Are Dispensationalists Gnostic Escapists?

Recently, I was listening to Apologia Radio and one interesting subject came up: Engaging Christian Gnosticism. I was quite intrigued, so I listened. Jeff Durbin and Luke Pierson had on their program guest Andrew Sandlin who spoke about Gnosticism. Unfortunately, around the 34-minute mark, Sandlin clearly linked elements of Gnosticism with Dispensationalism. Not only has Sandlin come on the air to speak about this, but he has also written about this on his website in a blog titled Escapist Theology, and there he has also linked Dispensationalism with Gnostic Escapism. It always surprises me that statements of this nature can be made with little to no evidence to support them. In this blog, we will look to see if the claims are at all warranted.

Let me first start by saying that Dispensationalism is an incredibly large field of study. Anyone willing to engage in a critique of it must be aware of the varying degrees of belief in the theological system. Dispensationalists cannot all be lumped into a singular entity when it comes to Sandlin’s beliefs re: escapism. They must always be looked at case-by-case.

I believe there are several key points that need to be looked at and considered at the outset:

1.) Where does Sandlin see the correlation between Gnostic Escapism and Dispensationalism?
2.) What is the definition of Escapism?
3.) How is Gnostic Escapism defined?
4.) How is Gnostic Escapism and Dispensationalism comparable?

Let’s first look at Sandlin’s comments re: Gnostic Escapism and where does he see it fit with Dispensationalism?

Sandlin makes it clear that when he is speaking about “escapism” he is specifically targeting the doctrine known as the “Pre-tribulational rapture,” which is a position that is held by the majority of Dispensationalists:

This pre-tribulational rapture will snatch away the church to heaven; the church will escape. All those left behind, including the Jews, will suffer the wrath of the antichrist. This means the Gentile church is always looking for the rapture, and it’s not looking to press the claims of Jesus Christ in all areas of life. This escapism is not merely a theoretical postulate.1

Sandlin in his blog post is clearly alluding to the fact that because Dispensationalists believe that the church will escape Daniel’s 70th week—the tribulation—that Dispensationalists are escapists. They aren’t “looking to press the claims of Jesus Christ in all areas of life,” but rather to escape the Day of the Lord. Is this really an accurate depiction? Does this make Dispensationalists escapists? In order to analyze the claim above, let’s first get a general definition of escapism:

a way of avoiding an unpleasant or boring life, especially by thinking, reading, etc. about more exciting but impossible activities2

the avoidance of reality by absorption of the mind in entertainment or in an imaginative situation, activity, etc.3

habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine.4

In all 3 definitions there is a common theme:

  • Avoidance/diversion of the mind
  • Imagination
  • Escape from reality

Now that we have a general idea of what “escapism” is, let’s look at what the Gnostic’s understand by escapism:

Salvation, then, is an escape from this world into the world of the God beyond the creator god and demons of this world. In order to escape from this world to the realm of the true God we need to understand how that divinity got trapped here in the first place. This is the essential Gnostic “gnosis,” knowing how it came to be that we are God trapped in this world. If we can understand the cosmic process by which we came to be here, we can reverse that process and go back to whence we came.5  

The goal of most versions of Gnosticism is to break free of Ialdabaoth’s world and return to the world of light. This escape hatch is not open to all, however. Many Gnostic sources divide human beings into three classes: hylics (from hyle, “matter”) who are robotic creations of the archons, and cannot escape the material world; psychics (from psyche, “mind”) who have the potential to break free from matter and rise to the realm of light, but have to work at it; and pneumatics (from pneuma, “spirit”) who have gnosis as an innate birthright and can count on returning to the world of light. These basic principles seem to have been accepted by most (although not all) Gnostic systems as a common foundation.6

“There’s only one way to escape the material world and return to the Pleroma, and it is gnosis, that is, a specialized form of experiential knowledge that comes to a human being when they recognize the universe as being a prison. Gnosis usually entails both demonstrating love and compassion and striving to escape from materialism.”7

Man’s earthly body is a manifestation of the evil Demiurge from which the divine soul longs to escape back to the true God. Gnosis is the secret knowledge required to escape this earthly body.8

The supreme God dwelt in unapproachable splendour in this spiritual world, and had no dealings with the world of matter. Matter was the creation of an inferior being, the Demiurge. He, along with his aides the archōns, kept mankind imprisoned within their material existence, and barred the path of individual souls trying to ascend to the spirit world after death. Not even this possibility was open to everyone, however. For only those who possessed a divine spark (pneuma) could hope to escape from their corporeal existence. And even those possessing such a spark did not have an automatic escape, for they needed to receive the enlightenment of gnōsis before they could become aware of their own spiritual condition… In most of the Gnostic systems reported by the church Fathers, this enlightenment is the work of a divine redeemer, who descends from the spiritual world in disguise and is often equated with the Christian Jesus. Salvation for the Gnostic, therefore, is to be alerted to the existence of his divine pneuma and then, as a result of this knowledge, to escape on death from the material world to the spiritual.9

Related to this element of the appeal of Gnosticism is that it forms a means of escape from the world. This world, it tells its adherents, is a mistake; it ought not to be. I should not be in this world, the Gnostic says, and the real me is a fragment of divinity. The Gnostic sees escape from the body to a purely spiritual existence as the true goal of life. In the light of this, the statement often made (at times even by Christians!) that the body that is laid in the ground is ‘not the real person’ is seen as not in fact Christian, but closer to Gnosticism in that it regards the body as not ‘the real person’. The Christian must affirm that the body is part of the real person, though there is another, spiritual part, that is in death separated from the body, with which it shall be for ever reunited at the resurrection of the dead.”10

After surveying several links re: Gnosticism and their beliefs regarding escapism we can summarize the following about Gnostic escapism:

  • True escape or salvation from this world is achieved through secret or hidden knowledge (gnosis), giving the Gnostic awareness of their current spiritual condition
  • Matter is the creation of an inferior being, the Demiurge who has kept mankind imprisoned
  • Escaping the material world to the spiritual realm is the true goal in life

A side-by-side comparison with the above summarized understandings of “escapism” and “gnostic escapism” demonstrate they are two very different things. Calling someone an “escapist” is not the same as calling someone a “Gnostic escapist.” Now, do the goals of Pre-tribulationalists align with the Gnostic goals of escapism? Let’s see:

Gnostic Escapist vs. Pre-Tribulationalist

  • The Gnostic Escapist is attempting to escape the world through a sort of hidden wisdom or knowledge that only a select group will have which is necessary for salvation or for escape from this world. The Pre-tribulationalist is not “attempting” to flee or escape the world through a sort of hidden knowledge or wisdom. Salvation or true freedom from the world is clearly not achievable apart from God’s grace (Sola Gratia) and Jesus’s cross work and our faith in him (Sola Fide). The Pre-tribulationalist is merely exegeting the scripture and seeing that the saints are caught up to the clouds to prepare for the bema judgment and the marriage of the Lamb, prior to a period of wrath decreed in Daniel 9:24-27 for Israel. It has nothing to do with attempting to “escape the material realm.”
  • The Gnostic Escapist desires to leave the material world and this for them is the true goal in life. The Pre-tribulationalist’s true goal in life is to glorify God (Soli Deo Gloria) and is not at all against the material or the physical. While waiting for the coming of the Lord—to rapture the saints—the Pre-tribulationalist can and do engage in the earthly realm in a number of activities including the most important (the great commission). We are not looking for some sort of hidden knowledge (gnosis) to escape the world to be saved.
  • The Gnostic Escapist while desiring to depart this world, desires never to return, but to remain in the spiritual realm with the Father, the True God. Yet, the Pre-tribulationalist clearly understands that the departure described in Scripture is temporary (7-years), not permanent. The Lord returns back to the physical and earthly realm to begin his reign. It hardly seems that Pre-Tribulationalists are simply trying to get to the spiritual realm through some sort of secret knowledge.

In this brief evaluation of the two positions there doesn’t appear to be any similarities other than simply saying that Pre-tribulationalists simply want to depart to be with the Lord, and don’t see themselves as a part of the Day of the Lord. Isn’t this the cry of Paul, to be with the Lord?

Philippians 1:21-24 NASB
For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. 23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; 24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sakes.

We are advocating for Biblical Realism not Gnostic Escapism. Paul’s genuine desire was to depart (ἐπιθυμίαν). He longed to be with the Lord Jesus, as do all Pre-tribulationalists. There is nothing “Gnostic” or “Escapist” about desiring to be with the Lord. Would we accuse Paul of an escapist mentality simply because his desire was to depart this reality? Of course not. Pre-tribulationalists have always taught that we are to keep our eyes fixated on the Lord’s return, not for the sake of removal from our problems, our body, the material, but that we may be with him always.

John 14:1-3 NASB
“Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many rooms; if that were not so, I would have told you, because I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I am coming again and will take you to Myself, so that where I am, there you also will be.

True escapism would not result in a desire to leave this world only to come back to it after 7-years. True Gnostic Escapism would be the permanent removal of the believer from this world to never come back again, to remain in the spiritual realm. It cannot be demonstrated other than by mere assertion that Dispensationalists are advocating for some sort of Gnostic Escapism.

The Gospel Mandate and the Coming Kingdom

To put another nail in the coffin, if Dispensationalists were truly Gnostic Escapists why would they be fixated on being involved in this world at any level?

Dale Walden Johnson in his thesis titled “Millennial Thinking and its Implications for Social Reform: Premillennialism in Urban America 1865-1925″ stated quite clearly that while some might adopt a more pessimistic attitude, Dispensationalists can also be strong advocates of social activism:

“They successfully balanced an eschatology which argues for a declining culture, while affirming the biblical mandate to care for the impoverished…. This work shows that some premillennial urban ministers balanced their millennial views with a biblically based social activism. These ministers held in tension an apparently pessimistic millennial view, and an activist approach to social problems. This study will show that premillennialism sometimes motivated rather than discouraged social activism.”11

Think about it for a moment. Why would any Dispensationalist be involved in social problems if they simply wanted to escape this world? It doesn’t make any sense. Dispensationalists wouldn’t be involved in anything political or social. Yet, again, this simply isn’t what we see. We see the earliest and even present Dispensationalists active in evangelism (the great commission), active in U.S. foreign policy, active in supporting Israel, active in missions, active with helping the poor and needy, etc.

“It is doubtful if there has been any other circle of men [dispensationalists] who have done more by their influence in preaching, teaching and writing to promote a love for Bible study, a hunger for the deeper Christian life, a passion for evangelism and zeal for missions in the history of American Christianity.”12

The key thought here is that Dispensationalists are quite active in this world, not simply looking to escape reality through the rapture of the saints. Remember also that the rapture of the saints is declared by Dispensationalists as the next event on God’s time-clock, so why wouldn’t we be expectantly waiting for the Lord’s return, is this not what we were commanded?

Matthew 24:44 NASB
For this reason you must be ready as well; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will.


2 Timothy 4:8 NASB
in the future there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.

Titus 2:13 NASB
looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus,

Despite the fact that Dispensationalists are always looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of Christ, Dispensationalists have always been active in evangelism:

What then is the church to be about? The task of the church is evangelism. While there is strong opposition to efforts intended to make the world better for its own sake, there is also general agreement that it is the preaching of the gospel that has the largest beneficial effects on this world. In fact, the favorable effects of the gospel are so great, one must be on guard against the temptation to make them an end in themselves. So, at the end of the day what does TD [Traditional Dispensational] teach? It teaches that evangelism is the primary task of the believer. All ethical considerations should be made with a view toward their effects on evangelism.13

If the Gospel mandate is the most important command for the church, laid out by Christ, how can Dispensationalists be deemed as Escapists? Are not Dispensationalists actively involved in missions, would this not prove that Dispensationalists are not hiding or trying to escape reality but are rather actively involved in this reality doing that which was commanded by Christ?

Despite these hurdles, the desire for a better world does break through in evangelicalism. Even in popular evangelical literature, like the Left Behind series, stories that are as escapist as the dispensationalism they depict, there is a recognition that evangelicals play a role in the state of the world we live in and that they have some sort of responsibility and ability to effect change in this world.8

Not only that, is not the hope of the Dispensationalist in the return of Christ and the establishment of his rule earth? Is this not where and when true transformation will take place?

This is not to say that TD [Traditional Dispensational] does not believe in societal transformation. It is clear that society needs to be transformed and indeed will be transformed. The question is when does that transformation take place, and who does the transforming. It is only when Christ establishes his kingdom at the second coming that civilization will be made right.9

Our alertness is brought on by our desire to be active specifically in the area of evangelism for we believe this is our call as believers, as tasked by the Lord Jesus. The great commission is our social reform, it impacts the society, it is us fulfilling what we were tasked with before the Lord comes back. Dispensationalists are not idle, we are not sitting back simply hiding inside hoping for the rapture, we are genuinely pursuing the Gospel mandate. It is not that Dispensationalists want to remove themselves from reality. We realize the importance of our task, just as Paul realized the importance of his task. He wanted to be with the Lord as do we. We all long to be with our Lord, but we have a mandate here. That mandate is not social reconstruction, but rather a social transformation by means of the work of the Spirit through the proclamation of the Gospel.

As acknowledged by all, it has substantially influenced U. S. foreign policy, particularly in friendliness toward and support for Israel, and in its insistence on the fulfillment of God’s biblical land promises to Abraham. The influence of other theological systems in this realm has been next to negligible. Proponents of the dispensational system have also actively participated in projects of social as well as spiritual efforts to meet the needs of those in need. Yet Dispensationalism has consistently received a bad reputation at the hands of other evangelicals because of its alleged isolation and non-participation in current affairs. Hopefully, Dispensationalism’s antagonists will soon face reality and grant the system its deserved role of importance in the ongoing welfare of the United States of America and the world.16

Conclusion:

In conclusion, we have seen that Dispensationalists are not Gnostic Escapists who desire to depart reality but are genuinely attempting to achieve that which was commanded of them by Christ. They don’t hold to Gnostic tenants and they certainly aren’t tied into this heresy at all.  I have provided further proof of this in a cross-comparison that I wrote:

https://sakeofthetruth.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/dispensationalism-gnosticism.pdf

For further information on where Dispensationalism is headed in politics and culture please refer to this link:

https://dispensationalcouncil.org/2020-dispensationalism-politics-and-culture/


References:

  1. https://pandrewsandlin.substack.com/p/escapist-theology
  2. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/escapism
  3. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/escapism
  4. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/escapism
  5. https://global.oup.com/obso/focus/focus_on_gnosticism/
  6. https://www.llewellyn.com/journal/article/2080
  7. https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/UsefulNotes/Gnosticism
  8. http://pachamamatrust.org/f2/81_Books/BTPL/BTPL_II/II13.htm
  9. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-gnosticism-700683
  10. https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2016/gnosticism/
  11. Dale Walden Johnson, Millennial Thinking and its Implications for Social Reform: Premillennialism in Urban America, 1865-1925, (1988), IV, 1.
  12. George Eldon Ladd, Crucial Questions about the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 4.
  13. Bruce A. Baker, Dispensationalism’s Evolving Theory of Political Action: How Roe V. Wade and Jerry Falwell Brought Dispensationalism from Rejecting Political Action to Embracing it, Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics Sept 16-17, 2020, 6. (Bracket’s added by me)
  14. Frank Leonard Emanuel, A Theology of Social Engagement for Evangelicals: The Reign of God and Social Transformation, (2015), 168.
  15. Bruce A. Baker, Dispensationalism’s Evolving Theory of Political Action: How Roe V. Wade and Jerry Falwell Brought Dispensationalism from Rejecting Political Action to Embracing it, Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics Sept 16-17, 2020, 7. (Bracket’s added by me)
  16. Robert L. Thomas, Dispensationalism’s Role in the Public Square, TMSJ 20/1 (Spring 2009), 40.
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