Philippe R. Sterling
There is one central theme to the Bible and that is the redemption of humanity and the coming reign of the Messiah with his co-heirs on a renewed earth and universe. It is about the restoration of kingdom rule to humanity under the Messiah. All 66 books of the Bible contribute to the development of this theme.
The Old Testament tells about a coming Messiah who will establish God’s kingdom on earth. This Messiah is at various times described as suffering and as triumphant. The New Testament testifies that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies concerning the suffering Messiah at his first coming and will fulfill the prophecies concerning the triumphant Messiah at his second coming. The kingdom of Messiah ultimately will have God’s redeemed people in God’s redeemed creation under God’s rule and blessing.
The Bible is the revelation of a great drama being enacted in history. History is the theater, the world is the stage, and people in every land are the actors and actresses. Presently the holy angels, the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Eph 3:10), make up the audience. Throughout the coming ages both they and the inhabitants of the new heaven and the new earth will magnify God for the wisdom of his cosmic plan of redemption and renewal.
Ancient Greek drama made use of a “protagonist” and “antagonist” to portray the characters in a play. The protagonist is the main character in the drama. The antagonist is the opponent or adversary of the protagonist. In the story of the Bible the Triune God is the protagonist and Satan and the fallen spiritual powers are the antagonists. There is a third class of characters that we could call the “agonists.” An agonist is a person engaged in a contest, conflict, struggle, such as one who contends for a prize in public games. Believers can be the agonists allied with God in the spiritual struggle and thereby earn the reward of ruling with Christ in the life to come (see 1 Cor. 9:25; 1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:8). The plot of the Bible’s story is that God created humanity to be his stewards over the earth but an enemy came and enticed them to rebellion. There then began a long process of redemption in which God rescues a believing humanity from the enemy’s hand and ultimately restores them in a new heaven and a new earth.
A Play with Seven Acts
The cosmic drama of redemption can be understood as a play comprised of seven acts with a prologue and epilogue concerning creation (Gen 1) and the new heaven and the new earth (Rev 22). God controls the script in accordance with his omniscience and omnipotence. Act by act, scene by scene, the story unfolds. God keeps each act and scene within his designated timeline and stage boundaries. God reveals the overall aspects of the plot in the sixty-six books of the Bible. The characters include God himself in his planned interventions, the holy and fallen angels, and humanity of all the ages. The seven acts are seven biblical ages or periods of time which each begin and end with God’s dramatic intervention. God is sovereign over history even as he allows for the free choices of angelic beings and all humanity.
Prologue: The Divine Creation – Genesis 1
Act 1 – Age of Adam in Eden – Dominion Directive – Innocence – Gen 2—3
Creation, Sin, and Curse on Humanity and the Cosmos – Promise of Messiah
Act 2 – Age of Adam and Descendants in Pre-Flood World – Conscience – Gen 4-8
Wickedness of Humanity and the Judgment of the Flood – Post-Flood World
Act 3 – Age of Noah and Descendants in Post-Flood World – Government – Gen 9—11
Rebellion at Babel and the Confusion of Languages – Formation of Nations
Act 4 – Age of Abraham and Descendants in Canaan – Promise – Gen 12—50
Corruption in Canaan and Immigration to Egypt – Formation of Tribes of Israel
Act 5 – Age of Moses and Israel in the Land – Law (Blessing & Curse) – Ex to Gospels
Exodus, Constitution, Settlement, Unfaithfulness, Captivity, and Return of Israel
Times of the Gentiles and the Inter-Testament Era – 69 Weeks of Daniel
First Coming of Messiah – Suffering Messiah
Rejection of Messiah and National Judgment – Promise of the Church
Act 6 – Age of the Church – Discipleship Directive – Grace – Acts to Rev
Formation of the Church
Character of Churches in World (Rev. 2—3) and Rapture (Church in Heaven)
Tribulation – Re-Focus on Israel and Nations (Rev 4—18) – 70th Week of Daniel
Second Coming of Messiah with the Church (Rev 19) – Triumphant Messiah
Act 7 – The Age of the Millennial Kingdom – Worldwide Blessing and Justice – Rev 20
Final Rebellion and Final Judgment – Prelude to New Creation
Epilogue: The New Heaven and the New Earth and the New Jerusalem (Rev 21—22)
Post-Script – How shall we now live? – How to Live Life on the Stage of History
Why Seven Acts?
The earth is a grand stage on which a great drama is playing out. It began soon after creation when some of the angels rebelled and Adam and Eve sinned. God set in motion a plan to redeem and restore humanity and the cosmos to an even more glorious state than the original creation. This cosmic drama of redemption manifests God’s excellent character – his divine glory (see Eph 1:6, 12, 14). The Bible is the revelation of the script of what we might call a “dispensational drama”.
Norman Geisler in an insightful essay discusses how a dispensational approach helps to vindicate God’s goodness and justice despite the presence of evil in the world. A dispensational perspective helps in dealing with the problem of why God permitted suffering for so long and the problem of how humanity can be truly free in a new heaven and a new earth while guaranteeing that evil will never break out again.
A dispensational perspective shows that God has just grounds before all created beings to put away sin forever because he has proved that it is never right to disobey his will. God allows evil into human history and tests it completely through seven dispensations. In this dispensational drama God is the victor and believing humanity the beneficiaries. God secures the universe forever from another outbreak of evil and produces a greater good to his eternal glory. God is not glorified by evil but he is glorified by his attribute of love in permitting the freedom that caused the evil and by his attribute of justice that punishes evil.
Geisler summarizes the tenets of what some now call classical dispensationalism and describes the individual dispensations and their purpose. There are seven dispensations commonly labeled the ages of innocence, conscience, human government, promise, law, grace, and kingdom. Each dispensation tests humanity under a new condition. Humanity fails under all these conditions. God accomplishes several things through this plan of the ages. He proves that created beings always fail and bring evil on themselves when they disobey his commands and that they bring good and blessing on themselves when they obey his commands. Then through his intervention in redemption and renewal he brings about a new heaven and earth that is full of free beings while ruling out any rebellion again.
The seven dispensations test humanity under every necessary condition. The age of innocence in the Garden of Eden tests humanity when there is no knowledge of good or evil by experience and here they choose to do evil. The age of conscience tests humanity as to whether they will now follow the good and shun the evil and here too they fail and do more evil than good and fill the world with violence. The age of human government involves the responsibility of government to restrain evil and promote good (Gen. 9:6; Rom. 13:1-7) but people unite to exalt themselves against God (the climax is at the Tower of Babel in Gen. 11). In the age of promise after the failure at the Tower of Babel God gives to the patriarchs of a chosen people a special promise that would separate them from the contamination that had come to the nations at large and enable God through them ultimately to bless all nations but they become morally corrupt in the land of promise and end in bondage in Egypt. In the age of law God gives the liberated nation of Israel explicit directions for life and fellowship with him and a mission to be a light to all the nations and they still rebel and do evil. In the age of grace God uses a more gracious and less judicial approach to see if humanity will respond simply to a grace message that is announced by a church made up of believing people from every nation, but even here humanity at large resists and refuses the grace of God. God removes the church from the earth and enters into judgment with the nations as he re-gathers the Jewish people. Throughout these six ages Satan has been present to entice humanity to evil. After the judgment of the nations God ushers in the kingdom age during which the devil is bound and Christ reigns over Israel and the nations with the overcomers of the church age for a thousand years. At the end of the thousand years of Christ’s perfect reign, Satan is released and a vast number of humanity follows him in rebellion against God. God renders a final judgment and ushers in an eternal state in which human and angelic rebels are forever quarantined from a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness reigns.
God has a plan of the ages that He is working out for His glory and for the good of the creation. The plan includes the permission of evil. God permits evil that He may produce a greater good that will resound to His glory. He has permitted evil in order to defeat it. He will defeat evil without destroying humanity made in His image and likeness, among which each person is free to accept or reject His grace. God will secure the new heaven and the new earth from all evil influences. God will save and permanently cure from evil all those who come to Him in faith. All who reject Him will be forever quarantined from the new heaven and new earth in the lake of fire. The permanently secured universe with its glorified and perfected humanity will forever serve and glorify God.
 Norman L. Geisler, “God, Evil and Dispensations” in Walvoord: A Tribute, edited by Donald K. Campbell (Chicago: Moody Press), 95-112.