The Millennial Maze
I once heard someone define the millennium as a thousand-year period of time during which Christians fight over the proper interpretation of the book of Revelation. While amusing, that definition is obviously incorrect. Christians have been fighting over the proper interpretation of the book of Revelation for two thousand years. In all seriousness, however, all of the fighting has led some Christians to adopt despairingly a position they call panmillennialism (we don’t know which view of the millennium is correct, but we know it will all pan out in the end).
The word millennium refers to the “thousand years” mentioned in Revelation 20. Because this chapter is found in one of the most difficult books of the New Testament, its proper interpretation is disputed. As a result, there are four main views of the millennium held within the church today: historic premillennialism, dispensational premillennialism, amillennialism, and postmillennialism. The prefixes pre- and post- before the word millennium have to do with the timing of the second coming of Christ in relationship to the millennium itself. The term premillennialism refers to the belief that the Second Coming will occur before the millennium. The term postmillennialism refers to the belief that the second coming will occur after the millennium. Strictly speaking, amillennialism is a version of postmillennialism in this sense because amillennialists believe Christ’s second coming will occur after the millennium. There are other differences that distinguish amillennialists from postmillennialists. An understanding of what proponents of each of these views have taught historically provides a helpful context for current discussions of Revelation 20.
Historic premillennialism teaches that at the end of the present age, there will be the great tribulation followed by the second coming of Christ. At Christ’s coming, the Antichrist will be judged, the righteous will be resurrected, Satan will be bound, and Christ will establish His reign on earth, which will last for a thousand years and be a time of unprecedented blessing for the church. At the end of the millennium, Satan will be released and he will instigate a rebellion, which will be quickly crushed. The unrighteous will at this point be raised for judgment, after which the eternal state will begin.
Historic premillennialism has had its proponents in the church from at least the second century AD onward. It was taught, for example, by Irenaeus (140– 203) and Justin Martyr (100–165), and may have been taught in the late first century by Papias (80–155). Some within the Reformed tradition, such as James Montgomery Boice, have taught this view. The most notable proponent of historic premillennialism in the twentieth century was George Eldon Ladd, whose commentary on the book of Revelation argues strongly for this position.
Dispensational premillennialism offers the most complex chronology of the end times. According to dispensationalism, the current church age will end with the rapture of the church, which, along with the appearance of the Antichrist, marks the beginning of the seven-year great tribulation on earth. The tribulation will end with the battle of Armageddon, in the midst of which Christ will return to destroy His enemies. The nations will then be gathered for judgment. Those who supported Israel will enter into Christ’s millennial kingdom, and the rest will be cast into Hades to await the last judgment. Christ will sit on the throne of David and rule the world from Jerusalem. Israel will be given the place of honor among the nations again. The temple will have been rebuilt and the temple sacrifices will be reinstituted as memorial sacrifices. At the end of the millennium, Satan will be released and lead unbelievers in rebellion against Christ and the New Jerusalem. The rebellion will be crushed by fire from heaven, and Satan will be cast into the lake of fire. The wicked will be brought before the Great White Throne, judged, and cast into the lake of fire, and at this point the eternal state will commence.
The dispensationalist version of premillennialism originated in the nineteenth century within the Brethren Movement. Its distinctives first appear in the writings of John Nelson Darby (1800–1882). Dispensational premillennialism caught on rapidly in the United States through the Bible Conference Movement. It was popularized by C.I. Scofield in the notes to his reference Bible and was systematized by Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary and the author of an eight-volume dispensational systematic theology text. In the twentieth century, this view was taught on a more scholarly level by men such as John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, and J. Dwight Pentecost, and it was popularized by authors such as Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye.
Postmillennialism teaches that the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 occur prior to the second coming of Christ. Until recently, most postmillennialists taught that the millennium would be the last thousand years of the present age. Today, many postmillennialists teach that the millennial age is the entire period of time between Christ’s first and second advents. As we will see, this means that contemporary versions of postmillennialism are very close in many ways to contemporary amillennialism. The main difference between the two is not so much the timing of the millennium as the nature of the millennium. In general, postmillennialism teaches that in the present age, the Holy Spirit will draw unprecedented multitudes to Christ through the faithful preaching of the gospel. Among the multitudes who will be converted are the ethnic Israelites who have thus far rejected the Messiah. At the end of the present age, Christ will return, there will be a general resurrection of the just and the unjust, and the final judgment will take place.
Postmillennialism was widely held among the Puritans. It was also the dominant view among Reformed theologians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was taught, for example, by men such as Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, James Henley Thornwell, A.A. Hodge, and B.B. Warfield. Because liberals adopted a humanistic version of this eschatology, postmillennialism suffered a decline in the twentieth century, but it has seen a resurgence in the last twenty to thirty years. Books supporting this view have been published by men such as Loraine Boettner, J. Marcellus Kik, Kenneth Gentry, John Jefferson Davis, and myself.
Amillennialism sees Revelation 20 as a description of the reign of Christ with the saints throughout the entire present age. Some amillennialists emphasize the reign of Christ with the saints in heaven, while others teach that this reign is also connected with the church militant here on earth. Amillennialists tend to argue that the growth of Christ’s kingdom has few if any visible manifestations. The focus is more on the suffering that Christ has indicated the church will undergo. According to amillennialism, the present millennial age, which is characterized by suffering, will be followed by the second coming of Christ, the general resurrection, the last judgment, and the new heavens and new earth.
Amillennialism also has its origin in the early church. Augustine (354–430) taught a version of amillennialism that influenced the church throughout the Middle Ages and into the Reformation. Within the Reformed tradition, the contemporary version of amillennialism began to distinguish itself from older forms of postmillennialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The nineteenth-century theologian Herman Bavinck, for example, was a staunch proponent of amillennialism. In the twentieth century, the view has been taught by Reformed theologians such as Geerhardus Vos, Louis Berkhof, Anthony Hoekema, Cornelis Venema, Kim Riddlebarger, and Sam Storms. Some contemporary amillennialists do not like the term amillennialism because the prefix a- literally means “no,” so amillennialism literally means “no millennium.” One amillennialist, Jay Adams, has suggested the term “realized millennialism” instead.
Those versions of postmillennialism that recognize the millennium to be symbolic of the entire present age differ in only a few respects from amillennialism. Historic premillennialists, such as George Ladd, who understand that the kingdom of Christ has already been inaugurated in connection with the events of Christ’s first advent are closer than they may realize to these forms of postmillennialism and amillennialism. All of us should take the time to understand the views of those with whom we differ and understand the biblical arguments they use. We may not agree yet. There is much more exegetical work to be done before any hope of consensus is possible, but the work being done by biblical and systematic theologians should encourage us. Despite the remaining disagreements, we can rejoice that we all agree that Jesus is risen and that He has been given all authority in heaven and on earth.