will reveal the details to us as we need to know them. We will live and walk by faith in His great power and goodness!
One final thought on this topic: should we base our faith concerning the future God has planned upon what we hear from the news media, or upon what God has promised in His Word? Should we interpret the scriptures based upon events observed in the secular world, or in the realm where we truly find life — the Kingdom of Heaven?