Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Previous article in this series: January 15, 2009, p. 176.
Dispensationalists maintain that, prior to the final judgment, the Israelis must rule on earth for a thousand years. This millennial reign, they insist, must take place for the covenant promises made in the Old Testament to be fulfilled. In their mind, if there is no earthly millennium in the future, then God will be going back on His word.
We often refute this idea by pointing out that God promised Abraham a heavenly land, not an earthly one. To prove this we turn to passages such asHebrews 11:13-16, which refers to the city promised to Abraham as a heavenly city. Dispensationalists, of course, are aware that passages such as this are found in the Scriptures. So they know they have to attempt to explain them. And when they try to do so, their efforts actually serve to make even more evident the bizarre and erroneous conclusions to which dispensationalism leads.
To see what I mean, all one needs to do is consider how the dispensationalists explain what life is going to be like during the millennium. Their erroneous view of the covenant is clearly manifested in the strange way these covenant promises are supposedly going to be fulfilled. Thus it will be worthwhile to consider a few of their central teachings about the coming age that they say has to take place. Doing so should help to prepare us to point out to the dispensationalists where they go wrong. It should also serve to get us to consider some truths that we may not have noticed if God had not raised up the dispensational system.
Heavenly Land Promised to Abraham
Let us begin by considering what kind of land God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We all know that He promised them the land of Canaan. But how are we to interpret this promise? In the mind of a dispensationalist, this promise needs no interpretation. He thinks it should be obvious to everyone that the reference is to the present-day land of Palestine. But is this the way Scripture interprets this promise? Is this what God led the patriarchs themselves to believe?
To understand the answer to this question, we must first consider the fact that when God promised Abraham the land of Canaan, He made known that this was something Abraham would receive, not in this life, but in the life to come. Proof of this is found in the fact that Abraham himself never owned the land God promised him.
The Scriptures make this clear. God showed Abraham the land of Canaan and said to him:
I am the Lord that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it,
Yet Abraham died before he ever owned the land. Stephen, speaking of what God gave Abraham, placed emphasis upon this very point:
And he gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on: yet he promised that he would give it to him for a possession…
God promised it; yet in this life he never received it. Thus it is easy to see that God was promising to give Abraham this land in the life to come.
That this was what God meant was indicated also by the fact that God told Abraham that this land would be his everlasting possession:
And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession,
Certainly Abraham was going to die. So how was he going to own the land forever? The only possible answer is that this land was going to be possessed by Abraham after he was raised from the dead.
This then leads us to yet another question: What kind of land could and would be possessed by someone who had been raised to a heavenly life? When Christ returns, our bodies will be made heavenly, like unto His. Those with heavenly bodies will live in a heavenly land, as is pointed out by the fact that our bodies and the earth on which we live will both be made heavenly on the last day.
Thus it is not surprising to see that Scripture refers to the promised land as a heavenly one. We read of this in the passage from Hebrews that was mentioned earlier. Speaking of the patriarchs, the inspired writer states:
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city,
Thus the Scriptures clearly teach that the land God promised, and the land the patriarchs looked for, was a dwelling place that was not earthly, but heavenly. It is referred to as a heavenly city, as is stated explicitly in the next chapter of Hebrews:
But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels,
The heavenly Jerusalem is the place where Abraham, according to God’s promise, would one day live.
The Dispensational Response
So what do the dispensationalists do with this passage? Well, as is often the case, when dispensationalists come across passages that refute their system, they invent a distinction:
It should be noted that this heavenly Jerusalem is not the sphere of the living saved who go into the millennium, for they will look to the rebuilt earthly Jerusalem as their capital city, but is rather the dwelling place of the resurrected saints during the millennium. The living will realize the fulfillment of the national promises of the Old Testament in the millennium, while the resurrected will realize the fulfillment of the expectation of a “city which hath foundations” during the millennial age.1
John Walvoord explains this strange distinction in more detail.
Much of the confusion that exists in regard to the millennium and the eternal state stems from a failure to distinguish between the promises that are given to the last generation of saints who are on the earth at the time of the second advent and the promises that are given resurrected or translated saints in both the Old and New Testaments. The prophecies of the Old Testament give adequate basis for the doctrine that Israel has an earthly hope. The prophets in Israel’s darkest hours painted the most glowing picture of the coming earthly kingdom in which Israel would participate as a favored nation and possess their promised land under the reign of the Son of David. The promises as given, however, clearly refer to those who were not resurrected and are directed to the nation of Israel as it is to be constituted at the time of the second advent, that is, the Israelites who will survive the great tribulation. They and their seed will inherit the promised land and fulfill the hundreds of prophecies that have to do with Israel’s hope in the millennial kingdom. These promises are delineated in the Abrahamic, Davidic, Palestinian, and new covenants.
The Old Testament, however, also records promises to saints which are individual in their character. They, for instance, are promised resurrection,
Along with the promise of their resurrection is the promise of reward such as characterizes God’s dealings with the saints in eternity,
This conclusion seems to be confirmed by the New Testament revelation concerning the heavenly city….2
It is evident from these verses that the hope which was Abraham’s in resurrection had to do with a heavenly city rather than an earthly kingdom.3
So here we see how one schooled in dispensational thought would answer one of our most common objections. They take all the passages that speak of God promising His people a heavenly land, and claim that this heavenly land will be the dwelling place of all believers who die before Christ returns. The earthly promised land, they say, will be possessed only by those who live through the great tribulation and remain alive when Christ returns. These are the people who supposedly will enter the millennial kingdom, continue to live in their corruptible and mortal bodies, marrying and reproducing just as they do today, while enjoying a great abundance of earthly things. But the people who die before the great tribulation or during the great tribulation will miss out on all this. They will receive the heavenly things in the heavenly city, while the earthly people will enjoy earthly peace, prosperity, and dominion on this earth.
A Commingling of Resurrected and Nonresurrected Saints
But what, supposedly, will be the relationship in the millennium between the resurrected saints who have heavenly bodies and the nonresurrected saints who still have earthly bodies? Will these two groups actually be mingling with each other during this time? Indeed, says the dispensationalist, this will be the case—at least to some extent. Scripture, they say, leaves us in the dark concerning a lot of the details of this time period. But that such a commingling will take place is something they say they are confident will take place:
Though the free mingling of resurrected and nonresurrected beings is contrary to our present experience, there is no valid reason why there should not be a limited amount of such association in the millennial earth.4
To prove that this is possible, they make reference to the fact that our resurrected Lord mingled with His disciples, and the heavenly angels have conversed with earthly human beings.
So here we have yet another example of the bizarre conclusions to which dispensationalism leads. A strange mixing of the resurrected and the nonresurrected, the heavenly and the earthly, the immortal and the mortal.
But what is wrong with that? asks the dispensationalist. That it is different from life as we now know it does not mean that it should be ruled out as impossible. How can we prove that such commingling would never take place? We begin by considering this, Lord willing, next time.
1 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology (1958; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Dunham Publishing Co., 1966), 542.
2 John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Findlay, OH: Dunham Publishing Co., 1959), 324—5.
3 Walvoord, 326.
4 Walvoord, 330.