Isaiah Said There Will be a Second, So is This the First?

In 722 B.C. then in 586 B.C. God’s judgment for Israel’s idolatry came crashing down.  The northern ten tribes succumbed to an Assyrian onslaught.  The remaining southern tribes were devastated by Babylon.  Yet this is not the end of the story of Israel.  In 538 B.C. the return from exile began.  But the return was only temporary.  In 70 A.D. a new nemesis emerged.  This time Rome dispersed the people of Israel among the nations and occupied the land.  Yet, even this exile is not final.  In fact, two world-wide returns of the Jewish people to Israel should be expected.  Isaiah assumed this when he wrote:

Then it will happen on that day that the Lord will again recover the second time with His hand the remnant of His people, … And assemble the banished ones of Israel, And will gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. (Isaiah 11:11–12) 

Is the first regathering underway?  Let’s look at some facts.  First, in 1948, after the reestablishment of the nation, just 6% of the world Jewish population of 11.5 million were in Israel.  In 2018 46% of the world Jewish population of 14.5 million had migrated there.  Second, the relatively high birthrates among Jews in Israel and the lower birthrates of Jews outside Israel are accelerating the trend toward more Jews residing inside than outside the nation.  Third, the growing anti-semitism around the world is accelerating the immigration of Jews to Israel.  Consider, for example, the rising trend of anti-semitism in Britain since Jeremy Corbyn has become head of the Labour Party. A survey of 10,000 British Jews showed that a third were considering leaving.   

So these three facts do, in my view, indicate that the first world-wide gathering of Jews to Israel has been underway since May 14th, 1948 when David Ben-Gurion announced the establishment of the State of Israel.  This sets the stage for the second, and final, regathering that Isaiah predicted.

Yes, People Die During the Millennial Reign of Jesus

I don’t know why these things happen to me but just the other day a January 16 post on The Gospel Coalition website popped up on my feed.  The title of the post is “Will People Die During Christ’s Millennial Reign?”  The author, John Currid from Reformed Theological Seminary, tries to make the case that Isa. 65:20 refers to conditions in the eternal state.  

Here is what that verse says, “No longer will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, Or an old man who does not live out his days; For the youth will die at the age of one hundred And the one who does not reach the age of one hundred Will be thought accursed. “

If you are not familiar with the issue, here is a little background.  Covenant theologians hold to a two-age model of history, the current age and the age to come.  The current age extends until Jesus returns, then the eternal state or age to come arrives.  Dispensationalists on the other hand contend that the scriptures envision a 1000 year reign of Jesus on earth between the present age and the eternal state.  Isa. 65:20 is one of the battleground texts.

Dr. Currid’s view is that the dispensational interpretation is problematic for two reasons.  First, it disrupts the context. Dr. Currid contends that since Isa. 65:17 is a declaration by God that He is creating a new heaven and new earth then Isa. 65:20, which discusses the longevity of life, must also address the period of time when the new heavens and new earth appear.

Second, the dispensational interpretation, says Dr. Currid, does not take the text literally.  His view is that a literal interpretation of this text requires that it be understood metaphorically. 

His analysis however fails for a number of reasons.  First,  the prophets regularly do not distinguish between the time frames in which future events occur.  Instead they will describe future events as if they happen at the same time when later revelation shows that there is a gap of time separating them.  This phenomenon is called prophetic foreshortening.  As I write this I am looking out of my window in Estes Park Colorado.  In the distance, I can see the soaring Long’s Peak.  I can also see shorter mountain peaks between where I sit and Longs Peak.  From my perspective, it looks as if the peaks are very near to each other.  Yet, since I have been to Longs Peak, I know that there is significant distance between each set of peaks.  That is Prophetic foreshortening and it is not a dispensational interpretive device.  Amillenialist Kim Riddlebarger agrees that some prophetic texts are best understood this way.

Dr. Currid neglects the commonly occurring prophetic foreshortening.  In order to fit into a two age model, he requires that Isa 65:17 and 20 both address the same period of time.  This leads him into his second failure.

Clearly Isa. 65:20 is saying that people will live a long time in comparison to what they were living when Isaiah wrote this prophecy.  How long? Isaiah says that those who don’t make it to 100 years old will be so exceptional they will be thought to have been cursed.  Of course, during the eternal state there will be no more death (Rev. 21:4).  So, to reconcile Isa 65:20 and Rev. 21:4 with the two age scheme, Dr. Currid is forced to say that this verse is a metaphor underscoring  that “one of the great blessings of the eternal kingdom will be longevity.”  So, by understanding that Isa. 65:20 is a metaphor the plain meaning that there is death is made to say that death has been eradicated.

In justifying his metaphorical approach Dr. Currid says that Isaiah is expressing the reality of eternal life using a figure of speech familiar to the original audience.  In other words, Isaiah’s readers would not have been able to understand what eternal life means so this metaphor employing the idealized language of greatly extended life is used to communicate that concept.  Yet this argument fails if you just look at Isa. 25:8.  Here is what that verse says: “He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; For the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:8)

It is clear that Isaiah’s readers were expected to understand what it means for God to “swallow up death for all time”.  If they could understand it in Isa. 25:8, they could understand it in Isa. 65:20 too. 

If we take the text at face value and let it speak for itself we find Isa. 65:17 addresses the creation of the eternal state where there is no more death, and Isa. 65:20 addresses an age when life is greatly extended.  Clearly these are two separate ages and both are different from the age in which we live.  The best solution then is that between the present age and the eternal state is an intermediate age.  In the progress of revelation we have come to see that this age is the millennial reign of Jesus.  So Dr. Currid, yes there is death during Christ’s millennial reign.

Too New to be True?

Dispensationalism is a theological system that has been characterized by three essential elements: a consistently literal reading of the Bible, a separation between Israel and the Church, and that God’s overarching purpose is to glorify Himself.  It is popularly known by certain doctrines such as the physical removal of the church to heaven (Rapture) before seven years of divine judgment on the earth (Tribulation), the restoration of Israel to it’s divinely promised homeland, the one-thousand year reign of Jesus on earth (millennium), and Christian Zionism.

As a system dispensationalism is often criticized and disparaged as being “too new to be true”.  John Nelson Darby, the guy above, was an English pastor and theologian who lived from 1800—1882 is often cited as dispensationalism’s originator. But the fact is that Darby was systematizer not originator.  He was the recipient and beneficiary of ideas that had been circulating in theological and pastoral writing for 200 years or longer. 

In fact, concepts associated with dispensationalism such as Christian Zionism and the premillennial return of Jesus to the earth to reign for 1000 years did not originate with Darby. Instead these ideas had been in circulation among pastors and academics for hundreds of years before him.  Darby’s contribution was to organize and systematize these ideas into a comprehensive system of theology now known as dispensationalism, a theologicial system that has continued to be refined ever since. 

For example, the reformer and successor to John Calvin, Theodore Beza (1519—1605), the English protestant John Bale (1495—1563), John Foxe (1517—1587) all expected a restoration of the Jews to their homeland.  Edmund Bunny (1540—1619) in perhaps the earliest instance of Christian Zionism called on Christians to love the Jews and hope for their restoration to the land. Similarly Cambridge fellow Frances Kett (1547—1589) called for a return of the Jews to their biblical homeland. 

If you want to dig deeper into the history of dispensationalism I highly recommend Bill Watson’s book Dispensationalism Before Darby: Seventeenth-Century and Eighteenth-Century English Apocalypticism  Paper, $24.95, Kindle 15:99. It is meticulously researched and will provide you with extensive material to defend dispensationalism against detractors who claim it is “too new to be true.” 

But let’s push way back before Darby.  Here is what the church historian Philip Schaff writes:

The most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age [prior to 325 A.D.] is the prominent chiliasm, or millennarianism, that is the belief of a visible reign of Christ in glory on the earth with the risen saints for a thousand years, before the general resurrection and judgment.  It was indeed not the doctrine of the church embodied in any creed or form of devotion, but a widely current opinion of distinguished teachers.  (History of the Christian Church, II, 614).

So to accuse dispensationalism as ‘too new to be true’ is both silly and disingenuous.  There is plenty of evidence that the key features associated with dispensationalism were in circulation long, long before Darby. Furthermore, this accusation is just a red herring used by critics of dispensationalism to confuse the real issue.  What we should be discussing is not whether dispensationalism is new.  Rather we should discuss whether dispensationalism is an exegetically derived theological system resulting from the use of a consistently literal hermenutic that acurately explains the Bible.

The “C” Word and Dispensationalism

The C-word, Calvinism.  Just mentioning it is asking for a fight.  On the one hand are the “cage-stage” Calvinists.  These are the obnoxious clods who have come to embrace Calvinism and are ready to defend its five points against all-comers.  In fact, they are more than ready.  They are on the prowl for opportunities to assert and aggresively defend Calvinist claims. On the other hand are the “cage-stage” anti-Calvinists.  They are just as rabid and just as unpleasent in their fight to refute Calvinist claims.  They may be Arminian, or they may claim the title of “biblicist”, or they may just be against what they understand to be Calvinism without articulating an alternative belief of their own.  

Recently I have noticed that “cage-stage” Calvinists and anti-Calvinists have been squaring off in several of the FaceBook forums dedicated to Dispensationalism. They are no doubt egged on, in part, by a series of youtube videos by Dr. Andy Woods, a classic dispensationalist whom I greatly respect, who advocates an anti-Calvinist view.  I find this family feud to be especially disappointing.  Dispensationalism seems to be on a decline and the last thing we need to be doing is fighting among ourselves.  How much more productive might it be if we were instead focused on asserting the distinctives of Dispensational theology?

At the risk of joining in the fray rather than trying to break up the fight let me simply point out that the historical fact is that Dispensationalism was systematized and spread by Calvinists.  Consider John Nelson Darby.  His biographer, William Turner, wrote that in about 1831 Darby was invited to Oxford University to defend Calvinism in a public debate with a non-Calvinist.⁠1  He must have done well because he was invited to a similar debate in Calvin’s adopted hometown of Geneva Switzerland to do it again.⁠2  On yet another occasion Darby became involved in a controversy within the Anglican Church over the reformed doctrines of predestination and election.  He wrote, “I believe that predestination to life is the eternal purpose of God, by which, before the foundations of the world were laid, He firmly decreed, by His counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and destruction those whom He had chosen in Christ out of the human race, and to bring them, through Christ, as vessels made to honour, to eternal salvation.”⁠3 Sounds pretty Calvinist to me!

Dispensationalism came to America through Presbyterians and Baptists who shared Darby’s Calvinism.  Of particular note is James H. Brookes who was pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.  Brooks welcomed Darby and other early dispensationalists to speak in his church.  He also discipled a new believer in Jesus by the name of C.I. Scofield.  Scofield went on to pastor congregational and presbyterian churches, which share a Calvinist outlook.  He also of course went on the author the Scofield Reference Bible and was a significant influence on Lewis Sperry Chafer.

Besides establishing Dallas Theological Seminary, once a bastion of dispensational thinking, Chafer also wrote the eight volume Systematic Theology which C. Fred Lincoln characterized as “Calvinistic, premillennial, and dispensational”.⁠4  Similarly, John Walvoord, Chafer’s successor as president of Dallas Theological Seminary, decribed his work as “broad and moderate Calvinism”.⁠5  Chafer was clearly what one calls a four-point Calvinist, rejecting the doctrine of limited atonement.⁠6  Chafer also wrote “It is Calvinism which seeks to honor God—Father, Son, and Spirit—by its views respecting depravity, human guilt, and human helplessness, and these in the light of divine sovereignty, divine supremacy, and the sufficiency of divine grace.”⁠7 He also wrote “…what is termed Calvinism—largely for want of a more comprehensive cognomen—is, so far as devout men have been able to comprehend it, the essential Pauline theology, especially in its soteriological aspects.”⁠8  Note this quote carefully. In Chafer’s view Calvinism is essentially the Apostle Paul’s view on theology particularly soteriology. 

Mal Couch was the founder and President of Tyndale Theological Seminary.  This school’s mission is to carry on the teaching of classical dispensationalism held by Chafer, Walvoord, Pentecost, and Ryrie. At a 2009 address at Clifton Bible Church Couch identified himself as a four-point Calvinist, also rejecting limited atonement.  He identified Dallas Seminary, Moody Bible Institute, Philadelphia College of the Bible, and Drs. Chafer, Walvoord, Pentecost, and Ryrie as Calvinist in theology.⁠9

For a very comprehensive treatment of this subject I recommend you look up Dr. Tommy Ice’s excellent article titled “The Calvinistic Heritage of Dispensationalism”.⁠10  It is accessible online from Liberty University.  I put the link in the footnote for you.

My purpose here has not been to be either an obnoxious clod, nor a rabid unpleasent attacker.  Instead my point is that there is nothing inherently anti-dispensational, ungodly, or anti-Christian in Calvinism.  As dispensationalists we should recognize our shared heritage while we engage in a respectful, informed, and civil dialog.  Let’s not destroy ourselves from within. Rather lets rather assert and affirm the distinctives of dispensational theology.

1 William G. Turner, John Nelson Darby: A Biography (London: C. A. Hammond, 1926). 45

2 Ibid., 58

3 J. N. Darby, “The Doctrine of the Church of England at the Time of the Reformation,” in The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby

4 C. F. Lincoln, “Biographical Sketch of the Author,” in Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), Vol. VIII, p. 6.

5 (BSac 105:417 (Jan 48)

6 Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993), 184

7 Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993), 273.

8 Ibid. 313.

9 Mal Couch, Address at Clifton Bible Church, 2009., accessed September 2019.

10 Thomas D.Ice, “The Calvinistic Heritage of Dispensationalism” (2009). Article Archives. Paper 11.