I’ve been deeply enmeshed recently in the study of the end times (eschatology). The topic of the Millennium frequently comes up when we study through the prophets and hear of glorious times in the future. Is this talking of the Millennium? Is this speaking of a time prior to Christ’s return? Or is this the “new heavens and the new earth?”
It seems that anytime you study eschatology, you will by necessity have to spend some time trying to understand Revelation 20 which speaks of a thousand year reign of Christ, otherwise known as the “Millennium.” Basically, there are four predominant views concerning this time: Historic Premillennialism, Dispensational Premillennialism, Amillennialism, and Postmillennialism. And, within each of these views there are numerous sub-branches of various kinds that fall under the main title. Here are the four views in a nutshell.
Historic Premillennialism is the belief that Christ will return BEFORE the millennial kingdom is established and will reign for a literal thousand years upon the earth with his resurrected saints. The idea is that all of the prophecies concerning a time of abundant earthly blessing will take place during this time. Historic Premillennialism, in large part, sees no distinction between the nation of Israel and the Christian Church. In other words, they see many of the prophecies concerning Israel to be fulfilled either in Jesus Christ, or the Church, which is “spiritual Israel” as opposed to “physical Israel.” This idea comes from Paul’s statement in Romans that: “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants , but: "THROUGH ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS WILL BE NAMED." That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.” (Romans 9:6-8 NASB)
Another aspect of Historic Premillennialism that sends Dispensational Premillennialism into a tail spin, is the idea of a pre-tribulational, secret rapture. Historic Premillinnialsits reject this idea and see the rapture and the second coming of Christ as being the same event. Whereas Dispensationalists see it as two separate events separated by the seven year “Great Tribulation.” Historic Premillennialism greatest advocated during the twentieth century was the late George Eldon Ladd who addressed the rapture issue in his book, “The Blessed Hope” which I recently reviewed.
All of the millennial views have potential problems when trying to coordinate them with the rest of Scripture. Both brands of Premillennialism have to account for the idea of sin still existing during the Millennial kingdom. In other words, Christians who die, go to heaven to be with Jesus…then must return to earth for a thousand years and reign with him in a world where sin still exists. Because at the end of the thousand years, Satan is allowed to gather the nations and rebel against Christ and His people….only to be destroyed by God.
Another potential problem with Premillennialism is the fact that it seems to separate the resurrections into two distinct times; while other Scriptures seems to indicate that Christians and Non-Christians will be resurrected at the same time. Jesus said: “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28-29 NASB) Premillennialists teach that these two groups are resurrected a thousand years apart, before and after the millennial kingdom.
Dispensational Premillennialism has two distinctions. First, it is by far the most popular view among American Christians today. Second, it has the most exegetical problems (in my opinion). Of course within Dispensationalism you have various extremes and often times unnecessary Scriptural divisions. To one extreme, you have those who say that most of the gospels were written for the Jews and not Gentiles. Therefore, Gentiles are not commanded to “repent” only Jews. They would teach that Gentiles must only “believe” in Jesus in some vague and non-committal way in order to be saved. Not all Dispensationalists would believe this, given the fact the John Macarthur, a Dispensationalist, has devoted much of his ministry to speaking out against “easy believism” as its taught within his own theological camp. Some Dispensationalists also see divisions between the nation of Israel and the church that seem rather hard to justify. But other Dispensationalists are less dogmatic on such issues.
A new brand of Dispensationalism known as “Progressive Dispensationalism” moves further towards Historic Premillennialism while still retaining some of Dispensationalism’s marks. This view, advocated by Darrell Bock and Craig Blaising in their book “Progressive Dispensationalism” still holds to a pre-tribulational rapture, but does see some of the Old Testament prophecies as being fulfilled in the New Tesatment Church on in Jesus Christ.
The one constant which can be seen in Dispensationalism is the idea of the pre-tribulational, secret rapture of believers. This is the idea that most evangelical Christians embrace today, as made popular in the Left Behind series of Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins. The problem with this view is that there seems to be no Scriptural warrant for separating the Rapture from the 2nd coming of Christ into two separate events. And it appears that none of the New Testament church, nor the first and second century Christians held to such a view. In fact, no one seems to have held to a pre-tribulational rapture view until the 1800’s with the emergence of John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren church. Darby’s views didn’t go over as well in Europe, both his views were widely embraced in America. My fear is that Americans have embraced the pre-tribulational rapture idea because it allows them to avoid suffering. Whereas, Scripture teaches believers to expect…and even EMBRACE suffering for the cause of Christ.
The greatest argument against a pre-trib rapture, in my opinion is in 2 Thessalonians where the church was afraid they had missed the “Day of the Lord.” Most Bible scholars are in agreement that the “Day of the Lord” refers to the 2nd coming of Christ when He will bring judgment on the nations. According to the Dispensational view of the rapture, the easiest way for a Christian to know they haven’t missed the “Day of the Lord” is because they’ll be raptured seven years prior to it. Yet, strangely, the Apostle Paul mentions nothing of a secret rapture in comforting them. Paul writes: “Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, 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.” 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4 (NASB)
While Paul does seem to mention a rapture….he doesn’t tell them to expect it prior to the “Day of the Lord.” In fact, if anything he tells them to be looking for an “apostasy” and a “man of lawlessness” rather than a secret rapture. Why doesn’t he just tell them to relax about the “Day of the Lord” since they’ll be raptured beforehand? Some Dispensationalists have asserted that “apostasy” really means rapture because it can mean a falling away….or a “taking away.” But this seems to be an asinine interpretation of “apostasy” which has to do with a rebellion against authority. To see a pre-trib rapture, separated by seven years of tribulation, followed by the “Day of the Lord” in this text is to force way too much upon the text than it actually says. Dispensationalism claims to always embrace the “plain meaning of the text.” If so, then the plain meaning of this text is to see the rapture and the 2nd coming of Christ as the same event.
Amillennialism is the view that the 1000 year reign of Christ is meant to be taken as a figurative number that represents the time in which Christ reigns in Heaven between His first and second coming. This view seems to have become popular when taught by St. Augustine in the 4th century. It was widely accepted and taught by the Reformers and is still prevalent today among most Reformed Theologians. It avoids the problems of Premillennialism’s idea of sin during the earthly reign of Christ by saying that the Millennium is a reign of Christ from Heaven, rather than on the earth. It would also explain the resurrection timeframe by simply accepting a view that the just and the unjust will be resurrected at the same time when Christ returns.
The problem that Amillennialism runs into is the accusation that they “spiritualize” texts that should be taken literally. Their rebuttal is that the book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature that is full of symbolism that must be taken into account. Much like the Old Testament prophets and the parables of Jesus, Revelation is giving us symbols to teach Divine truth.
Some see a problem with Amillennialism because Revelation 20 mentions that Satan will be bound during the Millennium….and it’s easy to look at our world today and see that Satan’s influence is profound. Amillennialists would counter by saying that Revelation 20 gives a specific reason for Satan’s being bound: “so that he no longer can deceive the nations.” (Revelation 20:3) They say that during Old Testament times, all the nations were enslaved to Satan except for Israel, and that Jesus commissions the church to go into “all the nations” and preach the gospel (Matthew 28:19-20) with a guarantee that some will be saved from “every nation.” (Revelation 5:9) In other words, Amillennialists would say that Satan still exercises much power and influence in our world today, but that he is “bound” in the sense that he cannot deceive entire nations because the gospel is going forth into all the world, with a certain measure of success.
Another potential problem with Amillennialism is the interpretation of martyrs who “come to life” and reign with Christ during the Millennial kingdom. While many would interpret this as a physical resurrection, Amillennialism takes this to mean the Spiritual “coming to life” that occurs when a soul enters the Presence of Christ in Heaven. Some Amillennialists see this as the preferred interpretation because the setting for Revelation 20 is “heaven” rather than “earth” because John says he saw the “souls” of those who had been martyred (v.4). Revelation 20 goes on to say that Satan is loosed at the end of the Milliennium so that he can once again deceive the nations and gather them against Christ. This would seem to explain a brief period of “Great Tribulation” right before Jesus returns.
Postmillennialism is by far the least accepted view today, though during the days of the Puritans it was widely embraced. It is similar to Amillennialism in that it sees the Millennium as occurring before the return of Christ. Postmillennialism believes that there is a 1000 year period on the earth whereby the gospel advances with success and ultimately “Christianizes” all nations. Postmillennialism is a very optimistic view of the earth’s future that has traditionally been accepted by those who experience great revival, such as Colonial America during the Great Awakening. But Postmillennialism lost much popularity during the bloody days of the Twentieth Century, where two world wars and millions of lives were lost to evil worldly empires.
It’s my belief that an in depth study of the four main Millennial views will show all views have their strengths and their weaknesses. We must remember that God has revealed SOME things to us…but not ALL things. For this reason, I’m not extremely dogmatic on eschatology, other than to say that Jesus is definitely coming back sometime, and that Christians should live their lives expecting His return…and expecting to suffer in this world until that happens. At the end of the day, it must be enough for us to say that we trust God to work all things out in His way and in His time. We should by all means study Scripture fervently to understand all we can. We must also realize that on some issues, such as these, there will not always be unanimous agreement by Bible believing Christians. All four Millennial views are held by holy and devout Christians that believe they are making all of their conclusions from Scripture. So, with that said, I’ll just end this blog the same way John ends the book of Revelation. Be it pre, post, or amillennial, let us remember the final words of Christ. “He who testifies to these things says, "Yes, I am coming quickly." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” Revelation 22:20 (NASB)
Note: For those interested in studying the 4 views in one book, I recommend "The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views" edited by Robert Clouse. It presents an essay by a Bible scholar that espouses each view, followed by a critic from the other three scholars.