This article will be a longer academic article with endnotes and my bibliography for those who may want to dig in deeper. So, grab a big cup of tea and settle in as we jump into this massive topic! (Or bookmark it to read over the weekend or whenever... haha)
Today, with the Coronavirus pandemic, global unrest, concerns over vaccines and a host of other circumstances - it has a lot of people thinking about the End Times again. Growing up, every time Israel was in the news was an opportunity for some spirited conversations and speculations about the role they would play in the End Times. Every war and conflict in the Middle East was a “sign of the times” and it wasn’t uncommon to hear some charismatic preacher explaining how Apache attack helicopters were the locusts of Revelation 9. Everyone knew that a secret rapture before the seven-year Great Tribulation would then give way to the final return of Jesus Christ who would put an end to the Antichrist and the Devil before He made a new heaven and earth. This was, for me and many others in my circles, simply a cardinal doctrine of Christian belief.
Popular apocalyptic literature and TV evangelists only seemed to confirm this perception, and I was only peripherally aware that there were other differing views on eschatology. “Oh yea sure, there’s those other guys who believe something else… but that’s just their interpretation, right? Clearly they’re missing it!”
However, as I began to study more I realized that the topic of eschatology was in fact one of great variety of interpretation and also heated debate. [Eschatology—defn: Study of last things or End Times; eschatological is the adjective meaning, ‘having to do with the end times or last things.’] This may often times discourage many from trying to understand it more, seeing it as a hopeless cause, too complicated for mere mortals to wrap their feeble minds around. However, as Johann G. von Herder once said,
“Where a book, through thousands of years, stirs up the hearts and awakens the soul, and leaves neither friend nor foe indifferent, and scarcely has a lukewarm friend or enemy, in such a book there must be something substantial, whatever anyone may say.”
So it is definitely a profitable pursuit to seek understanding and one which is not unimportant to Christianity since our ultimate hope is eschatological in nature. Hence, eschatology cannot merely be just an indifferent part of Christian doctrine, but rather, one’s eschatological outlook will affect many various points of faith and ministry.
Goals of this article
In this article, the four main views on the millennium in Revelation 20 will be briefly stated, then the history of millennial views in the early church will be considered. The popular modern view of Dispensational Premillennialism will be examined in the historical context of its development in order to understand its rise to contemporary popularity within some Evangelical circles. Then, the methodology of interpretation for approaching NT eschatology will also be briefly considered. Following these considerations, the literary structure of the book of Revelation will be looked at, and a brief argument for an Amillennial view of Revelation 20 will be posited. Some responses primarily to Dispensational and Historic Premillennial arguments and objections will also be considered along the way.
Given how long the article already is, all views and objections will not be able to be adequately represented. However, I will attempt to interact with what I think are some of the major issues. I have not interacted as much with Postmillennial views in this article as it does share quite a bit of similarity with Amillennialism. Perhaps I will do so at a later time, however, many thorough resources are available in the bibliography and footnotes that deal more extensively with this topic.
The Four Major Views on the Millennium
Before we launch into this study, it is important that we have clear definitions on the four major views of the millennium... and charts - yay! Because what's an article about eschatology without charts? Tim Challies has an excellent infographic summarizing the millennial views seen below and available here.
Premillennialism (Premil) is the position that says Christ will come back before the millennial reign in Revelation 20. According to this view, the present church age continues toward a time of great tribulation. After this time of tribulation, at the end of the church age, Christ returns and establishes a physical earthly millennial kingdom. When he returns, Satan will be bound and believers who have died will be resurrected. Then, together with them, believers who are still alive will reign with him on earth for the thousand years. Both will receive glorified resurrection bodies and many of the unbelievers still on earth will turn to Christ and be saved. At the end of the millennium, Satan will be released to lead a final rebellion with the many unbelievers who still remain. Satan will be decisively defeated and a second resurrection of dead unbelievers will be raised for final judgment before the eternal state.
A modern variation on the Premil position is called Dispensational Premil (it is illustrated together with Premil in the chart above). In this view, Christ’s return is not just before the millennium, but also before the great tribulation—so it adds another, sudden return of Christ to call believers to himself. This is commonly referred to as the Rapture. According to this (Pre-Trib) view, after the Rapture, there will be a seven-year tribulation period after which Christ will return in fullness to reign for the millennium. This view has become very popular among a lot of mainstream Evangelicals, so we will explore this view and its origins a bit more.
Postmillennialism (Postmil) understands that Christ will return after the millennium. According to this view, the progress of the Gospel will gradually increase until a majority of the world becomes Christian. As a result, society will be influenced by Christianity and increasingly function according to God’s standards— gradually ushering in the ‘millennial age’ of peace and righteousness on earth which will last for a long period of time. At the end of this period, Christ will return to earth, believers and unbelievers will be raised, and final judgment will occur. Then there will be a new heaven and earth and the entrance into the eternal state. This view tends to be very optimistic about the Gospel's advance and influence in culture.
Amillennialism (Amil) understands the Second Coming of Christ to be a single event, instead of occurring in two phases. The binding of Satan in Revelation 20 for a thousand years refers to the present rule of Christ through the church and saints in heaven, beginning at the death and resurrection of Jesus (John 12:31-33) and continuing until the Parousia (Second Coming). Because Satan was bound by Christ’s victory at Calvary and the empty tomb, the spread of the gospel is not able to be hindered by Satan deceiving the nations, though he still exercises some limited influence. It understands the first resurrection as an allusion to a Christian’s salvation—(regeneration) conversion from spiritual death to life—at which they began to reign presently with Christ (cf. Eph 2:1-7; Col 3:1-4).
Both Postmil and Amil positions understand Christ’s final coming, the resurrection and judgment as one event. This is one of the major distinctions between them and the Premil view. One strength of the Amil view is realism. In our present time we will experience victory and defeat, good and evil, until the end. So, the future is neither a climaxed continuation of gradual improvement which establishes Christ’s reign as in Postmil, nor is it an abrupt collapse as in Premil. “The kingdom of God does not come by human cooperation with the divine power currently at work in the world, but neither is it simply the divine gift for which we can only wait expectantly.” So, unbridled optimism and despairing pessimism are both inappropriate outlooks.
So, congrats! You now have the basic artillery to get into a Facebook comments argument! Just kidding... sort of. Let's jump into the meat of this article now. We'll briefly survey the millennial views throughout Church history.
The Eschatology of the Early Church Fathers
All the orthodox early church fathers believed in the resurrection, future judgment and Second Coming of Jesus. However, other details which we are concerned with today were not necessarily developed by all the church fathers. Maybe the most striking thing about the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age (period of time from the end of the NT to before the Council of Nicea in 325 CE) is that of chiliasm or what we may call Historic Premil, seemed to be the most prominent view. Premil advocates usually point this out as a support for their position. However, we must examine this claim.
Among some of the cited early Premil material is the Didache (an early church teaching document probably written around the second century which dealt with many various doctrines of the faith), especially chapter 16, and other church writers such as Justin Martyr (c. 110-165 CE), Irenaeus (c. 140-202 CE), and Tertullian (c. 155-240 CE), who conceptualized the millennium as a time of peace, restoration, prosperity and earthly happiness where the saints reign with Christ. It should be noted though that the Didache’s chiliasm is questioned. Also, while Justin Martyr (“The First Apology of Justin,” 180) clearly believed in two advents, he also accepted that there are good Christians who hold other views. Thus, even in the Early Chruch, this was not the only view of the church. Early Premil was held mostly among Jewish converts and a few Apostolic Fathers. It seems like though they may have had unity in their agreement to wear funky robes and don a golden plate glued to the back of their heads (joking), they did not have unanimous agreement on the millennium.
However, it is worth noting also that those who do not mention a Premil view had great weight of authority and influence such as Ignatius (c. 35/50 to 98/108 CE), Polycarp (69-155 CE) and Clement (150-215 CE).
Shifting Millennial Views
There is, however, a shift which began to happen in millennial views even from fairly early. Hippolytus (c. 170-236 CE), the Roman presbyter, showed the unity of Revelation with the rest of the NT writings. His commentary on Daniel and work on the Antichrist represent an original exegetical interpretation of a more spiritual nature which formed a third-century alternative to the Alexandrian current which Origen climaxed. Origen (c. 184-153 CE) put forward a realized Christological eschatology and opposed literal readings of the millennium. He saw the thousand years in Revelation 20 as the heavenly intermediate state where souls wait for the final judgment and rest of the Kingdom.
Eusebius (c.260-340 CE) and Jerome (347-420 CE) also criticized a presentation of a material form of the millennial kingdom of Christ on this earth, preferring instead a more symbolic reading. Jerome is quoted to have said that the book of Revelation had as many mysteries as it does words, and some are attracted or repelled by mystery. So, although some think that the early churches of Asia Minor may have intrinsically grasped the message of Revelation because they were more familiar with the context, it is clear that it is a point of contention even from as early as the second century. If even these early Christians had a variety of interpretations and difficulties with the text, I think we should at least be charitable in this matter with fellow believers who may disagree with our views.
The Rise of #DatAmil
Some contend that amillennial interpretations were typically associated with the Alexandrian schools of theology which tended to allegorize and spiritualize Scripture in a way that sometimes led to heretical beliefs. Augustine (354-430 CE) for them then, represents the first solid Amillennial theologian. However, even John Walvood—former president of Dallas Theological Seminary and an adamant Dispensational Premillenial apologist—concedes that the significance of much of the material relating to the millennium before Augustine is hotly debated and unclear in contrast to Augustine’s clearly Amil stance. What may be surprising to some is that Christian thinking was typically Amil for some 1,500 years since the fifth century, with Augustine’s voice proving decisive and “suppressing the millennial impulse as too literal, exaggerated and crude an interpretation of scripture.”
Below you can see a picture of Augustine having his mind blown when he came to understand #datAmil (joking). lol :P
The truth is that the concept of the millennium played little role for a large part of church history - even during the Reformation. It was the rise of other positions that put considerable emphasis on the millennium which led to the position being called ‘amillennial’ and re-sparked much of the current debate. Walvoord charges that Augustine used a principle of spiritualizing Scripture freely, which he did not use in relation to predestination, hamartiology, salvation or grace. Also, Wayne H. House tries to connect the influence of Philo in introducing allegorical interpretations and the emergence of non-Premil views.
However, can it be a right charge of unsubstantiated allegorizing when it is utilizing the same methods of interpretation which the NT authors themselves did? I think these charges are unwarranted and this argument will be briefly considered later.
Inconclusive on the Matter
The fact is that most of the writings from the earliest church fathers do not mention the millennium. This does not prove anything, other than perhaps that they weren’t concerned with the same questions we are today. Given the circumstances of intense persecution in much of the early church, they did not have time to write long theological treatises and think deeply about these secondary questions of theology while running for their lives! The intense persecution under emperor Severus in 201-202 CE renewed interests in apocalyptic themes and coloured their use and interpretation—men like Hippolytus (170-236 CE) emphasized the nearness of the end to encourage his congregation in the face of persecution.
Dr. Walvoord concedes that the ancient writers were not always clear in their position and sometimes held doctrines from opposing theories.
"Hence a Father might use a figurative interpretation of Scripture that would seem similar to the modern amillennial method while at the same time subscribing to the idea of a coming kingdom on earth to follow the second advent—which is essentially premillennial.”
We should heed the wise warning offered by Richard Muller that, when we bring modern debates to historical figures to answer, which they never directly answered or even asked, we will inevitably “accommodate” them to meet our own needs.
Dispensationalism and Contemporary Eschatology
Dispensationalism is a system of biblical interpretation that distinguishes among seven distinct periods or “dispensations” in biblical history: innocence (before the fall); conscience (from the fall to Noah); human government (from Noah to Abraham); promise (from Abraham to Moses); law (from Moses to Christ); grace (the church age); and the kingdom (the millennium).
Today, dispensationalism has influenced much of contemporary evangelicalism’s discussion of eschatology. A large portion of modern popular literature on the End Times, eschatological matters are read through the lens of current world events—trying to find links between geopolitical crises and biblical texts. This provides a constant stream of prophecy books trying to explain how these events were foretold by Hebrew prophets.
A Recent Innovation
This system of eschatology is fairly recent in origin, beginning in the 1800s with John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). It has managed to capture the imagination of a broad spectrum of Evangelicalism. Rossing, quotes one critic that the Rapture had its origins with a fifteen-year-old girl—Margaret MacDonald, in 1830 in Port Glasgow, Scotland at a healing service—who had a vision of a two-stage return of Christ. This was adopted and amplified by Darby who founded the Plymouth Brethren. Darby stressed the importance of Israel and invented ‘dispensations’—intervals of time ordering God’s grand timetable for history. According to Darby, God has divided all of history into seven distinct dispensations and during each, God has dealt with people according to a different set of rules. Prior to these events, this believe had never existed.
While not the be-all, end-all in a theological debate - for me, this sort of theological novelty is at least reason to pause and critically examine it. It seems a bit suspect when someone asserts that they've discovered something new in Scripture that no one else had ever seen in 1800 years of interpretation by faithful Christians and Biblical scholars.
InThe Millennium Myth, Wright points out that in reaction to the Enlightenment, Dispensational Premillenialism developed primarily among fundamentalists as a gloomier version of Premil. Only a generation earlier, American evangelicals were overwhelmingly postmillennial. However, the horrors of two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War and Middle Eastern tensions provided fertile grounds for this system to take root, assuring people that when things go from bad to worse, the church will be raptured from the earth and Christians will not be around to experience the Great Tribulation or the wrath of the Antichrist. With the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, this further confirmed for Dispensationalists their reading of biblical prophecy.
Dispensationalism's Rise to Popularity
The popularity of the best-selling Scofield Reference Bible in 1909, as well as the propagation of dispensational theology by Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Theological Seminary added to the rapid spread of this system within evangelicalism. Popular TV evangelists and dispensational authors such as John Hagee, Hal Lindsey, Jack Van Impe and Tim LaHaye, indelibly etched images of Armageddon and the Rapture into the evangelical imagination. The Late Great Planet Earth, which became a bestseller in the 1970s, and the popular Left Behind series of books and movies, which sold over sixty-five million products, helped to advance this new eschatology to the masses with an outlook of escapism almost akin to Manicheism (see footnote). I remember devouring the Left Behind series of books as a teen, and though LaHaye and Jenkins admitted they were writing fiction, it has influenced the eschatology of many people!
Its most extreme proponents sometimes dismiss legitimate concerns for environmental care, obsessing over confirming their prophetic doomsday countdowns, with the tendency to promote a goal of salvation out of the world. Historian, Randall Balmer, called this a “theology of despair.” Premil eschatology generally offers a strongly pessimistic view of the world, expecting things to continue to deteriorate until God brings history to an end.
From this brief survey of the history of the development of some eschatological interpretations, we see that the historical context of world affairs and culture often plays a significant role in influencing which way people generally lean.
History alone cannot solve this problem for us. We must turn to Scripture...
Interpretation - Methodology
Before we look at the passage in Revelation 20, our methodological approach to interpretation must be considered before we approach the text. Dispensationalists argue for the literal interpretation of all prophetic portions of Scripture, which means that all the covenantal promises made to Israel in the OT are to be literally fulfilled in the millennial age. They see the formation of modern Israel in 1948 as fulfilment of this.
Allegorical or Literal Interpretation?
Walvoord charges that, “Amillenarians use the literal method in theology as a whole but spiritualize Scripture whenever its literal meaning would lead to the premillennial viewpoint,” contending that this is a subjective principle which is open to manipulation by the interpreter. Charles Ryrie charged that even Historic Premillennarians also partially used spiritualization of prophecy.
However, with regards to allegorical interpretation, there are clearly some passages in the Bible, such as John 15:1-8 and Isaiah 5:1-7, which are obviously meant to be understood that way. So it cannot be outright written off as never being a legitimate method of interpretation, though there are definitely inappropriate uses of spiritualization and allegory when the text itself does not call for it. However, to ignore clues within the text and genre of literature that give indication of a non-literal reading would actually not be to truly interpret the text ‘literally’ but rather in a ‘literalistic’ fashion.
For example, according to classical dispensationalists, promises like Genesis 17:7-8 were an unconditional covenant made with Israel which cannot be abrogated. However, this promise of land in Canaan made to Abraham was reinterpreted by Isaiah to mean a new heavens and earth, not just the land of Canaan (Isa 65:17-25; cf. 66:22). Furthermore, in Romans 4:13, Paul saw the fulfilment of the promise as being received through righteousness that comes by faith. If NT authors, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, reinterpreted the promise of land in terms of new heavens and earth, this raises great difficulty for Premil interpreters and would mean that Amil may be no less literal in its hermeneutic than the NT authors. Everyone has presuppositions which colour how they read Scriptures, and to assume that one of these millennial views is based on an unbiased reading is overly simplistic. We must first identify the presuppositions held before we come to the biblical text.
Historically, Christian theologians wrestled with the biblical text itself, comparing Scripture with Scripture. The interpretive tradition in church history has always insisted that it is best to allow the NT to interpret the OT and provide the controlling vantage point for understanding the OT and its prophecies. Another factor in interpretation is the analogia fidei (analogy of faith).
“This refers to the importance of interpreting an unclear biblical text in light of clear passages that speak to the same subject rather than taking the literal sense in isolation from the rest of Scripture.”
If we allow for the OT to be interpreted in light of NT revelation, we see that much of the promises God made to Israel in the OT were fulfilled in Christ (see for example Romans 9:6-8 and 11:7). The dispensational assertion that the future millennium will see a reinstatement of the temple system and sacrifice represents a U-turn in redemptive history and a regression from the reality of Christ back to what were mere types and shadows. This seems to be in direct opposition to the main thrust of the argument from the author of the book of Hebrews who dissuaded his audience from returning to those types and shadows. So, dispensational and some Historic Premil arguments that these prophecies to Israel will yet be fulfilled vanish in Jesus, who has fulfilled them and makes the necessity of a future physical earthly millennial reign obsolete.
The Structure of Revelation
One of the biggest factors influencing how one reads and interprets the millennium in Revelation 20 is how one understands the overall structure of the book. For those who hold to a straightforward chronological reading, it is likely that they will conclude with a more Premillennial interpretation.
Progressive Parallelism (Recapitulation)
The amillennial system of interpretation for the book of Revelation is formally called progressive parallelism. It sees the book as consisting of seven sections which run parallel to each other, each depicting in different ways the same period of time of the church and the world from the time of Christ’s first coming to his Second Coming. These series of visions function like different camera angles looking at the same period of time and events, but from various vantage points. This is also known as “recapitulation.” One of the major indicators of recapitulation happening in Revelation is the fact that the final End Time occurs several times in the book. Perhaps one of the clearest demonstrations of recapitulation is seen by comparing 12:7-11 with 20:1-6. Also, Revelation 13, 16, and 19 depict the same event, and chapters 16 and 19 are about judgment day when Jesus Christ returns in wrath to judge the nations, raise the dead, and make all things new.
To demonstrate the structure of recapitulation, it can be observed that each of the sections, except the first one, ends with an indication that the end-time has come.
The first section is in chapters 1—3 with the glorified Christ in the midst of the seven golden lampstands and the letters to the seven churches. The principles, commendations and warnings in the letters have value for the church all throughout time—which provides a clue for the interpretation of the book as a whole.
The second section is chapters 4—7 and contains the vision of the seven seals and references the End Time in 6:15-17 and 7:15-17.
The third section is in chapters 8—11 describing the seven trumpets of judgment, and it ends with the reference to final judgment in 11:18.
The fourth section, chapters 12—14, contains the vision of the woman giving birth while the dragon waits to devour the child and a description of the dragon and two beasts. It ends with Christ’s coming for judgment in 14:14-15.
The fifth section in chapters 15—16 describe the seven bowls of wrath and ends also with a reference to final judgment in 16:19-20.
The sixth section, chapters 17—19, describes the fall of Babylon and the beasts and ends with a reference to the End Time in 19:11, 19-20.
The seventh section in chapters 20—22 tells the doom of the dragon, Satan, and final judgment is depicted in 20:11-12, 14-15, then it describes the final triumph of Christ and his church in the renewed universe in the last two chapters.
What are we to make of this? Are there six endings? Or is it more reasonable to see it as multiple accounts from different angles of the same time frame?
The structure of Revelation is even more intricate than just recapitulation. It also involves a big chiasmus that spans the entire book. I've made the chart below to help illustrate the overall structure of the book.
Clearly, such an intricate structure must be intentional and should inform how we read the book!
Premil Objection to Recapitulation
One argument by Premil interpreters is that the use of the Greek conjunction, καί (and), which links 19:11-21 and 20:1-6, indicates a historical sequence of events. However, καί often functions as a transitional word simply indicating a new vision. Only three out of the thirty-five occurrences of καί in 19:11-21 clearly demonstrate a chronological sequence. Revelation 19:17-21 and 20:8-10 contain repeated allusions to the battle of Ezekiel 38—39 and recount the same battle of 16:12-16, which is highlighted by the similar phrase “to gather them together for war” in all three passages which alludes to Zechariah 14:2. This repeated ‘reappearance’ of the End Time and seeming repetition of certain events throughout the book provide a strong argument for this interpretation of the literary structure of the book as a whole. If true, it poses a big problem for the Premil chronological interpretation and is probably one of the strongest arguments for an Amil interpretation.
The Missing Millennial Gap
Revelation 20 is the only text in the Bible which explicitly mentions this thousand-year reign of Christ. Nowhere else is this ‘millennial gap’ between the Second Advent and final judgment and ushering in of the eternal state mentioned. Hoekema argues that 1 Corinthians 15:23-24 gives no clear evidence for an earthly millennial reign, and there is no basis for this in any of Paul’s writings. The words “then comes the end” (1 Cor 15:24) which premillennialists use to support a delay between Christ’s coming and the end do not necessarily imply a long interval. The word εἶτα (then) can simply mean “thereupon” and means that only after this all has happened the consummation will come.
If Paul meant to teach a thousand-year gap between the Parousia and the end, why would he pass over it without even a word?
Matthew 13:39-40 and 49-50, where Jesus connects the “end of the age” with judgment, also pose a hard challenge to Premil. This is what Stanley Grenz called the “linchpin of premillennialism.” However, Matthew 25:31-32 clearly tells us that the judgment will occur at the time of our Lord’s return;
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (cf. Matt 13:40-43)
There is no mention of a gap between these events. T