One of the areas in which Christians can and do disagree – often intensely – is in the broad area of eschatology. This is simply the study of last things. Future events, the last days, the return of Christ, the end of the world, heaven and hell, and future judgment are some of the topics dealt with in biblical eschatology.
One of the main sticking points is how we should understand the concept of the millennium. This is a Latin word which refers to a thousand year period. The term is chiefly found in just one tiny portion of Scripture. The first seven verses of Revelation 20 mention the concept six times.
It refers to the thousand year reign of Christ on earth. There are Old Testament passages which seem to deal with this particular period as well (eg. Daniel 2, Isaiah 60-66). Given what sparse references there are to this specific period in Scripture, a lot of ink has been spilt on the subject.
Indeed, heaps of disagreement has arisen as to what Rev. 20 is all about, and how it all fits into the biblical timeline. Biblical prophecy in general, and the exact nature and timeframe of the millennium in particular, are still hotly debated topics amongst believers.
This article will simply offer the briefest of an outline overview of the major options here. Given the millions of words that have been penned on this complex and contentious topic, I can here only just scratch the surface. But for those wanting a quick introduction to this topic, I offer the following.
There have historically been three main options as to how we should understand the millennium. These are: premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism. As the prefixes indicate, the various positions basically deal with chronological issues, with the temporal order of events.
It should be noted that each position is not homogeneous, but there are versions of each, and new combinations and permutations continue to emerge. Here we will try to simply explain the leading positions and their proponents.
The first position tends to be the option of perhaps the majority of evangelical Protestants today. Very simply this view argues that Christ will return at the end of the church age and before his millennial reign. During this period Satan will be bound (Rev. 20:1-3).
After this thousand year rule, a new heaven and new earth will come into play. Before the millennium the church is slogging it out in the trenches with the devil. The view tends to be somewhat defeatist, arguing that things will basically go from bad to worse in this world.
There are differing versions of this. Classical or historical premillenialism was held by such figures as Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Lord Shaftesbury, Cotton Mather, Isaac Newton. More recent proponents would include Carl F. H. Henry, Francis Schaeffer, George Eldon Ladd and J. Barton Payne.
A more recent variation of this is known as dispensational premillennialism. Dispensationalists hold that God had governed through different regimes or dispensations over the years, and claim that there are around seven such dispensations. They see a stark discontinuity between the Testaments, and between Israel and the church.
Their position, and the related themes of a pre-tribulation rapture, were first given a major run with John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and C.I Scofield (1843-1921). The position is especially promoted at Dallas Theological Seminary in America, but is widely held by many. D. L. Moody, H. A. Ironside, Arnold Gaebelein, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Dwight Pentecost, Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord, Charles Feinberg, Herman Hoyt, and Hal Lindsey would be among the main advocates for this.
Belief in the rapture, which is said to remove believers from the earth just prior to a seven year period of tribulation, which in turn precedes the second coming of Christ and his millennial reign, is itself the subject of debate. There are also mid-tribulation rapture supporters, as well as post-tribulation advocates.
The pre-trib pre-mil dispensational position was given a much wider promotion by the best-selling 16 novels written between 1995 and 2007 by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins in the Left Behind series. These have been made into films as well, further popularising this particular eschatological option.
And as mentioned, one can even further distinguish between differing options here. For example, a newer movement, known as progressive dispensationalism has emerged. These folk are more moderate than the earlier dispensationalists and see less of a sharp distinction between Israel and the church. Robert Saucy, Craig Blaising, and Darrell Bock would be representative figures from this group.
This view states that Christ’s Second Coming will come after the millennium, not before it. But other postmillennialists simply see the millennium as figurative, not literal. Thus the first coming of Christ inaugurated the Kingdom of God, and the thousand year reign of Christ and the millennial blessings are either seen as figurative or as yet future. The same with the restraint on (binding of) Satanic activity.
Some of the proponents of this view have included Augustine, Athanasius, Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, A.H. Strong, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, William Wilberforce, W.G.T. Shedd, Loraine Boettner, Marcellus Kik, A. Clarke, B.B. Warfield, John Murray, J.J. Davis, and most theonomists such as R.J. Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, Gary North and David Chilton.
As can be seen from this listing, the Reformed tradition especially tends to support this view, with Calvin’s emphasis of God’s sovereignty and the Lordship of Christ extending to every area of life as a leading feature. Indeed, it is sometimes known as “an eschatology of victory”.
It is much less pessimistic than premillenialism is, and can be quite positive in viewing a gradual turn of many to Christ and the Kingdom. It believes real advances can be made, and the work of the enemy can in fact be substantially overcome in this life, before Christ arrives a second time.
Evil will not be eliminated, but a gradual and progressive conversion of many through preaching and teaching will see significant social and cultural change occurring as a result. At the end of this period (whether it is actually a thousand years or not), Christ will return.
Part of the reason why this does not yet seem to be occurring is because the church of the last two millennia has been largely negligent in its duty to evangelise, disciple, and be salt and light in a needy world. Yet the promises of Christ in Matthew 28:18-20 are still there, waiting for us to take them seriously.
Glimpses of a mass move of God, with far-reaching social ramifications, can be found in Calvin’s Geneva, Knox’s Scotland, and Puritan New England. Instead of succumbing to despair and pessimism, believers should take the commission of Christ seriously, and believe that with his grace and through the power of His Holy Spirit, a wholesale work of God can still be achieved on planet earth.
Whether this millennial reign is coextensive with the present ongoing activity of the church in history, or is a still future event of extra blessing and expansion of the Kingdom, all postmillennialists take seriously the belief that Christ’s Kingdom will triumph on earth and in history.
The final position, amillennialism, and some concluding thoughts, will be found in Part Two of this article: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/11/29/on-the-millennium-part-two/