I recently read The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism by Daniel Hummel. In the book, he coins the term pop dispensationalism. I don’t know whether or not it’s used popularly. While I had never heard the term before, I understand what it means. I think a number of people are just like me in this regard.
A dispensationalist is a person who believes in, among other things, a coming kingdom of God upon the earth. This kingdom will be preceded by a seven-year Tribulation. Most dispensationalists believe that the Tribulation will begin with the Rapture of the Church. This Rapture could occur at any moment.
Dispensationalists are waiting for this kingdom. They see this present world as passing away. It cannot be transformed. The believer’s hope is in the coming of the Lord. Only then will righteousness prevail.
During the Tribulation, a man whom most call the Antichrist will rule the world. He will insist that people worship him and take a mark on their body showing their allegiance to him.
According to Hummel, pop dispensationalism took some of the features of dispensationalism and appealed to the masses. It made some dispensational terminology–such as the Rapture, the Tribulation, the Antichrist, and the mark of the Beast–well-known to millions of Americans. This happened through books, movies, and television programs. It all started with Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth, followed by other writers and popular books like the Left Behind series. Certain pop dispensationalists became fabulously wealthy. Their literature was written in a way that aroused the interest of vast numbers of people as they looked at the world around them.
Hummel is not a fan of dispensationalism. He implies that at least some pop dispensationalists did what they did for money. He claims that pop dispensationalists basically abandoned any pretense of interpreting the Bible as older dispensationalists had. Instead, they tried to tie current events to passages in the Bible and encouraged their readers and listeners to interpret these events as indicating that great evil was on the very near horizon. Lindsey, for example, saw the locusts of Rev 9:1-11 as depicting attack helicopters that would inflict harm on the people of Earth. He also gave a time frame for the Rapture’s taking place. Pop dispensationalists also abandoned the idea that the coming kingdom of God was man’s only hope. People could support moral and conservative political causes in order to delay the coming of total disaster on our planet. Instead of saying that the Rapture could happen at any moment, they taught that if people could interpret what was going on and respond in a godly way, they could put the Rapture off for a while and enjoy temporal economic security and political stability. Saddam Hussein, the oil crisis, terrorist attacks, the rise in abortions, economic turmoil, and a host of other things were used to promote political action.
I remember reading The Late Great Planet Earth as a young man. I found it fascinating. It certainly made me feel that bad times were coming upon the earth.
Hummel says that pop dispensationalism played a large role in relegating the old system of dispensationalism to a small, irrelevant system of beliefs. The excesses of pop dispensationalism meant that dispensationalism as a way of interpreting the Bible was rejected by any serious Bible student. Dispensationalism, in Hummel’s view, became a joke.
Is Hummel correctly interpreting what happened? I am sure other historians would disagree about the role pop dispensationalism played in the theological landscape of America. But however we may feel about his thesis, it presents a warning to all of us. Whatever the motivation of the pop dispensationalists, we can see how easy it would be to use the Bible to tell people what they want to hear. A writer who wanted to sell millions of books, or the pastor of a church who wanted a larger congregation, might be tempted to use the Bible in that way.
Most of us will not find ourselves in a situation where we can make millions of dollars writing books on theology. But in 2 Tim 4:3, Paul speaks of the desire for people to have their ears tickled. We might be tempted to scratch that itch in order to be accepted by them. Sound doctrine from Biblical teaching is rarely popular. Acclaim by the world is not the measure of what is true. May we ask the Lord to keep us faithful to what He has revealed in His Word.