On the Millennium, Part Two

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.

Amillennialism

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.

Conclusion

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:
billmuehlenberg.com/1999/04/08/end-times-and-christian-responsibility/

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/

[1303 words]

17 Replies to “On the Millennium, Part Two”

  1. Thank you, Bill, for this very thoughtful piece. You have covered this field very thoroughly. The only problem I can see is that surely one or other of these views must be correct and surely we all must do our best (‘search the Scriptures’) to establish the truth of an issue. But how we do that in this case I don’t know.

    Peter Murnane, Sydney

  2. Thanks Peter

    Yes, it is indeed the case that if premil is correct, then the other two cannot be. But as I mentioned, it is possible that because of some overlap with the postmil and amil positions, that one could more or less sit comfortably in both camps. But yes, we all must study the Scriptures to come to some conclusions here, although as I say, this is a secondary doctrine, and one can go through life as a Christian without firmly making up one’s mind on all this.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Thank you, Bill, I appreciate this answer and can see the common sense in it. On one level, though, I am still searching for an answer. The Book of Revelation must have a clear meaning or else God would not have given it to us. So how can very intelligent Christians like Wilberforce and Shaftesbury come to different conclusions about what it really means?

    Peter Murnane, Sydney

  4. Thanks Peter

    Yes but the same can be said about the entire Bible. On the one hand it has a clear meaning, but on the other, there are deep waters there, and Christians can and do differ on all sorts of issues. That is because we are finite and fallen. So complete theological agreement will be impossible this side of eternity. Thus the importance of passages like 2 Tim 2:15.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. Yes, that makes sense. Thanks again, Bill. Just a bit frustrating that the clear meaning of the Bible is right there staring us in the face, so to speak, and owing to our fallen state we just can’t see all of it. Won’t it be wonderful when we can?

    Peter Murnane, Sydney

  6. Thanks again Peter

    As Francis Schaeffer used to say, in our fallen yet redeemed condition we can have access to true truth, but not exhaustive truth. Given that we are dealing with an infinite and eternal God, we will never in this life fully grasp who and what he is.

    Of course on the other hand Jesus did promise us that the Holy Spirit would guide us into truth. So we can make real progress here, but our understanding here on earth will never be perfect or complete. As Paul says, “We see though a glass darkly … now we know in part” (1 Cor 13:12). Perfection in anything – including biblical knowledge and understanding – will always elude us in this life. But that is not a counsel of despair, just a realistic assessment of our current condition as believers.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Bill,
    It is scriptures like Rev 13:7 ‘And it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them:’ that make me realise that we do go through the tribulation with the antichrist, unless these saints are people who came to faith after the Rapture?

    If we, the church, have been given power and authority over all the power and authority of the enemy, how then can he be given power to overcome us? Something has obviously changed for this to happen, so to my mind, we cannot be in the millennium now, or else this aspect wouldn’t change. All would be as it began. And right now, for those that believe and operate in that authority, we are the head and not the tail.

    IF 2Thess 2:7 ‘For the mystery of iniquity (lawlessness) is already at work: only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way.’ means that the Holy Spirit is removed, making a lot think that we will be raptured with Him, because he is in us and cannot leave us, how then will those remaining be saved?

    Would it be like the days before the advent of Christ, when faith was counted to be righteousness? This would account for the scriptures which say that the saints must endure until the end without wavering, seeming to mean that their salvation could be lost if they wavered.

    This especially applies to those taking the mark of the beast. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit, so I suppose that the ‘mark’ is satan’s seal. I seem to remember something in the Qur’an about a seal. That reminds me, the angel went forth, sealing the foreheads of the 144,000 Jews before breaking the 7th seal. Surely, if they had to be sealed by an angel, the Holy Spirit was not there? These were sealed after the martyrdom of the believers out of the Great Tribulation were before the throne of God.

    Some say that quite a few of the scriptures have already been fulfilled, with the destruction of the temple and the persecution by Rome. Some have thrown in Hitler, although I tend to see him as a shadow and a type of the antichrist. The abomination that causes desolation wasn’t erected in the temple by him, there being, as yet, no new temple.

    Can’t quite see that abomination having been erected by the Romans, either, prior to the destruction of the temple, and so on it goes.

    All in all, this is a very interesting and challenging subject, and each viewpoint has scriptures to back.

    Fascinating. Thanks for bringing it up Bill.

    Debbie Strybosch

  8. Thanks Debbie

    Yes you are certainly right that this is an “interesting and challenging subject”. All the various camps can offer heaps of passages to support their viewpoints. Hundreds, if not thousands, of books would exist with the various arguments and counter-arguments. I have a small library on all this, and as I said, I have not fully decided where I stand on some of these issues, although I have some preferences, which are different from when I was a new believer. But it is all worth studying, thinking about, and praying about – as long as it does not become an unhealthy obsession, where prophecy and end times scenarios become the most important thing there is.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. Thanks Bill
    For encouraging Christians to avoid dogmatic views on issues which have unnecessarily divided the Church over countless years. May I add one book that I personally have found the clearest exposition of the book of Revelation. It is in the “Bible Speaks Today” series – ‘The Message of Revelation’ by Michael Wilcock.
    Wilf Parmenter

  10. I am in your fourth camp Bill. All things are coming together in Christ. The how and when are beyond my understanding. What I do know is that somewhere I fit in God’s plan for the world, and I have a duty to prayerfully discern where that is – and then get on with it as best I can till my time is up!
    Anna Cook

  11. Dear Bill

    I finally got around to reading your two blogs (articles) “On the Millennium – Part One & Part Two.” You have provided a good overview. I sent an email to one of my sons to have a read also.

    I did however want to recommend someone else’s writings, whom you do not have on the list. I wish to commend to you the Revd Dr Geoffrey Bingham, whose books are fully available on-line. His position on the millennium was similar to yours. Geoff’s book “The Revelation of St John the Divine” is freely available on-line at: http://www.newcreation.org.au/books/pdf/261_RevelStJohn.pdf

    Bill, you are someone with a sharp intellect and you are also highly literate. I must confess, I have difficulty reading all you write. Certainly, I have not read all that Geoff Bingham wrote either, but I was one of many in South Australia, privileged to call him a friend. He died in 2009. There was a deep integrity in this man’s life, much of it born out of being a prisoner of war at Changi during WW2.

    But the point I wanted to make is this. Geoff used to lament the fact that we acknowledge the book of Revelation as holy scripture, but so few seem to read and consider its contents. God is so much more important that what we think about him. In the same way, scripture already contains far more secrets than we currently have ever comprehended. It is the arrogance of our current understanding, which so often prevents us from comprehending more. We need to keep on reading scripture with humility. This includes the book of Revelation. It also includes the prophets such as Jeremiah, which are now very neglected. Many people, including pastors, seem to shy away from these books. But they are there for a purpose. While we won’t understand all that they say, we need to keep reading them.

    I commend the above link. Check out the summary of contents pages.

    Cheers,
    Chris McNicol

  12. Very informative. Are any of the books on your recommended reading list accessible and easy to understand for a layperson who wants to gain a better grasp on this topic?
    Ross McPhee

  13. Thanks Ross

    Yes, most would qualify. I would start with Grenz and/or Erickson. Both of these volumes are quite helpful indeed.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  14. Bill, Kenneth Gentry’s Book, The Divorce of Israel, to be published at the end of 2011, should provide a very helpful insight into a plain reading of the Book of Revelation. I found David Chilton’s Paradise Restored and Days of Vengeance helpful in their day, but Gentry’s scholarship outstrips Chilton’s. It was sad to see Chilton’s untimely promotion to glory. Perhaps if he lived a little longer he may have been able to provide a fuller contribution to the discussion on the Book of Revelation. Anyhow, Gentry’s Commentary, along with his other works such as, The Dating of the Book of Revelation, The Mark of the Beast, and so on, are also very helpful contributions to the discussion.

    Lance A Box
    Alice Springs

  15. Again, thanks for an honest summation of the issues. I am intrigued by the description of your development in the faith from new Christian “gung-ho premillennialist…pre-tribulation rapture premillennialist….dispensationalist…However over the years I have come to see that both the amil and the postmil positions have much to commend themselves.” I see many parallels with my own experience.

    One final comment on your statement about Jesus’ words “occupy until I come”. Perhaps the phrase was used differently way back then, but retreating armies don’t occupy territory, they concede it.

    God bless you!
    Steve Swartz

  16. Dear Bro Bill,
    Thanks for your info and here a short comment. Various ones who claim that the others are not Scriptural often do exactly the same. So are there many who take the Millennium seriously (Re.20:4) but do not want to take that same context seriously that says that there will be only two future group resurrections. One will be at the beginning of the Millennium for those who refused to worship the Beast and as a result were decapitated and in the second the rest of humanity will resurrect after the Millennium (Re.20:5 Da.12:1,2).
    This simply means that a future Resurrection in a Rapture before the Millennium or another Resurrection during the Millennium is simply unscriptural. Indeed, the Lord emphatically states by repetition that those who believe in Him will be resurrected on the Last Day (Jn6:39,40,44,54). Even in the OT we see this expressed (Jb.19:25,26 Da.12:13).
    Now the Great Tribulation is held by many to be God’s Wrath against the world. However, when we look at the details we see that instead it is a period of many false preachers and prophets (Mt.24:5,11,24 Mk.13:6,22) and extreme persecution of believers (Mt.24:9 Mk.13:9,11) to such an extent that the victims simply cannot be counted (Re.7:9,14) [and John can count to at least 200 million Re.9:16]. This large number also makes it very unlikely that Rapture had taken place before that. So, all the activities during the Great Tribulation point to great satanic activity, not the Wrath of God.
    Many do not read the small print and do not realise that these early chapters of Revelation do not belong where they stand in the book. The indication for this is that John is told he has to prophecy anew (Re.10:11) pointing to a discontinuity in time.
    Those who believe in a pre-Millennial Rapture base it on the premise that the Great Tribulation is the Wrath of God, though it does not state that anywhere in the Scriptures. No, I believe in the Rapture of the believers from this earth to escape the Ultimate Wrath of God, which is the destruction of this Universe by fire (Is.65:17 66:22 2Pe.3:13 Re.20:11 21:1 2Pe.3:7-12). For this the examples of Noah and Lot, who left their environments just before their destruction, are given (Mt.24:37-41 Lk.17:26-30 1Pe.3:20 2Pe.2:5-7).
    Harm Kloppenburg

  17. I lean towards premillenialism. Looking at the time line of the world from the Ascension to present day premillenialism seems to be verified, while the other two are debunked.

    I am open, though, to the other options and see no harm in difference of opinion here.

    The pretrib rapture belief seems dangerous to me. If it’s wrong it could lead to a big mess where we are screaming, “antichrist” and the rest of the world mocks us with questions of what happened to the rapture. It could lead some astray that may have otherwise converted.

    That’s purely speculation, though.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: