We have an old joke in our church told by our late pastor emeritus, Dick Woodward. Someone once asked him about his views concerning the Second Coming of Jesus. Was he was a premillennialist, an amillennialist, or a postmillennialist? Dick’s response was that he was a pan-millennialist. When asked, “What is a pan-millennialist?,” Dick replied that it is all going to “pan out” in the end.
The point that Dick was trying to make is that Christians differ on their views regarding the millennium, but they are all united on one important truth: Jesus is coming back!
Interestingly enough, I find that a lot of people these days do not get the pan-millennialist joke. The main reason it escapes them is that they are not familiar with all of these different ideas about the “millennium” and the whole “pre,” “a,” and “post” bit. Sadly, a lot of churches today do not do such a great job explaining Bible doctrine to their people, so I thought it might be good to do a little Bible study on the subject of the millennium.
The Biblical Doctrine of the Millennium
So what is the millennium anyway? Well, the story really begins by going to the Book of Revelation, chapter 20. There we find the Bible’s only explicit reference to this term millennium. (If you are confused by the Book of Revelation, I would encourage you to read this previous introduction on Veracity). Partly since it is in the very last part of the Bible, the millennium is typically associated with the so-called “last things,” or those events that take place towards the end times. When taken at face value, the millennium is a one thousand year reign of the Lord Jesus Christ. The challenge among Christians is that different students of the Bible interpret this millennium in very different ways.
Here is a taste of this most influential passage on this topic:
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years,and threw him into the pit,and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:1-16 ESV)
Let us start with clearly the most common view, premillennialism, the perspective immensely popularized by such books and movies as the Left Behind series. In premillennialism, the Second Coming of Jesus comes just prior to this one thousand year reign of Christ; hence, the “pre” in premillennialism. In other words, the present age, the age of the church, has been going on since the time of Christ’s Resurrection in the first century A.D., and in the minds of many Christians things will continue to get worse and worse until Christ comes to usher in the millennium. This millennium is a literal one thousand years where Christ will reign upon planet earth, and it will end with Christ administering judgment.
Postmillennialism, on the other hand, suggests that the Second Coming of Jesus comes just after Christ’s millennial reign. Prior to the Second Coming, there will be a gradual improvement of conditions upon the earth during this millennium.
Amillennialism, is a bit of a misnomer, in that on the surface it indicates there will be no millennium at all. But without exception, amillennialism asserts that the millennium is essentially identical with the age of the church; that is, the time period roughly between the First Coming of Christ (specifically at Pentecost) and the future Second Coming of Christ. Since almost two thousand years have passed, in amillennialism the millennium can not be a literal one thousand year period of time.
When you try to work through these different views regarding the millennium, it can become complicated really quickly. Is there some way to simplify the subject?
Here is one way to approach it: Postmillennialism and amillennialism have a lot of overlap. The main difference is that postmillennialism has a generally positive outlook, towards the future, as Christ’s kingdom gradually becomes more and more manifest in the world. Amillennialism is more agnostic on this point, and furthermore, most amillennialists do believe that just prior to Christ’s Second Coming, there will be a period of great persecution of Christians and even apostasy.
However, postmillennialism is a relatively rare view among Christians today. So, for the rest of this blog post I will focus on amillennialism as being the primary contender against the premillennial view. You can call it “non-premillennialism.” All you postmillennialists out there probably are miffed at me now, but if you follow what I am saying below, you might appreciate at least some of it.
Here is the problem: Among evangelical Christians today, some form of premillennialism has become pretty much the de facto standard view. For a number of premillennialists, they are simply unaware that there are any alternative views out there that even exist. For those who are aware of amillennialism, most premillennialists reject this other view in that it is contrary to a a literal reading of Revelation 20.
When I was a young Christian, this was a big deal since it was generally thought that a literal reading of the Bible was always better and therefore more “Scriptural.” If you were “amillennial” in your thinking, chances are you were a bit “liberal” in your theology. Your love and respect for the authority of the Bible was rather suspect. But as we shall see, that way of looking at the issue is a bit too simplistic.
Premillennialism: Pros and Cons.
The prevailing factor favoring the premillennial view is indeed the literal understanding of the one thousand years. There is a lot to commend this view. If all you had was Revelation 20 to go on, it becomes very easy to see why the idea of a future, exactly one thousand year reign makes a lot of sense. And there are also other arguments in favor of premillennialism. For example, the premillennialist finds it very difficult to accept the continuing presence of sin and evil in the current age as being in any sense compatible with Christ’s reign as Lord in the millennium, as non-premillennialist positions must concede. Premillennialism was also the most commonly accepted view in the early church, though it was still a hotly debated issue even then.
Premillennialism was overcome in terms of popularity by non-premillennial views about the time of Saint Augustine in the late 4th century. In particular, the dominance of Augustine’s amillennialism lasted for centuries! The overwhelming majority of Christians for hundreds of years have embraced amillennialism, including Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and nearly all of the early Protestant Reformers. But things have changed in the modern era. Premillennial belief experienced a resurgence in the 19th century, and it has pretty much ruled the thought of popular evangelical Christianity since the end of World War One, close to a hundred years ago.
So, what then is the big argument against the premillennial view? If you read I Corinthians 15, you will find the classic teaching from the Apostle Paul about the resurrection of the believers and the Second Coming of Christ. You would think that if Paul had the opportunity to mention the coming of a future millennium that it would be here. Oddly however, Paul makes no specific mention of the millennium in this passage. Non-premillennialists therefore generally find this passage to be the “go to” section of the Bible to support their view.
Let us look at some of it:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:20-28 ESV).
The key section in this passage broken down is verses 23 and 24:
(verse 23) But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
(verse 24) Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.
When will this end in verse 24 actually happen, and what is it? Everyone concedes that there is a good two thousand years between the First and Second Comings at this point, the First Coming already preceded by Paul’s writing of this letter to the Corinthian church by a few decades, and the coming [of] those who belong to Christ in verse 23 is generally accepted by most scholars to be the Second Coming of Jesus. But what about “then comes the end” here in verse 24? Most scholars associate this end with events surrounding the final judgment and resurrection, etc.
Premillennialists at this point believe that there is somehow a gap between these two verses, 23 and 24. In between these verses is where the one thousand year reign of Christ from the Book of Revelation comes in.
- verse 23: Christ the first fruits (the First Coming).
- verse 23: “then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (the Second Coming).
- a gap between verses 23 and 24 (the millennium).
- verse 24: “then comes the end” (final judgment, resurrection, etc.)
There is a problem in doing this, however. If you read the passage literally, there is no reason within the immediate context of the passage to insert a gap of one thousand years. Verse 23 naturally flows into verse 24 with no indication of any major gap. New Testament scholar Gordon Fee goes so far as saying that the “coming” mentioned at the end of verse 23 and the “end” of verse 24 is simply held together as one thought:
- verse 23: Christ the first fruits (the First Coming).
- verse 23 and verse 24: “then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then come the end” (the Second Coming, final judgment, resurrection, etc., with no gap inserted).
Now some scholars, such as the late S. Lewis Johnson, do infer that the one thousand years really fits in here between verses 23 and 24, but in doing so, the premillennialist reader has to move away from a literal reading of the text. Concerning this interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15, Johnson concedes “at least we can say it’s compatible with a millennium” (“The Last Adam and His Kingdom,” part IV, S. Lewis Johnson, page 17). So the premillennialist is left with inserting the one thousands years in between the verses somehow, thereby splitting the coming of Christ in verse 23 from the end of verse 24.
There is another problem with this approach (some more arguments from Credo House scholar Sam Storms and also here and here). This end is generally considered to be the time where Christ ultimately conquers and has victory over death, as Paul tells us later in I Corinthians 15:50-58. There is this great question raised by Paul concerning Christ’s coming in verse 55 indicating the defeat of death itself:
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
From a non-premillenial viewpoint, this would indicate that Christ’s Second Coming completes the victory He has over death! But in the premillennial view of things, death is not r-e-a-l-l-y ultimately defeated until one thousand years after Christ returns, which is a pretty long time, if you think about it. So then, after a two thousand year delay in which we are in now, Christ comes back in victory to reign for a thousand years, but we have yet another delay in his victory such that death is not finally overcome until the end of this extra millennial period. If the future millennial reign is supposed to be so much better than the present age, without the extreme evils of sin we find in the current age, why will death still be present in this future millennium?
We have seen how someone with a literal view of Revelation 20 tries to understand 1 Corinthians 15. How does someone who does not see a millennium in view of a literal reading of 1 Corinthians 15 then understand Revelation 20?
Essentially, they would say that Revelation 20 should be understood symbolically or metaphorically. Some commentators, such as Internet blogger Dee Dee Warren, argue that the biblical word “thousand” is more like the term “million” that we often throw around in casual English conversations today. “Hey, you look like a million bucks today!” In this context, a “million” simply means that a person looks really great! We would never say, “Hey, you look like a million dollars, but you surely do not look like a million and one dollars. You do not look that good.” The “million” is not about numerical precision, but rather it is a figure of speech symbolizing greatness. If you accept that argument, then the millennium is simply a reference to the long lasting period of greatness of Christ’s rule in the midst of his enemies until He finally defeats these enemies, including death itself, at the Second Coming.
Now each side has their argument to make, and there are numerous other passages where advocates of the different views can make their case, but it is interesting to note that a completely “literal” view regarding the millennium is pretty much impossible. At some point, you end up taking at least some part of the Bible non-literally. One side takes Revelation 20 literally whereas the other side takes I Corinthians 15 literally. This is the main reason why I am not too keen on trying to emphasize the so-called “literal interpretation of the Bible.” In a case like this, such an argument for reading things “literally” is not very helpful and only confuses people.
Dealing With Controversy Regarding the Millennium
So why mention such a controversy regarding the subject of the millennium to begin with? Well, the main point is to show that there are different interpretive assumptions made on to how to read the Bible. This is why there are so many contrasting views regarding the subject. Once you grasp some of the presuppositions and methods employed in how to understand the Bible by different Christians, you can become more appreciative of how other people think on this issue of the millennium. Thankfully, our view of the millennium is not a “salvation issue.” While it is still important to think about, it is not an essential matter of faith.
Sadly, there are Christians who make the case that they are simply “reading the Bible” without “interpreting” it and come to the conclusion that only one view of the millennium is correct and all of the others are wrong. Granted, these conflicting views can not all be correct. But it would surely help advance the cause of the Gospel if there was a little more humility in how we approach these difficult topics. One aspect of humility entails that, even when we disagree on certain matters of biblical interpretation, that we learn to be as generous as possible towards other believers who do not see things exactly as we do.
Many times believers just hear the arguments from one particular viewpoint and they never bother with trying to understand why some other believer might be looking at the Bible differently. I do not know about you, but this type of needless dogmatism can be frustrating. But instead of dwelling in discouragement, I have to continually remind myself that perhaps God has a good purpose in all of this. Maybe the reason why we have a millennial debate within the church is to encourage us all to really dig into the Bible and figure this out for ourselves. It would be pointless for me to think that I can convince you on what should be “the” correct Scriptural position on the millennium, simply on the basis of reading this single blog post. It really takes a lifetime of study of these matters to plumb the depths of the riches of God’s Word, and even then, the humble disciple would still know that there is much more that can be learned. I am still growing and learning myself in this very area, and I have been working on it for well over thirty years!
I really appreciate this attitude of our late pastor emeritus, Dick Woodward, who when pressed would admit to being a type of premillennialist (a good defense of premillennialism inspired by one of his mentors, Ray Stedman, can be found here). But Dick Woodward carefully concluded with a dose of sobriety that it would suffice to say that it will all “pan out” in the end! I can say “Amen” to that!
Like the Bereans, God wants us to search the Scriptures daily to find out if these things are really true, instead of just mindlessly taking in whatever some persuasive speaker says. If there were no debates within the Christian community, it might falsely encourage the believer to become merely passive in our understanding of the Bible. Instead, God wants us to be active students of His Word, seeking to dig into the deeper Truths of His Word. But we need to do so realizing that there might be other perspectives, even if they turn out to be false turns along the way, that can challenge us to better grasp His Truth and share that Truth with others.