Gary DeMar is a writer, lecturer, debater, and the president of American Vision. He graduated from Western Michigan University in 1973 and has a Ph.D. in history from Whitefield Theological Seminary. He is a staunch critique of the Premillenial Dispensationalist movement (Christian Zionism) in America. He is the author 25 books, including Last Days Madness, End-Time Fiction, Doomsday Déjà vu, and Why the End of the World Is Not in Your Future. Gary has been interviewed by Time magazine, CNN, MSNBC, FOX, the BBC, etc.
Alexis: You write in the preface of Last Days Madness that people have been “sidetracked by a novel interpretive methodology known as dispensational premillennialism.” So, let’s start with that point: what’s wrong with dispensational premillenialism?
DeMar: DP is a relatively new interpretation of prophecy that had its beginnings in the early part of the 19th century. DP has developed a hermeneutic that claims to interpret the Bible literally but is very selective in practice. DPs make a clear distinction between Israel and the Church which they claim was an unforeseen detour of God’s prophetic plan.
Because Israel rejected Jesus as the promised Messiah, the prophetic clock stopped for Israel. It was at that point that the Church was born. We are now, according to DP, in the so-called “Church Age” where nothing prophetic related to Israel is supposed to take place.
DPs tell us that the prophecy clock for Israel only starts ticking again when the Church is “raptured” off the earth before a seven-year period that includes the Great Tribulation that includes the slaughter of two-thirds of all the Jews living in Israel (Zech. 13:8-9). This means that after nearly 2000 years, when God once again engages with His chosen people, He oversees another holocaust.
John F. Walvoord, an ardent defender of DP and long-time professor at dispensational Dallas Theological Seminary, had this to say about what happens to Israel during the Great Tribulation:
“The purge of Israel in their time of trouble is described by Zechariah in these words: ‘And it shall come to pass, that in all the land, saith Jehovah, two parts therein shall be cut off and die; but the third shall be left therein. And I will bring the third part into the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried’ (Zechariah 13:8, 9).
“According to Zechariah’s prophecy, two thirds of the children of Israel in the land will perish, but the one third that are left will be refined and be awaiting the deliverance of God at the second coming of Christ which is described in the next chapter of Zechariah.”
In order to support their system, DPs rely on postponements of prophetic promises, gaps in time extending thousands of years, and the claim that Israel and the Church are separate redemptive entities.
The Israel/Church distinction is the key to DP’s interpretive system. Anyone familiar with the Old and New Testaments knows that Israel is described as the “congregation” or “assembly” of God’s people. When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek, the Hebrew word qahal (“assembly”) was translated as ekklēsia. Ekklēsia is translated as “church” in the New Testament. William Tyndale contended that this was an improper translation. That’s why he translated ekklēsia as “assembly” or “congregation” in his translation of the New Testament.
There is only one people of God that makes up the “assembly” of believers. Stephen describes the “sons of Israel” as “the church [ekklēsia] in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38, KJV and ASV.) More recent translations have it, following Tyndale, as “the congregation in the wilderness” (e.g., NASB, NIV, ESV). Compare Hebrews 2:12 that quotes Psalm 22:22:
- I WILL PROCLAIM YOUR NAME TO MY BRETHREN, IN THE MIDST OF THE CONGREGATION [ekklēsia] I WILL SING YOUR PRAISE.
- I will tell of Your name to my brethren; In the midst of the assembly [qahal/ekklesia] I will praise You.
There aren’t two redemptive peoples of God with two separate redemptive purposes. There is only one people of God made up of Jews and non-Jews that comprise God’s assembly of believers. There is no need for postponements, gaps, or an inevitable future Jewish holocaust.
Alexis: With people like John Hagee and others, they seem to elevate the state of Israel above everything else, and even criticizing Israel from a moral and rational point of view is now anti-Semitic. But there is another issue here as well. The whole DP stuff doesn’t make sense at all. It’s a mess from top to bottom. Talk about this.
DeMar: Prior to the so-called “rapture” Israel has no prophetic significance. I realize that this is hard for many Christians to believe, but it’s true. According to the DPs, we are in the “Church Age” which was God’s Plan B after Israel as a nation rejected Jesus as the promised Messiah. The Church was an ad hoc creation by God until He will once again work with Israel, but only after the Church is removed from Earth in the “rapture.” This means that Israel has no prophetic significance this side of the “rapture.”
Earl D. Radmacher is a well-known dispensational author who makes the point that there are no signs prior to the “rapture,” and this includes Israel’s national status:
“Equally as unjustified as date-setting for Christ’s return are the numerous sermons attempting to find fulfillment of prophecy in this age. Typical of them is a popular author, conference speaker, and television personality [Hal Lindsey] who has stated his belief that the ‘paramount prophetic sign’ is that Israel had to be a nation again in the land of its forefathers. This condition was fulfilled, he claims, on May 14, 1948.
“This pronouncement is simply representative of hundreds, perhaps, thousands, of others who, although eager in their anticipation of Christ’s coming, distort the Scripture and cause terrible confusion for God’s people.”
Radmacher calls using Israel’s new national status in 1948 a prophetic sign a distortion of Scripture that causes “terrible confusion for God’s people.” “This conflicting emphasis,” he writes, “begets the rather embarrassing plight of talking about signs of a sign-less event.”
This means that any praise or criticism of Israel is no different from praising or criticizing any other nation.
Furthermore, even when Israel was set apart as a nation there was a great deal of justified criticism. All one has to do is read the Old Testament prophets. Here’s just one example from Isaiah:
“Listen, O heavens, and hear, O earth; For the Lord speaks, “Sons I have reared and brought up, But they have revolted against Me. An ox knows its owner, And a donkey its master’s manger, But Israel does not know, My people do not understand.” Alas, sinful nation, People weighed down with iniquity, Offspring of evildoers, Sons who act corruptly! They have abandoned the Lord, They have despised the Holy One of Israel, They have turned away from Him (Isa. 1:2-4).
Israel is described as Sodom and Gomorrah (1:9-10). Israel was judged by the law:
Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow. (1:16-17).
Jesus follows the pattern of the Old Covenant prophets in His criticism of Israel (Matt. 23).
Israel today should be evaluated like any other nation in terms of God’s law. What would be immoral is to praise or criticize Israel using a different standard (Deut. 25:13-16).
Alexis: You say that “The pre-tribulational rapture is the key to dispensational eschatology.” Is this why dispensationalists are so attached to Israel as well?
DeMar: The pre-tribulational rapture is the key doctrine because of DP’s claim that Israel and the Church have two separate redemptive timelines and purposes, and God can’t deal with Israel and the Church at the same time and in the same way. This means that the Church must be removed so God can start the prophetic clock that was stopped at the end of the 69th week (483 years) of Daniel’s 490-year prophecy (Dan. 9:24-27).
In order to accomplish this, DPs must posit a gap in time filled by the Church Age. The 70th week — the final seven years of the prophecy — will begin when the Church is taken to heaven in a supposed secret “rapture.” The thing of it is, there is not a single verse in the New Testament that says anything about the Church being taken to heaven prior to a Tribulation period.
Furthermore, it’s not necessary. As we’ve seen, God was working with Israel and the Church after Pentecost. There was no need to “rapture” the Church to heaven in order to work in a redemptive way with Israel since Israel was the Church before Gentiles were grafted in (Acts 10 and 15; Rom. 11).
Alexis: DPs publish end-time scenarios virtually every year or so. And ever since Hal Lindsey’s The Great Late Planet Earth, DPs seemed to have realized that the love of money is no longer the root of all evil. Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series is a classic example. Is there a lot of money to be made? Would you say there is an ‘end-time industry’ out there?
DeMar: There is a long history of prophetic prognosticators who have claimed that the end was near for their time. Francis X. Gumerlock has presented a detailed study of the subject in his book The Day and the Hour (2000).
The 20th century has seen a proliferation of end-time speculative pamphlets, books, articles, and films on the subject. Since 1948 when Israel was reestablished as a nation again, the number of books has escalated. Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth predicted that the “rapture” would take place sometime before 1988. The New York Times declared it to be the “no. 1 non-fiction bestseller of the decade.”
Estimates put sales at more than 15 million copies in the 1970s.
Since then, the book has sold nearly 35 million copies worldwide and remains in print today as evidence of Bible prophecy’s staying power even in light of its shop-worn predictions. “As Lindsey says himself, ‘The future is big business.’”
The Left Behind multi-volume mega-series, authored by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, is an industry in and of itself. It spawned 16 hardback and paperback novels, graphic novels, a teen series (Left Behind: The Kids), computer games, and films. “Two spin-off series have been written: a political series by Neesa Hart and a military series by Mel Odom” and ‘a musical collection inspired by the Left Behind series.’” As of this writing, “Total sales for the series have surpassed 65 million copies.” (Left Behind/Wikipedia).
Alexis: Do you see a rise against DP among Evangelicals? Are Evangelicals waking up?
DeMar: There are few scholarly defenses of DP today. Much of what’s being published on prophecy of a DP type is coming from less than scholarly publishing houses like Harvest House or independent publishers. The popular radio programs are still mostly DP. and some of the seminaries. Many scholars are adopting a classical/historical premillennial view. Of course, there are still millions of churchgoers who grew up with DP as the only viable system often because they never knew there was an alternative.
The shift in eschatology is coming from among younger Christians. There’s a great deal of competing prophetic material available today. The internet has made it possible to compete with DP in a scholarly and popular way. The publishing gatekeepers are no longer able to keep competing views from being published.
The rise of a preterist interpretation (partial and full) is contributing to the shift since it has a solid exegetical base that competes very well with the claim by DPs that only they interpret the Bible “literally.”
When I did radio interviews on the topic in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I got a lot of pushback. This is not the case today.
Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 1999), preface.
The early New Testament ekklēsia was made up exclusively of Jews (see Acts 2:5): “And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things” (5:11; 8:1; 9:31). Michael Brown writes: “Let’s go back to the Book of Acts. The early Church was exclusively Jewish. It was almost ten years before a group of Gentiles received the gospel, and this created shock waves in Jerusalem.” (Michael L. Brown, Our Hands are Stained with Blood: The Tragic Story of the “Church” and the Jewish People [Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, 1992], 83-84.) We know from Acts that thousands of Jews recognized and accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah. The early numbers were impactful, first three thousand (Acts 2:41), then another five thousand (4:4). In the case of Acts 4:4, only men are numbered. In Acts 21:20, the number is said to be in the thousands (the Greek word μυριάδος [myriads] is used). These numbers do not include those Jewish believers who resided outside of Jerusalem and those scattered abroad (James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1).
John F. Walvoord, Israel in Prophecy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan/Academie, 1962 and 1988), 108.
For a more comprehensive study of this topic, see Gary DeMar, “The Myth of an Israel-Church Distinction” in 10 Popular Prophecy Myths Exposed and Answered (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2010), chap. 1.
“The one event which many Bible students in the past overlooked was this paramount prophetic sign: Israel had to be a nation again in the land of its forefathers.” Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970), 43.
Earl D. Radmacher, “The Imminent Return of the Lord,” Issues in Dispensationalism, eds. Wesley R. Willis and John R. Master (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 248.
Radmacher, “The Imminent Return of the Lord,” 248.
Quoted in Nancy A. Schaefer, “Y2K as an Endtime Sign: Apocalypticism in America at the fin-de-millennium,” The Journal of Popular Culture 38:1 (August 2004), 82–105.
Quoted in “Welcome to America’s wildest holy rollers,” Features Section, The Independent on Sunday (London) November 6, 2005.
For a critical evaluation of the Left Behind series, see Gary DeMar, Left Behind: Separating Fact From Fiction (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision,  2009). The book was originally published by Thomas Nelson in 2001 under the title End Times Fiction.