MacArthur, Calvinism, and (Dispensational) Premillennialism: Part 4
In the first three posts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) I primarily discussed what was really the crux of MacArthur’s messages on Calvinism and premillennialism: his commitment to dispensational theology. As I stated, the series would have been titled more appropriately if it had been “Why Every Calvinist Should be a Dispensational Premillennialist.” In evaluating MacArthur’s insistence on dispensationalism, I’ve primarily looked at several distinctive dispensational elements: (1) The dichotomy between Israel and the church in terms of God’s plan, (2) the dispensational insistence on a “literal” hermeneutic, and (3) the actual implications of election for the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament.
There is much more that could be said about this topic, but much wiser people than I have written on it. Here are some resources that have helped me in the past: Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God by Keith Mathison, Understanding Dispensationalists by Vern Poythress, and This World is not My Home by Michael Williams.
In this last post chronicling my thoughts on MacArthur’s series on Calvinism and (Dispensational) Premillennialism, I’ll look briefly at the question of eschatology (doctrine of the last things). MacArthur spent most of his time talking about dispensational distinctives. However, since his topic was eschatology, and since he did make many claims about the future, I’ll address two eschatological issues: (1) The chronology of MacArthur’s approach, and (2) a bizarre eschatological consequence of dispensationalism.
The Chronology of MacArthur’s Approach
Here is how MacArthur describes the events of the future:
Now then you think about eschatology, there’s a little sequence of events that are relatively simple for you to think about, and this is the way the Bible lays it out. If we wanted to use technical theological terms we’d call it the ordo eschaton, that is, the order of last things, the ordo eschaton. And it kind of goes like this. In the end, everything is begun by the Rapture of the church, the collection of the church, the gathering of the church into the presence of the Lord. That is followed by a period called the Tribulation.
So Rapture, Tribulation…Tribulation ends with the Second Coming of Christ, when he comes to earth bringing his church, those of us who have already been with Him, having been rapture before the Tribulation, we come back with Him to earth, He returns, He destroys the ungodly and sets up His Kingdom…
At the end of the Kingdom you have the Great White Throne Judgment, which is the final judgment of all the ungodly who are raised from the dead and brought before the Great White Throne, the tribunal of God, where the final sentence is rendered and they are sent forever into the Lake of Fire…That’s it. Rapture-Tribulation-Second Coming-Kingdom-Final Judgment-New Heaven and New Earth…that’s the chronology, that’s the ordo eschaton. And if you follow the book of Revelation, that’s exactly the way it’s laid out. It is precisely how it flows. You see the church on earth in chapters 2 and 3, which describes the present church age, immediately you come to chapter 4 and you see the church in heaven which is indicative of the fact that they were on earth, they’re now in heaven though it doesn’t describe the Rapture, it’s described in other places, it’s clear that that is what happened.
One could write many posts examining this approach to the future. In the interests of brevity, I’ll content myself with only asking a few questions about this understanding of eschatology.
(1) Where in Scripture do we ever see a “rapture” disconnected from the Second Coming? The idea of the “rapture” comes from 1 Thess. 4:13-18, in which Paul says that “we will be caught up together to meet the Lord in the air.” However, Paul does not mention a tribulation after this event, nor does he seem to indicate that there will be 1007 years of history after this being “caught up in the air.” I could go on, but I’m happy simply to ask where the exegetical evidence is for asserting the existence of two separate comings of Christ. Scripture never simply “lays it out” this way. To suggest that because the church is described as in heaven in Revelation 4 indicates there was a rapture at the beginning of the chapter simply doesn’t follow, considering that in Chapter 12, the church is clearly back on earth again. Revelation simply doesn’t follow a completely chronological sequence. But if we understand its apocalyptic genre, this shouldn’t surprise us.
(2) Where in Scripture do we ever see the Second Coming disconnected from the final judgment? MacArthur places the kingdom 1000 years after the Second Coming of Jesus. This is the heart of the premillennial view (both classic and dispensational). [1. The 1000 year gap comes from his insistence that the 1000 years mentioned in Revelation 20 is entirely a literal number. I don’t have time to examine that claim, but I only mention that he provides no evidence. Revelation is clearly a highly symbolic book (beasts coming out of the water, bowls of wrath being poured out, etc), so to immediately dismiss any suggestion that 1000 could be a symbolic number is unconvincing.] This is, in my opinion, the most difficult aspect of premillennialism to accept. Consider the following passages:
1 Corinthians 15:23-24: But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
There are several important things to notice here: (1) The end comes at Christ’s coming. I find these verses difficult to fit into a premillennial scheme. When Christ comes, the end comes. At the end (at Christ’s second coming), he delivers the kingdom back to the Father. The implication is that Christ reigns over his kingdom, defeating his enemies prior to his return. (2) Death, the last enemy, is defeated at the end of Christ’s reign. At this point, we must compare with what Paul says later in 1 Corinthians 15:51-55:
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory? O death, where is your sting?’
These verses indicate that death will be defeated when the dead are raised (accompanied by a trumpet sound). When the dead are raised, death is defeated. When are the dead raised? When do we “put on immortality”? We put on immortality when Christ raises us from the dead at his coming: For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thessalonians 4:16). This verse is the one cited to refer to the rapture. But if we interpret Scripture in light of Scripture, we see several things: (a) Death is defeated at the end of Christ’s kingdom. (b) Death is defeated when God raises his children from the dead to new life. (c) God’s children are raised from the dead to new life when Jesus comes back. When we put these ideas together, the conclusion seems to be that Christ returns at the end of his reign, at which point the dead in Christ are raised and death is finally defeated. Accordingly, the Rapture and Second Coming are synonymous, and the final judgment takes place at the Second Coming, not 1000 years later, as premillennialism indicates.
A Disturbing Eschatological Consequence of Dispensationalism
While dispensational theology has many eschatological consequences, I here want to mention the one that I find truly disturbing. Here it is: A dispensational approach to Scripture places sacrifices in a rebuilt temple in the millennial kingdom. Consider what MacArthur says:
They [Jews of Jesus’ day] also believed that the temple would be rebuilt because that’s what Ezekiel says in Ezekiel 40-48, and temple worship would be at its apex. The eschatology of the Jews at the time of our Lord is precisely the eschatology that I believe because it’s what the Bible teaches. There were just interpreting the Old Testament in its normal sense.
I have several questions about this: (1) Shouldn’t we be concerned if our eschatological understanding is the same as that of the Jews of Jesus’ day? They missed the central message of the Old Testament. They missed the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament. They missed Christ. Their eschatological understanding was fundamentally flawed. So to ask, “what was the eschatology of the Jews of Jesus’ day?” as MacArthur repeatedly does in his series, seems fundamentally off the mark.
(2) Insisting that there will a rebuilt temple in a future millennial kingdom misses the fact that Christ is the fulfillment of Old Testament expectation, including the temple. Jesus calls himself the temple (John 2:19-21). The body of Christ is the temple (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 6:16). To return to a physical temple would be to return to the types and shadows of the Old Testament and away from the substance that is Christ (Colossians 2:17). To return to a physical temple would be to, in effect, declare what Christ did on the cross insufficient. Consider that the veil in the temple was torn, that the “wall of separation” (referring to the wall in the temple) was torn down through Christ’s death. Accordingly, if my theological presuppositions (“literal” interpretation, distinction between Israel and the church in God’s plan) lead me to think that God will put a rebuilt, physical temple in his kingdom, then surely I ought to examine those pre-commitments. Perhaps my hermeneutical model is lacking or in error.
(3) Insisting that the temple will be rebuilt (because of Ezekiel 48) means that the sacrifices will be reinstituted. This, ultimately, is the disturbing consequence of dispensationalism. There are clearly sacrifices mentioned in Ezekiel 48, so if one argues that Ezekiel 48 is fulfilled in a future, post-Second Coming kingdom, then the sacrifices must also be present in that kingdom. Hebrews (see chapters 8-10 especially) clearly says that the Old Covenant is obsolete. The types and shadows, the sacrificial system, the Levitical priesthood, all of those aspects of the promise stage of God’s plan are gone because the reality has come. To revert to those is to say that Christ’s coming was unimportant. We don’t need a new temple, and we don’t need new sacrifices. We need to trust (for now and forever) in Jesus, the true Temple and the true Sacrifice. Any theology that takes us away from that ought to disturb us. [2. I am aware that some dispensationalists suggest that these sacrifices aren’t sacrifices of atonement, but rather memorial sacrifices, commemorating what Christ. However, that claim is impossible to defend, for two reasons: (1) God gave us something to remember Christ’s death by: the Lord’s Supper. (2) Ezekiel 48 clearly says that these are sacrifices of atonement. One can’t just say they’re memorial sacrifices, particularly if one holds to their “literal” hermeneutic.]
Thus ends my series on MacArthur, Calvinism, and (Dispensational) Premillennialism. As I stated in the first post, I have deep respect for John MacArthur, and I will continue to listen to his messages and read his writings, as I have profited deeply from them. Nevertheless, I am convinced that dispensational premillennialism is a theological approach that has severe theological, biblical, and practical implications. So despite my respect for MacArthur, I believe there is a real need for the church to leave behind this theological system, and hopefully, if nothing else, I have clarified in my own mind the issues involved in evaluating this approach.