Having already briefly examined two of the three major positions on the millennium, we now turn to the final position, and also offer some general conclusions to this debate. I do not guarantee to answer all questions here, and this two-part article may instead simply raise more questions. But this basic background is needed for further discussion.
As the prefix indicates, this view basically argues that there is no literal thousand year reign. Supporters of this view are sometimes called “realised millennialists”. They say there is no actual thousand year rule. Instead, millennial blessings embrace the entire church age. As with some postmillennialists, the binding of Satan is seen to have occurred when Christ was at Calvary.
Adherents of this position include the following: Augustine, Martin Luther, Melanchthon, John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, R. Baxter, G.C. Berkouwer, Herman Bavinck, Geerhardus Vos, O.T. Allis, Anthony Hoekema, Jay Adams, Louis Berkhof, William Hendriksen, Cornelius van Til, Bruce Waltke, Leon Morris, and Edward Young. For those in the know, many noted Dutch Calvinists grace this list. Most Lutherans are also amil.
It will be noted that sometimes a figure in church history can be claimed by both postmillennialism and amillennialism. Augustine is a case in point. It is not always clear where some of these figures might fit in such schemes, which are admittedly much later conceptual developments.
The early Christians did not talk about three clear options here, and the terms we are now using are somewhat recent in origin. Thus there can be some overlap with who is included, especially in these two last positions. Both camps will be happy to claim various figures as their own.
The reason why these people question the literal thousand year period is simply due to the nature of apocalyptic literature, of which the book of Revelation is a chief example. The book is loaded with symbolic and metaphorical language, and it is quite likely that the thousand years of Rev. 20 are also to be viewed that way.
This period then is not to be treated literally, but symbolically or spiritually. Because of the highly symbolic nature of the book, amillennialists like Luther and Calvin did not even attempt to write commentaries on it. They felt it was too hot to handle. That may well be wise advice.
Amillennialists agree with those postmillennialists who argue that the current church age is to be seen as the millennium. They do not, however, share their optimism in the gradual widespread success of the gospel prior to the Lord’s return.
And they want to be known for more than what they reject. So they tend to prefer the more positive term “realised millennialism”. That is, they believe that Rev. 20 is not exclusively future, and the millennium is now being realised in this church age.
So much more needs to be said about each position. Indeed, each camp will offer plenty of biblical, theological and historical reasons as to why their preferred view is the one to be embraced. I cannot here enter into all those fine details, so below I will mention just a few books which do a good job of laying out the various options.
It should be borne in mind however that while these are vital theological issues, they should not be seen as essential hardcore Christian doctrine. Despite the insistence of some, one’s view on the millennium is actually not a test of orthodoxy. All three positions on the millennium have been held by conservative, Bible-believing Christians through the ages. Christians can and do differ on these matters, and we should be given room to move here.
Unlike other items of faith which are the tests of orthodox biblical Christianity, such as the deity of Christ, the triune God, and the finished work of Christ, one’s eschatological views do not determine if one is orthodox or heretical. This is an important, but a secondary, doctrinal issue.
And it should also be recalled that while one’s eschatology will have ramifications for many other things, such as how one views the nature of Christian work, and the relationship between Christ and culture, it need not be determinative. That is, premil types can be accused of running away from transforming their culture, intent instead on waiting for the rapture.
And postmils can be accused of easily slipping into a Social Gospel, where improvement in human conditions is seen as the summon bonum of Christianity, and social action, instead of evangelism, is all that is needed. The temptation can be to think that human effort alone can usher in the Kingdom.
But one can have differing views on eschatology and still be used mightily in Christian social action. Consider the two great English evangelical Christians of the recent past who did so much to end slavery and reform society, all from a clear biblical basis.
William Wilberforce was postmillennial in his eschatology, while Lord Shaftesbury was premillennial. Yet both worked their hearts out to share the love of Christ in very practical and tangible ways in a very needy England. Their eschatology did not stand in the way of important Christian involvement in all areas of life. See here for more on this:
It is perhaps fitting that I should conclude this article by declaring my own hand on all this. As a new Christian, and for many years thereafter, I was a gung-ho premillennialist. Not only that, but I was an avid pre-tribulation rapture premillennialist. And I was even a hyper-dispensationalist to boot early on.
However over the years I have come to see that both the amil and the postmil positions have much to commend themselves. There are of course all sorts of theological and biblical reasons why one might prefer these options, and they cannot be entered into here.
But I find both these positions to be real possibilities which I can be comfortable with, so I have tended to relax my hold on premillennialism. This position may yet be correct, but I suspect that it may be just as true to say that in fact we could equally opt for a fourth major option.
That final option is panmillennialism. This is the view that things will all pan out in the end, and we perhaps should just leave things at that and not worry about it! That is, we maybe should not be too hung up on the finer details of biblical prophecy, or speculate too much on all the end-time scenarios.
Jesus said “Occupy till I come”. That seems to me to be our main marching order. We should be busy with doing the work of the Kingdom, and not become overly obsessed with date setting and end-time speculation. We certainly should not have our bags packed with our feet up, waiting for some eminent rapture to snatch us away.
Christ could come today, but then again he may not come for another thousand years. Whatever our eschatological perspective, let us make the most of our time, and do all we can to be a genuine witness in a very needy world. Maranatha.
For further reading (books assessing the various options)
Archer, Gleason, et. al., Three Views on the Rapture. Zondervan, 1984, 1996.
Blaising, Craig et. al., Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond. Zondervan, 1999.
Clouse, Robert, ed., The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views. IVP, 1977.
Erickson, Millard, Contemporary Options in Eschatology. Baker, 1977.
Feinberg, Charles, Millennialism: The Two Major Views. Moody, 1980.
Gregg, Steve, ed., Revelation: Four Views: A Parallel Commentary. Thomas Nelson, 1997.
Grenz, Stanley, The Millennial Maze: Sorting Out Evangelical Options. IVP, 1992.
Lewis, Daniel, Three Crucial Questions about the Last Days. Baker, 1998.
Pate, Marvin, ed., Four Views on the Book of Revelation. Zondervan, 1998.
Reiter, Richard, ed., The Rapture: Pre-, Mid-, or Post-Tribulation. Zondervan, 1984.
Part One is found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/11/30/on-the-millennium-part-one/