Culture,  Theology

Do Dispensationalists Cause Cultural Decay?

Postmillenialists will often claim that dispensationalists do not engage the culture and have no interest in seeing the culture flourish. Furthermore, it is often stated that wherever dispensationalism flourishes, the culture decays. Thus, it is dispensationalism which is dangerous and causes cultural decay. Although I have written before that many incorrectly argue that dispensationalism hurts the church, today I want address the subject again, focusing on whether dispensationalists promote an escapist worldview which causes cultural decay. It is my goal that the argument that dispensationalists don’t care about culture should be be retired from use, since it is neither true nor the real issue.

photo of dispensationalists cause cultural decay

An Eschatology of Escapism for Dispensationalists?

It is quite popular in some Christian circles (postmillenialists usually) to accuse dispensationalists as being escapists, unconcerned by what happens in the culture. Gary DeMar describes this alleged inaction and laziness as the “Fatal Flaw in the Culture War.” He writes,

[Dispensationalists] can live with a disintegrating culture because of their belief in the inevitability of societal decline and because the effects are for the moment distant. Although many fundamentalists go out of their way to deny it, eschatology plays a key role when it comes to activism.

DeMar goes on to quote Ted Peters favorably, noting,

Ted Peters writes of dispensationalism that “it functions to justify social irresponsibility,” and many “find this doctrine a comfort in their lethargy.” This may be hard to take if you’re a dispensational premillennialist. After a great deal of reading and biblical study of the subject of eschatology, it is my belief that dispensational premillennialism is an aberrant theological system that has done much damage to the church and the world.

For DeMar and other postmillennialists, this kind of argument hinges on a faulty logic. It assumes that because dispensationalists believe that Jesus is coming back for them (to rescue them from decaying culture), they will ignore clear commands in Scripture to be salt and light (Matt 5:13-16), to stand up for the orphans and widows (James 1:27), and to love one’s neighbor and enemy (Matt 22:39; Matt 5:43). Like I’ve often said, knowing Jesus is coming back is usually stronger motivation to obey Christ’s commands, not less.

Biblical Precedent for Obedience Despite Future Destruction

Because a dispensationalist believes a time of future judgment and destruction is coming, he or she allegedly is less motivated to be obedient to Christ’s commands, because nothing physical the believer does will ultimately survive the coming destruction. This is a strange argument. Simply because a dispensationalist believes in a coming time of judgment, he or she will be less likely to live for eternity and focus on obedience to God? This exact argument could certainly have been used of the prophets ministering before exile.

Through the prophets, God had told Israel that they were going to be judged and put into exile by the hand of the Babylonians. He said this explicitly in many passages, including early passages through Moses (e.g., Deut 4:25-30; Deut 30:1-10; Ezek 33:28-29; Hos 3:4-5, etc.). God had already been talking about exile hundreds of years before it happened. Thus, the point is that God commissioned the prophets and the faithful to live in obedience and to call the nation to repentance, but God foretold that ultimately the nation would refuse to repent, they would rebel and be judged.

There would be bright times in the Israel’s history. This would include times of national repentance and obedience to God (e.g., the repentance under Josiah in 2 Kings 22–23). However, that would not change the fact that God had foretold what would ultimately happen. Yet the surety of the future destruction did not dissuade the prophets and the faithful from obedience. Even though final destruction and exile were assured, somehow the prophets were able to maintain a motivation of obedience.

This principle is shown very clearly in Isaiah 6. In Isaiah 6 God tells Isaiah to be faithful, proclaim the truth to the nation of Israel, but the result would be that they would be blind and dull (Isa 6:10). Of special interest is the fact that Isaiah asks God how long he was to proclaim God’s message in obedience. God’s response was, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste” (Isa 6:11). In other words, be obedient until judgment comes, for it is coming!

The analogy should be obvious. Just like the prophets of old, dispensationalists believe they are called to be obedient, preach righteousness and repentance, but ultimately the Day of the Lord judgment will come (cf. 1 Thess 5:1-2). The prophets of old were faithful in similar circumstances, why is it assumed dispensationalists are not capable of the same?

Calvinists, Dispensationalists, and the Escapist Fallacy

It can often be helpful to examine argumentation by analogy. The belief that dispensationalists do not care about culture because it is all going to burn is similar to the charge that is often levied against Calvinists. Calvinists are often accused of having no passion for evangelism because they believe God is the one responsible for saving His elect. If God will ultimately save the elect, what is the point of personally sharing the gospel? The people will either get saved or not anyway in accordance with God’s good pleasure.

Of course the Calvinist would reject such a simplistic form of argumentation! As Christians, we are to obey and share the gospel with everyone, and let God work out His good pleasure. Both God’s sovereignty in salvation and our personal need for obedience can and should be considered.

Ironically, it is usually the Calvinist postmillennialist who accuses the dispensationalists of not being obedient because of the future belief of coming judgment and tribulation. But, they of all people should recognize the unbiblical logic of such an argument. Obedience to the Lord is the primary motivator for the true Christian.  

A Brief History of Dispensationalist Activism

If the above logical reasoning is insufficient to persuade others that dispensationalism is not escapist, perhaps a brief history of dispensational activism would be helpful. If dispensationalism inherently carries with it a cultural lethargy, then there should be scant evidence of dispensationalists impacting the culture as salt and light. But 5 minutes of internet searching has revealed the following.

Bruce Wallace Dunn (1919–1993)

Bruce Dunn was senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria for over 40 years, and was a rare dispensational presbyterian! (Yes, they did exist at one point!) According to Paul Scharf, Dunn would preach out of the New Scofield Reference Bible and was involved in hosting the Moody Prophecy Conferences. Although a dispensationalist, Dunn was adamant about Christians influencing elections and being politically involved. Part of his writings are found in a book entitled, How Long, O Lord? How Long?: What to Do While Waiting for the Lord’s Return. In that book, he relates the following:

Sen. Jessie Helms told a group of us in Washington, D.C., that there has never been an election in the United States that could not have been turned around by the people who stayed home. I believe he was right, and that is why it is so important to realize you are the salt.

Dunn believed the decline of America was partly due to lazy Christians who would rather sit down and sing, “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be!” He wrote,

We are in a desperate time. We need the Lord, and we need Christians who will take a stand for the gospel and the things of Christ. We are not just talking here about political and national freedom. We are talking about a freedom that involves having a Bible conference, sending out a missionary, distributing Scriptures and praying in our schools. … Don’t you dare think that you can just twiddle your thumbs and sing little hymns and take no interest in what is happening in this beloved nation of ours. … We need militant Christians devoted to Christ, dedicated to God’s Word, given to prayer, but also determined to be the salt of this earth! Be a restrainer and a preservative! Stand up and be counted for the cause of Christ! Religion and politics—we should be active under God in both because we do not know how God might move among us. We do not have it all laid out. There is flexibility in God’s program.

David William Breese (1926–2002)

David Breese was well known for his ministry in Youth for Christ, and later on became a well-known because of his radio program and his publishing. He, of course, was a dispensationalist, and proclaimed the need for America to pursue national righteousness. In an article which originally appeared in 2007 in Destiny Newsletter, Breese wrote the following:

We must not forget the first, the paramount principle that, according to the Bible, produces the fate of a nation. This quality, stated in the Word of God, says,

Righteousness exalts a nation, But sin is a reproach to any people (Prov. 14:34)

The quality which is of the greatest importance in determining the fate of a nation is, therefore, NATIONAL RIGHTEOUSNESS.

Jerry Laymon Falwell (1933–2007)

Perhaps the most well-known dispensational activist was Jerry Falwell Sr. As a pastor, televangelist, and conservative activist, Falwell is well known for his founding of Liberty University. However, perhaps his greatest accomplishment was the co-founding of the Moral Majority in 1979. According to Wikipedia, the Moral Majority, “played a key role in the mobilization of conservative Christians as a political force and particularly in Republican presidential victories throughout the 1980s.”

It is difficult to overstate the influence that Falwell and the Moral Majority had. Falwell attributed Ronald Reagan’s electoral success to the work of the Moral Majority and their political activism, but obviously it is impossible to determine exactly how much influence the Moral Majority had. In any case, it is notable that the greatest conservative political movement of the 80s was directed by dispensationalists.

I am not mentioning these three men because I agree with them on everything, nor do I claim they should be emulated in everything they’ve done. I simply wanted to show the fruits of a 5 minute internet search, demonstrating that dispensationalists have been quite active on the political scene. I’ve limited myself to briefly talking about the above three individuals, but there are many, many examples of dispensationalists (past and present) who are very passionate about being salt and light, and who are influencing culture through activism and politics.

Why Talk about This?

This post is in response to the common argument put forward against dispensationalists by postmillenialists—that dispensationalists don’t care what happens to the culture. Given the sheer amount of people who identify as dispensationalist, I would never deny that there are people who don’t care what happens in the culture. But, does that relate to the system itself? Or, does that relate to a lot of people who are at best, immature, or at worst, not even saved in churches?

We certainly don’t assume everyone who claims to be a Christian actually holds to Christian beliefs, and similarly just because someone says they are a dispensationalist doesn’t mean they are representative of that system. I hope the illogical nature of the escapist argument, and the evidence of historic dispensational activism which is presented here allows the argument against dispensationalists to move to more profitable discussions.

Perhaps it is a desire that will forever be unfilled, but I would love to see the discussion move beyond false caricatures to actual exegesis of biblical passages and robust discussion of hermeneutics and biblical theology. It is much more profitable to argue about whether the Bible sees a difference between the nation of Israel and the church, or whether Old Testament prophecies remain to be fulfilled. It is of the utmost importance to talk about how should authorial intent influence our hermeneutical process. On the other hand, it is unhelpful to argue that dispensationalists ruin a culture (or at least rejoice in its destruction) while ignoring the actual history and teaching of dispensationalists. Let’s have the discussions that will benefit us, and most importantly, help us understand Scripture rightly.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

9 Comments

  • Mark Richmond

    While i agree with this article wholeheartedly-though i struggle mightly with the Calvinist issue -i must add a view i have. I became a Christian in 1981 and at that time the culture was more important than now. While dispensational as a theological truth is certainly NOT anti cultural rngagement the churches i have attended and Christians in general have very much taken the “Jesus is coming soon so it doesnt matter” view. Also the view “its getting worse out there so its getting nearer”. Certainly i cant say all believers are this way but looking back and in juxtaposition to today the change for me is significant.
    “.

    • Peter Goeman

      I appreciate you sharing that, Mark. Thanks for that. I think there are certainly churches out there like that. I wonder if that signifies the church as a whole is weaker. Certainly seems that way to me.

  • Daniel Starcevich

    I posted this on FB and wanted to let you know so I am cross-posting here. Well done on this! I appreciate this writer’s work in addressing this constant criticism of dispensationalism. This is a big red herring in my view. The question is not the cultural impact of dispensationalism but rather whether it is consistent with Biblical revelation. I of course hold that it is. Dispensationalists may have taken various approaches to cultural engagement in the past. We may or may not have agreed with the various approaches taken. Yet the effectiveness or outcome of cultural engagement is not the test of dispensationalism, the Bible is. So, speaking for myself, I come away from the article challenged to not just deny that dispensationalism leads to abandonment of the culture, but to search the scriptures in order to state positively how we are to engage with a culture that God has given up to the lusts of their hearts, to dishonorable passions, and to a debased mind.

  • Annalisa Haney

    Thank you, Dr. Gorman, this was really edifying. The puzzling complaint that Calvinists must be poor evangelists came immediately to mind, so I greatly appreciated your use of that as well. All believers ought to be constrained and compelled by the love of Christ, per 2 Cor. 5:14, and be even more passionate about the repentance and redemption of the souls of those around us.

  • Vickey Singleton

    Thanks so much for this Peter!

    I wasn’t even aware that this was an issue. It seems so silly to lump all those who embrace dispensationalism as being unconcerned about cultural issues. It doesn’t encourage anyone and simply causes division. Why not discuss the relevant cultural issues and problems and work towards solutions instead of finger pointing?

    Overall, I find that negative fatalistic attitudes are all too common among believers. It’s almost like Christians would rather take on a “woe is me pity party” than turn to the solution which is trusting God to be intimately involved in every aspect of our lives. He really does care that much.

    Again, thanks for this and your wonderful ministry!

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