Monday, 14 May 2012

The Last Days of Dispensationalism: Alistair Donaldson

“The United States must join Israel in a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God’s plan for both Israel and the West… a biblically prophesied end-time confrontation with Iran, which will lead to the Rapture, Tribulation, and Second Coming of Christ.”
These are not the views of some eccentric or extremist cult leader, but of Pastor John Hagee, the senior pastor of Cornerstone Church, San Antonio, Texas, a church of more than 19,000 members at the heart of America’s Bible belt. John Hagee’s apocalyptic speculations are disseminated to 100 million homes via radio and TV on a weekly basis. His views are shared by many other evangelical, charismatic and pentecostal leaders, seminary professors and television evangelists. Together, they are promoting a deeply pessimistic, confrontational and destructive view of Amerca’s present and future role in the world, and in the Middle East, in particular.

Alastair Donaldson could therefore not have written a more timely or needed book. He rightly insists:
“Beliefs shape how Christians live their lives. Eschatology is no mere appendage at the end of the bible with little to say to life in the present. Eschatology is the goal of God from the beginning of time; the bible is therefore eschatological from beginning to end. The past, present and future of God’s redemptive work is the Christian’s context for exegeting an understanding of who they are. To get that context wrong is to misunderstand our role in effecting God’s redeeming activity.”
Perpetuating a dualistic and Manichean world view, first Communism and now Islam are demonised as the ‘enemy’. Bible verses are quoted confidently to explain contemporary geo-political events leading to the battle of Armageddon. Religious sounding rhetoric such as “Operation Infinite Justice” and “Axis of Evil” is used to justify a beligerant foreign policy and military intervention against other sovereign States. Huntingdon’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ is becoming the self fulfilling prophecy of the Christian Right.

The Church in America, in particular, must therefore rethink its eschatology. For a century or more, the dominant eschatological view held by Christians in America has been Dispensationalism. Dispensationalism teaches that God has two separate chosen people, Israel and the Church, a heavenly and an earthly people. This has led many Chritians to believe that their responsibility is to take sides and support or ‘bless’ Israel to ensure God’s continuing blessing of America.

Typified by John Hagee, Dispensationalism is deeply sceptical of peacemaking as a Christian calling. It has largely silenced the propetic call for justice. It has sacralised unilateral military and economic support for a beligerant Zionism. It is exacerbating the deep mistrust much of the world feels toward America and more importantly, toward Christianity.

Donaldson shows with careful logic that following a literal hermeneutic does not lead to a distinction between God’s purposes for the Jewish people apart from other races. Just the reverse, God’s purposes for both are fulfilled only in and through faith in Jesus Christ. It is not that the Church has replaced Israel. Israel and the Church are one people. In the progressive revelation of Scripture through history there is a continuity among God’s people. Membership has always been on the basis of faith not race.

Donaldson shows that it is artificial and unbiblical to distinguish between Israel and the Church in God’s purposes. There has only ever been one people of God. Indeed, there is an organic unity of God’s people between the Old Testament Church and the New Testament Church. Christ has made the two – Jewish and Gentile believers – one. (Ephesians 2)

Donaldson tests the veracity of dispensationalism and finds it inherently defective. He shows that it is inconsistent and selective in its hermeneutic; flawed in distinguishing God’s purposes between Israel and the Church; acquiesces in the face of suffering and injustice because of its pessimistic and determinist eschatology; and is therefore confused about its redemptive mission to a lost world.

By contrast, in the New Testament, followers of Jesus Christ are called to be ‘peacemakers’ – indeed it is peacemaking that Jesus insists identifies the authenticity of those who claim to be his followers. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9). The apostle Paul elaborates on this radical yet intrinsic role of Christ-followers in 2 Corinthians 5:

So from now on we regard no-one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God.(2 Corinthians 5:16-20)

We are to repudiate worldly criteria that distinguishes and categorizes people on the basis of wealth, race, colour or creed. God is not willing that any should perish: ‘The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’(2 Peter 3:9) The vision of the future found in the Book of Revelation is ultimately a message of hope not despair. We see in the closing chapters, God’s dream not his nightmare: ‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ (Revelation 21:3-4)

The closing chapter of the New Testament takes us back to the imagery of the Garden of Eden and the removal of the curse arising from the Fall: ‘Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb… On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’ (Revelation 22:1-2) Surely this is what Jesus had in mind when he instructed his followers to work and pray that God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven.

In this book, Donaldson offers a more robust, biblically consistent and constructive view both of the future and of the role for the Church between now and the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.

“The alternative eschatological view here presented has sought to be faithful to the biblical text and to the far-reaching all-creation inclusive restoration hopes inherent in the gospel of the kingdom; God’s redeemed and restored humanity purchased from every tribe and language and people and nation as one people – one kingdom of priests, enjoying restored fellowship with God who is present with them, and reigning in the place that God intended for them to live - the new heaven and earth. This is the good news of the kingdom of God - experienced now in part - the full realization is yet to come.”

“Amen, Come Lord Jesus.” (Revelation 22:20)

Stephen Sizer

Alistair Donaldson is a lecturer in Biblical Theology, Biblical Studies, Hermeneutics and Worldview at Laidlaw College in Christchurch, New Zealand.

'The Last Days of Dispensationalism' is published by Wipf and Stock

See also Alistair Donaldson on Justice in Palestine