The Error of Dispensational Literalism
The two cornerstones of dispensationalism are: (1) Israel and the Church must be kept distinct as two separate peoples of God throughout all eternity. (2) Scripture must be interpreted literalistically unless it would lead to absurdity. Both of these foundational premises are absolutely erroneous. In this blog I will briefly demonstrate the tragedy of literalism for both first century Israel and present-day dispensationalism.
Dispensationalists proudly point out that first century Jewish rabbis interpreted the Old Testament literalistically. In fact, this claim is often made at the beginning of their argument for literalism in an effort to establish the historical nature of their hermeneutic. For instance, Dallas Seminary’s J. Dwight Pentecost asserts: "The prevailing method of interpretation among the Jews at the time of Christ was certainly the literal method of interpretation" (Things to Come, 17). Popular and prolific dispensational author Malcolm Ollie Couch, Jr. agrees: "Jewish orthodoxy generally interpreted the Old Testament literally" (Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy, 148).
Unfortunately, literalism was not only a tragedy for the Jews, but is an embarrassment to their best friends, the dispensationalists. (And through dispensationalism’s behemoth presence in American Christian circles, an embarrassment to evangelical theology.) Let us see how this is so.
The Tragedy of Jewish Literalism
The tragedy of literalism for Israel was perhaps the key human component leading the nation to reject their own prophesied Messiah. Evangelical theologian Stanley J. Grenz observes "it was their expectations of a literal earthly kingdom and political ruler that caused many Jews to fail to recognize Jesus as their Messiah at his first coming" (The Millennial Maze, 79). Interestingly, we see this point made throughout John’s Gospel. Indeed, it seems almost as if his Gospel was designed to demonstrate this affliction.
John’s Gospel opens early-on with a foreboding lament: "He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him" (John 1:11). And this was despite the fact that Jesus was "the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness; and the darkness did not comprehend it" (John 1:4b–5). Then throughout his Gospel John repeatedly points out why this happened: it was due to the naive literalism of the majority of first-century Jews.
Jesus even has to rebuke a religious leader in Israel for this nonsense. In John 2 Jesus is at the Temple during Passover where he drives the moneychangers out of the Temple court. The temple authorities confront him, asking: "What sign do You show to us, seeing that You do these things" (John 2:18). John records Jesus’ response and the Jewish confusion based on their literalistic interpretation of it: "Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews therefore said, ‘It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’" (John 2:19–20). John exposes their error by properly interpreting Jesus’ answer: "But He was speaking of the temple of His body" (John 2:21).
Just five verses later John records Jesus’ interaction with "a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews" (John 3:1). Nicodemus informs Jesus that he recognizes the significance of Jesus’ miracles. Then we read: "Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?’ (John 3:3–4). He totally misses Jesus’ teaching on being "born again." Here is a ruler of the Jews thinking as a dispensationalist: apparently for him "truly, truly" meant "literally, literally."
But how does Jesus respond? With a sharp rebuke and a correction to his literalism. "Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, "You must be born again. . . .’" ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?’ . . . If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things?" (John 3:5–7, 10, 12). Ouch! Here is an educated Pharisee, a "ruler of the Jews" being questioned as to his intelligence because of his literalistic approach.
Then in the next chapter we find another encounter of Jesus. This time with the Samaritan woman at the well. In his interaction with her we discover her dullness of understanding which is also rooted in simplistic literalism.
"Jesus answered and said to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, "Give Me a drink," you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.’ She said to Him, ‘Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?’ Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water shall thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life. The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty, nor come all the way here to draw’" (John 4:10–15).
If Jesus teaches about his providing "living water" had prompted his hearers to go about looking for ladles, they would be sorely disappointed. She missed his spiritual instruction because of her literalistic assumption.
But this is not all, for we read further: "In the meanwhile the disciples were requesting Him, saying, ‘Rabbi, eat.’ But He said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ The disciples therefore were saying to one another, ‘No one brought Him anything to eat, did he?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His work. Do you not say, "There are yet four months, and then comes the harvest"? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes, and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest. Already he who reaps is receiving wages, and is gathering fruit for life eternal; that he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. For in this case the saying is true, "One sows, and another reaps." I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor’" (John 4:31–38).
Had Jesus not constrained them they would have probably run off to begin looking for a sickle to help him harvest some wheat while the Samaritan woman went off looking for a longer ladle. No wonder people back then were such hard workers. They took everything so literally. (By saying they "took" everything literally, I do not mean they manually lifted everything up and hauled it off to another geographical destination. You can’t have everything: where would you put it?).
Later Jesus really gets into trouble and offended a crowd of literalistic Jews. He does so after miraculously feeding 5000 of them (John 6:1–14, 24–26). We see literalism raising its dense head once again when the Jews finally find him shortly thereafter:
"‘Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, "He gave them bread out of heaven to eat."’ Jesus therefore said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.’ They said therefore to Him, ‘Lord, evermore give us this bread.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.’ (John 6:31– 35). The story continues:
"‘I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh.’ The Jews therefore began to argue with one another, saying, ‘How can this man give us His flesh to eat?’ Jesus therefore said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also shall live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate, and died, he who eats this bread shall live forever’" (John 6:51– 58).
And you know what happens next (John has already established the pattern for you!): "Many therefore of His disciples, when they heard this said, ‘This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?’ But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them, ‘Does this cause you to stumble?’ . . . As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew, and were not walking with Him anymore" (John 6:60–61, 66).
All of this interpretive stumbling does not end here! It continues on relentlessly throughout John’s record. In John 8:21–22 we read: "He said therefore again to them, ‘I go away, and you shall seek Me, and shall die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come. Therefore the Jews were saying, ‘Surely He will not kill Himself, will He, since He says, "Where I am going, you cannot come"?’" (John 8:21–22).
Then a few verses later we read of Jesus’ preaching: "‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ They answered Him, ‘We are Abraham's offspring, and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, "You shall become free"?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. And the slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed" (John 8:32–36). They were in danger of remaining in slavery to sin because they could not understand Jesus’ warning about that spiritual slavery, partly due to their literalism.
Then just a few more verses afterwards we see the same problem arising again: "‘Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.’ The Jews said to Him, ‘Now we know that You have a demon. Abraham died, and the prophets also; and You say, "If anyone keeps My word, he shall never taste of death." Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died too; whom do You make Yourself out to be?’" (John 8:51–53).
Just a few verse later in the following context (beginning in John 9:1) Jesus heals a blind man. Then he causes confusion by speaking of spiritual blindness to the dispensationalist Pharisees. (We know they were dispensationalists because they not only were literalists but they also held to the distinction between the Church and Israel — as well as believing in a special future for Israel wherein they would rule the world.) "And Jesus said, ‘For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see; and that those who see may become blind.’ Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things, and said to Him, ‘We are not blind too, are we?’" (John 9:39–40). They had confronted him regarding his healing of the blind man. So when Jesus calls them "blind," they literalistically assume he is speaking of physical blindness.
Jesus’ own closest associates were Jewish, and therefore afflicted with literalism. We see this in the episode of the raising of Lazarus: "This He said, and after that He said to them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, that I may awaken him out of sleep.’ The disciples therefore said to Him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.’" But once again, John helps us out by adding: "Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep. Then Jesus therefore said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead’" (John 11:11–14).
Even Peter, the leading disciple and one of the inner circle of three (with James and John, cf. Mark 5:37; 9:2; 13:3; 14:33), was confused by his cultural literalism: Jesus said: "‘Little children, I am with you a little while longer. You shall seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, I now say to you also, "Where I am going, you cannot come."’ . . . Simon Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, where are You going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I go, you cannot follow Me now; but you shall follow later.’ Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow You right now?’" (John 13:33, 36–37).
Literalism is such a bad problem among the Jews that Jesus has to interact with Pilate to discover whether Pilate had directly heard him speak on the kingdom of heaven, or whether he got all of his information from the Jews. As we can tell from the preceding narrative in John’s Gospel, this was a great concern for Jesus since the Jews tended to misconstrue his teaching by subjecting it to a literalistic analysis. Thus we read:
"Pilate therefore entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus, and said to Him, ‘Are You the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?’ Pilate answered, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You up to me; what have You done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered up to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.’ Pilate therefore said to Him, ‘So You are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice’" (John 18:33-37).
Thus, once Jesus discounts any Jewish, literalistic interpretation of his kingdom sayings. He informs Pilate he is indeed a "king." But he defines his kingdom as a spiritual kingdom not of this world, a kingdom related to the proclamation of truth and uninterested in armies and a police force. His kingdom is spiritual, not literal . And because of his answer we read: "Pilate said to Him, ‘What is truth?’ And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews, and said to them, ‘I find no guilt in Him’" (John 18:38). He well knew, as did the Jews, that "everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar" (John 19:12). Yet as Caesar’s appointed procurator Pilate stated: "I find no guilt in Him."
In all of this we see the dangers of a naive literalism. It caused Jesus’ embarrassing rebuke of a high-ranking Jewish leader (Nicodemus). It caused many would-be disciples to turn away from him. It caused his disciples to be confused. It caused the Jews to reject Jesus as Messiah. It even caused them to demand his crucifixion (cp. Matt 27:29, 37).
Furthermore, the literalistic hermeneutic eventually created a whole, new theological movement in history 1800 years after Christ: dispensationalism was founded in 1830. This movement has created its own rapturistic theological system. It has also caused embarrassment to the broader evangelical faith by its naive theology, with all of its calls for the end, demands for preferential treatment for Jews, and for almost the entire herd of televangelists.
In addition to all of this, dispensational literalism can be personally dangerous. And you need to take this very seriously. Please allow me to just give one piece of advice to you for your own safety in ministry. If you ever have a distraught dispensationalist come to you for counsel and asking: "May I talk to you about my problem with a violent temper?," never ever, under any circumstances whatsoever respond: "Shoot."