“I could never be a Dispensational Premillennialist because they are pessimistic/defeatists who have a negative view of reality, they don’t want to be involved in society, they are just waiting around for the rapture. I’d rather be an optimist believing in victory not defeat.”
Sound familiar? It sure does for me. I have heard and read these sorts of claims online for the last year or so since the resurgence of Postmillennialism. However, are these claims justified? Do these claims truly reflect the reality of Dispensational theology? Are Dispensationalists pessimists in the way that they are portrayed? I hope that my article will challenge the claims of the Postmillennialist and will provide further insight into why we believe what we do.
Before digging in let’s define pessimism:
“Pessimism, an attitude of hopelessness toward life and toward existence, coupled with a vague general opinion that pain and evil predominate in the world. It is derived from the Latin pessimus (“worst”). Pessimism is the antithesis of optimism, an attitude of general hopefulness, coupled with the view that there is a balance of good and pleasure in the world. To describe an attitude as pessimistic need not, however, mean that it involves no hope at all. It may locate its objects of hope and of appraisal in a region beyond ordinary experience and existence.“1
“emphasizing or thinking of the bad part of a situation rather than the good part, or the feeling that bad things are more likely to happen than good things.“2
“the tendency to see, anticipate, or emphasize only bad or undesirable outcomes, results, conditions, problems, etc.: His pessimism about the future of our country depresses me. the doctrine that the existing world is the worst of all possible worlds, or that all things naturally tend to evil. the belief that the evil and pain in the world are not compensated for by goodness and happiness.“3
Let’s summarize the key components of the definition:
1. An attitude of hopelessness toward life and existence
2. Thinking of the bad part rather than the good part
3. Anticipating, emphasizing only bad outcomes
Several things can be said after summarizing our definitions:
- Do Dispensationalists have an “attitude of hopelessness?” Not at all! Dispensationalists have an attitude of hopefulness in the coming of the Lord Jesus to rapture his church prior to the coming day of the Lord.
- Do Dispensationalists only focus on the negatives rather than the good parts? Not at all! Dispensationalists are focused on the good things in life, but we are also realistic in what we understand the scriptures to be teaching.
- Do Dispensationalists only anticipate negative outcomes? Not at all! Dispensationalists know that there is a mixture of bad and good coming. Bad in terms of the coming judgments on the world and Israel (i.e. the day of the Lord), good in terms of Jesus coming for the church, the second coming of Christ, the restoration of all things, the new heavens and new earth, the eternal state.
So, if, as we have seen Dispensationalists don’t fit the traditional definitions of pessimism then what is it that Postmillennialists mean when they say that we are pessimists?
I genuinely believe that the issue can be summarized in that Postmillennialists think that Dispensationalists are pessimistic in regard to the present church age. Which means that some Postmillennialists would likely concede that beyond this present church age (economy) Dispensationalists would be optimists, including our beliefs like: the millennial kingdom, the new heavens and new earth, the new Jerusalem, the final triumph over all enemies, Jesus’ second coming, the eternal state, etc.). If this is true, then it isn’t fair to simply say that Dispensationalists are pessimists (at least without qualifying that they are also optimistic of the future), but rather that they see a pessimistic outcome for the present church age.
Having clarified this statement, we must now unpack a very crucial distinction which Dr. Cone highlights for us in one of his web blogs: “Biblically Derived Premillennialism as a Necessary Condition for a Biblical Socio-Political Model.”
The issue is heightened when we have an improper view of terminology. Not only is the Postmillennialist arguing that Dispensationalists are pessimistic regarding the church age but also that this pessimism impacts their involvement in the world around them, limiting the influence of the church on the culture. We have discovered the issue! Dr. Cone articulates this quite clearly:
“But there is a tremendous distinction between an eschatologically pessimistic metaphysic regarding the present form of the heavens and earth and a pessimistic sociopraxy. The question at issue is whether or not a so-called pessimistic metaphysic must necessarily result in a pessimistic praxeology and/or sociopraxy. The Bible answers this question in the negative. In fact, the coming negative events are cited by Biblical writers for the express purpose of calling believers to optimistic action.”4
In more laymen terms, I believe Dr. Cone is arguing that Postmillennialists have wrongly confused two things (is vs. ought). If one believes that the world is getting worse (pessimistic metaphysic) they then also must believe in a lack of societal involvement, which results in a pessimistic praxeology or sociopraxy. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
“In short, the Biblical pessimism about the imminent future is a basis for believers’ selfless and beneficent conduct of life, as believers anticipate the ultimate eternal future. Consequently, the criticism of Biblically derived premillennialism as promoting pessimistic praxeology and sociopraxy falls in the straw-man category of fallacies, as such allegations confuse the is with the ought. To illustrate, the ontological reality that it is highly likely that your ice cream will melt soon is not grounds for your pessimism. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It provides you with an urgency based in truth, and grounding for doing the right thing with the ice cream while you have the opportunity.”5
To further deal with the point let’s take a look at the optimistic/activist mentality of the Dispensationalist.
1. Dispensationalism’s Impact in Evangelism and Missions
“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.”6
2. Dispensationalism’s Impact in Foreign Policy
“Though the influence of dispensationalism on popular culture has been vast, it would be incorrect to assume that its impact has been relegated to the private sector. Dispensationalism, albeit in subtle manner, informs the international vision of many in the Christian Right; some policymakers themselves subscribe to these beliefs (Boyer 1992: 141–144). The question is not if, but to what degree, pre-millennialism has influenced US foreign policy. While it is true that politicians are less likely to be explicit about their belief in dispensationalism – assuming they believe in it at all – than religious leaders, the fact that apocalyptic belief plays such an important role in evangelical milieux from which they draw their support does mean it will have an indirect impact on foreign policy. It has played a visible role (either indirect or direct) in many administrations, especially the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Apocalyptic belief by itself does not influence foreign policy, but rather co-mingles with other factors influencing the Middle East policy of the United States, including control of oil and geo-strategic dynamics. The following shows how dispensationalist thinking influenced American foreign policy towards Israel and Iraq during the administration of George W. Bush.”7
“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.”8
“I found that Dispensationalism is a salient belief and is responsible for a considerable amount of public support for actions of the state of Israel. Although gradations of Dispensational beliefs exist, I approximated that about 30 million Americans support the state of Israel due in part to their Dispensational beliefs. Furthermore, I found that lobbyist groups and Dispensational clergy leaders have mobilized such support for Israel and have played a significant role in influencing Congressional and Executive figures towards a decidedly pro-Israel perspective….Perhaps no other ideology has shaped U.S. support in the same way as Dispensationalism. It is a passionate ideology rooted in a religious interpretative framework. Dispensationalism is often represented in Christian fundamentalism and Christian Zionism, with the latter two being more popular areas of study. Relegating a study to these aspects without mention of their Dispensational roots does not permit a complete analysis because it is Dispensationalism that aided the development and proliferation of each. Because it is religious in nature, its adherents are passionate about its concepts and prioritize its goals above all else. Its prevalence in American culture shows that it may influence foreign policy by four cardinal means. First, through the salience of public opinion and its influence on congressional members who seek to satisfy constituent desires. Second, the influence on foreign policy decision making due to lobbyist organizations and other special interest groups. Third, the activities of prominent Dispensational leaders both in and out of government who have helped facilitate a Dispensationally oriented foreign policy agenda. Fourth, the beliefs of presidents and the Dispensational pressures that are put upon their decision making.”9
“It would be remiss to conduct an analysis of Dispensationalism and foreign policy with Israel and not cover the life and works of the late Reverend Jerry Falwell. Falwell was the greatest facilitator of Dispensationally oriented foreign policy pursuits in the last 30 years. He organized the precedent for modern Christian Zionists and achieved a status among many Israeli politicians as a representative of conservative American Christianity. He was sought by prominent political leaders from the United States and Israel for advice and counsel and liberally dispensed such advice to his American and Israeli audiences.”10
3. Dispensationalism and Zionism
“The influence of Christian Zionists on foreign policy results from their ability to shape or reinforce the attitudes of lawmakers concerning Israel, while simultaneously using their grassroots strength to mobilise congregations and individuals in support of Israel. They seek to deter both the governments of Israel and the United States from pursuing diplomatic efforts for peace with the Palestinians. To be sure, the prevalence of conservative Christian doctrine in the Republican Party exerted influence over the foreign policy pursued by the George W. Bush administration…If Christian Zionists were successful at applying pressure on the executive branch, they were equally successful at lobbying congress. One important reason is that Christian Zionist theology holds sway over some congressional Republicans. Possessing Christian beliefs that support for, and protection of, Israel are central Biblical mandates given by God himself, it is not surprising that some Republicans in Congress substitute God’s law for international law when casting votes on resolutions dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict.”11
4. Dispensationalism in the White House
“Proponents of Dispensationalism have affected the presidential office and thus helped shape the executive leadership in this country on matters concerning Israel. President Truman’s personal association with Dispensationalism was already discussed in chapter 5 and now Dispensationalism’s influence on Presidents Carter through George W. Bush will be analyzed. Dispensationalism in the White House can have extraordinary affects on how presidents see the world, Israel and their personal place in the overall eschatological context.”12
5. Dispensationalism Impact on Theological-Political Thought
“Dispensationalism will continue to influence the theological perspective of Americans and in turn may affect policy endeavors. Dispensationalism is an indispensable component of the fabric of theological-political thought.”13
We have seen that there has been a clear impact that has been made in theological-political thought by Dispensationalists, but why the pessimistic metaphysic that Dr. Cone describes? Where does this come from? Again, we draw from Dr. Cone:
“It is certainly true that Biblical prophecy, literally understood, does not paint an optimistic picture for the future of the world: “…the earth and its works will be burned up” (2 Pet 3:10b). Revelation adds that future events will include a third of all trees and grass being destroyed (8:7), a third of all life in the sea dying (8:9), a third of all freshwaters becoming toxic (8:11), a third of the sun, moon, and stars being darkened (8:12). If the interpreter is working from a Biblical epistemology, which requires a literal grammatical historical hermeneutic, the interpreter must acknowledge that these things are coming at some point in the future.”14
Ah, so we are now getting closer to the truth. If one holds to a literal understanding of prophecy then they will necessarily see a pessimistic picture of the world during this age, there seems to be no escaping this. Well, as a futurist, I believe there is good reason to see the world as getting worse before the Lord comes:
Matthew 24:9-14, 21-24 NASB
9 “Then they will hand you over to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name. 10 And at that time many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will rise up and mislead many people. 12 And because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will become cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end is the one who will be saved. 14 This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come. 21 For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will again. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. 23 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘He is over here,’ do not believe him. 24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and will provide great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.
2 Thessalonians 2:3-10 NASB
3 No one is to deceive you in any way! For it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, 4 who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God. 5 Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things? 6 And you know what restrains him now, so that he will be revealed in his time. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is removed. 8 Then that lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will eliminate with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; 9 that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not accept the love of the truth so as to be saved.
2 Timothy 3:13 NASB
But evil people and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.
1 John 2:18 NASB
18 Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour
If, the futuristic view of the scriptures is correct, then what we will see primarily unfolding in Revelation will depict a world that is increasing in its wickedness prior to the Lord’s coming, governed by the most wicked beast of all. So, is there something wrong with pessimism in general? No. The Bible paints a picture of the end-times that is wicked and evil and that will go from bad to worse. If the Bible teaches that the world goes from bad to worse who are we to argue against it?
Let’s summarize the issue:
Literalism → Dispensationalism → Futurism → Pessimistic Metaphysic (Church Age) = Pessimistic Sociopraxy (Church Age) → Optimistic Millennium → Optimistic Eternity
Literalism → Dispensationalism → Futurism → Pessimistic Metaphysic (Church Age) = Optimistic Activism (Church Age) → Optimistic Millennium → Optimistic Eternity
Based upon our general definition of pessimism it would seem that Dispensationalism doesn’t generally fall under the definitional headings, but Dispensationalists do have a pessimistic metaphysic seeing that the world will grow from bad to worse in the years/decades/centuries before the coming of the Lord Jesus. However, this doesn’t lead to pessimistic sociopraxy rather it leads to optimistic activism as well as an optimistic view of the future beyond the day of the Lord. This is the appropriate way to see the Dispensational framework for what it is. If someone wants to say that we are “pessimistic” they must qualify what they mean by that. If they simply mean that we believe the world will steadily get worse, then they are fine to do so, because we believe that is an accurate depiction of the Bible. Then the issue doesn’t simply come down to the labels but rather to what the Bible teaches! Dispensationalists are both optimistic and pessimistic regarding the future. It doesn’t have to be either/or it can be both/and.
Appendix: Common Misconceptions
1. If it is true that this world is going to get worse, why bother doing anything? Why bother “polishing brass on a sinking ship?”
It is essentially the same question that an Arminian asks a Calvinist when they say, “if God elected a people, why bother doing evangelism?” The answer is: because the Bible commands us to. Just because the bible describes things getting worse before the coming of the Lord doesn’t mean that we are to sit here and do nothing. It doesn’t mean that we are to ignore events that are happening in politics. It doesn’t mean we are to stop sharing the Gospel. We are exhorted to push through and persevere in all things.
“Peter, after describing coming cataclysms and the restoration to follow, exhorts believers to look for these things and in the meantime to “be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord to be salvation…” (2 Pet 3:14-15a). Earlier in the context Peter explains that the Lord’s patience has to do with His “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). Likewise, the book of Revelation is addressed to the churches (Rev 22:16), and includes multiple ethical and sociopractical exhortations (e.g., 2:5, 2:10, 2:16, 2:25, 3:3, 3:18-20). While Revelation does not provide any specific socio-political imperatives, Peter’s writings do. Despite what some might call metaphysic pessimism, Peter mandates that believers keep their behavior excellent so that those who observe will glorify God (1 Pet 2:12). Peter calls on believers to be submissive to government and to treat all men with honor (1 Pet 2:12-17). Finally, Peter asserts that the prophesied future is a basis for godliness and goodness (e.g., 1 Pet 4). Paul considers similar themes in Romans 12-13 and 2 Timothy 3. Rather than being pessimistic in his own actions and those he prescribes of others, Paul has a vigorous sense of urgency to serve well, to be faithful, and to be a benefit to all around him for the sake of their eternal good (e.g., 1 Cor 9:14-23).”15
2. If the world is going to get worse does that mean the church or Christ is going to fail?
Absolutely not! The church will accomplish that which it is was tasked for. Not social reconstruction but social transformation through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. All those that have been ordained to come to the Son will indeed come (John 6:37-44). Christ has triumphed over sin and death, He is victorious! He will come again and will triumph over ALL His enemies.
3. If the world is going to get worse in what way should we be optimistic?
We should be optimistic in what God is doing in our own lives and the lives of the members of the church (the body of Christ). We should be optimistic that God has given us another day to complete the task before us. We should be optimistic that the Lord is coming soon to rapture His people. We should be optimistic that we are being made more like Christ each day. We should be optimistic that the Father is continuing His work of bringing more people into the church. We should be optimistic that the end is coming and that there will be no more tears or pain. There is much to be optimistic about in this world, despite the declining nature of it.
- George Eldon Ladd, Crucial Questions about the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 4.
- Nilay Saiya, Onward Christian Soldiers: American Dispensationalists, George W. Bush and the Middle East, (The College at Brockport: State University of New York, Brockport Political Science and International Studies Faculty Publications Political Science and International Studies, Fall 2012), 190. https://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=pls_facpub
- Robert L. Thomas, Dispensationalism’s Role in the Public Square, TMSJ 20/1 (Spring 2009), 40
- Aaron William Stone, Dispensationalism and United States Foreign Policy with Israel, (The University of Texas at Arlington, May 2008), IV, 5.
- Ibid., 79.
- Nilay Saiya, Onward Christian Soldiers: American Dispensationalists, George W. Bush and the Middle East, (The College at Brockport: State University of New York, Brockport Political Science and International Studies Faculty Publications Political Science and International Studies, Fall 2012), 192-193.
- Aaron William Stone, Dispensationalism and United States Foreign Policy with Israel, (The University of Texas at Arlington, May 2008), 86-87.
- Ibid., 98.