Eternal Anthropology in the Dispensational Tradition

“Eternal Anthropology in the Dispensational Tradition: An Argument that Progressive Dispensationalism Provides Needed Correctives to Older Forms of Dispensational Eschatology”

In evangelical eschatology in general, and within the dispensational tradition in particular, much writing and debate has taken place regarding the nature and timing of the rapture, tribulation, millennium, etc. However, examinations of the nature of human life in the eternal state is far less common. For example: will human beings occupy both an earthly abode and a heavenly sphere, will there be territorial particularity in the new earth, will there be national collectives, is there one unified people of God, etc.?

Proposed answers to these questions will be inextricably tied to one’s understanding of the larger storyline of scripture. Within dispensational thought over the last two hundred years, there has been significant differences in the rendering of the biblical storyline. Highlighting these differences, Craig Blaising has helpfully categorized dispensationalism into three eras: starting in the 19th century Classic Dispensationalism (CD), in the middle of the 20th century Revised Dispensationalism (RD), and in the late 20th century Progressive Dispensationalism (PD). Tied to their different renderings of the storyline, adherents of these views conceptualize eternal anthropology differently.

Both CD and RD understand mankind to be divided into three anthropological categories: Jews, gentiles, and the church. For CD, Israel and gentile nations inhabit the new earth for eternity, and the church occupies the heavenly sphere forever. In RD, a dualism between Israel and church is maintained through the millennial period, and then some RD theologians conceive of both Israel and church in an earthly sphere for eternity and others in a heavenly sphere forever. PD argues that there are not three, but two anthropological categories in the bible: Jews and gentiles. PD understands there to be one people of God in the eschaton who retain ethnic distinctions and live in diverse, corporate territories (Israel and gentile nations). These nations exist in unity on the new earth where Jesus reigns and is part of a renewed cosmos which will last forever.

I will argue that PD’s construal of the storyline and resultant view of the eternal anthropology of the redeemed is the most biblically faithful of the three views considered. My argument will progress by assessing CD, RD, and PD as whole bible theologies—each of which is its own large system of interpretation. Epistemologist David Wolfe maintains that strong systems of interpretation are characterized by four criteria. They are comprehensive, congruent, consistent, and coherent. Comprehensive means the system must consider all of the data—with respect to scripture this means it must explain all of the relevant scripture and not just portions. Congruent means that it must “fit” the text, i.e., accord with it. Consistent means that the interpretations that the system renders at one point are not in conflict with those it produces at other points. Coherent means that it hangs together and makes sense as a whole. After assessing CD, RD, and PD according to these criteria, it should become clear that PD’s conception of the eternal anthropology of the redeemed is based on the strongest interpretive foundations of the three views. Moreover, PD should be understood to provide helpful advances in dispensational eschatology and biblical theology.

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