Introduction and Scope
The purpose of this paper is to explore the four major millennial views of amillennialism, postmillennialism, dispensational premillennialism, and historic premillennialism and to determine which of these is best supported by Scripture. Space constraints will not allow us to explore the finer nuances of each position so I will present a brief overview of each perspective with an attempt to focus on the major distinctive issues. Inasmuch as these viewpoints are in fact eschatological systems rather than simple perspectives of the millennium per se, we will discuss the categories of the second coming of Christ, the resurrection, the judgments, the tribulation, the millennium, and Israel and the church within the context of each exposition. Moreover, since much of the differentiation in viewpoints tends to focus on the interpretation of Rev. 20:1-6 and the hermeneutical method applied to Old Testament prophecy, we will pay special attention to these domains.
There can be little doubt that no single topic has captured the imagination, attention, and pocketbooks of 20th and 21st century Christian readers as the eschaton. From nonfiction volumes such as Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth and John Hagee’s Jerusalem Countdown, to the fictional works and movies of Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, a multi-million dollar industry has developed around the topic of the apocalypse, replete with authors whom claim unique and esoteric insight into the eschaton. Most of these books are sensationalist works which attempt to interpret current events through an allegorical explanation of the symbolic language of the canonical apocalyptic literature.
In spite of the popularity of this methodology among evangelicals, it is my contention that the entire Bible, including the apocalyptic corpus can be properly interpreted using sound hermeneutical practices by anyone who approaches it in earnest.
Amillennialism rejects the notion of a literal, future thousand-year reign of Christ and is the predominant eschatological viewpoint of Reformed theology.[i] According to this system, “…the kingdom of God is present in the church age, and at the consummation of the present age, the eternal state is inaugurated without any intervening millennium.”[ii]
Amillennialism embraces an interpretation of Revelation, known as progressive parallelism, which sees the book as consisting of seven sections which run parallel to each other and depict the church and the world from the condescension to the parousia.[iii] While progressive parallelism affirms eschatological progression, it denies chronology. Therefore, rather than seeing chapter 20 as chronologically sequential to chapter 19, it views chapter 20 as a break in the text taking us back to the beginning of the New Testament era.[iv] Further, the assertion is made that the thousand-year period is not to be taken literally but that it refers to an indeterminate period of time. Taken in tandem, these views support the conclusion that the thousand-year period extends from the first advent to just before the second advent.
The amillennialist approach to the interpretation of Old Testament prophecy is another key distinctive of the system. While it affirms that many of the Old Testament prophecies are to be interpreted literally, it holds that many others are to be interpreted in a nonliteral way.[v] This fact tends to free the amillennialist interpreter from seeing certain Old Testament prophecies such as Isaiah 11:6-9 and Isaiah 65:17-25 as literal references to the millennium. Since by definition the amillennialist perceives the millennium as symbolic of the present church age, these passages are seen to be definitive of the new creation (new heavens and new earth) and unassociated with a future millennial reign of Christ.
In this schema the second coming of Christ is seen to be a single event which will be subsequent to the occurrence of certain events or the intensification and climactic final fulfillment of the “signs of the times”; hence the return of Christ is not imminent. It also teaches that there will be one general resurrection of the dead which will include believers and unbelievers simultaneously and will occur at the second advent. The final judgment will occur at the end of the age and will be singular and general in nature and will include believers and unbelievers and each person will be judged according to the light they received.[vi]
Loraine Boettner describes postmillennialism as, “that view of the last things which holds that the kingdom of God is now being extended in the world through the preaching of the gospel and the saving work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of individuals, that the world is eventually to be Christianized and that the return of Christ is to occur at the close of a long period of righteousness and peace commonly called the millennium.”[vii] This view was held by notable eighteenth century theologian Jonathan Edwards but it gained substantial momentum in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the years preceding World Wars I and II.
This perspective points to social progress and technicalogical advancements as indicators of the progress of the gospel and the expansion of the kingdom. It holds that the present age will gradually blend into the millennium as the gospel advances and the powers of sin and evil are gradually assuaged. In the categories of resurrection, judgment, tribulation, and Israel and the church, postmillennialism is virtually identical to amillennialism.
This system utilizes principles of interpretation that are rather liquid as they slip to and fro between a literal and spiritualized reading of the text depending on the needs of the interpreter to support his conclusions. For instance, as in amillennialism, the number 1000 in Rev 20:6 is seen as figurative, thus representing an indeterminate period of time. For support of this approach Boettner appeals to passages such as the protoevangelium (Genesis 3:15) where symbolic language is used for the serpent and the man, representing Satan and Jesus respectively. Further support for this approach is drawn from passages such as Exodus 19:4, “I bore you on eagles’ wings” and Exodus 3:8, “a land flowing with milk and honey”.[viii]
Conversely, when the need arises to support the conclusion that the vast majority humanity will be saved, the interpreter is free to move to a quite literal interpretation of the text. For instance, Boettner cites Rev. 7:9-10, “a great multitude which no man could number” as evidence that “God has chosen to redeem untold millions of the human race.”[ix] Is it not abundantly clear that this language is purposefully indeterminate? Yet Boettner makes the jump to literally quantifying this ambiguity in the millions. Further extrapolation of relative capacity is drawn from descriptive terms for hell such as a prison, a lake, or a pit. These descriptors are interpreted rather literally regarding capacity and are characterized as small in contrast to heaven. This attempt to literalize the text, however, seems to ignore the fact that in Revelation the pit is described as a ἄβυσσος (abyss)which means bottomless or of immeasurable depth.[x]
The postmillennial argument seems to unravel due to its foundational hermeneutic. The fallacy with its exegetical methodology is it fails to recognize that in some cases (e.g., Exodus 19:4) Scripture makes use of metaphorical language that quite simply could not be interpreted in any other way with integrity, and in other cases (e.g., Exodus 3:8) it makes use of contemporary idiom. Moreover, since the genre of the aforementioned verses is not prophetic, an attempt to use examples of metaphorical or idiomatic language in support of a spiritualizing hermeneutic of symbolic language in the context of prophecy is guilty of the fallacy of ignoratio elenchi.[xi]
Postmillennialism seems to be a system that makes extensive use of logic (or logical fallacy, as the case may be) to draw conclusions that are consequently superimposed on the biblical text, rather than allowing the text to guide the interpretation.
A very popular view of the end-times among contemporary Evangelicals is dispensational premillennialism which teaches that the church will be raptured prior to the Tribulation period and that God will judge unbelieving Gentiles and disobedient Israel during the Tribulation. Following the Tribulation Christ will return with the church and establish His millennial reign on earth. At the conclusion of this thousand- year period, Satan will be released and subsequently cast into the lake of fire with his minions.[xii] This perspective is espoused in the popular works of Hal Lindsay, Tim LaHaye, Charles Ryrie, Cyrus Scofield, and Finis Jennings Dake.
In stark contrast to the prior eschatological systems, dispensational premillennialism maintains a consistently literal hermeneutic in the interpretation of prophecy and it sees a clear distinction between Israel and the church. The fundamental contention in exegetical methodology is that “if prophecy can be spiritualized, all objectivity is lost.”[xiii] Dispensational premillennialists find no biblical warrant to identify the church as the “new Israel”.
The insistence on the distinction between Israel and the church is perhaps the most unique characteristic of the system. It sees Israel as “an earthly theocratic kingdom while the church represents a spiritual and heaven-oriented people.”[xiv] It maintains that the term Israel always refers to the biological posterity of Jacob and never refers to the church. This lays the foundation for its doctrine concerning the pretribulation rapture of the church: “the purpose of the Tribulation is to judge unbelieving Gentiles and to discipline disobedient Israel; the church does not have purpose or place in the Tribulation.”[xv]
This system divides history into epochs of God’s dealings with and revelation to humanity known as dispensations which, according to Scofield’s reckoning, include innocency, conscience, human government, promise, law, grace or the church age, and the kingdom age or millennium.[xvi] The foundation of dispensationalism is found in the covenants of the Old Testament, all of which are seen as relating solely and specifically to nation Israel.
Interestingly, dispensational premillennialism is a relatively late system, having arrived on the eschatology scene circa 1830 with the work of John Nelson Darby. It was widely popularized by its incorporation into the notes of the Scofield Study Bible published in 1909. Since Scofield’s commentary was printed along side of and embedded into the inspired text, it was imbued with unwarranted authority by the readers of that publication.[xvii]
The chief criticism of dispensational premillennialism is that it fails to adequately address passages such as Romans 11:4ff, Romans 2:29, Phil. 3:3, Col. 2:11, et al. These verses all make the clarion claim that the church is in fact the true circumcision, a term consistently used to refer to those of Israelite ancestry, and that reckoning as a child of Abraham is a spiritual matter (Gal. 3:7-8). Furthermore, insistence upon a purely literal reading of Scripture ignores the fact that many sections of prophetic literature, such as the aforementioned protoevangelium, require symbolic interpretation to be meaningful. Insistence upon a strict literal reading of the text has led many in the dispensationalist school, such as Walvoord to draw misleading distinctions between terms such as “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God”. Walvoord claims the “kingdom of heaven” as the realm of the professing church while the “kingdom of God” is the realm of the believing church, when in fact, “kingdom of heaven” is commonly understood by most Bible scholars simply to be a circumlocution used by Matthew in his distinctively Jewish presentation of the gospel.
Like dispensational premillennialism, historic premillennialism teaches that Christ will return before the millennium to establish an earthly reign. Historic premillennialism, so named due the fact that the majority of the church fathers held this view point, departs from the dispensationalist school in that it is not insistent upon solely literal exegesis and the distinction between Israel and the church is not maintained.[xviii] Its most outstanding proponent is George E. Ladd.
In terms of hermeneutics, historic premillennialism allows for a certain “spiritualization” of the biblical text yet it is not so lose with its methodology as postmillennialism appears to be. Ladd points out that there are several instances where the New Testament “spiritualizes” an interpretation of an Old Testament prophecy that has quite a different meaning when taken literally. He suggests to Hosea 11:1, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” as a case in point. When taken literally, this verse is not prophetic but is in fact the recitation of historical fact. Matthew 2:15, however, offers a spiritual interpretation of the passage as it applies it prophetically to Jesus. This then is the principle of biblical prophecy: “the Old Testament is reinterpreted in light of the Christ event.”[xix]
This school also understands passages such as Romans 2:28-29, Romans 4:11, Galatians 3:7, and 3:29, 1 Peter 2:9, et al. as referring directly to the church. Furthermore, the application of the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:33-34 to the church in Hebrews 8 is reinforcement for the validity of this hermeneutic.[xx] Due to the fact that the church is seen as spiritual Israel, the historic premillennialist sees no biblical evidence for the rapture and resurrection of believers before the tribulation, hence the church will go through the tribulation.
In regard to the resurrection, this system teaches that the “first resurrection” refers to a bodily resurrection of the saints of all ages which will take place at the parousia, while the unbelieving dead will be raised at the end of the millennium. Another distinctive of this perspective is that while affirming a millennial reign of Christ, this reign is not limited to the millennium but has already been inaugurated.
While I don’t question the intentions of the adherents to the various schools of thought regarding eschatology, I unabashedly question the validity of the conclusions drawn by the various systems. It seems that the quintessential difference between the systems is the foundational hermeneutic used to exegete the key biblical texts.
Postmillennialism takes an almost cavalier approach to biblical interpretation as the interpreter is free to move from a literal to a spiritualizing hermeneutic as need dictates in order to superimpose a philosophical system on the biblical text. Dispensationalists on the other hand, with insistence on literal interpretation, move to the opposite extreme and in so doing likewise refuse to allow the Bible to speak for itself by ignoring common literary features such as metaphor. Moreover, each dispensationalist interpreter tends to identify prophetic symbols within his own contemporary geopolitical and historical-cultural context and each seems to have his own esoteric insight which allegedly unlocks the secret to the “proper” interpretation of apocalyptic prophecy. The problem with both of these systems is that they simply do not seem to be intellectually honest. Additionally, Dispensationalists’ dogged insistence that they have the only “biblical” perspective is disconcerting and prevents meaningful dialogue with those whom hold divergent perspectives.
Hill and Walton rightly point out, “Some interpreters place too much confidence in their ability to discern the meaning of symbols in prophetic literature and spend much time devising and defending such meaning. Yet it cannot be assumed that every object in a vision has symbolic value, and when the meaning of a symbol is not given in the text, the interpreter must be cautious in supplying such a meaning. It is possible the symbolism is used to conceal rather than reveal.”[xxi] If the meaning of a symbol is not explicitly given in the text, any interpretation of that symbol, ipso facto fails to carry the authority of the word of God. “Unrevealed symbolism cannot be considered the inspired message of the prophet.”[xxii]
Like Ladd, I arrived at my understanding of the church as “spiritual Israel” through my own exegesis of the biblical record in a holistic sense, honestly uninfluenced by systematic theology. If one were to carry the literal hermeneutic espoused by the dispensationalists to the extreme, one would be required to choose between a literal reading of Exodus 19:5-6 as God is speaking directly to the Israelites, and a literal reading of 1 Peter 2:9 as Peter reinterprets that passage in light of the Christ event and applies it directly to the church. How would the dispensationalist maintain a rigid distinction between Israel and the church in light of these and other similar passages (e.g., Jer. 31:33-34 cf. Hebrew 8)?
All things considered, of the four dominant views, historic premillennialism seems to be the most balanced and intellectually honest. It makes allowance for interpretation according to the scope of genre and comprehends the fact that our construal of symbolic language in unfulfilled prophecy is imperfect at best. In the final analysis, where one finds himself in relationship to these four views is not a matter of salvific importance. Yet, like the doctrines of predestination and eternal security, what one believes about the eschaton can yield significant impact on his attitudes toward activities like evangelism and social action, not to mention how he in fact conducts himself in this life.
|Categories||Amillennialism||Postmillennialism||Dispensational Premillennialism||Historic Premillennialism|
|Second coming of Christ||Single event; not imminent; introduces eternal state||General resurrection of all at the 2nd coming; return follows millennium||2 phases: rapture for the church, 2nd coming to earth 7 years later||Simultaneous with rapture, Christ returns to reign on earth|
|Resurrection||General resurrection of all at the 2nd coming||General resurrection of all at the 2nd coming||3 in number: church at rapture, O.T. & trib saints at 2nd coming, unbelievers at end of millennium||Resurrection of believers at beginning of mil., resurrection of unbelievers at end of mil.|
|Judgments||General judgment of all; singular||General judgment of all; singular||3 in number: believers works at rapture, Jews/Gentiles at end of trib, unbelievers at end of millennium||Judgment at 2nd coming, judgment at end of Tribulation|
|Tribulation||Experienced in this present age||Experienced in this present age||Rapture will be pretrib||Rapture will be posttrib|
|Millennium||No literal mil; indeterminate period; already present in the church age now||Present age blends into millennium due to the advance of the gospel||Literal 1000 years on earth inaugurated at 2nd coming||Both present and future, Christ is already reigning in heaven, mil. not nec. 1000 years|
|Israel & the Church||No distinction; Church is the new Israel||No distinction; Church is the new Israel||Complete distinction, unique program for each||Some distinction. Future for Israel but church is spiritual Israel|
|Int. of Rev. 20||Beginning of N.T. era; progressive parallelism||1000 not literal; spiritualized||Literal, limited to future||Already / Not yet|
|Int. of O.T. Prophecy||Some literal, others nonliteral||Spiritualized – loose||Literal||Spiritualized when nec.|
Adapted from Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Press, 1989
[i] Enns, pg. 380
[ii] Enns, pg. 380
[iii] Clouse, tmotm, pg. 156-157
[iv] Clouse, tmotm, pg. 160
[v] Clouse, tmotm, pg. 172
[vi] Enns, pp. 381-382; Clouse, tmotm, pp. 181-184
[vii] Clouse, tmotm, pg. 117
[viii] Clouse, tmotm, pp. 134-137
[ix] Clouse, tmotm, pp. 123-124
[x] Thayer, pg. 2
[xi] Walton, pg. 19
[xii] Enns, pg. 389
[xiii] Enns, pg. 389
[xiv] Clouse, tnmm, pg. 59
[xv] Enns, pg. 390
[xvi] Clouse, tnmm, pg. 59
[xvii] Clouse, tnmm, pg. 98
[xviii] Enns, pp. 386-387
[xix] Clouse, pp. 20-21
[xx] Enns, pg. 387
[xxi] Hill and Walton, pg. 407
[xxii] Hill and Walton, pg. 408
Clouse, Robert G., ed. The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1977.
Clouse, Robert G., Robert N. Hosak, Richard V. Pierard. The New Millennium Manual. Grand Rapids: Bridge Point Books, 1999.
Enns, Paul P. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Press, 1989.
Hill, Andrew E. & Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991, 2000.
Marshall, Alfred. The Interlinear KJV-NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975.
Tenney, Merrill C. Zondervan’s Pictorial Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967.
Thayer, Joseph, H. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc, 1896.
Walton, Douglas N. Informal Logic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.