Dispensationalism is simply the belief that God works with various individuals in different ways throughout history. In some sense, most modern Christians are dispensationalists. Unless a Christian is eating kosher, circumcising, and following the Sabbath, they have to entertain the notion that God had different requirements for different people at different points of time.
Dispensationalism is really common sense theology (at the most basic level), as living beings often have dynamic relationships with each other. I might require nothing of my son at birth, but require chores when he turns 6, require good grades when he is a teenager, and just long for communication when he is grown to adulthood. Throughout his life, my son’s requirements for a right relationship with his father changes based on external factors and even his own choices. Dispensationalism is the claim that God acts in similar fashions.
Dispensationalist charts usually look something like the following:
What this is mapping out is hard to know. Is this different modes of “salvation”, is this different modes of “interacting with people”, is this “different periods of time”? Dispensationalism, contrary to the attempts of some advocates, needs to discard the notion of hard and fast categories. Those categories are complex, speculative, and unhelpful. This is compounded by the fact that God deals with different people groups and even different individuals within people groups in different ways at the same period of history. In other words, God is living.
For one striking example of God tailoring his actions to individuals, God allows Job to be tormented in an extreme manner (while the text generally understands the righteous as receiving reward from God). Nationally speaking, God attempts to shape the people group of Israel into a priest nation. The nations of the Gentiles do not share this preferential series of blessings and curses. God is seen attempting all sorts of carrot-and-stick rewards and punishments at various times. Each reversal of reward and punishment is a change not represented in any dispensationalist chart but represents changes in God’s actions.
Dispensationalism must be disassociated from specific end-time theology. Specific end-time theology is a side issue from the overall concept of Dispensationalism and often leads critics to condemn all of Dispensationalism based on a few wild claims made by doomsday prophets. Too often Dispensationalism is coupled with extreme and specific interpretations of modern events as end times signs. Dispensationalism is often coupled with the rapture theology or specific stances on a millennial kingdom. Instead, Dispensationalism should disassociate from these theologies and allow room for amillennial and anti-rapture beliefs. Dispensationalism is not about the apocalypse, but is about how God interacts with man.
Dispensationalism needs to be understood in an organic fashion, with changes in God’s actions being a web of God’s various dealings with all of humanity. God’s general demeanors and prescriptions do not defy categorization, that is, as long as it is understood that the category is a simplification of general, but not absolute, patterns of behavior and plans of God. These behaviors and plans are always subject to change with little warning. We see this immediately in the Biblical narrative.
An alternative dispensationalist outline to traditional models:
In Genesis 1, God makes man. As expected, this timeframe serves as a kind of honeymoon period. God is curious and interested in His new creation. There is only one human, so God focuses on this human being. God leads animals to Adam to see what Adam would call the animals. God builds Adam a helper and sets them in a garden. God even is said to stroll through this garden, presumably in an attempt to commune with Adam. But Adam swiftly rebels. God’s punishment is severe. God extracts Adam from the garden in a violent manner and loads him with curses. Dispensationalism usually calls this the dispensation of innocence, which is fitting.
God then seems to generally withdraw from people. His expectations are hurt. God becomes even more hurt after witnessing the first murder. God then lets man run rampant. Moral anarchy is the rule and God does not intervene. The cities of the world grow in population and innovate all types of evil God never expected. In Genesis 6, God is seen looking down upon man in disgust. God resolves to destroy the Earth because He regrets making it. God does so with a global flood, but not before identifying one righteous man who God would have been amiss to kill. Dispensationalism usually calls this the dispensation of conscience, which is fitting.
After the flood settles, God resolves to never destroy the Earth again in that fashion. God sees that mankind has failed His expectations and God learns to endure the disappointment. He allows mankind to repopulate, occasionally interacting and smiting for gross offenses. The general message believed by those who worship Yahweh is that Yahweh will bless those who worship Him in their own lifetimes. Just as God enjoyed giving gifts to Adam, God enjoys His other servants. Dispensationalism usually calls this the dispensation of human government, which could use improvement. Maybe the dispensation of individualism might be better.
At some point, God encounters Abram (Abraham), who was a righteous man. God sees His opportunity to build his own special people. God had failed with mankind, but perhaps through a righteous man He could build a chosen people. This chosen people, when they are developed, could then spread out and convert the rest of humanity to worship of Yahweh. Yahweh is envisioning an entire world of people living their lives for God with Israel at the center. Dispensationalism usually calls this the dispensation of promise, which actually seems to be the start of the dispensation of the Kingdom theology.
God begins to build up Abraham with wealth, prosperity, and with many progeny. By the time that God brings this nation out of Egypt, it numbers in the millions. God gives them land, but God does not give them government. They live free. Maybe with freedom, they will love God. A series of unpaid judges rules over the untaxed population. God uses crowd and vigilante justice to enforce His law. God crowdsources government although God retains Kingship. God resides with Israel in the tabernacle tent to show his dedication to this plan.
But the people soon clamor for a human king. To their credit, this is much later than God predicted in Deuteronomy. God had already detected that Israel was fickle and strong headed. God presses on with Israel due to His regard for Abraham. God takes the people’s plan for a kingship as rejection of Him as King, but God allows it. God innovates a new plan. He will use this kingdom to build a righteous lineage of rulers for Israel. This kingdom shall be eternal. Perhaps with Godly leaders will Israel follow Him?
The first king fails and is disposed. The second king is admitted into the annuals of history for being righteous. But this king’s lineage eventually fails and Israel is punished by God through slavery and exile. God, in disgust, vacates His dwelling in Israel.
Israel still hopes in this enteral Kingdom. They teach and preach that one day God will show mercy, establish a new Kingdom, but in this Kingdom God will reign as King. God would reign forever. Through God’s power, the Gentile nations would be subservient to Israel and would be led to God through Israel. All Israel needed to do was to court God; they must first attain general righteousness.
This teaching lasts for centuries. Finally, God sends Jesus to prepare Israel for this coming Kingdom. Jesus and his disciples teach that God is coming. Their message is of repentance. God will not tolerate a sinful people. The sinful will be killed and the righteous will live with God in His Kingdom.
But something happens. Jesus is killed and raised. Even this miracle is not enough to convince the wayward Jews. The Jews overwhelmingly reject Jesus. God, wanting a people for Himself, appoints a new mission. If the Jews are going to reject God, God will reject them right back. God will start recruiting from the Gentiles for His Kingdom. Maybe if the Jews accept God back, God will restore them as a chosen people. But in the meantime, there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles.
At some point, God still wishes to establish His Kingdom on Earth, but events don’t always happen as expected. Circumstances change. God will wait to rule on Earth from His Kingdom with His chosen people by His side.