The Origins of J. N. Darby’s Dispensational 

Essay 2, Overcoming Dispensational Fundamentalism

Those who have written about John Nelson Darby and his new and novel Dispensational Theology System, have presented us with an amazing and fascinating account.  

Darby was an Anglican Priest in Ireland who was disillusioned with the Anglican Church.  He had a special problem when those he won to Jesus, while a young priest, were required to pledge loyalty to the English King as a condition of their acceptance into the Church.  Darby wanted to see a zealous church of true believers, hence his quest.  He left the Anglican Church and founded the Plymouth Brethren.  He eventually led his followers into the views that became the Closed Brethren as opposed to the Open Brethren.  The distinctions are not important to this essay. 

As Darby reevaluated his theology and the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church (a great statement in my view), he came to disagreements on key issues, both in biblical theology and ecclesiology.  The central theme was to distinguish between law and grace in a new way.  Darby attributed the deadness of the Anglican churches to confusing law and grace.  In Darby’s view, this confusion led to many being part of the churches as a point of legal righteousness to be accepted before God.  Darby developed a view of radical grace.  In this view, the only requirement for salvation is embracing the grace of God in the sacrifice and resurrection of Yeshua for salvation.  One believes and receives salvation by grace and is saved.  No repentance is required since that would be a good work.  Salvation is by grace and not works defined in a new and unusual way. This led to a new bifurcation between salvation and dedication.  Salvation was so radical a free gift that no change and no dedication were required.  One could continue to live in sin and still be saved, otherwise, salvation would not be by grace.  I was brought up with this separation. After salvation at our camp, in the last 3 days of the week, we were exhorted to dedicate our lives.  We were told that gratitude should lead us to this. We would live a better and fuller life. Many of us did so dedicate our lives.  This was a break from the Reformation view that God’s grace led to transformation, that grace and dedication came together. How would this produce a new zealous Church?  Once people understood that being in church was not required, the Church would be constituted of the volunteer dedicated and the others would leave.  It did not work out that way, for carnal Christians populate Dispensational Churches as much as any others. 

This separation led Darby to search out and find new distinctions.  Since law and grace were so opposed, Darby saw the Mosaic Covenant material as a works righteousness covenant whereby the people of Israel were bound to fail.  The Law pertained to Israel, not to the Church.  The life of Yeshua/Jesus Himself was a perfect life lived under the Law. The Sermon on the Mount itself was not incumbent on believers.  It was the Law raised to its highest and impossible level.  It was itself part of the Dispensation of Law.  Now under grace, the dedicated believer was to follow the teaching of the Epistles since only after Pentecost was the teaching fitting to the New Covenant of Grace presented.   However, we could not expect such a high level of attainment since the two nature battle described in Romans 7 would always be our condition. Luther had his ambivalence to the Law but classical Lutheranism was somewhat more balanced and did not go as far as Darby.  The negativity to the Law and to law is striking in Darbyite theologians. 

Since Israel had to do with the Law and the Church had to do with Grace, the two were to be kept separate.  All human beings were part of one of three categories, Jews, Gentiles or Christians, a third race.  Israel is an earthly people with the Law and earthly salvation to be attained in the Millennium.  The Church was a heavenly people with heavenly salvation. 

This also led Darby to claim that the Gospel of the Kingdom was not the same as the Gospel of Grace.  The Gospel of the Kingdom was the message of Jesus for Israel.  It was the offer of the literal Millennial Kingdom to Israel.  When Israel rejected Jesus, the Kingdom was postponed.  Now the Church preaches the Gospel of the Grace of God which is a different Gospel. (This is not the view of non-Darbyites which see only one Gospel)

Darby then sees distinct periods or dispensations, pre-fall, the post-fall to the flood and the pre-Abrahamic, the Mosaic Dispensation of Law, the New Covenant Dispensation of Grace, the tribulation period, and the Millennium.  All are very exactly defined. The Millennium is a Law dispensation. 

One more crucial teaching was foundational to the system.  It was the pre-tribulation rapture of the saints. Darby saw this as a key. If the Church is taken off the earth before the tribulation, then the Gospel of the Kingdom can then be offered to Israel by the Jewish tribulation believers.  The pre-tribulation rapture keeps Israel and the Church distinct.  It was a key answer for separation.  Israel is on the shelf so to speak until the tribulation.  Yes, she in part returns to the Land of Israel and fulfills prophecy but this is preparation.  Israel as a real instrument of God takes place during the tribulation.  This is why Messianic Jews were not seen as significant in Israel’s ultimate destiny. 

How did Darby ever come up with the pre-tribulation rapture?  Some say it was from an Irvingite prophetess from 1830.  There is some evidence, but it is not strong.  Did he see it in vague statements from Church Fathers?  Or was it a eureka moment of insight?  Despite the effort of Dispensationalists, this was a new doctrine and not something we can find established anywhere in Church history for 1800 years before Darby.  Almost no scholars not indoctrinated in Dispensational Schools can find it. No text in context teachers it.  The texts are stretched so as to find this doctrine. Yet, this doctrine swept North America in the early 20th century.  Why?  

Dispensationalism produced one amazing writer, C. I. Schofield, whose annotated Bible was amazingly well presented and persuasive.  In the 19th Century, another view of the last days swept the American Church, Post Millennial optimism.  This was also a break from the consensus of Church history.  It taught that the Church would conquer and civilize the world without the return of Jesus until after the Millennium.   Jonathan Blanchard, the founder of Wheaton, and the great revivalist Charles Finney saw the progress of Christianity whereby it would take over the world.  They saw progress everywhere.  World War I killed the optimism and Dispensationalism perfectly fit the pessimism of the time.  Only a faithful few would remain for the rapture.  Trying to reform society was bogus.  We need to get people into the lifeboat, so the social gospel and the social implications of the Gospel were rejected.  The unity of the Church was affirmed by the early Church Fathers, passionately defended by Augustine and then the hope of the Reformation for one true Reformed Church.  John 17:21 unity was the ideal.  The Reformers tried for unity and failed.  But for Dispensationalism, unity could be dangerous and lead to the apostate anti-Christ church. Already they saw the mainline denominations embracing Darwin and the higher criticism of the Bible.  Opting out of culture formation was the orientation since dealing with the larger culture was waste of time and energy. 

It would be 30 years after World War I, after World War II, that a push back against this system in Evangelicalism would begin.  Calvinist Evangelicals (Reformed, Presbyterian) never bought into any of it, but they were much smaller than the Dispensational Fundamentalists and Dispensationalists.   We will expand on this in future essays. 

Bishop Solomon Alexander, Essay One

Overcoming Fundamentalist Dispensationalism Series

Essay one

In January 1842 an amazing event occurred, the arrival of a Jewish Anglican who was appointed the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem.  He established Christ Church near the Jaffa gate.  The Church was to receive Jews who, it was believed, would soon return to the Land and accept Jesus, leading to the eventual conversion of the Jewish nation to faith in Yeshua/Jesus and His return. Christ Church, Jaffa Gate, still exists today. 

Wikipedia summarizes:

In 1841 the British and Prussian Governments as well as the Church of England and the Evangelical Church in Prussia entered into a unique agreement – the establishment of a Protestant Bishopric in Jerusalem. Alexander was proposed as the first Protestant bishop. He was appointed bishop of the United Church of England and Ireland in Jerusalem, and was ordained a bishop on 7 December 1841 at Lambeth Palace. He arrived in Jerusalem in January 1842.

How did this happen?  What was the theology behind this event?  Why would Lutherans and Anglicans come together for this?  Scandinavians were also involved.  

The theology behind his event was the product of a long history.  It was a growing consensus at the time of Michael Solomon Alexander’s appointment.  This was a pre-Darbyite Dispensational theology.  The theological history goes back to some of the Puritans and then was fostered by Lutheran Pietists in Germany and Scandinavia and then the Moravian Movement under Ludwig Von Zinzendorf.  The theology looked for the completion of four tasks before the return of Yeshua.  These were the pursuit of the unity of the Church (John 17:21), the revival of true Christianity, the completion of the command to preach the Gospel through world missions (

Matt. 24:14, 15) and finally making Israel Jealous (Romans 11:11,12).  This would lead to the second coming of Jesus. 

Kaiser (Emperor) Frederick William IV was influenced by Lutheran Pietism. He asked his spiritual advisor if there was anything they could do to hasten the day of the return of Jesus.  He was told about the four tasks, unity, revival, world missions, and making Israel jealous.  Frederick thus embraced a program to accomplish this.  He sent emissaries to England with a plan for unity and for the Jewish people to come to faith in Israel in growing numbers leading to the fulfillment of Roman 11:15, the life from that dead that Israel’s full acceptance would bring about.  This also was based on Matthew 23:39 where we read that the Jewish leadership in Israel/Jerusalem would call upon Yeshua with the words, “Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord.”  

To pursue the unity of the prayer of Jesus in John 17:21, Frederick’s emissaries presented a plan whereby the Lutherans would take a secondary position to the Anglicans.  This humility would be a key to the unity of the effort. Unity and the salvation of Israel would be pursued together.  The plan was approved by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Queen, and the Parliament.  

This theology was known as restorationism, believing in the restoration of Israel but also a restoration for the Church to unity and revival.  This was a climax of a 250 year of theological development. 

What happened?  A new theology grew up, Dispensationalism, that saw the pursuit of the unity of the Church as a danger.  It also taught that God’s primary working with and through Israel would only take place after the Church was raptured or taken off the earth.  Then there would be a seven-year tribulation at the end of which Israel would call upon Jesus and He would return.  Dispensational Jewish missions were established to see Jews saved, but those Jews would be part of the Church and would not be part of the corporate salvation of Israel.   There were two peoples of God, two salvations, a heavenly destiny for the one people, the Church and an earthly one for the Jews.  The destinies were different and not intertwined. So the Church would not be on earth to affect the salvation of Israel.  Indeed, Jews who came to Jesus were said to be part of the 3rd race and no longer part of Israel’s destiny nor would they affect Israel’s corporate salvation.  As part of the Church, they would be taken out as well, so no Jewish believers movement before the rapture would be a key to Israel’s salvation either.  New Jewish missions that followed this theology sought to see Jews saved and part of the Church but it would be wrong for them to live and identify as Jews (or to go back under the Law).  Jewish missions were for the sake of saving Jews just as missions to any nation were for the purpose of seeing individuals saved from that nation. 

The Church’s Mission to the Jews, CMJ, in England, represented the theology that led to the appointment of Bishop Alexander.  This theology had become an amazing consensus of British theology including many in several denominations.   It taught that Israel would return to the Land, the Church would affect her salvation and Jesus would return.   What an amazing time this was.   However, the new Dispensational theology gained more and more adherents.  The old view of Bishop Alexander and his supporters was supported side by side with more and more supporting the Dispensational view.  Jewish missions more and more embraced the dispensational view in the 20th century.  However, it was not until after World War I, that Dispensationalism swept churches and Bible schools in America.  From there it came to dominate world missions. Why that happened, including the keys in the psychology and social psychology of the time is an amazing story for another time.  Dallas Seminary was established as its theological center (1924).  American Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism became mostly Dispensational.  The Pentecostal denominations mostly embraced it. The older view largely died out with some exceptions.  Yet, in my view the older view was true.  The points where the new Dispensationalism replaced it, it was largely in error and even deception.  We were very close to great breakthroughs in 1842, but the classical restoration view was derailed.  Then in the mid 20th century, the older view was believed again in growing numbers.  This return to the older view has grown and grown until it now vies with Dispensationalism. I for one am in this battle and hope we win this battle. I believe we ae winning.  The derailment was a ploy of Satan to divert the Church from its destiny.  Sadly, the wrong view is very rooted in Israel today but not in most of the Messianic Jewish world outside of Israel.  

In summary, classical Jewish missions envisioned seeing more and more Jewish people saved leading to Israel’s confession of Yeshua, leading to the second coming.  Dispensational Jewish missions were seeking to see individual Jews saved, so they could be part the church, go to heaven if they died, or be raptured out before the tribulation.   Jewish missions were disconnected from corporate Israel turning to Yeshua and his second coming.  This was a huge change and a sad derailment. 

Can We be Confident in our Faith?  

One of my most esteemed professors made a distinction.  He said we could not have certainty but could have certitude.  What did he mean?   It was that intellectual certainty in the absolute sense was only possible in mathematics.  Yet we can be quite sure in a heart sense on other subjects.  I have no doubt that my wife will never stop loving me.  I am quite sure when I take the bus from my home near Jerusalem, it will let me off downtown by the train station. 

When we deal with apologetics, we deal rationally with empirical evidence.  Some say this is a left-brain approach.  I like to always connect brain language to the unseen soul and speak of brain/soul because we are spiritual beings. It is true that we have presented very short rational summaries of the categories of evidence.  Yet sometimes such evidence stirs our hearts.  The right brain/soul, the intuitive grasp, the sense of rightness inside and more convinces us as well.  One person said, our inner knower knows. We also are moved when we are part of a people who love Him and one another deeply.  It is the combination of left-brain/soul and right brain/soul that produces certitude in the heart, what the Bible calls faith or trust.  One writer said, faith is trusting in the sufficiency of the evidence.  However, that evidence is not just rational evidence.  It is also falling in love with the person of Yeshua. We do need both the rational and what we call the witness of the Spirit inside the heart (the right brain/soul). Our own life experience in Him becomes more and more powerful as we seek and know Him. 

When I was a young skeptical philosophy student, I began to find evidence.  Finding a real bonified miracle was hard.  I did find one eventually, a fellow student healed in the name of Yeshua of a club foot.  Then there was another, fellow student who was dying was healed of a severed carotid artery after a car accident.  Then I discovered the historical evidence of Yeshua’s resurrection and then the evidence of Pentecost/Shavuot.  Today I find myself amazed at the level of evidence far beyond what was available in my college and graduate school days.  It is like drinking from a firehose. 

I have summarized the basic evidence and the arguments.  I have presented the existence of God from the fine-tuned universe that had a beginning.   Then I presented the argument to show that the cell can only be understood as designed.  So, all nature and humanity are designed, not a product of chance. I presented the evidence for Yeshua, the quality of his life, fulfilled prophecy, his resurrection, and then the evidence from the day of Pentecost (Shavuot). I presented the evidence from miracles done in the name of Yeshua in our own day.  Then I presented the evidence from the nature of the problem of evil as actually showing that evil in our world fits the Bible’s teaching on the fall and the nature of evil.  I presented the evidence from culture as well showing that only the biblical worldview gives us a hopeful, meaningful, and fulfilling life orientation, both for the individual and the society.  I also presented more than this list.  

In about 15-20 pages I summarized apologetics.  Yet this is a very short summary.  One can easily write a whole book, and I did.  It is entitled The Biblical Worldview, An Apologetic. One can also find books on each subject.   In my book, I list books for each subject.  We have just scratched the surface.  But I trust that my summaries are helpful.

The Argument from Culture  

About 55 years ago a number of thinkers developed what I called cultural apologetics.  Some of the famous names were Francis Schaeffer of the L’Abri Study center in Switzerland and Hans Rookmaaker, Professor of Art History of the Free University of Amsterdam, Holland.  The basic argument is that the true worldview is one in which human beings can find a lasting sense of joy and fulfillment.  Schaeffer and Rookmaaker analyzed art including painting, sculpture, movies, literature, and philosophy to show that modern anti-biblical philosophies like Atheistic Evolutionary Naturalism and Atheistic Existentialism produced cultural despair as reflected in artistic and philosophical expression.   Schaeffer expressed this by saying the “mannishness of man” cannot live comfortably in this worldview and shows rebellion against the meaningless of existence.  The famous apologist, Norman Geisler said that a worldview is an environment in which we live.  Fish live in the environment of sustaining water.  A fish is not meant to live outside of water.  The life of those opposed to the biblical worldview is like fish out of water.  They thrash around and cannot find meaning and fulfillment.  

Art especially shows that the anti-biblical world views lead to depression or despair.  Shaffer saw that people try to escape from the meaninglessness of their rationally asserted world views.  They take a leap of faith to find some mystical meaning.  For Albert Camus meaning is found by rebellion against meaninglessness.  We rebel against the absurdity of life to find a sense of meaning.  (See his book The Rebel.)  For Karl Jaspers, it is to have a mystical final experience that cannot be described.  For others it is to create the theater of the absurd to at least express ourselves and life’s absurdity.  For John Paul Sartre, it is to choose or create our own meaning and though it is not based on any real given meaning, it is to hold our ethical choice as having ultimate value as if it was of objective ultimate value.  We can go on and on.   Machine art, where humans are depicted as machines, shouts against the dehumanizing of the modern worldview. 

Others have pointed out that society, as a whole, becomes more and more uncivilized over time when such depressing world views are embraced.  The great philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that if human beings do not believe in life after death and a moral judgment of rewards and punishments, society will deteriorate into more and more crime and barbarism. Other cultures do have some hope in their world views, in my view nothing compared to the vivid hope of the Bible view.  But we are talking here about the world views of atheism and the assertion that there is no ultimate meaning to life.  We contrast this to the biblical world view, that we were created to be in loving community with God and others forever, to enjoy all the glories of God’s creation.  

In recent years until our own day, there are many who argue that the progress of societies in the west, against slavery, for hospitals, humane treatment for all, orphans, widows, those with handicaps, the poor, and the mentally ill only came through the influence of the Bible.  So argues even atheist British historian Tom Holland.  He argues that human rights and the compassion we treasure are unknown apart from this influence.  What an amazing admission!  The great sociologist and historian Rodney Stark argued in the same way.  The evidence was so overwhelming to him that in his last years he became a Christian.  Even the rise of modern science is due to the biblical view that God created a stable world whose laws could be studied.  (Alfred North Whitehead, in Science and the Modern Mind,  and the historian Herbert Butterfield)  

Doesn’t this make the most sense only if the Bible is really God’s revelation to us and that the biblical worldview that gives hope for this life and for everlasting life is the right and best of all world views?

The Supernatural Life Signs and Wonders Today 

In Acts 2:22 Peter speaks to the great crowds after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the morning of Shavuot (Pentecost).  He says, “Yeshua ha-Notzrati—a man authenticated to you by God with mighty deeds and wonders and signs God performed through Him in your midst, as you yourselves know. . . “  

After this message, the same kinds of signs and wonders continued for in v 45 we read, “Fear lay upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were happening through the emissaries.” 

Then in Mark 16;17,18, we read a summary of the conviction of the early communities of Yeshua, “These signs will accompany those who believe in My name, they will speak with new languages; they will handle snakes; and if they drink anything deadly, it will not hurt them, they will lay hands on the sick and they will recover.”

The very miracles Mark speaks of are all recorded in the New Testament.  But what about after that.  Did great signs and wonders continue as the Gospel of the Kingdom spread to the nations? Yes, there were always great reports.  One can find them in the Church fathers, and even Augustine changed his mind when he saw such miracles.  In the ministry of St. Patrick of Ireland, such miracles are reported including several resurrections from the dead.  The Catholic and Orthodox streams always had miracle reports, some strongly attested and some weakly attested. 

When the Age of Enlightenment began to dominate Western culture, going back to the Renaissance, skepticism became the order of the day.  A more rationalistic Christianity was fostered where signs, wonders, and miracles were seen as only for the first century to launch the Church and were thought to be only intended until the Scriptures were completed.  However, there is nothing in the Bible texts that give an expectation that signs and wonders would cease but that they were to continue until the Second Coming of Yeshua. 

Revival movements that experienced new outpourings of the Spirit did report signs and wonders but in ordinary Christian higher education this was not significantly reported or studied.  It did not fit the cultural mindset.  However, with the Pentecostal movement at the beginning of the 20th century, there were more numerous reports.  This ebbed and flowed until the Charismatic Movement where signs and wonders again were more numerous.  Healing Evangelists like Oral Roberts and Katheryn Kuhlman presented many miracles, and some amazing healings were thoroughly documented by eyewitnesses and doctors.  In the cutting edge of Kingdom extension in the Southern Hemisphere, such signs and wonders are numerous.  Can we be sure of their reality?

Thankfully we now have scholarly books that present amazing evidence.  We are seeing signs, wonders, and miracles in the progress of the Gospel today more than at any time since the first century.  Dr. Craig Keener, of Asbury Seminary, has written an amazing two-volume set, The Credibility of New Testament Miracles.   Actually, the title could be the credibility of New Testament-like miracles today.  He traveled the world, met with eyewitnesses, doctors, and the people who were healed.  He documented the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing, and resurrections from the dead.  These miracles take place in the Name of Jesus.  Other religions have some rare supernatural reports but nothing to compare with the quality and numbers of these miracles.  I give a few examples in my book, The Biblical World View, An Apologetic.  I have first-hand experience as well.  One amazing book that is much shorter and easier than Keener’s is Heidi Baker’s Always Enough which includes accounts of the amazing supernatural manifestations in her work in Mozambique, Africa.  The documentation is strong.  Again, the blind see, the lame walk, and the dead are raised up. She and her husband Rolland have Ph.Ds in Theology.  Keener documents some of them.  Out of this work thousands of orphans were raised and a few thousand churches planted. 

The key takeaway is that there is no other good explanation but the one given by those who bring the signs and wonders and the recipients of the blessings of the healings and the miracles. These are done in the name of Jesus/Yeshua and by the power of the Spirit in Him.

One other supernatural proof comes from the testimony of people raised from the dead, either supernaturally or by medical intervention.  These are sometimes called near-death experiences, but the most important really are deaths and resurrections.  An amazing one is in the autobiography of the great evangelist to Africa, Reinhart Bonnke.   In this case, the man was partly embalmed.  Many cases are those in hospital care who flat-lined, that is died.  Sometimes they were revived after a significant period of time, but sometimes the medical staff failed but yet to their surprise, the person did revive.  They describe their experience as being sent back by Yeshua or an angel.   The best book I have read on this is Imagine Heaven by John Burke.  The people generally describe leaving their bodies.  They are able to give an accurate description of the goings-on in the hospital room, emergency room, and other locations that are confirmed. No explanation can be given as to how a dead body could know these real things, who was in the room, who came in, what they did.   They leave the hospital and sometimes travel in through a  tunnel and then end up in heaven.  They sometimes have more accurate information of other matters.  Truly the soul lives beyond the body.  In heaven, they meet relatives who have died and then are either sent back or given a choice.  There are many amazing books by people who came back.  Some describe hell as well.  There is enough supernatural information to describe these experiences as miraculous and another strong evidence for our faith.  

The Problem of Evil: The Biblical Evidence

The greatest objection to Biblical faith is said to be the problem of evil.  Human beings are subject to terrible pain, suffering, loss, disease, and premature death.  How can God, who is described as good, all-loving, all-knowing, and powerful allow such evil?  Either God is not all-powerful or is not really good and loving.  Deism was a view in centuries past held by those who could not deny the marks of intelligent design in the world but who could not believe God cared about us.   He created the world but then just let it run on its own with little involvement.  We can make this argument against a loving and good God more powerful and colorful by describing many awful things.  One famous believer did so to show that Biblical faith still held up (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in The Brother’s Karamazov) and Antony Flew in his classic essay God and Falsification.  

Yet amazingly some have argued powerfully that the problem of evil is actually evidence for the biblical faith. This includes the former atheist philosopher C. E. M. Joad.  Joad wrote a generation ago.  His two amazing books, God and Evil and The Recovery of Belief were powerful. C. S. Lewis also wrote powerfully in The Problem of Pain.  

When we deal with Biblical faith and the evidence, we have to realize that we are presenting a total world view whose parts are integrated or tied together as a whole.  Therefore, dealing with the issue of truth we have to compare world views.  Which world view is the best at explaining human existence and the universe around us in the most adequate way?   These writers and many others argue that the world as we find it, with amazing good, beauty, design, and more but also with terrible suffering, in that evil people do terrible things to others, and that there are natural disasters on earth are best explained by the biblical world view.  Naturalistic evolution and atheism do not explain;  it is all just chance or no explanation.  Buddhism opts out of an explanation.  So, what is the Biblical response?

The Bible tells us that we live in a fallen world.  Its basic concepts for explanation are creation, fall, and redemption.  God is good and brought into being a good creation.  However, the fall ruined it and opened the world to the human evil one to another.  In addition, the creation itself shows this truth and though providing wonderful things, it is also fallen and provides an environment that includes pain and suffering that is fitting to the fallenness and evil in human beings.  It is the lot of human beings under the fall that good things and bad things happen to good and bad people. However, there is in this life a partial escape through doing good and the principle of sowing and reaping, that one reaps what he or she sows.  However, in this world, the Bible teaches that full justice is not attained.  It is only attained in the life beyond this one (Ps. 73).  

The Bible defines God’s love as his desire that all be ultimately saved, but he knows that some will chose to rebel against him and be lost.  God is good in that he desires a good and fulfilling destiny for every human being.  He is also good in that he will bring about a redeemed community that lives forever.  However, what the Bible calls this brief time of sorrow will pale in light of the eternal life we will enjoy with God and with those who love him.  God’s goodness and love do not mean that He can save everyone because human free choice is the root of the evil that was brought on the world (both natural evil and human sin) and human free choice is God’s will.  Human beings can reject his love.  God does not want to be loved by robots but loved by people who freely choose Him and his will.  God’s goodness is also defined by God’s intent and accomplishment to bring about a redeemed community that will rejoice in love together forever.  That redeemed community is worth the price of allowing freedom that produced and will produce great suffering and ultimate loss for those who finally reject God.  In the light of that eternal fulfillment, the sufferings in this life will not seem so great.  Paul says that we will receive an eternal weight of glory in the light of which these sufferings on earth are light afflictions.  He could say that because he knew God and his great love personally. 

Joad also argues that only the biblical view of the fall explains how every gain humans make has an evil side.  How is it that there is usually a negative?  We create cars that give us the joy and freedom of travel but then lead to many deaths in accidents.  We refine oil for cars but then find that burning the oil pollutes.  We create the convenience of plastics and destroy the fish in the ocean.  We create nuclear power that can give unlimited energy but then creates bombs that can kill billions.  We experiment on viruses to create vaccines and medicines to prevent a pandemic and cause a pandemic when the more dangerous altered virus escapes from the lab.  We seek to limit fossil fuels and plunge many into poverty. 

Yet in all of this, the atheist cannot explain the grandeur of creation, the amazing love of a lasting marriage, the joy of a baby, or the wonder of a mountain height.   The problem of good is much more difficult for him to explain than our problem of evil and pain.  The problem of evil and pain is evidence for our faith because it fits well with the biblical worldview. 

The problem of pain and suffering also calls us to grow in depth of compassion and to fight pain and suffering to the extent that we can and to comfort those who mourn and suffer and to bring healing through the power of Yeshua for the traumas of life.  The trials of life produce character.  

Interpreting texts, the Bible, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court

The history of text interpretation is a great study.  The discipline of text interpretation is called hermeneutics and is applied to historical writing from the ancient Greeks, to the Bible in parts or as a whole (if one believes as I do that there is a unity in the Bible that can be interpreted as a whole) to a newspaper from the 1930s to Shakespeare and Wordsworth. 

Religious leaders many centuries ago developed rules of interpretation such as the Rabbinic rules from the early centuries A. D.  A more exacting set of rules for interpretation is more recent.  Only in the last few centuries was the primary thrust to understand a text according to the intention of the author or authors.  Understanding that intent required some understanding of what became known as cultural-historical exegesis.   In other words, we have to understand the language and culture of the time of writing to understand the intent of the author.  Craig Keener’s Cultural Background Commentary of the New Testament is a good example and a great resource. I recall the adage, “A text without a context is a pretext.”  The consensus until the mid 20th century was that we can know the meaning of texts with reasonable probability even when the author and something of his biography is not known.  

Parallels in Biblical Interpretation to Constitutional interpretation

There are amazing parallels to the interpretation of the Constitution of the United States and the Bible.  In both cases, we seek to know the original intent or as we say of the Constitution, the intent of the framers.  With regard to the Constitution, we have an amazing resource in the Federalist Papers that give a commentary on the Constitution.  Plus we know of the political philosophers whose ideas shaped the Constitution.  The Constitution is one of the most amazing governmental documents.  The United States has drifted away from it, but much is still in place.  Here are three responses to interpreting texts which now will affect the hearings for a new Supreme Court Justice.  The same responses are affecting Biblical interpretation. 

  1. Conservativism.  We can know the meaning of the texts.  This meaning is binding law on the United States, and we cannot stray from the meaning.  That which is not enjoined or precluded by the texts is required of us.  So also, for the Bible.  We can know its meaning and when we do know it, it is binding on us.  In the Bible, we are bound to the New Covenant application of the Torah. 
  2. Classic Liberalism.  We can know the meaning of the texts, but that meaning is antiquated.  The text may give us good principles but if it does not, we must have a flexible approach that enables us to make legal decisions that are more fitting to our cultural situation.   This would be the approach of liberals to the Bible’s teaching on morals and its accommodation to the culture and especially today to the LGBT agenda in liberal churches.  H. Richard Niebuhr in his classic Christ and Culture, described the liberal approach as Christ subsumed under culture.  The prevailing directions of the cultural elite subsume the meaning of the Bible and the Constitution under their preferred vision for the society.   The words of the text are made to say what they really don’t mean. 

Of course, there are centrists that want to respect the text but still want a freedom of transcending the original intent when needed.  

  1. The third approach to texts is postmodern interpretation. They say that a text has no objective meaning.  It can mean whatever the reader sees it to say (reader-response). Postmodernists approach the Bible in churches and then build their orientation on the consensus of the readers.  The tools for accurate interpretation are not really that important.  How destructive to scholarship!  Applied to the choice of a Supreme Court judge, postmodern ideas produce judges that simply make the text to say whatever he or she wants to and makes the law to say whatever he or she prefers.  Postmodernism is a dangerous aberration leading to chaos and anarchy!  Sadly is still pervasive in universities. 

It is important to note that our texts, either in the Bible or in the Constitution do not cover all situations but may give principles for application to new situations.  In Judaism, this is called Halakah.  For example, is it wrong to disconnect a person from machines that prolong life when the person is in a coma?  What about assisted dying?  Taking large doses of morphine relieves pain but hastens death. Ethicists in Judaism and Christianity think about such issues.  Is artificial insemination ethical?  Abortion to save the physical life of a mother (very rarely needed)? And we can go on and on.  Conservatives recognize the need for judging law application as well as being restrained so legislatures speak where the Constitution does not.  Liberals want courts to be super legislatures that further their goals. 

Obviously, the reader understands that I am a conservative.  In choosing a congregation or denomination, we should only choose one that pursues an objective interpretation of the Bible and teaches that the text is normative.  In choosing judges for the Supreme Court and other courts that judge constitutional issues, we need to choose judges that submit to the intent of the text and only show flexibility where the text gives principles but is not clear in application to new situations but also are reticent so that legislatures perform their duty.  This is the battle we face from Joe Biden’s choice for a judge that most likely will be liberal, but the horror of horrors could be postmodern. 

Liberalism and post-modernism in the Church are so very parallel to the same in civil government and the courts. 

The Hope of our Resurrection 

The hope of life after death alone can adequately comfort us regarding the justice disparities of this life.  The great philosopher Immanuel Kant argued in his Critique of Practical Reason, that unless we believe in God, freedom, and life after death, the culture itself will go downhill. The belief in a judgment after death is a very important motivation to righteous behavior, that good behavior counts.  However, that justice ultimately prevails after death gives us hope and motivation that our actions for love and justice will not ultimately be meaningless (Meaninglessness as the ultimate end of all things was argued by the famous very pessimistic philosopher Bertrand Russell.)  These assertions are good as far as they go.  However, the biblical hope is more vivid and more wonderful.  We understand from the Bible that the resurrection of Yeshua shows us something of what life in a resurrection body will be like. 

The famous New Testament scholar, Bishop N. T. Wright of St. Andrews University in Scotland presents the case in his book Surprised by Hope.  His book is the best, to my knowledge, that there is on the resurrection, both the very strong evidence of the resurrection of Yeshua and the hope of our resurrection.  Wright argues that we are destined for the resurrection of our bodies, not just the continued existence of bodiless souls floating in the air with pleasant peace as in some eastern religions.  The best things of life on earth in this space-time dimension foreshadow the life of the Age to Come.  Yeshua grilled and ate fish after his resurrection.  He could be touched and hugged.  His body was not limited like ours but could walk through walls.  This is not, says Wright taking a cue from C. S. Lewis, because his body was ghostly but was other-dimensional.  He was more substantial, and for him the walls were ghostly.  

The Age to Come is not the destruction of the heavens and the earth but their total renewal. The saved, those who are his, enjoy the presence of God, of Yeshua, the Spirit within and all around.  We have the joy of fellowship, worship, art, beauty, music, nature, friendships, exploration and so much more of the best things in this life that point to eternity.  His resurrection and ours give us hope to go through the terrible times and know that we win.  We live happily ever after. 

Without God and the resurrection says the famous scholar and thinker Peter Burger, in his book, A Rumor of Angels, that every mother who tells her hurting and sometimes dying child that it will be all right is lying.  It won’t be all right without God and the afterlife but will be terrible without the resurrection hope. 

The hope of the resurrection is now more substantiated in the documented miracles of death and resurrection experienced by people in this world.  Often called “near-death experiences” there are many examples of people who have died and come back to life.  There are many books on this but the best I have found is John Burke’s, Imagine Heaven. Those who through prayer or by Divine decree come back from the dead often report the very same kinds of experiences.  Their soul separates from their body.  They are able to see all that is happening in the room around their dead body.  They accurately describe what medical personnel is doing to revive them or if they are giving up. They often accurately describe what is happening outside of their room.  They may have views of their towns and cities as they ascend.  They often then go through a tunnel.  They come out on the other side in heaven, meet departed relatives, sometimes an angel and sometimes Yeshua. Sometimes they are given new knowledge that proves accurate when they return.  They are often given a choice to stay or return to earth but are sometimes told that it is better for them to return.  Of course, their form is not their resurrected body that can interact on earth but a temporary manifestation that looks physical.  There is an objective quality to these stories, the information, and the parallels in the stories. 

The famous scholar Craig Keener, in his books on miracles, also documents amazing resurrections, even documenting some who had been dead for an unusual amount of time. 

So, the evidence of the resurrection is that Yeshua was resurrected, the meaning of our resurrection is compelling, and finally Yeshua was not the only one to come back from the dead. 

Evidence from Pentecost to the Book of Acts

After his resurrection but just before his ascension (where Yeshua was taken up to God and seated at His throne) Yeshua instructed his Disciples to stay in Jerusalem and to wait until they would be clothed with power from on high.  They would be immersed in the Holy Spirit.  On the Jewish Feast of Shavuot or Pentecost, this took place, but not only with the 12 Disciples but with 120 gathered disciples.  They spent ten days after his ascension seeking God in prayer.  On the morning of Pentecost, I believe they gathered in the Temple in Solomon’s Portico, their place for larger meetings. Then it happened.  The Spirit was poured upon them with a mighty rushing wind.  Flames of fire appeared on them.  Then they spoke in foreign languages that they never had learned.  The people on the Temple Mount platform heard the strange loud sounds and gathered.  Jewish people from many nations heard them proclaiming the Good News in the languages of these nations.  Two aspects of this major miracle are usually noted by scholars.  First that this miracle parallels God coming down in fire on Mt. Sinai when the covenant was given to Moses for the people.  Secondly, some think that the barrier of language differences was overcome through the Gospel in a reversal of the confusion of languages at the tower of Babel.  Some who did not understand that they spoke in foreign languages thought they were drunk.  

Peter then stood up and proclaimed the Gospel.  He began by saying that they were not drunk, but it was only 9:00 A. M.  Rather this was the miracle prophesied by the prophet Joel in Joel 2:28-30, where God promises to pour out the Spirit on all flesh, and the sons and daughter will prophesy.  Then he proclaimed the story of Yeshua, his life of miracles, his death, and resurrection.  He also noted the culpability of the leaders and those who followed them who gave him over to death.  The people were deeply convicted and wondered what they should do.  Peter then tells them to repent, be baptized, and to be filled with the Spirit.  The text says 3,000 men came to faith that day, baptized no doubt in the many immersion pools by the entrances to the Temple.  

We now read of the progress of the new movement.  It grows by leaps and bounds, from major miracle to major miracle.  Peter and John see a man crippled from birth healed at the Gate Beautiful entrance to the Temple.  The Disciples supernaturally escape jail.  Signs, miracles, wonders, and healing are characteristic.  There are healings from paralysis and even a resurrection from the dead (Acts 9:39-42).   The movement among Jewish people and Samaritans (Acts 8) became very large though, alas, it did not gain the majority in ancient Israel.  The religious leaders thwarted its progress.  

Then we read of the amazing conversion of Saul of Tarsus (Paul) who took the Gospel to the nations.  Amazing miracles continued, prophecy, healings, and a resurrection from the dead.  The power of the Spirit that accompanied the preaching of the Gospel was as nothing ever seen before. Mark 16 is the prophecy of what would happen, “These signs shall follow those who believe.” (v.17)   It then summarizes what happened, “They went out and proclaimed everywhere, the LORD working with them confirming the word by the signs that follow.”  (v. 20)   

The power of preaching the word in the Synagogues of the Mediterranean world and then in the marketplaces of the cities of the Roman Empire with such power with signs and wonders produced a huge movement.  The miracles in the ministry of Barnabas and Paul and then Paul and Silas and their team continued to produce the same kind of fruit that we saw in the early ministry of the 12 in Israel.  Congregations were planted and grew in city after city. 

Only the fact that the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost in the Temple and the confirming signs being so numerous and amazing in the rest of the book of Acts (some 30 years)  can explain why the Yeshua movement conquered the Roman Empire.   There were some other periods that were amazing, for example, St. Patrick in the British Isles and Ireland.  However, in history, there was nothing again quite as grand as what we see in the book of Acts.  However, that is until our day.  Today we are seeing the closest parallels to the first century.  That is for another essay. 

The Messiah Yeshua and Judgment Texts 

An over-emphasis on the difference between how God appears in the days of the Old Testament and how God appears in the text of the New Testament has been common historically but seems to be more pronounced today.  Those who have departed from our faith and some who were never among us, claim that the God of the Old Testament is harsh, vengeful, and violent.  On this basis, they claim, they reject the Gospel. How is that apparent discrepancy dealt with by believing scholars? 

First, there are those who do not believe in the full trustworthiness of all the biblical texts (inerrancy).  They do believe that God’s revelation is in the Bible and that this revelation is the highest revelation we have.  Yet, they argue that not all that is in the Bible, claimed as God’s command is really that, but is a misperception of God’s will by people.  According to these thinkers, God did not destroy humanity in the flood, and He did not call Israel to destroy all the Canaanites.  This was a projection of their human understanding.  Yet these also argue that the ethical teaching and standards of the Torah and the prophets is far beyond that of the nations of those days.  (G. Ernest Wright, The Old Testament Against its Environment, Reuven Hammer, The Torah Revolution).  The standards of the Law and the teaching of the prophets on God’s heart for the poor and marginalized is outstanding and wonderful.   Brevard Childs of Yale argued that the Bible provides us with a progression of better understanding as we pass through the Old Testament unto the New. The trajectory toward a much greater understanding of the heart of God begins with the Torah but then gets better and clearer until its climax in the life and teaching of Yeshua.  He calls this the canonical approach to biblical theology and says we are bound by the truth of the trajectory of the whole canon.  This is where he finds true and trustworthy biblical theology.  Those who hold to a high view of the whole Bible (inerrancy) believe that there is a progressive revelation such that we see God most clearly and fully only when we come to the revelation in the New Testament.  For whatever reason those harsh and violent commands and history are recorded in the Tenak (Old Testament) especially continuing through to II Kings.  God’s will for us today is not to destroy the Canaanites but to love our enemies.  The center for us today is the Sermon on the Mount. Whatever we think of the harsh commands given to ancient Israel, today we are confronted with the life, death and resurrection of Yeshua.  Offense over the Old Testament passages can be a defense to not face the claims of Yeshua.  That is the highest revelation of God and his will. 

However, there is another important aspect to this subject.  Is the gulf between Yeshua in the New Covenant revelation with the teaching of the whole New Testament really as wide as claimed?  An Andy Stanley may reject the Old Testament as relevant today, but then what of Isaiah 2 and 11 and its revelation of world peace, or Isaiah 42, 49 and 53 and the amazing portrait of Yeshua.  He probably does not mean that he rejects the whole thing as irrelevant.  The best social justice teaching is found there.  Again, the gulf is not as wide if we read the judgment passages in the teaching Yeshua and the rest of the New Covenant Scriptures.  There are many texts. 

Yeshua enjoins us to not fear him who kills the body but to fear Him who destroys both the body and soul in Hell.  Those of the goats in Matthew 25 are told to depart from him, even into eternal death and separation from God.  His words of judgment on Capernaum and Bethsaida are fearful and terrible.  In John 5:24, the wrath of God remains on those who reject Yeshua. The judgments in the book of Revelation are also fearful and terrible as is the final judgment in Rev. 20.  Yeshua warns of a harsh judgment again and again for those who do not repent and turn to God. 

Yes, the ethical way of life and love taught by Yeshua is amazing, the highest and the best.  However, a hard judgment part is still present.  He himself is now the norm by which we measure all things.     

My book Heaven, Hell and the Afterlife provides a survey of the whole Bible and its teaching. The Bible’s teaching is both wonderful, hopeful, and hard.