It should be obvious that an accurate view of how God orders history will be exceedingly practical in the life of Christians. (If it were not obvious, witness the paralytic obsession of dispensationalists over Zionism and rapture-longing.) Eschatology, literally the study of the last things, is immensely important, and serves as a converging pinnacle of the other fields of systematic theology:
In theology it is the question, how God is finally perfectly glorified in the work of His hands, and how the counsel of God is fully realized; in anthropology, the question, how the disrupting influence of sin is completely overcome; in christology, the question, how the work of Christ is crowned with perfect victory; in soteriology, the question, how the work of the Holy Spirit at last issues in the complete redemption and glorification of the people of God; and in ecclesiology, the question of the final apotheosis of the Church.1
Eschatology includes a philosophy of history, providing us with a foundational understanding of history’s trajectory, serving as a backdrop against which we can interpret historical events. A Christian eschatology views history as guided by God’s sovereign providence, including all the actions of men; and all these events have a specific purpose, the glory of God. This implies a distinctly linear view of history, culminating with the fullness of God’s glory, and it can be contrasted both with the cyclical pagan view and with the utterly purposeless secularist view. The Christian view also involves God’s own intrusions into history, especially the Incarnation: we are not left alone in our sin and in this fallen world.
However, beyond the application of these indisputable Christian doctrines to the study of history, there still is an important doctrine which must be settled, the doctrine of millennialism. In this series, I hope to provide a good construction of the separate views, including reasons why the postmillennialist view is superior.
There are four views one can take on the subject of millennialism: dispensational premillennialism, historic premillennialism, amillennialism, and postmillennialism. All of these terms are some variant of the term “millennialism,” and this is due to the prominence of Revelation 20:1-6 in determining people’s eschatological opinions. I find the prominence of this passage unfortunate, but nevertheless, the terms are now rooted and in place.
Of the four views, three of them are pessimistic and one is optimistic. All are optimistic, of course, in the sense of believing that Christ will ultimately be victorious, but three are pessimistic since they doubt that Christian victory will occur on earth in any substantial sense before Christ’s return.
Now, I do not intend to poison the well by calling all non-postmillennialist views pessimistic: we ought to believe what Scripture teaches on the subject, period, irrespective of any optimism we might desire. However, it is still helpful and vital to understand the importance of divergence on this issue. When Christians believe in victory and triumph for the gospel over idolatry, then they are given the motivation to actually go out and seek to redeem souls and culture. Conversely, when they believe that Jesus will not be victorious on earth until He physically returns, it can lead to social irresponsibility and lethargy. If the church does not believe that she will be successful on earth prior to Christ’s return, then she will not anticipate or labor towards such an end. In short, people are motivated by results, and therefore a debate over what God has decreed the results to be is crucial.
Other Distinctions Among the Views
There are a number of miscellaneous observations one can make in distinguishing the four views. In the first place, observe the prefixes of each word. Defining the “millennium” generally as a golden age, the premillennialists believe that Christ will return prior to the millennium, whereas postmillennialists believe that Christ will return after the millennium. Amillennialists simply deny that any earthly or overtly visible manifestation of the millennium will occur (i.e. that it will not be a golden age). Another way of saying this is that premillennialists believe the millennium is currently unrealized, while postmillennialists and amillennialists believe that it is presently realized.
Dispensational premillennialism is distinct from historic premillennialism in that the former is (obviously) dispensational. It holds to a strictly literal hermeneutic; maintains that the millennium will be distinctly Jewish, with Christ physically sitting in David’s throne in Israel and with the temple-sacrificial system reinstituted; and believes in the rapture, that believers will be transported from the earth prior to (or in the middle of) the great tribulation, after which Christ will return to usher in the millennium. Historic premillennialism differs in that it does not hold to a reinstitution of Old Covenant ceremonies, nor does it hold to the rapture. It maintains that there will be only one second coming, and that believers will go through the tribulation before Christ returns.
Both forms of premillennialism are based on a literal interpretation of Rev. 20:1-6. The passage says that the souls of dead saints will reign with Christ for one thousand years. On the surface, this appears to be saying quite plainly that Christ will first return, and then the millennium will be ushered in (premillennialism), at which point He will reign with His saints. Premillennialism can truly claim to be the literal interpretation of Rev. 20:1-6. Yet, I would contend that this interpretation is unjustified, given that Revelation is far and away one of the most symbolic books in the Bible, and given that other clearer passages of Scripture would guide us to a separate interpretation. We always ought to let clear passages shed light upon unclear ones, and Rev. 20 is quite a figurative and unclear passage. (This will be covered more in a subsequent article.)
Amillennialists hold that the 1000 years of Rev. 20 represent the entire interadvental period (i.e. the time between Christ’s first and second comings) and that the deceased saints in that passage are presently ruling with Christ in heaven. The binding of Satan occurred at His first advent, permitting the gospel to spread beyond Israel unto the entire world. Amillennialists also believe that Scripture teaches that Christ’s second coming and the final judgment are simultaneous, which would forbid a millennium from existing between the two, as the premillennialist timeline dictates. Amillennialists would maintain that there will be no rapture, nor will Christ reign bodily on earth. The cosmic events we can foretell, biblically speaking, are the second coming of Christ, one general resurrection of believers and unbelievers, and the final judgment, which will immediately send believers to glory and unbelievers to perdition.
The timelines of amillennialism and postmillennialism are actually quite similar with respect to the main events. The fundamental difference, as mentioned above, is the optimism of postmillennialism. Amillennialists generally believe that the amount of good and evil in the world will stay about the same until Christ returns, though some believe that evil will eventually triumph on earth. Amillennialists deny that the world will be heavily Christianized when Christ comes back, while postmillennialists affirm it. (There are also “optimistic amillennialists” who might believe in a moderate amount of Christianization.)
I do not intend to convey that this series is about eschatology in general. There are a vast number of eschatological elements which could be mined from Scripture, such as the identity of the man of sin of 2 Thessalonians 2, whether Matthew 24 is future or fulfilled, who the various characters of Revelation are, and other things. I am concerning myself chiefly with these four broad millennial views, or more properly, these four historical-framework views.
In future posts in this series, I intend to show the deficiencies in the premillennial timeline, vindicating the amillennial and postmillennial timeline. After establishing that, I plan to show the incredible optimism which Scripture warrants us to believe concerning the spread of the gospel and world Christianization.
Ken Gentry, in his book He Shall Have Dominion, presents a concise and cogent set of distinctions for the four main millennial views. It consists of two dichotomous questions:
(i) What is the chronology of the kingdom?
(ii) What is the nature of the kingdom?
The answer to (i) is that Christ will return either before or after the establishment of His kingdom. If before, then it is premillennialism; if after, then it is amillennialism or postmillennialism.
The answer to (ii) is whether Christ’s kingdom will have a radical, objective, transforming influence in human culture. If so, then it is either premillennialism or postmillennialism; if not, then it is amillennialism.
(ii) can also be understood as to whether or not the kingdom will be distinctively Jewish. If so, then it is dispensational premillennialism; if not, then it is historic premillennialism.
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 665. ↩