Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Marketing Dispensationalism

by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com

In this blog I will review Mark Hitchcock’s What Jesus Says About Earth’s Final Days (2003). I do this in order to illustrate the confusion that reigns in dispensationalism, a confusion that appears simultaneously with their enormous sales among their disoriented adherents. That such a system could control the evangelical market never ceases to amaze me.

The Marketing Juggernaut

Dispensationalism is not only an eschatological orientation (pre-tribulational premillennialism), it is a whole theological system complete with its own redemptive-historical structure (the seven, discrete dispensations). Not only so, but despite its enormous complexity (with multiple programs, peoples of God, several comings of Christ, various resurrection programs [though lacking one for those unresurrected saints in the millennium who die], back-and-forth movements in and out of heaven, manifold program judgments, unexpected chronological gaps [necessary for making the system work], and so forth), dispensationalism is also a commercial product capable of creating a marketing juggernaut in a single bound (paperback bound, might I add). And surprisingly, it creates enormous sales of its products despite the confusing and contradictory nature of the system which is simply glossed over in its popular writings.

More than any other eschatological system, dispensationalism is run by a well-oiled, heavy duty commercial behemoth that is controlled by its enormously successful marketing plan. Dispensationalism is offered up for sale in the evangelical world, and its enormous audience gladly digs deeply into their pockets to buy its many soon-to-be-outdated products (such as, Lindsey's 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon and Planet Earth 2000: Will Mankind Survive?). In this regard, it differs remarkably from non-dispensational eschatological systems. Let us see how this is so.

For instance, in postmillennial circles you simply do not see 4 foot by 12 foot full color, water-resistant, wrinkle-free, non-fade, hemmed-edge, reinforced grommet, braid-on-braid nylon rope-hung canvas wall charts. Nor do we publish entire books containing collections of ornate graphs, pie charts, line charts, bar charts, flow charts, cartograms, scatterplots, diagrams, outlines, timelines, road maps, blueprints, tables, box plots, nomograms, and histograms. (Edward Rolf Tufte becomes green with envy when he picks up the latest dispensational book.)

Nor do postmillennialists and amillennialists market “study” Bibles bulging with full-color illustrations that rival anything the Jehovah’s Witnesses have ever produced (see: LaHaye, Prophecy Study Bible). Nor among amillennialists do you have televangelists dominating the airwaves and declaring themselves “prophecy experts.” (One such amillennialist who did try to mimic dispensationalism’s sensationalistic marketing plan failed miserably — just as dispensationalists themselves always do: Harold Camping, author of the doomed book, 1994?)

Nor do non-dispensational systems manufacture and distribute genuine imitation gold, Made in China, lapel pins with the American flag crossed with the Israeli flag. Nor do they offer “America and Israel Together Forever” low-profile, durable, washed-twill, matching-visor, adjustable ball caps that fit any sized head. (The only ideal fashion-wear accessory for the postmillennialist or amillennialist is a leather Bible. Though sometimes their Bibles may contain multi-ribbon place markers, but these are usually only in several basic colors with no imprinted cliches on the ribbons. On one occasion I must confess, however, to sporting a multi-ribbon Bible marker that did display the statement: "Genuine Nylon.")

Nor do non-dispensational adherents send money to support non-Christian religions in building a place of worship, as many dispensationalists do with the proposed rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. Hitchcock himself is delighted that “there are some amazing preparations going on in Jerusalem today for the rebuilding of the third Jewish temple” (p. 71).

Nor can you pick out a postmillennialist from a crowd while blindfolded simply by listening for code words that are culled from prophetic novels. For instance, Hitchcock speaks fluent Dispensationalese. He uses numerous dispensational cliches, code words, and trivializations, such as “snatched” (the Rapture), “maranatha” (p. 12), “prophetic clock," and prophetic “blueprint” (ch. 2). To distance himself from standard, serious prophetic studies he refers to events that “burst on the scene” (p. 47), the false prophet as the Antichrist’s “right-hand man” (p. 68), the Antichrist being “hot on their heels” (p. 70), and so forth, and so on, ad infinitum.

Dispensationalists can often be heard calling each other the “foremost evangelical authority” on this or that topic, such as does Hitchcock regarding Randy Price (p. 71). Such back-patting is socially acceptable behavior in their circles (removing fleas is not). Nor do postmills or amills have action figures in the expansive toy section of Christian bookstores (who would buy a twelve inch tall plastic Charles Hodge doll with an 1860 Henry Lever Action Repeating Rifle and coon skin cap? Unless they were on sale, of course.) And where are the amillennial bumper stickers (when have you ever seen a bumper sticker urging: “In case of Bible study, pull out Berkhof”)?

The vast majority of dispensational books are marketing tools for promoting the movement’s enormous, growing product line among its large installed base. In this regard, let’s consider a sample of their promotional literature by dipping into Hitchcock’s What Jesus Says About Earth’s Final Days. In this book we see a continual sales pitch for the system, even while providing naive, trite, and confusing information. Let’s get started. He expects the Rapture soon, and I would not want to miss the opportunity to post this blog.

A Sample Sales Pitch

You know you have bought dispensational sales literature when you open a book and in the first couple of paragraphs you already begin hearing the phrase “planet earth.” Dispensationalists seldom mention simply “the world” or “the earth.” They generally remind their readership that this is a planet --- a planet that has a particular name: “planet earth.” (Keep in mind: they did this long before Pluto was kicked out of the “planet” category. They are not simply holding a grudge because they are miffed at the International Astronomical Union’s deposing Pluto from planet status to a mere Trans-Neptunian Object, one of a host of debris orbiting in the Kuiper Belt. But if Pluto is ever declared an object from the Oort Cloud, they will raise a ruckus.) Hitchcock does not disappoint. Paragraph two in his book closes with this very phrase —and it is sprinkled liberally throughout the book, providing a welcoming, homey feel to any dispensationalist reader — even though they have read hundreds of books just like this one before.

If you are going to sell anything in the dispensational market, you must learn to speak the language. Hitchcock is articulate in the native tongue, Dispensationalese (a non-standard dialect spoken only by a few hundred million dispensationalists at Rapture Parties). But he is also innovative: he creates new terms for their lexicon (that will surely be picked up on by erstwhile dispensationalists clamoring to prove themselves articulate). For instance, Hitchcock writes: “as the end of the age draws near, creation will begin to groan and clear its throat in anticipation of the King’s coming.” The earth will “clear its throat”? This has got to stop before someone speaks of the earth’s burping as a sign of the end. (Uh oh! I am afraid I just suggested a new prophetic term. Drat!)

As is typical of slick sales literature, this book presents the dispensational system without any realization at all of its mind-boggling complexity and head-spinning contradictions. Consider a few examples of this unconcern for coherence.

On p. 10 Hitchcock writes that Christians “will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air and will go with Him back up to heaven. Then they will return again with Him, back to earth, at least seven years later at His second coming.” We will be in and out of this world as programs change and people groups are shifted here and there. It is all so dizzying. I fear we may all get decompression sickness through all of this up-and-down activity. Nitrogen is already building up in my bloodstream as I think about it!

Hitchcock illustrates the internal confusion in the system, when he states that “the Tribulation is the final seven years of this age” (p. 10). How can the Tribulation be the final years of “this age” if the Church has been raptured and this age is called the Church Age? Actually, in his system the Rapture ends “this age,” the Church Age.

He also believes in a literal, earthly, Jewish millennial kingdom (pp. 93, 98, 99). Yet in one of his many tables he lists Matt. 8:11–12 as a verse mentioning “Christ’s kingdom.” Yet when we look at that verse we see Gentiles coming into his kingdom “from east and west” (i.e., from outside of Israel) while “the sons of the kingdom [the Jews] shall be cast out.” Hitchcock's system states that "at the end of the Tribulation, Jesus will gather them [the Jews] to enter into the Messianic kingdom" (p. 99). Who do we believe: Jesus or Hitchcock? And why did not Hitchcock know these verses state the opposite of what he claims?

Despite Jesus teaching that he himself did not know when he would return, Hitchcock speaks of “Signs of His Coming” (p. 15), a favorite marketing phrase in Dispensationalese. What is more, consider the following conundrum this creates in the dispensational system — even in his own book: (1) Dispensationalists believe that the Rapture is the next event on the prophetic “calendar.” No other prophetic event is to occur until the “prophetic clock” begins ticking (p. 47). (2) The Rapture is absolutely “signless” (pp. 9, 105, 107), thus no one will expect it when it occurs. Hitchcock explains Jesus’ analogy of the coming “birth pangs” that start the events immediately upon the Rapture: “They come without any warning. All of a sudden, out of nowhere they begin” (p. 45; cp. 46). (3) Jesus informs us that even he did not know when he would return (Matt 24:36).

Nevertheless, (4) according to Hitchcock (and every best-selling dispensationalist) “many today are oblivious of the signs of His second coming”! Well, no wonder they are “oblivious,” Jesus said they would be! And the next event is the signless Rapture which comes “without any warning,” “all of the sudden, out of nowhere.” How could there be signs of the Second Advent, when another prophetic event must precede it and no prophetic signs can occur until that previous event happens, so as to get the prophetic time-clock (I can’t believe I am using this language) ticking again?

In chapter 2 Hitchcock follows the typical populist-dispensationalist game plan: He has Jesus providing us with a “blueprint of the end” (p. 28). Yet apparently one of their famous gaps occurs in this blueprint. (Thank goodness actual architects do not allow gaps in their blueprints. Would you go up in the Empire State Building if an architect left off the four-inch concrete slab to support it? I rather doubt it.) Let’s note the gap in this “blueprint of the end.”

Hitchcock is dealing with the “end-time prophecy” in Matt. 24–25. He writes: “Jesus distilled the end times down to their most basic elements.” Yet you look in vain for the Rapture in Matthew 24–25. Remarkably, the Rapture is a suppressed premise among these “most basic elements.” It is all about the Great Tribulation which immediately follows the Rapture. Is not the Rapture the key that opens up the next prophetic stage of events? If this is a “blueprint of the end” and the Church is not present during the Great Tribulation, where does this blueprint passage mention the Church’s all-important exit strategy?

Furthermore, Hitchcock states of Matt. 24–25: “there is no place in the Bible that gives a clearer, more concise overview of what’s going to happen during earth’s final days” (pp. 28–29, cp. 41, 108, 121). He argues that “Jesus follows an orderly chronological sequence in unfolding the major events of earth’s final days” (p. 39). But Hitchcock’s view has Jesus overlooking the unique event that starts the prophetic time clock ticking so as to open up the Great Tribulation: the Rapture. That is a rather glaring omission for an "overview" and "chronology" of such events! That is like describing the Daytona 500 without mentioning it actually starting.

To make matters worse, Hitchcock also teaches that this prophecy speaks of “earth’s final days” (see also p. 39). (I commend him for avoiding the phrase “planet earth” at this juncture; temptation can be avoided.) But on his own system the earth continues for another 1000 years! Ten whole centuries! The Great Tribulation is hardly the earth’s “final days.”

Another contradiction in Hitchcock’s presentation is found on p. 31: He speaks of the preterist view of Matt. 24, then he claims that preterists “ignore the other parts of the question” where the disciples ask: “What will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (p. 31). This is remarkable for two reasons:

(1) Hitchcock has already noted on that very page that preterists “contend that all the events in Matthew 24:4–31 were fulfilled in A.D. 70” (p. 31). Thus, he is aware that we believe that the events after Matt. 24:31 begin speaking of the Second Advent (particularly Matt. 24:36ff). So then, we do see the end of the age occurring in the Olivet Discourse. He is not only confused about our view but about his own presentation which recognizes our view! (2) He then makes the absurd claim that Jesus himself ignores the disciples’ question: “So, Jesus basically ignores the first part of their question and tells them about the sign of His coming and the end of the age, knowing that that’s what they really wanted to know about” (p. 32). How can he complain that preterists “ignore the other parts of the question” when he claims Jesus himself “ignores” part of their question? This does not make sense as a complaint against preterism.

On p. 37 he proudly declares that “at the end of the future Tribulation, the Jewish people will repent and their Messiah will return to rescue them from Antichrist (Zechariah 12:10).” But tucked away much later in the book (p. 77) is the admission that Zech. 13:8 teaches “that as many as two-thirds of the world’s Jewish population will be slain during Antichrist’s reign.” The Jews are hardly rescued in this scenario — for two-thirds of them are horribly destroyed.

On p. 47 Hitchcock informs us that the Antichrist’s covenant of peace with Israel “is the very first birth pang.” But then just four pages later he writes: “the first birth pang is the rise of false Christs” (p. 51). Well, which is it? For a system boldly waving graphs, charts, diagrams, outlines, blueprints, timelines, road maps, and tables, this still remains too confusing.

Oddly enough, Hitchcock parrots the dispensationalist line that the Great Tribulation is “worse than any other time of trouble in world history” (Jesus' statement in Matt. 24:21 is a sample of common prophetic hyperbole). He even provides two arguments supporting this claim: “First, the terror and destruction of the Great Tribulation will not be limited to a few locations. The entire world will be engulfed. Second, most of the trouble in the world up to this point is the result of the wrath of man and the wrath of Satan. However, in the Great Tribulation, God Himself will be pouring out His unmitigated wrath on a sinful, rebellious world.” These two arguments do not prove his point. Note the following:

Dispensationalists somehow overlook Noah’s Flood which was absolutely worldwide (only one family lived through it) and it was directly from God. Peter even emphasizes the enormity of the catastrophe: “in which a few, that is, eight person’s, were brought safely through the water” (1 Pet. 3:20; cp. 2 Pet. 2:5). And they overlook this in their arguments despite two facts: (1) Jesus himself mentions Noah’s Flood (Matt. 24:37–38) while talking about the Great Tribulation (Matt. 24:21). (2) Hitchcock even mentions Noah’s Flood elsewhere in his book (pp. 102–03). To make matters worse, Jesus’ own teaching only urges men to flee from Judea (Matt. 24:16). This is not a worldwide event.

What is really odd is that Hitchcock boldly presents a statement from the Dallas Morning News: “Twenty percent of Americans said they believe the Second Coming will occur sometimes around the year 2000” (p. 79). Hitchcock’s book was written three years after 2000, and now it is nine years after. It won’t be long before it is 100 years after. They have no shame. They simply do not shy away from constantly being wrong about the date of the Second Coming.

Hitchcock apparently does not understand his own system (who could?). In dispensationalism the Second Coming of Christ is at the end of the Great Tribulation and results in the establishing of the Millennium (p. 93). Dispensationalism has long taught (as one of its many absurdities) that many people will move from the Great Tribulation era into the Millennium with unresurrected bodies. They will bear children, many of whom later will revolt against Christ at the end of the Millennium. But what does Hitchcock say about Christ’s Second Coming and its consequences?

Hitchcock cites Rev. 19:19–21 as one of the texts showing that “Jesus will return as King of kings and Lord of lords. He is coming back to take over!” (p. 88). By this (rather trite) representation he is speaking of Christ coming to establish the Millennium after the Tribulation (pp. 92–93; and see chart on p. 98). But two pages later (and under the very next heading) he states: “When Christ returns there will be an immediate, eternal separation and division of the redeemed from the lost. . . . The fate of all men on earth at that time will be sealed at that moment” (p. 90). But every dispensationalist theologian states that those who survive Armageddon will enter the Millennium in unresurrected bodies — and many of these will later be converted. It would be strikingly odd if many Gentiles would be saved during the Great Tribulation (p. 100), but those who were not saved in those horrible days could not be saved after they enter the glorious Millennium. The system is so complicated that one of its leading (populist) lights cannot get it straight.

What is worse: They effectively write off all evangelicals who do not hold to one of their several Rapture theories: “All people who believe the Bible believe in a Rapture” (p. 96). Then he gives a “chart and timeline [that] should help in giving a broad overview of where people are on this issue” (p. 96). The chart on page 97 lists only dispensational options. Dispensationalists live in a world to themselves.

After speaking of the "imminence" of Christ’s coming as found in the dispensational view of the New Testament (p. 103), Hitchcock notes that the Parable of the Ten Virgins teaches that Christ “may delay His coming longer than we think” (p. 114). He even comments that “the long period of time He is gone away pictures the interadvent age, or the time between Christ’s ascension to heaven and His return” (p. 117). Then: “Christ predicted He would be gone for a ‘long time’ (v. 19). It’s now been almost two thousand years” (p. 118). Which is it: Did Christ teach he could return at “any moment”? Or did he teach that “He would be gone for a ‘long time’”?

Well there you go. Dispensationalism is as complicated and contradictory as it is popular. The dispensationalist marketing plan could sell bikinis to Eskimos. In fact, I would not be surprised if they do have a bikini store in Fairbanks, Alaska. After all, a bikini has just enough room to display a lapel pin sporting an Israeli flag over against the American flag.